James Stewart

Fife Coastal Path


There’s a chill in the air. The wind is coming from the north east. Gloves and arm sleeves are required or it’ll be cold digits and goosebumps ahoy. The only sounds bar our voices is the occasional car or truck, some varied birdsong and the tippy-tappy sound of a handful of blokes jumping up and down nervously on the spot to keep warm whilst the seconds countdown till I start.

It’s Friday 30th April, 0400. I am at the start of the Fife Coastal Path. The aim is to get to the end of it by midnight. Under 20 hours. And to break the indefatigable Nicola Duncan’s 2020 FKT of 23 hours and 17 mins. It will take luck, strength and guts to do it. More of the latter than I hoped in the end.

The TL:DR version of this report is simple. I had never been on any part of the Fife Coastal Path other than Kincardine to Culross so guessed at a plan of 19:40, hoping to break 19 hours. I ran 19:32. The end. Job done. If you want to read about friendship, vomit, support, a nasty sting in the tail and a herd of stampeding sheep, read on.

Pic: Fiona Rennie

Conditions were forecast to be perfect. Martin Butcher offered to start with me. Great commitment from someone I had never actually met. There he was at Co-Op Kincardine at 0345. He guided us to the famous archway starting point. Andy and Skoosh, the Batman and Robin of crewing, counted down from ten and Martin and I leapt into action. Greig Stevenson was down to cheer us off too. Unfortunately due to recent treatment he couldn’t run with us but popped up in various places in the first 40 or so miles.

Having Martin was like having my own personal human podcast alongside me. He’s full of energy and knew every step of the opening leg. He also is pretty loud so I reckon everyone between Kincardine and Limekilns got an early wake up call! It was great company to get the day off and running.

Rob Turner took over from Martin and guided me to a few miles from Burntisland. I could run with Robert every day of my life and not get bored with the chat or company. He’s an incredible runner, awesome human and we share a lot of the same ideas on life. His only flaw is his intimidating handsomeness.

This is a blog about ultrarunning. Insert obligatory Adrian Stott mention here. He’s a muse, a magician and a one man encouragement machine. Despite his shop only reopening this week, he still appears at daft o’clock (AM) to shout hi and give Rob and I a boost of enthusiasm.

While I was running with Rob, Kevin Banks was also popping up in all sorts of random places, which was just as well as I had no idea where I was. The highlight being when he asked if I knew about the collapsed bridge in Aberdour. Of course I did. Being the class act she is, Nicola Duncan had messaged me with some pointers and made sure I knew about the downed crossing. Even telling me I’d have to go through the station and rejoin afterwards. I gleefully replayed that to Kevin when he asked.

The issue was, I didn’t know I was in Aberdour when he asked. It was nice of him to run some fartleks to catch up and guide us back on to the trail.

By the time I got to Burntisland the sun was up and the wind blowy and nippy. It was one of those reminders that “feels like” in a weather forecast context is an important thing to pay attention to. Neil MacNicol guided me through the town and out the other side, taking an Insta worthy shot on the beach before rushing off to see his kids to school. From there I was on my own.

And it was around here I started to get ultra sleepy. If you don’t know what that is. It is when you get sleepy in an ultra. Hope that explains it. The signs are just wanting a wee lie down, anywhere. The issue I had was that I was only 50k into a 185k run. I didn’t have a great sleep the night before. But I had slept well all week. Sometimes this happens. It’s ultrarunning after all. Attrition is not optional, it is mandatory.

A quick pit stop and some soup with Andy and Skoosh, plus the application of podcasts got me going smooth again through villages and towns, golf course, beaches, trails and god knows how many places I couldn’t name or recognise. My lack of recce time due to lockdown meant it was a bit of a mystery tour.

It’s when using a GPX file on your watch you realise how these types of paths, much like John Muir Way, take some random detours to flow walkers and travellers through the main streets of towns you could otherwise skirt by. The amount of times it felt you came off the beach path to go up one street and down another was more than I have fingers to count on, but in a way that was nice. At the end of the day, these trails are gateways to places to help bring in tourists and it is important for local trade they get to see the delights on offer. The charm and quaintness of places like Elie and Pittenween is too nice to be missed. Even if I had no idea where I was most of the time.

