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Even when her legs were off, she fought on her stumps.

“So how are you in the heat?”

“I’m okay usually. I don’t like it but I seem to cope alright.”

Nothing like jinxing yourself is there? At Endure 24 last year, I distinctly remember saying out loud the day before, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be that hot’, and it ended up being around 30 degrees. This though was the registration for the St. Cuthbert’s Way race on Friday night in Melrose, a pretty little town in the Scottish Borders. Jayson and I were chatting to race director Tim Bateson, inevitably, about the weather. It was forecast for about 22-24 degrees the next day but with some cloud, so I didn’t anticipate it being much of a problem. How wrong I was!

The race had come onto my radar a few years ago as an interesting prospect. I loved the idea of crossing the causeway at Holy Island and running into Scotland on an ancient pilgrimage. It looked like my kind of terrain, and our good friend Garry Scott was the other race director with the awesome Trail Outlaws. This year, it finally worked with what I wanted to do, so here we were on a warm Friday evening getting set to go. The race itself is 100km long with over 8000ft of ascent, including some up and down in the Cheviots and the Eildon Hills. I had recced it a few weeks before over three days because, even though it is a waymarked trail, I don’t trust that I wouldn’t go wrong and I’m really glad I did it!

We had a relaxed Friday evening, heading to the Lindisfarne Inn after registration so we were only 5 minutes from the start and so Jayson didn’t have to drive the motorhome around all the small roads supporting me. A sub par pizza in the pub for tea followed by a bit of yoga then bedtime and I was feeling good about the weekend. We woke up to a warm morning and got to the start in good time for a little stroll around with Indie. It is such a peaceful place first thing and I was definitely feeling relaxed. I think it helped that it was a relatively small field, most of whom I didn’t know! Although I did meet an old uni friend, Nick, who was very randomly good friends with Hazel and Mark Marchant, who I had been coaching for a couple of years! It was strange having not seen him for nearly 20 years and then having to run away from him!! We set off down the causeway at some speed, but it was a long flat road, and the day wasn’t too warm, so it was fine. There were maybe 8-10 men in front of me here but no women, which is how it stayed all day. Part of me doesn’t like leading from the start as I am always waiting for someone to catch me, but it also takes pressure off not feeling I have to chase. At the turn off onto the trail, Stephen and Andrea Bulmer waved and cheered me on, and I felt like now, the race had started.

The iconic causeway – flying feet! Pic byLee Robert Nixon.

Into the first field and there was already some confusion with the lead pack. I could see them looking around for signs and finally heading in the right direction. This was the first place I had gone wrong on the recce and was a sign of things to come from the speedy front runners! Once we hit the road though, it was straightforward to Fenwick, where we crossed the A1 and ran into the village. A group had started going the wrong way as a signpost had fallen over so I called them back and another guy helped me prop the post back up. I had no idea how many were ahead of me now as we headed up another road and into the shade of some woods. It was already really warm and, just 7 miles or so in, I was soaked in sweat. Passing by a wooden statue of St. Cuthbert himself, I touched his hand for luck. It wasn’t quite a high five as he was clutching onto his cross but it would do. This section was a bit uneventful thankfully, other than me shouting another guy back who had gone in completely the opposite direction to the trail. My left foot was sore though and I knew I would have to stop at Wooler where Jayson would be to get it sorted. I had taped the same area on the top of my right foot as it has rubbed raw a couple of weeks before in my Supertracs RCs but the other foot had been fine. Luckily, Jayson ran out to meet me a few miles outside the town near a bridge so we were able to get it taped up. The skin had come off on a bony bit so Jayson convinced me to put my Hokas on instead as there was such a long way to go. I knew they would pinch my toes, but I also didn’t want a little skin wound to ruin my race! The guy that I had got back on track passed me here and I didn’t see him again but he didn’t finish ahead of me so I wonder if he made it to the end.

The man himself.

