Sunday, 14 July 2013

Race Report - The Wall Run 2013 (part two)

Nothing builds suspense like a fortnight's break between supposedly concurrent posts, eh? Sorry about that. But here goes.

After a Saturday night spent marvelling in equal measure at the scale of the day's achievements and the magnitude of Sunday's challenge, we made it to bed even earlier than the night before. Due to a slight undersupply of bedspaces in the vicinity of Vindolanda, the four of us shared a family room designed for Mum, Dad and two kids. Neil and I made the executive decision to be the kids and left Ben and Alex to share the double bed, an arrangement damaged only by Alex's early morning Vaseline regime and Ben's intolerance of some casual flatulence. Neil and I had less eventful sleeps.

Awake at 6am for the second time this weekend, we were incredibly lucky to be given breakfast at 6.45 by our too-good-for-us hosts at the Westfield B&B. They served us a Full English each, lovingly cooked to order on an Aga, accompanied by endless coffees and teas and juices and kind words of encouragement all served in a grand Georgian dining room. The rest of the day's meals would be in less auspicious surroundings.

Limited by the number of seats in the car, Karlie drove us four runners to the start line, the wee Corsa straining under the weight of our bodies, bags and rising sense of impending doom. We reached Vindolanda to find the start corral already massing - not a problem as each timing chip is scanned individually - but giving me a sense of being on the back foot already. We hustled ourselves in and did our best to listen another PA announcement lost to the elements. A hooter hooted, and day two was underway.

I don't think part one of this story adequately captured the pain and suffering we went through. If you understand that after about 24 miles of day one, each step became hard, concentrated work, and after 27 miles each pace started erring towards excruciating pain in my feet and hips, you will understand the fear I felt as we started day two.

But the start was joyous. It was downhill. I had forgotten what downhill was like. We skipped lightly down the road, the previous day's pains all but forgotten. Some small undulations were irrelevant. We were,  by this point, ultrarunners - a fact Alex kept pointing out and asking why we had decided to start our ultra careers with 'a double ultra'? Good question.

The downhill didn't last. We ran to the back of a queue of runners waiting to pass through the world's narrowest kissing gate, which led to a scramble up a heather-laden bank at an angle that reminded me of the scree slope of The Mighty Deerstalker last year. It was outrageous and insane, and therefore typical Rat Race. The change of terrain actually suited me rather well, and I found unused power in my legs as I stamped one foot after the other into the heather. At the top of the ridge a cairn marked some point or other where light-hearted participants stopped for photos of the magnificent view, but sadly Kommissar Gray was having none of it and Team Venture Trust got on with the business of the day: running very very far indeed.

At mile 39 we actually passed the Westfield B&B, where the crew had set us up a private pit stop complete with inspirational music and the usual mountains of food. Neil had phoned ahead, requesting a knee support for the joint he wrecked some years ago in a tragic running-around-in-circles accident, and while the girls set to work with bandages and tape Alex went over to accept the totally unnecessary and generous applause that our hosts were offering. Honestly, we we just some customers, who would probably never pass this way again, but there they were: standing in the rain and clapping (everyone, but mostly) us. It gave me some sense of context - to us the endless miles had become routine. To them what we were doing was extraordinary. It took their small act of kindness to remind me of that, and I resolved to be worthy of their support.

We trucked onwards. As the route picked up a cycle path we started seeing signs for places on our itinerary accompanied by distances in miles, but these alternately filled us with false hope and dread as we knew that these numbers didn't necessarily reflect our peculiar route. We tried to ignore them.

In a low point (a walking point, and inevitably low) alongside a railway track, the urge to sing hit us. We had sung a little towards the end of day one and it had boosted morale, but today was something different. A fair number of people had overtaken us in the previous few minutes, but as soon as the singing started, the running followed. Suddenly we were flying and singing, belting out Queen hits and Bop classics. Where was the lungpower coming from? No idea. As you may know, Ben is practically Michael Bublé and was handling the tricky parts with vigour, whilst the rest of us got by on enthusiasm and goodwill. Our reception was mixed, some runners and bystanders were amazed and delighted, others were downright hostile. As we overtook them we asked every walking racer for requests, and one in the hostile category replied 'some bloody peace and quiet'. We picked up the pace and the volume.

