The Wall, June 2019 – Kevin Reardon

So I said I would try my hand at writing up an events report for The Wall… a couple of disclaimers: I have a 48 hour memory, so I don’t remember much of the detail. I’m not a story-teller, I’m not creative and I really don’t know what aspects of the run people actually want to know about… also this was only my 2nd Ultra so I’ve very little to compare it against.

All that said…

For those that don’t know, The Wall is a 69 mile run starting at Carlisle castle and ending at the Millenium Bridge in Newcastle. You cant opt to do it in one day or two days… I chose the two days, in this option you end up camping over at the 32 mile point in a place called Bardon Mill.

Registration was the day before the event start, I don’t know Carlisle particularly well but both the registration location and Carlisle Castle were within walking distance of the train station. Registration was seamless, busy but very efficiently laid out so in all it took 10 minutes me to to sign a disclaimer, get my kit checked and pick up both my t-shirt and camping pass.
A personal gripe is that Rat Race events give you a generic t-shirt these days rather than one associated with the event you’re doing… so I have three of the same t-shirt from the last year, not a massive issue but annoying

Boring stuff:
I stayed at the Hallmark Hotel, great location outside the train station.
The 2 day event gives you then option of using your own tent which they will transport to the campsite for you – must be no more than 5kg (the didn’t weigh the tent), or to pay an additional fee for use of one of their tents. I’m a tent hoarder so I took my own.
They will also transport a single bag up to 70L weighing no more than 15kg (again they didn’t weigh it) to the campsite and then onto the finish location.

This process was short and sweet and next door to the start line.

I took two pairs of trainers, Arc’teryx Norvan which are a trail shoes, and also took a pair of Saucony Freedom 2 iso which i’d describe as a ‘robust’ road shoe.

Event Day 1
So for a 07:30 kick off I left the hotel pretty early… I don’t know about everyone else but I’m the guy who shows up an hour before the start. It was already busy, not much to do other than wait.

This is where my descriptions will probably be lacking… because when I go on long runs I just switch off, its one foot in front of the other and ignore everything else to trick myself into thinking I haven’t been out for very long. Anyway, we weave our way out of Carlisle mainly on footpaths and pavements, nothing technical at all. The runners are all very chatty – one thing I’d say for Rat Race events is that there’s a real sense of community, they refer to themselves as ‘rat racers’ which is nice because it means people are quick to start talking to anyone running close to them.

At this points the views were nice, but nothing you couldn’t see closer to home. Around the 10 mile mark we were running through the more rural little villages, I guess a bit like the villages dotted around the outskirts of Donny.

It was about now that I’d decided to slow down, I wasn’t running particularly fast but I wanted to make sure I had plenty left for day two. It would be very tempting to run this terrain hard… it’s relatively flat so far, or at least the hills/undulations aren’t particularly punishing and its been 90% tarmac and 10% well made paths.

The first rest point was a water stop… on this there were water points and pit stops. Water points allowed you to fill up one cup which you had to provide, and they’d normally have small party bags of skittles. I honestly forget where this was… not much to tell though.

At this point I’d still not seen much of the wall, maybe the odd old foundation but not really enough to dedicate the events name to it. All road or path so I was questioning my choice of footwear because I’d chosen to wear the trail shoes.

More of the same, running on little country lanes between villages and then onto the pavement in the villages.

The first pit stop was at around 35k… wow… again I’ve only one Ultra to compare this to, but on this one they did not skimp on the food. There was all sorts… imagine a HUGE buffet. Fruit, sandwiches, sweets, savoury snacks, sweet snacks. They catered for everyone, all tastes and you could have as much as you wanted.

It was really busy but a really positive vibe going on, people chatting, support crew meeting their runners, people taking photos (it was a great venue with a historic building nearby). I didn’t stop long, I was running this on my own and feeling really good – I’d read a lot about people getting too comfortable at the stops so I ate, filled my water and set off again.

Around 17k to go (10 miles?) and a couple of things happened at this point, firstly I got to see a lot more of the wall… this was pretty exciting for me (as exciting as a stone structure can be) and I ended up taking guilt-free-selfies galore! Happy to report that a few other runners followed suit.

Also the terrain changed, there were still paths but this ended up moving into big open fields. Nothing too technical depending on what you’re used to but most of my running is on pavements so I had to pay attention to where I was putting my feet! It was beautiful landscape, a little wet under foot but not a mud bath. There were a couple of significant climbs but they were welcomed, I’d felt a little cheated up until this point, it had been a great run and some beautiful scenery but until this I felt like everything I’d seen up until this point could be found within 30 minutes of home (minus the 1800 year old wall!)

This was up and down with some big climbs… you couldn’t really run these parts, are at least I couldn’t but nor could the guys around me. I was stunning though – very much like moorland, all you could hear were other runners and the wind.

The path was well marked but you had to pay attention as it was only a path by way of people having trodden it down so I was skipping over stones and going around or through the marshy puddles. This was the most off road section of the two days.

