100k… Two and a half marathons. 10 x 10k. 20 x 5k. However you break it down, 100k is a LONG WAY. Not being satisfied with running a 50k, a 33 mile race and two marathons in 12 months, my mid-life crisis hit a high point when I signed up to the St Cuthberts Way 100k back in January! I was attracted to the race because of the route – I spent many happy weekends in the Borders and Northumberland as a kid and it really is outstandingly beautiful. I also liked the fact it was a well-known, allegedly well way-marked route (more on that later), like the John Muir Way. The latter part also goes through familiar territory if you’ve done any of the Eildons or Jedburgh races. So it was I found myself getting up at stupid o’clock on Saturday 8 July to drive down to Darnick to catch the event coach to Holy Island.
The evening before Holly and I had driven down to register at Darnick Village Hall, which is also the finish line of the race. After I’d picked up my stuff and deposited my drop bags (only two for this race, a lot less than ultras of lesser distance!) Holly and I ran the last mile of the course to Melrose Abbey and back. It felt good to run this part of the course so that when I hit it tired and broken the next day, it would feel familiar.
The weather on the morning of the race was outstanding. Clear blue skies and temperatures of around 12 degrees. The race starts at Lindisfarne on Holy Island and heads straight across the causeway towards Fenwick, crossing the A1 before heading off into the rambling countryside of Northumberland. As soon as we set off I got chatting to a lovely lady called Holly from London who was born in Alnwick, not far south of Holy Island. She was a fast marathoner taking on her first ultra, and also a mother of small kids so we had lots to chat about! It made the first 10k go nice and quick and also helped me not to sprint off too fast which I tend to do. Nice, easy 9-10 minute miles until we started to hit the first hills heading towards Wooler.
After a selfie with the man himself I headed past St Cuthberts Cave at around 11 miles. I ran alongside a guy called Steve from Lincolnshire for a while who I’d also sat next to on the coach. He had his map firmly gripped in his left hand and was ‘thumbing the route’ so he was very handy to stick beside! My map had stayed in my bag so far – with about eleventy billion other bits of mandatory kit which in this weather seemed ridiculous but I’m sure would be essential had it been mid-winter. But anything can happen on distance races such as this so my gripe is really a bit unfounded. I did get a nasty bit of chafing from my backpack due to the weight of it though. That was probably mostly due to the water I was carrying – I got through two litres of it before I reached the Hethpool checkpoint at 28 miles.
The descent into Wooler was a bit technical and overgrown after a nice runnable section over some heathery moorland. I picked up my drop bag and tried really hard to eat the peanut butter and jam sandwich in it but only managed half. I’d had a few jelly snakes and some Kendal mint cake by now and my water pack was filled with Tailwind so I wasn’t too worried. I did swig a cup of cola though, which I never usually drink but it tastes like nectar in ultras!
The next section out of Wooler skirts Humberton Hill and was quite boggy and waterlogged. The pack was really starting to thin out, and the 45 mile race which started from Wooler at 10:30 had long since departed. The route became a little harder to follow and the signposts sparser. I ran towards some cows who got jumpy and sent me scarpering off in the wrong direction for a bit. When I finally did find the route again I quickly got lost in some overgrown bracken (a machete should have been on the kit list) and I ended up crossing College Burn too soon. I wasn’t the only one who did this and a small gang of confused runners gathered together scrutinising maps and scratching heads. We followed the river south and soon spotted some other runners coming from the west and joined them on the correct trail up into Hethpool. I was feeling a bit tired by now but just as I started letting my mind focus on the pain the wonderful Yan Horsburgh appeared! He was originally going to run with me from Kirk Yetholm to Morebattle, but decided to keep running towards Melrose instead. He was such a sight for sore eye (and legs) and after a power hug I felt ready to crack on! We bounded out of Hethpool, up over the hills towards Kirk Yetholm and towards the famous halfway point which crosses the border. Mandatory selfie as we re-entered the homeland!
Just before we approached the high point of the course – Wideopen Hill – I reached my own milestone. 34 miles of running and the longest time out running I’d ever done. I felt amazingly good, despite the heat, which seemed to be rising as the day went on. We climbed up Wideopen Hill and spotted a photographer, resulting in my favourite running photo of all time. This pic sums up ultra running for me – never take it seriously and just keep laughing!
