There’s no messing with The Wall. You either finish it, or it finishes you. Sixty-nine miles is a long way, and plenty of time for that bad old wall to probe all your bits and find your soft spots.
It found mine at mile thirty-six, ground at them for another five miles, then broke me at mile forty-one.
I’m surprisingly chipper about it.
The Wall is a monster, but it’s a clever monster. It lulls you into a false sense of security, allows you to think you’re getting away with it, and then pins you down and sadistically flays your tender parts until you’re a twisted wreck of the person you used to be.
The Wall is Ramsay Bolton. Which possibly makes me Theon Greyjoy. I wish I’d never started this metaphor.
At first it pretended that it was just another race. The crowd gathered at Carlisle Castle, a cruelly inspiring place to start this sort of thing. Jogging through the gates of a medieval fortress to begin an epic journey across a whole country is exactly the sort of thing to make you feel like a warrior of old. This is what The Wall was hoping I would feel.
The first couple of miles were barely a run at all, as the crowd bottlenecked along gorgeous riverside paths with no passing places. I walked most of it. There was no choice. By the time we hit a road wide enough for the crowd to thin out and I started a slow jog, two miles were gone with almost no effort on my part. I rejoiced. The Wall was gifting me with great hope, that it might later snatch it away.
I boxed clever. For every twenty-five minutes of running, I walked five. Whenever the hills exceeded a fairly gentle gradient, I walked that too. I felt a bit silly doing so while I was still fresh, but all the people that actually looked like ultra-runners were doing it as well. I assumed, utterly reasonably, that I was operating at Expert Level. The Wall was not troubled by my assurance. It was biding its time.
The sun was out, the roads were clear, and the first fifteen miles to the pit stop at Lanercost Abbey flew by in no time at all. I stopped for a sandwich and to refill my water bladder, feeling certain that I could do exactly the same thing four more times to finish. The Wall probably smirked at this point, for it had already found my weak spot and begun its work.
On the second leg I reached Hadrian’s Wall itself, which I hadn’t yet spent much time in view of, and not even the sight of it stretching into the distance gave me pause. Quite the opposite – it was an exultant moment.
Things got a bit tougher as I crossed the marathon mark and the route went properly off-road for a bit, over hills and through fields. I stopped once to take my shoes off and checked a fresh pain under my toe. A blister built up by the slippery footing – but I was armed with special plasters for just that sort of thing, and when I got moving again the pain was gone. The going was slower through the fields, but at least it was off tarmac. Tarmac is The Wall’s secret weapon, the thing it uses to break you down.
The battery of my GPS watch died on the hills, and not long after that I rolled into the second pit stop at Cawfields Quarry. I was glad to see it. There was a new ache somewhere along my back, so I took a bit longer to refuel and get a coffee. It didn’t feel like anything to worry about, just the sort of ache and pain you can expect when you make yourself run a really, really long way. All part of what you sign up for. The Wall stepped back and started to whistle, possibly pretending to look out a window. It had already won.
Out of the Quarry, and up, and up, and up. There seemed to be an awful lot of steep up in one stretch, but that was fine. I was walking a lot of it, enjoying the day, feeling good, waiting for the few flat bits and running those. Caught up with a guy nursing a calf injury, but he was strolling along in good spirits. All things felt possible. We got to a gate with a stile next to it, just before this sign.
I climbed the stile. Something twisted in my back. Just a small thing. I’d forgotten it a few moments later. We reached a road that sloped downwards, and I left him and jogged on. The Wall waved me farewell and went off to find somebody new to break.
Within a few minutes of jogging, I knew I was in trouble. The bit of my back that twisted was the bit of my back. The one that’s wrenched before, that’s had me off my feet and recovering for weeks at a time. It wasn’t all the way gone, but every step was bouncing it closer to oblivion. I stopped running, started walking. If I could do that – walk most of what was left – I’d still finish within the twenty-four hour cutoff.
Five or so miles later, frustratingly close to the third pit stop, I had to pull out. Even walking was making things worse, and I was making ragged little whimpering noises every time I put my foot down. I stopped at a church, took my pack off, and lay on a stone bench. Relief, but only untiI I got back up again. Because I knew the injury well, I knew what was going to happen if I kept going. At some point, it was going to pull completely and that would be the end me for weeks. I called the medical team and arranged a pickup.
The Wall gave me a cocksure grin, waved sarcastically, and sauntered away.
Some time later I got to where I was staying in Newcastle, near the Quayside. It was surrounded by teenagers wearing very few clothes and drinking enormous quantities of alcohol. One of them was throwing up generously on the steps of the hotel, and I had to reach past her to open the door. She looked up at me. “Watch it mister,” she said, vomit still dribbling from the corner of her mouth. “Someone’s puked there.”
This would have been a poor end to an adventure.
Fortunately I met my friend Jackie, who I haven’t seen in twenty years (but who I nevertheless collaborated on this short story with), the next morning. She showed enormous grace in allowing an overdue reunion to be gentle enough for my broken mind and body to handle. It was a marvellous day. Jackie is good for my soul, and well worth running halfway across a country to spend some time with (although I hope she doesn’t make me do that every time).
There’s a lot of tarmac along the route of The Wall – much more than most races this length I think – and there’s nothing so unforgiving to run a really long distance on. When the surface you’re pounding has no give then the impact has nowhere to go except your own body, and if you’ve an existing injury or weak spot then it’s going to be jolted to the surface unless you plan ahead. I should have done a lot more core and strength work to make sure my upper body could cope (while I did do some – more than I usually do when training – it was still a half-hearted affair).
On the plus side my legs held up fine, and so did both my mental and physical stamina. When I had to bail I was in no way ready to actually quit. I’m not saying that wouldn’t have happened during the more-than-a-marathon I still had to complete (nor do I know what the darkness would have done to my willpower), but I wasn’t anywhere near breaking point when my back blew out. Even my recovery has been fine. I’m sore, but I’ve felt worse. My back is stiff, but it hasn’t given completely and seems to be on the mend.
As for how I feel, I’m almost chipper. A bit disappointed not to have finished of course, but also elated to have run forty-one miles at all. I’ve never done anything like that before. It’s pretty much the same as running from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Despite The Wall’s best efforts I still feel like a superhero (just maybe one of the second or third-tier ones, more Iron Fist than Spiderman).
Would I do this again? It depends whether I can bring myself to cross-train properly. An ultramarathon seems to be a whole body event, not just something you can get through with strong legs and stamina. It would probably do me all sorts of good to put more of my training time into my upper body and core, but…well…I find that stuff boring in ways that running isn’t. We’ll see.
As for the event, it was brilliant. Well planned, incredibly well supported, and enormous fun. Normally I’m reluctant to return to races I’ve done – there’s so much out there that it feels like a waste to do the same thing twice, and I’m not competitive enough to worry about ‘beating my time’. On this occasion…I don’t know. It’s my first ever Did Not Finish result, so feels more like unfinished business.
Before I sign off, a huge thanks to everybody who sponsored me. We never quite reached the target, but my goal was to raise £10 for every mile run for Water Aid. Thanks to my twisted back, the total raised pretty much matches that – like it was meant to be!
Seriously though, we’ve had a couple of weeks of vileness in the world, full of damaged people doing awful things. What this money will do is not just change lives, but actually save them. It’s a thing of absolute good, and whether giving money was easy for you or hard, whatever your circumstances, I hope you let yourself feel that a little bit.
Turns out there are lots of ways to be a superhero.