The Northern Curse
This is a thing. If anyone knows me and my rubber duck collection, that is NOT a thing. The Northern Curse is. Every time I plan a hefty race or two in the North I get sick. I blame the contractors I work with. They do not get paid sick time, so if they are ill they come into work, spreading their disease. For a double header of a Tough Mudder and Manchester track marathon I had whooping cough, and barely made it around Pennington Flash parkrun in 33 mins as a consolation. For the double SVN marathon weekend in Penistone, I had a chest infection and heavy cold and did neither. And this weekend, with the Wall starting Saturday, I started feeling like crap Wednesday. That little cough-cough that should probably be written in a smaller font, the cough noise people make when talking about someone faking it. That is what the whole team had on Wednesday. By the time I went to bed the smaller font cough-cough was COUGH-COUGH in 72 point font bold and underlined in GREEN. The receptacle next to the bed to catch the constant heavy green goop does not bare thinking about. It shall never be used again. And so it meant a day in bed Thursday, Lemsip, antibiotics, Netflix, blankets and ALL the liquids. Netflix and Chills? And all for the sake of 100MC number 40 and 41 in 45 months. Day one being 33 and a bit miles and day two 37.
Everyone knows the Rat Race events, like they do the Threshold events. Some poo poo them, saying they are just a walk. Well, you can also run them, like you can the Threshold events. Sure, you are looked after. But after Fire and Ice and minimal support, I am looking forward to a little looking after. They do have large, well stocked checkpoints, but if you want to suffer then you don’t have to eat, now do you?
Following Hadrian’s Wall from Carlisle to Newcastle the route doesn’t quite go coast to coast, but it ain’t far off.
I opted for the challenger event, allowing me to camp overnight and split the event into two. 53 KM day one, or 33 miles, and 37 miles or 59 KM day two. And you all know I love my camping now. Although dry as a bone midnight sun and 6 man tent in perpetual sunlight is not the same as undoubtedly cold wet nastiness oop north.
There was once again mandatory kit, although much, much less than last time. What with (hopefully) hefty pit stops including hot and cold drinks and food, and, of course, towns and villages on the way, the kit was really 1000ml of water, 400 cals of food, wet weather gear, and a basic medical kit. Practically all you need to go to the park on any British summertime weekend for a family picnic.
6 days after Liege I was concerned about my damned Polar not keeping it’s charge, so I loaded the route on my phone via the OS Maps app and also charged up my Garmin. If it is such a thing, and it should be, I will be “double-watching” this race.
After dropping my bags off at the hotel, and being told by the landlady that 8 of the 11 rooms were taken by runners, I walked a couple of hundred yards to the Race HQ and Registration area. As I walked in there was a disclaimer form to tick, sign and date. To my right kit was being checked. I found this odd, and a little disappointing as mine was all still in my cases. To my left the race pack was being issued. I walked over and gave the person at the S line my waiver. She took it, dropped it in a tub and started looking for a number that she wouldn’t find because this was the S line for the One Dayers, I needed to go to a separate line just for the Challenger runners. And so I went to the Challenger queue. Although now I didn’t have my disclaimer. They asked for it and I said it had already been taken. Oh. confusion, but then they gave me my GPS tracker and bib anyway and pointed me at the camping queue to get the wristband that would allow me to camp. A £10 wristband.
Other runners milled about. Kit check was going on and anything that you didn’t have you could buy. There certainly was a lot of kit. I checked the tee we had been given. It was a red Rat Race brand tee, not a The Wall tee. Why? Well, if you want the race tee you need to buy that too. And so I decided I didn’t want it after all.
Apparently the way it was supposed to work was that you needed to sign the disclaimer, then have your kit checked and then, if it passed, the disclaimer would be stamped. And it would be this stamped form you take to the race pack lines. I guess I missed that step out, and so I went back to my hotel got my bags and had to go through it all again. On the way I met a guy who was a frequent Rat Race runner and he said that this would be his last race as he believed it was all too commercial now, all about the money. After having my kit checked, saving me paying a premium for the Rat Race branded kit piled up in an adjoining room, I started to wonder what he could have meant.
