Monday, 25 April 2016

the John Muir Way Ultra 50k

Mary signed up for this before me. Her first ultra since 2011 - I think she picks events by instinct rather than logic or reason. (Inspiration to get marathoning and do some long distance running?) I was pleased to follow suit as a lot of my favourite East Lothian trails are John Muir flavoured. And 50k is a relatively short ultra.

The organisers, Foxtrail, were responsible for the 20k I really enjoyed in late Feb. They weren't quick to post a route map (I think they were still trying to wrangle permission from the council to have the route go over the summit of NB Law, sadly not to be (this year)) but a couple of weeks before the off we were given details and they looked good. Mostly the JMW from Port Seton to Dunbar with a couple of diversions to bring the distance up to 50k. Largely off road, but not TOO cross country. Just enough to keep things interesting.

Mary nosing Toby out the picture

As reported in my last blog, my running has been a bit sporadic of late. I did lots of inadvertent tapering for a fortnight, then looked like I'd hamstrung myself doing sprints at club on Wednesday and a 19 miler on Thursday, 2 days before the race, just because the sun was out. To make things worse I stayed up late Friday night (the night before race day) because I'd been blogging Thursday's run all day Friday and only then realised I better get my kit ready for Saturday morning as we would be leaving the house at 6.30am to catch the 7.07 train to Dunbar. I was still tweaking shoe choice and mixing drinks at midnight, eventually getting 5hrs sleep before breakfast at 5.30. It wasn't really ideal race prep, but I managed not to forget anything too important. And we caught the train.

The lack of seriousness continued to pervade the day. Mary and I were both a bit fraught on the way up the road - she set off early (having been up since 4.30am, WTF!) and I ran to catch up, telling her I was delighted with the backpack I bought from Iain W(intervals) on Thurs eve. Which set Mary off, making remarks about how comfortable Iain's sack was on my back and it all deteriorated from there.

Richard H didn't show up at Waverley (his local train was cancelled) but texted that he had a plan B. Which sadly for his partner, was to return home and wake her up! Nick (excellent to have him back in the running world, completely nuts to round off his injury time with a 30 miler!) had gamely volunteered to pick us up at Dunbar station and drive us a couple of miles to the Finish and registration. This was to allow Mary a beer option at the end, and not to have to drive home on potentially broken legs. After all we would be running 31 miles over lumpy ground.

5 Porties - Toby, Roly, Richard, Mary and I - were signed up for this race - and lots of other familiar faces. There were more than 70 doing the full ultra and 17 teams doing the 2 person relay option. We dropped off our finish line bags and (after picking up maps and numbers) got on 2 coaches which drove us to the start at Port Seton. After a bit of chat and photos we were set off at 9.05. About the only worthwhile prep I had done was to use the magic stick on my legs for about 5 mins on Friday night. I had found some sore patches on my calves from Weds and Thurs and gave them maximum attention. And that all important shoe choice. I had bought a pair of Hoka Challenger 2s a couple of weeks prior but just hadn't broken them in adequately, having only done a couple of runs in them. They were still a bit snug on the forefoot and I reckoned 30 miles and I'd be in trouble. But my old challengers were a bit flat - as they get after a few hundred miles. I compromised by using a thinner pair of insoles (and thinner socks than usual) on the new Challenger 2s to give more volume for my toes to breath and crossed my fingers. I had no idea if I'd be ok or hurpling by the finish. (Spoiler alert, they were fab: no blisters or rubs.)

photo Richard 

After a bit of tarmac we headed onto narrow sandy trails. I'd worn gaiters to stop the sand getting into my shoes. I think they worked well. Mary had to stop to empty her shoes, I didn't. The only sandy trails were between Longniddry Bents and then the brief sections on the N Berwick beaches.

I ran beside Stuart and Nick for a bit.

I was glad to get past Gosford as a lot of the thin trails there are lumpy and badly cambered. I ran with Nick and Stuart for a bit but could see Roly was in serious race mode and running with Phil up ahead and my enthusiasm to keep up with them had me move forward. Being an ultra there was a fair bit of chat, and in no time we were past the wee bridge and into the magic forest and along the trails to Aberlady. I was enjoying the process and managed to avoid setting off too fast. As Phil said you can't win a race like this in the first mile but you can lose it. He was only doing the relay as he was saving his legs for the Fling next week. In the photo above the runner ahead is Paul from Dunbar, then Phil and Roly. Nick introduced Paul and I earlier in the race although I reminded Paul we had run together for most of the Dunbar Festive Half back in December.

Bob was out early on to catch us as we went past still fresh and smiling!

