Written by Karen Ives
Having misspent numerous hours at work poring over race reports in preparation for running my first 100k, it is only polite for me to return the favour and write one myself.
Quite why a middle aged woman from the Fens would embark on a race in Northumberland as a first at this distance is yet to be quite understood, probably a lot to do with an exceptional runner and good friend of mine being originally from this part of the world. A few years ago he ran coast to coast, 77 miles across Hadrian’s Wall finishing at his birthplace in Wallsend. We had talked about this a lot when we first began discussing ultra running so it seemed fitting that this should be the place to start.
September 25th came around, I arrived in Rothbury, which was to be the end point of my race, as trained as I was ever going to be, injury free and keen to see what my body would do after 45 miles since that was the furthest I had ever ran.
The start of this race was a mass start and included 100 mile runners and 50k runners, on the breathtakingly beautiful Lindisfarne Island at 7am Saturday morning. Conditions were almost perfect, cool, still and slightly overcast but with a beautiful pink sunrise over Lindisfarne Priory with Bamburgh Castle framed in the distance.
Everyone seemed very sure of what they were doing. I am not completely inexperienced but I always wonder what is in every ones backpack – I have always preferred to run unfettered. When training I like to stash water along the route rather than carry it. However there was a mandatory kit list so I had to carry some basic items despite the fact that this course was well supported with aid stations approximately every 10k.
Armed with my backpack containing whistle, space blanket, hat, gloves, emergency fuel, water, running jacket and sneaky iPod in case of emergency I duly switched on my race tracker for the folks at home to follow me, put the phone in a plastic sandwich bag and set off bang on time.
I never really have a race plan; never really know how I feel until I start running. How did I feel today? Had I thrown a 6 today? Or was it more of a 2 or 3?
A few weeks earlier I had completed a 6 hour race where in that time I had managed just short of 40 miles. That was fairly flat and on tarmac, I had a loose idea that maybe I could cover 40 miles in 7 hours initially and then see what happened after that.
I felt good and strong, ready to conquer this distance, to keep the negative thoughts at bay, to be ready for the pain, to minimize the exhaustion by proper fuelling, to enjoy running in an area of the country I am not familiar with and finish in a respectable time.
If I am honest, aside from the very first marathon I ever ran, just to finish is not quite enough for me, I can enjoy racing for what it is but I can’t help it, I always have a time in mind and I no longer make any apology for it. I can be way out but I am perfectly able to adjust my expectations as and when it becomes necessary. My family always say to me, it’s not about the time, of course it bloody is!!!
The first section is from Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, 30k to Bamburgh castle and the first official checkpoint.
The route takes you off the island over the causeway onto the mainland and inland on St Oswald’s Way. This is a long distance walking route which links some of the places associated with St Oswald, the King of Northumbria in the early 7th century who played a major role in bringing Christianity to his people. It follows Holy Island in the north to Heavenfield in the south, a distance of 97 miles covering castles, coastline, valleys, villages, forest and farmland. I wanted to enjoy this, much as I love my home, it’s not overly pretty or scenic, it is very flat, and I have run so many fenland miles that this was all new and exciting. Actually I would consider myself to be a road runner, I just don’t run trails – farmers here tend to get irate and block their fields off, it’s just easier to run round them on the road.
I had elected not to use my GPS watch. It has the capacity to panic me too much. “Oh no I’m going too fast I’m going to be too tired,” “Oh no I’m going too slowly I‘m going to be last” etc etc. Over this distance, for me, running to feel was enough. So I had a watch on, of course, but only to keep an eye on the actual time.
I didn’t want any support on this first section either, settle down, see how you feel, get a feel for who is around you and get 20 miles or as near as, in the bag as easily as possible and conserve as much as you can. No problems there. However the terrain was an awful lot slower than I anticipated. The woodland sections were muddy, containing a fair bit of uphill running. I was wearing trail shoes but being inexperienced on this terrain I was nervous of turning an ankle so it’s fair to say I was cautious. It was as early as this that I decided I wanted to complete this within 15 hours – the official cut off time for the 100k was 18 hours.
We were pretty strung out early on and there were large sections of this where there were no other runners in sight. Fortunately, being an official path there were sufficient marker posts to be confident of being on the right track. Bamburgh Castle was easily visible in the distance and was a great beacon to head for, especially as I was trying to “chunk” the race, one marker at a time.
