The Pilgrim’s Ultra – 18th September 2021

This run has been long in the planning after signing up for it in October 2020. At the time my longest run had been the EMF marathon in 2019, I then hadn’t run for a year afterwards and had got back into regular running February 2020. I think I very much wanted a challenge, something that I would have always believed wasn’t possible! I had been running consistently for the previous 6 months and wanted something in the diary that was really going to motivate me to keep progressing over the winter. I was looking for a race that didn’t have too much elevation and wasn’t too far from home, and Northumberland works well as it means we can drop the kids off with grandparents on the way. The Pilgrim’s Ultra sounded perfect with an interesting mix of coastal, river and hill running. Once the 100 miler was in the diary I was able to plan progressively longer races in preparation. I ran my first ultra with Iain on my birthday, 35 miles near to home (The last 7 miles were on my own and felt tough!). Iain and I then ran the Northumberland Ultra in May (which felt harder than expected after starting at an optimistically fast pace!). Over Easter I managed a 50 mile solo run from home unsupported and that was really hard (I felt like giving up from about 38 miles). Then in July I ran the St Cuthbert’s Way Ultra 100k and loved it! Iain and the kids were my crew for the day and although the last 20 miles were hard I can honestly say I enjoyed it all. I had the added bonus of finishing as first female. This race made me feel more confident heading towards the Pilgrims Ultra as I had enjoyed it so much but I was also scared how I would manage another 35 miles! I had hoped to get some back to back long training runs in August but the reality was that with the school holidays I was struggling to get many runs in at all. We managed a family long distance walking holiday (100 miles on the Kintyre Way) which was really good preparation but the long runs just didn’t happen. Once the kids were back at school I did manage to get back up to 50 mile weeks for a few weeks before tapering and before I knew it it was the week before the race!

Pre Race

Final information for the race (including start times and check points) was very late coming out, to the point I was convinced it was going to be cancelled. When the information was added to the website it was pretty comprehensive and of course in future years you will be able to look back on previous years race info. The start time was 8 am, which was later than I would have liked, but registration was also in the morning which meant no rushing on the Friday. The mandatory kit list isn’t massive, the only thing I would suggest adding is that a GPX file of the route on a phone, watch or handheld GPS device is essential!

All the plans had been made, the kids were going to the grandparents and Iain (and Spud the puppy) were going to be my support crew. I planned all my food and hydration based on Iain being at each check point. Then disaster struck and one of the children had a positive COVID test. Thankfully everyone else tested negative (and we had the space they could isolate completely separately) but they didn’t finish their isolation period until the end of the Saturday (race day). This meant Iain would no longer be able to drive and be my support crew. It was also an anxious week of repeated lateral flow tests (all thankfully negative) and a complete rethink of food, hydration, travel, drop bags… Not how I had envisaged preparing for my first 100 miler!

I spent a lot of time looking at the St Oswald’s Way map, the GPX of the route on Strava, and Google Maps/Street View. I was nervous about the navigation, especially at night as I had done very little night running in preparation. The St Oswald’s Way is not as well signposted as the St Cuthbert’s Way so I knew navigation would be trickier. I planned to have the route on Strava on my phone during the race but didn’t want to be completely reliant on it! Also because this race hadn’t run before there were no race reviews online and very few reports from people that had walked the St Oswald’s Way. I did know some of the route as the first 9 or 10 miles are the reverse of the last 10 miles of the St Cuthbert’s Way and I had run a reasonable amount of the coastal path at the Northumberland Ultra in May (although that had dropped onto the beaches a lot more)! The big unknown was the section from Rothbury to Hadrian’s Wall (and that was going to be overnight)!

