St. Cuthbert’s Way Revisited

This year I’ve not had a lot of races booked far in advance – in fact after Ultra Scotland in June I had nothing in the diary. Julie had been telling me how much she’d enjoyed St. Cuthbert’s Way last year and how it was “my kind of course” so when I saw that their entries were filling up I signed up… 4 weeks after Ultra Scotland would be plenty of time to recover, right? In the end, my “recovery” was 10 days of no running, a week’s worth of gradually increasing my distance from 2 up to 9 (long run!) miles, 5 days of walking the Speyside Way and a two-day rest/taper. Not exactly a textbook training plan 🤣

As race day approached I was feeling pretty good, but had basically no idea whether my ankle would hold up, or what sort of pace I was capable of. I settled on two goals for the race – firstly to enjoy it, and secondly to beat Julie’s time from last year. Evidently my competitive streak trumps marital harmony! When I signed up I had opted to run in the later wave without thinking too much about it, but when I plotted Julie’s splits against this year’s second wave start time (wave 1 was at 12.30am, wave 2 at 4.30am due to the tide times at Holy Island), I realised she was right up against the cut-offs having run in wave 1 last year! So for the first time I was seriously worried about being cut off if I had a bad day, which was eminently possible given the lead up to the race – it was now a case of beat Julie’s time or bust!

I’ll save you a blow-by-blow, detailed account of the route as Julie already covered that last year. Instead I’ll just share some of the highlights. From the start in Melrose to CP3 in Morebattle was great fun – an interesting combination of country roads, rural paths and twisty single track along the banks of the Tweed and Teviot. CP1 for some reason was moved to a very early location – only 5 miles in, and CP2 was also an understated affair. I had planned not to stop and had plenty of supplies on board to last to Morebattle, plus Julie, Rhona and Angus walked in from Harestanes to hand me some watermelon as I passed by. Unlike Julie, I enjoyed the twisty path along Dere Street – in fact apart from the initial climb over the Eildons and a couple of short climbs after CP2 everything was very runnable and I reached Morebattle in around 4h20. This was about an hour ahead of my planned schedule and my ankle and legs were holding up well, despite my unorthodox “training block” leading up to the race. At least now I could stop worrying about the cut-offs!

The middle of the course has the majority of the climbing, and after cool conditions in the morning the sun broke through and it got really hot! Wideopen Hill, down into Kirk Yetholm, up and over the border, down to Hethpool, and then over and down to Wooler. This was the first time I’ve really been up in the Cheviot hills and there were lovely views all around, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been quite so hot! Despite the hard going, I arrived at CP5 at Wooler Youth Hostel about 1h45 up on my planned pace. I didn’t stop here as Julie had parked the car and was waiting for me a little further on, down at the river about half a mile after the checkpoint. Perfectly timed, Rhona had bought a tub of passionfruit sorbet from the local ice cream shop. It was so good I would not have been surprised to see unicorns bounding through rainbow-filled skies as I ate it on my way out of Wooler.

From Wooler to the A1 Crossing (CP6) is the longest section of the route, and while there are no really big climbs, there are many smaller ones, and quite a bit of ‘false flat’ roads. To be honest this bit was a bit of a slog, although I was still running quite well, and by now passing a lot of runners from wave 1. I negotiated a herd of cows (including patrolling bull!) after St. Cuthbert’s Cave, and successfully avoided Julie’s navigational mishap where St Oswald’s way branches off. The run down to Fenwick and the checkpoint is through a nice forest, although the path was blocked in several places by fallen trees, and quite overgrown. Angus came up the road and ran down the last half mile into Fenwick with me, which was a great boost!

The final 6 miles from the A1 to the finish on Holy Island are pretty much flat, although there is a little kicker of a climb just before crossing the railway that no-one warned me about! My goal was to run this whole section but in the end I had a few short walk breaks. I thought there was another wave 2 runner within sight behind me who had been pretty close to me since Wooler, so that provided some motivation, but the final results showed the gap to the next finisher was 50 mins. So who knows? Anyway, after crossing the causeway, I ran the last two miles in, and even had enough in my legs for a bit of a sprint finish! Official finish time 12:39:50 and 9th place overall – two full hours ahead of my plan (and Julie’s time) of 14h40 🎉

Every ultra race is a learning experience, so what went well:

  • Goals – I definitely enjoyed myself (particularly the first third of the race). Once it got hot there were definite elements of ‘type 2’ fun, but I smashed my planned schedule by two hours!
  • Pacing – I’d built my pacing plan mainly from the actual paces I’d maintained over similar climbs and distance into the race during Ultra Scotland. In the end, I was able to run consistently 1-2 mins/mile faster than planned, and maintain that all the way to the end of the race. The last split from the A1 to the finish was my fastest of the race (also the flattest, but we’ll forget about that) – so I think I paced it just right.
  • Starting time – Running in the second wave was definitely the right call. By starting at 4.30am I got the entire course done in daylight, and still had a couple of hours to spare before the tide cut-off at Holy Island.
  • Race prep – Not at all how I would have planned things, but the base fitness I’d built in the Spring served me well. Maybe I should build in more long-distance hiking with a heavy pack to my regular training!
  • Shoes – I ran the whole race in my Salomon Sense Ride 3 GTX. It helped that it was a dry day, so no soggy feet or need to change socks. No damage done to feet or legs and after a couple of days recovery I was back to training again.
  • Nutrition – I went for a much simpler choice of foods for this race, sticking to a combination of watermelon, SIS gels, Chia bars and a few honey & sesame wafers. I had a bag of Love, Corn with me too but didn’t really get into it. And of course the bonus sorbet in Wooler. No puking this time, and plenty of energy to keep pushing right to the end, so very happy with this!
  • Crew – Julie and the kids are brilliant at this – they were exactly where I needed them at the right times with exactly what I needed. Only 25 minutes non-moving time in the whole event (including five crew stops, plus pee breaks etc.) is pretty slick! Great encouragement too when I needed it – thanks 😍

A few points for improvement:

  • Hydration – I thought I was drinking plenty, but it turned out I was pretty dehydrated by the end. I started with SIS Hydro and later on switched to a bit of Julie’s KMC Isomix which was a nice change – may try to use this more in future as it has additional calories as well as electrolytes. And force myself to drink more (or listen to my crew telling me to), especially when it’s hot!
  • Mixed waves – one down side of running in the second wave was that most of the runners were in the first wave. By the time I was catching them I had already made up a four hour deficit and was clearly running faster than them. So while it was kind of motivational to be speeding past people, it also made it very difficult to judge your true pace relative to others! Early on, there were also plenty of 45 mile racers who were finishing in Wooler. A bit confusing!

Overall, a great day out! Organisation by Trail Outlaws was spot on, so if you haven’t tried any of their events before and you’re based in the North of England or South Scotland, I recommend you check them out. Plenty of well-stocked aid stations, course marking when it was needed (St. Cuthbert’s Way markers most of the way), friendly volunteers and staff at the CPs, and a nice medal, shirt and memento at the finish.

Special thanks to Julie for convincing me to enter the race – on our wedding anniversary, too!

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