Last updated: 20-Aug-18
By Simon Pryde
We have 100k, 80k and 50k routes boasted the email from High Terrain events. The Kielder Ultra Trail is a new race and this correspondence arrived in my inbox at just the right time. I’d spent a few months recovering from an injury, but was now ready to tackle an ultra again. I opted for the shortest. The 31-mile course looked testing, and would be a good gauge of my fitness.
The route involved a huge loop of Kielder Resevoir. Anyone who’s run the increasingly popular Kielder Marathon will be familiar with the undulating Lakeside Path that circumnavigates the source of most of the North East’s drinking water. Whilst we’d use some of this relatively easy-to-negotiate trail, we were told to expect, predominantly, single tracks, forest paths and some nice bogs. (Every event needs nice bogs and not many have them).
So, on Sunday morning at 8.30, a group of sixty gathered in a communal building at Hawk Hirst scout camp for a pre-race briefing. I glanced around me, to see an array of wiry, willowy, wily looking characters. Everyone at this kind of event looks as though they know exactly what they are doing, whereas I always feel like a fish not only out of water, but several bus stops from the beach. We had our kit checked (you needed various compulsory items – full waterproof body cover, first aid kit, emergency food and a minimum amount of water, otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed to run). Thankfully, my first aid kit wasn’t examined TOO closely – it consisted of a couple of plasters, some Anadin, and some toothpaste (tube mistaken for antiseptic cream). These compulsory kit checks aren’t so much for the athletes’ safety, I feel, but more to do with the organisers being able to cover their backs when you’re found 3 days later somewhere near the Scottish border, hypothermic, delirious, and with very clean teeth.
A hasty briefing and a cup of tea from the communal kitchen later, and we were all on the start line. At 9 o’clock, off we trundled, having been told the 100 and 80K competitors (who’d set off at 5am) were all doing well…. Or at least they were the last time we saw them.
Knowing the terrain would be testing, my aim was to finish in under six hours. I’ve come unstuck before, thinking things like I’ll average ten minute miles easily without truly appreciating the extent to which numerous devilish inclines and energy-sapping bogs can scupper one’s race plan.
The first part of this route was a road. Fine. And it was downhill. About half the field shot off at an alarming rate. I maintained a conservative pace in the middle of the pack, as we filed onto the Lakeside Way, a bumpy route, but nonetheless solid underfoot. A mile or two later, the course, which was well marked, veered sharply South West, and on to a single track. The real stuff.
I found myself in a group of five or six, running in single file, keeping in rhythm. We didn’t speak. If we weren’t daunted by the distance and terrain ahead, it certainly occupied our minds. The weather wasn’t bad – overcast, but no rain, and I felt comfortable in this caravan of runners as we glided through woodland, tackling undulations and twists of the path. I briefly wondered whether we’d run the whole lot together, but within another couple of miles, the group had dissipated once more. A series of steep climbs slowed some down, and then the route became boggy, peaty and sticky. By, sticky, I mean both viscous and covered in sticks (the sort of sticks which look innocuous, but the moment you tread on them they flick themselves up towards and around your ankles, and take on the characteristics of an Oriental martial arts weapon, ruthlessly whipping from beneath you your unsuspecting feet).
The route wound its way through places like Ferny Knowe and Sturdy Brae, which through name alone invoke an image of the genre of terrain we were traversing. We descended through thick, black mud to a big pool of, well, thicker, blacker mud. We squelched through it. I say we… the field had thinned out dramatically by this point, though I did pass a woman who offered the comforting insight, it gets much worse than this.
I found myself descending a path towards Kielder Castle, where there awaited the first checkpoint. I bounded enthusiastically into the little white tent, demanding jelly sweets and peanuts. I was met with a bemused look from the lady from English Heritage. Half a mile later, I arrived at the genuine pit stop, at which I was able to gorge on the aforementioned snacks, fill my hydration bladder, and empty my real one, before setting off on my merry way, along with a bloke wearing bright orange and a really tall man who covered about five metres with each stride.
We crossed a quaint bridge, at the end of which lurked someone who looked like he might be about to demand the payment of a toll, but was in fact the official photographer. Back into the forest we went, and along a long stretch of single track, and then a bit more on the Lakeside Path. A cheerful Geordie clad in black overtook me. He was wearing a different coloured number. A 100Ker! He and his intrepid fellow competitors had already done an extra loop away from the castle up on to the moors somewhere near Scotland, from what I could gather. I commended him for his fortitude and brisk pace, and he was gone.