I am not a very social racer, or runner for that matter, I am happy to pass a few minutes with a fellow runner but really am not comfortable running with anyone. I have no idea why that is or where it comes from – I like to think I am a pretty sociable sort usually and I am not overly competitive, except with myself, so why I prefer this solitude is a bit beyond me. Friends have asked me so many times, “what do you think about when you are running all those miles?” I really have no idea, Nothing? Everything? Anything? So I passed a mile or two with a chap from Gateshead who extolled the virtues of the Kielder marathon the following week and was using this as a training run for an upcoming Ironman event.
There was a small checkpoint at about 12 miles with water and jelly sweets. They took my runner number to check me in and I stopped long enough for a cupful of flat coke and grabbed a couple of haribou sweeties before pressing on. I had no idea who was in front or behind me, perhaps that’s just as well. I have messed up many a race, usually by trying too hard and overcooking it too early.
I was ready to reach Bamburgh Castle – it was tantalisingly visible but seemed to take ages to reach. The disadvantage of not wearing a GPS of course, but finally having climbed from the coastline and rounding the Castle, there it was and I allowed myself a longer stop. Not too long though, after all I had only run 30k not even a third. Still feeling positive though, I took on some electrolyte fluids that were on offer, checked in with my race number, a quick chat with another lady who was also running the 100k and we were off again. Consensus seemed to be that this was a bit longer than 30k. It certainly took me longer than it ever has before to cover the distance, 3 hrs 19 mins, but hey ho, it was the same for everyone.
The next section was 22k to Craster which for me would be the halfway point – how hard could it be?
To be fair it was actually a pretty good section for me. I had managed to recce some parts of the route earlier in the month, so as we left Bamburgh Castle and headed out across the fields I recognised where I was, just through the cottages, cut across the driveway and along the hedgerow. By now I felt in need of a bit of music. We were running inland for a bit and very strung out and I needed a distraction for a little while. I had to stop to dig around in the rucksack, I usually thread the cable under my t shirt and the iPod goes in my shorts pocket, but I was wearing a waist bag and couldn’t be bothered to take it all off, consequently I didn’t really know what to do with it so held it for a while. That annoyed me so I ended up shoving it into my bra. I really shouldn’t have bothered, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t allowed and soon after I took my first wrong turning. There were runners behind me who probably shouted to me but I couldn’t hear them – it’s totally my own fault and a very good reason why it’s not a good idea to race with music on. Fortunately I probably only lost about 10 mins, but I missed a left turn in a residential area and took the next one instead. I kept looking back to make sure runners came behind me but no one did, I was sure there was someone not that far behind. I jogged for a bit then decided to turn back since I was clearly wrong. A kind resident going out for the morning paper put me back on the right track fairly easily and I rejoined some new faces. Maybe I had lost more time than I had thought.
One of my big concerns when running long distances is fuelling. Everything I have ever read emphasises the importance of proper nutrition throughout the race, and I have never felt that I have got this quite right. I have learned that long distance running hurts, it can hurt a lot but that is manageable. You can learn to block out and ignore the pain in your legs and body, put it aside and push on regardless. The issue is exhaustion, you cannot block that out and once it hits you it is very difficult to carry on however mentally strong you may be or however determined you are. If your legs do not want to move any more it’s nigh on impossible to persuade them.
I have an advantage in that I have a cast iron digestive system. I can eat pretty much anything and everything and it’s unlikely to upset my stomach; however my disadvantage is that I am not really a food lover. Usually I can take it or leave it, and I quite often simply forget to eat. I will eat anything on offer if I am hungry, but I have quite a small appetite and during a race I just don’t want food. Everything I have ever read or learned from much more experienced runners than me has lead me to understand that barring injury or illness, if I was going to fail to finish this, it was going to be through poor nutrition. I had practised as much as possible beforehand and I know that I just cannot get solid food down when running. I use energy gels, sweets, flat coke, and electrolyte drinks. This was not going to be enough over this distance so I had armed my supporters with pots of Muller rice, chocolate mousse and chocolate milk. I knew that my stepson and stepdaughter Kay and Barry would be at Craster as they were driving up that morning to join their dad who was already there. They were bringing the additional supplies so when about 5 miles out and I was struggling through the sand dunes I decided it would be a good idea to take a walk break, save my legs and plan what I needed at the checkpoint. It was a getting warm by then too, so it would be time to change my shorts and t shirt, put new shoes and socks on and take on some proper food. This was a nice thought and kept me going through to the end of that section.
