Sunderland Urban Ultra
Saturday 3rd November 2018
Report by Michael Nemeth
WARNING: The Urban Ultra is a very long race, so a very long report is needed.
Firstly, I’ll start with a little bit of background. Ever since my first Great North Run, back in 2012, someone told me about The Wall which is a 69-mile run from Carlisle to Newcastle and ever since then I’ve wanted to do it, just because it can be done. For many of you that won’t make much sense, but for anyone leaning toward, or already in the ultramarathon world it will make perfect sense. I built up the courage to enter the 2018 event, but due to my training not going well I made the decision to defer my entry to 2019. Around September time, Dave Rowe mentioned that he had entered the Urban Ultra hosted by the Sunderland Strollers. What better race to enter than one taking in 37 miles around my birth city?
November the 3rd… not a problem!
What was that? You get a booklet of instructions and a map on the day. I’m in!
Build up to the big day had been mixed. My first recce run took in checkpoint 3 (Hylton Castle) to the finish (Ashbrooke Cricket Club), via Wellhouse Farm and Roker Pier. Within the first few hundred metres you are required to ‘run’ up Bunny Hill, which is essentially a 45° grassy bank and as it had been raining I fell flat on my face in the mud and had to grab tufts of grass to haul myself up said hill. Not the best start, but entertaining. The first recce run allowed me to iron out quite a lot of route unknowns (not all, as will be revealed later) and I managed to turn the 17.9 miles into 20.5 miles.
The 2nd recce run went much more disastrously, with just a week before the event. I had set out to do the start, right up to checkpoint 3 – Ashbrooke Cricket Club, to Silksworth, to Cox Green, to Hylton Castle. October 27th saw hail/sleet/wind and even glimpses of snow. On the morning of the run I couldn’t find my waterproof gloves but decided I’d be ok with normal gloves. After bundling my way to the top of Tunstall Hill my core temperature was dropping massively and my hands were frozen stiff. On the descent I took a wrong turn and headed towards Leechmere, rather than the destined Silksworth. I stumbled across the Hollymere pub and made the decision to buy a coffee, warm up and abandon my run. It took ages to get feeling back in my hands! Feeling quite dejected I knew my preparation had to be enough.
Back to the main event. Just before 7am I picked up Dave from Heworth and we made our way to Ashbrooke for race registration and final kit preps. Mandatory kit involved emergency whistle, headtorch, waterproofs and hat/gloves. I’d found my waterproof gloves by this point so was feeling much happier on the kit front. Registration was a very smooth process, ably handled by Harry Harrison, club secretary for the Strollers. Final kit checks and all we had to do now was to wait for the start. We were joined by former TBH member Emma Giles who we had agreed to run with.
Just before 8am we congregated outside ready to be let loose around Sunderland. Off we went with a dip into Backhouse Park and the first set of steps for the day before heading to Hendon promenade and along the cliffs where we shuffled past another 2 former TBH members in the form of Walt and Sue Cartwright. Hitting the edge of Rhyope we took the path back towards Silksworth for a gentle runnable section before going past the boxing club and an old pit wheel. An uphill section followed by steps downhill took us towards the woods where we scrambled up a muddy bank between the trees, with plenty of tree trunks to aid our uphill struggle. We broke out by Tunstall quarry before another uphill section in the direction of our first Trig Point of the day in the form of Tunstall Hill. A few quick photos and a breather to take in the stunning panoramic views and we were off again for a very cautious scramble downhill on the wet rocks. Everyone was helping everyone out for this section as it was very unsure footing. A sneaky, almost hidden path took us across a field and heading towards more woodland. This was one of the trickiest parts of the route as we came to another very steep muddy bank (I was told the race team were very close to putting in a rope for the runners to use at this point). A few false starts and a scramble using roots, tree trunks and tufts of stubborn grass and we were up! That was hard work but we had made the summit. At this point we had fell into a natural pace with Nina Jensen from Claremont. Into Silksworth Complex for the first feed station and checkpoint. This was actually an option to do the parkrun and complete the parkrun challenge and aim for the parkrun cup. This would involve aiming to be the fastest person around parkrun who also completed the entire ultra route. Sensibly forfeiting our cup aspirations we gave our numbers to the marshalls, had a few sweets and some cola before getting our bearings and shuffling to the next checkpoint.
