The Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra starts in the shadow of the 12th century abbey, and winds along forest tracks, hillsides, country lanes, and various bridges new and old. The route hugs the River Tweed, passing through St Boswells, Melrose, and passing Rhymer’s Stone. Runners are then faced with three extinct volcanoes known as the Eildon Hills which offer panoramic views of the Scottish Borders. A brief passing through the villages of Bowden and Newton St Boswells, before following the Tweed back to the start / finish.
A 04:00 alarm saw me up and ready for 05:00 drive up to Jedburgh, with the tune of Highland Cathedral blasting through my car stereo as I crossed the border, in tribute to my late Grandad Angus. Still dark, I arrived at registration with plenty time to faff around in the car boot and use each of the toilets. It was mild, so I opted for short sleeve, before huddling inside the hall in anticipation for the set off. A quick briefing which suggested runners, “remove headphones when asked, and don’t be a dick”.
07:45 and we were ushered over to a grassy mound, where the enthusiastic RD’s and a squirrel warmed us up with a YMCA dance routine, runners shuffled their feet feigning any sort of dance, before a countdown, and we were off.
As usual with any long race I was aware of everyone flying off, I was aware not to be hasty, knowing I had up to 8 hours ahead, but still away they sped. Mild concern dragged me with them, but sense prevailed and I knew I’d be seeing a lot of them later.
I was running alone and settled into a gentle pace, it was a beautiful morning, crisp and clear, with fantastic autumnal colours. We were quite packed as we left the road and started onto the single tracks. We passed a newly built bridge after a couple of miles, and I made a note that the next time I crossed the bridge I’d be nearly home.
On we went, open fields allowing the packs to disperse, yet stiles and gates still causing bottlenecks. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of the three peaks of the Eildons, and it was here that the journey there and back again truly started.
I was easing along nicely until Maxton and the cp at 10 miles; this race allows for three drop bags, somewhat excessive maybe for an ultra of this distance, but I thought I’d make use of them nonetheless. I grabbed some peanuts and a snack bar, and topped up with Tailwind, stuffed them in my pack and went on my way.
Before I had chance to eat anything the nausea started, mild panic came over me, I was now only 11 miles in and started to feel sick. I had eaten well all week, my breakfast was as standard to all race days – sweet tea / porridge – so this unsettling feeling came as shock so early on.
Thankfully I had a multipack of Polo’s in my vest pocket, and so popped two into my mouth and let them do their minty thing. Immediate result as the nausea and panic left as quickly as they came.
Onwards, and after 17 miles we arrived at cp2 Rhymer’s Stone.
“The Rhymer’s Stone marks the spot on which the fabled Eildon Tree once grew. It was under this tree that Thomas the Rhymer took a fateful nap while hunting on the estate of Melrose Abbey. He was awakened by the Queen of Elfland, who he kissed. He then spent seven years with her in the Land of the Elves before returning to his home in Earlston for seven years, then disappearing for good: presumably back to the Land of the Elves.”
We were now in the shadow of the Eildons. I was warm, but had kept my short sleeve tee on in case the true Scottish weather presented itself, it did not, and just before the first climb I stopped and removed my shirt, just down to a vest.
As the first Eildon towered over us, runners, became walkers, bent double; hands on knees, knees on scree. Occasionally pausing in awe at the conical mountain ahead. The track was sloppy, with prints from the lugs of runners sliding in the mud, loose rocks trickled down, and ramblers cheered us on behind the safety of their thermos.
At the first peak we were offered a superb panoramic view of the Scottish borders, and one could not help but smile at the beauty before a technical descent onto the saddle between the first and second Eildon. One or two runners already limping, casualties of the peaks.
The second peak was much the same, Border Search and Rescue Unit sat patiently with their stout dogs; collies that clearly new better than us fools, just waiting to do their jobs. The seriousness of their work apparent as the land rover sat waiting some way up the peaks, of which an unsuspecting number of runners would be treated to a ride in.
Reaching the final peak I realised we were halfway through the adventure; all that was left to do was leave the Eildons unscathed, and begin our journey back again. This filled me with delight, and I was able to play with numbers in my head. I also realised at this point that my target of 8 hours was going to be met as long as I kept moving forward, at reasonable(ish) pace for a further 19 miles.
Where once the field was packed, we were now spread out. As I scrambled down the final descent I began to overtake runners that had flew past me in the first miles. And as much as my pace never quickened, this was to be for the remainder of the race.
I was safely down from the peaks, and started my journey back. I always knew even before the start that once I got to this point I just had a trail race to go, pressure was relieved and I started my solitary venture back. However I was now tired, the Eildons had sapped my legs, and as much as they were still turning, my head wanted a rest, just to lie down in the shadow of the trees amongst the leaves.