Incredibly, we also picked up some friends from among the other runners. Our four-man boyband had become a six-piece choir including a female vocalist who ably picked out the top notes in Bohemian Rhapsody. I think they were relay runners and therefore fresher than us, but our pace had cranked up in time with the beat so completely that they almost struggled to keep up. The girl whispered to the guy 'These guys are amazing'. I beamed.

We were coming up to the first checkpoint at 45 miles, and were still in full flow of running and singing. But then we approached a golf course, and out of respect for the local patrons decided to lower the volume. If anything this made the experience more intense. Don't believe me? Find three tired but fiercely united friends, two random extras who are slightly in awe of the above, and run  with them at a metronomic pace in the rain whilst intoning Mr Brightside under your breath. I have shivers just thinking about it.

Sadly Mr Brightside had already come out of his cage and demanded to know how it ended up like this several hundred yards before we reached the checkpoint, and rather embarrassingly we found ourselves  offering a lacklustre rendition of Uptown Girl as we were clapped in by a modest but vocal crowd.

Karlie and Linds helped us to refill our hydration bladders, change shirts and otherwise do the pit stop things as we hid inside the marquee during a brief rain shower. The break once again passed in a flash and before long we were off, walking out of the checkpoint to digest our latest intake. We had 17 miles to the next checkpoint and 24 in total before the finish. Still a devastatingly long way to go.

But we got on with it. Memories blur I'm afraid, but I recall this being tough. We failed to recapture the magic of the singing period, and endured agonising, long walking periods up modest hills that would normally have barely registered as an incline. Time was against us too: Alex had booked a 5.40 train from Newcastle to Birmingham. It was already gone 11, leaving us (in theory) just enough hours to knock off the miles. Luckily Alex is the least outwardly-stressed person in the world, so if he felt the pressure to meet his deadline he didn't share it with us.

The rain tumbled down in relentless drizzle interspersed with heavy showers. Our routine was falling apart and we found ourselves stopping more and more for minor things: slightly loose shoelaces, uncomfortable shoulder straps, opening a gel. By contrast we became tighter and tighter as a unit; yesterday's split into two pairs for a hill was unthinkable. The route profile varied madly which at least kept us on our toes, walking the long slow drags followed by running down quad-busting descents, all the time pulling us further and further towards the industrial north-east.

Near the top of another endless hill, the heavens opened in dramatic fashion. Torrents of water crashed down on us and we dashed for cover under some trees, joining a small group of other runners rearranging their kit to deal with the sudden downpour. Ben, Alex and Neil donned their rainjackets, but I was already soaked to the bone and didn't see the point. We finally summoned the energy to get back on the road just as the rain eased off, only to then find a pit stop just a few hundred metres later, making our previous break seem pre-emptive and ridiculous. I threw cup after cup of water down my throat, a welcome relief from the salty electrolytes in my hydration pack, and we once again got back on our way.

The route took a sharp downhill which rolled on for an age - we ran the fastest we had all day and kept up the pace with enthusiasm. We chatted to a bloke who had 'run a couple of 10k's, so he thought he'd give this a go' and ploughed onwards until the route levelled off then joined the climb again. As we slowed my stomach turned, and the water I had so enthusiastically chugged at the pit stop re-emerged as quickly as I had drunk it. Two days, two ultras, two major vomiting episodes. Not great, but still manageable.

The pain and exhaustion were becoming intense. We started splitting up the task even further to try to give us some hope: just six miles to the next pit stop, then four to the checkpoint, then seven to the finish line in Newcastle. 17 long miles to go.

