Monday, 7 March 2016

Northumberland Coast Ultra

No great tales of derring-do, suffering or achievement in this one (as if there ever are on these pages!); just a simple account of a nice day out, as much for my own benefit as anyone else's, something to look back on from time to time.

I've done a few of the Endurancelife Coastal Series over the past two or three years and found them well-organised events, run to a standard pattern in coastal areas worth visiting. No stress involved, the courses are fully marked and the checkpoints close enough that you don't need to carry very much, just turn up and go really. Other than two days with Jan visiting Lindisfarne and Berwick-on-Tweed I'd never been to the Northumberland coast, so I decided to give this one a go.

The event base was at Bamburgh Castle, so I spent Friday evening at the Victoria Hotel in Bamburgh with a good meal, good beer and a very boring game of rugby (Wales vs France).  The pub was so close to the castle that breakfast on Saturday morning was possible before going down to check in. Endurancelife registration is normally in a chilly tent in a field, so this one actually in the castle buildings was quite plush. A quick briefing then we were on the buses for the short journey down to the start in a field just outside the walls of Alnwick Castle.

After all the mud through the winter it was good to be out on a cold crisp morning. No sun at the start at 8.20 am and a scattering of frozen hail still on the ground, but underfoot it was wonderfully firm and easy to run on. The first 5 miles or so followed the River Aln down to Alnmouth, mostly flat field tracks with the odd rise or bit of road, easy running. I wasn't sure what pace to aim for because I knew the course was fairly flat and runnable most of the way, but over the past two or three years all the races I have done have been hilly with fairly frequent walking sections. In the end, before the event I had decided to go for a 10,30 m/m average for as long as it felt comfortable, assuming I would probably slow down a fair bit later in the race. I was near the back of the field over the first few miles and the group I was in seemed to be holding about 10 minute miles. I was slightly concerned that it might be too fast but it felt easy enough and so I went with the flow.

The first checkpoint turned up just after we hit the coast. They were all similar, about 6 miles apart, outside but with good supplies of water and snacks. Normally, a marshal carrying the dibbing box was a few yards before the resupplies so it was pretty efficient getting through. At this first one I didn't need any fluid as I had started with a full 500ml bottle, so I just grabbed a handful of jelly babies and pressed on through. Everyone I was with stopped for water so the result was that I was suddenly out on my own for a mile or two. After this I don't think anyone else in the ultra raced passed me and I was able to work my way through quite a chunk of the field before the finish.

By now the clouds were starting to break up and the sun was warming the day up a bit, although it never got really warm. There was a slight headwind all the way, but nothing really to be concerned about. Overall it was a pretty perfect day for running. The running was really fine, low cliff-tops with grassy tracks or firm dunes interspersed with sections across beaches with beautifully firm sand. The tide seemed pretty far out so we could take direct lines across the beaches and not have to bother following the contours of the coastline. Just the odd sections of rocks or an occasional gate or stile to break the flow, but it was mostly the sort of country to encourage a continued steady pace.

Endurancelife Coastal events always comprise four races taking sections of the same basic course  -  an Ultra (usually around 33-35 miles), a Marathon, a Half Marathon and a 10k. The Marathon was due to start at the same point as our ultra, Alnwick Castle, but about an hour later than us. The faster guys had not caught me yet, but as I approached the pretty village of Craster it was clear that I was about to get involved in the Half-Marathon start. Crowds of runners were heading from the village to the open ground beyond which was where the start was located. I threaded through the crowds and out past the impressive ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle on the headland beyond. I passed another half dozen ultra competitors on the track and golf course just after this, but kept wondering where the "Half" runners had got to. Just up a little hill and the first one came haring past; from here to Bamburgh I was passed by a fairly steady stream of Half and a few Marathon runners, nearly all of whom wished me well as they passed.

I was still going surprisingly well (for me!) and had managed to maintain a 10 min/mile average from the start. I expected things to get a bit tougher soon, but so far so good. More low cliffs, dunes and beaches. At the end of a long beach a short distance before Seahouses I could see another group of runners milling around for the 10k start. As I got nearer I could hear the pre-start briefing, and this time I hadn't got many yards beyond them when I heard the countdown and then they started to come pouring past.

On the grass just before Seahouses I started to feel a bit of a twinge in my left calf. Not wanting to let it progress into anything bad, I stopped and stretched it out for maybe a minute or two. That seemed to do the trick and I had no more problems with it to the finish.  Through the town to lots of encouragement from bystanders, then out the other side along the coast for a mile or two, then we were down over some rocks to the final beach section leading to Bamburgh Castle, which we could now see. I went through the true marathon distance (the actual marathon race was a bit longer) in 4 hours 20 minutes, still on 10 minute pace, but not long after this things started to toughen up a bit.  I was still passing the odd ultra runner and one or two of the 10k competitors who had maybe gone off a bit fast, but then we were funnelled off the beach and up a steep soft sand track through the dunes and up to the castle, I guess a couple of hundred feet or so above the beach. About half way up there was a fork in the route; all the others races carried on straight up the hill to the finish in the castle, but the ultra diverted off to begin its final 9 mile loop back to the same place. From being on a crowded track, I was now on one with no other runners in sight. 

In a while I caught up with another two but they were going quite slowly so I carried on past, up a steady incline, first up a section of narrow road then around a golf course. There was only around 1500ft of ascent on the whole route, but as the majority of this was in these final 9 miles it made a bit of a mess of my average. This was compensated by great views all round as the course gained height. A winding downhill after the golf course led to another section of mostly uphill, this time across rutted fields which I found I could only cross efficiently by walking. A final checkpoint, no need to stop as I had half a bottle of water left and less than six miles to go, then anotherl uphill up a bit of road. A runner was a few hundred yards ahead giving me a good target and I caught him just on the crest of the hill. We jogged on together for a mile or so chatting about this and that, then a quick look at my watch suggested that I might just have a chance of getting under 6 hours if I pressed on. I needed to better 10 minute miles from here to the finish.

It started well down field tracks and minor roads, but each hundred yards of uphill were making dents in my schedule now. Eventually I made it back down to the beach about a mile short of the castle. There were still one or two ultra runners there, and one or two slower competitors from the other races, so I pushed on. But another check on the time showed that I still needed a 10 minute mile, including the final hill up to the castle, and I wasn't going to do that. Reality kicked in and I slowed down to enjoy the final mile of the trip, finally making it to the finish in four minutes over the 6 hours for the 35,4 miles with my final average up to 10:17 for the whole distance. I would have accepted 11:30 if offered it at the start, so I was still pretty happy with the result. I came in 28th out of 84 starters.

A late lunch in the Castle Cafe rounded things off nicely. I'm going to another of this coastal series at the end of April, this time to Pembrokeshire, another lovely area. I'm looking forward to it.

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