My First Ultra: Kielder 50K

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If the truth be told I’ve never really had much ambition to run anything more than a half marathon. I’ve always thought that a couple of hours pounding the tarmac is more than enough punishment. My immediate thoughts whenever I have completed the Great North Run are always the same, ‘imagine if this was a marathon, I’d have to run all the way back to the start… feeling like THIS!’ I would usually then head straight to the Sand Dancer pub on the beach to blot that idea out… then get the Metro home.  The irony here is I would often stand in the Metro queue and think it would have been quicker to run home.

The Bait

Unfortunately for me that changed last year when a pal of mine from Yorkshire messaged to see if I would do The Wall 70 mile Ultra (Carlisle to the Toon) with him this June. Instead of messaging back ‘don’t be daft’ or words to that effect, I found myself agreeing to do it, not out of any loyalty to a friend mind, just the simple fact I couldn’t bear his smug face gloating to all the lads once he did it. So, we both signed up. On a serious note, my pal had not long returned to work after nearly a year off with a serious health condition and was using fitness/running/healthy living to aid his recovery… so of course I wanted to support him. I’d even swallow my pride and let him beat me on the line… probably.

The plan however was to do a shorter ultra first as part of the training plan, which led us to sign up for the Kielder Ultra Trail 50k. For anyone who doesn’t know, an ultra is basically anything longer than a marathon with 50k/31 miles being the entry level distance. I have ridden the mountain bike trails up to the Scottish border before and barely saw a single person all day, so that type of landscape really appeals… as long as the midges aren’t out in force.

Now the thing I have always loved about running is its simplicity. You stick some trainers, shorts and a top on and you go out the front door and do it. Before joining Saltwell I rarely ever bothered with a watch or Strava. Imagine that folks… no watch… or Strava. A primitive runner if you will.

The Kit

Doing an ultra however means you have to buy all sorts of kit, and that means shopping. I hate shopping. When you sign up to do an ultra you need to ensure you have all the mandatory kit which gets checked when you register before the race, and you can’t run without it. This varies slightly from race to race but will include such items as waterproof jacket and trousers, first aid kit, water bottles, survival blanket and whistle, hat and gloves (even in Summer), mid-layers, food. You need to carry this kit, which means buying a suitable backpack/running vest.

This might all seem off-putting and expensive to anyone considering doing an ultra, but it doesn’t have to be. I actually surprised myself by how much I enjoyed researching all the different kit, watching YouTube reviews and generally SHOPPING! I managed to get most of my kit from SportsShoes (club 10% discount), Decathlon and Harrier Trail Running. So, over several months I accumulated all the gear I needed without feeling like I was breaking the bank to do it. Every time something new arrived in the post it felt like a mini-Xmas. In fact, my sister bought me a first aid kit, emergency blanket and collapsible cup for Xmas… the best prezzies I’ve had since 1979 when I got the Steve Austin Six Million Dollar Man action figure (definitely not a doll).

The Training

So, kit assembled, all that’s left is the small matter of running. There are loads of training plans out there if that’s your thing. The main gist being to mix your runs up mid-week and do (increasingly) longer runs on the weekend, and perhaps some strength and conditioning classes. There are people in the club with infinitely more experience than me when it comes to training for longer races – so don’t be afraid to ask on the club Facebook page – or speak to a coach, should you be considering one. Most ultras have a significant amount of off road so getting used to running on trails is essential. We are very lucky here in Gateshead to have so many trails on our doorstep; Bowes Incline, Watergate Park, Beamish, Derwent Walk, to name a few. Just being away from traffic, kerbs, and for the most part other people, is such a joy. I’ve been lucky enough to see deer, buzzards and red kites whilst out on our local trails.

Back in November I got hamstrung by my hamstring. Whilst not a serious injury it was enough for me to stop doing any running that involved efforts or hills for a few months. Combined with the usual Winter flu’s, colds etc., before I knew it, we were into February and only 10 weeks to go. My runs from then on are what I would consider ‘plods’ which were no bad thing as that would most certainly be my running pace on race day. Not the perfect prep, but in my head it wasn’t a race, it was a run. All I was interested in was not missing the cut off points at each checkpoint, enjoying the scenery, and getting to the finish. The cut off times are fairly generous, for example, the first checkpoint at 12 miles had a cut off at 3 and a half hours which is roughly 17 minute miles, i.e. brisk walk pace. The second checkpoint was a further 9 miles on and a 6 hour cut off.  So, I think it’s important to note that ultras are not the preserve of elite runners, and will involve some brisk walking, especially up hills!