Alex's ankle had been bothering him for some time, but in the absence of anything practical he or anyone else could do about it, he had generally ploughed on with little complaint. Alex possesses the spindliest calves ever to be used for an ultra - indeed perhaps the spindliest calves ever to feature on a grown man. Even the women had beefier lower legs than Alex, it's no wonder he lacked stability in his ankles and the time had come for them to turn into a real nuisance. On a single track road flanked by high hedgerows he slowed, his usual insufferably jovial demeanour gone and replaced by a genuinely worried expression that I don't think I've ever seen on his face. Miles from everywhere, things looked bleak.

I am a practical and positively-minded person, a trait which I owe in part to the ethos and philosophy of Venture Trust. At this particular moment I was feeling particularly practical, and we instructed Alex in a variety of made-up stretches whilst I took the opportunity to replace my sodden socks with a dry pair from my rucksack. It was all we could do, except of course to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Alex leant on a signpost to stretch out his lower legs, heaving so much effort into it that the post nearly wrenched out of the ground. The sign of a serious need for relief.

We trudged onward. The route became more surreal as we turned onto a paved single track road that led us through a field of corn. The road looked like it went nowhere, so we were bemused to hear the chimes of an ice cream van approaching behind us. I genuinely contemplated getting a 99. The van overtook and pulled up a few hundred yards ahead and we soon understood why - a bizarre village of static wooden caravans flanked the road. These were clearly not holiday lets, but also too downright bizarre to be permanent residences. Some were decked out like cottages from a Grimms fairy tale, others sat heavily laden with satellite dishes and neglected gardens. Very few humans were in evidence. We pushed onwards.

Sneaking onto a footpath at the rear of the site, the route suddenly chucked us onto a tight path that hugged the banks of the river Tyne. In single file we inexplicably started running: dodging and ducking the nettles and carefully placing each footstep on the muddy, rocky, loose path. I can't tell you what it felt like to come out into the open of this section to be confronted with a rocky river crossing, necessitating an ankle-deep march through a tributary to the Tyne. We were 52 miles into the weekend and scrambling across a river. A river!

Who else was doing this? Who else could be so sure that they were grasping life by the balls and giving their all to their pursuits? No-one. We were kings in those moments. Soggy kings. One of whom regretted having already put on his dry socks.

We pulled into the next pit stop and sat on a fence. One of the marshals offered me a massage, hastily followed by 'I am a real massage therapist!'. I declined, not because I didn't want one, but simply because I didn't know where she would start. Everything was wrecked. A van load of someone's crew sat on the sidelines, offering encouraging words. I didn't need bloody words, I needed some unrefined liquid sugar and asked if they had any squash or juice. One of the women baulked at the idea and instead offered me some sort of effervescent tablet that she seemed to be flogging, and Neil and I accepted these free samples and dropped them in cups of water. She handed me her business card and asked me to email her because 'I need to know what they do'. My confidence in her and her tablets ebbed.

We got back on the road with a promise that there were no more river crossings and just four miles to the next checkpoint. Time was running away from us as we were walking towards Newcastle, so we did our best to get back into the whole running idea. Somewhere around here we crossed the marathon point for the day - my seventh lifetime 26.2, everyone's second of the weekend, and everyone's PW by a country mile. The end was gradually being whittled down towards single figures.

Receiving line at mile 60
Our crew's ranks had grown as my parents-in-law Cathy and Archie had generously decided to drive up to
meet us at mile 62. One's instincts to attempt to impress one's parents-in-law at all times do occasionally conflict with one's total and utter self-induced exhaustion, but I was determined to pull together something of myself worth waiting for. They had driven up to rendez-vous based on us achieving an impossibly optimistic 10 minute mile pace, and we were now averaging more like 13. Over 30 miles this means we were an hour and a half late to the checkpoint, already not in the category of good impressions. Anticipating some justified impatience, we came across a sign promising that the checkpoint was just a quarter of a mile away and summoned some primal urge to show off. We gathered just enough pace to save face.