Wooler marked the 18.5 mile point and the first big checkpoint. It was great coming into town to cheers and clapping, and to see familiar faces again: Mark, Hazel, Stephen and Andrea were all there again which was lovely. As I had just seen Jayson, I didn’t need anything else and so I left the checkpoint with a cup of coke to walk up the hill through town. Curious about Red Kola, I almost caved and tried some but thought better of it for the first time in a very hot 100km race! The hill out of Wooler is pretty long so it was a good chance to eat again. I had already had an avocado and rice wrap and a couple of Veloforte bars, so had another wrap in hand – and mouth – when Rachael Welby took a picture of me. We had a sweaty little hug – me obviously, not her – and I cracked on. About two thirds of the way into my wrap, I started retching, which worried me a bit. I had already had a conversation with someone a few days before about how I had never felt or been sick on a race, so had no experience of what that felt like, when here I was not able to eat without it making me retch. I threw the last little bit away and just accepted that I had to make do with a bit less and I would be okay again soon.

Troughing in Wooler. Picture by Rachael Welby.

The long climb up over Wooler Common was another area I got a bit wrong on my recce and I think someone before me had too, as there was an open gate in the wrong, but most obvious looking, direction. I closed it and pondered again how I had no idea how many people were still ahead of me. How many had gone wrong?! It is very exposed once you climb up onto the moors and it was really hot by now. I trekked the ups and trotted the downs. To my absolute delight, there were no cows guarding the trail this time on the long descent to Hethpool. On my recce, I had climbed a fence, trudged through an overgrown meadow, climbed another two fences and doubled back to avoid them. Jayson came out with Indie again to meet me and we started passing 45 mile runners. They were all great and moved aside as they realised I was moving a bit faster, and it was nice to feel more amongst it again after being on my own for a while. It was getting too hot for Indie to even be outside now, so Jayson said he wouldn’t be able to come out to me again. I got topped up with food and drink, and told him I had been retching. We knew there wasn’t anything to do but keep forcing food in and as long as I wasn’t being sick, it would be okay. The road stretch before the official checkpoint felt baking now and at around 28 miles in, we were in the hottest part of the day. Thank goodness for watermelon! I took a few slices from the checkpoint and marched out once more. Passing more crew and supporters, including Hazel, just before this checkpoint, I was a bit jealous as they looked they were having a lovely time, picnicking in the sun!

Another climb, this time through sprawling fields, and I was heading up towards the border. I forced another wrap in, retching again but just trying to take smaller bites and not chew as long. I saw Dave Welby here, a 45 miler, and he said his ankle was sore. I did worry that something like that, along with the heat, might make him talk himself into stopping but he finished! Taking a slightly meandering route as I had on my recce, I got to the stile that lead into a wasteland that used to be a plantation. Some woodsy shade would have been great then! At the border gate, there were a lot of cows on my recce, meaning I had to detour again, but today there were none in sight, so I enjoyed the run down on the way to Kirk Yetholm. I saw people walking ahead of me and I wondered why they were walking downhill? That just seemed crazy! When I reached them I realised they were actually walkers – yes, not everyone runs when they’re outside! There’s a lovely little dip with a stream just before you hit the road into Kirk Yetholm and it was here that I saw Steph Scott, who had dropped from the 45 with the heat. This got me thinking again; it had affected a lot of people, so how many in front of me had stopped?

I hadn’t asked Jayson to meet me here, but I’m so glad he did. He was worried about me being able to continue eating and had bought a bag of ice to stuff under my hat. Mark was here again too with a gargantuan supply of ice pops, one of which I ate while we had another blister emergency, and one on the way out of the village. I had felt another blister on the side of my foot, so thought it best to sort it out. It was a bloody one and very sore, so when Jayson stabbed and taped it, it felt much better. Mark, Stephen and Andrea seemed quite mesmerized by the whole operation but I guess us runners all enjoy other peoples’ blister stories! What’s more entertaining on a beautiful Saturday in the countryside than watching someone stab their wife in the toe?! Equipped with Vimto ice pop number two and a poo bag full of ice under my cap, I felt refreshed and headed out once again.

