We signed up for the Northumberland Coastal trail series back in November as a winter training motivator and to catch up with friends based near Newcastle. I was drawn to the marathon as a challenging goal but one that shouldn’t dominate life like last year’s Ultra training. Our running friend Will was up for the full marathon too. Julie went for the half.

I trained hard for this with the objective of being fit enough to enjoy it all rather than endure it. A mixture of Wednesday headtorch and Sunday morning Harmeny club runs, solo jaunts, interval sessions and occasional parkruns.  I also tried to be smarter than last year, tracking fitness, fatigue and form, with Stravistics to help taper properly to carry good form into it. I even cut out cake and rationed cheese to lose some weight in the three weeks beforehand!

Early morning drive down the A1.

5am wake up, on the road by 6am into the sunrise with the standard issue bundle of nervous apprehension. I was pretty confident that my plan was solid and I could put in a good run. Weather forecast was a near perfect dry sunshine with (mercifully) a southerly tailwind. We met up with Will under shadow of the imposing Bamburgh castle, which was great as I hadn’t seen him since they left Singapore. So good to catch up before registering and on the bus to the start (after much last-minute faffing with shoes, socks, caffeine tab and lubing up etc, as only runners would understand).

Starter at Alnwick 0 – 12km

Full of (nervous) energy at the start.

It was cold and bright to begin with as we overlooked the spectacular Alnwick castle so wind-proofs were shed just before the start and then we were off. Not so much with a cavalry charge but a brisk jog through grassy fields, undulating farm tracks and even some stepping stones which was the perfect opportunity for a cooling dip – we declined.

Only the dog fancied a dip this early in the day. She made it to the finish

Everyone quickly spread so there were no bottle necks and Will and I chatted for a bit enjoying some easy kilometres.  Simple pleasures. I had no idea how much time we’d spend together. I knew from his past adventures that he was a strong runner but wasn’t sure what form he was carrying – not helped by a strong dose of modesty on his part. The effort level was relatively easy and I was trying to be clever and conserve strength by walking up the hills and letting the legs go on the downs.

The field soon quickly spread through the farmland and tracks. Route marking was excellent.

I was feeling good as we hit the coast and the first check point at Alnmouth at 12km in just over an hour.  I was surprised by this fast pace then realised I was actually running ahead of Will. ‘Best be careful’ thoughts as I munched on a cereal bar and drank water knowing this was not a sustainable marathon pace.

First beach at Foxton.

Fish Course 12 – 21km

This part of the run went really well. Gentle undulating paths along the coast, through golf courses and across beaches aided by a southerly push on the back. It was a joy to watch the beautiful scenery slowly passing by and the crisp sea air refreshing to the nose – rotting sea weed slightly less so. The trails were all run-able but interesting enough to remain engaging – momentum broken only by stiles and kissing gates. The only occasional tarmac sections took us through pretty coastal villages like Boulmer and some side-line well-wishers.

Aim for the big white flags signaling beach exit. Feeling strong and spirits high at 14km.

I noticed the spring in my step had gone as I was approaching 20km and the ball of my right foot was becoming increasingly uncomfortable – potential stone in shoe or crease in sock. So I backed off the pace towards something more sustainable – it’s not a sprint after all. Maybe a combination of luck and judgment led me to the ideal choice of shorts and t-shirt. A decision vindicated by passing a few very sweaty people in longs.

Will caught me as we approached half way which was a good moral boost.

Will caught me up and we ran together for a few km to the 2nd check point at about 21km. We both agreed that this was a great day and that we’d done the first half quite quickly so there may be payback later on. It is such a difficult thing to judge – especially when you don’t have a lot of experience with such things. But, there was a spark of a potential sub 4 hour marathon – wow never expected that!

Taking a moment to pause and look behind along the coastline.

Check point 2 Howick

Using hard earned wisdom from previous runnings I invested time in swapping out my socks and ensuring I had properly topped up my camelback. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that I hadn’t peed since the start despite drinking regularly – probably not enough. Also took on some nuts to keep the stomach happy and salts topped up. I popped some more caffeine to restore some spring – safe in the knowledge that even high levels are acceptable to the WADA testing. The seasoned campaigner Will jogged on. I wondered if I’d see him again before the finish as I set off with a mouth full of jelly babies.

Midway socks swap. For me this short time well invested for long term comfort.

Meat course 21-40km

Thankfully my feet felt immediately better with the fresh socks: short term time loss for longer term comfort gains. The legs appreciated the break but retained the dull heaviness. I settled into a slightly mechanical jogging zone, easy pace but keep moving, keep drinking, occasionally lifting my head and pausing to appreciate the marvelous views on show. I spent a lot of this section on my own which was fine, occasionally re-passing people who leapfrogged me at halfway. Tried to be mindful of posture from Pilates – slight lean forward with the whole body, core engaged, collarbones back and neck extended. The fatigue was insidiously encroaching, especially on my calves, and my feet were starting to bruise. With the dry ground road shoes with more padding may have been a wiser choice – too late now. Still hadn’t peed despite now consciously over-drinking. Even though it was all starting to get uncomfortable I found that I could keep going with relative ease. I guess that’s exactly why you train – it doesn’t get easier you can just go faster or longer. The easy going terrain and scenery helped here, passing Dunstanburgh castle, beaches and coves but the biggest friend was the wind gently pushing me homewards.

I was starting to tire near from 25km. Castles make for good scenic distractions.

