At Camino we are often asked for recommendations of ultramarathons that are 'gateways to some of the all-time classic ultras' like Lakeland, UTMB, TGC (see Julien's last blog for this epic).
The wonderful thing about "Endurance Life' events company is that they have been expertly hosting coastal races for years and that in every version they offer taster levels at half-marathon distance all the way to challenging ultra distances. All their events are graded - this way you can look for 1-3 level races if it is your first one and they build up to the biggies of level 4 and 5.
Stef has been coached by Camino for a short while and she is always looking for a beautiful combination of adventure to go alongside an endurance challenge. She targeted (alongside friend Rose) the Level 2 Northumberland Ultra and we have loved every second of the planning and training that led up to her race.
No spoilers - read on to see how Stef coped with the coastal/weather fun of this epic terrain.
Northumberland Ultra (58km)
A beautiful, well organised, coastal race of various distances with rolling hills, beaches, country lanes, dunes, castles and dogs. What more could you want!
The start line for the marathon and ultra marathon participants for the Endurance Life Northumberland race was dreamy and the perfect start to the day. The sun was shining, we were looking up at Alnwick Castle, blue skies over rolling hills, a big group of eager runners of all abilities waiting by the start flags. There were also dogs (I’m obsessed with dogs) because this race is dog friendly too. I was standing next to one of my best running mates Rosie, both jiggling on the spot because despite the sunny morning, it was chilly for us that far up north. I was also jiggling because I needed the loo, of course. There are no toilets at this start but plenty of bushes and hiding places. There are loos at all the other start lines by the way. The event has half and 10k distances as well with everyone finishing up by Bamburgh Castle.
Jordan from Endurance Life did a quick welcome and briefing, and we were off, on time, dead on 8.30am. I didn’t think I’d ever start a race feeling that relaxed or even believing for a second that I was capable of finishing it without feeling like I was actually dying (I’m being dramatic, but we know the feeling).
Maybe it was because the start was so smooth and well organised, perhaps Rosie being there calmed me down or maybe I’d finally learnt to trust the process. Up until now I’ve had zero confidence in my running capability and to make matters worse I had a few bad race experiences last year where I felt dreadful.
During this race, Rosie and I were rocking up to aid stations laughing, smiling, cheering (who did we think we were!). We chatted the whole time, apart from 6km when I had to wee in a bush and we were separated for what felt like an entire day. But this feeling during a race has honestly never happened to me. Admittedly, I’ve only ever taken part in 1 ultra and 1 marathon (that way round around) so I’m still an absolute amateur but I had a bad time during both of those, so I assumed all races would feel like that.
I’ve spent these past races (and a fair few training runs) worrying about finding a loo, how slow I will be, comparing myself to others, worrying about what I’m wearing, thinking that I’ve got the wrong kit, stressing about GI issues, worrying about my non-existent race strategy, wigging out that I may actually die and usually ending up in tears or in total silence (shock) because I feel like I’ve literally been catapulted to another planet, where I’m learning to walk and breath for the first time. It’s safe to say, I’ve battled a few mental health issues with these races as well and this also played a huge part. I went down that route though, we’d be here for about 50 pages and I’m already waffling.
Rosie and I finished in good places (9th and 10th ladies) and we were so pleased but neither of us expected to even finish it. Earlier that week we had agreed that we would run until we’d had enough and when that time came, we’d asked her boyfriend’s lovely mum to come and collect us. We both had personal and work stresses going on outside of running and it was taking a huge toll. Something I imagine most of us are also juggling while training and running these silly distances that we seem to love.
We had no idea what weather to expect but as it was coastal we knew we might get cold or wet. I wore leggings with a side leg pocket for my phone, which is my staple. Lots of runners were in shorts though and it was definitely warm enough that day. There are a few brambles along the route so something to consider for shorts or even short leaves and vests. I had a base layer, mid layer and waterproof in my 12L Salomon pack. Rosie and I both have Salomon Speedcross trail shoes, which we love and are super comfortable, even from the first wear. I also had my Camino buff and a beanie. It was colder when the wind picked up, being on the coast but overall it was beautiful sunshine. I packed gloves and waterproof mitts - being February we were fully aware it could snow or be very wet. As mandatory kit you have to carry a first aid kit, whistle and foil blanket. There is a super helpful briefing pack with everything you need to know when you sign up and what you need to carry for the distance you have chosen.
