Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra (38 miles): Race Report

The Jedburgh Ultra Marathon is the only Ultra that I have now done 4 times, it may even be the only race that I have done 4 times as I think even my repeat half marathons topped at 3.

Generally I like doing new courses for the novelty factor and will maybe return once to see if I can better a previous experience or return a few years later as it became time to see what I could do on that course in the meantime.

There aren’t many races where I had done the inaugural event in the first place and having by then established myself on the Ultra scene Jedburgh was one of the few where I did risk this. I treat this event as my end of season race where the outcome is secondary but so far the outcome has always beaten expectations. With my forth showing here I am turning into a bit of an all timer amongst a very small group of others. I may stop my streak of running Jedburgh when I don’t get a PB for the first time.

Having set my benchmark initially in 2012 with 6 hours and 12 minutes in very muddy conditions, I’d improved the following year by 3 minutes to 6 hours and 9 minutes. In 2014 I was secretly hoping to get under 6 hours but although a PB the sub 6 eluded me as I finished in 6 hours and 2 minutes.

This year I was coming off completing the UTMB in August and wasn’t sure what shape I was in. I raced Stirling XC the previous Saturday followed by a 24km mountain run on the Sunday in the Arrochar Alps which included nearly 2000m of climbing. My legs were in bits for the rest of the week which didn’t bode well at all for Jedburgh Ultra. Friday – day before the race – was the first day they didn’t ache. Fingers crossed that was a good sign although I wasn’t particularly confident.

I was telling everybody that although I’d like to go sub 6 this year is very unlikely. Compared to other years I’d set out with a very basic race plan: for the first time I would not use any drop bags and just carry what I thought I’d need as a worst case scenario. I had for nutrition around 30 Jelly Babies and 8 fruit and nut dark chocolate squares along with a Snickers and a 500ml Nuun drink in a soft flask.

My past experience tells me that, I’d probably not go through that food/drink. Over the years I have been eating less in races and getting faster at the same time. Pace wise there wasn’t much of a strategy except that I wanted to get to the top of the 3rd Eildon Hill with my average pace still below 6 min/km. I felt that should guarantee me a sub 6.

You can possibly see that even though I didn’t feel I could go sub 6, I was planning for it. I was prepared to fail. I wanted to give it a shot. Last year, I only really thought about sub 6 with 4k to go and then it was too late.

Before the start, Fiona said: ‘So you’ll be over 6 hours.’ My response: ‘Probably yes, but I am targeting sub 6’.

One of the other changes I made to previous years, where I would usually adapt some form of run/walk strategy at some point, was to really only walk the climbs such as the Eildons and 1 or 2 other short ones but to run the rest.

One thing that I didn’t care about was position as I didn’t expect to better that from previous years with a much bigger and better field on the start line. Position would be what it would be and not something I could directly influence whereas I can do something about my finishing time.

The start was ridiculously fast – as always – but then settled when we got onto the first trail and I settled into chatting to a few folk including Mark Sutherland and Gavin Bussey until we were caught by Andreas Patek, another Austrian in the race. Gavin went quiet while we talked away in German. What a lovely coincidence. We stayed together for the first few kilometres but I then let him go ahead so that I could settle into my own pace. This is the earliest I have allowed this to happen but I still reached the first checkpoint at Maxton in the fastest time that I had done to date. Considering how my legs felt during the week this was rather impressive and a pleasant surprise. In the run up to Maxton the heavens did open and with the wind blowing pretty strong from the west I considered putting my raincoat on as others were doing around me. The advantage of knowing the course meant that I decided to hold off as we would be turning East shortly and have the wind behind us which should hold the cold at bay. I also hoped that once we got to the river at Maxton we’d have shelter. Both of these were correct and I left my water proof in the bag. Once we reached the river it wasn’t just sheltered but the rain eased and then stopped. This was a surprise as the forecast had suggested a good 2-3 hours of heavy rain. I wasn’t going to complain though.

Early on with Andreas

I have no idea if I passed anyone at Maxton as I ran straight through due to lack of drop bag but according to the results I came through there in 29th – roughly what I expected. With the race for the first time including relay teams it was even more difficult to understand where you were placed but as said earlier, it was secondary.

