Well this would be my 3rd Ultra GB run with the route now moved North of the Border to the Southern Upland Way. The 212 mile route starts in Portpatrick and heads in a generally northeasterly direction to it’s conclusion in Cockburnspath via a series of hills and dales with Everest equivalent ascent over the route.
This year I would be expertly supported by the ever-patient and long suffering Jane but she would have to handle the crewing alone as my Dad has sprained his ankle in an extreme geocaching accident but was dotwatching from home with my Mum.
Jane and I set off for Portpatrick on Friday 17th August with a car full of expertly packed and catalogued kit with a 12pm rendezvous with Spine Legend, Robert Cullen at Shap on the M6. Despite Robert’s offer of meeting him on the hard shoulder we drove a whole extra mile to collect him from Shap City Centre!!! The journey was pleasant as we exchanged Spine stories. His were stories of success but mine were of what could’ve been. I’m sure Jane found the musing of two ultra-addicts fascinating as she tuned us out to listen to the Radio 5 Live film programme. It was chucking it down for most of the journey but once we had got wet-through checking into the Waterfront Hotel the rain subsided and I rested for the rest of the afternoon.
On the way to a meal arranged by Gareth Boyd at the pub next door to our hotel (Thanks Gareth!!) it was great to see so many familiar faces from the previous iterations of the UGB race. I managed to catch up with two-time winner Neil Rutherford, who was coy about his chances this year in the face of a much stronger field with a great many overseas competitors. There were 158 racers due to be on the start line compared with 60ish the previous year and only 24 in 2016. This is a testament to the great regard in which GB Ultras races are held under the direction of Wayne Drinkwater, Jonathan Kettle and team. At the meal I had the pleasure of chatting again with Neil, Joao Colaco and his girlfriend Daniela De Sousa from Portugal but nerves were high and the focus was on registration, kit checks and bed. I had to wait until the following morning to meet my running buddy from Oldham – Lady (Anne-Marie) Lord who had had a stressful journey with very little sleep the previous night.
My main focus for this new route was to arrive at the Finish in good condition. I had no expectations regarding time and position and wanted to run a relaxed and well-executed race where I was able to be alert enough at all times to be able to respond to changing situations. I was also interested in the role that partnerships that play in a race of this length especially when these relationships are advantageous and also how to recognised less helpful alliances ones, such as where I am required to travel faster or slower than sensible.
Registration was another great opportunity to catch up with familiar faces from the last two years and also meet new friends. Lim Nghee Huat and his lovely family were present and his son, David was to join him on this year’s edition. Lim had been a great competitor over the last two years and showed that he can be extremely strong over these long distances. Registration took much longer this year but this was understandable due to the increase in runners and a more thorough/professional process. This was a far cry from the tiny gazebo on Southport Promenade in 2016.
Another kit recheck and then time for some sleep for the last time in a bed for a few days…
Start: Portpatrick Lifeboat Station – Saturday 18th August 0600
Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy (CP1 – 13 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Saturday 1030
Actual Arrival: Saturday 0840
Ultramarathons have mostly low-key starts and I feel that this is appropriate as this is not a spectator sport and ‘peace and quiet’ often are features of these ‘races’. However, compared with lots of my previous ultra races this was like UTMB as we set off on an immediate climb up the steps leaving Portpatrick in a Northerly directions towards Black Head lighthouse before heading East. It was a hilly start with lots of rises and falls to the beaches and the pace was too fast for an ultra of this distance which I think lots of people realised by later in the day. Good trail and roads were a feature of the day but I was having issues with running at pace due to problems with my right hamstring. These issues were actually preventing too high a pace which I knew would be foolish at this point.
I had various spells of running with other competitors including Jon Ward, who was very strong over the marathon distance but I was aware that I need to use my experience and run my own race. I saw Jane at Castle Kennedy (but no support received) and told her that I expected to be at CP3 Glentrool at 2230, so Jane was going to spend a leisurely morning and afternoon looking around (and sketching) the Castle Kennedy Gardens and off I trotted over a section that I was familiar with from a recce of CP 1-4 several months earlier.
I must admit I wasn’t 100% comfortable in the early stages of the race and felt that the pace was stressful with people still jostling for position rather than relaxing into the race. I feel that it took several CPs before settling into ultra mode.