Next morning and the start was quite cool. It was in Carlisle Castle, however, the bag drop and the toilets were out in the car park a bit of a hike away. It meant that if you dropped your bags, then went to the start to see it and mill around and then needed the toilet again, that you then had to hike back to the car park again to do your business.
Still, as race starts go, this one is pretty cool, and, half an hour after the one dayers had gone off it was our turn to check our kit, pop the headphones in, turn on those sweet beats and listen to Cap’s advice.
Day One – Carlisle to Bardon Mill
The start takes you out of Carlisle. A loop around the front of the castle and then you are in a park and then on a muddy track, but only for 10 minutes before you are taking open roads along sleepy residential streets that sit on the edge of the city. This would predominantly be on open road. There were no road closures. Most would be on country lanes, but at times you are on busy B roads without a path swapping sides of the road at blind corners to better your chance of survival.
Then we were out and into the countryside. And, to be fair, it was pretty special at times. Day Walkers (wasn’t that Blade?) were soon caught up with and overtaken. And the field of a few dozen Challengers settled into positions that I guess we would stick to for both days. I was happy to run walk the whole thing with my normal 5 KM Run, then 200 M walk, 800 M run for the whole day and it worked well for me. Tuned in. Countryside taken in. It was pretty hot, and I soon found myself in need of liquids. The first CP on Day one was 15 miles into the race, too long in my opinion, and so I took more and more notice of a sign that said WALTON READING ROOM AND CAFE ahead. And, being English, I was in the need for tea.
It was too much for me, and I took the left turn when I was supposed to go right and found myself enjoying tea and conversation with the two ladies at the cafe. The interchange included:
Them – Why is it called the Rat Race then? (They were referring to the signs)
Me – It isn’t. The company is called Rat Race. The race itself is called The Wall, as it runs along Hadrian’s Wall.
Them – So why is the company called Rat Race then?
A pot of tea, 2 Fantas left to go flat as I ate a bacon sandwich and I ran into the first checkpoint and met up with Rachel. She seemed a little shocked to see me, as I was to see her.
Rachel – I thought you’d be long gone by now
Me – Nah, I just spent a lovely time with a couple of old ladies at the Walton reading room and café. Pot of tea, bacon sandwich, couple of Fantas.
Rachel – Are you taking this seriously?
Me – I always take my tea drinking very seriously.
And then we were off.
For much of the first 3 hours of day one I thought to myself, “Hold on, at Race to the Stones we saw the Stones in Avebury, at Race to the Tower you see Broadway Tower, the Green Man is there at the end of Green Man, the Wall? As in Hadrian’s Wall… do I get to see it?” And around 28KM, I think it was, we finally got a bit. And it was a big thing for me and a couple of MIND runners. People stopped for photos. It may have only been a couple of feet high at it’s tallest, not really any good at keeping the Scots out, (Hadrian must’ve politely asked them not to step over his rather short wall), but at least it was something.
Oh and the steps. The photographers were placed at the exact locations to get good photos that show the race route better than it is. That is what I think anyway, and am happy to be proven wrong. But top of the steps by the chunk of the wall (above), and then top of a small hill with the wall in the background (below) certainly does make it look like we spent a great time by what was barely a few hundred yards in total of short wall.
And then, after more country lanes, and a little lake, around the marathon distance, was a bloody big hill. It was a killer and, once at the top following blue flags rather than orange arrows, we went from sheep field to sheep field, climbing stone walls via wooden steps over and over and over again. The ground wet underfoot and uneven. It was my least favourite part of day one, regardless of the photo.
And then, about an hour of country lanes later, as the Challenger field did that thing where you think you are basically alone when the route twists and turns, and then, as it straightens you find out you are all within a mile of each other, I was done, and having my finish time written down by hand. That was an odd factor for me; they pay for GPS tracking that is live streamed to the website, but they skimp on timing mats and timing chips for the runners to know their exact time as they go through CPs and the day finish lines.
