Like Race to the Stones two years ago, The Wall was one of those events I’d had my eye on for a while, but hadn’t dared to enter. As with all Rat Race events, it’s not a cheap affair. But it did look brilliant as it’s a great route, well supported and not too far from home. So after last year’s event I thought “What the hell” and nabbed one of the slightly cheaper early bird places, which was still not exactly peanuts at £175, but less than the full price of over £200. I basically had a whole year to prepare and look forward to it!
The route of The Wall runs for 69 miles from Carlisle to Newcastle; across the country, but not quite coast to coast. You can either do it all in one day or half and half over two days; I took the one day option. The event’s name gives the impression it follows the route of Hadrian’s Wall, but it only does that a little. The course is about 80% road with a few trail sections, and some of this is near to sections of the wall, but don’t come expecting to follow it completely! There is some climbing, but the elevation is only about 1,100 metres – similar to Race to the Stones or (to a Hardmoors runner) about the same as the White Horse Marathon over more than twice the distance. Because you cross the Pennines, the general trajectory is upwards during the first half and downwards during the second. I followed the same training plan as I had for Race to the Stones, basically trying to pack in as many long, hilly runs as I could in the months beforehand.
Registration takes place the day before the race, and I travelled to Carlisle by train, having booked an AirBNB in the centre of town. I got chatting to a few other runners on the journey. None of us had ever run so far before and some people were quite nervous! Sign-on at Carlisle Rugby Club was all very smooth. Our photo ID and mandatory kit were checked, and we were all given a tracker to carry. As well as being a safety feature, this is really handy for supporters, as Steve was coming to pick me up at the finish the next day. I tried to get an early night, but found it hard to sleep as I was so excited. I got up just before 5 am and had my porridge breakfast, then left at 6 am to walk to the bag drop and start at Carlisle Castle.
There are two drop bag points along the route; a small, disposable one at around 24 miles and another one at 44 miles, from where the bag is transported to the finish for you. You can also have quite a big bag sent from the start to the finish, which is really handy if you’re there alone. The weather was pretty spot-on; dry and fine but not sunny, although with a few showers forecast for around teatime. After a race briefing we set off at 7 am. The start was quite dramatic, from a square inside the castle grounds, over the drawbridge and out through a park. It was quite congested at first, but soon spread out a bit. The first ten miles is actually pretty flat, with just a couple of slight inclines, so a good warm-up.
There are two kinds of aid stations along the race route. Five of these are called Pit Stops, and are stocked with various kinds of food and drink. There are also six Checkpoints, which just have water and sweets, and where you cannot fill bottles or bladders. So you do need to make sure you top up your fluids at the Pit Stops. I was a bit concerned that two of the Pit Stops in the second half were about 18 miles apart. This might have been more of an issue had the weather been really warm, but luckily it wasn’t. I felt pretty good and at the first Pit Stop (15 miles) was pleased to see some pains au chocolat on offer! I ate one of these and took a bag of crisps for the road. I think crisps are my favourite ultra food, easy to eat and salty. I do get a bit fed up of sweet stuff after a while! The Checkpoints all had little bags of sweets such as Skittles and Haribo, which were really easy to grab and pocket. I try not to spend too much time at checkpoints, as it can add up considerably over a long race, but it’s important to refuel, and there was a good variety of food on offer at all of the Pits Stops, including a range of sandwiches. I thought it was lovely that people clapped and cheered as you entered the Pit Stop areas!
At around ten miles there was a sign saying something like ‘That was the easy bit’ and sure enough, most of the hilly stuff is in the middle section of the race. I started to flag a bit at around 20 miles and decided to have one of the gels I’d brought with me. I don’t like to take lots of gels during an ultra, as my stomach prefers real food over a long distance, but sometimes have one when I need a boost. It did make me feel a lot better, and I realised I probably should have started eating a bit sooner.
The elevation in this event wouldn’t really trouble anyone who’s used to running on hills, it’s more the length of it that’s the challenge. That and the fact that the route is mostly road, as I do think Tarmac is much harder on the legs than soft trail. In fact, I think courses that have gentle inclines rather than steep hills are harder in a way, because you’re more tempted to run them, whereas you’d walk up a steeper gradient. Anyway, there was certainly some spectacular scenery to occupy the mind en route, with photographers popping up all over the place to snap you. I got the impression going round that quite a few people had done The Wall before, some multiple times, which I guess says something about it.
