The Wall Ultramarathon
Saturday 20th June 2015
The Wall is a 69 mile ultramarathon that nominally follows the route of Hadrian’s Wall from Carlisle to Gateshead but I didn’t see much of the wall itself. It was my first ultramarathon and probably a brave choice to go straight for such a long one. Training had gone well and I went into the race with three different targets of increasing challenge:
1. Finish in one piece!
2. Start and finish the same day (17 hours)
3. Finish before sunset (less than 14:55)
I always knew the last one would be a tall order but everything suggested that the 17 hour target should be realistic. The route was signed and marshalled so I shouldn’t face navigation problems and, for the north of England, was relatively flat. The race was grouped into 5 stages with aid stations at the end of each one.
Stage 1: Carlisle Castle to Lannercost
Just over 500 runners toed the start line inside Carlisle Castle at 7am, just as the rain started. The first leg was a 15 mile section to Lannercost, which started on a riverbank and then was largely on road. This first segment went very well and I managed to stick pretty well to my run 5 miles, walk for half a mile strategy once we’d got over a very narrow and congested first mile.
I got to Lannercost in just under 3 hours, maintaining an average pace of 11:30/mile. 10 minutes to top up my water bladder and eat and I was on my way again.
Stage 2: Lannercost to Vindolanda
The next leg was the one with the highest climbs and so I expected to be slower over the next 17 miles to a field next to the Roman settlement at Vindolanda. It was in this section where I made my first mistake and dropped my run/walk strategy to fit in with those around me. This was a major mistake. Whilst I made good progress, it meant that my food intake was lower than planned and lower than in training.
I still felt pretty good as I climbed to the checkpoint at Vindolanda, although my ankles were getting very sore. I’d chosen to wear trail shoes but we’d been on hard standing for at least 28 of the last 32 miles. My average pace dropped to 12:52 a mile but I was still feeling strong and confident. I took much longer in this stop (half an hour) changing clothes and socks, queuing for toilets and water refills.
Stage 3: Vindolanda to Hexham
This was a 13 mile stage to the River Tyne at Hexham and I trotted out feeling confident. The first bit was a climb out of Vindolanda which, unlike last year, now followed a winding road rather than straight up the grassy hill. Although I felt strong, my times were slipping and I knew the sub-15 was gone.
About 2 ½ miles from Hexham, I caught up with Annie who I’d run with earlier who was in tears and hobbling along. She’d twisted her ankle and would have to retire. I know it’s a race but everyone was very supportive to other runners around them!
I was starting to suffer from lack of energy now and for the first time, doubting I’d finish. The next stage was 17 miles, which is a long way in a single block and my mind starting playing tricks around there still being a marathon to go!
The next checkpoint was ever slower at 45 minutes and I don’t really know why as I didn’t take in much food, the time just drifted by. I did change from trail to road shoes but it was too late really.
Stage 4: Hexham to Newburn
This was a long stage and I found myself walking more and more, questioning whether I could continue. It now looked like the sub-17 target was gone too, so this was about surviving and just moving towards the finish. I was caught by two former paratroopers who metaphorically scooped me up and dragged me in a run/walk process towards Newburn. By now it was dark and I’d been up for 18 hours.
It was a good call to be in road shoes as there was less than a mile of softer terrain. By now, my body was refusing to play nicely with gels or bars and I just kept drinking and hoping I had enough energy to get to the final checkpoint.
I arrived at Newburn at just after 11pm in quite a bad way. Up until I stopped, I thought I’d be on for about 17:30 as I’d just grab a handful of snacks and push on to the finish. However, I suddenly felt incredibly sick and cold and also needed to stop to address some intimate chaffing areas. At this time and this distance, the checkpoint looked more like the set of a zombie movie with people all struggling and looking unwell.
I forced down some proper food (once I’d sat retching for 15 minutes) and started to feel better but still very cold. More time was spent standing by a space heater in my down jacket. After a while I was feeling better and the medics dosed me up and agreed I could continue to the end. Just a 7 mile trot into town…
Stage 5: Newburn to Gateshead
The final stage was largely on a cyclepath/walkway on a former railway line. It was like the Busway without buses! Not sure I was prepared for that… It was also through thick woodland and the heavy shadows from the headtorch really play with the mind.
I missed the turn over the A1 footbridge and so had to backtrack somewhat. I don’t know how much further I went as my Garmin finally died at 67 miles but I reckon my overall distance was closer to 70.
From the edge of Newcastle to the Millennium Bridge seemed to take forever, running alongside major arterial roads into the city centre. Eventually, we got back to the Tyne and dropped onto the Quayside. There were still revellers out shouting encouragement and the bridges across the river came into view. The food at the last stop had done its trick and I had the strength to break into the odd trot, although most of it was still just stumbling along. When I did run, I found myself overheating in my down jacket but knew if I took it off I’d be too cold.
Slowly ticking off each bridge I ran under, the footbridge came into sight and, on the other bank, was the finish. There were a few hardy supporters out to cheer us in and, almost 19 hours after I started I managed to summon a proper run to cross the line. Exhausted and ecstatic, I paused for a manic-looking finishers photo and staggered to my hotel for a bath.
Its tough. 74 people didn’t finish
The camaraderie when everyone is suffering together is fantastic
Food is everything – I need a larger pack and to rely less on aid stations in the future
When it gets dark, morale plummets
I need to carry more layers for flexibility
I know I will do it again and do it better
I’ve finished an ultramarathon!
I want to do another – but this time properly on trail