I don’t want to waffle on for hours about this, as it might stop you from reading all the way to the end, but it could be difficult not to, so bear with me a little. That’s me at the start, by the way, looking like the rainbow love child of Ron Hill and Pan’s People. I quite like this picture of me, it looks like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards and then kidnapped by hippies. That’s the look I aim for on a really long run, I find it scares off any leopards and bears – I have a clean slate in the leopard and bear department. The photo was taken by the remarkably fine Lee Nixon, the Outlaw Photographer.
That’s the map, well, that’s my map, or drawing I guess, it’s a pretty poor map as maps go, so let’s call it an infographic of the route? That chap in the middle is St Cuthbert, the first British ultra-runner, and some say the person who started the whole ultra-running movement. In-between being pious and fighting vikings, he liked to get out for a bit of a jog. However, he was also a bit of a Forrest Gump character, and found it difficult to stop once he’d found his running mojo. I think we’ve all been there, right?
He set off from his house in Melrose, over the Eildon Hills, hung a left just before reaching Jedburgh and then passed through Kirk Yetholm before heading over the Cheviot Hills (he liked a bit of hill training) to Wooler to re-supply on jelly babies before continuing on to the beach. As luck would have it, he came out at Lindisfarne and skipped over the causeway, discovering that someone had built an abbey there, so he decided to stay for a bit.
Virtually none of that is true, but it’s a grand story that I made up while running St Cuthbert’s Way in the wrong direction. You might ask why the wrong way? Well the thing about causeways is they get a bit damp at times, and the 60-odd people starting would all be finishing hours apart, so better to get the time-critical bit out of the way first and avoid wading.
And that’s me heading over said causeway – the boxy thing is a refuge in case you get caught out trying to finish an ultra marathon in the right direction and the tide comes in…
As photos are cool, here’s one more, of everyone at the start on Lindisfarne:
Grand bunch of folk too. I got to see the back of most of them heading off as I headed into my familiar almost-last-tending-to-last place early on.
As far as runs go, this one was a doozy – it really has it all, even a volcano! I don’t think James Bond could come up with finer plot.
You start with a causeway off the island, head across gentle meadows and some fun minor hills on the way to Wooler. The last hill into Wooler is a cracker, just to get you in the mood.
So, that’s me to the first main checkpoint at Wooler Bowls Club, and I’ve already overlooked the fantastic marshalling at the checkpoints on the way to Wooler. The organisation was ace, everything I’ve come to expect from a Trail Outlaws event – seriously, I’d say they’re doing a cracking job of single-handledly turning the North East into an even more stunning venue for some mighty fine running. St Cuthberts Way, the Kielder Dark Skies Marathon and I’m sure the upcoming Sandstone Way Ultra are all immense, even the Penshaw Pieces of Eight half marathon turned out to be a gem of a run in a location I’d never realised was quite so well stocked with trail.
A not-so-quick turnaround at Wooler, and my first chance to try my novel refuel choice, sushi! If you’ve read the last few posts running up to St Cuthbert’s Way, you’ll know I tried a thing or two out, and my key strategy was built around cucumber maki (cucumber rolled in rice and surrounded with seaweed – I hold onto a hope of getting sponsorship from Yo! Sushi one day – when I was buying a shed-load of cucumber maki to take away and explained it was to fuel me through a 100km run they seemed bemused), gluten-free vegan chocolate oaty biscuits and diluted Irn-Bru. First pack of sushi and it felt like a good choice with a spot of soy sauce, they shook hands with my tummy and agreed to all get on.
Out of Wooler and into the second big chunk, and it’s time to introduce some hills. The Cheviots to be exact, and they manage to pack a lot of hill into what looks like a short space on the map. But beautiful, really, really beautiful. Eventually you reach the border between England and Scotland, which looks a bit like this:
Still looking jolly at this point. From the border you get the first view of the Eildon Hills, the volcano you have to scale to get to Melrose on the other side and the finish. From here it looks both small and not that far away. Neither of these facts turn out to be true…
More hills, more hills and then a few more hills just for good measure. There was a bit of woodland in there, with a confusingly vague track through it, but we made it through.