We ran into the checkpoint, overwhelmed by the reception. Our four-person crew cheered and took photos and offered handshakes and kisses. We hustled over to have our chips scanned for the penultimate time, and the marshal with the beeper insisted on issuing a man hug to each of us. I have never been so receptive to a hug from a stranger.

Inside the warm marquee we debriefed on the previous 17 miles. The marshals had set up a trestle table buffet, but there were so many of them and they were so eager to help and support us that they practically insisted on providing a waiter service. A banana and a strong black coffee appeared before my eyes as I changed into a dry shirt for the third and final time in this race. Somehow I still had a spare shirt left, which I gave to Ben, and the Crew Chief despairingly took our sodden shirts off us for decontamination or possible exorcism. A croissant and some of Linds's incredible cookies materialised moments later. Things were looking up.

I told the Crew Chief about my mistimed sock replacement and  she magically produced the pair I had worn yesterday, somehow washed and dried and ready to go. What on earth have I done to deserve this woman? As I replaced my socks with the third pair of the day I decided to lance the blister brewing on my heel, using one of my bib number safety pins in classic improv style. Karlie went pale again and Cathy made herself scarce.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye. Cathy and Archie declined our invitation to Newcastle and headed for home. We braced ourselves for the longest seven miles of our lives.

What can I say of those last seven miles? We ran, we walked, we reminisced. Every footstep was agonising and magnificent. Every mile done, a handsome victory. We each said what our high points had been and we laughed ourselves hoarse at the low points. At one time, with Ben driving, we ran what felt like six minute miles for what felt like an hour, almost effortlessly. In reality, of course, it was probably a ten minute mile pace for less than ten minutes, but it felt glorious. Our uphill walks were no resigned trudges but determined, metronomic marches. We were nearly done.

Newcastle called us in at last. As the route spat us out of a wooded footpath onto the north bank of the Tyne, we started to see things we recognised. Bridges. The Angel of the North. Broken brown ale bottles. Shops with Newcastle in their names. We had all but done it.

Ben was suffering. We had all suffered at points - me and my rotten stomach, Alex's miserly ankle, Neil's wretched knee, but now it was Ben's turn and he was just good old fashioned spent. We sort-of wanted to run, but Ben just couldn't. This wasn't a time for us to try to rally round him and cure the problem with cheery banter, this was just his dip, and it was coincidence that it came at the end. But no matter. We rounded a corner at a walk, and caught sight of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the finish line in the distance. I burst into tears but none came, perhaps I was dehydrated. Perhaps I couldn't distinguish between the rain and my own emotions, such was the volume of both. They were happy tears, if they were anything.

We marched onwards, passing bridge after bridge. Ben could see we wanted to pick up the pace and urged us to go on without him, an implausible and ridiculous suggestion. After 68 and a half miles together, we were damned well going to finish together. Long ago we had promised each other no sprint finishes. We linked arms in a fairly homosexual way as we started to cross the bridge, marching to its high midpoint and planning to run like the wind from there. Finding linked arms too difficult we reverted to a much more manly hand-holding arrangement, and as the run started we all shouted and screamed with emotion and excruciating pain (on my part, any way). The girls were there, of course, loud and enthusiastic and loving as ever. Ben's mum was there too, preparing to admonish him for being so late. We crossed the line. Job done.

We hugged and looked at one another in disbelief. In a way a spell had been broken, something I knew we would probably never get back. But by Thor I was glad to be done.

Medals and photos and t-shirts and massages and food and drink and lying down indoors. Alex had missed his train, of course, and Ben had to dash to catch his. We piled into the overworked Corsa and dropped Alex at the station before hitting the road back to Scotland, stopping only for five hundred chicken nuggets and an enormous milkshake.

Never again. And that's a promise.

If you haven't already, get your wallet over to

Happy running


P.S. in many ways it doesn't matter, but if you're interested, our total time for 69 miles was 17 hours, 30 minutes and 55 seconds. And that's a very long time indeed.

2013 to date: miles run - 668.15, races: 4 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 23, metres swum: 1300

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