I was tempted to stop for a chippy at Anstruther at the world’s greatest chip shop. But the queue was so long I’d missed out of the FKT if I had.

The stretch along the East Neuk is gorgeous. Stunning in the way an almond croissant is after a long run, or in how I feel when the opening refrain of She Sells Sanctuary comes on. But…

There is always a but.

But…

Christ, that section from Crail to St Andrews, and especially Kingsbarns to the Old Town, is rough, tough and energy sapping. It takes the word path and stretches it to the very edge of its definition. There’s rocks, lots of rocks. There’s beaches and sand to run on. Lots of it. The rushes on the sandy trails scratch your legs like nasty, sneaky wee cats who have been trained to guard the trail viciously in incessant incremental discouragement. There is no tripping you up, just wearing you down one scratch at a time. And when you think you have defeated the wee cats, bring on the rocks. Clamber, scramble and jack don’t be nimble. On fresh legs these aren’t a problem, but they get you at 70+ miles in. Rhythm is not happening here.

Then, once they have softened you up, the stairs and the ups and down from beach to cliff top to beach again and back really sap you. My lack of knowledge of route meant I wasn’t expecting it to be this gnarly. But how can you complain about vistas like this?

It was on this section the sickness kicked in. Martin had called his friend Lee who kindly met me at random in Kingsbarns and ran all the way to the East Sands. From here in I will save you the vomit monologues. Suffice to say, I spew louder than Martin talks, so if you had to turn the TV up between 5pm and 11pm on Friday night due to a strange low, tremor-like howl of unknown origin, it was probably me giving the earth back some of the coke, cookies, tomato soup, strawberries, coffee, water and whatever else back to it.

Having Lee helped me tough out these sections. From here in it was simply a case of run until I spewed. Eat as much as I could, and repeat. I think I did this cycle about 10 times on the way in.

This is where the head in ultra running comes in. I was zapped of energy. Up until this point I was confident sub 19 hours was on. I was ahead of plan and going well despite early attrition. It is always where I got very lucky. Remember I said you needed that earlier.

That luck came in the guise of support runners. I knew Devil of the Highland’s champion Alison McGill was meeting me at St Andrews. Aside from social media, this would be a first hello. Something for me to look forward to more than Alison. I think her first words to me were a kind suggestion to wipe the tomato soup from my face. She had her friends James Hall and Mike MacDonald alongside her. I just slipstreamed them for the most part and every now and then bored them with inane patter and sleepy-slurred banalities.

If Skoosh and Andy are the Batman and Robin of crewing, what does that make Jo Murphy and Iona Mackay as a run pairing? I am going with Beyoncé and Shakira. The two of them are just wonderful. One of running’s greatest gifts to me has been the friendships I have found and formed. I am not sure I deserve them at times but I am full of gratitude for them. Jo’s gift to me on the run was the local knowledge (more of which later) whilst Iona was kind enough to give me an earworm from primary one phonics. Ah, Ah, ants on my arm! I have been getting flashbacks of that tune since!

Billy Gibson, recent conqueror of the Fife Pilgrim’s Way FKT joined us at the end of speed session to share some miles. Thankfully he was happy to slow down. Then a couple of my Sky colleagues Stephen and Ryan met us in Tentsmuir. Being able to catch up with folks after the way the last 16 months has gone was a real highlight. And humbling.

The sun was beginning to set in beautiful context as we heading through Wormit to Balmerino. This is not a drill. These are not made up place names. They really do exist. This is almost exactly the 100 mile point. And there is some nasty climbs in the last 16 miles. It’s from here the term ‘coastal’ is stretched to the limits of its definition also as the course goes inland for the remainder.

James and Alison guided me through Balmerino. Then, I was on my own. Darkness was descending quickly and I was in a forest trail without a headtorch, and struggling badly. But, I knew the suffering was coming to an end.

Then comes the sting in the tail. I managed to take on a Belvita biscuit, it was beautiful. I was going to meet Andy and Skoosh (KAPOW) every 25 mins or so in the way in and get a biscuit and drink. That was the plan. 9 miles to to go, Andy shouts out the batmobile, ‘see you down the road’.

Peep peep! A horn over my left shoulder.

