I’ve always found the arrows on weather maps confusing. The arrows, which way do they point? Are they coming or going? And when the BBC weather website says a wind is a 40mph North-Easterly, does it mean where the wind’s going, or where it’s been? Reading the forecast on Friday night, again, for the forthcoming Ultra, I puzzled over this. I don’t know why I find it so confusing. In the end I came to the conclusion that the wind would be coming from the North East. Quite fast. Which meant that for most of the race it would be in my face. Mild though.
I packed a lot of gear as I didn’t fancy running along the beach into a 40mph wind, however mild. I took a head-torch too, just in case the tide was out.
When the alarm went off at 4AM on Saturday morning I thought, as I have so many times before, of hitting it with a blunt instrument and going back to sleep. No one need ever know. But instead I hauled myself out of bed, ate some stuff, and before long found myself sitting behind Dave Robson’s car at a level crossing a few miles outside Bamburgh. I had allowed a fair bit of time but the gates were down and there was no train. Where was it? Five minutes later a pathetic two-coach train ambled by in no hurry, and the gates went up.
I parked beside Dave and knowing his Ultra experience started interrogating him about the race. However, this race was new to him too, and he’d already decided to forego the Ultra bit, as it looked like an added loop, and “a lot of it would be on roads”.
There was a queue for registration but it moved pretty quickly (despite marathon runners in the Ultra queue!) although it was still a bit of rush as we had to get our briefing then on to the coaches for the trip to the start at Alnwick Castle.
There were two coach-loads dropped off at the Start. The weather was a bit manky but I had expected it to be a lot worse. I looked around at the familiar surroundings thinking that I’d be back here in exactly a week’s time for the final XC of the season, on another coach, only not at 0840AM. At least, I hope not.
The Start was uneventful and away we jogged into a grey morning. I think I’ve got my trail/fell running kit sorted now and I usually go for a bum-bag / backpack double, both lightly packed and the bum bag, sorry, Waist Pouch, being for the stuff you need to get at during the race, and the back pack for all the stuff you hope you’ll not need to. As always with these events, it took me about an hour to get settled. I’d remembered to rub Vaseline into the obvious bits, and, from experience, the not so obvious bits, so the shoulder and waist straps sat snugly.
10km found us at Alnmouth, turning left to head north up the coast. It was around here toasting nicely in my gear that I realised that the wind was coming from the SW, not the NE. This was a pleasant surprise, even if it meant that the extra layers I was carrying as a precaution were just dead-weight in my backpack.
The area now was familiar to me from many years of running the Coastal and I expected the next 14 miles to be pretty much the coastal run in reverse. However I was to have my second pleasant surprise of the day. The race took us along paths and trails that I never knew existed. Just when the route became a bit samey, there’d be a turn, a gate, a change of scene, and a new stretch of mystery to grab the attention. The tide was in and the beach runs involved finding the firm sand along the waterline and occasionally getting nabbed by an incoming wave. This was good stuff.
There were some truly wonderful bits of the course. The water crossing was no big deal but all the more fun for being unexpected. But for me the rocky scramble along the beach and a short stretch of smooth boulders right next to the water’s edge were the highlight. Although it was only a few hundred meters of smooth slab this was real genius in course design and I loved it. I’ve never raced on such an interesting terrain before. I was sorry to scramble back up onto the headland after such interesting crinkleness.
This was the longest race I’ve done so I was being cautious with my pace. I knew the tough bit would be passing Bamburgh Castle then carrying on for the extra loop that made up the distance for the Ultra. Sure enough, the One Mile to Go sign was a struggle, knowing that it was one mile for the marathoners, and the Ultra runners had another 9 or 10 to go.
Dave was right to forego the extra Ultra loop. After the psychological struggle of pushing on past the castle, there was a nice stretch north for a mile or two, then a few fields, then an unseemly few miles of tarmac. I was running in a well worn pair of trustee Sportiva’s, but even so I began to feel ever worn-out stud through the thin soles and was grateful when we were ejected into a field. But still they messed with our heads. The castle was always there, in plain sight, but the route zig-zagged and dog-legged, before sending us back down to the beach, to rejoin the marathon route for the last mile or two to the castle.
This time it was ok to follow the signs for the Finish, and after a mischievous climb up to the Castle and an enthusiastic and truly welcoming crowd it was lovely to step over the line.
57km is the longest race I’ve run and I was pleased to finish in one piece. Jules and Helen were also running and already home and checking out the tea and cake. Dave had started with the marathon runners so I didn’t see him again.
Overall I thought it was a good well organised race. Good touches, such as having a PA for the briefing (the number of times I’ve zoned out during a race briefing because I couldn’t hear a thing). Clear route marking and lots of varied terrain. I did the Ultra as I wanted to see how I coped with a distance I’d not run before. But if I was doing it again I’d probably skip the final bolted on Ultra loop.