Mary agreed later that some of the most interesting parts of the course for us were when we were sent off route, or taken on diversions that we hadn't been on before. I think I have been down this lane next to Aberlady Kirk before, but only once with Scott and Amanda and couldn't remember where it went. Considering we were running 7.23 pace (average) I think this is a not bad photo. All the route was very well marked and marshalled and we were each given a printed out map in a plastic wallet. If navigation mistakes were made it was not the organisers' fault. The route round the back of Aberlady led to the first aid station where I had a cup of water. Didn't notice if there were food stuffs. All the other aid stations (four in total) had homebakes, sweets, coke and water and so dispensed with the need for drop bags. This worked very well - over this distance you definitely need to eat and drink a little but you could have entirely relied on what they provided (although they recommended you carry sufficient for your own requirements.) I carried a certain amount but consumed a substantial amount of it on the bus to the start, hoping it would slowly be absorbed into my system and fuel me as we ran. On the bus I ate a Cadbury's Caramel, 2 mini Soreen Banana bread loaves, a Starbar and possibly a sports bar/flapjack. All before 9am. Healthy 2nd breakfast! Small wonder there are often funny noises along the way. I also had about 750mls of water and caffeine drink mix in a reservoir on my back. The organisers suggested we carry a waterproof and a mobile phone, (also in the backpack) though some runners appeared not to carry anything. There was no kit check. 

We did not go over the bridge at Aberlady, (council said no) opting to follow the main road round to Gullane Golf Course then crossed (marshalled crossing) towards the club house and the JMW cutting along the back of the course and heading up to Gullane. Around here I fell in step with Paul again and we remarked on the perfect weather and blue skies and how this was SO MUCH BETTER than that marathon they were running down south. Instead of running up the high street we went round the back on farm roads (new to me, photo above) then up a gradual climb to the main North Berwick Road. (Another marshalled crossing.) On the outskirts of Gullane we saw the fat bikes. I had emailed the organisers to warn them that Bruce and friends were holding the annual Forth Fat, fat bike rally. Probably the biggest in the country (if not Europe?) Forth Fat were setting off from North Berwick at 9.15am at a leisurely pace, and heading towards Gullane. I had been communicating with Jason about likely intersect points and we hoped it wouldn't be on narrow trails. And here they were, at the best possible meeting place, streaming down the road, a magnificent sight! Just recently the council widened the pavement here making it ideal to have bikes down one side and runners on the other. The riders were exceptionally courteous and we exchanged compliments of the day as they rode past single file. Great to see Bruce, Jason and pals and the hugely impressive fleet of 80 fat bikes. A great spectacle to lift the day.

Bruce, at the front of the Fat Bike revolution.


This is what the fat bikes were up to.
Photo Dougie Craigie

At the gatehouse near Archerfields we left the road for trails. There were a handful of bikers still coming through but they gave us plenty room and there were more cheerful hellos. We turned left at the road and went past the walled garden cafe where there was an aid station and I had a square of chocolate homebake. Paul and I had got talking by now and were exchanging marathon stories and running tales. This was his first ultra, although he was a sub3 marathoner. As we chatted we came back round past the large building and the road and then turned down the dirt trail towards Dirleton.

I thought, at first glance, this building had a face on the front.

Just before Dirleton, local, Dr Neil offered gels and support. He was very chipper and accompanied Mary for the next section to North Berwick. (And Harry the black lab.)

Within sight of Fidra we turned right and ran alongside the boundary wall.

After a bit we headed through a gate (?) then across this field. I'd seen photos of this place taken by Bruce and Jason, and the bikers came along here earlier, but this was the first time I'd been here. Paul told me it was his local circuit and I got the feeling he was enjoying the home turf. (He lives in NB.) Below is an excellent photo James A took a few minutes ahead of us.

photo James Addie

Out the other side and who should come past but Ben H, the early leader and eventual winner, who had taken a wrong turn, done a bit extra then doubled back realising his mistake. He went past at impressive vengeance pace, no doubt anxious to regain places. I think one of the marshals said Paul and I were about the middle of the top ten near here but I wasn't sure if that included the 2 who went wrong; and with relay runners it was tricky to know what place you were. It wasn't that big a deal either, at that point.

On to North Berwick, which turned up quickly (being unfamiliar with the approach road we were on. Nice not to come in on the beach side which drags on as you hug the golf course. A quick trot along the beach and up to the Lifeguard Station (16miles) where relay runners waited. Myself and Paul scoofed back coke and water. Sandy helped him take off his base layer (it was warming in the sun!) but he hadn't taken off his watch and kerfuffle ensued. Louise watched and took photos. She had originally signed up for the whole thing but then decided a relay option would be more apt. She emailed the organisers who had just heard from one of the relay teams short of a runner and in need of a stand in. The 2 halves made a whole, and top marks to John the organiser for making it happen seamlessly. Louise waved us through as she waited to meet her brand new team mate for the first time.

