Warning: this is long. But it is 3 days’ worth of ‘adventures’, rather than the normal 90 minutes… But go get a cup of tea first anyway.
“PASS ME THE PROSECCO!! ”. “A’RITE HONEY, WITH VODKA?!” The locals – mostly very scantily-clad and orange – who greeted us in Carlisle that Friday night were probably a smidgen different to Hadrian’s armies 2,000 years ago. That said, I’m not entirely sure who’d be scariest in a fight…
Jack – one of my Herne Hill Harriers clubmates – and I had just made the 4-hour journey up from London in our pyjamas. Jack, seemingly naturally narcoleptic, snored through most of the journey while I poked around some slightly acidic vegetable pasta. Note to future self: 24 hours in a hot room and pasta goes off.
Ah yes, those pyjamas. As fashionable as they may have been, they were also doubling up as our Friday and Saturday clothes. We were up in Carlisle to run along the original path of Hadrian’s Wall all the way to Newcastle which, at ~105km (65mi) long, meant that we were travelling with as little as possible.
Other than my poisonous meal, pretty much all I was carrying was a (disposable) toothbrush, a tiny (disposable) toothpaste tube, a 99% empty (disposable) deodorant can, phone chargers, the minimum (very non-disposable) safety equipment and a really quite large volume of energy gels, Pulsins and other high-energy snacks. Oh, and two tubs of concentrated beetroot juice. Which was about 1.9 more than I wanted to stomach the next morning.
We were staying in Stanwix, a small suburb of Carlisle, in a hotel which, anecdotally, was built directly on top of the original Wall. After I’d eaten up my planned breakfast for dinner, we headed out to the local pub for a quick drink to go over the weekend’s plans. Our lycra tights and running tops made us fit right in with the local punters…
Our plan was pretty simple: aside from a detour for the first 5km, we would follow the official “Hadrian’s Wall Walk” for the next hundred kilometres. We’d aim to start off at 5.15min/km then lose 15 seconds/km every 15km which, including quite a few generous breaks, would make us complete the 65km leg to Chollerford by 4pm if we left at 9am. (Spoiler alert: it took a lot longer)
In Chollerford, we’d be met by my parents, with whom we’d spend the night in nearby Hexham, where we’d also pick up our Sunday clothes which we’d sent up earlier.
The next morning, after a decent night’s sleep, we were all set. The weather, unexpectedly, was absolutely glorious.
First of all, we had to make our way in the opposite direction to our arbitrarily chosen start: Carlisle Castle. Our finish line would be Newcastle Castle, which at that point felt like a very, very, distant, and slightly intimidating, target.
Up to then, the longest I’d ever run was a (few) marathon(s), and the most running over 2 days I’d ever done was 60km, the week prior. This was a definite step into the unknown, even though, by ultra-running standards, we really weren’t going off into the mega-wild as we were never more than a few kilometres from the nearest hamlet and we had some very generous breaks planned.
So, after a few mandatory photos and under the gaze of some highly uninterested seagulls, we were off.
Despite the first few kilometres being pretty straight-forward, they were – navigationally – probably the ‘hardest’ of the day. And, by that, I mean that we had to run along a main road and turn when our GPS told us to. Christopher Columbus, move to one side please.
The reason for our detour was that the official Hadrian’s Wall takes a slightly longer-than-strictly-needed path along the River Eden. With enough mileage ahead of us, we were keen to cut out any excessive mileage. On top of that, our route was, in actual fact, much better aligned to the Wall’s original path.
Talking of which, as I’ve not even talked about it much yet, here’s my abridged version of the Wall’s history:
Despite its perception in history as a masterpiece of Roman warfare, the truth is actually a little tamer: far from being this giant wall of stone to keep out the northern barbarians, the wall was mostly a means to control population flow and trade. Yawn.
- First of all, the Romans did not defend their territory by holding defensive positions. When trouble threatened, they marched out to meet it (and destroy it).
- Secondly, words have confused everyone: all along the wall, there are ‘milecastles’ which suggests these impenetrable fortresses rather than the trade gateways which they actually were. The word ‘wall’ also evokes images of, well, a brick and mortar wall whereas, for about half of the wall, the wall was actually made out of turf.
