'The Wall' is a 69 mile ultra marathon running event organised by the good folks at Rat Race Adventure Sports, which follows Hadrian's Wall starting from Carlisle Castle and finishing on Newcastle Quayside. It's not for the feint hearted but as long as you possess a little bit of crazy then you're pretty much all set up.
I started my training back in January. It's been nearly a year since I completed my last ultra marathon and other than Leicester marathon back in October 2016, I was pretty much starting from scratch. It was all fairly straight forward: I steadily built up my mileage and combined this with a strength and conditioning plan as well as a regular yoga practice. I ran Warwick Half Marathon in March, London Marathon in April and then continued to build mileage up to 30 miles before a 3 week taper period on the lead up to race day.
Saturday 17th June was the big day and I'd travelled up to Carlisle the day before with a good friend who had insisted on accompanying me. Knowing how much I was feeling the nerves, Beverley was great company and a good distraction from it all, having her at the start line had a calming effect on me and I was so grateful for that.
The atmosphere at the start line was upbeat and I felt surprisingly relaxed. I'd previously been chatting to a couple of ladies online, Fee and Vic, and we had arranged to meet before the start of the race. I felt like I already knew them as we'd shared our anxieties and race prep, so finally meeting them in person was another great distraction from the 69 miles which lay just minutes ahead. In addition to this, Bev and I had got chatting to an American guy called Alex in our hotel that morning and we got on really well so decided we'd run together for a while.
So this was it, at 7am the countdown begun and just over 800 runners, including myself, embarked on their journey. Having run a handful of ultra marathons before and although I still have lots to learn, I do know as much as that anything can happen when you're on your feet for that long. On one hand this always makes me feel a little nervous but on the whole, its the adventure and the unknown which creates a buzz with these things - I was excited to have finally got going and within minutes I felt comfortable and happy in my stride.
Fee, Alex and I chatted for a few miles before Fee decided to hang back and pace herself a little more comfortably - Alex and I continued together as we chatted about running, travel, family etc.. and then there were times we just ran in silence, which was also ok - a good running buddy recognises when you just want to get your head down and pass the miles quietly and even though we'd only met just a couple of hours earlier, we had already become quite well tuned to each others needs. Alex and I ran together until we reached the 27 mile pitstop at Lannercost where he ran ahead while I tended to my feet which were already displaying worrying signs of blisters and heat damage.
The next few miles passed quite quickly as there was a lot of trail which is when I'm in my element. The heat was pretty full on at this point and I was starting to really struggle. All I could do was keep hydrated and well fuelled - temperatures had reached 29 degrees Celsius and I could see that I wasn't the only one suffering.
My husband had met me at Lannercost and was now crewing me for the remainder of the race. Race rules stipulate that runners aren't allowed to accept external support by way of extra fuelling in between pit stops, but he was allowed to 'float' in between and offer morale support which in all honesty is all I wanted; in previous discussions I'd been very clear that I wanted to be independant and didn't want any 'special treatment' - Richard was very respectful of this.. he knows me well!
The Hexham pit stop was at 44 miles and I found this stage the most enjoyable - this later showed on the results table as I delivered the top 20 best (womens) times across the field for the 17 mile stretch. My motivation? .. I knew my children and in laws were waiting for me.. I flew! The stop at Hexham was along a greenway through an avenue of trees and as I made my approach I spotted my son and daughter at the far end. At 44 miles I pulled out a 400m sprint to get to them! They ran with me and revelled in the cheers from the crowds.
After a good feed and a full change of clothes (into night kit) I was on my way again. The next time I was to see my children would be once I had completed the race.
The 50 mile marker came and went and I put in a live Facebook video to my amazing running group, Run Like a Girl - the response was incredible and that coupled with the dozens of messages and notifications I was receiving throughout the day, gave me a huge push to keep going.
When I first started this journey, I hadn't quite realised how many people were rooting for me but as the day unfolded it became apparent that so many ( literally hundreds) friends and family were avidly following my updates. I'll never forget how amazing it felt to know that they were all following my race tracker and sending virtual cheers along the way!