The main drop bag Pit Stop is at Hexham, 44 miles in. It started to rain just before I got there; not much, but enough to make me stop and put on my cap. As I was eating at the Pit Stop (excellent sausage rolls!) whilst dressing a small blister that was forming on my left foot, the rain started to fall a bit harder. Luckily we were able to shelter inside a marquee. This had a bit of a refugee camp vibe about it, with people sitting on chairs or the grass, some sorting out their feet and trying to decide what to eat/wear, and others clearly trying to decide whether to call it a day. It was tempting to linger here a while to see if the rain stopped, but as it eased a bit I decided to put on my jacket and set off. I just find the longer you sit down the harder it is to get going again!
The rain continued to fall, but it wasn’t cold and I was really warm in my jacket, so took it off when the rain eased a bit. Runners had now become quite spread out, but the route is so well marked there was never any danger of becoming lost – and I’m quite navigationally challenged! We passed through some pretty villages, and there always seemed to be some people out to give a cheer, which was great. Things definitely became much harder as the miles went by. I managed to keep eating and drinking, which always becomes more difficult as time goes on, and my feet weren’t sore, but I felt I had a lot less energy in the last 20 miles or so. I had a bit of a walk at around 50 miles and phoned Steve to make sure the tracker was still working OK. My Garmin died shortly after this, but it didn’t really matter as I wasn’t aiming for any particular pace, I just tried to keep moving! It took a lot of mental effort to keep pushing on, but I managed to keep running (slowly) on the flat and downhill sections. Looking around I could see that many people seemed to be feeling worse than me! I passed quite a few, including two fit-looking guys at around 55 miles who had already decided they were going to run a minute/walk a minute until the finish.
The last Pit Stop was at Newburn, 62 miles in. I wasn’t expecting to see Steve until the end, but had a lovely surprise when he popped up here, which gave me a bit of a boost. I was struggling to eat by now, but managed to force down a small chicken sandwich that I really didn’t want. I had no idea what time it was, but apparently it was 9.15 and, as twilight was approaching, we were made to put on our head torches before leaving for the final stretch. This was all Tarmac, and I adopted a run/walk strategy for the last seven miles, as I was now feeling quite fatigued and my ankles were starting to ache a bit. Darkness fell as I reached the approach along the Tyne into Newcastle, but I could see the bright lights of the city ahead of me and knew the finish wasn’t far away. Running into the city along the Quayside was great. Lots of people seemed to know what was going on and cheered us on; I felt a bit like a celebrity! Another female runner passed me from behind and I tried to hang onto her as we turned left across Millennium Bridge to run to the finish on the Gateshead side of the river. I finished just before 11 pm, a total time (including pit stops) of 15:59:08. I was so glad it was under 16 hours!
Most people seem to have measured the run at 70 miles rather than 69, and I see it is billed as being 70 miles long for next year. Not sure where the extra mile came from, but 70 sounds more impressive than 69 anyway! There was hot food and showers at the end, but I really wasn’t up to eating curry or chilli at that point. I never feel like eating much until a couple of hours after a long run, so a sandwich to take away would have been good. In the end I got one from a petrol station on the way to the hotel we’d booked for the night. At first I was a bit disappointed with my time, as I’d hoped for closer to 15 hours, but when I looked at the full results I realised I’d done OK. I was 133rd overall out of 501 finishers and 21st woman out of 107, so satisfied with that. Unfortunately there were no age group results, which seems a shame, as they must be fairly easy to produce when you have everyone’s date of birth. The race medal was great, and also included a really cool key ring, which I obviously started to use the next day!
I’d really recommend The Wall, especially as a first ultra of this sort of distance. It’s not cheap, but very well organised and supported. I might not do it again, as there are so many other events to try, but am certainly glad I entered. My only gripe is regarding the t-shirt. We were given a generic Rat Race one at registration, but if you wanted an event-specific one you had to pay extra. For an event that costs this much to enter – and considering how cheap t-shirts are to produce in bulk – I think this should be included. We were also told there would be a free finishing photo, but the only photos I’ve seen are the official ones that are available to buy. But overall a great event!
People keep asking me if I’m going to go even longer now, but I’m not sure I could have carried on any further. Although maybe if it was a run on soft ground… Let’s say we’ll see! I’ve had a bit of a break over the last week or so, but training for the Hardmoors 60 in September starts next week.