It was a nice moment when I saw them both running towards me and cheering about 400 yds from the end, telling me that I just had to get round the corner and up the short hill where the pub was waiting. Kay tried to jog with me but had high heels on and failed miserably. Barry jogged alongside but I was struggling badly by then, a sure sign that I needed fuel.
Craster was the end of the 50k race and the pub was buzzing. Finishers, marshals, race officials, people taking their lunch, support crews and drop bags littered the area. Which was unfortunate for all of them since I decided to whip off my shorts, t shirt, shoes and socks in the middle of them all. My belated apologies if I ruined anyone’s lunch!
I pretty much shoved anything down that I could; a vanilla custard Muller rice, a chocolate mousse, some milk and I think I had a few gulps of flat coke on top too. It was at that point that I started to wonder where I was in the race. The majority of runners were doing the 100 miles and I hadn’t really seen too many 100k runners and no women at all. The marshals seemed to think that I was quite high up and that not too many others had come through, that was enough to get me going again. I am not sure what my split time was at that point but to be fair I didn’t really care. I knew I still had a chance of finishing within 15 hours provided the wheels stayed on. I wasn’t really hurting too much, had no niggles, felt re energised from the food and knowing that I was halfway done. So with a final thank you and goodbye to everyone I headed out again to the applause of the pub goers.
Next section officially was 21.5k to Warkworth, the last big checkpoint. But I was thinking only as far as Alnmouth, my 40 mile point.
I can honestly say I don’t remember too much about this section, it was only about 10 miles to Alnmouth and I think it was fairly uneventful. There was a small checkpoint, as there was throughout the course manned as ever by wonderfully supportive, friendly and helpful people who really understood running. I probably I passed the time of day with one or two others that I met along the way, but as ever, found myself running alone and enjoying the spectacular scenery of Northumberland. The weather was absolutely perfect for me. I never mind running in warm weather anyway and the temperature was probably in the high teens with little or no wind. It was bright and clear and I remembered the words of my running buddy, “let the views pull you along, and imagine you are in the cinema watching a film, just enjoy the moment for what it is”. This really worked for me and I am amazed at how easy it was for me to view the distance in small chunks. I really did not give hardly any thought at this point to how far I still had to run and that helped me tremendously. I knew I had the fitness to get to the end somehow, the question was always do I have the mental strength to match it? At that point it seemed as though maybe I did, I was in good spirits although my new shoes were uncomfortable. I had raced in them before so wasn’t sure what was going on there, but a bit of discomfort was fine by me at that stage.
I think this is the section where we ran along the beach but I can’t be certain. Fortunately I was running with a couple of guys doing the 100 mile and one of them had recced this part himself and he duly advised us that maybe we were going to get wet along the beach. Sure enough we turned, ran downhill and onto the beach. Unfortunately the tide was coming in, quite quickly in fact and after a few minutes of easy running along the hard sand we had to move up the beach onto large pebbles where it was impossible to run or even walk very well so we stumbled and staggered, trying not to twist anything whilst looking for the little orange flag that told us to turn back inland. A couple of dog walkers told us that we had missed the tide by about an hour. It seems that when he recced the route earlier the tide was a long way out.
After a few more golf courses to traverse, there were a lot of these on the route, all the Saturday morning golfers were very friendly despite the fact that hoards of runners were putting them off their stroke, Alnmouth came into view and I had made my 40 miles.
My support crew were in the pub, no surprise there then, but Kay, Barry and their dad Roger, duly came running out, armed with the hundreds of bags filled with everything but the kitchen sink that I insisted, wrongly as it turned out, that I would need.
I had some more chocolate milk and some rice and took the opportunity to visit the ladies. I never seem to need to pee on a run, but the facility was right there so managed to squeeze one out.
Kay got the maps out and took charge of the route, advising me that I had about 7 miles to Warkworth where there was a fabulous aid station waiting for me with soup, coffee and all sorts of wonderful things. After that it would only be another 6 miles or so to Felton where she would join me on my run to the last checkpoint where Barry would join me to the end of the race. Lovely thoughts, only another 22 miles or so to go and only about 12 on my own – I was going to do this.
As it turned out this next section was one of the worst for me and contained two places where I took a wrong turning. Thank goodness they were close by and actually saw me go wrong, saving me some unnecessary miles and stress.