It was here where Emma parted ways with us as runners took two different routes around the playing fields. Dave made the executive decision to follow the route right as Emma went left. We’d assumed both routes would rejoin together but it would turn out that this wasn’t quite the case. Leaving the complex we had a few orientation stutters as we got out bearings and we were out roaming the streets of Sunderland again. Heading into the Barnes Park extension we felt like we were heading eternally uphill as we located our second Trig Point of the day. The good thing about Trig Points is generally they’re very easy to spot! Down the hill we went and crossed over the A19 via a bridge. We clambered over a barrier for a mini-downhill section before dippings back through the trees and emerging into Herrington Park. Having a slight taster of the the cross-country course we climbed to the circle of stones for another opportunity to take in the fantastic views. From this point we could see our next landmark along the journey in the form of Penshaw Monument. Mr Rowe had revealed that he had never actually visited Penshaw Monument, so this was going to be his maiden visit. He was in for a treat as we approached the newly refurbished steps. The climb is never easy, but having already put 10 or so miles in our legs this was a slog. We made it to the top slightly breathless but exhilarated and as we skirted the monument we passed our third trig Point of the route. Down we went into the woods and it was here that we decided to enjoy the scenery and add on a few miles as we felt the freedom of running through the lush orange and red carpet of leaves. Approaching a farmer’s field with barbed wire wrapped around the stile and fence we realised that this probably wasn’t the correct route. A little bit of back tracking and having to ask a guy at the golf course and another guy walking his dogs we somehow managed to get back on track to locate Checkpoint 2 at Cox Green. Another cupful of cola and our numbers checked off we were ready to go again. We bumped into a bunch of girls doing the relay here and shuffled off as they got themselves checked off.
We set off alongside the River Wear, made familiar by having done some of the Trail Outlaws races. Cutting across the entrance to the Washington Wetlands Centre (formerly Washington Wildfowl Trust) and here we decided to add on a few more miles again, because 37 doesn’t seem enough. We managed to make the route so interesting that we circled a farm from entirely the wrong direction and caught up, yes, caught up to the tail runner! It turns out that Terry Topping, who was tailrunner had also devised the route so he was the ideal person to have bumped into. He was with a couple of lads who had decided to take on the parkrun challenge. Talking to him we realised there were some more technical parts of the route coming later. We stuck with him for a little while until we knew where we were going. Popping under a bridge and climbing another set of steps we found ourselves running alongside the busy A19 as it headed back south over the River Wear. A section of downhill running past the Golden Lion pub had us drop back down to sea/river level to run along the south bank of the Wear. We plodded past the boat club where there must have been a regatta going on as it was crazy busy. Also, turns out that the majority of people carrying oars and/or boats have no spacial awareness as several of them tried to take our heads off or impale us. A gentle climb and we made it up to the south side of the new Northern Spire bridge. We crossed over the bridge and dropped into Castletown Dene. The paths along here were a bit tricky underfoot so we resorted to the shuffle/walk tactic before a steep turn up another muddy hill. This was perhaps the most difficult part of the course as we put our heads down and made steady upward progress. Making it to the top I was left with burning quads and glutes. That was brutal! Along the path and we opened out at Checkpoint 3, Hylton Castle. This was the busiest checkpoint so far as many of the people doing the relay handed over to their partners. Taking on some fuel, a top up of water and some more cola and we were refreshed and ready to go. Dave, Nina and myself headed off to make some more progress as we were officially over halfway now.
I came into a lot of stick for the next section as this was part that I had actually recced. First things first, up Bunny Hill! Another steep grass bank, but thankfully it was fairly dry underfoot and we steadily crested the bank. I knew this was the last tricky, technical section of the run so was glad to get it out the way. We headed uphill from here along the main road towards the boundary of Sunderland, ironically known as the Downhill area of Sunderland. Past Redhill Academy and it was clear that my navigational skills were dubious at best as this was where I got lost on my recce run too. We eventually hit one of the local landmarks mentioned in the instructions and joined the 2 lads who had done parkrun. They joked with us that we were catching up to them for distance covered but they couldn’t understand how we kept on overtaking them. Luckily one of them knew the route from here as I didn’t have my bearings for Fulwell Quarry. We stuck with them until we got to the World War I Acoustic Mirror and started our steady shuffle again. I was confident for the next section but that didn’t stop Dave and Nina extracting the urine for the next few miles. Out past Moor Lane and we were on the outskirts of Cleadon, making good progress to the next checkpoint. A few side streets later and we took the turning into the grounds of Wellhouse Farm for Checkpoint 4. We stocked up here and chatted for a bit with the ever friendly marshals. They told us that the leaders had gone through several hours earlier and would probably be finished by now. The wind was starting to really pick up and they gave us the fantastic prediction of Roker Pier being closed. This would mean having to do around 0.5 mile less of the total route if the pier was deemed too dangerous for the public. Music to our ears! As the next group of runners approach we took that as a signal to head off along Bede’s Way.