At 55 miles everything suddenly took a nose dive. Much like a small child who has just taken a fall, grazed their knee and been okay about it until they see the blood - I needed to tend to my incredibly painful feet which I'd ran on for over 30 miles and only when I saw the state they were in did I have a proper freak out!! Over the course of the day, I'd effectively bashed the big toe nails backwards into the cuticle and causing trauma to the entire nail bed on both feet. In addition to this, two huge blisters had formed under the nails and had lifted them away from the skin. My feet were literally bleeding and I could barely touch them without screaming in pain - there was still 14 miles to go and although I wasn't ready to give up (that was never going to happen) I knew that my head space had shifted and the remainder of the course was going to be more of a mental battle. In just one mile, even though nothing had changed physically, everything felt different now, everything hurt.
With the encouragement of my amazing husband, I managed to run/limp/hobble to the 62 mile pit stop at Newburn where my in-laws were there waiting for me - it was a warm welcome with a very much needed hug and a few tears. I have to say that the folks at Newburn were truly fantastic. At this point there had been a huge drop out due to the heat and those that had made it this far were in a hell of a state, myself included. The atmosphere was somber, yet little glimpses of positivity were apparent as we all knew the finish line was almost within arms length.
One of the marshalls sat me down and brought me a cup of tea and a sandwich for which I was really grateful. I had sat down opposite a lady whose feet were in an equally bad state but bless her she was still in high spirits. I'll never forget she just looked at me and whispered 'just 7 miles to go, we can do this' - and that's all I needed to hear. Hand on my heart, I can honestly say that it never once crossed my mind that I wouldn't complete this event, it was more a case of how much pain could I bear to get me to the end. 'Only 7 miles' is all I had to do and I would have completed my biggest challenge to date. With my husband by my side and the huge online support across my running group, friends and family, I knew that within a couple of hours I'd be at the finish line.
The final push honestly took every fibre of my being to put one foot in front of the other. At times I felt like I was going so slow I may as well have walked it. Every step was searing pain in not just my feet but now everything hurt. Richard was just simply brilliant - he was so patient with me and never said a word, only to tell me to slow down on the rare occasion that I had a momentary burst of energy and would pick up the pace, perhaps a little too much at times, given the state of my feet and the miles I had left to complete.
One mile to go and there was a sign which read 'One mile until you reach legend status' - that's all I needed. I'd previously seen this sign posted in a Facebook group by someone who had ran the Wall the year before and I remember thinking 'IF I get as far as that sign then I know I've done it. Run, walk or crawl, I've done it.'
I parted ways with my husband as he rode ahead on his bike so he could get to the finish line before I did. I put on my headphones and hit Elevator Song by Keaton Henson. One foot in front of the other is all I needed to do. One mile to go.
As I passed the Tyne Bridge I remembered the enormously friendly Geordie crowds from when I've run the Great North Run previously and I imagined they were cheering for me in that moment.
On the approach to the Millennium Bridge I looked across the River Tyne and there it was, the finish line. As I ran over the bridge I glanced to my right to look down the Tyne and for some reason I stopped. 18 hours and 19 minutes earlier I'd set off on what was to be an incredible journey which would test my mental and physical resolve, and although I'd spent the last 14 miles in agonising pain and wishing it was all over, I just wanted to savour that last moment before it all ended. I took a quick photo and set to it. I could see my husband and father-in-law at the end of the bridge and just beyond them was the finishing arch. I also knew that despite it being past 1 o'clock in the morning, there was a group of people back home, including my mum, who were glued to my tracker and eagerly awaiting news of my finish.
At the finish line there were a few cheers from a some fellow 'Wallers' who had already finished, but it was nearly 1:30am and the crowds of supporters had long gone. It didn't matter though, in that last 400 metres, the pain in my feet and the exhaustion was masked by pure euphoria and gritty determination to cross the line as strong as I could muster.
So that was it. 69 miles of euphoria, laughter, tears and pain had finally come to an end. I felt EPIC! .. and will continue to do so for a very long time.
One question that I'm always asked is 'Why?' and also 'At which point did you think you weren't going to make it?' The answer is quite simply 'Never'. It genuinely never crossed my mind that I wouldn't complete it, only 'how', with all the pain and exhaustion, was I going to do it? The mental strength gained from conquering something like that brings great value to how I tackle situations that everyday life throws at me.. and so, quite simply that's why.. that and the fact that no one every had any fun in their comfort zone.
Adventure is everything ;-)