Heading out of Alnmouth along the road I felt ok still, alone and starting to hurt, shoes a bit uncomfortable still, but nothing that wasn’t to be expected. The dreaded exhaustion was being kept at bay and I was two thirds of the way through. Then I hit a zone, suddenly, running slightly uphill parallel to the bay on tarmac, I don’t want to do this anymore, this is stupid, maybe I should just stop, so I did but only briefly.
Relentless forward progress is the ultra runners’ mantra, so I thought I would keep moving, I walked trying hard not to panic. I told myself this is just a zone, a bad one but it will pass, just keep moving. I had been through good zones, really good ones; it was only natural that I would have to contend with a bad one, all I had to do was wait for it to pass. I absolutely couldn’t give up now and I bloody well wasn’t going to. All I had to do was run 12 miles, a distance I can do in my sleep, then I would have company and all would be well with the world again. As a solitary runner, why I thought company would be so good I don’t know, but I did and that’s what kept me going. The value of having a pacer towards the end of a run cannot be overestimated in my mind but it has to be the right one. At that stage I didn’t give this any thought, just get to Warkworth, take on more fuel then get to Felton that’s all you have to do girl.
It was a slog is all I can say. I was getting tired, my legs ached, I felt I had been running for hours, I had, and even the scenery wasn’t cutting it any more. Halfway through I came to a junction and went right as there were no marker posts; it felt like the correct way, it wasn’t. I heard yelling and screaming, thank god for my support crew, they had seen me and I turned around having lost maybe 500 yards. Other runners had caught up with me by then and after a quick chat with Kay who said she couldn’t begin to imagine how much I must be hurting I set off with a couple of 100 mile guys who were by that time run walking and were feeling positive as they had passed their halfway point.
I really couldn’t judge distances anymore and without the GPS I was a bit in the dark. I had already acknowledged that the distances were not at all accurate and it could be anything from 5 – 10 miles to Warkworth but all I had to do was keep going, there was soup waiting for me.
Not knowing this part of the route I tried not to think about anything much, still in a bad place I ran, walked, jogged, chatted and slogged it out all the way to Warkworth and the finest aid station I had ever seen.
What a welcome in the pub. They knew my name since I had to give my runner number which had been ripped off earlier, sat me down, gave me coffee, lentil soup, bread, chocolate brownies and told me that I was doing really well and I was high up I the field since most runners were yet to come through.
It was at that point another lady 100k runner came in and I decided I wanted to race. I had no idea where I was but I at least had a target now, something that usually doesn’t matter to me. Maybe at that point I needed a reason to carry on, so sorry love whoever you were; I was going to beat you.
I changed back to my original shoes thinking there was something wrong with the ones I was wearing, they didn’t feel any better. Turns out one of my feet were swollen and I just had to lump it. Refuelled and re energised I was out again walking uphill out of town with another 100 mile guy who was desperately trying to get a bowl of rice down. We had a chat about nutrition and he offered to share it with me. The camaraderie and support from other runners was incredible and very moving – for me it’s an integral part of ultra running. I don’t always get involved with the camaraderie thing but I can feel it and love being around it even though my natural self doesn’t always want to join in.
Final stage, Warkworth to Rothbury via Felton. An official distance of 29k but may as well have been another 100 miles.
Unfortunately the good zone didn’t last very long and I was soon back in the bad place. I just felt that this was more of the bloody same, a very unfair thought and does a disservice to the lovely part of the world that it is, but this is an honest account and that’s how I felt at the time.
Not too far to Felton though to be fair, penultimate checkpoint and a village that I had visited before. I was tired and hurting. The tiredness was nothing too scary so I wasn’t worried about that yet. The pain in my legs was getting bad and I knew I had to address this mentally. It was always going to happen, it wasn’t going to kill me, it wasn’t going to get much worse, it was expected and I had to find a way to ignore it and accept it as an integral part of the day. This helped me for a lot of that stint which was another straightforward slog and probably the worst part of the day. It was getting late, still daylight but I could feel the warmth of the day dissipating and decided that I needed a new t shirt. I didn’t actually want anything else to taken on enough for a while and this was all mental now rather than physical.
I knew Felton was where support runners could join and as I ran down the footpath and into the village I saw a lady dressed in running gear. I asked her if she was waiting to pace someone and she looked at me as if I were mad – no she was supporting her husband but round the corner they were waiting for me at the pub.