This was a flat little stretch out of the village and it was here I passed fellow Hardmoorian, Dave Toth. He said him and his friend were ‘eating their way round’! A longish stretch of road felt tough, as all the tarmac usually does for me: I think I might be subconsciously going a bit faster to get it out of the way? There was also a gentle upwards gradient for a lot of this race which was imperceptible to the eye a lot of the time, but you could certainly feel it. The turn off to Wideopen hill was another place I had gone slightly off course, staying on the right side of a wall instead of the trail on the left. I spotted the gate this time and called some 45 milers back. I don’t think they believed me though, as all but one lady kept heading in the same direction until they could actually see the gate! By this time, walking up the hill and at around halfway, I was finding the wraps easier to take again, but couldn’t face the fruity, dense bars. Maybe it was the head ice; with every drink I took, melted ice dripped across my head and it felt divine! Someone had warned me about this hill on the Yorkshire Three Peaks this year but it’s not actually bad. It’s the steepest on the route and is fairly long but it’s a benign trail and I enjoyed having a good hike.

Morebattle, at around 38 miles in, was a section I was not looking forward to, as there was a long road just after it. Reframing it in my mind made it seem manageable though. Once the road was done, it was my favourite section with lots of snaky paths through woodland. Jayson met me with the van just before I got into the village and I took the chance to pee behind the van out of sight. I got a bit of a shock though when I pulled my sodden bottoms back up: I must have sat on a nettle – ouch! Jayson topped me up with hat ice, ice in my bottles, another wrap and some sweets and I was back off. I quickly nipped into the checkpoint and, realising I didn’t need to as it was just for drop bags and if I needed anything topping up, ran out again and hit the road. The Venga Boys Boom Boom song had been playing on the van radio, so I was trotting along to the rhythm of that when I saw Ben Shacklock, one of Jayson’s athletes, with his wife and two children walking up ahead. He too had a lumpy hat so I asked if he had ice in there too – great tip! I passed him but knew he would catch me as he is a much quicker runner than I am.  It was here I caught a 45 miler with a very bright top and a white hat on that had the biggest swarm of flies around him. I had my own little posse as I’m sure everyone did but this was something else. It must have driven him mad! Unfortunately, his clicking poles were not in time with the Venga Boys, so I had to try and get away from him. Ben caught me up and I started walking to eat. I knew that running and eating while on the road would make me feel like I was working too hard, so Ben got ahead of me. Before the turn to the trail though, I had caught him back up and passed him once more.

This was the section I had been looking forward to, lovely fields and woods. I passed a house where a lady was digging in her garden, her dog digging his own hole, looking very focused. They also had a sign up saying ‘Want to improve your finish time? Taxi to Melrose = £20’ which did make me chuckle. I wonder if anyone has ever given in to the temptation? The long downhill to my last planned place to see Jayson at Jedfoot Bridge felt hotter again, but I was getting on well, the ice in my hat this time trickling down the back of my neck. 47 miles in and I got topped up with ice again and cracked on. On recce day this section had been done in pouring rain so it was a bit different today. I caught Hardmoorian legend number two, Mark Dalton, doing the 45 and buddied up with someone who had done the race previously. When they took a sharp turn through a field off the path, I started to worry. Mark shouted that the guy he was with knew where he was going and was convinced we should be further from the river on our right. I knew I had not gone wrong here though – what to do? Another 45 mile guy just behind me also looked worried. I told him that I was sure this was right as we should get to a suspension bridge soon.

‘The shoogly bridge?’ This in a very Scottish accent.

‘Yes, the suspension bridge. I’m sure it’s just up here’.

‘Aye, the shoogly bridge. That’s right then as I did the Jedburgh race and that is on this path’.

Shoogly bridge on recce day.

