Ultra Dave’s Ultra Diary: St Cuthberts Way 100K

”Find the level of intolerance you can tolerate and stay there’ – David Horton

It’s been a few weeks since Dave completed the St Cuthberts Way 100K Ultra Marathon, here’s how he got on:

St Cuthbert’s Way winds its way from Melrose in the Scottish borders to Lindisfarne, or Holy Island on the Northumberland coast. It’s somewhat of a shame that the ultramarathon organised by Trail Outlaws runs the course in reverse meaning you’re running straight into the tailwind. That makes it a wind in the face experience with over seven thousand feet of climbing to be done. To be fair to the organisers this is less to with any need to be cruel to the competitors (take note High Terrain Events!) and more to do with having to run the part of the race which crosses the tidal causeway to the island at a time when the tide is out!

In the build up to the race I had tried to keep preparations a little more low-key in terms of my support. I’ve found having lots of people present, although lovely, can add a bit of pressure and a feeling of guilt that everyone is spending so much time out in the middle of nowhere following me slowly around the countryside. I was happy to just have Helen crew for me, but she wanted some company in the car and to share the driving so roped in bestie Angela, presumably with the promise of cakes or some other bribe (a day in my company is bribe enough – Helen)

The alarm woke us up at 4:30, race clothes thrown on and coffee drunk and we were on the road in our little Kia by about 5:15. Race registration was available at Melrose the night before, or the option we were going for, set up at one of the race checkpoints at Wooler Bowling Club, between 6:15 and 7:00 on the morning of the race. We got there just after registration has opened and went through the necessary motions. Kit check was first, no problems there, then I was handed my race number and the obligatory race shirt and even a free block of Kendal mint cake to add to my race nutrition. For the uninitiated, Kendal mint cake comes in a wrapper similar to any chocolate bar but is a sort of soft white mint block that seems to consist mainly of sugar. There is a chocolate covered variety but this was plain, it did make a nice change during the race though, definitely easy to eat!

We were one of the first to arrive on Holy Island and weren’t sure exactly where to park or where the race start was exactly. Other cars started to arrive, many equally unsure as us if they were in the best spot. A short walk took us into the village and to St Cuthbert’s cross where the race was supposed to start at 8:00. The organised coach bringing many of the runners to the start was delayed but the organisers eventually turned up and with a few short words of encouragement and not much fanfare, the race got underway.

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This was the first ultra I have run that did not feature a fully marked course. The way is marked all the time of course, because it is an official long distance walk, but it wasn’t long until I discovered that the marking was far from as well marked as the pre-race literature had suggested. I’d expected to just be able to follow the runners in front from the start for quite some time. However it wasn’t long before I came to an unmarked junction and the next group in front have disappeared from sight. I went a few yards down the right fork and decided it was probably the other way. The next couple of runners came along behind and confirmed my decision but I decided to get the map out of my bag at that point anyway.

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It seemed like no time at all before getting to the first real checkpoint, about six and a half miles in. I’d forgotten to take a tablet at the start to prevent my hay fever taking hold so was hoping my crew would have the tablets with them. Unfortunately they were in the car parked some distance away so I would have to carry on without until the next checkpoint.  (There’s always something I forget at the first checkpoint , always – Helen)

With fluids refilled, I carried on and began the days climbing. Once I’d gained a bit of height I turned around to take in the stunning views of Holy Island, where we’d started and hour or two earlier. I’d started at a very conservative pace and wasn’t running with anyone in particular so from this point on until late in the race, I was generally catching people in front of me rather than the other way around.

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By the time I got back to Wooler where we’d registered I had risen dramatically through the places to what I was told was about 13th. My parents had arrived to lend their support and quite a few people were around to clap me into the checkpoint. It is very supportive and well meaning, but can be a bit embarrassing when there is still so far to go.

Above Wooler there is a large forest, and this is where the day started to go wrong! Just before the forest the grassy track split into two. My new friend, who had come up from Leeds for the race was leading and took the right fork, I tried to check on the map while keeping up and it looked right, although the scale on the map wasn’t great for detail. The route still seemed fine for a while, but then we encountered a large number of downed trees blocking the route. I thought I recalled this being mentioned in a briefing email and that we should go around the root end wherever there was no obvious worn path. However we ended up clambering over things to the extent that we realised we must have gone wrong, although there were signs of other people having gone this way. I now suspect that we had gone wrong on the entry to the forest, and should have thought to go even further back. At the time our best option seemed to be to try and wider route through the trees to the right. All this had lost us at least twenty minutes and used lots of energy!

