Friday 23 July 2023
Distance 100k, elevation 8000 feet
I first did this race in the East to West direction back in 2017, from Holy Island to Melrose. When the race organisers (Trail Outlaws) decided to switch directions to ‘race the tide’, to make it across the causeway linking Holy Island to the mainland before the sea cuts it off, the challenge appealed to me again. Besides, after a couple of stints volunteering at Trail Outlaws events in 2022, I’d earned enough credit for a free place.
After experiencing some ‘navigational issues’ in the 2017 race, I decided to recce the route this time. I knew some sections quite well from previous races (Jedburgh 3 Peaks ultra and Wooler marathon), so concentrated on the less familiar sections. I ran out and backs, and it was funny how different the route seemed in each direction! I’m so glad I did this though as on the day itself, reaching familiar ground was really reassuring. I barely needed my map at all in the race, whereas it never left my hand during the recces.
Racing the tide times also meant a drastic change of schedule. From a respectable 8am start in 2017, to a less respectable 10pm! Night running has its own challenges, particularly from a navigation point of view, which as it turned out went awry very early on for a lot of us. At the start opposite Melrose Rugby Club, race director Tim warned us a) don’t follow the runner in front as they might not know where they’re going and b) don’t follow the yellow race signage at the start as that’s for another race the day after (3 Eildons race). Unfortunately I was in the Portaloo when he said all this! Not that I can ever hear race briefings anyway due to being almost deaf. Turns out not many folk must have been listening as around 30 of us quickly went off directly up Eildon Hill North, following little yellow flags up loose scree. Scree? On the St Cuthbert’s Way? That’s not right! After bashing through knee-high heather and scrub we eventually found our way back onto the nice, runnable SCW trail. One poor lass was spotted on the race tracker running in circles round the top of the hill. She was eventually retrieved but dropped out of the race.
Talking of trackers, this is the first time I’ve ever had to wear one. Those things are heavy, and have to be worn on the outside of your kit, near the top so they can pick up signal. Mine was taped to my race vest on my left shoulder, but settled into position over my collar bone, bouncing off it in a very annoying, uncomfortable fashion until I took off the buff from my head and stuffed it underneath it as a pad. Buffs are awesome, so many uses!
As the race pack made their way through the darkness, I found it quite challenging to stay upright. It was raining quite hard for the first few hours, so all I could see was raindrops flashing in front of my headtorch. There are many obstacles along this first section: tree roots, nettles, over-grown foliage, wooden steps and bridges and narrow, rutted paths. All made a bit more tricky in the rain. However, after many stumbles and stubbed toes I miraculously managed not to hit the deck. I did not enjoy running in the dark though, and was very glad when I hit Cessford Castle at around 3:45am and switched off my head torch for good.
I felt I was running quite well up until Morebattle, a lot better than in my recces in fact. I was remembering to eat and drink, and had arranged with the head marshal, who I know through volunteering, to pick up ‘VIP’ supplies of Active Root between the main checkpoints (thanks, Lee!). I reached Morebattle in just under 6 hours, so stopped for a few slices of watermelon (yum) then tried and failed to eat my peanut butter and jam sandwich. I didn’t linger though so binned my sandwich and headed out to tackle the highest point in the race, Wideopen Hill.
I like this hill, it has a great view back to the Eildons in good weather (which it was, a wee bit too warm even overnight in fact) so I took a moment at the top to appreciate just how far I’d come. Wideopen is roughly halfway through the course, so a good time to take stock of how you feel. There was a lovely cool breeze and the rain had cleared but there was no spectacular sunrise, just sweeping views on all sides. I could see Kirk Yetholm from here and wondered if I’d see any summer Spine racers come in as I passed, as their finish line crosses the St Cuthbert’s Way at the Borders Hotel, Kirk Yetholm. They’d been going since the previous Sunday, making this race feel very short in comparison! I passed the famous Spine finish arches and headed up into the Cheviots. Two female runners passed me here, looking very strong. I was hoping they were both 45-mile runners (this race has two distances, 100k and 45 miles, the latter ending in Wooler) as they seemed very sprightly, whereas I was beginning to flag. I tried to keep pace but I lost sight of them just after we crossed the border into England. The descents were starting to hurt my legs, and my left hip flexor was complaining quite a bit. I wondered if I might have to pull out at Wooler if it didn’t improve. I took a couple of paracetamol and hoped for the best.
I caught up with one of the female runners again at the Hethpool check point. She complimented my tartan skort, so I flashed her the Saltire undershorts which made her laugh! I refilled my bottles with more ‘VIP’ Active Root and hobbled along the road to Yeavering. Talking of undershorts, Flanci ones have amazing pockets in them. I had my compass in one side and my phone in the other. However, I took my phone out to check it to find the dampness and sweat had made it take 70+ photos of the inside of my pocket. I took a zip-lock bag from my bum bag, wrapped my phone in it and stuffed it back into my pocket. Big mistake. The resulting rubbing caused a HUGE patch of chafing on my thigh which I didn’t notice until the last stretch of the race. Ouch.