I noticed the ominous sign of watching the passing kilometers on my watch as I approached 30. I hoped after the caffeine and jelly babies I’d get a second wind. I didn’t – not this time, damn. My calves and hamstrings were tightening and breathing was heavier. It was all a bit harder than I expected it to be and then it dawned on me- none of my training was like this. All of my longer runs have been interspersed with social pauses, walking sections, long hill climbs and descents. None of it was constantly running for over 3 hours. There was too much running in this marathon….! This ironic thought amused me for a while whilst confirming my aversion to running road marathons. Of course, I could have walked any section at any time – but for reasons unknown that just doesn’t sit right with me.

The views were behind also worthy of a brief pause. Dunstanburgh Castle on the horizon.

I was slowly passing people who were either struggling marathoners or slower halfers and tried to share some encouraging words. I reminded myself to keep looking up and appreciating the run – smell the air, look for wildlife, listen out for birdsong– step out of the tunnel vision of just finishing. Still I drank water, still nothing coming out. I saw a yellow t-shirt bobbing in and out of view in the distance and wondered if it was Julie. It wasn’t – which was good (suggesting that she was going OK) and yet disappointing (as it would have been nice to see her).

Northumberland Coast AONB. This marshy nature reserve was quite pretty.

Checkpoint 3 was about 10km, or two parkruns, from the finish and by now it was becoming a bit of a trudge. I grabbed one handful of comforting energy (aka jelly babies) and one handful of salty carbs (aka crisps) without stopping. I had mentally committed to go for a sub 4-hour marathon – with just over an hour remaining. I had decided not to take my time, not to run just for fun, but to take on an extra challenge. The conditions were so favourable and it was such a wonderful course if I’m ever going to go for a time this is it – that time is now. This is exciting, and uncomfortable.

Kit surfers at Annstead Dunes nature reserve near Seahouses. Just over 1 parkrun to go!

So I dogmatically carried on, a big part of me relishing the challenge, calculating and plotting. Tactically walking up the hills, drinking, not dawdling at gates, keep jogging on, striding out a little on the downs, minding posture, drinking, looking at the views, taking a pause for a photo – but not for too long. I was so grateful for the generous tailwind and well-marked route whilst cursing seaweed covered rocks and soft sand that sapped speed.  Balancing the positive and negative kilometer splits until I only had one parkrun left to go. From the village of Seahouses you could see the Bamburgh castle finish line on the horizon.

1st sight of Banburgh Castle from Seahouses. Really struggling to preserve the legs now.

I knew by now there was no chance I’d make the finish in under four hours so it was all about the marathon distance. My legs, especially my calves were in a bad state and in decline – felt like something was going to pull, tear, pop or cramp up. So sensitive to every twinge, so careful with every stride and foot placement. If I were to stumble, I may not recover it or I’d strain something in trying. It wasn’t about speed now, it was pure damage limitation.  I had the belief I could drive on through five more kms of discomfort – I just wasn’t sure my legs could hold out. …

Sweet dessert course

Ahhhhhhhgggggg jelly babies. Endless wide open beaches for the last stretch.

There was another checkpoint about 40km in and my camelback was empty. I checked my watch- I had 15min to do the remaining 2.2km – I was tantalisingly close! I took some water and another handful of jelly babies and trudged stoically, yet tentatively, onwards. The jelly babies weren’t really breaking down in my mouth and wondering how quickly I’d absorb that water. I was getting emotional, so happy that I was going to do this, so nearly there. This inconsequential goal that I have set myself on a whim, yet somehow now is so very important to me. So much so I’d push myself risking injury. The mind is a strange beast at times.

Sub 4hr trail marathon achieved! (Just!). Wincing grin accurately portrays joy & discomfort.

My official (as in Garmin) marathon time was 3Hr56min14s. I actually ran a little further before realising and when I did, I just stopped. So happy and relieved, I had actually done it. I had actually done something that I was really proud of, a real personal landmark. I knew technically I should be able to run a sub four-hour marathon but to actually do it on trails and beaches, over styles and through gates and to push my body to its limits, was just a euphoric feeling. I asked a random couple to take my picture. I probably appeared a little manic crazed but I didn’t care. I slowly walked to the finish soaking it all up, a few who passed me asked if I was ok? I was like ‘Absolutely – job done!’. I genuinely thought if I’d continued to run, I would have hurt myself, so I didn’t.  The last few hundred meters were climbing up to the castle – a real sting in the tail for anyone going for a time. I didn’t care. I could hear Julie and Will shouting on me from on high – it was a wonderful moment.

Walking up to the spectacular castle finish line soaking up the atmosphere and accomplishment.

So happy endings all ‘round and adventure appetite satisfied. Will finished in just over 3.5hrs for the whole event and passed Julie in a speedy blur towards the end. Julie had completed the half in a decent time despite very little training. No injuries, no accidents, just a bit of hobbling for the rest of the day as we caught up with our friends, watched the rugby and refuelled with celebratory fizz, beer and pizza. I finished 37th of 174 in a time of 4Hr21min58s, (If I’d not stopped and help position I may have finished 30th).

Wee jog for the crowds to the finish line. Julie and Will cheering me home!

Writing this up allows some reflection. I do feel very proud and accomplished by my run- it was a great personal achievement. I realise now that I hadn’t stuck to my initial plan of running to enjoy rather than endure. I had chosen to suffer and risked injury to strive for an arbitrary goal – it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things if I completed it in 4 hours or 5. Yet that target was such a strong motivator for me so I’m concluding that maybe I enjoy the challenge more….

Without a doubt though -what I enjoy the most though is being part of the shared experience of something beautiful.  Whether it be with those close to you, or fellow competitors you’ve never previously met, it makes the life adventure all the richer and deeper.