Race Review: The Wall Ultra

by Jim Richardson | Last Updated: May 3, 2014

This was my first Ultra-Marathon, a two-day 69 mile adventure which would take me from Carlisle eastwards to Newcastle then Gateshead.

I’d had a restless night, thanks to a hotel room just yards away from a pub which pumped music out till past 3am, but I pulled my things together keen to drop my bag off before the one day competitors set off at 7am.

I was amazed at how many people were signed up for the one day (expert) event. This was something I’d considered doing, but stood in Carlisle Castle on this dull and wet morning I was pleased that only 33 miles stood before me today, even if I’d have to do another 36 tomorrow.

With the expert category on their way, it was the turn of the challengers, a group of over 300 runners who would head out of Carlisle along the route of Hadrian’s Wall.

We counted down from ten and we were off, flying out of the castle and quickly out of the city. Having never done an ultra before, I had decided to pace myself at around the ten minute mile mark, but this quickly fell by the wayside as I got into a nice rhythm at a nine minute pace.

The first stage was pretty flat, on the whole, with the bulk of it on country roads making me glad that I’d worn my road shoes rather than opting for something designed for the trail.

I arrived at the first checkpoint earlier than planned and I was pleased to see a friend who was acting as crew. The crewpoints are definitely an area which I hadn’t planned for, and the way I used these changed as the race went on.

The first check point was well stocked with sweets, sandwiches, water and I had some food and chatted to my friend for a while and before I knew it I had burned 15 minutes.

Leaving this checkpoint I ran almost instantly into a massive climb, a hill which just kept on getting bigger. I was adamant that this was a run not a walk, so didn’t allow myself to walk more than ten steps, something which I’d practiced whilst training and which I’d read was good practice for these kind of events.

At this stage, I’d caught a lot of the runners doing the one day event and the course got quite crowded with a line of people ahead of me.

This part of the race was definitely my least favourite, it felt slow and wore me down. By the time we got close to Vindolanda and the half way point where we’d camp, I was really pleased I wasn’t doing the whole thing in one go.

With the one day event ‘Experts’ on the same course as the two day ‘Challengers’ it was hard to get a sense of how I was doing and I was surprised to hear I was 46th in the race.

This brought out my competitive side, perhaps this isn’t just about finishing the thing afterall.

Thankfully, my family had put up my tent, and I grabbed some food with them before having a lovely warm shower and getting some sleep.

The sun woke me shortly before 5am, and cold in my tent I decided to get an early shower, which turned out to be a good plan. I followed that with a bacon sandwich before taking down my tent and getting my kit on for the day.

One error I had made the night before was sending a bag with my Garmin and phone chargers in away with my family, which would cause problems as the day went on.

The race set off at 8am and everyone slowly made their way towards a hill which we had to climb to start the day. For some reason I overtook a lot of people and I was in second place by the time we had reached the bottom of the hill. I made quick work of the hill despite my road shoes not being ideally suited for climbing, and a nice long stretch of road lay before me.

I followed this at about 8:30 mile pace and decided that I should start the day with a good pace and try and put distance between me and the pack. After having so many runners around me the day before, I was glad of the space and not knowing if I would regret it later I progressed at a good pace.

At about 10 miles in I had to stop to remove my waterproof, as I was overheating and two of my fellow competitors caught up to me, the three of us ran together for a few miles and a third runner caught us up.

When I reached the first check point I was in fifth place. Unlike yesterday I had texted my friend with what I needed, my spare Garmin, which would be out of batteries soon too and sun tan lotion.

Knowing what I wanted at the checkpoint made it faster to get through.

I had read that the next stage was most peoples least favourite stage, however, I found the countryside to be beautiful and felt that I was getting closer to home.

I also got a boost from friends surprising me in Corbridge, shouting good luck from a car and stopping to say hello. Though this again showed how time can slip away, with a runner who I had held off for a good while taking her chance to pass me whilst I chatted.

My phone was now dead, as was my Garmin. As we went past the Ovington checkpoint I decided that counting the minutes second by second would give me some idea of how far I had travelled.

So I counted out 14 minutes in seconds, guessing that at this stage my pace was probably 14 minute miles. This sounds crazy, but kind of kept me sane.

This stage was quite flat, running along an old wagonway and dotted with people walking dogs and cycling.

Newburn Riverside, the final checkpoint and with no phone I had not been able to tell my family I was ahead of schedule, having missed them here, I was worried that they wait here and not see me at the finish.

A friend was there so I used his phone to call my wife and whilst I was doing this a few more people passed me, again showing the importance of getting through checkpoints quickly.

The next few miles seemed slow, this was a no mans land between Newburn and Newcastle, I knew roughly where I was, but wished I was a little closer to the end.

Then I was at the end of Newcastle’s Quayside, an area I know well from my lunchtime runs. I knew I was roughly three miles from the finishing line, and my legs felt a little refreshed.

I passed three guys walking, and told them that when they reached the Tyne Bridge which was just ahead it would be half a mile to the finishing line, they started running again and one was in danger of catching me.

The Sunday quayside market was ahead, and with one eye on the runner behind me and one on wanting to look good to my kids I put on a sprint finish through the market and over the bridge, amazing myself that I still had it in my legs.

Over the finish line

I had come 11th on the second day of the race, and this equated to 24th across the two days, I was amazed. I’d signed up in the hope that I’d complete the race and found that my legs recovered from the first day to the second very well, allowing me to actually run faster on the second day.

The Wall was a great race, very well organised and an iconic course to complete. It is too early to say if I’ll do it again in 2014, but if I did I would do a few things differently:

– Race through checkpoints, dial ahead and have someone hand me what I need
– Do more hill training and be better prepared for stage two on the first day
– Believe that it is a race, I could have worked harder in stage two on the first day
– Book a quiet hotel for before the race
– I wouldn’t carry so much stuff, checkpoints have plenty of food