John Muir Way Ultra Marathon

by Ali Wyllie

Love this old rustic sign 

Love this old rustic sign 

To many people, the 1st of April is all about practical jokes and fooling their friends and family. However, to approximately 250 runners, Saturday 1st April 2017 was all about running the John Muir Way from Port Seton to Foxlake, Dunbar, either as a solo runner, completing the 50k ultra marathon or as part of a 2 person relay.  This date had one other special meaning to me; Zac's birthday.  Zac is my lovable but rogueish rescue dog.  I was told his birthday was sometime in March, but if you knew his personality you would understand that April Fools suits him perfectly as a day to celebrate his birthday.

Me and my birthday boy at our first marshal point, just beyond Seton Sands caravan park.  

Me and my birthday boy at our first marshal point, just beyond Seton Sands caravan park.  

My awesome training partner, Cath and I, completed the relay last year; scooping 1st female team.  This year I was meant to run the whole thing.  But for reasons I won't bore you with, I found myself off the start list and on the marshal list.  

The start @ Port Seton 

The start @ Port Seton 

Being on the marshal list is not a bad thing at all.  I get a real buzz out of marshalling at races and sharing in the excitement of the day, without having to endure my own nerves and emotional battle.  

Tranquil views at the start 

Tranquil views at the start 

If you're early, you're on time; if you're on time, you're late and if you are late - just don't bother turning up.  My embarrassingly early time keeping is not just applicable when I'm racing, but also to all other areas of my life.  This allowed me to take in the views at the start, breathe in the sea air and chat with a huddle of nervous friends as they arrived. 

The top team of organisers including; James, John, Mandy, Cal, Zak and Kate were all kicking about at the start.  All cool as cucumbers, they certainly seemed comfortable with the organising during the lead up to the day and given this race was in its 2nd year they had the experience of the previous year to draw upon, making for a very chilled out race start.  

I scurried off to my first marshal point, just as the buses started to arrive.  It was pretty cool to see so many friends and familiar faces from the ultra community, make their way down to the start.  

Steph Valentin jumping for joy at Longniddry Bents 

Steph Valentin jumping for joy at Longniddry Bents 

It was simply awesome watching the swarm of runners make their way towards me, where I directed them off the yucky road and onto the wonderful sandy trails of the John Muir Way.  I then moved to Longniddry Bents carpark 3, and turned the music UP, singing and dancing runners on as they passed me (sorry if I was annoying).   I only just got there in time to see my old mucka Steve Rowntree zoom by, resembling a racing snake with go faster stripes.   

Runners buzzed past, some in huddles and some in solitude.  They were all there for different reasons.  They had all faced different mental and physical challenges to get there.   They were all from different backgrounds, different countries, different religions and ethnicities.  But none of that mattered, as collectively they belonged together, everyone with equal standing as they aimed for North Berwick and/or Foxlake.  I was SOOOOO excited to see my favourite Italian, Chiara, as she ran past with a massive smile on her face, clearly enjoying her first ultra experience.  

Gail Grant putting her feet up, Aberlady 

Gail Grant putting her feet up, Aberlady 

After Aberlady I was free to make my way to North Berwick and bide my time before taking up the sweeping role.  

Almost at North Berwick RNLI - the relay changeover point 

Almost at North Berwick RNLI - the relay changeover point 

There was a real party atmosphere at North Berwick.  Relay runners nervously waited on their partner, before heading off to tackle the 2nd half of the race.  Friends and family of racers, congregated above the beach, watching as the runners made their way along the beach like little ants.  

Princess Jasper posing as the running ants make their way along North Berwick beach

Princess Jasper posing as the running ants make their way along North Berwick beach

I really enjoyed catching up properly with friends during this stage of the race.  There is never a dull moment with the Cani-Sports Edinburgh crew that is for sure!   

The CSE crew; Avril,Jill, Susan, Jenny, Jenny and Lee and not forgetting Viv at the back 

The CSE crew; Avril,Jill, Susan, Jenny, Jenny and Lee and not forgetting Viv at the back 

Armed with scissors and my running pack and joined by Princess Jasper my super duper trail running dog, I set off from North Berwick on my sweeping duties.  My job was to be the eyes and ears at the back of the race, administer any urgent first aid and take down all the signs.  Easy right?  Well it would have been if the signs weren't so damn high (to be fair it was only the one sign that was touching the stars -  and I later learnt the original one had been stolen, hence the reason this one was so high up).  It made me feel like a failure not being able to reach it and take it down.  DAMN you OCD tendencies!  

Pesky rebelious sign.  Ehm James - sorry my monkey arms couldn't reach this one so had to leave it in place.  

Pesky rebelious sign.  Ehm James - sorry my monkey arms couldn't reach this one so had to leave it in place.  

As I passed North Berwick Law, I wondered if next year the race should send runners up to the top.  Surely it has to be done?  

I was gutted that the gorgeous Exmoor ponies, who live on the Law, were nowhere to be seen.  They are normally pretty curious creatures so I imagine many of the runners before me would have been spurred on by them.  

Just as I was leaving the Berwick Law area I saw Princess Jasper licking at the ponies salt lick.  I couldn't help but wonder if any of the racers had given into temptation and had a few licks themselves; having got their race nutrition so wrong and feeling desperate for salt.  Maybe this could be a new race thing?  Perhaps race directors could place nutritional race licks in strategic and convenient places along a race.  Heck, that would make everyone run faster, as I sure as hell would not want to be the last one out of a race of 200+ to have a lick!  

Nutritional race licks - you heard it hear first!

Princess Jasper demonstrating the salt lick (please note this is actually bad for dogs so she wasn't allowed much).  

Princess Jasper demonstrating the salt lick (please note this is actually bad for dogs so she wasn't allowed much).  