Eventually you reach Scottish civilisation in the form of Kirk Yetholm (or maybe Town Yetholm, I can never remember which is which) the starting point for the Pennine Way.
Along to Morebattle, the next main checkpoint and more sushi. Sushi was still good, as was the Irn-Bru.
There’s a hill, called Wideopen Hill that hides just outside of Morebattle. It’s the mid-point of St Cuthbert’s Way, apparently and also the highest point (there’s a sign to tell you this, I’m not full of St Cuthbert’s Way trivia). The top of it looks like this (complete with sign)…
However, as it’s the highest point, it’s also a crazy long climb, and it’s one of those hills that just looks to keep going. You’ve just congratulating yourself for having reached the summit when another summit appears, and you’ll never guess what’s behind that? Uhuh…
Onwards we go, and we’re half way now, so there’s no point in turning back – on to Bonjedward, and the first hand-powered car-wash in Scotland (as far as I know). We picked up the sweepers here, or maybe they picked us up, that’s probably more like it. You cross the road here and drop down to follow the river then we’re on the back half of the Jedburgh Ultra, the wee church at Maxton, St Boswells, then on to the Eildons.
I haven’t mentioned the time yet – this caper kicked off at 8am in the morning on Saturday. By now it was getting dark, so head torches were the order of the day.
Up, up, up the slope of the Eildons – luckily it was over the saddle – the Jed Ultra goes right up the side of the biggest one, so I was pretty thankful that wasn’t called for. It still felt like quite a climb.
Eventually, and it felt like forever, but the top of the saddle was reached and the first view of Melrose. Just a mega-muddy downhill and a slight direction malfunction and into Melrose itself, and a lone figure in a car which turned out to be Phil Turton, one of the Outlaws-In-Chief and probably the most welcome sight of the day. A stagger to Melrose Abbey to mark our cards (literally) and then the extra mile or so through town to the finish at the village hall.
The light was starting to leak back into the day, the birds were getting their act together and the most amazing 68 mile (that’ll be 100km) adventure was at a close. I reckon I looked OK, all things considered…
Still. Bloody. Smiling.
I think I thanked everyone in the room fairly indiscriminantly and often, I babbled about how fantastic the run was (quite rightly too), then headed back to my tent back on the edge of town to try and get some sleep. I went to sleep wearing my finisher’s medal on, some things are important and should be held on to.
Time? Well, the time at the finish was 4:30am on Sunday, so that’s 20.5 hours on the hoof. There was a lot walking in the second half. A lot of good chat with other runners along the way, which surprised me as I always think I’m a solitary runner, but I honestly think the people was what got me through – the other runners, the marshalls the whole bloomin’ lot – Phil, Tim, Lee, Flip, Tony, just a grand family of people. The Munros too – Helen and John, who I know more from the Scottish ultra scene, so a lovely surprise to see here – Helen seemed to be at every checkpoint in her role as the Angel of Chivvying to try and make sure there was a minimum of Messing On. John, along with Dave Hetherington as the Grim Sweepers from Bonjedward onwards to the end, always with a subtle suggestion of “mebbes run a bit, it’s downhill after all”.
Would I do it again? For sure, but I think it would only work if I could find the time to properly train for it, which is tricky. All the core work with Chris at NUCAS has paid off, but I hadn’t put the miles in to be honest, and I think it showed. One for the future perhaps, more shorter ultras first. I did feel bad about finishing after the official 18.5 hour cut-off, the marshalls and everyone involved have given up their time and I don’t like the idea I’m keeping them up.
Speaking of marshalls and the Trail Outlaws, I did have a thought as I was stumbling through Melrose that those hi-vis jackets would look minty with a logo on, something to continue the fab cowboy theme, sort of like this…
If you’re going to be an outlaw, best be a Trail Outlaw.
Best. Race. Ever.