From Maxton to Newton St Boswells it was a good stretch, flat and in good condition. I passed a few more runners here including Mike Raffan who had won the Sandstone 200k only last weekend. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t expect to be in the same league as Mike. I congratulated him on his run at Sandstone and he told me the reason he was here was that his wife Annette had made the medals for the Jedburgh race. She is well known for the medals she has made for the D33 Ultra.

Off I sped through the new section at Newton St Boswells which I really enjoyed as it is much better than running through the village with folk trying to do the Saturday morning shopping. The new section takes us along trails on the river side of the town before we return to the St Cuthberts Way. Apparently this would have shortened the course so an extra bit was to await us somewhere else. And it wouldn’t be long until I reached that spot just as we would start the loop which takes us up to and over the Eildon hills.

I had so far held onto a very solid average pace of under 5:20 min/km and was approaching the A68 road crossing that would take me up to Rhymer’s stone and checkpoint 2. Noanie and Angela – the race organisers – had upped their game considerably this year with notably more marshals and route marking. It was very well done. As I had returned to the river just before climbing up to the A68 crossing, there is a footbridge to cross. I jumped onto it realising there was also a path that went straight on. For a moment, I did a double take as I was surprised that there wasn’t a route marker. Weird I thought, in the hope that there wasn’t another new extra bit I wasn’t aware of. Luckily not far ahead was another route marker and I breathed a sigh of relief – as did the relay runner I had just passed, probably.

Heading into the Rhymer’s stone checkpoint, there is a gentle rise and I was running up this all on my own with just a relay runner who was due to run leg 3 and a camera man for a bit of support. I thought the lack of other runners a bit strange. I didn’t feel I had gone that fast to not be around roughly the usual gang of people, nor did I think, that I could have dropped that far back. Maybe, I was just in some weird no man’s land between the fast guys and the not so fast guys and then there was me.

Again, I ran straight through the checkpoint to shouts of marshals, waiting relay runners and Noanie who was at the turn onto the Eildons, the average pace had dropped to 5:24. I hoped that it would be good enough the leave the 3rd Eildon Hill in under 6 min/km.

Off I went onto my climb, taking on a bit of nutrition as it got a bit steeper looking up to see if there were other runners. I spotted 1 and then another and that was it. Weird. I’d have expected quite a line of runners. The Adventure show were covering this event for one of the episodes so the solidarity had the advantage of getting lots of camera time as they had a camera on each of the Eildons. Just before I got over the first Eildon I got caught by one runner who I’d overtaken at Newton St Bowells. We’d spend the rest of the race overtaking each other until I made it stick before getting back to Maxton.

Approaching CP2 on my lonesome.

Starting my climb up the 2nd Eildon Hill I was caught by no other than Mark Sutherland. What on earth was he doing here, he should be well up the road … or trail for that matter. ‘I got lost again’ he said as I tried to stay on his feet for the climb. He was referring to the fact that it had happened last year too. Apparently a sizeable group got lost at the unsigned point I was referring to earlier – the only unsigned point, and you’d have to believe that the sign had been removed.

With Mark having shot by, I now knew why I seemed to be running in no man’s land. It also meant I was expecting to be overtaken by a horde of annoyed runners. This strangely never happened. Mark was the only person to overtake me between the Eildons and Jedburgh. I caught one more runner on the top of the 3rd Eildon, checked my watch and it said: 5:58 min/km pace average. Sweet, this looks promising assuming I don’t monumentally blow up.

Coming into Bowden

Everything this year felt short, no sector a drag, it just flowed. I was starting to try and work out what would be a good time to get into CP3 – Maxton again – to make getting back into Jedburgh in under 6 hours comfortable. I decided that between 4:15-4:20 hrs race time should do. At one point I even thought that I could get there under 4:15 hrs. It would give myself 1:40-1:45 hrs to cover the final 10 miles.

Leaving the Eildons Loop though I got my first cramp in the hamstrings just as I climbed up a few steps. My usual response to this has been to walk it out but I decided (with the time pressure in mind) to see if I could run it out. This actually work better than walking. Walking (up steps in particular) would actually bring on the cramp. So I had a few moments where I would cramp up due to needing to walk but recovered from that when restarting running. Well that was a bit of a lucky stroke. I’d slowed at one point around there as I decided as a precaution to take some paracetamol and pro plus tablets. The guy who caught me on the Eildons caught up with me again but once everything had settled, I pulled away for good.

