Finn McCool had a bit of a problem with the Scottish giant, Benandonner. Finn didn’t take kindly to Benandonner’s assertion that he wasn’t a good fighter. Enraged, Finn tore pieces off the cliffs and threw them into the sea, creating a causeway to Scotland. Once across, Finn realised the error of his ways, as Benandonner was bigger, uglier and nastier. A capable runner, Finn beat a hasty retreat back home. Benandonner came 2nd in that race but Finn’s Wife Oonagh had hatched a cunning plan. Oonagh placed Finn in his baby Son’s cot, and introduced Benandonner to ‘Oisin’. A worried Benandonner legged it back to Scotland, fearful of how big Finn must be compared to his baby Son, and he tore up the Causeway as he went.
Growing up around the Causeway Coast and Glens, this tale and many others like it captivated me as a boy. I’d hiked the route many times as a boy (not all in one go!) and returning to tackle it in this setting was a source of much excitement and trepidation. It isn’t every day you get the chance to run over the eighth wonder of the world, and so the Causeway Coast Ultra Marathon had been on my list of ‘must do’ runs.
It follows an ‘out and back’ route, over trails, beaches and the coastline of the Causeway Coast Way. Starting on Portstewart Strand, the route passes Portrush, Dunluce Castle, Portballintrae, the Giant’s Causeway, Dunseverick Castle, Portbradden Harbour, White Park Bay, Ballintoy Harbour, turning at Larrybane Quarry (just prior to Carrick-a-Rede Rope bridge), to return and finish at Portballintrae.
To say the scenery is spectacular would be a massive understatement. The Causeway Coast and Glens are recognised the world over as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the Giant’s Causeway is a World Heritage Site.
Our tale follows. Andy and I arrived at Belfast International Airport on Friday afternoon, and having squeezed into our petite hire car, we ventured North to touch down briefly at the lovely house we had rented, which overlooked the route, between Portstewart and Portrush. After a quick trip to the local supermarket for essentials (e.g. bread, peanut butter and gin), we headed over to Race HQ at Portballintrae Village Hall to collect our numbers. A fairly typical Northern Irish relaxed approach was evident with regard to the route – the advice being to keep the sea on our left on the way out and on the right on the way back!
We paused at the Harbour Bar in Portmagic (Portrush) to say hello to old friend Willie, who over a Guinness, wished us luck for the challenge ahead. Next, some final carb-loading, at the handily located pizzeria opposite our house overlooking the golf course. A final bit of race strategy discussion in our house over a log-fire, a sea view and a steadying gin, and we retired for some rest.
0455hrs reveille! Ouch! Having completed our final preparations in the kitchen – boiled new potatoes with salt to tuck into our vests (which turned out to be an excellent alternative to a certain brand of energy bars, which I find too hard to eat on the move), and drop-bag ready, we slipped into the darkness to drive over to Portballintrae Village Hall. Compliant with the instructions, “Don’t miss your bus transfer to the start”, we arrived in good time for the billed 0630hrs bus, which arrived just after 0700hrs (the advertised race start time). There isn’t much to do for a pair of lycra-clad runners at that time of the morning in Portballintrae but eventually, we were off, in a Translink double-decker bus resplendent in ‘Game of Thrones’ livery.
Portstewart Golf Club was our drop-off point, and we walked down with some apprehension to the beach where we could hear music emanating from the 26 Extreme start van/disco. A short speech followed from the race organiser, as the drone flew overhead, and the morning brightened. And we were off! Towards the Bar Mouth (opposite direction) initially, and a turn around the Race Director’s pick-up which chased us up the beach after the start. A little too keen in pacing terms but glad to be moving against the cold, we pressed on, ascending the steps at the end of the beach and onto the coastal path. Along the promenade, past Portstewart Harbour, over the headland, past the Herring Pond, we continued through the Golf Course, passing our house (could have dropped in for a cup of tea..) we continued on to Portrush. Over the footbridge and past the Harbour Bar, quiet at this early hour.
