Turning forty has its advantages. On Saturday I ran the Northumberland Coastal Ultra which is part of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series. I won my Age group – the MV40 category. Everyone ahead of me – 11 of them – was younger

I am still somewhat surprised that there were no other over 40s ahead of me. Not going to complain though.

The race is 35.7 miles long and goes from Alnwick Castle to Bamburgh Castle, finishing in the castle grounds.

Although a coastal series the first 10k and the final part of the ultra marathon route are inland. Initially you run from Alnwick to Alnmouth picking up the coastal path there which you then follow all the way up to Bamburgh. On the way the part of the race route takes you across beaches making the running just that little bit harder.

The Coastal Trail Series events include shorter distance races (10k, half marathon and marathon). The marathon also starts at Alnwick castle and then finishes at Bamburgh castle. The other events start en route. The ultra though when it gets to Bamburgh castle does another loop of just under 10 miles before returning to the castle to finish.

This time last year I line up for the D33 event in Aberdeen which turned out to be an utterly miserable day both weather and performance wise. I had only vaguely heard of a couple of friends who were in Northumberland to do this Coastal Ultra around the same time. There reports of a perfect day made me sign up for this year’s event hoping for the same. Bit risky really!

Turned out I wasn’t too far off the mark. The event being in Northumberland also gave us the opportunity to visit Fiona’s sister Alison and her family.

Going into the event I felt somewhat undertrained as I had only covered around 400km of running in the first 2 months of 2014 which was down on 2013 but I had done more cycling so hoped that would pay off. Also as I continue to be able to train consistently my endurance base continues to grow.

Early River Crossing

We travelled down Friday evening after I picked Fiona up from work and were staying the night at Fiona’s sister. I was given the option of Indian or Fish and Chips for dinner and opted for Fish and Chips because I felt that it was the safe option. Not sure it was though.

Bed by 10:30pm and up at 5am for bacon and egg breakfast as is usual for me now. Fiona kindly cooked those for me while I had a last minute faff. Then drove up to Bamburgh from where we would be bussed to the start.

It was a very cold morning. -1.5 degrees Celsius when I left the house and not much warmer when we milled around at the start next to Alnwick Castle. That aside it was a calm, clear and beautiful morning – promising to be a gorgeous day.

Registration was well organised, the bus trip uneventful but standing around freezing in a field before race start was a bit torturous. Contrary to the race info it appeared we could have brought extra layers. Oh well.

Tried to stay warm by chatting a few other ultra marathoners who had made the track down from Scotland including Andrew Murray and Gavin Bussy who I’d run with for a bit later on in the race; Carol and Karen. Also caught up briefly with Erni Hamilton who finished 2nd female after a race to forget.

Finally – after a race briefing that took an eternity – at 8:22am we were off.

Andrew opened a gap from the start, I dropped briefly into the 2nd group before dropping into the 3rd and then settling into my own pace on my own. Once we’d gone under the A1 the sun came out and start warming us up. Advantage of the cold start was that all the muddy sections were frozen solid.

As I do with many races I again played around with run/walk strategy and eating strategy. I was supposed to have some cheese with me but left it in the fridge by mistake. So my bumbag just contained sweet stuff, nuts, dried fruit, jelly babies, a couple of gels and a Cliff bar. There was also a 9 Bar and a Snickers which I never touched. I had a bit of the cliff bar before the start then then didn’t touch that either anymore.

My run/walk strategy this time would be based on distance instead of time. I’d walk every 5k for a short while to take on some food, usually some nuts and a couple of jelly babies washed down with some light energy drink. The checkpoints also handed out jelly babies and other goodies but after the first one I decided to decline those as I didn’t want to carry my stuff around the whole course.

The section from Alnwick Castle to Alnmouth was along a mix of forest trail, fields, tracks and road, all looking lovely on a spring morning. Couldn’t have been better. We skirted round the outside of Alnmouth to pick up the coastal path and dib in at the first checkpoint. (11.7km; 59 min; 16th position).

