Written by Niall Corrigan

“Well this was a stupid idea.” That’s the refrain that was going through my head from the moment the starter said go. I was running along a sandy beach with about 70 others, we were all hemmed in to the soft dry sand by the nearly full tide and it was not what you would call an easy start. Portstewart Beach at 7: 30 in the morning is an interesting place to start a 40 mile ultra.

Stupid because why? Why, because, after struggling across the line in the Kerry Way Ultra three weeks ago I had promised myself a rest. Instead, I spent 5 of the intervening 21 days pushing a mocked up Reliant Robin across Ireland for a charity fund-raiser (www.bumbleance.com) and another day pushing the same vehicle around the Dublin City Half Marathon in a time of 2:30. Then I got talked into taking part in this event and here I was.

Very early on, within the first 3 or 4 kilometres I knew I was going to have a tough day. My legs were heavy and tired, the feeling of deep fatigue lurking just below the surface.

OK says I, what do I do now? Common sense would have said, back off and take it easy and just enjoy the day. Instead, my brain came up with the plan to keep going at the pace I was going and see how far I’d get before the wheels came off and then see what might happen. I of course opted for the second choice and off I went.

I can’t say I was going fast, because I don’t do fast, but I was going at a good pace for me and I was running all the uphill bits. Now this is not a hilly ultra by any means, it’s undulating with a lot of steps. I ran the hills and bounced up the steps, keeping a good rhythm as I went. All good; so far.

The Causeway Coast Ultra is one of 5 events that take place on the same piece of stunning coastline on the same day. Ultra, Marathon, Half Marathon, 10k and Challenge Walk, something for everyone. The Marathon is a straight forward out and back from race HQ at Portballintrae to Ballintoy Quarry and back. To make up the Ultra distance, competitors are bussed out to Portstewart and run the 13 miles or so back to HQ and then run the out and back marathon course. Still with me?

The first 13 miles of the Ultra are a mixture of sandy beach and civilized coastline, promenades, seaside parks and a bit of road. Easy going and smooth. After running through the marathon start at HQ the character changes and you are in to an area of outstanding natural beauty. Underfoot it changes from concrete to trail, stony and rocky in places but overall very runable.

We were being treated to perfect conditions for running. A chilly start had given way to a pleasant day with some wind and good cloud cover but no sign of rain. Somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean a low system was generating a big regular swell, and all day we were treated to the sight of magnificent rollers breaking loudly on the rugged basalt. The surfers were out in force.

In and out, up and down, following the complex convolutions of the tide tortured landscape. The scenery was ever changing and majestic. We ran past the Causeway Hotel and dropped down amongst the hordes of tourists visiting the Giants Causeway, a UNESCO world heritage site, through a narrow gap and into the most amazing amphitheatre of cliffs vividly displaying the hexagonal character of the extruded basalt.

What goes down must go up and the climb up away from the sea is narrow, stepped switchbacks that give amazing views over the land and sea. This bit I walked, there was no running this.

At the top we turned left and continued along the cliff top. I ran ok for another few kilometres but suddenly I started to feel it. A little uphill section forced a retreat and I was down to walking pace. My legs were no longer under my full control and muscles started to misfire, I was kicking stones and getting the first prickles of cramp. I had electrolyte tabs in my bag but not enough water to dissolve one so I just kept moving towards the next water stop. I usually carry Dioralyte sachets with me but had neglected to pack them this morning. I was suffering a bit now but I was actually enjoying myself, pushing myself deeper into the red zone to see what would happen. This lasted about four k’s and then became tedious.

About this time I passed a bit of litter on the trail, a Dioralyte sachet no less. I passed it by with a wistful glance and about 20 seconds later my brain processed the fact that the sachet looked unopened. I stopped and went back, unopened it was and I started to stuff it in to my pocket for later use, when I remembered the advice of a running buddy I had heard recently who recommended pouring the contents straight into your mouth and drinking water to wash it down. I checked my soft flasks and reckoned I had just enough water to do the job. Yeuch; thanks Laurence. But it worked and I felt a little better for a while.

Kilometres 32 to 44 were tough mentally and physically. The out and back nature of the course play with your head in unexpected ways. I seem to spend a lot of time on long runs doing mental arithmetic, distance, pace, time, etc but I couldn’t seem to make the sums add up on this one, maybe another sign of fatigue. I was harbouring thoughts of quitting all along here, excuses like, the race didn’t mean anything to me, I didn’t need points, and others kept running through my head while, thankfully my legs kept running through the course.

Another long section of soft sandy beach was exactly what I didn’t need at this stage so that’s what we got. A beautiful beach on any other day, but a pain in the hole today. This section of beach leads on to Ballintoy Harbour and eventually on to Ballintoy Quarry, the turn around spot. 5 hours in, a marathon done (told you I wasn’t fast) and another half marathon to do. Onwards and upwards, out of the quarry and heading for home.

The beach section was a little bit easier on the way back due to the outgoing tide revealing wet hard packed sand and I ran a good proportion of it. For the undulating cliff top I was running as much as I could but even the down bits were tough due to a stiff right knee. Run walk, run walk.

This has to be one of the friendliest events I’ve ever taken part in. As I mentioned before there are 5 different races taking place on the same course on the same day and the differing start times mean you meet competitors from each event at different stages especially, if like me, you are out there all day. I had passed a few marathon back markers soon after their start. I had seen many more on the course as they made their way back against me. I had nearly been engulfed by the half marathon start near the turn around and I passed through the gathered pack of 10k runners as they waited for their off in a cliff top field in the middle of nowhere. All along there were shouts of encouragement and the refrain of “well done ultra” as they spotted the green race number. A special moment was passing through the 10k start with a couple of half marathoners and I unashamedly milked the applause like a golfer walking down the 18th fairway on Open Sunday.

Soon after I left them the 10k runners came thundering past on the narrow trail where it’s best advised to stay to the left as the drop to the sea is about 200 feet. I did my best to get out of their way but walking in the long grass was difficult so I apologise to any runner who I didn’t get out of the way quick enough for. I tried to latch on to a few of the mid packers but this didn’t last long but it helped pass the time. The course on the way back thankfully neglects to drop down to the Giants Causeway, staying instead on the upper cliff path. Nearly home. One last water stop and one more cliff top convolution and the town of Portballintrae comes into view. The finish PA can be heard on the wind. Another sandy beach lay ahead and I couldn’t remember if this was run on the way out. But no, this beach is bypassed by means of a sand dune boardwalk. Cross the bridge and up the little hill to the finish and a great welcome, a medal and a bottle of beer (non-alcoholic for some bizarre reason).

A good day out, a few lessons learned, a deeper understanding of my limits, I think, and a head full of amazing imagery from a spectacular setting. A highly recommended event.


0 #1 Doreen Huxley 2018-09-05 22:06
I’ve entered the ultra giant causeway, and I’m struggling to find any specific detail of route accent, drop bag opportunity and mandatory kit.
Your account of your challenge has been really helpful to me.Thank you
Sounds like you had to muster large volumes of mental resilience during the race, and you did brilliant.
Thank you,