Saturday 17th June 2017
By Ian Fullen
As I counted the days down to taking part in The Wall I started to look somewhat nervously at the weather forecast for race day on the coming Saturday. Gulp. All I could see was a bright yellow circle throughout the weekend and temperatures of 21–23 degrees. Come the Friday I was sitting on the train from London Euston to Carlisle and all that had changed was a settling on a temperature of 23 degrees throughout the day. This is warm for any running, but for this type of event is even tougher. At least I assume it is; I had never tried to take on anything like this before and had never ran for more than 4 hours in my life. Something of a journey into the unknown was ahead of me if I was to complete the 69 miles needed to run from Carlisle to Newcastle.
After a smooth train ride to Carlisle I checked into my B&B for the Friday night. I was met by the owner who looked at me quizzically as I gave her my details and she asked “are you doing this run tomorrow?” … clearly I wasn’t the only one staying over that was taking part . This worked out for everyone; she left us breakfast out to help ourselves at 5am the following morning and she had the ‘no vacancies’ sign-up but all her guests checked out by 6am!
A slightly broken night sleep was followed by some bag packing (and re-packing), toast and cereal, and then a short walk to Carlisle Castle. Race registration was done the day before so all that was needed was to drop bags and listen to the pre- race briefing. I also had the welcome sight of Nic Wiseman who came up to see us off to keep me company before we started and give some last minute encouragement.
Just after 7am we were off. A little under one thousand of us started to snake our way out of Carlisle Castle and begin their journey across the country. Temperature at this point was already 18 degrees and would only rise so I knew that any time targets would need to be dialled back and the main objective was to keep moving and avoid sunstroke/dehydration. To be honest, I was just happy to make it to the start line in one piece after injuries at the turn of the year and then again only a month before race day that I thought would stop me from taking part.
After a couple of miles I started chatting to someone I found myself alongside and it turned out we had similar goals; a connection was made and lasted upto roughly 40 miles. My target beforehand was to run at roughly 8:30 minute mile pace, and walk every time we hit an upward slope. We were both happy with this and spent the 13 miles to the first pit stop at Lanercost trying to make sure we didn’t push too hard, get fluids into the system, and chat about anything we felt like.
A quick refuelling at Lanercost and we were off again heading towards the next stop at Cawfields quarry, another 13–14 miles up the road. Actually, from this point it wasn’t really road any more as we’d moved from the relatively flat and firm conditions upto then and into trail and hills. Speed dropped because this meant more walking but we continued to pick off runners who were already suffering from starting too fast and the effects of the heat. By this point my legs were still feeling fine but I was a bit worried about my heart rate being too high (a mixture of lack of training due to injuries and the heat) as well as not being able to get any food into me. Not ideal but as long as I could keep getting fluids into me and stay hydrated I felt I was alright. We maintained this rhythm through to the pit stop and tried to take in some of the stunning scenery along the way.
Cawfields Quarry arrived. Time for a fairly early change of socks, helped by my parents who had turned into support crew at the pit stops. They had only arrived back home to Newcastle from holiday that night so I was very appreciative of their support! I also ditched various pieces of kit that I knew I had no need for, including a waterproof jacket and trousers! Right after leaving, the next section of hills hit us. More off-road climbing, stiles and gates to pass through and pretty much zero shade or shelter from the sun. The next pit stop was at Hexham at 45 miles, 18 miles later, and it felt a long way away. Just before 40 miles I was running low on water and starting to struggle so I made the decision to stop at a shop to buy some extra fluids to take on and ease back for a few miles. My running partner upto this point left me behind, as did the Scots Guard who we had traded places with for the past 4 hours or so; he was running up the hills rather than walking but his pace was slower on the flat so we overtook each other probably 10 times along the previous stretch. The small things entertain you at times like this.
I took my time on the 5–6 miles to Hexham pit stop, now on my own and set into a rhythm of running based on my heart rate. Asides from the uphills, I ran until my heart rate hit around 165, then walked until it dropped back to 145. This was slower but still no-one else came past me so things were still going OK. More importantly, it felt sustainable given I was deep into the unknown in terms of running endurance. At Hexham, I got some more help and encouragement from my parents but was starting to flag. I knocked back a lot of water, refilled my drinks bottles, and off I went again. Still unable to take any solids onboard, I was craving fruit but somehow the otherwise fantastic feed stations didn’t have any — something had gone wrong in the order/delivery apparently.
The first few miles out of Hexham felt tough and for the first time I was overtaken by someone. I was a bit worried about my form but knew the hills were more of less done with and the finish was getting closer. We then hit a downhill section, I knocked off an 8 minute mile, and the world seemed a better place. Helped by something of a second wind, I caught another 3–4 people in the next couple of miles and then in Ovingham we passed a couple in their garden with a table of goodies for the runners. Amazing! They not only had sliced oranges for us, but also pineapple. I wolfed several pieces of both, along with water, and thanked them many times over. They also had a bucket of icy cold water they told me came from the well with a jug to pour it over your head. Heaven! That the runners I had just caught were now heading off into the distance once more didn’t matter.
After this welcome relief, I re-caught one of these runners and we stuck together through to the final pitstop at 61 miles. By this point, walking was needed on the flat as there were so few hills and the body was tired. I was still delighted to see that my running speed was almost unchanged from the starting pace; I wasn’t broken and at this point knew getting to the finish was only a matter of when and not if. More fluids, another couple of oranges were sourced and devoured, and on we went.
At around 64 miles I was back on my own and running towards the Newcastle quayside. By now it was around 7pm, starting to cool, and the Saturday night revellers were beginning to have some fun! As I weaved by them and past various bars along the way, to some very quizzical and confused looks, I mentally started to count off the bridges along the way. I knew the landmarks pretty well; Redheugh Bridge, King Edward Bridge, Metro Bridge, High Level Bridge, Swing Bridge, Tyne Bridge and then finally I crossed the Millennium Bridge and onto the Gateshead side of the river. A spring in my stride at the end and I crossed the finish line in exactly 12:38:00 to finish in 10th place.
A quick photo, a chat with some of the others who finished ahead, and then onto the complimentary rice and chilli that was waiting for me. My first food since 9am tasted Michelin starred despite being on a paper plate, and the coke that went with it was delicious! A short journey home for a celebratory beer and portion of chips and the day was over.
So, a result I was very happy with given the conditions in particular and I finished without feeling ‘broken’. The exceptionally high drop-out rate of about 30% showed everyone hadn’t been so careful/lucky. Not sure if I’ll take on something similar in the future but for now it is back to the ‘shorter stuff’, even if that is half marathon and marathon distance. The ultra kit is back in the cupboard for a while at least. Onwards and upwards.