Castle Kennedy to New Luce (CP2 – 22 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Saturday 1400
Actual Arrival: Saturday 1106
I really can’t remember much of this stage at all so let’s say it was fairly unimpressive but a short distance to CP3 at New Luce where I had a 5 min quick refuel and water bottle refill.
New Luce to Glentrool (CP3 – 45 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Saturday 2230
Actual Arrival: Saturday 1702
It now felt that we were entering ultra territory and I started to feel fatigued but more comfortable with my pace. There are various episodes of this stage that remain in my mind including a nice chat with Matt Armstrong who had raced UGB2016 and a fleeting meeting with Jozef and Ken, the friendly and speedy Belgians who expressed their surprised that the Brits were not like the boozy lewd bunch they had met on their Spanish holidays. I was pleased to arrived at the distinctive landmark of the Beehive Bothy and Robert Cullen, who we had transported to Portpatrick was leaving as I arrived. I remember being pleased that I wasn’t too far behind Robert as he had lots of experience on these type of races. Soon after the Bothy we were heading down an uncomfortable steep stony path and I exchanged conversation with Robert for a short while. I then ran along with Jozef and Ken for a little longer enjoying their company greatly as I learned of their brewing and industrial cleaning businesses respectively.
I made good progress to towards Bargrennan and was aware that the CP was only a short way up the road but that we had a short loop to complete before arriving. I called Jane to say that I would be very early (approx 1600 rather than 2230) at CP3 but this was met with some consternation as she was in the middle of a sketching session at Castle Kennedy with no tracker access. She started to pack up and I felt guilty about interrupting her ‘free time’. No worries as the short loop seemed to continue forever and took an extra hour than predicted with Jane arriving at CP3 only minutes before me at 1702.
A 45 minute break at CP3 Village Hall was welcome and as much food as possible eaten along with a foot check and personal admin. Robert Cullen arrived and stayed very briefly before pressing on to CP4 before dark.
Glentrool to St John’s Town of Dalry (CP4 – 67 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Sunday 0600
Actual Arrival: Sunday 0030
I left Glentrool with my Belgian chums and also with one of their colleagues Martino. It was really pleasant in this company as my Flemish is rubbish there was no demand on me chatting and thinking of topics as we made our way towards Loch Trool. I was somewhat confused by Chris Kay’s erratic pacing which had him running at pace and then walking meaning that we often caught him up. This technique obviously works for Chris as he finished many hours in front of me. We also had Rich for company through this stage and I shared my chocolate covered coffee beans with other members of the group with varying degrees of appreciation. It was towards the end of this stage that signalled the start of the rain and resulting very poor visibility and poor underfoot conditions in woods and then unable to see foot placement on moors and hills into St John’s Town of Dalry. Heavy rain was forecast between 0100 and 0400 and I had a quick chat with Robert Cullen again who said he was struggling, possibly due to completing the Lakeland 100 only a matter of weeks ago. The hall was really noisy and I found it impossible to sleep with so much loud talking. Stayed for 3 hours between 0030-0330 but only able to sleep for 60 mins and woke feeling dreadful.
St John’s Town of Dalry to Sanquhar (CP5 – 93 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Sunday 1530
Actual Arrival: Sunday 1405
I left the checkpoint just as the sun was rising for a hilly exit from St John’s Town with Gareth Boyd- closely followed by Belgians. It was great to journey with Gareth who was too be my companion for the rest of the race (Spoiler alert!!) One memory of this stage was breaking my no-meat except chicken for two bacon butties at Polgown Farm whilst we fought off a couple of curious chickens.
Day of walking and exchanging tales with Gareth – great company and easy chat but at a good pace and with purpose towards Sanquhar with dreams and pizza and Jane actually managed to source. This was a highlight of the race and a testament to Jane’s commitment to the ultra cause that she was able to source pizza on a Sunday afternoon in Sanquhar. This pizza was shared with the other runners passing at this point and greatly appreciated.
Jane noticed cut on leg and persuaded me to clean this as much as possible in the Leisure Centre. Following this 30 min stop I felt rejuvenated but then left without my poles – Jane needed to catch us up with poles in the car by Scotlands Oldest Post Office for a promised tough stage.