What I seem to remember most from the coastal route are beaches, golf courses, some road and Dunstanburgh Castle (although I struggle to remember its name). After leaving CP1 it was straight alongside a golf course before diving down onto the first beach section, which was just under a km long and seemed OK with the tide being out. It was only after leaving the beach that the legs felt really heavy. From there it was a mix of trail and field, nice to run on. I was well settled in my pace going along at around 5:10 min/km and reached the 2nd checkpoint, just after the half marathon point in 2 hrs flat. I had dropped another couple of places by that point and was now in 17th, a guy wearing full body hi viz came past me at quite a pace and considering he stuck out like a sore thumb I’d see him for a very long time after he passed me.

Coming past Dunstanburgh Castle at the half marathon point

Climbing out of the dunes at Bamburgh Castle

Just after the half marathon point I came through Craster where the half marathon guys start. With 20 minutes to go until their start we got a great cheer from the crowd there. We were now approaching Dunstanburgh Castle. I have started using the word ‘we’ as from just before the 2nd checkpoint it was clear that I was starting to catch runners instead of being caught. Going past the half marathon starters I passed 2 runners who were both starting to struggle a bit. Over the course of the next 12-14km up to Beadnell and Seahouses I’d catch another runner every 2 kms or so. I was feeling stronger as the race went on. Eating every 5k and walking a bit every 5k too. At this point I still stuck with nuts, fruit and jelly babies. By checkpoint 3 (31km; 2:44 hrs) I had moved up to 13th place with 12th in sight. I was in 12th minutes later. We had – as it seemed – shifted in land but it was basically the back of a lot of dunes all the way up to the long beach before Beadnell. With 11th place running across the beach ahead of me I had a line to follow although I had to do a slightly longer bend as the tide was coming in and every following runner would have to go a little further. We were warned of this at the briefing.

Off the beach at Beadnell through a golf course, through Beadnell and back onto the beach for another curve with the tide closing in and repeat; well this time golf course, Seahouses, beach – veeeeery long beach! Just before dropping onto this beach I caught the runner in 11th place. It was Gavin, one of the Scottish contingent; thought he’d be further up the field. We chatted for a bit and ran into CP4 together (40km; 3:38 hrs; 11th).

The beach we were now on would take the marathon, half marathon and 10k runners all the way to their finish. For is it was a 3k run to the start of a 9 mile loop. All I knew was that at some point there would be a flag at which point I’d exit this beach. That flag never seemed to come. On my way to the never approaching flag I was overtaken by 5 runners who were going at ridiculous speed – half marathoners – about to finish their race. We exchanged congratulations. I subconsciously lifted my pace, still wondering where that flag was. Having come through Seahouses I’d seen Bamburgh Castle for the first time and it didn’t seem all that far away. From the beach you very seldom got to see it due to the dunes. Finally flag arrived, off the beach, up the dune round a bend, two signs ahead: One reads: Finish; the other: Ultra. Ultra loop here we come!

It kicks off with a bit of trail and then about 2k of road followed by a golf course, of course. This was all uphill then down to beach level before rising inland which appeared to take us to the highest point of the course. Tauntingly Bamburgh Castle remained at arms length to our left and once we started rising I started to wonder how far south we were going (we had been travelling north so far) before we headed East for the beach to then finally rejoin the route back to the Castle. We were heading south on tarmac for roughly 5k. At that stage in an ultra 5k of tarmac are not my friend. I was waiting for the moment when we would be guided onto an off road track again.

Final Climb

Final 100m along the castle walls

Since leaving Gavin behind at CP4 I hadn’t seen another runner ahead of me which I found odd as some of the route did have some fairly long straights and I felt I was going strong. The gap back to Gavin was increasing. Just after leaving the beach at the most northerly point and crossing through a cow/horse field we came to our final checkpoint (48km; 4:27hrs; still in 11th). I was still going strong although the 5k along tarmac felt slow. Up to km 35 I had been averaging around 5:20 min/km. After that the average slipped to around 6:00-6:10 min/km.

