Isaac’s Tea Trail is 37 miles of rugged North Pennines terrain. Cees van der Land has run the whole thing in six hours 40 minutes. And he wasn’t even running flat-out because of negotiating about 150 gates and stiles and fording a river.
Cees was part of the group of runners described by guest blogger Shane Harris in the blog post of May 9th 2019. The run had been organised by trail runner Mark Russell who set up the Facebook group ‘Trails, Ultras and other crazy running events’. Mark says: “The idea of running the Tea Trail came about when myself and my wife Katharine were in the tea room at Whitfield and I noticed the poster on the wall about the Tea Trail being a 37 mile circular walk. Obviously being a crazy trail runner I thought that it sounded like a nice trail to run in a day”.
After a lot of preparation and several recce runs along stretches of the route, the group assembled in Allendale to begin their epic endeavour, posing beside the well that Victorian tea pedlar Isaac Holden installed to bring clean drinking water to the village. After less than a mile Cees van der Land had already disappeared over the horizon and the group didn’t see him again until they met in the pub that evening to toast their achievement.
Picture by Mark Russell. From left to right: Mariza Frazer (Run Peterlee), Jocelyn Wilkinson (Run Peterlee), Cees van der Land (Tyne Bridge Harriers), Helen Guy (Stocksfield Striders), Avril Mackay (Run Peterlee), Shane Harris (Blackhill Bounders), Andrew Chilts, Richard Heslop ((Stocksfield Striders), Joanne Lucking (Ponteland), Dawn Poulter (Prudhoe Plodders), Alex Lockey (Stocksfield Striders), Jason Brooker (Stocksfield Striders)
Cees, who is from the Netherlands, is a lecturer in geosciences at Newcastle University. He and his wife and young daughter live just a few yards from Isaac’s Tea Trail, near Allen Smelt Mill, and the trophies and medals in their home testify to his extraordinary running prowess.
As yet there’s no medal for completing Isaac’s Tea Trail, but Cees must hold the record for the fastest circuit of the route. I wondered if he’d had the time or energy to appreciate his surroundings as he rocketed around the North Pennines and apparently the views are a good distraction. “You don’t want to focus on the pain in your legs so the views are good to look at,” he said. “Mentally it’s very hard running through a boring town or city”.
While Cees was doing his high-speed thing a long way ahead, the rest of the group were making good progress, even pausing for teapot poses in honour of the Tea Trail.
The footbridge at Kirkhaugh, north of Alston, still hasn’t been replaced since serious flood damage in September 2018 and although dry-footed detours are available, the runners were on a mission and just kept going. Eventually they completed the Tea Trail in around nine hours.
Most of Cees van der Land’s daily training runs take him onto parts of Isaac’s Tea Trail. He aims to do 6-10 miles every weekday and a run of 20-30 miles at the weekend. “In the three years we’ve lived in Allendale I’ve seen quite a few improvements to the Tea Trail and it’s getting better all the time,” he said.
He even did training runs at night to prepare himself for running in the dark during the Spine Race in June. Described by the organisers as one of the world’s toughest endurance races, it’s 268 miles along the Pennine Way. The race started well for Cees. He told me he ran pretty much non-stop for two days and nights, sharing the navigation with other runners, before having 1.5 hours sleep in a village hall.
At the 100-miles point he was cheered on by his family, giving him a boost as he powered northwards.
He managed a short snooze slumped on the moor near High Cup Nick in the Cumbrian Pennines and then kept up a good pace into Alston. However, by now he was suffering. “My shoulders were really hurting from the backpack, my feet had swollen, and I lost four toe nails,” he said matter-of-factly. He managed to keep going, but then started vomiting and had stomach cramps. He couldn’t swallow food and it soon became clear he had bleeding in his stomach.
“The digestive system is the limiting factor in ultra runs,” he said. “When you’re running, blood is diverted away from the intestine and into the leg muscles which are working very hard. This causes problems for the stomach. I aim to eat no more than 300 calories an hour as this is as much as your stomach can digest while running.”
Apparently more people to drop out of ultra endurance events because of nausea and vomiting than because of blisters, cramp, injuries and exhaustion put together. There’s even a condition called runner’s runny bum. The eyes can suffer too when the wind dries out the cells that provide a protective liquid layer over the cornea, causing the cornea to swell up. This leaves runners with blurry vision or almost no vision.
Talking to Cees took me into a world that is the ultra opposite of my own days in the hills. I plod slowly, have a nice sit-down at regular intervals, and eat as many calories as I can carry in my rucksack. I had no idea that people could push their bodies (and minds) to such extremes.
Cees eventually had to drop out of the Spine Race five miles south of Greenhead, he was in hospital for two nights and given medication to restore the lining of his stomach. His reaction to not finishing the race? “Now I have to do it again”. He’s also sure he can improve his performance running Isaac’s Tea Trail. “Running it in less than six hours is definitely possible,” he said.
I asked how his family feel about the hours he spends training and competing in races. “My wife says I’m much nicer if I run”, he said. When he and Becki got married in Newcastle Cees did the Park Run on the Town Moor in the city on the morning of his wedding.