It’s Jo and Iona. To my left is a big hill. Norman’s Law. And a pointy sign. My heart sinks. I know what is going to happen. The arrow on my watch points that way too. But, hope is eternal. For a while.

I said to Jo, it’s straight down the road eh? I’d just had 3 glorious miles of tarmac running and I was now 8 miles from the end. I was starting to project end times. Ooops.

Jo, in the most kindest of voices, pointed me up the hill and said good luck. My lack of course knowledge and prep kicked my arse here. I had no idea I wouldn’t see Andy and Skoosh again for almost 7 miles. I had no idea the fuel I had was not sufficient. I had no idea how hilly and slippy this section would be after the rain the previous day. I had no idea how a car with steamy windows and what seemed like decent suspension had got to the top of the climb with the gates locked either side. And I was in no fit state to play chap door runaway so kept going, keeping my panting to a minimum too. Unlike the occupants. I think.

This section is probably beautiful in daylight. I could imagine some incredible views. It is well inland but the lights of the towns along the Tay were shining bright in the distance. I stumbled slowly and with the kind of energy level that have your phone warn “low battery mode enabled” up the rest of the hills and trails. About 5k to go I heard bleating. Lots of it. Then the eyes. I remember sitting in Rufus T. Firefly’s pub in Glasgow many years ago and they had Black Sheep playing on screen. A film about cannibal sheep. Would being eaten by a herd of angry cannibalistic Ovis aries be a more palatable end than that last 5k? Maybe.

But at the end of the day I am Aries too and that star sign serendipity perhaps saved me. Or the fact that they shat it when I shone my torch their way was more a saviour. Either way, the sight of over 100 sheep powering away down the hill in a stampede was incredible, as was the sound. I can only imagine what those big Bison migrations you see in the US are like to witness in real life.

Like this blog, an exhausting endeavour of endurance was coming to end. I came off the final descent, threw my bottle at Batman, or was it Robin, and ran on. By now I didn’t care. I just wanted it over. I knew I was well inside 20 hours, which was the primary aim at 0400 that morning. Start and finish on the same day. I could moonwalk in like Michael Jackson and do that. Except, I didn’t have the leg dexterity to do that and I can’t moonwalk. And I didn’t have a Panama hat with me. The speed I was moving at was more like Neil Armstrong’s pioneering moonwalk.

And, then it was over. John Cassidy and Scott Fergus has come to witness the finish. And there was Andy and Skoosh. Garmin stopped. Tracker switched off. Official time 19:32:08.

Done. The end.

Pic: Alison McGill

Epilogue

It would easy to say without the sickness I would have been quicker. Truth. But, conversely without the support, especially in the latter stages, I would have been equally slower. It nets itself out. Truth.

I am full of gratefulness for everyone who joined me on the course, either to wave, clap, say hello, give me a bit of encouragement and especially to run with me. It is really inspiring to me. When folks journey to the end or mates like Barry drive all the way over before work just to say hi and catch a photo, you know you have connected with something.

Big props to Skoosh and Andy, as always. But apologies for the golf puns on Twitter from @skooshmaccuish. He was fading by the end, his account has been hooked and we will iron out his rough kinks in due course. He will need to pitch for this gig again one day. He’s a fairway to go in the pun stakes.

Whilst I was doing a measly sub 20 hour FKT. My coach and podcast partner in crime Paul Giblin was running with Graham Connolly and killing the Cape Wrath FKT too. Sub 4 days by just 10 minutes on that route. Insane!

Nicola Duncan set the benchmark for this course and did it for an incredible cause. I did it for the endeavour, Nicola helped change someone’s quality of life. Running is a force for good on so many levels as her support to me and cause last year shows.

And, lastly, Louise, Euan and Caelan. Mwah. Oh, and Nugget too. I have a new pair of sock for you to chew on.

6 replies to “Fife Coastal Path

  1. Fantastic effort JS. It says so much about you that so many good folk are happy to give up their time in aid of your record attempt. It’s inspirational to read about the overcoming of difficulties on a long(long) run, and knowing that the fast guys like you suffer too is reassuring to us folk further back in the pack. Keep on doing it a d see y’all on a trail somewhere soon 👍🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿🕺🍪

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