We carried on, me thinking that they should definitely rename suspension bridges as shoogly bridges to make them less intimidating. As it turned out, I was right and we walked cautiously over the shoogly bridge, with Mark and his friend heading back on course in the distance. The woods on the other side of the river were surprisingly dark for late afternoon and I wondered how soon people would need headtorches. Turning onto the Roman road, it was lighter again and I headed up the slight climb in good spirits. This looks dead straight on the maps but it is quite a nice little wiggly single track in and out of woodland. It was cooler by now and I was feeling pretty good apart from my sore feet. I passed by the sign for Lady Lilliard’s Edge where I had stopped on my recce and read about this valiant woman who ‘though her legs were off… fought on her stumps’. I knew I would be able to draw on that somewhere in this race or another. My legs weren’t exactly worn down to the knees but my feet were on fire with blisters. Jayson appeared out of nowhere here with Indie, whooping and telling me how well I was doing, that I was in 4th place with 3rd and 2nd not far ahead at all. My right little toe and the one next to it were really sore now, so much so that I even stopped and sat on the trail, thinking that I could pop the blister to get some relief. I took my shoe off and it was already popped so all I could do was get to the van and get it wrapped up. When I got there, Jayson asked my why I hadn’t just waited until I got to the van, but it had felt unbearable and was making me limp. It was a bit frantic and tricky as my little toe is so small and curled in, but he wrapped it up and sent me on my way, telling me it would feel better once I got moving. It didn’t, then it did! I ran down the road, feeling a bit easier with each step until I rounded the corner into Maxton and towards the church checkpoint. I saw Ben’s family again, another reminder that I was still being chased by someone very quick, and ran through the checkpoint, where they were wrestling with a gazebo.

What an ultra runner she would have made.

More woods and quite a few steps took me down to the banks of the River Tweed where I caught up to 3rd place, Keith Robson, who had won the race last year. He told me that he had done it a few times but only ran the Hardmoors 200 six weeks previously, so wasn’t sure he could crack twelve hours today. I tried to tell him we could both do it, but it was clear I was feeling a bit better than him! We reached the only herd of cows I had seen on the route and both slowed to a walk as they were right on the path. Keith bravely strode through them while I tried to make myself look small and unthreatening and once we were through, I started running again. Keith finished in 5th in the end: next year for 12 hours! Jayson met me again in the village of St. Boswells, telling me that 2nd wasn’t far ahead but that his tracker had gone a bit wrong so it looked like he was still further back on the course. He also told me that Ben was gaining on us so I needed to keep moving well. I told him I wasn’t really that bothered and that 3rd place would be amazing, plus I was way ahead of 2nd lady. It took some convincing that I would be bothered when I finished if I knew I had not done what I could to at least try and place 2nd overall! He was right though, so I kept pushing on. More dark woods and I could see a runner just ahead. He was jogging, then walking and I could tell he was tired. When I caught him, we chatted for a minute before he realised I wasn’t a 45 miler, and he set off at a run again. Jayson met us again at a road junction, offering us both some coke which Sam, 2nd place guy, gratefully accepted. We trekked off up the road, both of us fast walking. I eventually pulled away from him (someone once told me that, even in my teens, I was a stomper, always walking fast and on a mission. This was probably the best accidental ultra training I ever did!) and kept pushing hard to try and put some space between us. Once into the woods again, I knew if I could just get out of sight, it might make him think he couldn’t catch me, so I just kept ploughing on.