And I tell you what, this was the bit that I am most torn about. You had to pay to camp (£10). You could then pay to have your own rental tent, bring your own tent, have a space in a 4 man or 8 man tent. All of which cost. I think it was cheaper the more roomies you were happy with. There were some portaloos, and portashowers (tick) and two taps for cold water. I looked around for hot water, and food. It was all in one large tent, not dissimilar to the RACE to THE tents at half way, just a fraction of the size. I was starving as Rachel and the other runners joined and then I noticed that all the food you had to pay for, and all the drink, even tea and coffee. This race cost a good couple of hundred quid, and they were charging you for tea? WTAF? And there were no other options. I assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that the cash they say have on your in the kit list was for emergencies, not bloody dinner!
Saying that, needs must as the Devil drives, and we all needed to eat and drink so a £20 dinner, some beers later, and then £10 bacon butties and teas and sodas in the morning, and we were a captive audience. It was pay or starve, and so we paid. The food was pretty good, chilli con carne and chips that had been refried so many times they tasted like a fryer, chicken curry and jacket potato, veggie chilli and pulled beef and potatoes. It would make an appearance at the end too, under cellophane on paper plates, and billed as the “free hot meal” at the finish line mentioned on the website.
Camping. I did not sleep well. I am sure most people didn’t. The couple in the next tent did not STFU until 2.30am. Sure, there was no Midnight Sun to keep me awake, but their constant wittering like they had just met on First Dates killed me. That and my right calf ended Day One sore and so I slept in calf sleeves and planned to wear them the next day whilst fellow Racecheck Visorclub runner Rachel taped up what she already suspected was a stress fractured foot.
Day Two – Bardon Mill to Newcastle
The second day started with bacon sandwiches and tea, and a couple of sodas to put in the water bottles. Rachel’s foot was ballooning and she took some Ibuprofen from me, despite me only having the Cold and Flu variety. The race started at 7.30 with groups of 10 in a first come, first served format. We would be the second group to go out 5 mins after the first. Our start time, much like our finish time written down on a piece of paper by hand. I told Rach that I would be keeping at a constant pace for as long as possible if she needed a pacer, most ably described by the lyrics of the Matthew Wilder hit,
Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride
Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no
I got to keep on movin’
And then we were out of the village and onto long country lanes, the Challengers in formation. I had finished with my Garmin after my poxy Polar had died, and was onto the Jenni ipod, as the Darren ipod had died too. I switched the watch view to current and average pace, put my head down and embraced the day knowing that CP1 was a full half marathon away, and then CP2 a further 17 miles after that.
On the bench was a plaque. This bench is dedicated to Jill Smith, who loved to sit here. And so I did too, to see what all the fuss was about, for 30 seconds. In that time I calmed down. And from there the Wall became a race of ever decreasing increments. What started as 1 race became 2 days. Day 2, this day, was 36 miles and that included 13 miles to CP 1, 17 to 2, then 7 to home. Or was it 6? The marshals at the CP said one thing, there was a sign that said another, the GPX said something else and so did me Google Mapping it from my current location to the Malmaison hotel. Only for my phone to then die.
As I sat on the 3rd bench in the game, scooping up rain droplets from the most recent shower and cooling my calf and ligaments with the water, an arc of colour appeared as I stood up and continued my limping toward the line. Yup. Did it cheer me on? Did it cheer me up? Did it fuck! Even the perfect rainbow that arced over the city after the final rainfall couldn’t save the race. Newcastle can fuck off.
Highlight and Lowlights
I did love stopping for tea at the Walton Reading Room and cafe. Sure, it added a chunk to my time, but the ladies, tea and sandwich were a perfect distraction.
I also liked going passed the birthplace of George Stephenson. It was unexpected to see something interesting as the last half marathon slowly drained my soul.
The marshals were superb, very happy and supporting. And it was nice to start at Carlisle Castle and finish after crossing the iconic Millennium Bridge in Newcastle.
I shall quote Rachel and say, “I LOVED THE FINISH. (Yes, that was in upper case) Running over the Millenium bridge at the end, and seeing the Tyne from it’s origin to the bridges was just wonderful. I think that finale was just worth every moment.” Although, to be fair, and as a FYI, she could be hallucinating having run for at least a day on a broken foot.
