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  • Heather Lawson

COMPETING WITH AN ULTRA RUNNER

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

The story of 28.5 miles from Carrick a Reedie Bridge to Coleraine in Northern Ireland Or taking on a marathon with an Ultra Runner for the first time!


In 2018 I happened upon an advert on Facebook for the Causeway Challenge, an event organized by Parkinson’s UK. You could walk or run a marathon along the Causeway coastline in Northern Ireland, it hadn’t even been on my bucket list, but the pictures of the scenery drew me in, and with a few clicks I was signed up.


The event has hard, there was driving rain for most of the distance, and a driving North Sea wind too. You had to take your chances to even try and take in the scenery by peering out from under the hood on your jacket, however, the upside of being alone entrant is that people wanted to take me under their wing, no one ever wanted me to be on my own, and the camaraderie was fantastic.


View of the Olympic Stadium

So fast forward to 2019, a year when I wanted to complete 50 challenges for in my 50th year for Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund I wondered if the Northern Irish weather might be kinder and I signed up again. Flying out of London City Airport on Friday 7th September I was Belfast bound - excellent views of the Olympic stadium too!... with an Ultra Marathon Runner (UMR) in tow too, my boyfriend had decided to join me on my first of fifty events.




I DON'T NEED TO BREAK MYSELF

Now the UMR is a much faster runner than me, so there is no way that we can compete with each other, and nor would I want to either. But that was the first time (and potentially only time!) that we had decided to complete a challenge together. Now note that word completely. That was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to come over the line first, I didn’t want to be competitive, I wanted to take in the views that I hadn’t seen the year before due to the horrendous weather. This was also the first of 50 events over a year, so virtually one a week, and I didn’t need to break myself on the first event either.


CAUSEWAY COAST & GAME OF THRONES

The Causeway Challenge is an absolutely stunning route from Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge to Coleraine in Northern Ireland, taking in the Giants Causeway, part of the Royal Port rush Golf Course where the Open was played for the first time as well as Dunluce Castle. The coastline is just simply amazing, words just can’t do it justice.


Now I have not seen a single episode of Game of Thrones, but unfortunately for me, if the Ultra Marathon Runner was ever on Mastermind this would be his specialist subject. Northern Ireland and this coastline were used quite heavily for filming, so we had to take in some sightseeing visiting the Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-rede Bridge, and Ballantoy Harbour, which were all used as locations for this blockbuster series.


After a day of being bombarded with Games of Thrones trivia, the UMR & I headed into Portstewart, finding the most amazing Italian restaurant called Amici, who settled us down with a sea view, and we ploughed our way through enough pasta to feed Rome for a day – crab loading in style!


AT THE START LINE WITH THE ULTRA RUNNER

The next morning around 125 of us set off from the start line at Carrick A Rede bridge, the grey clouds later giving way to blue skies…thankfully!


And my first of 50 challenges had started. The Causeway Challenge is open to runners or walkers, and the vast majority were walkers. I planned to walk/jog the 28.5 miles, for several reasons:


1. It is very hilly, and although I love hills, I didn’t want to run 28.5 miles of hills!

2. My mantra was completing over competing (so I didn't need to run it all)

3. The UMR was joining me on this trip so he was going to make me run some of it anyway


This coastline is simply stunning. If you have never been to Northern Ireland and you love the great outdoors then go – the views will take your breath away. It is one of those coastlines where you need to keep looking back over your shoulder to take in where you have come from. The light and the weather can change the mood of what you are looking at in seconds, it is truly a special place.




The weather was also being very kind to us, and the rain had stayed away, so I was taking my time to take on the views, walking the hills, jogging the flats, and running the downhills.


EYES FRONT

So in taking in these breath-taking views as I was zooming down a hill, my foot hit a rock on the gravel path, the next thing I know I was flying through the air. I landed hard on the gravel path, but momentum meant I stopped a good 20 meters from where I had started - coming to a stop face down. My favorite Sweaty Betty leggings were ripped to shreds as were my hands and knees!



Shall I laugh or cry?

This is what happens when you are on a challenge with the UMR. The one time I am actually in front of him, I ended up in a crumpled heap with chunks of gravel embedded in my legs. The UMR had stopped to take pictures further back, and soon rounded the corner and saw the state of me. I was in that in-between state of not knowing whether to laugh or cry!


The half-way checkpoint was just a couple of miles away, so with a hobble like a jog we made it to the 13-mile point where a very nice medic called Ronald cleaned me up, patched me up and I was on my way.