- Thirdly, this wasn’t even the last of the Roman walls in the north of the UK: the Antonine Wall built 20 years later crosses Scotland East to West.
So there, everything you’ve ever been taught is a lie.
Over time, as the Roman Empire disintegrated, villagers plundered the wall, which is why so little remains. The death blow mind you was given by a general in the 1750s who was in charge of building a new road from Carlisle to Newcastle. Not giving one poop about history, he built most of the new road (the B6318) directly on top of the line of the Wall.
And now, these days, you have people like us running alongside it. Progress eh.
Back to our run. The first 5 kilometres or so were therefore spent jogging along a B-road through suburbs which probably wasn’t exactly how I’d sold the weekend to Jack. Clearly, the Wall was long gone by now so there wasn’t a huge amount of exciting stuff to see. Ooo, another University of Cumbria’s building from the 1980s. Mmm.
Rather impressively, despite the route’s simplicity, we still managed a few wrong turns. It was around then that I asked Jack to stop as I darted around a corner to strip naked. Pippa had very kindly bought me some ‘Runderwear’ for my birthday. The short version of their product description is that you can get moisture wicking tops etc, well here’s the underwear version. Except, that, well, it did the exact opposite for me: apparently trapped for eternity within my well-sealed pants, the moisture was (and, I’ll say it up front: you’re welcome) making my butt crack itch like hell. There was no way I could do another 60km like this. A few minutes later, freed from this anal torture, we were running again.
Our pace – critical breaks such as the above aside – was pacey enough yet sensible at just under 5 min/km for the first 10km or so. What we hadn’t banked on however were the hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of cattle grids, farm gates and stiles we’d have to stop/start at over the next two days. It was relentless. I think our record, on Day 2, was 6 (six!) in the space of 50 metres. This was a different type of pain in the butt.
Our next challenge, especially mid-morning when the air was warming up, were the swarms of insects and disease-ridden dung flies in the shade. We had little choice at times but to run with our hands as masks in front of our mouths which was a pretty sub-optimal running technique… Jack swallowed a few which led to some delightful retching. They are an excellent source of protein mind you.
Finally, after 15km or so, the run became a bit more scenic. The Wall, which would have been made of vegetation here, was long gone, but the Vallum (ditch) on the North side and secondary ditch on the South side, as well as the raised bed the Wall ran along, were clearly visible. So now, finally, we were obviously running along the Wall’s path.
The Hadrian’s Wall Walk route is, let’s say, peculiar at times. Clearly, to live up to its name, it needs to stick as close as possible to the original Wall’s path. This meant we sometimes ran along stunning routes (more on that later).
However, equally, we had to run (literally) through some people’s back gardens at times, ploughed muddy farms, or down tarpaulin-lined alleyways more akin to a scrapyard.
The sun, slowly but surely, was reaching its highest point. And, sure enough, even the north of England can get bloody hot. We had taken a few litres of water with us but were starting to run dry sooner than expected. Our plan had been to refill in hamlet shops along the way but, well, we’d come across none.
Miraculously, in these more remote parts of the country, there remains this bizarre concept of ‘trust’. After about 20 kilometres, we stumbled upon our first ‘Honesty Shop’: a small hut in someone’s back garden with a fridge full of drinks and snacks and … an honesty box.
Times (and water and sugar levels) were desperate so, for the first time in 5 years, I had a Coke. It tasted as I remembered: 50% sugar, 50% E-numbers. Still, it did the trick and, having also refilled our water bottles, we set off again. The sugar helped diminish the mental anguish of realising, 20km in, that we still had 45km and 6 hours to go!
Then, finally, after 23km, we reached … the Wall! It took over 2 hours, but we’d finally come across our first bit of bricks and mortar!
From then onwards, the course was a bit more as we’d imagined with regular remnants of former milecastles. It’s fair to say I was quickly starting to piss Jack off slightly (a lot) by taking a photo of every single outcrop we came across. ‘Ooo, look, a slab of rocks’. ‘ …‘. To his not-so-quiet relief, that urge soon passed as my enthusiasm for ancient mortar diminished.
Not long after that and around noon, we got to Birdoswald, the first of the major forts we’d come across.