I reached Maxton in 4:19 hrs leaving me with 1:41 hrs to run 10 miles and get in under 6 hours. For a while I had a carrot in form of a runner from HBT. Well I had seen him for the first time on the Eildons but finally was close enough that I would be able to pass and eventually did 2k out of Maxton. That felt like an endless chase.

Onto Dere Street now – an old Roman road – so theoretically straight – but is a single track trail and quite undulating so not the fastest bit of the course. Although I was clocking 5min/km on the way out. Now I was doing just under 6. Around or under 6 meant a guaranteed sub 6 hour finish.

Once I was over the high point on that stretch then the km averages started improving again and I genuinely started to relax about my target. I did relax a bit too much at one point though as I slipped on some mud and went flying. My calf cramped and for a split second I was concerned that I had thrown the sub 6. Got up quickly and as previously tried to run that cramp off too. It worked.

I had one more benchmark.

Last year Nigel Shekleton and myself reached the road crossing with 4k to go and had 20 min to try and get under 6 hours. We ‘sprinted’ into a block headwind and mist the sub 6 by 2 minutes.

Having been passed by a few relay runners, I eventually reached that same road crossing with 31 minutes to spare. Now I knew I had it in the bag. I was offered some coke by one of the marshals which I kindly accepted and ‘ran’ off having cramped up trying to clamber over the crash barrier. I’d taken all the other stiles very carefully for this exact reason reason.

Even though I could relax in terms of target, the last 4k don’t get any easier and once you actually enter Jedburgh the final mile never seems to end. I was looking at my watch going: this could be sub 5:49 … no sub 5:50 … how about sub 5:55 … no. Oh well, we’ll settle for 5:55:55 hrs then. A PB by 7 minutes.

The weather conditions were good this year – better than forecast – most notably though I think it was the first time that wind wasn’t a problem. Usually you’d get blown off the Eildons when reaching the peaks and would struggle to get to the top of the 3rd peak. The road after Maxton on the return leg and running back into Jedburgh at the end can also be hugely affected by the wind. The early wind had died down this year leaving us with a much more pleasant experience. The overall dry summer also meant that we mostly only had to deal with some surface mud which meant running was mostly a joy.

In terms of race analysis: It all just somehow came together. I know the route really well now and it meant I just went with it. Nothing on that route really takes me by surprise – except the odd missing sign to keep me on my toes. I played everything by feel, backed off when I needed to and pushed on when I could. I also fuelled by feel and probably ate and drank the least amount I ever have done. I am guessing around 350ml of drink incl. the coke, around 15 jelly babies and 6 chocolate squares. I really liked the chocolate squares. Not using the checkpoints was the absolutely right choice. I’d have turned in if I’d have needed a drinks top up but otherwise carrying my small selection of food and drink was fine.

The Handcrafted Medal

The Handcrafted Medal

For those interested I had breakfast around 2.5 hours before the start which consisted of coffee, 2 potato waffles, 2 poached eggs and some grated cheese. I believe I had similar last year.

One thing I have done over the past few years was to take a cautious early approach in the race and then let the race come back towards me and thus taking any really pressure off allowing me to run relaxed. In a way I was still aiming to do this here with stating sub 6 isn’t going to happen. I was wondering if saying that but then targeting sub 6 would reverse itself in terms of running relaxed. It didn’t seem to have interestingly.

I suspect, even though it didn’t feel that way, that I did go into the event pretty rested. Usually I’d have done some races – ultras or long hill races – in September and/or October. The mountain run the week before was only my 2nd 20k+ run since UTMB. That said, on both occasions there was a lack of climbing energy. Something that Caroline McKay had also reported. My flat land speed was there though and there is enough flat at Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra.

It was a surprise result on the day but looking back it may not have been as much of one. Compared to UTMB this felt like a sprint. In terms of position I finished 14th and as already said managed to hold off the ‘Lost Armada’. I was also 14th through CP2 and CP3.

This event closes my 2015 ultra marathon year. I am due to do a few more XC races but otherwise I’ll look forward to watching the Adventure Show’s Edit of this year’s Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra.

Well done to the organisers on a really well run event, great number of marshals and as always a great beer at the end – and hug from Angela … and Fiona.