A few weeks ago, club member Richard Jones was one of several hundred people who took part in The Wall Ultra race. Here is Richard’s report.
The Wall Ultra, Sat 22 June 2013
(Carlisle Castle to the Millennium Bridge, Gateshead)
This was going to be difficult for a couple or reasons; firstly I’d never ran more than 50 miles in a single day and secondly I knew it was going to be hilly.
A few years back I did the 45 mile Country to Capital ultra which starts in Buckinghamshire and finishes at Paddington station, London. I remember the agony I was in, finishing the last few miles hunched over like a little old man, muttering dark thoughts into the bleak winter gloom. At the finish of that race I vowed never to go over the marathon distance again. Fast forward a few years and after 40 odd marathon finishes suddenly the world seems a brighter happier place and the fear of distance has greatly diminished.
I chose this particular event as my main goal is a 100 miler next year, so I wanted to do a race somewhere between 50 and 100 miles. This is advertised as a 69 mile mixed terrain race so seemed an ideal stepping stone prior to a 100 mile attempt. It has a fair proportion of the race on roads and paths so it would be easier than all on trails. It is local but certainly isn’t cheap; £120 entry fee is eye watering even after you factor in the cost of the food stations, first aiders etc. Somebody somewhere is making a lot of money me thinks.
The event offers the runner the choice of doing the distance over two days, with an overnight camp at Vindolanda, or a single day. The single day finish also gives you 2 qualifying points for anyone who is looking to qualify for the Ultra Trial du Mont Blanc (UTMB) though you need 7 points from two qualifying races. It roughly follows Hadrians Wall, either directly on it or next to it along Hadrians Way.
I’m always wary of events that channel all of their communications via Face Book. I don’t use FB and when I hadn’t heard a thing from the organiser I emailed to be told all of the essential info was on the FB event page. Anyway, I did eventually get the race info I needed via a good old fashioned email but this did irk me a little (remember that £120 entry fee!).
I stayed in the IBIS in Carlisle city centre on the Friday night, picked up my race packet at the Castle and had some non-descript food at a Wetherspoon pub over the road. Anyone who knows Carlisle will know that Botchergate is “the strip” in terms of nightlife, so at 1am, 2am and 3am I was woken up by sirens from all the emergency services responding to an array of fights, domestics, smoke alarms etc right outside the hotel. Great to watch but crap in terms of pre-race relaxation!
The single day runners started at 7am with the two day runners at 8am. We set off in a long almost single file through Carlisle city centre on roads and then paths, all nice and flat for about the first 10 miles. By this point it started to chuck it down with rain. We pressed on and eventually got onto a trail (though still no sign of the actual wall!) and the elevation started to be decidedly “up”. I settled into a rhythm as best I could, trying not to follow guys who were either extremely fast and would be very near the front at the finish, or clearly running far too fast for their own good. We started to string out and I found myself alone up to the midway point. Thinking back it was certainly undulating, but nothing lung busting if you took your time on the inclines, had a break when you needed it and just ran sensibly.
I reached the midway point just west of Vindolando, around the 32 mile mark, where the drop bags and hot food was located. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I walked into the main tent; people hobbling around, being stretchered by first aiders, being bandaged, crying and in agony. We were only half way! Clearly for some people their race was over. I got a dry top on, fresh cap and socks and started getting some soup and a sandwich down my neck. 20+ minutes flew by and I knew it was time to go.
This is where it started getting interesting. The terrain was much more difficult immediately after the midway point and my pace dropped. I also knew I had ran for several hours but was still more than a marathon away from the finish, a dangerous point in the race where you can quickly get disheartened and the remaining distance can overwhelm you. I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other and tried to stay in the present and not think of the remaining hours left on my feet.
At 50 miles I was into unknown territory distance-wise, however I felt in reasonable shape. I was so happy to see the big chimneys of the factory on the edge of Hexham bellowing out their white smoke, anyone who has driven along the A69 will know what I’m on about. At this point, barring anything breaking or snapping in my body, I knew I was going to finish, this was a huge psychological boost.
By now I was running at 5 MPH/12 minute miles. Sounds laughable now but at the time it felt like the right speed for the terrain and how I was feeling. My Garmin was a godsend at this point. I kept looking at the average pace for the mile; when I’d been running for a few minutes and it dropped to 11 min/mile I knew I could take a luxury walk break and once it crept over the 12 min/mile I had to start running again. I started managing each mile this way, thinking only of the hour I was in and doing 5 miles in that hour. I just couldn’t think beyond running an hour or I knew I’d start walking.
And start walking I did; at 60 miles I reached a stream crossing which broke my spirit. I waded shin deep through the crossing by which point my mile was up and it had taken me over 13 minutes for that mile. I felt deflated, I couldn’t even keep the 12 min/mile pace going. I had a mental hissy fit and decided I needed a mile walk break. I had reached the last checkpoint with “only 7 miles to go” but the finish seemed a very long way off. I started to shiver as I took a sandwich and a hot coffee. I left the final checkpoint with my buff, gloves and a jacket on and it was probably 15C and it had stopped raining. I was on empty.
The last few miles were a slog, walking through the outskirts of Newcastle and onto the riverside on the Newcastle side near the Vickers factory. I know from my training runs I only had 3 miles to go but just couldn’t muster up the strength to jog. Runners passed me but I didn’t care where I’d be placed in the race, I just wanted to stop moving. I reached the Copthorne hotel and could hear the PA system announcing the runners coming over the bridge and into the finish. As it was Saturday evening there were plenty of people out on the quayside and after some words of encouragement from some of them I started running again. The bridge was a welcome sight indeed, I sneaked over the line in under 15 hours with 70.6 miles showing on my Garmin, 114th out of 350+ runners.
For anyone who doesn’t want a hardcore distance event this should definitely be a consideration. Miles are still miles, but the amount of road running rather than trail makes this event definitely easier and when the going gets tough on the trail sections you know you can make up some time on the tarmac.
Full results can be found here