Having browsed their website, I now know that this was the longest continuous stretch of the Wall we’d see. And, to be fair, it was an impressively long and scenic stretch. We got lost a little and ended up having to scramble over the Wall (which I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to do) to get back on track.
Soon, we reached Gilsland, which was to be our last village of the day before we headed into proper no-man’s land. We still couldn’t find any shops to refuel but weren’t too concerned as we’d spotted on the map a tourist information centre a few miles later.
At this point, two were to become three as we were joined by Hamish, my cousin’s boyfriend and regular trail runner/mountain goat. We’d never met before but assumed that two runners – one heavily tattooed – should be recognisable. Sure enough, at the top of what seemed like the longest hill in Northumberland, we were met by this lightly bearded man in board shorts bounding excitedly towards us.
His great company aside, it was an absolute blessing to meet him then as our water had essentially run out. The information centre/shop was bloody closed and we’d have been utterly stuffed without the stash of (warm) water from Hamish’s car. Our plan B was to drink the non-potable water from the centre’s toilets but that may have been a short-term gain/long term pain solution and we were seriously relieved to have a bacteria-free alternative.
By now, it was properly hot. In canine fashion, I sought out ponds and lakes to duck my head in. Unsurprisingly, we were slowing down, though this wasn’t helped by the serious up/down trail running, with far too many climbs at >30 degrees which Jack and I could only walk up while Hamish galloped ahead.
The route was now very different to the early-day suburban utopia; we were into picture postcard landscape, with rolling hills of bracken and grassland broken dramatically by steep crags. Tourist numbers were up, and more than a few old biddies were shocked when they asked us where we’d come from, assuming we’d come from around the corner, not 40 kilometres away!
It was around then that Jack mentioned that he’d just run the previous 25km with an increasingly injured leg. Oh well, only 25 more kilometres to go…
Mercifully (I think?) for him, we were going from slow to sluggish to corpse-like. This route was hard. As Hamish was a quasi-local, we trusted and followed him up and down crag after cliff face after stairwell after crag. Never trust a trail runner. As we’d later find out, this section of the course near Steel Rigg which took us around 2 hours to complete could have taken less than an hour if we’d followed the conveniently flat and easy path which ran parallel to our fiendish choice. GGggnnn.
Still, it was fun. I think. After 45km, water was once again running low. We had been sensible in our plans: I had over 2 litres of storage on me. But it was just too toasty, and we were guzzling away. By this point, handily, we took a proper break: my Garmin needed recharging (I know, modern adventurers and all that…), so we went to a nearby pub to get drinks while Jack rested his leg. Hamish and I left Jack on a bench and headed off. By the time we returned after 30 minutes, Jack was snoring. What did I say earlier about narcolepsy?
We were, by now, seriously late and we agreed to keep running/jogging to the end, however imperceptible our progress felt. Housesteads – the most famous of all Hadrian Wall fortifications – came and went, and we barely stopped to appreciate it or stare at the communal latrines, which I think is the main takeaway most kids take from there. The cooler easterly wind was picking up, which gave us an additional reason to accelerate, although poor Jack was putting a brave face on what was clearly a lot of pain.
My legs however felt surprisingly pain-free after 55km and no worse than after 10km. That’s the joy of ultra-running: the cardio effort is relatively low intensity and lactic acid never really gets a chance to build up.
Having said that, we were keen for it to end and were cursing when the route took us for a totally unnecessary 500 metre detour to Mithraeum, a Roman temple. Historically, it would apparently have been a ‘gloomy place, lit by lamps to create a mysterious interior’. Well, it felt bloody gloomy in 2018 too!
By now, we’d gone from being a bit late to late to very late. My parents had kindly been waiting in a Chollerford hotel carpark for 90 minutes which was about 89 minutes more than I would normally be willing to risk.
As such, selfishly (or selflessly?), I left Hamish and Jack behind (by now, Jack was really starting to struggle after 50km on a gammy leg) and sprinted off. Remarkably, despite having over 60km in my legs, I actually do mean ‘sprinted’ – my last 3km were at sub4/km pace!