Then up Ramore Head, and around to the East Strand at which point we became delusional – surely Michael Littlewood was not warming up for Portrush parkrun? The distinctive yellow beanie like a beacon on the beach but alas, an imposter!
A quick shout out to Mervyn (Run Director of Portrush parkrun) as we ran along the beach ahead of parkrun starting (DFYB, even on an Ultra!), and around to the White Rocks, our legs heavy from the sand where we climbed up to the road, passing Dunluce Castle before reaching half marathon distance as we dropped into Portballintrae. The marathon had left as we passed the village hall (their start), and we continued around Runkerry House, and a quick hello to some old family friends who were out walking, the view of the Giant’s Causeway opened before us.
Wow. We dropped down the road to the Causeway, pausing for another obligatory photo opportunity, prior to joining the path and (many) Shepherd’s steps up to the cliff path. The wind was formidable on the top, the gusts making running quite challenging. The cliff paths were narrow, and slippery given the usual wet weather which preceded the event.
We passed Dunseverick Castle and negotiated a stretch of very slippery rocks and seaweed prior to a lengthy stretch of White Park Bay beach. I was delighted to see Ultra, Marathon and Half Marathoners coming towards us, and old school friends Sean and Faye running the half. Another section of slippery rocks led onto Ballintoy harbour which was in full swing with tourists. We climbed the twisting road past sword-wielding Game of Thrones re-enactment enthusiasts, and eventually reached Larrybane Quarry comfortably ahead of the 26-mile cut-off time. At the checkpoint, it was explained that given our delayed start, the cut-offs wouldn’t be rigidly enforced anyway. Cake for me, and some isotonic drink, and we were off back along the same route.
On the way back, the wind which had been in our faces for most of the time on the way out had strengthened and switched direction to compound our challenge. The cliff top paths that had been slippery on the way out were now in places treacherous, the cumulative result of over a thousand pairs of feet. On the tops, the wind was strong enough to blow you off your feet, and care was required on the very exposed sections. At this point, talking was futile as we couldn’t hear each other – had Kathryn been with us, she’d have had to sing up! We pressed on, and ran for a while with Emma who we’d met earlier – tackling her first Ultra Marathon!
I remember hitting the 50km mark between Portbradden and Dunseverick, and yelling to Andy that we only had 3 parkruns or so to go (seemed like an appropriate measure at the time). The wind continued to pick up, and we then saw a Coastguard helicopter overhead. My initial thought was that it was nice of them to support our event. After a short time, however, we were stopped by the Coastguard. We joined other runners to watch the rescue operation underway, to recover a lady who had fallen on the cliff path ahead of us. The Coleraine and Ballycastle Coastguard Rescue Teams had been mobilised, supported by a Coastguard helicopter from Prestwick – these guys do an amazing job often against the odds, and in all weathers.
After the helicopter had taken off, we continued and I was pleased that the route didn’t take us down the (many) Shepherd’s Steps to the Giant’s Causeway, and instead we followed the cliff path. We continued on the coastal path around Runkerry House, at which point running was futile, the wind so strong that inching forward was a massive challenge. We got some shelter as we picked up the path beside the tramline adjacent to Bushfoot beach, and we reached the welcome boardwalk to the bridge over the Bush River. Then the final climb up the path to the finish, and the crowd hastened us as we crossed the line, picking up our medals – the Causeway Coast Ultra Marathon complete!
We retreated (gradually) to Portballintrae Boat Club for a soothing Guinness, before returning to our house, where we were extremely grateful that our kind host had left some Epsom bath salts. Warmed, we returned to the Harbour Bar again, where Willie rang the bell, silenced the bar, and summarised our adventure, with a loud ensuing cheer. The Harbour Bar is a regular haunt of many a Northern Irish celebrity, and it was great to see James Nesbitt, famous actor, and fellow Coleraine man join in the cheer!
What an amazing experience! I’d recommend the Causeway Coast Ultra Marathon without reservation. It is a challenging but beautiful route, and the tagline of the organiser 26 Extreme provides a cautionary note #wedontdoeasy