For hydration I was using KMC IsoMix added to my soft flasks. Because Iain would no longer be at checkpoints I had to carry small measured out tubs of the powder to add to the flasks when I topped them up at water stations. I also carried KMC NRG gels in raspberry and mint, and mint caffeine. I had 5 in my running vest that I replenished at the aid stations with drop bags (Craster and Rothbury). For food I carried salted peanuts, raisin and cranberry dried fruit and jelly sweets the whole way. My aim was to walk 1 minute every mile and while walking make sure I drank and had a mouthful of food. After aid stations I would eat something slightly more substantial – pepperami, oat bars etc. At the aid stations with drop bags I had slightly more food options and made sure I had a pot of rice pudding at both from my drop bag. I also had a banana when they were available at aid stations. The aid stations mainly offered sweets, oat bars, Jaffa cakes, crisps etc. They also all had coke as well as water. The aid stations from Warkworth onwards offered hot drinks (yay, tea ☕️) and soup at Rothbury and Kirkwhelpington.

I was able to sort trains to get to Berwick-Upon-Tweed on the Friday, Iain and I already had a wigwam booked at Pot-a-doodle Do which I was able to use (a short bus ride and walk from the station) on the Friday night. In the morning I booked a taxi to the registration and start on Holy Island. I couldn’t quite believe I had made it to the start! And although stressful the travelling and packing had all gone to plan. My drop bag was ready, although massive – as well as food I had packed several changes of socks, change of t-shirt, extra layer, change of shoes and spare head torch and power bank to pick up in Rothbury.

Registration was at a coffee shop garden on Holy Island and was open from 6am on the Saturday morning. I got there at about half past and think I was the first there! The rain had thankfully stopped and there were covered benches dotted around to wait at. Registration was well organised and I soon had my number, map, tracker attached to race bag and tag for drop bag. The drop bag was dumped in the van and I was able to sit and take a moment as others began to arrive. I was very nervous and feeling quite out of my depth! I was also already exhausted after only getting an hour or two sleep because of nerves! It was lovely when some people I had met on St Cuthbert’s Way Ultra turned up and I was able to get a chat and all the volunteers at registration were very helpful. Coffee was available from 7 but I didn’t feel like anything. There was one toilet at the coffee shop but portaloos were available in the coach park around the corner or public toilets just down another street in the village. I got quite cold while waiting around even with a coat and buff on so was disappointed when registration over ran slightly and the start was pushed back to 8.15 (we had been warned this might happen because of the tight times).

The Start – CP1 (Belford)

Finally it was time to walk down to the beach for the start. I packed my raincoat and headed down for the brief race briefing before we were off! My plan had been to try and average 12 min/mile to Rothbury and then 30 min/mile up over the hill before getting back to 15 min/mile for the rest of the race. However I was going to allow myself to run at a faster pace off Holy Island and across the causeway before settling down to an easier pace. Most people were running either the 50k or 100k route so would be going at a faster pace and I needed to let them go! The causeway was a lot more enjoyable than when I first ran it at the end of the St Cuthbert’s Way! I was soon over the causeway and heading up through the fields to Fenwick. I was pleased to get the first railway crossing done as they always make me nervous! I was trying to get in the habit of walking 1 minute every mile as I had planned but it was difficult to be that disciplined! I had run the first 4 miles at 10 min/mile and now with the gentle climb dropped to 11 min/miles. In the back of my mind was the nagging question – was I going out too fast? I decided to go with it as I felt good and was enjoying the running. The A1 was clear when I got there and I was able to run straight across, through Fenwick and up into the woods. This was nice running and well sign posted. You reach the high point just after 9 miles and then its mainly down hill to the coast. It was nice running mainly through fields until Belford at 12 miles. There was a water station at the far side of Belford by the golf club. I didn’t need to top up my flasks as it wasn’t too far until the next aid station at Bamburgh but I was able to grab a banana!

CP1 (Belford) – CP2 (Bamburgh)

From Belford you head along the edge of a few fields before another crossing of the A1 (again I didn’t have to wait long) and another railway crossing! I was glad to have them done and now on to Bamburgh. The route is on a mix of fields, small roads/tracks and woodland path. At mile 16 there is a short steep uphill through some woods where I took the opportunity to give Iain a quick call to see how everyone was and how he was getting on. I was feeling a little sad I wouldn’t get to see him at checkpoints along the way. As you get closer to Bamburgh you head along the edge of the first of many caravan parks and a little further on get to go across the first of many golf courses. The signposts so far for the St Oswald’s Way had been good. In Bamburgh the aid station was at the cricket Pavilion, there were toilets and I was able to refill my flasks, grab a coke and a packet of prawn cocktail crisps and head on my way. Around Bamburgh and on the coastal path it was busy in places but people were lovely and many would give a clap and well done as you headed past. 20 miles done 80 to go! There was some rain during the morning but it was very refreshing and not cold so I didn’t need to stop and put a jacket on.

