Monday, 1 July 2013

Race Report - The Wall Run 2013 (part one)

I do apologise, have you been waiting long?

As I'm sure you appreciate, I usually make a point of publishing race reports within a few days of completing the race, but here we are a week on from The Wall Run and still I haven't managed to get my thoughts down. Truth is, I finished my first ultra on Sunday night and within a couple of hours was responding to work emails on my phone in anticipation of Monday morning - the start of an intense week of deadlines, long hours, and no time at all to write up the most magnificent weekend in my running career. So here goes.

Day zero
The story really starts in Carlisle station on Friday night - where I met Ben, then we met Alex, then eventually Neil reluctantly slunk up the platform to complete our four-man ultra team. We hauled ourselves over to the start line and race HQ at Carlisle Castle to register and check out the competition. Lithe, chiseled action men and hard-as-nails-looking women strode purposefully about the place, many of them inexplicably already wearing running kit. Had they run here? Did they run everywhere!? Who were these people? We were not these people.

After a few joyful moments when it seemed like Rat Race might have lost our registration and we might be spared the whole atrocious ordeal, we were issued with our numbers, timing cards and some surreal final instructions ("when passing through fields of livestock, try singing to let them know you're there") and sent on our way . All that was left for the evening was to check in to our B&B and then spend an odd couple of hours at 'our' Italian restaurant, where Neil's dessert was a) mostly Baileys and b) awful. How we laughed.

It was bedtime. An 8am race start and a very long pair of days thereafter meant we were tucked up with lights off just after ten. Not quite lads on tour. Yet.

Day one
Ben and I shared a twin room and Neil and Alex took another, so when Ben and I chapped at our teammates' door at the agreed RV time of 7am, fully dressed, bags kitted and checked we were slightly taken aback to find Neil topless save for some nipple tape, Alex ferociously brushing his teeth and Matt Monro belting out 'Born Free' from Alex's iPod. We gently shut the door and left them to finish their ablutions.

At the stroke of 7.17 we set off from the B&B towards the start line, joking and laughing and terrified. I was straining at the bit to get started, desperate to get some miles, even some yards done and start chipping away at that monstrous 69-mile total. Carlisle Castle swarmed with Lycra and serious expressions. But very notable among this group were folk who looked - well - like us.  Normal. Some much older, a few clearly planning to hike the whole day and run none of it, many afflicted by abject terror, some very girly-looking girls, a lower leg amputee and the rest of the marvellous mixed-up spectrum of the running world. Last night's sense of being out of place lifted a little.

This may be, of course, because we had put ourselves in the Challenger category - choosing to split the race into two days of 32 and 37 miles. The Expert category, comprising those who planned to knock off the whole 69 miles in a oner, had started their race an hour earlier to give them as much daylight as possible, on this the longest weekend of the year. Our category was for multi-day ultra legends, theirs was for one-hit ultra demigods. With one exception. Whom we shall come to.

All too quickly our hydration bladders were filled, kit adjusted and the tannoy called us into the starting corral, pointing us out of the castle grounds directly at the stone bridge over the moat. Some muffled instructions were lost in the wind and rain. A hooter hooted, the crowd surged forward and the longest run of our lives was underway.

At the Castle, ready for the off. Sort of.

We had agreed long ago that the four of us would stay as a four, no matter what, and this promise would be tested many times in the miles and hours to come. But we hadn't anticipated it being tested so thoroughly right from the beginning, because just as in any race, the crowd is at its most densely packed at the very start and we found ourselves in a jumbled procession of stop-start running as we left the city centre and headed into the countryside. About 400 yards from the start Alex chose a slippery bank of grass rather than the congested stairs, and losing his footing flung himself headlong towards an iron railing, avoiding concussion and certain withdrawal from the race by mere inches. We tried to relax after that.

Another element of our agreement was the 5:1 ratio. We knew that there was no hope of us running every step of the weekend, but reasoned that it would be destructive both physically and psychologically to simply run until we were spent and then resign to walking. We agreed instead to run five miles, then walk a mile, then repeat. This meant we could get going at an enjoyable, familiar speed during the runs and recover properly during the walks, using the time to drink, eat, or dash behind a bush for a pee. The first five miles passed in a flash and we felt ridiculous to start walking so soon, but told each other that it was necessary for later. We were right.

Towards the end of the second block of running, now deep in England's green and pleasant land, we came to the first pit stop: a trestle table laid out with sweets, chocolate raisins and cups of water under a gazebo. We knew that our timing chips had to be held against a handheld card reader, like those contactless debit cards, and we started pulling them out for this purpose before being told that this was 'just' a pit stop and not a checkpoint. The difference between these became significant. Pit stop - momentary respite, checkpoint - oasis in the desert. Remember that.

Crowded trudge up a hill

Swiftly back on the road, the hills started in earnest. Every ultrarunner in the world knows the importance of respecting the lumpy bits, but we were not yet ultrarunners and gleefully overtook scores of people on these ascents. With the first checkpoint at mile 15, we were nearing a break anyway, so why not just enjoy the ride? We had developed the concept of the driver: we mostly ran in a square formation, the front right runner being the 'driver' and responsible for pacesetting. The front passenger helped, the kids in the back were chastised for asking if we were nearly there yet. Oddly, this worked well and being a 'passenger' always felt to me like a fractionally easier effort, whilst being the 'driver' gave you a welcome sense of control. We took turns in each role and tried not to let Neil and his competitive instincts in the driving seat too often.