P & P tandem drinks

how not to remove a shirt!

I didn't want to hurry Paul away from the aid station but was keen to get going myself. I set off slightly ahead but when I saw he was back running, slowed to run with Paul. I knew he would know the route through NB being local - I was concerned as it seemed to be on paths I was unfamiliar with and it could have been a potential nav problem. However it was all well marked and marshalled. Again top marks Foxtrail people.

So busy chatting I forgot to take photos on the beach so I'll nick one of Mary's

We ran on this pleasant trail through NB past the recreation fields where Paul's wife was waiting with son Peter who had been football training.

We then ran round the base of the Law. I obvs wasn't paying attention as I missed the ponies. (Stuart got photos.) I was also a bit sorry we weren't being made to climb the Law - I think permission was sought and turned down - as it would have been more memorable. But then again it wouldn't have been all that welcome on legs that had plenty to do already. And someone would have had to stand up there for hours, marshalling. But it would have made for good photos and crack.

Out the usual JMW paths until the tarmac stretch where we went straight on instead; going past a farm then left to rejoin the JMW. Paul nearly missed the arrow left which would have short cut us down to Balgone ponds but I anticipated it and we could see some other runners a bit ahead now, targets to try and catch.

The pond-side trails were sploshy in parts but even since Thursday had slightly dried up. There was a messy bit near where the vehicles were parked. Cheery marshals - all the marshals were so cheery and full of encouragements, it was like they were having a really fun day out. Wasn't expecting water but received it gratefully and it tasted absolutely brilliant. I think mentally I was perhaps beginning to leave the rails. But having fun as well. I'd never been right the way round the back of the loop so wasn't aware of the log cabin. Don't know what the yellow thing on the seat was but it should have been a dueling banjo.

I set the flash for the dark undergrowth which has picked out the reflective points but not stopped the unintentional camera movement.

On the far side climbing the hill we suddenly turned off at the point I'd seen the green pheasant on Thursday. It was more of a wild goose chase this time as we went low then doubled back up a steep rise to pretty much where we'd started and got some cheek off another cheery marshal out taping the route.

Then through some pretty daffodils.

photo Lesley Marshall

We then went up past the big house and back onto the JMW where we passed Lesley taking photos. Rumour has it she got several good offers for her bike.

We were closing down on the 2 runners ahead. First turned out to be James and as we approached he said the fact that he'd done nothing longer than 12 miles this year was telling. Well yes it would do! Poor guy. I was going to suggest jumping aboard our train but could see he was flagging and no amount of banter would help. Paul asked James how many ahead and I was very surprised to hear "only 2". I thought he might be wrong about that especially as we were closing down the next guy. However he turned out to be a relay runner, who was surprised to see we were not. After all we had gone 16 miles further than him, and were now overtaking. Stink farm had a cook going on but wasn't quite full blast. We powered on and up Drylaw Hill in front of East linton although by the time we rolled down the other side I appreciated the toll it had taken. Couldn't be arsed getting the camera out for the Doocot there although I couldn't resist the black sheep a moment later. Paul led the way for a bit here and if I had any low spots on the run it was possibly here.

The route around East Linton was much nicer than the usual way we go and as they say a change is as good as a rest. Just before the aid station was the marathon distance which I didn't notice we went through in about 3hrs12. Or just seconds behind Dame Kelly on smooth surfaces down South. (She's let herself go?) I could feel the first precursors of cramp ghosting around my legs and knew I'd be in trouble if I did anything harsh or sudden. Happily no gates to climb or rivers to jump. The last aid station was at the road crossing and very welcome. I glugged down 2 cups of coke and one water, nothing to eat. Exactly the sort of behaviour that can induce cramp. But I got away with it, and it seemed to keep me going over the last 4+ miles of gentle riverside paths and field perimeters. I thought, as we approached the small group at the Tyninghame Rd tunnel (below) they were there to cheer us on. But I think they were just ramblers having an impromptu picnic. I was now unhinged and shouting at strangers: something about just in time for a sandwich.

That was the last photo I took during the race. You get to a point and unless it's an eagle pulling a crocodile out the river the camera is not coming out again. Normally in an ultra the last few miles are like pulling teeth. Not so much here. Partly the pleasant and familiar course and partly its "only" 30ish miles and not lashing rain. One small sting in the tail was the trail which gets very twisty turny and a bit off camber at the estuary. I was ahead of Paul at this point and deliberately slowed so nobody went over on an ankle or fell on their face. By which I mean my face, or my ankle. 