Climbing out of Yeavering and past yet another steep stile, I had a bit of a second wind. I suddenly felt really good and didn’t stop running until I reached Wooler. The male lead from wave 2 of the race, who started 3 hours after wave 1, went breezing past me on the way down to Wooler common. I passed the female runner from the Hethpool check point, but still couldn’t see the other one who passed me at Yetholm. As I reached the YH, there she was sat on a bench wearing a 45-mile medal and tucking into some food. I headed inside for a wee sit down and to try and eat something more substantial from my drop bag. A marshal asked me how I was feeling, and I realised that my hip flexor pain was no more. It had been replaced by a more generalised pain and fatigue from head to toe! Still, only 18 miles from here to the finish, so I knew I could do it now.
I ate some apple slices dunked in peanut butter, chugged a chocolate milk and chased it with a ginger and turmeric shot in a vain attempt to counteract inflammation. I stuffed my bacon crisps into my bum bag, where they remained uneaten, slathered on some sun lotion and headed out. The clouds had cleared and the day was beginning to warm up, as it was now 9am. I shuffled down steep Church Street and onto Brewery Road where it rises slowly up onto Westwood Moor. My nutrition choices and speed of consumption came back to haunt me, and my stomach was quite angry from here to St Cuthbert’s Cave. I must have fast-walked most of the way until the cave, but couldn’t see any runners in front or behind me, so didn’t panic. I actually had no idea where I was in the race at all, just knew I was on for a slower finish than my previous of 14:55hrs. Again I was glad I’d recced this section, as there is still some lingering damage from Storm Arwen that made some of the trails through Shiellow/Kyloe Woods quite patchy in parts. To get lost at this point would be soul-destroying! Soon though, after some hearty cheers from a group of female hikers, I turned down into Fenwick and to the last checkpoint at the crossing of the A1, greeted by the sound of cowbells.
A lovely marshal took my buff out from under my tracker, dunked it in a jug of cold water and tucked it back into my vest. Heaven! It was really hot now and I was pouring with sweat. Another marshal informed me that only two other females had passed here so far. “No way, it must be hot!” I said. This put the fire in my belly and I wondered, if I could just stay ahead of the only female in wave 2, I might even come third. So, over the A1 and out into the barren fields towards the causeway. After a bit of a long detour to avoid the railway crossing, I could see the start of the causeway. My god, does it look long and intimidating from here. The finish at the village hall seemed as far away here as when I’d first spotted the island just after coming out of the woods at St Cuthbert’s Cave. I tried not to focus on the distance and instead concentrated on the road just in front of me. The causeway doesn’t have good footpaths either side of the road so I had to jump out of the way of a lot of cars. I swear to god a friend of mine waved and tooted at me from a van here, but a later text conversation assured me I was merely hallucinating! I spotted the brightly coloured t-shirt of the female runner I’d passed before Wooler, so she must have run out of Wooler ahead of me. Then I noticed another female runner. She was walking though, so I hobbled slowly past her and kept my focus on the bright t-shirt in front.
Every now and then I glanced back and the other female runner was nowhere in sight. There was now a sizeable gap between me, the first lady and the third. The heat was getting intense and after what seemed like another 64 miles, the road turned up into Holy Island village. It was hooching here due to the great weather, and I struggled to see where the finish line was through the crowds. Eventually I spotted the top of a Trail Outlaws flag and headed towards it. Lee was there taking photos and I ran through the gate of Crossman Hall and up the slope to the entrance doors. A marshal shouted ‘You can stop running now!’ as apparently the finish was the gate itself! I collapsed on the grass and another lovely marshal brought me watermelon and a cola. Bliss.
A minute or two later another marshal came over to tell me I was second lady in, but the wave 2 female runner was still out there. She ran in not long afterwards to finish in an impressive 12:51:36. I finished in a more modest 15:22:28, 27 minutes behind my previous result. Considering the heat, the hours of darkness and the rain, I was very happy with that, and it secured me 3rd female, 20th overall. I was not expecting that at all so I was over the moon, as you can see from the prize-giving photo!
I had a bunk booked at Wooler YH so hopped on the shuttle bus back for a much needed shower. After a nap on the bus and another in my bunk, I was ready for food. Hannah, the lovely partner of Tim the race director, had cooked up a storm at the YH. She offered me some lasagne and gave me some ice poles to cool down. Just wonderful. Then later I joined them in the lounge for a couple of beers and a blether. They’d all been awake since Friday morning too, so I was surprised when I looked at my phone and it was suddenly past 10pm! I thanked them all and made my way to bunk for a restless sleep plagued by the usual post-ultra leg pain.
All in all another great event by the awesome team at Trail Outlaws. I’m spectacularly chafed, have bruised feet, am covered in random patches of sunburn but happy to have beaten that tide!
Results here: https://www.trailoutlaws.com/event_results/saint-cuthberts-way-results-2023