Running the Causeway Coast Way in Northern Ireland
I gathered from two passers-by, who shook their heads in disbelief and/or disapproval as we ran by chirping good morning, that a long weekend running coastal trails may not be everyone’s idea of fun. But it is mine, and lucky for me, it is Sophie’s too.
A dream of seeing the Giant’s Causeway, a text with a yes in reply, 2 days booked off work and £45 return flights. We were off to run the Causeway Coast Way, a 50k (33-mile) stretch along the coast of Northern Ireland, between Carrick-a-Rede and Portstewart.
The trip was always going to be a success. Sophie, of ChallengeSophie.com repute, and I are creators of luck, curious and hard-working. Even we though, couldn't predict that 4 days on the Antrim Coast could provide so much space for improvisation, diversity, friendship and awesome memories.
It was kick-started by being offered a ride by my neighbours on the plane, and continued from there.
Do you have a boat?
With the time saved by catching a ride rather than navigating 3 buses, Sophie and I headed off to visit Rathlin Island. With its population of 100 people, it is the only inhabited island off the coast of Ireland. It is renowned for its wildlife, particularly seabirds, has a café, a pub, bikes to hire and a Puffin bus to take you around the island
Wanting to stay longer on Rathlin, a delicately posed question by Sophie, “do you have a boat?” and we had met Paddy and team, off-duty RNLI staff who kindly gave us a ride back after the last ferry had gone, complete with wine, cheese and crackers. You see, these active adventures aren’t just about slogging it out!
Rope bridges, running and whistles
Friday morning, after a full English breakfast (funnily enough, not a recommended pre-run tummy filler), we set off towards the Causeway Coast Way. Carrick-a-Rede (pronounced reed), is the official start - or finish if you travel east to west.
Translated as ‘Rock in the Road,’ the rope bridge takes its name from its 350-year-old fishermen origins. The bridge, 30m above sea level, allowed access to the ‘road’ the salmon passed along on their migration. Don’t run across the bridge though…they have a whistle. Carrick-a-Rede is managed by the National Trust, as are a great number of the coast's natural assets, including 15 miles of the actual trail - hats off to keeping these areas of outstanding natural beauty intact.
I think I’m in someone’s house
The National Trust café at Carrick-a-Rede is the last food and water stop until Giant’s Causeway, over 20k away. On Friday, our first day of running, we set off at 9 and finished the day at 2, 30k later. According to our tracker, the time was made up of 4 hours of running and 1 hour of pauses for sightseeing, photos and filming to make a short film.
Recognising the heat of the day and our need to keep hydrated, when we stumbled across several people relaxing outside a café in the idyllic Dunseverick harbour, Sophie went ahead to fill up our water bottles. She came out empty handed “I think I’m in someone’s house.”
Not offended that we had walked in uninvited and nosed around their home, the ‘clientele’ – actually the owners enjoying the sun on their terrace – set us on our way with water, some historical facts and a couple of Trio chocolate bars (cue Trio jingle stuck in head for rest of day).
The North Irish coast is famous for its views – it really is a feast for the eyes. We were blessed with uncommonly cloudless blue skies, accentuating the pureness of the colours. I was blown away by the combination of a bright yellow bush that flanked the trail for a while, the green - that really was SO green, and the blue of the sky. Topped off by the full spectrum of aquamarine ocean hues - our visual senses were on fire.
Thanks to the weather beaten cliffs, rock arches and crystal clear pools, our journey along the Causeway Coast Way was the ideal eye-candy for two active Londoners on a weekend away.
The photo in real life – Giant’s Causeway
Our first day of running ended at the Giant’s Causeway, an incredible volcanic formation and the inspiration for the trip. Legend has it that Finn McCool created the tightly packed hexagonal columns as a bridge to Scotland when he picked a fight with a giant on the nearby coast. Science says it was caused by a volcanic lava spill 60 million years ago, drying slowly and cracking in this unique way. Take your pick.
The Giant’s Causeway is free to access and open 24 hours a day so I recommend getting there for dusk, with a picnic dinner to enjoy the view when the crowds are lighter and the shadows longer.
With dehydration and a bit of rouge affecting my energy levels, not to mention the fact I’d run 30k on sausage and egg and without much training, I was elated to wake up on Saturday morning to feel fighting fit and ready to bounce. I was smarter on the second day of running – actually eating the food I was carrying (Bounce Balls and a banana in case you’re interested) and meditated on the fact that I was carrying way too much on my back.
My new Lowe Alpine running pack worked a treat to carry our 4 days worth of gear. My decision to bring black jeans and spare changes of clothes - just in case - was a lesson learnt. It’s amazing how I thought I had stripped down to the bare necessities but when you run with your belongings on your back, turtle style, you realise how heavy it all feels and how little you actually needed. Pack light. Be brave. Run easy. Run far.
Roads, cows and a very long beach
Our second day of running the Giant’s Causeway to Portstewart stretch was more populated, with a lot of pavement running. Our attempt to check we weren’t missing out on a coastal path took us into a field of cows, then another. Inquisitive, nosy and bordering on aggressive (the cows, not us), we leapfrogged over a couple of barbed wire fences and returned to the road, happy with having taken the safest route.
The ruins of Dunluce Castle, one of the great castles of the 16th and 17th century, is an iconic sight. Balancing on the cliffs, the looming castle looks out to sea, a key defence point in medieval times.
We skipped into Portrush having just missed (by an hour and a half), their Parkrun – a cool 5k along the sandy East Strand Beach. A quick pit stop in the Arcadia Café and before we knew it we had completed our two-day Causeway Coast Way run in Portstewart.
Ice cream, Guinness, Fish n Chips and Whiskey
A shower and rest and we were ready to hit the town to explore Northern Ireland’s delicacies. Followers on social media as well as Portstewart locals voiced the clear favourites, now tried and tested by Sophie and me: ice cream at Morelli’s (we also liked Maud’s), Guinness at the Anchor, fish n chips from the Prom Chippy and local Bushmills whiskey, imbibed in the nightlife hotspot that is Shenanigans.
Lying down on a stand-up paddleboard
Our fourth and final day was a beach and travel day. After pancakes at Harry’s Shack on the Strand, we rented out two stand-up paddleboards from Ocean Warriors on the Portstewart Strand and took to the sea. Experimenting to make sure stand-up paddleboards also make good lie-down paddleboards, I was reminded of our RNLI friends’ warnings of the Antrim Coast being one of most dangerous in the UK.
It was hard to believe. I'd love to return to see the stormy flip side of this dramatic Irish coast.
A running holiday may not be everyone’s idea of fun, so why is it mine?
Particularly on coastal trails, where the only access is on foot, running makes for a practical and pleasant mode of transport. Speed is yours to play around with. Though we were running, at no point were we rushing.
The run was tough, no doubt about it. Carrying your water and kit with you is tiring and the heat (it could have been rain and wind though) saps energy too. Getting going after sitting down was tough – muscles tightened even with a 2-minute respite. As with the majority of life, though, a bit of persistence and hard work and quickly the rewards exceed the effort.