Jedburgh ultra, a unicorn, a squirrel and 2 bad ass race directors

by Ali Wyllie

Stunning scenery along the Jedburgh ultra marathon

Stunning scenery along the Jedburgh ultra marathon

WARNING:  As this is a blog about the Jedburgh Ultra, in keeping with the vibe of the wonderful race directors there are lots of inappropriate sweary words.  Please do not continue to read if you are easily offended by foul language. 

Sumsie cuddling Isla

Sumsie cuddling Isla

You very quickly grasp the tone of a race when the race directors request photos of wannabe racers with their underwear on their heads and the race briefing refers to “earphone twats”.  Add to that a route that insists the racers utilise the facilities of a local play park and the warm up consists of jigging your muscles to the YMCA and you have the makings of a unique and wonderful event. 

It all went horribly wrong

I was all set to race the stunningly scenic 38 miles of Jedburgh Ultra, until a silly drunken accident left my toe somewhat worse for wear, and certainly not up to running 38 miles .  Picture the wrong kind of mix of a 17 stone man, a chair leg, strappy lady shoes and a toe - the result is one fucked up toe nail with all its guts spewing out the middle of the nail.

But when life throws you lemons, you make lemonade right?  And what better way to spend my time than to dress up as Sumsie the squirrel and dance like an idiot for hours on end.  Hmmmmmm

Princess Jasper helping out as a K9 marshal

Princess Jasper helping out as a K9 marshal

Now – I say squirrel, others say chipmonk.  This has been the subject of much debate.  The question remains, is Sumsie a squirrel or a chipmonk?  Surely he has to be a squirrel or the alliteration, which goes so nicely; Sumsie the squirrel, would be null and void.  Sumsie the chipmonk does not work.  So, on this very basis and nothing else, I say he is a squirrel!



Upon realising the toe was not going to be fit for 38 miles, I messaged Angela and Noanie (the wonderfully crude race directors) to offer my services of help and the services of my trusted dog; Princess Jasper.  I explained I would be happy to do anything and they could use me as they saw fit.  Well didn’t Noanie see a golden opportunity to make me look a right prat (something I excel in), she quickly seized the opportunity to squirrel me away as Sumsie.

And so it was, I spent my day helping with odd jobs – or rather – getting in the way a bit, until the time came for me to go nuts as Sumsie.  Sumsie had already led the warm up YMCA with Craig MacKay,  I realised, being given the honour to “be” Sumsie meant I had a lot to live up to. 

It's all about the squirrel

Sumsie danced for hours at the finish, he congratulated runners as they crossed the line in a wave of emotion, he raced runners home, he played with the pesky Rogue Dog (Cani-Sports Edinburgh’s mascot), he helped hold the finish sign up each time the generator ran out of juice, he played in the leaves, he played with spectators and children, he patted dogs and photo bombed as much as possible.  Sumsie kissed the unicorn; yes I did say unicorn -  we even had a large inflatable unicorn at the finish!  Sumsie helped racers cross the road on their way to hot soup and showers, wobbling on their exhausted legs.   For a good few hours Sumsie was joined by little Annie, the most wonderful 3-year-old this Squirrel has had the privilege of dancing with.  Annie is already in training for her ultra running future;  up at 5am she did not stop helping and dancing until atleast 7pm - what enviable energy. 

Why would anyone want to direct a race? 

I have set up and directed a number of sell out canicross races.  I know a huge amount of work goes into organising races and it can be a thankless task at worst but it also provides the most wonderful feeling of satisfaction.  Seeing other people enjoying themselves in your race; running over hills and trails; battling with their own running demons and spending hours on end racing - doing something you yourself are passionate about - provides a real sense of accomplishment.  But race directors all have their own reasons for organising races, and seeing Jedburgh ultra from behind the scenes got me thinking, what is the history of this race and what do Noanie and Angela get out of it?  Perhaps more to the point – why do they do it?  Why do they spend countless hours, negotiating with sometimes difficult people and answering questions on social media when the answer is ALWAYS in the briefing; if only folk could take the time to read it!   So with these thoughts in my head -  I asked them…….

Top team welcoming the runners home under a deflated finish sign

Top team welcoming the runners home under a deflated finish sign

The birth of the dream team

The dream team 

The dream team 

I learnt that in 2013 the  Jedburgh Running Festival team contacted SUMS (Scottish ultra marathon series) requesting help with the ultra, which led to Lee Maclean – the director of the Clyde Stride Ultra – popping a post out on Facebook.  Both Angela and Noanie responded independently of one another and hey presto, this was the start of a wonderful relationship.  Over the last few years Angela and Noanie have worked tirelessly to defend this unique race.  It is now operated independently of the Jedburgh Running Festival, allowing for Angela and Noanie’s creative race vision, to be truly harnessed. 