This lasted about 6-7 miles before ending back up on country lanes for the last stretch into Bardon Mill which for those doing it in a day was another pitstop and for those doing it over two (like me) was the campsite. I finished feeling really good, at this point I was gutted to be stopping. I saw other people finishing really struggling, not sure if I would see them at the start in the morning.

Campsite: A quick word about the site… it was nice, they had showers and refreshments… no blue wkd but there were some lagers and cider. They had a small menu to buy hot food. Captive audience though so it wasn’t cheap – but whilst Rat Race events are popular and very well run, they’re never cheap. I also ended up paying for a leg massage… not that it helped.
It was again a good atmosphere, enough space to be left alone if that’s your thing but also friendly enough people and all wanting to share stories of their run if you wanted to find a group.

Worth noting that it’s next to a road so light sleepers may well struggle.

Day 2: I woke up feeling OK, I was tight behind the right knee so I stretched and jogged a couple of laps around the site… it didn’t loosen up, but when don’t we run with a niggle of some sort?

One thing you notice straight away is how fewer the number of people is compared to Day 1 when you also had the single day runners… it was going to be a lonely day.

It started with a climb… everyone walked it… everyone… after every up comes a down, so I ran this but this is where my leg ‘pinged’. I was less than 5 miles in and I was already thinking that was my day done. I’m used to feeling a pain when running, a couple of years ago I ran 7 miles on what I later found out was a fractured leg but this felt worse than then, it just felt wrong. In hindsight I think my mistake was that on any downhills the previous day I was holding myself back and putting the brakes on and I think this somehow created/caused my issue.

I knew I had a long way to go and I figured if I was going to quit then quit early… part of my brain was saying there’s no point grinding it out to the first pit stop only to quit. I didn’t want the walk of shame back to the campsite so I plodded on, but I ended up walking the ups and the downs – only running the flats… it felt odd to walk the down hill parts, I always think of them as ‘free energy’.

Anyway… back to the run… so after a short run on pavements we’re into fields. A couple of more big climbs, some running around hills so you’re on the camber which I found a challenge for some reason. But beautiful views, this is one of the reasons I love running… I stopped a couple of times just to take it in. To look and listen and hear nothing, no cars, no people… maybe its because I’ve got three kids but I really appreciate the quiet when I’m in the middle of no-where.

I think by now I’d posted at least once, maybe twice about probably not finishing… a bit of a tangent from the event for a moment… I’m used to running on my own, my family don’t travel with me on these things and I haven’t historically signed up with anyone else. I’ve done runs in Scotland, Wales and southern England so I’m used to having my own motivations. A lot of the time its purely stubbornness that gets me through the hard times when I’m out. I’ve been with you guys in Danum for less than a year, I’m relatively quiet – generally just chatting to the same person/couple of people, or keeping myself to myself. I’m always quiet at first, but the ‘at first’ often lasts a bloody long time, so I was genuinely taken by surprise at the outpouring of support on Facebook… as a solo runner I’d never felt more part of a group and it was 100% the major factor in carrying on the run. Thank you.

Eventually I came down out the fields… I’d chosen road shoes today based on the advice of people in the beer tent the night before. The route was still nice even when out of the hills, country lanes mainly. Started to see more of civilisation the closer I got to the next pit stop at Hexham… I’d decided at this point I wasn’t dropping out but needless to say progress was slow. A few people had passed me but I was surprised how few – another reminder of how few people set out on day 2.

The pit stops were just as good on day 2 and this is a credit to the organisers, with so fewer people I was expected a much more muted affair when it came to food but if anything the selection was better than day 1.

I used some deep heat on my leg at this point and popped a couple of paracetamol, again I didn’t want to hang around and seize up so I had some food but not much because I was carrying plenty and hadn’t run hard.

Roadshoes were the right choice, and to be honest I think I could’ve got away with it on day one as well… not racing flats, but roadshows with some grip and it’d have been fine.

So leaving Hexham over the bridge (beautiful bridge!) and about 20k into day 2… you follow the river a little bit here. Still tarmac but I’m home on tarmac so that doesn’t bother me… I’d learnt by now that this wasn’t a trail run.

I was going a similar pace to a couple of people, we were seesawing past each other and taking those opportunities for a chat. Again the people running the event were really friendly.

I’m struggling to highlight anything of note regarding the route on day 2… it was flatter than day one and mainly made up of cycle paths. If you’ve run any of the Trans Pennine Trail between Doncaster and Barnsley then this is really similar… once you get past Hexham the whole way is pretty much cycle paths, which means generally flat with other people either walking, running or cycling but either way plenty of interaction.

Around mile 20 I got hit by a random act of kindness… I saw a fellow runner pick up a can of drink from what I thought was his support crew because when the runner past him he got back into his car and made to drive away. Then as I got close he rolled down his window and offered me a can of drink (my cynical mind double checked it was sealed), he was just watching the runners… shortly after this was a homemade water station. There are some really nice people out there.