CP2 (Bamburgh) – CP3 (Craster)

The next 4 or 5 miles to Seahouses is a little inland, crossing fields and on small roads, it was nice to get some chat with other runners as we headed along this section. I got a boost as I headed into Seahouses as Iain and I had stayed at a pub here and we ran through here when running the Northumberland Ultra, it was also nice to now be on the coast! Once out of Seahouses the next couple of miles to Beadnell was easy running but not very exciting as you follow the coast road. Once in Beadnell you head down the harbour road and through a caravan park to get onto coastal path. There was handy public toilet in the carpark (as there aren’t many secluded spots for an outdoor wee in this section!).

The next section to Craster is beautiful coastal paths and the navigation was straightforward. Annoyingly I managed to take a tumble when running along the edge of the golf course just before Dunstanburgh Castle, I seemed to trip over a pebble! Luckily no damage was done other than to open up the scar on my knee from a previous fall (it looked more impressive than it was!). I jumped back up and headed on thankful no serious damage had been done. It was also a bit of a wake up call that I needed to be careful especially as I got more tired. I was already feeling tired by mid afternoon which I was quite worried about and was still questioning whether I had gone out too fast! Dunstanburgh Castle is beautiful but I was now focussed on getting to the aid station at Craster, changing my socks and getting some food. I was using a power bank to keep my phone and watch charged and was able to plug them in as I ran. I use a Garmin Forerunner 35 which only has 8 hours battery when recording a run. The phone was also using more battery running the GPX in Strava but I found it reassuring being able to check I was on route if unsure.

The last little section into Craster seemed long! But I was soon at the Jolly Fisherman Pub where the aid station was located. The volunteers here were amazing and soon had me sorted out with my drop bag and checking my knee was ok (I did get a plaster but it didn’t stay on for long 🤣). I wanted quite a quick stop so soon had socks changed, water flasks refilled and food restocked. I also had a pot of rice pudding which was amazing. It was a lovely atmosphere as it was also the finish of the 50k race, so plenty of people were around. But I was determined to have a quick stop so soon handed my drop bag back in and headed on my way. Annoyingly I forgot to restock my KMC IsoMix for the next 2 aid stations but I wasn’t going back so would have to do until Rothbury when I got my drop bag again. I had 1.5L of mix in my flasks and the KMC NRG gels also have electrolytes in them so it wasn’t a disaster!

CP3 (Craster) – CP4 (Warkworth)

The afternoon was surprisingly warm and I was looking forward to the evening when it cooled down! The next section of the run was beautiful on good coastal paths but it did feel hard work in the heat! After about 4 miles you run through a little village called Boulmer where there are some more conveniently placed public toilets! A little more running through the edge of a caravan park and you reach the only bit of beach running of the day. Some of the sign posts were becoming less obvious (or I was more tired) so I was being careful to check the phone more frequently to make sure I was on route. This paid off as I would definitely have had some errors otherwise! I was running a similar pace to another 100 mile runner, Paul, and we spent this section having short chats and over taking each other! I think my navigation was better and he was faster 🤣 I had the advantage of the route on my phone while he was relying on the OS maps provided at registration. The beach was a surprisingly nice change to run on (and was only short) but even though I was looking for it I missed the turning off the beach, Paul the other runner had also missed it so I called him back and found the right path off the beach. I then stopped and carefully removed as much sand as I could from my shoes, socks and feet.

A short run along the edge of a golf course and then you reach Alnmouth, run around the coastal edge of Alnmouth, along a short path and over the bridge over the estuary. After a short section of road the path follows two sides of a field before running parallel to the road for just under a mile, a left hand turn down a well signposted path and I was back on the coast. Through another caravan park and then I somehow missed the path and headed on up the main track. I soon realised my error and retraced my steps back to the correct path. Paul had caught me up again and was appreciating that I had the route on my phone! A couple more miles and we were in Warkworth and at the next aid station. The bridge into Warkworth is lovely and I was glad I had checked out the sharp right after it on Street View or I think I would have missed it!