Sanquhar to Wanlockhead (CP6 – 101 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Sunday 1900
Actual Arrival: Sunday 1745
Scotland belongs to the sheep!!! Beautiful empty scooped valleys with no buildings apart from circular sheepfolds and This was my favourite stage albeit with lots of climbing to Wanlockhead (Scotland’s Highest Village) and Home of the Beam Engine and more importantly food and a hot radiator. A hilly but short climb into Wanlockhead for more food.
Wanlockhead to Beattock (CP7 – 121 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Monday 0330
Actual Arrival: Monday 0245
Walking with Graham Paton (106) and Gareth to the Golf Ball and then some road before painful descents and long ascents before reaching halfway point prior to interminable hill after the reservoir and long awaited right turn before long wet descent into forest. This was the most difficult section albeit falling just after the halfway point of the race.
We thought that the forest section was only 2 miles but more like 6 miles and took 2.5 hours with about 30 falls into mud. Hallucinations of lights and people with torches and episodes of shouting out to imaginary people marked the end of this stage. We arrived on the edge of our mental resources but after food and 2 hours sleep in the brightly lit toilet corridor at CP with buff over eyes and ear plugs felt I felt rejuvenated but Graham was not ready to leave the CP so we had to sadly leave him behind.
Beattock to St Mary’s Loch (CP8 – 143 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Monday 1100
Actual Arrival: Monday 1350
Gareth and I had 45 mins to get things together and set off for St Mary’s Loch. Even more longer climbs and scenic sections. On this section we began to keep meeting Steven Braithwaite (No 103) and Gordon MacCulloch (No 53) unaware that our paths would continue to cross for most of the rest of the race. We met Jane at the cafe at St Mary’s Loch as the rain started just before closing and had a very welcome Chicken Burger, Chips and 2 x coke with Jane waiting on the 4 of us. Thanks for all your patience Jane!!!
St Mary’s Loch to Fairnilee Fishing Hut (CP9 – 164 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Monday 1830
Actual Arrival: Tuesday 0045
Planned on longer rest as really tired after wet entrance In the dark and tough stage at the end after climb from Traquair where we had met Jane and my friends Daniel and Rachel with food and good wishes and then the rain started on the long climb and rocky section through the night. Gareth and I worked together in the dark on this section. Gareth was struggling with visibility due to his glasses and I said that I was happy to lead until the CP but this required more concentration than I was able to muster. We met runners in various stages of disrepair but made good progress in the end into the CP and was rewarded with a late night visit from Jane with home cooked fish and chips from Daniel & Rachel albeit cold due to our delayed arrival. Jane compared the scene at CP9 as reminiscent of a Victorian Opium Flophouse with competitiors in various states of consciousness. After eating, we decided that as finishing was the priority rather than position that we would treat ourselves to 4 hours sleep!! I was rudely awoken on a deflated air bed with Gareth informing me that that we would be setting off at 0530 for the final pushes so ate porridge and drank tea as I hauled my deteriorating body into action.
Fairnilee Fishing Hut to Lauder (CP10 – 182 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Tuesday 0100
Actual Arrival: Tuesday 1150
Gareth and I set off in the company of Gordon and Steven with a plan to get the final 60 miles of this route polished off by midnight. We set off in bright mood at 0530 and our team of 4 made for easy early miles. Lots of discussion regarding film stars who would ‘benefit from’ the attention of 4 forty-somethings who hadn’t washed for 3 days and could only muster a reasonably brisk walk. Unfortunately, we had to part company with Gordon (or rather Steve dumped him!!! 🙂 due to having sore feet) I enjoyed this section, especially the thrill of seeing some ‘proper’ people and civilisation in the form of Galashiels. We saw real buildings and a care home whose staff waved as we passed by their premises without the offer of a place.
After a pleasant out and back section to Melrose Chain Bridge and more ‘witty banter’ with the three of us in good condition as we reached Lauder Public Hall where Jane put Mrs Lovett to shame as she provide a wide selection of hearty pies including Scotch Pies, Macaroni Cheese Pie and Caramel Slices whilst the Belgians order 5 McDonalds burgers each. We spent 40 minutes eating as much as possible before setting off again but Gordon had still not appeared at the CP. We had been promised some easier stages in the 2nd half of the race but they never seemed to appear.