So this is the day I made a mistake, up this point the water stop and pit stops had been alternating 1-2-1-2-1-2 etc… between the discomfort and whatever else I hadn’t paid attention and it was two water stops in a row. I’d been getting closer to what I thought was a full pit stop at mile 25 only to find out it was a water stop… I was gutted, that was a bit of a mental knock, I don’t think I needed a full pit stop because I had all of the food on me but I’d resolved to speaking to a medic about my leg to see if they could do something/anything with it.

The law of sod dictated that this would be the time for another injury. My left ankle started with a sharp pain, a lot worse than the knee on my right leg. I sat on a bench, posted on facebook about dropping out and then started walking… I physically couldn’t run.

20k until the finish, about 10k until the pit stop… that was a long ass lonely place. I was at my rock bottom of running, I’d never felt this low on an event… Then a couple of the Harriers DM’d me, welcome to the emotional rollercoaster. For folk to take time out and message you – and commit to messaging you along the way, keeping me company with words of advice and motivation… it honestly hit hard. That’s the first time I’ve been running solo and felt like I was running as part of a bigger team. Thank you.

It was at this point a chap caught up with me, he had these hiking sticks and wasn’t running but he had some pace about him. We got talking, he was a friendly chap… could clearly see I was in a lot of pain and offered me a couple of pain killers which I gratefully accepted.

It took a long time to get to the last pit stop… the guys messaging on Facebook had already helped me make up my mind that it was OK to walk the last 10k or so rather than drop out. It hurt to walk but it’s a lot of money to spend and a long way to travel to not finish if I was in any way physically able to.

So I set off, got chatting to another injured runner… her ankle had given way and it was inspiring in a sense to see someone else battling through when clearly it would’ve been easier (and advisable) to drop out.

The terrain was still the same flat cycle paths hugging the river, lots of walkers and cyclists – plenty of people asking what event you’re doing.

After a mile the painkillers must’ve started to kick in because I was ‘power walking’. It looked daft but I was getting somewhere… another mile and I decided to give it a go at jogging again and as long as I was steady and it was flat then I was coping. I don’t know what he gave me (haha yes I do, honestly!) but it was good… I considered that it wasn’t helping in the long term but screw it! I’d signed up to run 69 miles, I didn’t want to hobble over the finish line.

Into Newcastle now, it was late afternoon so it was still really busy with traders and public – I imagine getting here earlier would’ve been immense. Or imagine the one day-ers running past people on the famous Newcastle night out!

I was following the Tyne looking for a bridge… there are bloody loads! A fair few people knew what the event was because shouts of encouragement were coming. I’d caught up with a couple of people – including the chap who gave me the painkillers earlier… I apologised for as I went past because I didn’t dare stop.

Having finally worked out which was the Millenium Bridge, Rat Race had a guy on a mic at the finish line… he started shouting something as I was about 50 meters from the bridge, I was tuned out until he said my name. I sped up… seriously I was basically as close to a sprint as possible, my last km was the fastest of the day! He was cheering me in – and my highlight of the two days was that he encouraged the people on the bridge to do the same… it was probably 20 people in total politely clapping and the odd comment of encouragement but I was in an adrenaline fuelled state and I’d have sworn there were over 100 chanting my name ‘Kevin, Kevin!’ so I was head down and gung ho until I crossed the line!

I told the man with the mic he was f***ing awesome, accepted my medal, had my photo taken… and waited for the guy I overtook, the chap with the hiking sticks who gave me the pain killer. I cheered him in, hugged him when he crossed the line and thanked him again… I even ended up meeting his wife and daughter and exalting him as my personal hero.

Post run: There are showers available, you get a hot meal (I had chilli) and you can pay for a massage. I grabbed my meal and grabbed my gear and hiked the the hotel I’d booked because I didn’t dare stop for the pain relief end.

Overview… It was a great event. I’d happily recommend it. It broke my body but anyone who has me on Strava will testify that I didn’t train for it, I’m not great at training for events… life gets in the way. My left ankle was heavily swollen and my right calf was the same, I didn’t realise it would be able to swell so big, I looked like I had a pop-eye leg and a big heavy purple bruise developed on the calf muscle as well.

I was limping but uncanny the pain relieving attributes of a finishers medal are impressive.

It’s a typical Rat Race event in that it’s really well organised and very popular, lots of friendly people taking part. But it all comes with a price tag to suit their high standards.
If you’re considering doing this one then take a look at their Season Pass. This plus another of their long distance events and you’re about breaking even… the season pass lets you do around 14 events I think so its good value but there’s a lot of commitment needed as they’re not local. I’m weighing that idea up myself.

It’s really important to note that this is not a trail event… it must be 80% or more on tarmac. That few miles at the end of day one would be difficult with road shoes if it had been raining but that and the start of day two (maybe 20k in total) are the only off road sections. I didn’t mind that personally but I heard a few people unhappy about it.

You will not see the wall on day two… or if you do then I missed it.

Travel & Accommodation:
Hallmark Hotel Carlisle (£60)
Hilton Hotel Newcastle (£58 which is great value)
Both hotels were picked for their locality to the start/finish line

Train tickets in total cost me £30, I used a fantastic app call TrainPal, it looks for the cheapest options by splitting the tickets.