Progress on this section was fairly steady with the three us us in tune with each other by now. We started to intermittently walk and shuffle as the terrain allowed and we didn’t even have to verbally say when we were walking or running, we just intuitively knew. Up past Cleadon Mill and it was here that my route knowledge was sketchy again as I didn’t know how to make progress past the golf course. In my recce run I had gone the long way around, on the main roads, but there was a marked pathway through the course which was officially the route and a lot shorter than my version. We dropped down past Lizard Lane caravan park and made it to the coast past the Limestone Kilns and Souter Lighthouse. Dropping along the coastal path made good steady progress with walking breaks when we hit a strong headwind. It was then we spotted in the distance a girl wearing a pink jacket. Me and Dave glanced at each other, “Is that Emma?!” After a few minutes we had made ground on her and caught up. It WAS Emma. She was so happy to see us as she’d gotten lost a few times on route and had been alone for some time. We exchanged hugs and became four. I think the hours alone had really taken their toll on Emma and she was struggling quite a bit at this point. Even a slow shuffle had us losing her, so we stuck with the pace she could manage. As we got to Whitburn we started running from park bench to park bench and before we knew it we were at the Lattimer’s Fish and Chip Shop. Resisting the urge to stop and eat ALL the fish and chips we continued and dropped along the promenade. Dropping down by the Cat and Dog steps we hit the beach. With tired legs already we decided to walk this entire section as running would just expend too much energy on the sand. As we approached the Pier we could see that people were out along the pier. Bad news! The pier was safe enough to run and we’d have to add on that extra 0.5 miles after all. Roker Pier eventually got larger and larger, and closer and closer and we were at Checkpoint 5. We got ourselves ticked off the list as the marshals gave us the unfortunate news that the pier was safe to do.
Never mind! We plodded on our way and climbed the handful of steps to the lighthouse. Race instructions said to take a note of the inscription on the foundation stone, but light was poor and it was difficult to read. We all took a snap on our phones as evidence and started to shuffle back along the pier as the light was fast disappearing. We could see all along the seafront that the illuminations were being turned on. Distractions aside, we had a goal to achieve and we went to the feed station in the car park near the pier. It was here that I had a cup of tea, which was so welcome. The girls at this station were like a ray of light as they told us that there was in fact now just over 3 or so miles to go! With our spirits lifted we set off again. Every step we took was a step closer to the finish and we used our shuffle/walk tactic again to get along the north side of the Wear, past the Glass Centre and the university campus. As Wearmouth Bridge loomed overhead I knew what was coming. We had to climb the steps to the top! Who puts steps 35 miles (37ish for us) into a race?! Surprisingly they weren’t too bad and we found ourselves trudging through the city centre to our final destination. Past Mowbray Gardens and into Ashbrooke. Almost there. We’d all agreed at this point that we’d done the journey together, so we finished together and would “honk the Stroller horn” at the same time, which would signify our goal. As the Cricket Club came into view we all got a second wind and sped up. It was by no means a sprint finish but we were flying. As we got to the club we removed our shoes, which was a bit of a struggle to be honest. As a quartet we shuffled down the corridor and stairs to the race headquarters. We all grabbed the horn together and gave it a good honk! Mission accomplished in officially 9 and a half hours. I looked over and saw my wife Michelle there, beaming at me with a bottle of Diet Coke and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. What a star!
Was it hard? Yes!
Was it worth it? Definitely!
I’ve officially run an ultramarathon now, and that race gave me a lot of confidence for The Wall. Over half of the distance covered with what seemed to be every hill in Sunderland. For anyone even considering going beyond marathon distance I would definitely recommend doing this race, and I’ll almost certainly be returning to do it again next year. I would however recommend doing a better recce of the route, preferably with someone who already has proper knowledge of the route. Next year I’ll be better prepared and hopefully know where I’m going so I don’t have to add on an additional 3 miles. For people who are scared of the distance, you don’t have to run every stop you just have to make progress and keep the time you’re not moving down to a minimum. If there is a hill, walk it. Conserve energy when you need to. Getting across the finish line is the goal for most people, unless you’re ridiculously superhuman like Cees (van der Land). They even offer an option to do the race as part of a 2-person relay if you only wanted to cover half of the distance. I’m sure I’ll be plugging the race as entries open as a reminder.