The chat was flowing nicely as we dropped down into Morebattle. No duct tape required! The views were incredible and you could see for miles. At the checkpoint I managed to force down a whole peanut butter and jam sandwich and caught up with Holly and Steve. Holly was struggling and thinking of pulling out. I suggested she have a wee rest and decide again after a bite to eat (she made it in the end, not far behind me). I was feeling pretty chipper, and was ready to get going. I’d been feeling the fatigue come in waves followed highs where I felt I could run forever. Don’t get me wrong, the fatigue was hard and the pain was setting in at the tops of my legs and my shoulders, but I didn’t need any paracetamol until nearly 50 miles in. My feet were fine despite wearing old trail shoes that were on their last legs and threatening to burst at the seams.
The next section took us out over farmland and past the impressive ruins of Cessford Castle. A bit too much tarmac here and high hedges which kept out any breeze. The heat was getting a bit oppressive so it was nice to finally get into some woodland for a break. The chat was flowing again, so much so that we went a bit off track and had to jump over a ditch to rejoin it… straight into a massive bunch of nettles. My left knee was covered in stings and was swelling up nicely. Yan also got a few stings so we grabbed some dock leaves and rubbed them on our legs. The pain from the stings took away the pain everywhere else, and I actually found the whole thing very funny! I was still laughing about it when we arrived at the Bonjedward checkpoint, 47 miles in. While I chugged back some cola Yan procured a Baileys coffee off one of the marshals. Put a wee spring in his step for the next few miles!
Just out of Bonjedward is the famous shoogly bridge – I love a shoogly bridge. I ran across it and laughed like a kid. Would have been even more fun if there had been more runners on it! The route joins Dere Street here, the Roman Road that heads all the way to Maxton, and which I’m familiar with from the Jedburgh ultra relay. It was incredible thinking that we’d been running along the same path as not only old St C himself, but legions of Romans too. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds though, and while its straight, it was very overgrown and muddy in parts. There are also about a hundred styles to clamber over, which is not easy 50 miles in! Just before Maxton the wonderful Sarah Burthe joined us, proffering San Pellegrino, snacks and words of encouragement. Another sight for sore eyes! I warned her about the smell before grabbing a big hug. We set off towards the final checkpoint, and the last 10 miles of the race. It felt like I could really do this now.
Both Yan and Sarah were suffering a bit with injuries, so shortly after we left Maxton they headed off towards St Boswells where Sarah’s car was parked. Yan had been an absolute legend and I don’t know if I’d have gotten so far without him. He really is the best support runner in the world! We all had a big hug and I set off on my own towards Melrose. I knew this part of the route from the 3 Eildons trail race, so felt pretty confident. Well, until I totally mixed up Whitelee with Bowden and spent about 5 minutes studying my map, scratching my head and wondering why the Eildons were in the wrong place! I was utterly exhausted by now and mistakes were easy to make. At least I hadn’t gone off track this time. As I approached the Eildons it was getting really dark and the long slog up through the woods onto the pass in between them was very, very tough. The moon was rising and it was full, which was so beautiful. I called Mark from the top, as he and the kids were waiting for me at the other side and I was aware I was a bit later than I’d estimated. I’d been aiming for a 13 hour finish, but it had passed 12 hours when I reached Maxton so that wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t want to make them wait much later though so I pushed on down the other side. As I descended my left knee started to complain badly. Every time I hit the ground a sharp pain shot through it. Half way down I noticed that the Abbey was getting further away, not closer, and realised that I’d taken the wrong path. I could have cried, but I didn’t! At the bottom I managed to run through a cow field surrounded by electric wire to rejoin the route. I didn’t get trampled by angry cows or electrocuted, but I had added an extra mile to an already extreme distance! It was pitch black when I reached the town and was over the moon to see my lovely family waiting for me just past Melrose Abbey.
After seeing Mark and the kids the last mile felt surprisingly good. I ran the whole way, and it seemed less far than when Holly and I had done it the previous day. I turned into the village hall and stopped my watch. 65.3 miles, 14 hours and 55 minutes of running, and I was still in one piece! To top it all, I was 4th lady and 2nd lady vet. The kids came in just behind me and quickly set upon the pizza and snacks that were meant for the runners, but no one seemed to mind! I collected my medal and chugged several cups of fizzy orange. Heaven!
If you fancy dipping your toe into the 100k+ ultra distance, I would highly recommend this race. Cracking route, brilliantly organised by Trail Outlaws and marshalled by some absolutely lovely people. My knee might never forgive me, but it was worth it!
Full results here: http://www.trailoutlaws.com/saint-cuthbert-way-results-2017.php