Another indoor aid station, with a lovely lady waiting for us, and a cup of tea. The cup of tea was so appreciated. There wasn’t anything I fancied to eat so a quick loo stop and I was on my way with cup of tea in hand! ☕️ I walked up the road to the castle while sipping tea and tried to take a half decent photo while balancing too many things! I was happy to have kept up a good pace and knew from Iain that I was first female in the 100 mile race with a little lead. It had cooled down and I was looking forward to the hour before it got dark.

CP4 (Warkworth) – CP5 (Rothbury)

I don’t really remember much of this next section into Felton. After Warkworth the route heads out on a small road that turns into a farm track and then is a mix of field and farm tracks until just before Felton when you meet the River Coquet. The path then follows the river into Felton where you cross another nice little bridge, follow the road slightly up hill, taking a left hand turn and then head off across a field roughly following the river. Under a road bridge and it was now definitely dark and the head torch was on! This next section was somehow far harder than I thought it should be! The path was harder to follow, the ground was very uneven and wet! Somewhere along the way my right knee began to hurt which was concerning with so far still to go. Paul had caught me up again and decided to run with me as it was so hard to navigate with just the OS maps, especially now it was dark. There had been mention of a diversion because of a landslide at one point along this section but we didn’t find it and carried on on the main path. The navigation did get slightly easier in the mile or so before the water station at Weldon Bridge, heading through some wooded areas on a clear path. Iain was doing an amazing job of crewing from a distance – encouraging and keeping me updated!

The route after Weldon Bridge was still tricky and I kept making small mistakes and having to correct them. I was very envious of anyone with the route on their watch at this point as it would have made things so much easier! Just before Rothbury I hit a point where I was at a complete loss, and Paul didn’t know. We weren’t far from Rothbury and should have been hitting an old railway path but having just crossed a field with no path there was no obvious old railway and the only obvious path was a steep down hill through bracken. I was 90% certain this was not the path but couldn’t work out how to get where we needed to be. In the end I phoned Iain who despite having just gone to bed tried to help using the online tracker and map. After a few minutes I managed to work out we had ended up too far into the corner of the field and once I walked back along the edge of the field I found the correct route over onto the railway path. I was very grateful I was able to phone Iain and get his help/reassurance! The rest of the way into Rothbury was easier navigation but I was having to run/walk because of my sore knee. I was very pleased to cross the bridge and head up to the Jubilee Institute in Rothbury and the next check point. I had found the previoous section tricky and was ready for a break before heading out again! My knee was sore and I was unsure if carrying on was a good idea. In the end I decided to tape it and see how I got on over to Kirkwhelpington. I had still been able to run on it and could walk at a fast pace without it being too sore. I knew the next section was a steep uphill so I would be able to give it a bit of a rest from running!

The check point at Rothbury is the second point you can access your drop bag, which was much needed! It was also the finish to the 100k race so there were a few people around. All the volunteers were brilliant and made sure I had everything I needed (a nice cup of tea and a banana). There was also soup available but I didn’t fancy any. The first thing was to change socks as my feet were soaked and feeling quite tender. I did have another pair of shoes with me and was unsure if to swap as I was wearing my preferred pair already. In the end I stayed in the wet Inov8 TerraUltras for the rest of the way as I was confident in their grips and they are nice and roomy on me. I also suspected that I would soon get wet feet again anyway (which was true!). I had to swap from the small to large power bank which was frustrating but I just wasn’t confident the small one had enough juice left in it for the rest of the way as I would need to charge a phone, watch and possibly head torch! I also picked up a spare headtorch and remembered my KMC IsoMix powder this time. I ate another pot of rice pudding and restocked gels, food etc. I already had my raincoat on as it had been a bit damp so I decided to run in that overnight rather then my fleece top that I had planned to put on. I also taped up the knee with KT tape and hoped for the best. 2 other 100 milers had come in just after Paul and I and we all left at roughly the same time. They had paired up already and so I hoped we would be able to stick with them at least while it was dark as I was very nervous about navigating on my own.