I ran my first ultra last year with absolutely no fuel, like an idiot. I’d had such bad GI issues throughout training that I’d got myself in such a pickle. I wasn’t in the best state by the end as you can imagine. I know everyone is different and some runners need very little fuel and some none at all but I’ve since learnt that my body in particular needs a lot of fuel and apparently a lot of water over that distance. With the help of the amazing Camino coaches, I practiced fuel a lot during my long runs and it really paid off. I now have a strategy that I stick to where I have a gel every 30mins and some food the next 30mins and so on. Maurten gels and PB sandwiches (thanks coach Paula!) worked really well for me that day, as well as banana baby food (they come in really useful pouches!). I always carry water and Tailwind as well. There are really well stocked aid stations with water and snacks every 10km in this race, which is really useful for planning stops. I think I used them all and I drank 2.5 liters of liquids that day (inc 3 stick packs of tailwind). I did also carry a Voom bar and Cliff Bloks to switch in with the gels. Next time I really need to switch in a savory option though because by the end I was so sick of the sweetness.
Terrain was a mix of everything and it was great for keeping occupied. We ran across beaches, up and down dunes, grassy hills, fields, muddy paths, through bogs and country lanes. The beach felt really special and the sand was harder towards the water, so easy enough to run on. There is a lot to look at with beautiful castles and lovely views up the coast.
I felt great throughout the race (aside from the usual aches by the end). Rosie and I both felt really good and we had such a great time because of it. As I said before, this has never happened to me but I think with a combination of good pace and regular fuel, I didn’t fatigue so quickly, which is usually when I start to go down hill and the scary thoughts of getting swept out to sea or stuck in a bog would enter. For the 6km that Rosie and I lost each other, we both had a few scary thoughts. As soon as we were reunited we were fine and we were so surprised at how much this impacted us and how quickly our minds went to weird places when we were alone. Chatting to other runners definitely helps, which I did during that time and I met some lovely people. I will definitely take this with me into my next race that I’m doing alone as company really does help..
The locals were fantastic and provided the best cheer squad for the majority of the run. Pretty much everyone we passed clapped and cheered us on. It was so nice!
The event was so well organised with really clear check-in and start information. The route markings were really clear and easy to follow. The stewards were amazing too!
Feeling good and staying present was also a high and something else I practiced thanks to the Camino coaches. Without even realising, I used some of the sensory techniques I’d practiced, like paying attention to your feet touching the ground. Things that help you stay in the moment.
Running with my mate, laughing and chatting the whole time just made the best day.
I honestly want to say, none at all. If I had to give one maybe when Rosie and I lost each other and had some random scary thoughts but this wasn’t for long and I met some other runners during this time anyway. We were so lucky with the weather so perhaps if it had been snowing or raining then it would have made for a trickier run. Something to consider being a Feb race.
I’ve learnt so much from this race and it has given me so much confidence. There are some main takeaways that stood though for both Rosie and I. We had really similar experiences this time, unlike the ultra we did together where I didn’t fuel and was silent for about half the race.
Trust the process – trust the training, reflect on what you’ve learnt and practiced and have confidence coming to the start line. You can only do YOUR best, everyone else’s best is different. Someone mentioned that to me the week before (about a completely different situation) I decided to take it to the race and it took away a lot of pressure.
Run (or walk) the mile are in – try to stay in the moment, focus on that time you’re in and mile you’re running. I’ve spent a lot of time not being present and felt like I’ve missed out on the whole experience. As well as using techniques to feel a bit more grounded, I take photos of my running routes (and mostly myself), as it seems to help me stay in tune with what’s around.
Don’t compare yourself to others – everybody is different and everyone has different capabilities. Everyone needs different fuel, training, pace, strategies, race day plans. Find and stick to what works for you and don’t worry if it’s different, that is completely fine too