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By the time I got to the next checkpoint at Hethpool, still not even half way I was a bit down. My hamstrings were getting sore already, which had me worried and I hadn’t completely put getting lost out of my mind. My crew refuelled me though and the race organisers consoled me with the news that lots of people were saying that they had been lost at various point, so I wasn’t alone (I believe your exact words were ‘I suck at this’ – Helen) On leaving the checkpoint I dropped into rhythm with a couple of other guys and we marched up the hill together. Often pre-race advice from organisers suggests that grouping together for navigation is a good idea. However, I’m not so sure because there can be a bit of all following each other and nobody paying enough attention. The two runners together behind us had followed our next navigational mistake but realised earlier than we had. The result was all five of us cutting down a steep gully over rough ground and scrambling up the other side to regain the right path. More time and energy wasted, but I had learned my lesson this time and kept a sharp eye on navigation from then on avoiding any more major mishaps.

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I was on my own again by the time I ran into Morebattle and took a seat in the town hall, where my support team, now swollen by two more, ran around getting me plastic cups of coke and bits of food (Ang was particularly keen on making sure the Haribo Strawbs tasted ok before you had any – Helen). The last few miles before getting here was the only point in the race where I ran out of fluids and felt a bit dehydrated. I left without finishing the bag of crisps I’d started, but I took the rest of the bag with me having thrown some jelly sweets inside, not caring that the salty crisps and sticky sugary sweets would get all mixed together.

I’d crossed the biggest hills on the route and was starting to feel tired by the time I arrived at Maxton Church. There was still one large set of hill to get through before the finish, but thankfully the route was through a pass so didn’t go right to the top of the hill. By the time I got to the base of the climb it was getting dark, and in amongst the trees it was even harder to see. I pulled my new head torch and although it gave me enough light to run by, I had chosen a lightweight and inexpensive model so it wasn’t as bright as some. I navigated through the trees and spotted the lights of other runners up ahead. They had obviously chosen more powerful models as their lights lit up the ground in front of them like daylight. I caught them up shortly before getting to the top of the pass and exchanged a few words of mutual suffering before I went ahead.

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As the path came out of the trees the glittering lights of Melrose suddenly appeared below. They were unmistakable as Melrose is the only town of this size nearby. I could hear the other runners just behind me but didn’t look back as I realised I’d be faster than them on the steep decent in front of me. I shoved my earphones back into my ears and charged down the slope as fast as I dared, betting that my quads would last the distance and the pounding to the bottom. The abbey appeared in front of me, but while this was the end of the official path, it wasn’t the end of the race. I gave up looking for the final self chip which was allegedly tied to a lamppost (but I couldn’t see it) and followed a yellow arrow towards the race finish at Darnick Village Hall. I stumbled into the hall to clapping and congratulations. That didn’t include my crew though, they were in the pub!

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To be fair, they were following my GPS tracker but this had failed and didn’t show that I was close to the finish. I was given my finishers medal, I washed my face and hands and grabbed a celebratory cupcake before they burst through the entrance full of apologies for missing the big moment. We took a few photos and headed for home. The journey back wasn’t to be underestimated though, something definitely worth bearing in mind after an ultra. Helen was driving after Angela had done a great job of driving all day, but she had still been up since 4:30 so was very tired herself. It was all I could do to stay awake in the passenger seat to keep her company. It was nearly midnight by the time we got home, got a quick shower and collapsed into bed.

I found St Cuthberts tougher than the Wall particularly in terms of vertical gain and underfoot terrain, but the heat and extra distance of the Wall means I felt better towards the end on St Cuthberts. The Kielder ultra was probably a little harder in terms of terrain and looked intimidating early on due to the snow, but the 20K less distance made it easier.

I’m beginning to think that it comes down to the longer a course takes the harder it is, regardless of the other factors. Should make my next race (St Oswalds 100 mile in September)  interesting, since I expect it to take at least another 9 or 10 hours.

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