I knew we would soon veer off the Lakeside Path again. The route was still adequately marked, but when I reached the fork I could see, a long way ahead, still on the trail by the reservoir’s edge, the black-clad Geordie. He should have turned left. I yelled at him…. He heard me, just, and turned round. Another runner had also gone astray, and did a U-turn. My good deed done, I stumbled off up a single track, through bracken, heather and hidden, toe stubbing rocks.
Then, we turned sharply into the forest once more. The trees seemed to close in and shut off the light. It felt eerie, and enchanted, a curious mist drifting low across the forest floor, creatures rustling in the undergrowth, the occasional shriek of an unseen bird. Concentrating hard to ensure I kept my footing, I was relieved to emerge once more onto a wider path, a forest track down which a couple of Land Rovers trundled, their bemused occupants offering encouraging waves. The black-clad 100k Geordie caught me again, and pressed on ahead, as the steepest climb of the whole race loomed ahead. I’d overtaken a couple of people myself in the previous mile, and felt in good enough shape to push on confidently up the hill.
The route took a sharp right turn onto another treacherously narrow path, winding through conifers that suddenly parted to expose a rugged, rocky outcrop… the top of the climb, and a wonderful spot from which to drink in a breath-taking view down to the reservoir and beyond, if only I had time to stop. In the event, all I drank in was a bit of blackcurrant flavoured electrolyte stuff.
I’d spotted another runner ahead, and I passed her as we began the long descent to the second checkpoint, swapping words of encouragement. I’m fucking knackered, she said. Me too, I replied. Bollocks to this she said. Yeah, I agreed. But actually I was quite enjoying myself, and began to bound down the hill with some gusto. A carpet of moss made for springy conditions underfoot, and in no time I’d reached the second checkpoint, where I even caught up with the Black Clad 100k Geordie.
I combined energy gels with proper food to fuel me through the race…. And a banana, some jelly babies, a cheese pasty and a tube of gloop later, I was on my way, my hydration pack refilled, and only another 11 or so miles to run. The final part of the route was familiar to me as someone who’d run the Kielder Marathon before, sticking as it did to the Lakeside Path for the vast majority of its course. Crossing the dam, I picked up the pace again, and focussed on a couple of runners I spotted ahead of me. I’d kept a pretty even pace throughout, and knew the toughest climbs were behind me. The familiarity of this part of the trail was a comfort. (If you’re wondering about Black Clad 100k Geordie, you’ll hear no more of him, as his route involved another ludicrous additional loop from the second checkpoint).
Past the car park at Tower Knowe, and Bull Crag peninsula loomed large. Get round that, and it’d be the home straight. Another runner, who I’d already seen several times on the route already, came into view, and I pulled alongside him. Nice chap, by the name of Craig who, like me, was training for a Hadrian’s Wall run. We discussed the sort of thing ultra-runners discuss (the route, how long left, sore legs, the desire to vomit, the plight of the turtles on the Galapagos Islands, that sort of thing) as we ran alongside one another for a bit. Craig would pull away on flat bits, I would catch him on the hills. Motivated by keeping up with each other, we sped up a little going into the last five miles.
A tough trail marathon done, it was time to finish the job. Past Leaplish (where the Kielder Marathon starts and ends), down a winding, muddy path, over a little bridge… two more runners ahead…. Was there time to catch them? A final effort, we were on tarmac now, and a most welcome sign for Hawkhirst Scout Camp, where we’d started five hours ago. I overtook the hapless duo who’d led me for 31 miles… and the finish was in sight. Up a hill. But that meant I could close on Craig, who’d forged ahead again. I mustered a sprint, of sorts, muttering something along the lines of come here, you rascal, as my adversary, alerted by the sound of my cumbersome pursuit, sped up, and crossed the finishing line one second ahead of me, chuckling. We embraced, and wandered off, and then I had to go to work which, after 31 tough old miles was an endurance test in itself.
Overall, I loved it, and achieved my sub six hour target (5:10:01 and 14th place) and will be back next year… possibly attempting one of the longer versions… possibly not!