I needed a focus, as usual and in times of trouble I don’t always find comfort in the scenery, I needed facts to settle and focus my mind. I decided if I ran to 25 miles, that would give me 13 miles to go, and so from this point I would be able to fathom my ETA.
I’ll point out here (as I can’t recall what happened around this section) that the marshals for this race were the most enthusiastic, friendly, welcoming folk I have ever met, race or otherwise. Every cp I passed through I was made to feel like a Brownlee, the drop bags were handed professionally, and words of encouragement, comfort, and praise were delivered with gusto.
This race does not come without a sense of humour, as we passed through Bowden around 22 miles in, the markers took us up and over a play park, climbing the frame, over a bridge and down a slide, grown men whooping as they slid on their backsides!
Drop bag collected at the final cp, which was Maxton again at 27 miles, I refilled the Tailwind and took a jam piece from my drop bag, a handful of peanuts and a swig of coke. The cp was filled with supporters, applauding as runners fumbled with their overly packed bags. I was aware of half a dozen runners bent double, either through nausea or cramp. Not me though, ten miles to go and I wanted to go home.
This is where it started to go awry, and the enthusiasm started to be replaced with doubt, not that I wouldn’t finish, but the voices in my head just wanted me to stop. They didn’t understand, they tried in vain to make sense of the numbers but nothing they worked out was reassuring. Ten miles? At this pace we may be talking about another 2 hours on the trails. In future this is where I need to improve.
I was aware of cramping up in previous races, so began a routine of peanuts and Polos. This was a strict procedure that got me through the next 8 miles. I would grab a handful of peanuts from my pack, munch them, swill them, swallow them, then take a Polo. Each pattern got me through one mile.
Six miles to go and I hadn’t seen anyone for 4 miles, I saw a runner up ahead who was cramping as he attempted to haul himself over a stile, a brief greeting and vague words of encouragement were shared before he stepped aside and I past stealthily.
Fields, rivers, bridges, forests. All of that happened and it was beautiful, I’m sure it was beautiful as I’d seen it on the way out, it looked different now though. The winding steps, the tree roots, the sound of the river, all started to seem unreal. I started to shout out loud, words not to be repeated.
I past another two runners in the forest, cramp again being the victor as they leaned against trees in attempt to stretch out their demons, an attempt at uttering came out my mouth but we just glanced at each other like forest animals going about their way. No acknowledgement that we were in the same race. Was I even in a race?
As we left the forest I encountered life by way of marshals guiding us across the road. Such a welcome sight, and again the enthusiasm wasn’t wearing thin, these Scots must have a brilliant marshal academy somewhere. I was led to a table with refreshments, water, coke, and sweeties. Such a delight as I wasn’t aware of it being here. I was advised two and a half miles to go, and those words were like Christmas morning.
As I left that small humble table on the side of the road, I began my way up the road. I could see two runners as the road stretched, not running now but mimicking extras from The Walking Dead. I caught up with the runners one at a time, both of them glancing over their shoulders as I crept up behind them, at first attempting to run before admitting defeat and letting me past before turning back onto the trails.
Finally the bridge, the very bridge I had seen at the beginning, still there, still standing, what a sight it was. Less than 2 miles to go, and I picked up my pace. I’m not aware of how it happened but suddenly the trail was wide and ran adjacent to the road, I was a solo runner approaching Jedburgh, and the finish. I glanced behind me just in case I was being hunted, once happy I was alone I began my final mile.
As I approached Jedburgh signs and cars built up, folk milled in and out their houses, I caught view of two figures gazing confusingly into my path. My mother and wife, I had estimated to them I would be finished in 8 hours, but the clock was ticking just after 7 hours so they had wandered from the finish to applaud runners, not expecting to see me just yet.
How fantastic to see them, inside I was jumping and throwing my arms around them, but I knew I still had to finish the thing, so I powered on.
The Abbey came into distance, as did the mound on which we started, cow bells and rattles and applause echoed down the road as I ran up the mound, my name was called out to whoops and whistles, up the mound, across the line, medal, goody bag, done. Finished in 7hrs 15, and position 63rd / 193 from 230 starters.
I stumbled around the place, fiddled with my Garmin, found my supporters, and felt overwhelmed at what had happened.
We crossed the road and into the rugby club, I inspected toe nails (two down), and showered, downed the free beer, and slurped the soup. There was a buzz in the hall as runners staggered about the place, some looking fresher than others, wearing their new race tees and hoodies, or slumped still in their race gear, unable to figure out what to do next.
I said it during the race, after the race, and still say it now; this was the greatest race I have ever ran, indeed the weather helped, but everything from the pre-race information, the atmosphere that built on the Facebook page, the route, the goody bag, to the friendliness and enthusiasm of the marshals and runners, it would take a very dreich day to wash away such a positive atmosphere. I cannot praise this race enough, if you’re looking for a braw day on the trails, then I’ll see you in Jedburgh next year!
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