We did not enjoy the registration process at all. Luckily I had been through it (twice) when Rach turned up. As she put it to me, this is very difficult to someone autistic. “Like a horseshoe, now to the opposite end of the room and out.”
I hated the time on the roads, especially the busy ones.
On a race called The Wall there is actually precious little wall to be seen and none on day 2.
Having to pay for food at half way. We paid £10 each to be there, was that just for the toilets and showers and the buckets of water? The food was good, but it was pretty much that exact food at the end that was free, but we couldn’t eat it as the microwave was broken.
Distance markers. These seemed to be only at key distances like a 5 miles, 10, a marathon, 30, 44, 57, 62.5? 69. If the website is saying one thing, the GPX something else, if what we are told en route is wrong, then if the signs are in the wrong place and our watches are telling us something different then what chance do we have? Distance markers at mile intervals, please, to save my poor addled brain. And please put distances on the pamphlet.
I really did not like doing this sick. The chest infection made me feel weak. Peppering the Hadrian’s Wall Path with throat oysters is one thing. Having to blow award winning snot rockets at a regular basis just to help your breathing is not ideal.
And for me finishing injured, that is a definite lowlight.
Finally the times. Handwritten, I didn’t have a day one time when I finished day two and Rachel doesn’t have any time at all on the results page. It was a race. Publishing the results should be the most fundamental thing to do.
Hard earned this one. The token to show it is part of a series that I have absolutely no interest in completing.
I even said to Rach as she headed to Barnsley to have a broken foot x-rayed, that I bet the photos will come out great, as they were taken at places that make the race look look better than it was. What it was in summary was pretty much a Google Maps direction search from Carlisle to Newcastle with the critieria of B roads only set. 90% of it was on road, most of that on roads without path, and a chunk on roads that were quite busy. Despite being born and brought up in, and having lived all my life in huge cities, I am not okay with traffic being so close, I am not one for playing chicken with traffic in pitch darkness, and so the one dayer just doesn’t appeal, even if Rach and Lew go back and do it in 2020.
£200 quid though for a race that had no road closures, the CPS were so far apart it was easier to stop at local shops and cafes (day 2 they were at 13 miles and then 30!), Sure they were pretty well stocked, but half way and having to pay for all food and drink, and the right to camp, and then for a space in a tent. I was pretty shocked to see that. I know the Race to the series gets a lot of grief, they do molly coddle, but for less money there are road closures, the food at half way is free, hot or cold, as is breakfast, and the check points are 10K apart, not up to 17 miles. It did feel like a poor man’s Threshold event, except that it was more expensive.
As I said I spoke to a guy on the way to the Race HQ to pick up bibs. He had done most of their events and told me that this would be his last because it was too commercial. Not my words. I had no point of reference. But I do now, and it will be my last too. And I do see his point re the fact this is about making money. the branded kit is more expensive than the new season at Lululemon, you kinda had to buy it too. If you had anything missing in your kit bag they sold it there at a premium. You got a free tee, but it is Rat Race one, not an event tee, if you wanted that you needed to fork out for one. And paying for food, even tea at half way. That was just poor.
WOULD I RUN THE WALL AGAIN? NO.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE WALL? There was barely any wall, it was expensive, even more expensive than the Threshold races, without being as polished a product, and you were noway near as molly coddled. Paying for food, all on open roads, so you could just run this yourself? Then I guess if you want the challenge sure, I think Lew and Rachel are going to run it next year, but I would not recommend it.
And finally a sad note
The running community may be dispersed throughout the world but we come together at such events. I have met dozens, probably hundreds of great people over the years at races after agreeing to meet up on Twitter. John is such an example, coming out to cheer us on without knowing us from Adam.
At The Wall I was supposed to meet up with James, a runner who raised money for the Royal National Institute for the Blind and by all accounts was a great guy. His last tweet was actually in response to me asking what races people had coming up, after listing mine. He said he’d see me at The Wall and I replied that we would but sadly James died before we could meet up.
Part of the Racecheck Visorclub community, from speaking to people James was well liked. He is a real loss and so Kat and the Racecheck team, with help from others put on a virtual race, and dedicated their miles and money to James’ chosen charity. Hopefully in some way this gesture adds to his legacy and memory.