Race review: Northumberland Ultra. A beautiful race with no personality.

Do you know what’s glorious? The NE coast of England, that’s what. Do you know what’s not? Not having a fucking car.

On Saturday I ran 36 miles along the Northumberland coast with Endurance Life, travelling up by train from Kings Cross to Alnmouth on the Friday (which took AGES).  Once I’d landed (at about 7pm), I walked into town to attempt to find a cab to take me the 30 miles to my hotel. Note people: Phones don’t work up there, Uber hasn’t managed to wedge it’s grubby paws in up there, and they operate on a different timescale to that London. A sort of “see you in a bit, pet” timescale which is endearing but annoying. I trotted into a local pub and made some new friends who gave me a few numbers to attempt to call - I had to stand on the roof of the pub shouting at my speaker phone to get signal, but eventually I found someone and started getting excited about having some delicious red wine and food and going to bed.

When I got to my hotel however, dinner was over, so I had to settle for the ultra runners meal of choice in these situations, a bag of Nobbys Nuts and a large glass of red wine. Well two large glasses. OH OK IT WAS THREE. Next step, book cab for the morning to take me to the start of the race. Except there are no cabs, and when you ask them to take you somewhere at 6.30 in the morning they tend to laugh at you. This was my first lesson in northern hospitality - the barman was so wonderful he offered to drive me himself in the morning - he wasn’t a murderer, I could tell. Lucky for him, I managed to find a guy called Chris to pick me up, and he didn’t seem murdery either, so off I went to bed having had at least two glasses too much wine and no dinner. This was my first mistake.

Fast forward to 6am the next morning. I woke up STARVING with just an M&S egg sandwich (which I had bought as emergency supplies) to my name. And some salt and vinegar crisps. That’s breakfast then. But I usually have a LOT more to eat than that before a race this long - I kind of hoped to pick something up at the start.

Bamburgh at 6.50am.

Registration was at Bamburgh Castle which was a few miles away from my hotel. The deal is you get there, get briefed, get on a coach and they drive you to the start 30 odd miles away near Alnmouth. Theres a 10k, half, marathon and ultra and they start them all off at 30 min intervals. Defo time for a coffee and some food right? Wrong - no coffee, no food. Sad (hangry) Bailoid.

I’ve been warned against Endurance Life events, simply because people have told me they lack soul and feel very corporate. Plus there is always the threat of SALOMON MAN (aka my nemesis) or even worse a pack of them; guys running in all the gear with no idea how to communicate with other people. The serious guys that look like they are having a really shit time all the time; the ones that when you say a cherry little “Hi!” to them, they look at you like you’ve just shout FUCK YOU and thrown a bag of sick at them. Those guys. And there were loads at the start of this race. It just makes me feel really uncomfortable. I really do know better than this, but it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be there, although in reality I have as much right as everyone else. I just don’t think a social event like a race should feel like the start of The Hunger Games. ANYWAY, I managed to find (after looking for some time) a couple of lovely people that I could have a chat to and then I started to feel better - they shared my opinion that we’re in it to enjoy it, not DNF when we realise it won’t be a PB. There are no toilets at the start of the race, or during the race, so a few people made the last minute dash to the toilets. I did not. This would come back to haunt me later.

So briefing done (“Your mandatory kit will be checked at the end of the race” WHAT?!), we got on the coaches and set off for the hours drive down the coast. The race starts in Lesbury and the first part is across fields and through woodland - my favourite - and it was a beautiful sunny (freezing) day so I was trotting along very slightly hungry, but OK. We ran through forests and under amazing viaduct and out towards the coast at Alnmouth. It’s very mixed terrain here - from very muddy trails to very sandy beaches (that you run on for a while) with a couple of hills thrown in here and there. there are also some road sections later in the race, which were less than welcome, but overall I reckon I’d describe to as do-ably technical. At some points we were running in ankle deep streams and estuaries that were running into the sea. you’re feet get wet and you get cold but that’s fun right?

As I mentioned, there is a lot of running on the beach on compacted sand, but the views are just breathtaking. We were extremely lucky with the weather - this would have been a completely different beast if it was pissing down with rain. We also had the wind behind us which really helped - again if the wind had been blowing the other way, I very much doubt I would have enjoyed this so much. About 10 miles in I started to feel rubbish. I was REALLY hungry now. I had managed to find a bounce ball in my pack and had been munching on bits of cliff bar and jelly babies but they weren’t cutting it at all. Ironically, I wanted a cheese sandwich. Miles 10-15 I listened to a podcast to try and shut my stomach up, and then made the fatal decision to have a couple of shot bloks. On a pretty much empty stomach. I hit the aid station at 19 miles and it wasn’t looking or sounding good. I needed to do something you just don’t do in the middle of a National Trust Car park.

The next section of the run was through the dunes - which afforded me a bit of privacy - enough to sort out the issue - and then feel massively guilty about it afterwards. But I did feel better - still starving but not completely nauseous. This run was a lesson to me that I HAVE to be more prepared when it comes to food. I just assumed it would be readily available. About mile 21 I considered doing a dash into a fish and chip shop, and on reflection really should have. At miles 22 there was an aid station with crisps. Delicious crisps. I stopped and ate all the crisps.

Don’t go in the dunes when theres an ultra happening and no toilets on the course. 

Miles 23 - 26 were along the beach - challenging but beautiful and then we split off - the marathon runners up towards the castle and the Ultra runners out for their 10 mile “loop of glory” round the castle. Again amazing scenery, but I was very far behind the pack and this made for a bit of mental battle. I kept the demons away by talking out loud to every animal that I met. I love cows.

Here are some nice pictures. 

The issue with this part of the route is that not only have you run past the end point, you can also see it for the whole extra loop you’re running. A lot of this is on country roads, so not loads to look at, apart fro the castle teasing you for 10 miles, and it goes out and back on itself a bit. Cue me shouting “FOR FUCKS SAKE” on more than one occasion. It was OK though because I was on my own for most of it. If a runner swears and nobody hears, them did they really swear? (Yes. A lot)

The finish is up at the castle, and as I had expected it was a pretty lack lustre affair. Don’t get me wrong, the staff are lovely and kind and I had some good chats at the aid stations, but there’s not a lot of celebration to be had. You get in, get your medal (the medals are rubbish) get a T shirt that says nothing about the event on, and then go and get your bag and piss off home. No bar, no hanging out, no chats. This was probably because it had taken me 7 hours to get round, but I felt like they were pretty much packing up and I definitely wasn’t the last person on that course.

So yeah. An extremely beautiful race with no personality behind it. Well organised, nice staff, aid stations are ok, runners are pretty serious, nifty and dull. This is the David Gandy of Ultras. Beautiful to look at but dull as shit. If I was going to do this again, I would do it with a crew of mates and we would probably have the best time ever. I would also eat a meal of food or two beforehand. And use the toilets at the Castle. Lessons learnt. Next up, Larmer Tree Marathon in 2 weeks!