RatRace’s The Wall event is, essentially, a 69-mile road race with a short cross-country section in the middle. Starting at Carlisle Castle at 7am, competitors have 24 hours ( plus two grace hours ) to make their way via a well-signed route to Newcastle.
The event is very well organised, yet quite expensive (Early-bird rate was £175 in 2016). In retrospect I would say it is good value for the fee and I would recommend it to anyone who has the capability to cover this distance in the time required.
This last condition is what concerned me most when I signed up for this event back in September last year. Helen and I had just had a wonderful camping holiday in Northumberland which included a day’s hiking along the more popular stretches of Hadrian’s Wall. Although I’d been along here many moons previously when undertaking that stretch of the Pennine Way, I was taken by the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the wide horizons and – of course – by the wall itself.
I knew of the RatRace event but had not really considered it seriously until we were back in our tent in Bellingham, after that hike. I have completed many Ultra-distance events – 8 at 100 miles or more – and I have gradually improved my pace, but these have usually been events where both runners and walkers took part and I could always rely on a substantial field behind me, reducing the pressure on me. But The Wall is a road race.
I looked at the results of previous Wall races, especially at the tail-enders, and satisfied myself that I could travel quicker than the minimum average of 2.8 mph if I didn’t spend too long at checkpoints and if the route was relatively obstacle free.
Having entered in the previous September it was therefore quite a while before the event itself came around. Three weeks previously I had completed the LDWA North York Moors (NYM100) event of 105 miles and 12,000 feet. Thankfully my feet had emerged unscathed from that though my legs ached noticeably for the best part of a week.
Suddenly The Wall was upon me and I had to prepare my kit again and start the process of psyching myself up. This seemed strangely anti-climactic after the NYM100; just going through the motions rather than excitedly preparing things.
Friday: Helen and I hit the M6 and had a trouble-free run up to Carlisle, staying in the Premier Inn by Junction 42. We checked-in, I picked up my gear and drove to Carlisle Castle to register on a wild and windy evening. Now the scale of the event hit home and by the end of the kit check I was both nervous and excited. This was also my first RatRace event and I was impressed by the organisation and location.
Saturday: I arrived back at the Castle at around 6:15 am and already the day was sunny and warm. The forecast was for a sunny – and HOT day. The NYM100 was also a very hot event, and very humid, and as luck would have it I’d done a fair bit of training whilst in Tenerife over Easter. But could I run a substantial distance in such heat?
After a late briefing by the organiser we were started at 7.05 am. As with the NYM100 I deliberately positioned myself at the front of the field knowing I would drop back and eventually find a comfortable space. I would much rather do this than fight my way up the field, or have to queue for stiles etc. Not that the latter was a problem for some 20-odd miles!
As expected the pace was quick and once I had my breathing and rhythm right I was able to settle down. In fact, I surprised myself and managed to keep going quite well, alternating short stretches of walking with longer spells of running; I noticed many around me doing similar. The water stop at Irthington came quickly – just water and Haribo sweets.
It was now very warm – 24C at around 9am. I was averaging 5mph, which is good for me. The next checkpoint was the Pit Stop at Lanercost at 15 miles and I arrived there in just under three hours. Of course, I had no idea how many runners/walkers were behind me, and this kept me on my toes. The checkpoint was well stocked and in a splendid location, right next to Lanercost Priory. There were many supporters there and the atmosphere was great.
I spent about 15-20 minutes sorting myself out before heading out into a stretch of long climbs, but still on tarmac. And there it was … The Wall itself. Suddenly we were running alongside it, and it was everywhere and very photogenic. The first of the ‘official’ photographers snapped us climbing a hill with the wall trailing into the distance. I was really in good spirits despite the heat.
Through Gilsland and one of the many signs we would see on the route proclaimed ’20 miles down, just 49 to go’! To me the 20s were the key group of miles to conquer, once into the 30s you are near enough half way. But the 20s seemed the slowest to get through. The ground was now undulating more regularly, there were stiles and the pace was harder to keep up. Water and biscuits (great) at Walltown, though other stuff could have been bought at the kiosk – I pressed on. Whilst not by the wall itself, we were always very close and it was a relief not to have to follow all the ups and downs of the main path.
