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Northumberland Coastal

This is one of my favourite races.  For a start it means a trip to the Toon or more specifically Whitley Bay to crash out at one of my oldest friends' place, strategically located a mere 5 minute walk from the fantastic Rockliffe Arms.  Your man is a runner with North Shields Poly and that means the club bus to and from the race with a great bunch of people all capable of drinking like a desiccated fish.

It's my 4th Coastal.. a 13-14 mile-ish multi-terrain race from the beach at Beadnell to the beach at Alnmouth. Until I started running more trail races and ultras this cavalier attitude to distance used to irk me but the OCD has been cured and now I couldn't care less.  If you're obsessed with precise distance you're doing it wrong!

It chucks in a bit of everything - sand, sea, ruins, road and trail.  As I understand it you are allowed to take any route you want and every year I've run this there's always been a few head straight into the sea from the gun to try and short-circuit the crescent of sand that consists the first mile or so.  This never works of course and I always wonder what happened to them as the surf becomes treacle and engulfs their flailing forms.

This year was for once blessed with superb weather.  Usually there's some sort of gale blowing in your face and a threat of an imminent downpour but this time it's a good 25 degrees as the queue for the netties snakes around the club bus.  It's a late start this time - 1:30pm - whereas we're usually off early morning. The race is at the mercy of the tide patterns and at 9:30 there was no beach.

It's a big race in the local calendar - so many of the 1000-or-so entrants have club kit on and you have to watch where you're going as you ineffectively warm up to avoid photo-bombing team photos.

My effete first warm-up attempt lasts at most 10 paces when I feel much more like dozing off where I stand rather than continue to jog so I decide to go and look at the sea and start line.  Not that there is a line.  It's a fabulous view with the sea sparkling and groups of daytrippers looking over windbreaks concernedly as the masses congregate on a flight path that takes in their sandcastles and picnics.

The start is delayed by 15 minutes for no apparent reason, maybe to let the tide go out that bit further so that's another opportunity for a warm up jog which I let pass.  The way I figure it, the first mile is the warm up.  I thought I'd ditch the socks because the shoes felt tight but another fella went further and was running barefoot, carrying his shoes!  I saw him again at the end, still carrying his shoes, and I just wonder if he put them on between beaches or just didn't want to get them wet?

Sockless in Sea Battle
Finally we're informed the start is from one arbitrary flag to another or beyond, whatever, a horn sounds and we're off, scrambling over an initial patch of rock pools and onto clearer sand beyond like a mass Chariots of Fire opening title audition.  I don't do much beach running and it's obvious if your Eskimo were presented with the stuff, he'd come up with a good 30 words for it too because there's a bit of everything. 

The compacted stuff has been sculpted by the retreating tide and makes for tricky footing.  Then you've got the stuff that the tide hasn't finished sculpting and that involves a bath. When it's dried out it's very fine and like quicksand and saps all your energy and speed.

I'm not sure how long the first beach lasts - a mile and a half? If I wasn't going at lung-busting pace I'd have really enjoyed the view. There's something exhilarating about tearing across a beach.  Beyond there's a climb up onto the first bit of trail over some loose sand and boulders and you have to choose your line as best you can.  There's a stretch of road through High Newton-on-the-sea for a mile and a half and then the course plunges back to the beach (at Low Newton-by-the-sea!).  You're aiming for the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle on the headland which is some spectacular view and the trail winds around it with about 5 miles gone.

The trails are good going; mostly close-cropped grass with the odd sheep and other livestock responsible for preparing it looking on disinterestedly but the sun was beating down and starting to overheat me before long.  There was only brief respite when turning perpendicular to the breeze occasionally for a welcome cooling effect but only very short sections of the route offered that opportunity.  I slowed down a few times to let the thermostat recover a bit.  I'm sure running in the heat at Comrades has made me much more able to cope with this.

Craster is about halfway and the locals are out in force to cheer on as the road drops sharply down to its harbour and then just as sharply climbs back out the other side.  There's a few miles of a war of attrition to the next landmark concrete bridge with no shade and the sun at full strength beating down on your hatless (of course you forgot the hat) head.

I crossed said bridge and am ashamed to say I walked up the slope back to the trail up the other side.  I don't think it lost me any time as it happens but when I'm entered into Transvulcania with its 10% for 10 miles gradient it seems a bit crap to be crawling up something that about 100 metres long! 

When you've run this thing before you know there's a couple of miles on the last beach to come and it's always a bugger with the finish line never getting any closer.  I spent the miles from the bridge to the beach willing for it to appear as at least you know you're on the home stretch when you hit it. 

I pushed on past the welcome drinks stop at Boulmer (10 miles in ish) and finally at the point when you are convinced you're never going to finish the race, the course turned off the road and onto the soft sand at Alnmouth.  One sustained last effort which seems to take forever ensued over sand, deep clumps of seaweed and rocks as the finish line slowly came into view.  Just for good measure there's a patch of boggy sand followed by some fine which makes the last 100 metres a battle but the crowds cheer enthusiastically and drive you over the finish line.

I finished in 1:25 and bits and in 14th which is within a few seconds of my best time here and 8 minutes faster than my worst. What with the variations in tide and weather its difficult to compare but at any rate, I'm really happy with that.  I had kind of feared a disappointing time and some reality biting but this isn't too bad.

It's essential to go to the pub after a race anyway but when in the company of North Shields Poly and a few Tyne Bridge Harriers it's the law.  The Red Lion hosts the presentations and supplies us with ale and the coach driver is persuaded to twiddle his thumbs for an extra hour when to our collective consternation we realise our drinking time is nearly up.

The team rolls back to the bus in pretty lively spirits and, as we head back to Newcastle, the singing starts.  I've never known lyrics sheets to be handed out for bus singing before except  on this bus last time out and to my amazement these are the exact same songs and lyrics sheets!  So 50 people sang Delilah, Bohemian Rhapsody, Daydream Believer and god knows what else until the coach pulled up at the Bay.  Apparently there is YouTube footage of it.  I'll not be seeking that out.  We were under the illusion we were at least vaguely tuneful but I'm told it sounds more like dismantling a large rusty steel ship with anglegrinders.

It's a great race.  A bit remote if you're not in the area, but the coastline is beautiful around here so an extended stay would be well worth it.

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