The Pals

Getting long runs in was certainly the biggest challenge and this is where your running pals are invaluable. If Becky Jones hadn’t started her London Marathon training at the same time, then I know my prep would have been much more difficult – so a massive thank you to her – she even went above and beyond on one 20 mile run administering water to me when I stupidly didn’t bring any. It’s also a good time to thank everyone else who accompanied me on those longer Sunday runs; Paul Blackett, Sue Odonovan, Julie Schneider, Lynsey Hetherington, Carolyne Hargreaves, Gill Lawson. Not forgetting Claire Nelson and Nichola Whitman for mid-week runs. What can I say?  The Saltwell running community are a canny bunch.

I’m not going to lie, I had lots of moments of doubt that sometimes crept into dreams. The key was getting out and doing longer runs. Doing ten miles feels a long way when most of your runs are less than 10k. Once you run a few 10 milers this becomes the norm. Then slowly upping the distance to 15 then 20. The fact you know you can be out on your feet for several hours gives you confidence, no matter the pace, or how many times you stop. Was I perfectly prepared? No. Was I looking forward to it? Yes. Anxiety was replaced by excitement. I couldn’t wait.

The night before the run felt a little bit like the night before a holiday.  Alarm set for the ridiculous time of 5.30am and packing my bags last minute. ‘Chafe free underwear – check, chub rub cream – check.’ The reality though is there would be no obligatory seven quid pint of Moretti at the airport. The hour and a half journey up to Kielder on deserted roads was a lovely drive, but as Kielder hoved into view so did the weather. Drizzle, murk, cloud and more murk. Registration was at Kielder Castle, which was friendly and quick. You could leave a drop bag which would be taken to the checkpoint at Kielder dam at the 21 mile mark. I intended to change into road shoes for the last 10 miles for a bit more comfort as I had run most of that section before and knew it was fine even in bad weather. There wasn’t that many people milling around as the total numbers for the race was only 46 and keeping warm in the car seemed to be order of the day. There were two other races that day, the 82k race had already started with just over 20 runners, and the 32k race would start a bit later with 44 runners.

There was still nearly an hour until the briefing which would take place ten minutes before the start.  It was chilly.  This is where carrying kit becomes useful as I decided to stick my running tights and Saltwell long sleeve top on.  All that was left was a visit to the toilet – essential before any long run, timing is everything. I also considered doing a quick warm up and sticking it on Strava, just for Keith Thompson, but there was no signal.

The Start

So off to the start for the briefing.  We are informed the course has had a last minute change with a new 7km loop from the off due to not being able to run near the nesting Ospreys after the 2nd checkpoint on the lake. Talk about ultra athletes, these impressive raptors recently completed a 5000km journey from West Africa! The other important news is that midges are still a month away from pestering you. And just like that, away we go into the drizzle and murk.

The general good humour and well-wishing lasted about 2 minutes. After a short road section, we took a right turn onto a narrow mountain bike track that headed straight uphill and didn’t seem to stop for the next couple of hours! Early on in a shorter race when you are fresh there would normally be no problem with getting your head down and ploughing steadily on, but apart from the mountain goats at the front who were off out of sight the rest of the field were walking briskly. The switchbacks headed off up the steep slope and within a matter of minutes you couldn’t see any other runners, as they vanished into the 250 square mile forest of 150 million trees. The loneliness of the long distance runner!

Feeling alone in a forest of that magnitude might seem daunting but I have to say the course was superbly signposted. Every single junction had bright pink signposts like an idiots guide to navigation. I never once felt like I could get lost. The route wasn’t just on singletrack through the trees, it emerged regularly onto the access gravel roads that criss-cross the forest. This is where the views would often open up giving you a feel for how far you had climbed up from the lake. It was spectacular. The drizzle had stopped and it was pretty much perfect running conditions – for now!

Whilst most of the section to the first checkpoint at 12 miles had an upwards trajectory, it generally undulated its way up, meaning I could run the flats and short downhills, and walk most of the uphill’s. At about 9 miles me and my pal Karl caught up with 2 other runners, and we chatted amiably for the next few miles to the checkpoint. Spirits were high. The first checkpoint was basically a bloke and his small van and it felt like a small victory when we arrived. I had used up both my 500ml water bottles and refilled (water in one, water and electrolyte tablet in the other). I wasn’t particularly hungry but stuffed a few snacks down my gob. The general advice seems to be don’t wait to feel hungry to eat, but snack regularly – ultras aren’t called moving picnics for nothing. I’d already had a couple of Graze Lemon & Blueberry Flapjacks (great recommendation Lynsey Hetherington). From what I can gather there isn’t one set rules for what you should eat, except you need your carbs regularly. I’m no fan of gels, and feeding is most certainly trial and error for me at this point.