Eventually Cawfields arrived – ’27 miles down, 42 to go’! I was saturated in sweat and beginning to feel the pace. The food was plentiful but I only ate a small amount. This was also the checkpoint were the disposable top-up bag was waiting for me; just gels in my case. But this where I also started to panic a little. The bags had been laid out in a roped-off area and there were only about 30 or so left!! Was I so close to the back?? It took a good deal of effort to not just bolt out without eating but I knew I had to have something even if only a small amount. Most of this section was in open country – a relief after so much tarmac – but the road work was soon to return.
I’d got into a habit developed during the NYM100 of popping a salt tablet as I left the checkpoint. I always refreshed the SIS mix in my bottles and I kept on moving, though not running as much UIas I would have liked, just along some level sections and most downhills. On to Vindolanda and it was evident that the heat was taking its toll. I was passing more people and there were people waiting to be picked up by their support teams. Immediately after Vindolanda is a long, long up hill gradient that really did seem to go on forever, but it did take me past the half-way point. As I recalled the height profile of the route I guessed we must be near the part where most of the remaining mileage is down hill. Boy it was hot! 32C around this time.
Water stop in Newbrough, under the shade of some trees. Some runners stopped for drinks and ice cream at the garage in Fourstones a mile or so further on. A climb through fields followed then a steady descent through woodland took us to the first crossing of the Tyne and on to the main Pit Stop at Hexham. This was impressive; a large marquee full of food, drink and support. Plenty of amenities. I struggled through my routine and spilled a full mug of coffee into the grass; went back for more; sandwich; filled bottles; cake; crisps; loo; changed socks from my forwarded kitbag; stocked up on treats and gels; sent my kitbag back. Feet were fine, just tired.
I was sat near the exit, near where the chip-detector mat lay and its controller sat. I asked the lady how many were still to come through and I was amazed when she said around 300! She thought many would have retired but there were still a lot of people out there. This spurred me on. I had very little in the running tank but I can usually keep up a good firm stride at this point and the miles ticked away as dusk started to fall.
Corbridge looked a nice place and shortly afterwards the sounds of a rock concert drifted from the grounds of a nearby stately home.
As night set in I fell in step with Alice, a runner from Derbyshire whose husband was supporting her at each of the pit stops. We had a similar pace and managed to push on quite well. I was glad I had the gpx file on my phone, loaded into 1:25000 ViewRanger tiles, as a few of the directional arrows (which by and large were excellently placed) were difficult to see.
Somewhere near Newburn we passed through a settlement of holiday/residential trailers, all of which were lit by fairy lights in a myriad of configurations. Here the locals had placed water and orange segments, which were greatly appreciated. What a great spot! There followed a few awkward paths by the river, but these made a refreshing change from tarmac.
Now we were on a disused railway line but keeping the pace going. At the last Pit Stop I picked up Penguins and other treats, had a quick coffee to fight off the sleepiness that was beginning to creep in and set off with Alice for the last leg.
Despite now being in the suburbs of Newcastle I found this last stretch quite exciting as the business of the Tyne was evident and the bustle of early morning taxis (it would be about 3 am) taking revellers home. Then suddenly were were on the promenade. There was still a few miles to go and a long bend in the river meant we couldn’t see the bridges yet, but we could sense them!
Then around a left-hand bend, and there they were – the famous bridges – now seven of them. Alice pulled away and found some incredible final pace. I was busy taking photos. The Sage was clearly visible now and there was the Millenium Bridge! I couldn’t quite manage a run over the bridge but I was soon being photographed on my arrival and – that was it.
I sought out Alice, thanked her for her company and then made my way inside HMS Calliope. It was strangely quiet. Plenty of sleeping bodies, bags to be collected and a long food counter with curry, chilli and other goodies. After my experience at the end of the NYM100 I just drank and walked around, exploring the place. Beyond the main hall were some lounges with comfy chairs, covered with bodies at all kinds of odd angles. I made my way back to the hall and asked for a small portion of curry and rice, which went down well. It was then time to go the hotel than Helen had checked in to and I ambled slowly back over the bridge and the short walk along the prom to the Quayside Premier Inn. There were a number of runners checking in but before long I was showered and in bed.
Sunday. Driving down the A1/M1 we stopped at some services and there were quite a few runners in their distinctive race shirts. Quick conversations all agreed that it was a great event – and bl@@dy hot!
The drive home was trouble free (Helen did all the driving homewards) and I was grateful that once again my feet emerged unscathed.
Thanks to all the organising team, helpers and checkpoint staff. This was a really good event and thoroughly recommended. I’m now looking at the Arran event; quite impressed with RatRace.