Lauder to Longformacus (CP11 – 197 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Tuesday 0630
Actual Arrival: Tuesday 1810
After a few initial climbs towards the open moors we had a clear days walking on the high moors and I found myself at a the head of group of 6 runners and enjoyed the solitude for about 3 hours on the tops. At this stage 2 of the Belgians (Ken and Jozef) almost sprinted past us and into the distance in no time. I could see them on the far horizon for about 90 mins and they provided an indicator of the days route. It was great to meet up with Jonathan Rees (No 95) and Richard James (129) for the latter part of the day as we stopped for a regroup at Rutherford’s Cairn before heading down to Watch Water Resrvoir where it looked like Jane was parked but I couldn’t get my hopes up until I was sure that it was her. Jane fed and watered us once more and gave all the group encouragement informing us that the Belgians had ruin past her some time earlier.
The run into downtown Longformacus took an age but we had agreed on a 30 min break before pressing. The food at this station was very sparse but we were able to use Jane’s supplies and I instructed Jane to wake me in 8 minutes but was unable to get any sleep due to the attentions of 2 very affectionate dogs!! My right calf started to sting and was swollen but I thought that this was purely down to a bite that I had received in the last mile and I asked the medics for antihistamine and pressed on to the finish.
Longformacus to Cockburnspath (CP12/Finish – 214 miles)
Predicted Arrival: Tuesday 1400
Actual Arrival: Wednesday 0300
Once again the departure from a CP involved a huge hill but we didn’t care now as we were heading to the final checkpoint. I aimed to try to break 90 hours for the race now meaning that we needed to keep a good pace as the terrain was the easiest in the race so far as we headed towards Abbey St Bathan and then down towards Blackburn Mills. It was at this stage that I noticed that Jonathan was becoming less coherent as we had increased the pace and started to stumble and ask to sit more. I explained to Gareth and Steve that I was concerned about his welfare but was also concerned about Richard struggling with the pace. We decided that we would take the lead and observe and Gareth took responsibility for Richard and I tracked back to Steve who was with Jonathan. It was obvious that Jonathan was struggling with the onset of hypothermia and wasn’t able to sustain an adequate pace to maintain his body heat. I took the decision that we should head back to the road we had just crossed and get Jonathan in his bivvy bag. I called Jane at the finish and she passed me onto the medics who arrived in 20 minutes and were able to look after Jonathan leaving Steve and I to make our way towards the finish. I felt sorry for Jonathan as he’d had a good race but it was not safe to continue and he would no longer receive his buckle albeit for 7 miles.
Steve and I had seized up in the 90 mins that we had lost at this point and I noticed blisters starting on my right inside calf but stated to the medic that I would get these attended to at the finish. We were becoming increasingly tired on entering Penmanshiels Woods and followed the GPX track rather than SUW signs leading to a wasted 1 mile and a very irritated Steve, who struggled to let go of this error in the light of extreme fatigue. The mistake was corrected and we travelled through Pease Woods with relative ease before getting lost looking for a non-existent fingerpost from a caravan park onto the coastline, which was much higher up the hill than the GPX indicated. Once on the coast, we had no view of the promised sea-view but made out way around the headland before getting confused at the route into the finish much to both Steve and mine’s frustration (more Steve than me). Eventually, we saw the long-suffering Jane waiting on the corner to guide us the final 200 metres into the finish.
I felt in control and relieved to finish my 3rd UGB race becoming the only person to have 3 buckles (2 gold and silver this time) in a time of 91 hours and 18 mins. As I stated, this race was not about time or position but executing a controlled adaoatable race and I was pleased. It was a shame not to have finished with Gareth Boyd, as we had spent so long together but I think that helping a fellow competitor was more useful and it had been great to spend time with Steve too.
Once I had finished it became apparent that the swelling in my right calf had increased and blisters had started to form with a possible diagnosis of Giant Hogweed Rash, which was duly dressed by the medics.
The following day, I consulted the GP who in turn sent me to Edinburgh Infirmary A&E were I was diagnosed with cellulitis and was on IV antibiotics for 2 days as an outpatient. 7 days later and I am still recovering but feeling much brighter and thinking about my next adventure!!!
Thanks to Jane for all her love, support and massive patience whilst driving around Scotland to help me fulfil my running ambitions. Also for all the photos and social media updates. You’re a star!!!! xxxxxxxx