I just wanted this over. I didn’t even go into the pub. Barry and Roger were waiting across the road and Barry ran over to check me in. I demanded a new t shirt; I had lost all my manners by then. I refused all offers of anything and insisted I was taking off my backpack and waist bag. They were annoying the hell out of me by then, there was nothing in them I needed for this final push and I just wanted to get going. I had seen the lady I was trying to race come in just behind me and I just wanted to get this finished. Kay wasn’t ready, as usual for her, but she insisted that we needed the phone and at least some water. “Well you wear the bloody backpack then love, I’m going, catch me up”. How rude am I? They were doing a fantastic job for me and unbeknown to me at the time they were very worried for me as I was acting so out of character.
My split time here was 10.56 so I was pretty confident I would still make my 15 hours which helped a lot.
Kay caught me up as I left the village and by then I had gotten over myself and we had a lovely stint together across valleys and through woodland as it was getting dusk. We caught up on each other’s lives, her kids, her plans, she’s moving house next week and we made plans for me to help her with that. She’s a photographer and she got some lovely shots on her phone capturing a gorgeous orange sunset. The terrain was quite tricky here and we had to be on the ball to follow the route signs. Also we were going through woodland in fading light and had to walk quite a bit. This was just what I needed and was soon back in a good place. In fact this was one of the nicest stretches of the run; I don’t even remember feeling particularly tired. We laughed a lot; she’s as flaky as hell but great company and was just what I needed.
We didn’t see a single soul on this stretch, but suddenly we saw Barry running towards us telling us it was less than a mile to the final checkpoint and he would run back with us. As we came out from under the A1 there was the pub and my rival just in front.
A quick drink of flat coke, find my head torch as it was almost dark by then and I want to get out before her. Barry was running this with me, he was in the toilet. “Tough” I yelled to Roger, “I’m off; tell him to catch me up”. Roger is not a runner and thought I should wait for him. Fortunately Barry was on the ball and understood completely, I was out, across the bridge and into the woods before I heard him shout that he was right behind me. That was when I tripped on a root and dropped like a stone flat onto my face. I broke some of the fall with my right wrist, it probably hurt like hell but so did everything else by then so I didn’t even notice.
This final stretch was a complete nightmare. If I had been alone I would have thrown in the towel. Total darkness across an endless string of cow fields, no other runners or torch lights in sight. To make matters worse someone had taken all the reflective signs off the posts, so we would enter a field and struggle to see the path through, when we found it there was no telling if it was the right one and we had to cross the field and hope that we found a reflective sign on the other side. It felt like hours and hours and I used up a huge amount of energy worrying that we were going to get lost and run way more miles than we needed to. This is not a good thing after running nearly 60 miles.
I knew the path into Rothbury so I was constantly looking for familiar ground and just not finding it. It was incredibly slow going and I shouted, swore and was generally a bloody nuisance to poor Barry who was desperately trying to get me home. Rothbury is in a dip and I hadn’t realised this, so because we couldn’t see the lights of the village at all, anywhere in any distance I was convinced we were lost for most of this final leg. It turned out that we were never lost and actually I don’t think we took a wrong direction once, it just felt like it.
Suddenly Barry pointed out an unusual cliff face to our left – bloody hell I had seen this before, I knew where we were, we were nearly home. One final left turn where we would go up a short hill then less than a mile down into the village. We saw the lights and heard the noise, the best feeling ever. We fair sprinted down the hill, saw the final arrow taking us over the bridge to the right and there it was – the finish point. Barry stepped back and let me run in alone to wonderful support and a very kind man who told me I could stop running now. The time was 14 hours, 14 minutes and 23 seconds.
I sat down in the pub and someone handed me a medal, a t shirt, a finishers medal, a certificate, some trail socks and a running belt – I was second lady and fifth overall!! How about that???
This was an excellent race, incredibly well organised and supported by people that clearly understand ultra running. An amazing and wonderful experience from beginning to end. Looking back I am not sure there is anything I would have done differently. Maybe recced a bit more of the route, but that’s usually not possible anyway and there is something exciting about not knowing what’s around the next corner.
I probably won’t be back next year. That’s only because it’s so far away and there are so many wonderful and exciting ultra races around the country that it would be a shame not to try out some others. 100 miles?? At this point I have no desire to even try, but I said that after my first half marathon about a marathon so who knows?
Apologies if this account is wordy and too long. When reading reports I am always looking for how it felt and what was it like? I have tried to capture this here but cannot do so without providing additional information and it would have been wrong of me not to include the efforts and role of my supporters, so try as I might this is the shortest version I could produce.
Thank you once again to all the team involved in every aspect of this, if anyone is thinking about doing it, this is one not to miss.