Annoyingly I had managed to stop my watch while at Rothbury (no idea how), so would be relying on the phone to record the full run on Strava.

CP5 (Rothbury) – CP6 (Kirkwhelpington)

This is the longest, hardest and darkest section between check points! When planning timings I had left 5 hours for this section and Iain had laughed and said it wouldn’t take that long – It ended being 5 hours and 15 min from when I arrived at Rothbury to when I arrived at Kirkwhelpington! It’s a steep start from Rothbury and I headed off with Paul just ahead of the other 2 runners who had stopped briefly with their crew. The path heads up Simonside and is a good relatively easy path to follow. The 2 other runners (another Paul and Steve) soon caught us up and I asked if we could walk with them while everyone was walking and they said that was fine while we were walking at the same pace. They went ahead and I must admit I left them to do a lot of the navigating at this point as Paul had a handheld GPS and Steve had the GPX on his watch. It was during this section of the race I realised how useful these are as unlike me they didn’t have to keep stopping to check the route! After the first couple of miles the path became harder to follow and there were points in the section of cleared forest where we spent what felt like ages trying to find the path. The path in the forest was hard to walk fast on as it was wet, uneven and at times unclear. We actually managed to keep a good walking pace but we all had a grumble at different times over the next few hours. At times we chatted and at times we lapsed into silence, heads down and keeping going! My knee was sore but didn’t seem to be slowing me down at a walk. I had to remind myself to keep eating and drinking as it wasn’t instinctive at night.

Annoyingly in the middle of a thick forested section my head torch died and plunged me into complete darkness. Iain had told me if I used it on full beam it would need to be charged after about 6 hours but even so at that moment I was not impressed. With the difficult terrain full beam was the only option. Steve helped me get out my power bank and plug in the head torch and get out my spare (which was feebly inadequate). I ended up using the head torch as a handheld torch for the rest of the night plugged in to the power bank which was not ideal. I will definitely be getting a better head torch before my next overnight run!

After several miles you finally leave the forest behind which is a huge relief! I think we all had varying degrees of sore feet and I had my sore knee. This whole section felt very surreal and I found the picture of the 4 of us rushing along through the woods quite comical! It is not an easy route to follow! When we finally got to a road near the edge of the forest Paul’s crew met him and kindly offered us all food and drink. I stuck with what I had but waited while the others got sorted. Unfortunately while stopped my knee seized up and when we got going again was incredibly sore. It did ease up as we got going but I was quite concerned I would need to retire at Kirkwhelpington.

The rest of the way to Kirkwhelpington is mainly fields that had their own challenges! There were very few paths in the fields and the grass was long and wet, we met a variety of farm animals which is quite eerie when you just see eyes gleaming in the torch light. The lack of paths meant even the navigation here wasn’t easy as you searched for a gate or stile by head torch. We finally made it to Kirkwhelpington, we were all exhausted and had various aches and pains. I had had to take some pain killers for the knee and was still unsure if I would be able to keep going but I really didn’t want to DNF with only 20 miles to go and in first place female. I decided as long as I could walk on the knee I would head out and see how it went!

As at every check point the volunteers were brilliant at looking after us. There was soup for those that wanted and lots of biscuits, sweets, crisps etc. I had 2 cups of tea that made me feel a lot better. I also had a trail bar and topped up my flasks. We probably stopped longer than we needed but finally all headed back out the door ready for the final 20 miles. There was one more unmanned water station in about 10 miles.

CP6 (Kirkwhelpington) – CP7 (Great Whittington)

We headed off from Kirkwhelpington along a road. It was nice to have an even surface to walk on for a while! I assured everyone that if they wanted to head on at a faster pace or run/walk I was quite happy to get myself to the end as I definitely couldn’t go any faster with my sore knee. But everyone decided they were happy to fast walk the rest of the way and that we should all finish together. This section is a mix of country road, farm tracks and fields and would definitely have sections that are runnable if you had anything left to give. It was great as the sky started to lighten into morning, but I was still worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish because my knee at times was very sore. It’s actually quite a short section from Kirkwhelpington to Great Whittington but it felt like it took forever! As well as my sore knee my feet were now feeling pretty wrecked from being constantly soaked and I was exhausted. Luckily my digestive system was still working well and I was still able to eat and drink 😃. The water station at Great Whittington was exactly that – an unmanned water butt on a table. I had enough in my flasks to get to the end but we all stopped briefly as Paul’s crew were here as well.