Given this is a voluntary role requiring a phenomenal amount of work; organising, IT, people managing, route recceing, networking ……. I had to ask Angela and Noanie WHY they did it.  The answer was simple, despite “shitloads” of paperwork and the odd moaning fool, ultimately it was agreed that it’s pretty cool to have your own race and see the enjoyment experienced by all those who take part on the day. 

Working relationships can be difficult at the best of times.  I have colleagues I work brilliantly with, but in the real world I would not necessarily be friends with and I have friends who I love to their very soul, but I could not work with (nor could they work with me).  This begged the question – what is the dynamic like between Angela and Noanie?   On the face of it, they seem to bounce off each other brilliantly, but does it really work or are they strangling each other behind closed doors?  So, not being one to beat about the bush, I asked them . 

Keeping people alive is quite important

Noanie informed me she liked the lack of bullshit that comes from working with Angela.  Being someone who is a bit blunt/rude by nature (her words, not mine), she enjoys not having to filter herself with Angela.  I was told Angela is the diplomat of the duo,  in a genius way.    Together they dream up ideas and encourage and support each other along their crazy notion journeys.

Race directing is fun. It’s awesome. It’s a crash course in project management where if you get things wrong, people could die. Which is a very good incentive to always get things right!
— Noanie
Sharon, Noanie, Angela, Princess Jasper and me

Sharon, Noanie, Angela, Princess Jasper and me

The ultra-running scene in Scotland is going from strength to strength.  It is a fantastic community of like-minded people who come together to push themselves through mental and physical barriers and then stay in touch and exchange banter, pictures and videos via social media in-between races.  But what makes Jedburgh ultra different?  What is its USP?  Our trusted race directors pondered this.  It is undoubtedly beautiful, especially in the Autumn with the array of colours.  Despite it being “only” 38 miles, which is considered short for an ultra, its level of difficulty is deceiving with those bastard Eildens adding a level of brutality not everyone expects.  However, Angela and Noanie are particularly proud (and rightly so) of the work they have done making this unique race super duper inclusive to all LGBT and non-binary people – in fact – it is believed that Jedburgh ultra is the first Scottish race to offer non-binary as a gender option on the entry form.  Ian McLaughlin at Entry Central was particularly helpful amending the current gender options on Entry Central to include non-binary. 

What does the future hold? 

So for the long term success and evolution of the Jedburgh ultra, who do Angela and Noanie want to attract to their wonderful rainbow ultra?  The answer I received to this question was very simple: “Anyone.  Anyone who isn’t a dick”, in particular they would love to see more vet60 woman and more vet70 men, so come on all of you who fit this criteria – your presence is needed!  They would also love to keep attracting those who are part of the ultra-running community, people for whom these events are a way of life and not simply a 1-day encounter.  The kind of people who add a little bit of themselves into the event, don’t take themselves too seriously and are willing to spend time helping, marshalling and encouraging others; anyone who is a little bit different. 

Community & charity 

Food bank donations

Food bank donations

This year the dynamic duo encouraged racers and spectators alike to bring items for a food bank.  All the people orientated items were donated to the Bethleham House of Bread and the animal related donations were given to the Bandeath cat and dog home in Stirling.    What a wonderful idea, although I’m not sure they were expecting to receive an entire van full of goods.  The success of this collection is testimony to the humanity and generosity of the Scottish ultra community and makes me proud to consider myself part of this community. 

Woo Hoo to the sponsors!

These crazy cat race directors have specially requested that I put a big shout out to everyone who has helped behind the scenes in one way or another to help make Jedburgh ultra what it is today.  They have also asked that I put Beta Running up in lights and sing their praises, with a special mention to Malcolm who is Angela’s Chief Bitch on race day and is a loyal supporter of Jedburgh ultra in all its silliness.  Beta Running provide all the wonderful Injinji and Ultimate Direction kit.  THANK YOU BETA RUNNING!  You are wonderful, awesome and simply faaaabulous!

Lastly (almost) – how can I write about Jedburgh Ultra and not mention the new artwork design on all the tops?  What a wonderful design with the words Run, Beer, Peace, Love by the incredibly talented Heather Laing.  I certainly run for beer, to find peace within myself and for the love of the outdoors.  See more of Heather’s work here.  

This race has wiggled its way into its own little unique space in the Scottish Ultra race calendar, it is special, silly, vibrant, bright and fun so check it out for next year and hell – if you can’t race – perhaps you fancy dressing up as a squirrel?  Applications for that honour to be sent to the race directors. 

From a personal perspective, this race is truly breath-taking and entirely in keeping with the Run the Sights ethos of keeping fit and seeing the sights at the same time.  It is a real journey of exploration, sightseeing and running.  Run the Sights was delighted to provide a number of spot prizes to the relay teams.
   
Well done to all those who ran the Jedburgh ultra 2016, whether you completed the full thing, were part of a relay or had to pull out along the way.  You are awesome!  

The amazing female podium, Maddie Robinson, Michelle Hetherington & Jeni Rees-Jenkin  

The amazing female podium, Maddie Robinson, Michelle Hetherington & Jeni Rees-Jenkin