It was whilst I was getting patched up that a very concerned lady from the Parkinson's events team asked the UMR whether he should go and see how I was getting on, as I had been gone for the best part of half an hour – his response

“ Nah, she’ll be fine, anyway I’m hungry and need to get some food!” – forever the UMR that he is!


UNTOUCHED COAST

The course is definitely all-terrain, from shoreline rocks to grass paths, a mile along a fab sandy beach (although we were both glad to get off the sand as our calf muscles were beginning to make themselves known towards the end). The sea is always in sight. There are ancient castles, sheep and cattle, disused railways lines, and the grandeur of the Port rush Golf course.


The thing that I loved about this coastline and the coastal path is that even though it has been ‘made famous’ by Game of Thrones, it is still untouched. Along stretches of the coastal path, you wouldn’t pass a soul, and the mixed weather made the view to my right of the sea an ever-changing canvas.


OVERTAKING LANE

Before you get to the town of Portstewart, you have to go across an undulating coastal path, that forms the barrier between the sea and a pitch and putts course. It was at this point that I could see that the competing over completing issue was going to rear its head again, and here’s why.


If the UMR has anyone or anything in front of him, then mentally he has to beat that person or thing. On his walk to work through Greenwich Park, he would have a battle with the people on the path in front of him. They would be oblivious to the fact that the UMR had created a virtual race and he had to overtake then and ‘get the win’.


My altercation with the gravel path and the time I had spent with Ronald the Medic were playing havoc with the UMR’s stats. He wanted to finish and pointed out a couple that was in front of us. The girl was using walking poles (or cheat sticks as he calls them!), they were in his sights and we had to overtake them.


The pace suddenly quickened and I was doing all I could to keep up. I was trying to distract him with the crashing waves and amazing sea spray, but he wasn’t having any of it. These people could not finish the challenge in front of us - “they had to be taken down”.


Not too subtly we caught up with them, overtook them, and then I burst out laughing. There were no race numbers on them at all, they were just a couple out for a stroll, who just happened to be on the same path as us, and were of no competition at all. The UMR was still glad that we had overtaken them.


ENOUGH OF THE DATA POINTS FROM THE ULTRA RUNNER

Towards the end of the route, you hit civilization again as you hit the town of Portstewart and make a turn inland for Ulster University and the finish line. You say “goodbye” to the sea, and “hello” to an A road. It is a shame that the last few miles of this challenge are on road, but the finish line is at Ulster University and this road was the only way to get there.


We were sharing a path with a cycle lane, and it was at this point that I think tiredness began to set in. The UMR was firing data points at me left right and center; how miles we had to go, the pace we should be going at to finish in the time that he wanted (we were already an hour late), we should be running more than we were, we have an xxx number of meters left. It was relentless.


I politely told the UMR to keep his data points to himself (maybe not so politely, and perhaps the odd expletive was used) and reaffirmed that my mantra was completing over competing, and if he wanted to run an ahead he was more than welcome! There then came a stifled giggle from behind us. A cyclist who had slowed up to listen to our interchange, couldn't keep his giggles inside anymore, and sped past us – at last, we brightened someone's day.


Soon the left turn I had been looking out for was in sight, Ulster University could be seen and the 28.5 miles were over, crossing the line we were not only given our bling but a lovely dram of Bushmills Whiskey, as the distillery is less than 5 miles from the finish line. It was at this point that the UMR told me that whilst I had been with the medic that he had been given 2 drams of whiskey by the organizers - cheeky sod!


Finish line

Aside from scabby knees, embedded grit in my hand and the UMR’s incessant data points ringing in my ears, part of me wanted to turn around and do it in reverse!


This is without a doubt one of my favorite paths. I was brought up in Kent, so I have used the South Coast as a wild playgroup for most of my life, but the remoteness, the green, the people, and the social history of this area will see me going back again and again.


In fact, if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, I would have certainly have signed up for the 3rd time in 2020, but perhaps would go with some girlfriends who have the same mantra as me “ completing over competing”


But that's OK as the Ultra Marathon Runner has said he is going to do the event ‘properly’ and run all of it with some friends, finishing earlier than me, so he can head to the bar for another sneaky Bushmills.


Competing or completing, whichever takes your fancy - do go an explore this route (with or without an Ultra Runner in tow), before the crowds and tourists find out about our secret bit of Northern Ireland. The completing over competing dialogue will still continue in the house, with each of us sticking to our guns!


https://discovernorthernireland.com/about-northern-ireland/destinations/causeway/causeway-coastal-route/


https://www.parkinsons.org.uk/events/causeway-coast-challenge




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