CP7 (Great Whittington) – Finish (Chollerford)

I seized up again and was annoyed with myself for stopping. The first 5 minutes walking were incredibly painful on a very sore knee and I seriously thought I was going to have to stop with only 9 miles to go. Everyone encouraged me to keep going (as they pointed out I may end up waiting longer to get picked up than it would take me to get to the finish 🤣) and the pain eased to a manageable level and I could still fully weight-bear on the leg. At some point it started to rain and continued for the rest of the race. Thankfully 2 miles saw us to Hadrian’s Wall path which felt like a real boost and like we were nearly there (even though there were still 6.5 miles to go). The navigation was no longer a problem but the stiles were! There were far too many stiles in the last 6.5 miles and it really was a case of dig deep and keep going. Fruit jellies were my friends during these last miles!

Since morning Iain had been sending me encouraging messages which really helped. He was getting short responses (if any) as the rain and the need to keep moving meant it was hard to write anymore. The rain also meant that I don’t have any photos from this section. I did know from him that as a group we were 3rd overall and I was 1st female with a good lead on second place! At least I didn’t need to be looking over my shoulder, but to be honest I don’t think I had anything else to give even if second place had been just behind! Even as we entered Chollerford and headed towards the bridge and the George Hotel where the finish was I still couldn’t do anything but hobble, no sprint finishes from me!

I finished in joint 3rd with Steve, Paul and Paul and 1st female in a time of 26hr 02mins. I was cold and exhausted, my feet were sore, my ankles were sore and my knee was very sore. But I had done it, I had run/walked 100 miles and it felt amazing! 🥳 I got a lovely medal and group photo and then we headed inside to the function room where I could finally get a seat! Drew (the organiser) and all the volunteers were again brilliant sorting me with tea, soup and even a bacon sandwich (on gluten free bread). My feet were very happy to get out of wet shoes and socks and it was nice to be able to sit and know I didn’t have to get up again for a while! I was presented with a lovely wooden trophy for being first female finisher and a very nice race t-shirt.

Post Race

I was able to get a lift from Paul to the station where I had an hour and a half wait for the train so set my alarm and then sat on a bench in the sun outside the station and slept! My first train was to Carlisle where Iain’s aunt, uncle and family were waiting to congratulate me. This was really lovely and a cup of tea and some goodies was very much appreciated! A quick catch up and then on the next train to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh my train to Perth was delayed nearly 30minutes which felt like a long time. And then at last I was home. It was lovely to see everyone, we stopped off for a chippy tea but then I could only eat about half of the munchy box that I had been so looking forward to! I managed to stay awake until about half 8 when I gave up and went to bed 😴

It was wonderful to be able to use the race to raise money for Kinfauns Riding for the Disabled where I volunteer. I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has donated, it is really appreciated and really helped me to keep going during the race. Thank You!

I am really pleased that I was able to keep going and finish the race and that I can now say I have run a 100 mile race (and yes I am already planning for next year)! It was harder than I expected, especially the terrain and navigation from Rothbury. But it was mainly fun, it’s great to meet and chat with other runners and the wonderful organisers and volunteers who make these achievements possible. I am really pleased with how I managed hydration and nutrition and I am sure part of this was due to the fantastic products (gels and IsoMix) from The Kendal Mint company, their caffeine gels were amazing for waking me up for a while (a separate review will be coming soon). I think I had done the bare minimum training and so my aim is to train well over the winter in preparation for next year’s races, to increase my strength and hopefully reduce my risk of injury. Staying awake all night didn’t cause me too many problems but I was running with others – I wonder if this would have been harder if I had been on my own?

Thanks to Cold Brew Events for a great race – varied, interesting and certainly a massive challenge!

Photos are my own or from Pilgrim’s Ultra Facebook page.

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