And, having devoured the snacks my parents kindly brought, Day One was over: 65km, 9h30 hours on our feet (!), one gammy leg, about 5,000 stiles, an exceedingly high volume of water, and 0 blisters! Time for bed.
I was expecting to sleep like a log but ended up having an awful night’s sleep: I think my body was just in shock at the cumulative effort. During the night, my resting heart rate got stuck at around 90bpm rather than the more normal 40-50bpm which was somewhat worrying.
Anyway, I woke up still alive and my legs felt … fine! A bit tight, sure, but no worse than normal. Jack, however, wisely bailed out as his leg was still buggered.
Although he’d initially only planned on joining for Day One, Hamish met me again in Chollerford to join me for some of Day Two. I was really grateful. The two days were immensely fun, but mostly because the three of us spent pretty much every minute chatting away non-stop. Had I had to do either day alone, the whole adventure could have been pretty damn miserable.
Day 2 started with a pleasant 6 kilometre hill, which was exactly what we didn’t want… After that, the course became both easier and harder than Day One: easier as it was a lot less steep (thank god) but harder as it was a lot more technical, with more mud, pebbles, branches and other bits to trip over. Talking of which, I got very jammy with my choice of shoes: to avoid risking 100+km in trail shoes, I took my (comfy) road shoes. The lack of rain meant I got away with it, but it was probably a slightly stupid gamble.
The rest of the morning was then a cyclical process of Hamish promising that he knew the roads and ‘this was definitely the last hill’ over and over again.
The terrain was very different now too, with the tiny paths along the main road taking us through forests and endless rolling hills of rapeseed fields while combine harvesters zooming by tried to decapitate us.
Time was on our side, so we stopped in a pub for a (non-alcoholic) drinks. Third pub in three days: was this the longest (and slowest) pub crawl in the UK?
And then, something incredible happened: after 75km and almost 11 hours, we finally came across … other runners! I guess our hobby is still a little niche.
By lunchtime, after another billion hills, we had reached Heddon-on-the-wall. Guess what you can see there! We went wild and bought a vaguely edible sandwich from the local petrol station and had a short break next to the outcrop, as this was the only time all day we’d see the actual Wall. Hamish was meant to stop here but, clearly having the time of his life (not an actual quote), he carried on with me for the whole hog.
We’d now reached 80km and I was facing two problems: firstly, my body was, finally, starting to cave in and my ankle was suffering. The sooner we’d end, the better. The second, highly counter-productive, issue was that the shortcut we’d planned to help would mean we’d finish on 99.8km. After this gigantic effort, not hitting a century was just not acceptable. So … we took the longer route. Pride over health and all that …
From Heddon onwards, I was in quite familiar territory, having run this route a few times before while staying with my family nearby. After a steep downhill, once on the Tyne riverside, you essentially continue eastwards towards Newcastle alternating between really nice and really grotty neighbourhoods.
As we approached the end, we realized our calculations were totally off. On the one hand, we’d definitely gone over 100km (celebrated with a nonchalant high-five) which was exciting; on the other hand, we’d definitely gone over 100km and had definitely not finished!
As we started to see the famous Newcastle Quayside vista, our hamstrings kicked in and we picked up the pace for one final hurrah. Distracted by the bridges, we stupidly managed to miss our final turnoff. A quick U-turn later, and we were climbing our final goddam hill up to Newcastle Castle, where we sneaked up, Roman ninja-style, on Jack and Pippa who were waiting, big grins, water and camera in hand.
And, voila. Done. No more hills.
A few weeks have passed:
- This was an insightful test of my body’s strength. I had no idea if it would cope: it did, and remarkably well actually. There was no real damage, although my hamstrings stayed tight for almost a month.
- Good company was essential. Jack and Hamish were great fun. Doing this alone would have been a totally different (worse) experience.
- Are ultras good for you? I’m not sure. Even though this was a relatively leisurely effort, my heart rate took a few days to get back to normal afterwards which can’t be a good sign!
- Would I do it again? I don’t know. I may not be a Roman Centurion, but I’ve now run my Roman century of kilometres. Right now, this feels like a one-off achievement. Having said that, I’m pretty sure I said I’d never run a marathon again 8 years ago. And look where we are now …