There was one issue left however and I had seen it coming a while back. The marshal at the last station had mentioned it as well... "what are you 2 going to do at the finish?" Since we were in third and fouth place one of us could podium and one would finish in 4th. (I was fourth at the last Foxtrail and declared myself first loser.) 2 options (assuming neither crashed and burned in the last few miles.) Either we shout all bets are off and sprint from a given point, or we cross the line together. Over an event like this you feel a bond grow with those right there beside you (Mary made a new pal too,) so after considering the options (Dick Dastardly or Peter Perfect?) I voted that we do the joint-third-cross-the-line-together. And not just because I thought he might have the stronger finish! It didn't seem appropriate to suddenly turn against someone I'd spent the whole day turning towards. It didn't make the organisers lives easier though. Happily the prize was easy enough to share - medal and trophy - although the real prize was a strong finish after an excellent event with great company. Terrific day out.

Anne finishing

Phil and Elly win first mixed team relay

Me and Paul, joint third. (And beating all the relay teams!)

handsome trophy

Top marks to John for putting on a really well organised event. Another cracker.
And done with lots of enthusiasm and charm and cheery marshals.

Mary storms home. 

photo Louise
Afterwards I was fairly done in. I needed beer and food but was a bit too ptsd to sort it out. I did manage to get a shower and changed into warm clothes (which was a great help) but didn't do proper eating till we got home. Mary had a fine old time and survived really well considering her compressed version of getting up to long distance training in a pretty short time. It was a good idea for her not to drive although she passed over the beer option till later. We got a lift back to Dunbar from the Hays who both survived as well, but probably didn't enjoy the off roady miles as much as M and I. However it's all good long distance training miles and we agreed the organisation was all spot on. 

me with "new" backpack!
Thanks Iain and best wishes on your new life over there.
Maybe we'll come visit!

Back at Waverley, time for a selfie in that mirrored wall but neither of us could be motivated to visit the war memorial (an extra 50 yards no way!) to tick off Mary's 2nd ever Tynecastle Bronze. We already had the wms at Aberlady and Dirleton. Legs were tired but not absolutely shot getting off the train. Home for late lunch and early dinner with beer AND wine, how many calories did you say we had to make up? One of the best bits about going long - that feeling of tiredness and hunger that follows you around for a couple of days but if it has gone well you can wear it like a badge of courage. And eat like a king! 175 likes on facebook, stop, I'm blushing!

Stats: Just under 50k several measured around 30.4 miles
I had my garmin on autopause although this hasn't skewed things much as it was within a minute of the 3.46 the official time recorded. 2 mins grazing at aid stations.
Garmin says 7.23 average pace ie a 3hr12 marathon plus another 4 miles of same.
Winner Ben Hukins in 3.36.
(Only 10mins ahead and he has run 2.25 for a marathon.
Although on this occasion he did run a bit further than I did due to his nav error!)
Ultra results
Relay results

Special mention to Roly who came in 5th. (ie next finisher after Paul and I.) Having had a sub-optimal D33, great to see him in kicking ass and knocking out the miles today, starting the race pretty much in his own back yard. Great stuff.

Top event, highly recommended (especially in the perfect weather we had for it.) Big thanks to John and his team and all the cheery marshals. It all seemed to go very smoothly and in a relaxed fashion. Aid stations were great and fuelled us well. I think this will be the next "Fling" ie in a couple of years it will be sold out in minutes and will be THE early season ultra. I shouldn't be saying this - only encouraging the process. Actually London marathon is a much better idea - go and run round that smoggy supermarket with Dame Kelly and a dalek for company. 


  1. Great story. I'll definitely be there next year.

  2. Yes it's one that I'd do again. Had a really jolly atmosphere about it. Not too expensive and not too long. Weather made it fantastic this year. Good ultra for first timers, and on nice trails that don't trash legs like tarmac would.

  3. Thanks, Peter, for the advice, encouragement and great company during the race, which really made the miles fly by.

    Next time I'll wear my Garmin UNDER my base layer to avoid another wardrobe malfunction!

    All the best,
    Paul Moseley

  4. nice to see such a good picture of my wee sister in your blog. great report.

  5. Hadn't realised you were sisters! She is also in pic 28 as she started her run seconds behind myself, leaving NB on the beach.

  6. Great race report! I’m doing the race this year as my first Ultra 😬 Really looking forward to it and hoping for similar weather as you seem to have had!

  7. It is a good choice for a first ultra. Enjoy it and fingers crossed for decent weather!

  8. Great blog, going to be my first a cushioned road style shoe better do you think? Wondering if inov8 roclite trail shoes might not be cushioned enough for the distance...? Cheers

  9. If it were me I'd run in Hoka Speedgoat 2s. Excellent cushioned trail shoe.