Off the tarmac we had a couple of km along farm tracks and fields before eventually dropping onto the beach again. We were roughly half way up the beach from joining it first time around at Seahouses, so only about a mile left. I don’t know where I find the energy at times at the end of ultra marathons but Beacons Ultra 2012 and West Highland Way race 2013 spring to mind when I look at my final mile at the Northumberland Coastal Ultra. I literally put on the afterburners having trundled along for the best part of the last 10km at over 6 min/km I was now flying along the beach (of which there was not much left due to the tide) at around 5:30-5:45 min/km. The flag was insight soon enough.

The other races were still going on with some of the slower runners in those making their way along the beach too. Maybe that spurred me on. I passed runner after runner shouting encouragement at them. It may also have helped that I already knew this section whereas they didn’t. I must apologise to the couple (not runners) who were trying to take pictures of the waves. I had decided that the soft sand would be rubbish to run on so ran in the tidal waters instead. They may have a picture of a foot splashing in the water instead of waves – action photo nonetheless.

Anyway where were we? Oh, yes: beach, flag. I reached the flag, sprinted up the dune, actually I powerwalked, as you can’t sprint up that, got a cramp in my left hamstring just when the race photographer came into view, hobbled past him trying to stretch the hamstring out. Look up to see the path up to the castle littered with runners walking their last few meters to the finish. I was having non of that, the cramped had eased, the sprint was back and I flew up that final hill in an ‘out of my way’ kind of way. (NB: no other runners were harmed in the process).

Final turn, through the castle gates, overtake one more suffering runner, dib in, collect results sheet, protein bar and medal. That felt good! Great way to open the season. I knew I had finished in 11th as they use sportident timing so you get a print out which includes your position. So 35.7 miles or 57km in 5:23 hrs, 5:41 min/km pace 11th overall. At the finish I was a bit surprised to see another ultra runner walking through at the same time as me considering I had not seen another runners since CP4 at km 40. Having seen the results since I only finished 19 seconds behind him. At CP5 the gap had still been 10 minutes. Testament in part to my strength in the final loop but I would also suspect that his race unravelled quite dramatically in that final loop. Gavin stayed in 12th and finished a couple of minutes behind me. Congratulations to Andrew Murray, who won in 4:32 hours leaving a sizeable gap to 2nd.

At the finish with Gavin

Congratulating Erni on her 2nd place.

I only found out about my age group win when I saw the results after a couple of days. Chuffed to bits.

As I had been trying out some stuff with minimal food intake in my last 2 races at Jedburgh and Glen Ogle I had omitted the walk breaks form my run. Overall I hadn’t eaten that much during Saturday’s run either but the walk breaks were back – every 25-30 min – which help give my legs just a bit of needed recovery. I usually just had a handful of nuts, dried fruit and jelly babies at every stop. Just after CP3 I had a gel with 2 pro plus and at 50k I had a caffeinated gel. I drank around 500ml of light energy drink. Pre run I had had 1.5 mugs of coffee.

The Pro plus really seem useful to me. I notice usually around the 2:40-2:50 hr mark that a bit if fatigue and a lack of concentration is setting in. The pro plus reverses this and makes me alert again.

A big kudos to the race organisers: this may not be the cheapest event on the calendar (I moaned about it when I entered) but it is one where you can see that the money has been well spent. For me especially it was the route marking that was the highlight. There were arrows everywhere. Using the castle grounds for start and finish is a nice touch too especially at the finish as it meant a roof over your head if the weather was bad. The only thing is that the price giving was a bit ad hoc and over before I noticed, but in fairness it was done with the athletes in mind to make sure that they didn’t have to stand around waiting for too long. Wish they’d thought of that at the start too. Would definitely recommend the event but I may opt for the marathon next time as the final tarmac section wasn’t my favourite.

I hope to write a couple of shorter reports for the events I did over the winter including XC races, Carnethy 5 and Forfar Multiterrain half marathon. I may group these into 1 report.