We ran into the checkpoint in the grounds of a historic abbey to be met by our support crew, comprising my Crew Chief, Linds, and Neil's, Karlie. We scanned our timing chips and then went to see the crew. They had driven down from West Lothian that morning bearing all manner of goodies and spare kit to supplement the changes of clothes we hauled around with us in our bulging rucksacks, and we rearranged some gear while we scoffed food, told them of the adventure so far, stretched a little and drank a lot. Alex disappeared momentarily only to reemerge munching on a waffle. Ben found some rocky road, which we thought was appropriate as the surface had recently changed from tarmac to broken farm roads. Things would deteriorate further soon.

All too soon it was time to get back to it, our planned ten minutes' break already slightly exceeded, and with a wave and a kiss the girls left us to our mission. Still digesting, we walked out of the checkpoint and back on the route, only to be confronted with an alpine hill that no-one was running up. Except us.

Before long Alex dropped off the back of our peloton - his skill is in fearless descents, not in low-geared climbs. As I slowed to wait for him Ben, king of the hills, and Neil, usually hill averse but always irreconcilably competitive, fell into step with one another and trucked onwards. The gap between our two pairs widened quickly as Alex and I settled in to a march and the others ploughed ahead, perhaps 2-300 yards in the distance. The hill climbed on for weeks, but we were eventually reunited near the top where we finally joined the thing we had come to see: Hadrian's Wall.

Now I admit I don't know much about Hadrian or his wall, whether it was supposed to keep the Picts out or the Romans in or whatever, but to be honest I'm not sure it would do either. Any enterprising troublemaker could have scaled it with a small stepladder, or at a push, a competent leg-up. Its antiquity is awe-inspiring and its length is ambitious, but its height leaves much to be desired. Just saying.

Suddenly my stomach started to cramp. Within moments of knowing something was wrong I was doubled over, clinging to the wall itself and being violently sick on a UNESCO World Heritage site. I had clearly take on too much liquid and not enough food, and now felt so repulsed by eating or drinking that I would be running on empty for some time. We were just over 20 miles in at this point, and the ghosts of my DNF at London felt very close indeed.

While this was happening the others got caught in the crossfire of a conversation with a ginger-bearded runner. He was lolling on a fencepost taking photos and telling others that he was in the Expert category - we had caught up with his one hour head start. The crux of his argument, perhaps protested too much, was that 'doing it in one day was actually easier'. He looked a bit like Ed Sheeran. But less endearing. I staggered over to my teammates to rescue them from his chat and we got on our way.

The landscape opened up as my optimism shut down. Vast verdant valleys mocked us with their massiveness, challenging us to get through them in one piece. We trotted down mad switchbacks and started encountering endless gates, stiles and cattlegrids. I reserved my deepest disdain for the cattlegrids, slippery and challenging to run across with tired legs. I cursed them loudly and often.

On another outrageous ascent, around mile 23, my nutritional emptiness caught up with me. I couldn't keep up with even a steady march up the hill, and slowed, then swayed, then sat down. I felt a failure, again. I started contemplating my options, again.

The team gave me no options. Alex removed my cap, soaked with rain and sweat, and replaced it with his own that he had been keeping dry in his bag. Ben told jokes to distract me while Neil started rearranging my pack, and Alex dropped a salt tablet into my hydration bladder to add some nutritional value to my water, the only thing I felt able to consume. They worked on me like an F1 pit team, all of them just as tired and sore as I was. I am pathetically grateful.

I had a quiet word with myself. The next pit stop, where the crew were waiting, was just a couple of miles away. From there it was just seven or eight miles to Vindolanda, today's finish. I had to do this. For all the people who kept me sane through the London DNF. And for myself, and for our charity. No excuses, play like a champion.

Alex and Neil hauled me to my feet and we marched onwards, I munched a lucozade tablet that Ben had produced and cautiously sipped on my salty water. I felt some strength returning. I saw a future in which I could carry on. Those salt and lucozade tablets are the two best gifts that anyone has ever given me.

We hauled ourselves into the pit stop, the girls aghast at my ashen face. I told them I was craving a Lucozade, and on hearing this it was Karlie's turn to go pale. She had just finished drinking one, guzzling every last drop. Linds dashed off to see what she could do, and moments later reappeared with a full bottle from somewhere, utterly magic as I don't even remember there being a shop (but I also couldn't remember my name at the time so am probably an unreliable witness). She started googling local pharmacies to find me some sickness medicine. I love this woman more than I can tell you.

We trudged on, the 5:1 ratio out of the window and running/walking periods being determined by mutual agreement. We ground down the grassy, rocky miles and eventually passed the 26.2 mile mark - everything from here on would make us ultrarunners and constitute an all-time distance PB, a fact we celebrated regularly. Suddenly, from nowhere, the white tents of the finish line village at Vindolanda came into view. We practically screamed with delight and picked up the pace as this joyous view coincided with a massive improvement in terrain.

Back on Tarmac, we sang and ran and whooped and hollered. But then the route turned us away from the white tents. We had a cruel and vicious loop to complete before finishing, up a sharply inclined and rocky farm track. It was dispiriting, but just a blip in our mood. The day was nearly done. Into the finish chute, Alex and Neil broke into an unfathomable sprint finish, running straight past the poor marshal waiting to beep their chips. Ben trotted in behind them, I lumbered in a few yards behind. 32 miles of mad hills and muddy nonsense: finished in just over seven hours - good enough for 156th place from a field that we were told was 500 but later turned out to be more like 280.

We ate, we drank, we stretched. Alex had potato with extra potato. Linds had a more than competent go at being a sports masseuse, everyone had a go at the foam roller, and we slept. Day two loomed large.

Happy running (for now)


2013 to date: miles run - 659.85, races: 4 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1000

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