The Weather (and Bears)

We didn’t hang around long at the first checkpoint, less than 5 minutes. The next 3 miles were all uphill to the highest point of the course at 437m. It was a proper slog and for the first time doubt crept in to coincide with the arrival of a new weather front that unleashed a downpour of icey rain. I felt cold very quickly and my immediate thoughts were, ‘I’ve got 17 miles left of this!’ Then I remembered I had my waterproof jacket and hunkered down to put it on. The relief was immediate and the uplift in mood was very welcome. Onwards to the top with the pitter patter of rain on my hood for company. I felt like I had my own little refuge from the weather. Carrying mandatory kit like waterproofs made perfect sense now.

What goes up must come down. The high point of the course was also the half-way point – another psychological boost. The icey rain didn’t hang around too long and the next seven miles down to checkpoint 2 on the dam turned into a very enjoyable experience (though my feet did knack on some of the very rocky sections). Trail shoes are great for running off road but don’t always have great cushioning like road shoes. My Inov-8 Mudclaws that work perfectly for the cross country series (6ish miles) felt like I was running bare feet (the Geordie Zola Budd) at 17 miles – you live and learn. I will certainly look for a more cushioned pair should there be a next time.

With the improved weather came improved views. You couldn’t see the lake from this part of the course, only intersecting valleys of trees, in every direction. As I marvelled at the remote vista I thought to myself, ‘this could be Alaska’ shortly followed by, ‘imagine if there were bears here’ and then went off on one in my head as to whether I could outrun a bear (nope they run at 30+ mph) or could I distract a bear by throwing my pack of two mini-pork pies towards it? Possibly. Now some of you may laugh that I had some pork pies on me but Holly Rush a GB marathon and ultra marathon runner swears by them! My body is fine-tuned to process such scran anyway, wish I’d brought some mustard though.

The Cavalry

It was at this point that I was brought out of my bear reverie by someone shouting ‘Andy’.  My pal was about 50m in front and it was definitely a women’s voice. Then I heard it again. It seemed to come from behind me, no-one there. I thought I might be low on sugar. Then at the third shout I saw two figures appear in the distance. The Saltwell cavalry had arrived. Becky Jones and Paul Blackett came running into view. What a welcome surprise. It really lifted spirits as we ran the last 3 miles down to the dam together. A further surprise awaited when Julie Schneider appeared bearing gifts, i.e. cakes! Unfortunately cakes were the last thing I fancied and got stuck into the cheese breadsticks Becky had brought, I was definitely in need of something savoury. The cakes would be kindly saved for later. Thanks guys, it was much appreciated.

We stayed less than 10 minutes at the final pit stop. I changed into my road shoes which felt amazing. Water refills, a few photographs and away we went for the final 10 miles along the lakeside trail. It was really windy down on the lake and it looked anything but a place of leisure and fun activities – it felt and looked menacing! After a couple of miles the rain started, and it proceeded to chuck it down for the remainder of the race, only relenting as we neared the finish. The lakeside trail is anything but flat though and the detour away from the nesting ospreys had a significant climb. This is where the ultra shuffle started on very tired legs. I’m not going to lie, I was knackered. I passed my first ever marathon distance with no great fanfare. According to my watch we had 5 miles left when very shortly after a sign for Kielder Castle appeared stating 3 miles. What a buzz!!! Less than a parkrun – get in. The tree coverage must have affected the GPS.

The Glorious Finish

As we got to about a mile from the finish the rain relented as we crossed the viaduct near the castle. Trains actually ran up here from Hexham to Edinburgh until it closed in 1958. After looping back on ourselves for a bit the castle appeared at the top of a short steep climb. Of course there had to be a hill finish. I let my pal run ahead (told you I would) so he could bask in his own glory then followed him over the line to cow bell ringing, lots of congratulations and my medal. I’d done it. I’d completed my first ultra marathon. Time: 7hrs 14mins 19secs, position 42/46, elevation gained 2884ft.

Reflecting on the experience a few weeks later, it must be up there with the best running experience I have had.  If I can do it, so can you.  I’m already eyeing up the Tweed Valley 50k in November. I’ve got the small matter of the The Wall Ultra to survive in June before that though. There are certainly lessons to be learned about footwear and what worked food-wise. I will sadly not be carrying mini-pork pies next time as I just never fancied them… let’s hope I don’t run into any bears on the Tweed!

Andy Ross