Mark persuaded me to run this race, spurred on by a notification in September from Trail Outlaws that there were only 30 places left for the full marathon, and that the half marathon (running the next day) had sold out. Mark had really enjoyed his run in 2017 – very cold, but with clear skies and good views over the Cheviots. It seemed like a great way to finish off an epic year of racing, so I signed up and booked a bed in the Youth Hostel (also the start and finish line and general HQ of the race) for the Friday night.
Looking through the entry list, I spied some well-known names from the Scottish ultra-running community. So it was that I found myself in the Tankerville Arms on the Friday night, a cosy 17th century coaching inn on the outskirts of Wooler town centre, supping Guinness with the likes of Daniel Kershaw, Jeni Rees-Jenkins, Sharon Hassan and Karen McInderwar. They are all runners I admire, and it was the first time I got to really talk to any of them, which was lovely. Turns out I was also room buddies with Karen, Jeni and Sharon that night, so we all walked home together and got our kits ready for the next day.
During the Friday evening, an email was sent out by Tim and Garry, RDs of Trail Outlaws, to say that due to the poor weather the conditions on The Cheviot were too treacherous to allow the marathon route to go ahead. It had been snowing earlier in the week on the hills, and pouring with rain for two days previous. Instead of cancelling, however, we were to run two laps of the lower-level half marathon route – same distance and elevation overall. I was not keen on the idea of running laps, but glad it hadn’t been cancelled. I hadn’t even looked at the half route and only had a print out of the full course in my kit, but was reassured that it was well flagged and that there would be enough runners and marshals around not to get lost. There was much muttering on social media about it, but as we tackled the half course the next day, it became apparent it was the right decision to make!
The next morning, after a very poor night’s sleep on a hard hostel mattress full of anxiety dreams about getting lost/missing the start/etc we gathered on the road up from the YH for the start. I’d met up with Tracy just before we set off, the only other harrier there, and on her fourth consecutive Wooler marathon. After a delayed start due to registration taking longer than usual (the race has grown from around 150 runners in the first year to over 300 this year) we were off.
It was already pretty damp and drizzly when we set off, and as soon as we turned off the road on to the St Cuthberts Way, it became apparent that this was going to be a tough gig. The trail was very muddy heading into the woods, and coming out onto the common it was also very waterlogged. I was wearing waterproof socks, but they were only ankle high. After only a few miles, I stepped into a large icy puddle that went up to my shins, filling my socks with water. Still, I had Injinjis on inside the waterproof ones, so even though they were wet my feet stayed relatively warm for the duration. I did start to worry about trench foot though…
Some very swift ladies passed me early on, and I couldn’t envisage catching them, so settled into survival mode. I focussed on staying upright and tried not to think too much about placing in this race, despite a great year of racing with podium finishes in most. It took me miles to settle into a rhythm, not helped by crowding in the early stages on narrow trails flanked by gorse and heather either side. There were also a lot of gates, styles and slippery bridges to negotiate. This was not going to be over quickly! I had a target of 6 hours in mind, but that was for the full route. I was hoping the low level route might buy me some time, so readjusted my goal to 5.5 hours and told myself that it really didn’t matter and finishing would be a satisfactory result in these conditions.
The rain was pelting down once we reached the turn off from the original route onto the half marathon course, which cuts across the moor to re-join the full route at Yeavering. The trail was very wet underfoot and I was already soaked through. Every time I squeezed my hands, water poured out of my gloves. A lad in front of me was filming with a Go-Pro, but probably should have been concentrating on the trail as he ended up thigh deep in a bog! He managed to drag himself out, Go-Pro intact, by the time I reached him.
I reached Yeavering CP after a satisfactory bit of downhill running, the first time I felt I’d actually run in miles, and quickly turned around and headed back out. I didn’t need my water re-filling so just grabbed a handful of cola bottles and headed back up the hill. What was a nice bit of downhill running was a total slog coming back out. The route has about two miles of out-and-back to Yeavering CP so I tried to spot as many runners I knew as possible and give them a wave, until the trail turns off along the St Cuthberts Way at the top of the hill. This was when things really got bad! The route was almost completely underwater, pretty much until we reached Wooler Common 4 miles on. I was not enjoying myself, particularly when thinking about having to tackle this section again in a couple of hours. I tried really hard to push all the negatives out of my mind, but it was tough. In the end, dreaming about taking off my wet socks, having a bath and eating some hot food was what kept me going. To illustrate the challenge, see the photo below taken by Daniel. The fact that the runner has decided to take the style despite the gate being open tells you how unpleasant the trail was!
I eventually hit Wooler Common and saw Michael, who was out with his camera and Stella in the rain. Soon after that I saw the red druid guy – a regular feature at Trail Outlaw races – and knew end of the first lap was near. A quick look at my watch at the CP revealed 12.5 miles had passed, so not quite a full lap of the ‘half’, which is usually 14 miles. Still, it had taken me 2:17 so was pleased that it looked like I’d be home and dry well under target. At least the pack had thinned out a bit too, so I was a bit more relaxed heading out into the second lap, fuelled by some Tizer from the CP and my trusty Kendal mint cake.
I’m not going to lie, the second lap wasn’t fun. It went by in a bit of a blur, and I got a bit of extra déjà vu when I passed Jeni at the exact same spot we did near Yeavering CP the first time round! The trails were even wetter and muddier now, having been churned up by 300+ runners and soaked by the constant rain. But I dug in and gave it my best. I had no idea where I was in the race, but not many ladies had passed me on the out and back so hoped I’d be somewhere within the top ten, and maybe in with a shot of a veteran prize. After swearing and stumbling my way through the waterlogged SCW section again, it was down into Wooler and a dash along the road to re-join the trail into the YH. I clocked 25 miles in 4:52:23. Not quite the 28 miles we’d been promised, but a tough day out in any case. I collected my medal and headed into the HQ for a cup of hot, sugary tea. The prize giving was just starting, and I’d just taken a few sips of tea when I heard Tim call my name. 1st F40 prize after all! A lovely surprise after what was a very challenging race.
I dashed off not too long after the race, so didn’t manage to catch Tracy at the finish, but she reassures me that this was her toughest Wooler yet. I’m glad it wasn’t just me! I’d love to come back next year and make it over the Cheviot. Fingers crossed for better weather.
Jan Dawson, 54th, 04:52:23 (5th female, 1st F40)
Tracy Philp, 128th, 05:50:07
Full results here: https://www.trailoutlaws.com/wooler-results-2019.php