You know when you approach an area you are familiar with, from a completely different direction, rendering the area totally alien!  This was me as I ran through the buildings of Balgone Estate.  I had no clue where I was, until I actually hit the trails and the penny dropped.  Or maybe it's because the last time I was there was with the Foxtrail race and I was so hungover that only 1 brain cell, instead of the standard 2, was firing that day?  But these trails, oh my, the trails at Balgone are simply heaven.  Princess Jasper and I trotted along under the blue skies and glorious sunshine, to be met by the happy faces of Owain and Mandy Williams who had what I called their own wee en-suite marshal point.  A table full of food, a portaloo and a wonderful bed of reeds to snuggle into.  What more could you possibly need or want?  This duo are so speedy their blog is already up, check it out here.    

Owain and Mandy Williams of the Running Beside Me blog

Owain and Mandy Williams of the Running Beside Me blog

James popped down when I was in this section.  He told me of a dog graveyard about a mile further along, which I "could not miss".  Hell, I'm glad he did tell me, as I would have run right past.  What a joy to stop and take in this perfect beauty spot, overlooking the wee pond/loch.  I counted over 13 graves all with lovely inscriptions.  As anyone who has ever read any of my blogs knows, I'm a bit dog mad.  My dogs are my pride and joy.  Stood there amidst the K9 graves I was overcome with contentness in the knowledge that these dogs had been loved so deeply by their people.  But as I trotted on, my mind panicked as it turned to thoughts of what I would put on my own hairy children's gravestone.  For them to have a gravestone in the first place, one obvious thing needs to happen and I am wholly in denial of that obvious part of life.  So ... moving swiftly on .... 

All dedicated to our wonderful 4 legged friends

All dedicated to our wonderful 4 legged friends

I wonder what breed Tiger Lily was 

I wonder what breed Tiger Lily was 

How much fun was the roller coaster single track trail beyond the estate?  I mean seriously, Jasper and I were free of signs at this point, meaning we could throw ourselves into the trail and enjoy the ride.  Pure trail porn!  This section made me smile from ear to ear.  

Simple trail porn 

Simple trail porn 

I could see Erin; the last runner up ahead.  But each time I stopped to faff about with signs I lost her.  It wasn't until we passed the farm of death that I caught up properly and managed to introduce myself and see how she was.  Hang on, rewind.  Farm of death?  Yes, I did just write that.  Come on racers, you all ran past that farm, which smelt like it had rotting corpses inside.  EUGH and BOAK is all I can say and I seriously do not want to know what it was!

Blue skies and lush fields

Blue skies and lush fields

On our way over to the East Linton aid station Erin was in good spirits, her cousin Jenny; who was visiting from Australia; had joined her for moral support and the 2 of them walked and ran intermittently making good forward progress and sharing a very special experience together.  We came face to face with one of the most beautiful dovecots I've ever seen.  It was perfect in every way that for a split second, my life's aspirations were simply to be a dove.  

The most stunning dovecot I've ever seen 

The most stunning dovecot I've ever seen 

Sensibly (she was in jeans and a jumper and not meant to be running), Jenny stopped off at East Linton, leaving Erin to continue the rest of the race herself.  We walked and jogged together, although at times I fell behind, fighting with race signs or being so heavily ladened I struggled to run.  I took great delight in building piles of race signage for the race vehicle to collect later on.   

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that Erin and I took a wrong turn and went off course.  This is particularly embarrassing as the point of error was exactly at the foot of the most obvious official John Muir Way sign AND James had only just phoned me and warned me not to go off course.  Ach - what's a race without a little adventure huh?  

Back on track, we circumnavigated the trails towards and then away from Tyninghame village.  

Erin and Princess Jasper through the tunnel near to Tyninghame village

Erin and Princess Jasper through the tunnel near to Tyninghame village

I learnt Erin was celebrating her 40th birthday over the weekend and completing this race was her personal challenge.  What an amazing thing to do for your 40th.  It isn't THAT long until I reach the big 4 - 0, I'm racking my brains on what adventure I can have.  Any suggestions? 

We drew closer and closer to Foxlake and I could feel Erin's determination and strength grow.  

Erin full of smiles at the stunning view and the home straight 

Erin full of smiles at the stunning view and the home straight 

For the final kilometer Erin really pushed on.  I was lost in her wake juggling an armful of signs.  I'm so glad no one could see me, picture the scene, about 5 signs on poles and 7 loose signs and I looked like a bust couch.  I dropped them all at least 3 times, only a few hundred meters from the finish, and naturally each time I had almost picked them all up, and was moving forward again I would drop one.  Of course, I could have just left them for the vehicle to pick up, but I was not letting those pesky signs get the better of me, I was carrying them to the end if it killed me!  

And so it was, I reached the finish just before the drizzle started.  The top team were clearing everything up and I heard fantastic reports of a fabulous and successful day.  I was reunited with Zac, who had been treated like royalty by Gail and Avril and off I raced home for a well-deserved night out (even if I say so myself). 

Next year I HAVE to race this epic event.  It just gets better and better so year 3 is apparently THE year to do it.  Whilst I do love marshalling I am always filled with envy as I watch the runners tackling outstanding trails and going through emotional and physical battles that bring me a strange sense of comfort and familiarity.  

Well done top team for another awesome event.  Well done to everyone who started this epic race - whether or not you finished - you are all heroes!  Massive congratulations to everyone who became ultra-runners for the first time - Chiara this shout out is to you!  

A full breakdown of results can be found here for the relay and here for the ultra.   

Here's to the John Muir Way Ultra 2018, who's joining me on the start line?  

EXPLORE ON THE RUN | RUNNING TOURS THROUGHOUT SCOTLAND | WHY WALK .... WHEN YOU CAN RUN!