The last village, Bowden, is at the foot of the Eildon hills. I knew from here, I just had to hold my pace. I thought Sam had nothing left and I knew Ben didn’t like hills as much as flats. Jayson appeared in the woods again at the bottom of the last climb. Every time he had met me, he had been very careful not to open or close gates for me, and this continued now. It was strange to have him running slightly ahead, letting the gate bang shut behind him! He did try to gee me on by telling me to run up to a gate and for the first time ever in a race, he got told where to go. I was pushing myself really hard and did not appreciate the extra motivation! Having him there to tell me how far it was and to break it down for me was perfect though and we tromped up the hill, the sun still shining but with less intensity now. Every little stone was like a dagger in my feet now and running down that last hill was very painful. I had to make some interesting noises to let the pain out but it really does help. There are a flight of steps just before you enter Melrose which I had forgotten about. I hate running down steps and they seemed to last forever. It was getting tight for my sub 12 hour goal, so turning into town on a busy Saturday night, I shouted at myself to ‘come on!’ Hitting the flatter section of road with about a minute to spare, I started to slow and I remember saying out loud ‘I can’t’, but the ‘come ons’ fought back and I rounded the corner into the rugby club, finishing in 11.59.51 by my watch. I was only one of two people to get the gold medal for sub 12 and it was hard earned! Collapsing onto the floor, I took my sweaty pack off, relieving some of the neck chafing that had been niggling away at me all day and just lay on my back until I could breathe properly again. 1st lady and 2nd overall with a new course record on the hottest day of the year – not bad! Ben came in about 6 minutes after me to take 2nd male and 3rd overall which was awesome. Sam finished 3rd male and 4th overall. A cheese and coleslaw sandwich, two cups of tea, a vanilla shake, an apple and a subway on the way home were great recovery food, and I was so buzzy I maybe got an hour of sleep once we got home. What a great day, culminating in my highest position ever in a race.

Spent and happy. Photo by Dave Walls.

Things I learned (or the part that non runners will probably want to skip):

There’s always lessons in ultras no matter how well they seem to go and I was not short on them here. The first thing was definitely my feet. I run in an ungainly way! I might be able to cruise along for a long time without expending much energy but the way I do it could be better in terms of style. I land on the outside of my foot and roll in, meaning I don’t get the push off through my big toe that would make me springier and help my leg come up behind me. It also means my little toes take a hell of a battering and one they’re not built for, hence the weird shape of them and the constant spike of hard skin that often becomes a blister. I also got the skin rubbed off the top of my foot where my Supertrac RCs rub. I do have a bony protrusion on one foot but I think this wasn’t helped by the heat too. Changing to Hokas was a risk as they pinch my toes, but they don’t rub my skin off. Another hindsight error was that I wore some basic polyester mix socks that work fine in training runs but  that I haven’t worn for as long as this before. I normally wear Injnjis to avoid toe blisters but when my feet swell and my shoes already pinch, they don’t give me as much room. So you see my dilemma! I love my Supertracs and they worked brilliantly on the Hardmoors 50 this year in the cold, but I may have to keep them for winter and/or shorter races. As comfy as Hokas are, I just don’t think they’re wide enough in the toe for me. I have been bedding in a pair of Altras – foot shaped toe box, zero drop – so will see how they work out. I stopped three times to sort my feet out, something I have never had to do before, which I believe cost me about 15 minutes. Could I have pushed Graeme for  the overall win if not for the foot issues??

The rest of my kit worked well. The Montane Gecko was ace, very comfy and ample room, with easily accessible big side pockets and lots of room for food storage. The bottles with straws are also brilliant so I think I will be switching to them in future. I did get some neck scabs as I was wearing a wide neck t-shirt and the pack rubbed my sweaty skin, but that was not a big issue.

Ice in poo bags under your hat = amazing.

Kendal mint cake when you just need dissolvable, tasty sugar towards the end of a race also rocks. Please sponsor me Kendal mint cake people. You have no idea how many people I have told about this.

The last thing I realised is that when I race now, I race. I didn’t used to go out with much intention but when it matters to me, I go all in. Races like this take a lot out of you and there are only so many you can do. I had planned on four big races this year: the Hardmoors 50; this one; the Ring of Fire in August and the Autumn 100 in October. After this race, I have dropped out of the Autumn 100 so that I can do what I didn’t manage to do last year when I sprained my ankle. I want to give myself the time to recover, get stronger and faster and to do some shorter races with no pressure. A 100 miler at the end of the year would have left me no real down time or chance to consider what next year will bring.

This was an awesome weekend and one that I will definitely recommend. I can finally say I’m a Trail Outlaw!

 

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Lessons learnt from My Little Friend.Mountain goats, Jelly beans, big smiles and Welsh rock – The Snowdon Skyline