The John Muir Way Ultramarathon
John Muir 50k
1st April 2017
5hr 37m 47s
105th of 165 Runners
32nd of 65 Females
The John Muir Ultra is a relatively new race on the Scottish Ultramarathon scene, with the 2017 race being only the second running of the event. The race is delivered by the same team who run the Foxtrail Winter Running Series, and it follows 50km of beautiful East Lothian trails and roads from Port Seton to Dunbar along the John Muir Way.
The race first came to my attention when I read about Antonia’s third place finish last year; it was then consequently on my radar when I was looking for races to do this Spring to keep my long runs longer in the lead up to the Cateran 55 in May. Without a training squad and adequate transport to get places that are beyond the reach of Lothian Buses, I’ve not been doing any exciting running so far this year; this was a great opportunity to go somewhere I hadn’t been before and knock out a little ultra in preparation for the upcoming medium-sized ultra.
As it happened, the week before the race was somewhat stress-heavy and I found myself lacking in enthusiasm for what should have been a great day out. Kynon was still in Stonehaven for the weekend and with a slightly heavy head from one too many beers consumed the night before, I found myself sitting alone in my kitchen in the dark at 5:30am on race morning, eating a breakfast I had no appetite for, and seriously questioning my motives.
It was a mix of a crisis of confidence and a slight fear of the unknown; perhaps I underestimate how much I rely on Kynon’s support to lift me up, and finding myself at the end of a hard week without him at the last minute due to a clash of events, I started doubting whether my legs had it in them to carry me so far that day. It was reminiscent of the singular time I’ve come close to a DNF at the Cateran 55 in 2014, when troubles in my head overtook the strength in my legs and nearly pulled me under. We all know that in this sport the body will try to give up long before the mind will, so keeping a strong head throughout the ups and downs of ultramarathoning is imperative.
I’m usually good at using running as both a cathartic release and/or a way to hide from my troubles in life, but when life gets particularly bad, the fight becomes a lot harder. I really didn’t want to run. I wanted to get back into my bed, turn my alarms off, and sleep until I woke up again. For any new readers, my husband and I have been living apart for 10 months now due to various shitty circumstances, and it ain’t great. Right now life is hard and confusing, both financially and mentally, and the irony was that the only thing which was guaranteed to fix me, was the one thing I didn’t want to do.
However, striding down Clerk St at 6am in the morning, wearing my favourite Houston Texans bobble hat and my lucky racing skirt, I knew I had taken the hardest step of the day. I got the train from Edinburgh to Dunbar and then hitched a lift from the station to Foxlake Adventures with a chap called Norrie, who was a solid gold legend for helping me out at the last minute. I got myself registered easily and looked out for any familiar faces; I knew a handful of others doing the race, but it was an unusual situation where there were very few friends running this particular race. The buses to the start at Port Seton left promptly at 8am, and by 8:45am, the runners were assembling for a pre-race photograph and briefing.
I had studied the course briefly at the last minute and knew to expect three aid stations, but I had no real idea what to expect in terms of terrain. I should have read Antonia’s helpful blog again, because then I would have been less surprised to be on sandy beach paths quite so quickly after the start! Even though there were only 165 in the full 50k ultra, the narrow paths were quickly crowded and we followed one another in single file, carefully watching where our feet were going.
It was quite a bright, warm morning, and the first 4 miles on the beach gave us some lovely views. Passing through Aberlady at 6 miles gave us a little water stop, and then we headed onto some walking paths and roads to take us to Gullane.
Even though the sun wasn’t really out, it was a humid and ‘close’ day which meant I stripped off my outer layers quickly and drank my full litre of water before the first check point at Archerfield Walled Garden. I drank deeply from the cups on offer and refilled both my soft-flasks before swiftly moving on, following a winding path through a forest filled with daffodils.
One of the features of Archerfield is a beautiful ‘Fairy Trail’ where little houses are hidden in tree-stumps and roots. I would have loved to stop to examine them all closely, but I just stopped by this one for a brief photographic memory.
We continued on with the sea on our left towards North Berwick and the half-way checkpoint. I’ve never been to North Berwick and I enjoyed the brief detour through the town which allowed me to admire some beautiful houses. The route took us across the West Bay on the sand, before we reached to Lifeboat Station where the checkpoint was based. Here, I refilled my flasks again and enjoyed some banana chunks and fresh orange slices, before heading out across Milsey Bay on the sand towards the imposing loom of Berwick Law.
Thankfully the route didn’t take us anywhere near the summit and we circumnavigated around the base avoiding any serious incline. The next few miles were then across farmland and fields which would have been very muddy had it been a wet day (or even a wet week!) but thankfully we traversed the packed earth relatively unscathed and approached the next water stop at mile 20 deep in a forest, by a fishing lake.
This little checkpoint was the first to be equipped with the nectar of ultrarunning, full fat coke. I also had two slices of a vanilla traybake birthday cake which was inexplicably delicious. The miles which followed saw me skip through the forest with a smile on my face in genuine delight – I had finally cheered up and achieved the sweet release of the runner’s high which keeps me coming back to these events. I felt strong and capable once more, and ready to fight home to the finish.
The miles leading to 26.2 and the final checkpoint were largely nondescript, although I found the going tougher as the clouds had burned off and the temperature began to rise. There was also some kind of factory processing plant which was giving off the most horrific smell I have ever had the misfortune to breathe into my body; I think it was processing animal or fish material for fertiliser, and was polluting about half a mile of the route with the awful stench. I dry-heaved a couple of times as I ran as fast as I could to get upwind of it…
Passing through the last checkpoint at 26.2 miles, the amazingly cheerful marshalls buoyed us with reminders that it was only 8km to go. Not being a metric thinker, 5.5 miles seemed a lot longer in my head. I ran a little with Amanda and Fiona around this point, but eventually the direct sunshine started to get the better of me and I threw in some walking breaks. The last few miles were definitely my favourite part of the route; a little pathway by a river for a while which lead to a coastal path where the beautiful white beaches reminded me of the Moray coast.
The race concluded with a glory lap of the Fox Lake itself, and a final sprint towards race HQ. I finished in 5hr 37m 47s and thoroughly enjoyed a good sit down in the sunshine on the deck for a while afterwards, pumping myself full of orange squash. I was feeling decidedly ropey for a while upon finishing; having drank an estimated four litres of fluid during the race, I had yet to need to go to the toilet. I was dizzy and nauseated; these early Spring races are always so hard when the temperature sneaks up on you and you’re used to running in the snow!
Remarkably, despite my body’s best efforts to the contrary, I managed to pull off a top quality finishing pose in the last twenty meters which was captured perfectly by Bob Marshall Sports Photography. I’ll await my ‘Best Actress’ Oscar nomination in the post…
So all in all, the John Muir Ultra is a great day out and I’d love to do it again. For a brand new race, they’ve got all of the important race features executed perfectly, and served with a side of East Lothian’s cheeriest marshalls. A stunning route and a very achievable distance for a first trail ultramarathon, I expect that the popularity of this little race will explode very soon.
Once my nausea had cleared I headed home on the train and was back in my flat in Edinburgh within an hour. The morning’s troubles seemed like a distant memory from another lifetime ago and I headed out for some beers in the sunshine. One of my friends had commented earlier in the day on my reluctance to do the race by saying ‘I don’t know why you do something you don’t want to do?’. Well; not a lot of things in life make sense, least of all ultrarunning. I do it because sometimes, I feel it’s all I can do.
Next up: London Marathon…