27 Years: A Story about Running Hadrian’s Wall & Climbing Scarfell Pike in 3 Days
The challenge, across and to the top of Blighty, devised by Darren, was simple: run east to west, across England, for the length of Hadrian’s Wall in two days and then on the third day climb Scarfell Pike. The team was made up of Darren, Michelle, Jason and me. All experienced marathon and ultra runners. So, how hard can it be? Hadrian’s Wall is 83 miles long, that’s just over 40 miles a day but we have all day to run it. Hell, we can all run a marathon is less than 3 hours 30 minutes. We’ll have the running done by late afternoon each day giving us lots of time for drinking. A perfect FRR social. Some running and lots of drinking.
We pile into Gripper’s pickup truck and drive to Carlisle. The trip was long and the weather foul but we were in high spirits and eager for the running to start. We arrive at the hotel late and, after a quick beer, grab about 5 hours sleep for an early start in the morning.
Clearly the staff at Northern Rail had heard about our run and wanted to add their challenge into the mix – a one day rail strike. We need to get to Newcastle to start the run so we board a 6am bus replacement service that takes two and half hours to take us to Newcastle centre. On route we see a running track and joke that if we see one on the run we will all do a loop confident that there will not be a running track on Hadrian’s Wall. Eventually we arrive in Newcastle, already 30 minutes behind schedule. After a quick coffee and croissant stop we board the Metro to Wallsend and the run start.
Hadrian’s Wall walk is marked by a series of seven stamps that can be collected in a “passport” to prove you have walked the entire wall. Darren was determined to collect all the stamps. So we collected the first stamp and started running. It felt great to finally be running.
We set out at 10 min/mile pace. The route initially follows the Tyne through Newcastle city centre. The whole path is marked by the National Trails acorn signs so navigation is simple. The terrain is flat and man-made at this point. We make steady progress as the landscape turns from city into suburbs and the path leaves the Tyne. After 10 miles we stop to fuel. We lose Gripper in a day care centre, I think he secretly liked it there.
We continue running. The path starts to climb sharply. Shell and I walk the hills; Dazza and Gripper run them in preparation for Comrades Marathon in June. The suburbs are replaced by lush green countryside in the form of sheep pastures and tiny pretty villages. Occasionally the landscape opens up to provide stunning views to the north and south of villages below and a patchwork of fields.
Earlier I forgot to mention the fifth member of the team. A book brought by Daz called Hadrian’s Wall Path: Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway – Planning Places to Stay, Places to Eat. As we were to find out, probably the greatest work of fiction this century. The book indicates that we will find a reservoir soon and the next stamp at a pub called The Robin Hood. We are about 15 miles in now, and we keep running. No reservoir, no pub, no stamp. We conclude that we have missed the stamp at the last village. Dazza, goes quiet; failed at the second stamp. The atmosphere is tense and we run on continuing to look for the reservoir promised by the book. We see no water and look eagerly as we reach the brow of each hill. Then suddenly, there it is, The Robin Hood pub and the stamp. Dazza’s little face lights up and all is well with the world. We stamp the passport and eat.
We leave the pub pleased to find the stamp but concerned that despite following the acorns we appear to have missed the reservoir promised by the book. Then, after a few more miles, there it is, the reservoir, brilliant but not where the book says it will be. We start to lose confidence in the book.
Our thoughts begin to turn to the rest of the day. I have an elevation profile that indicates that we drop down into a valley, then climb back out of the valley where we meet two small hills (that we call kickers as they are only small) before the pub (called Twice Brewed) where we will stay for the night. The next stamp (I’m starting to tire of the stamps already) is at Chesters Roman Fort in Chollerford at the base of the valley.
We run on. We drink in the scenery. We are high and the views are amazing. Running is broken up by walking the hills and the continual stiles, gates and ladders over the dry-stone walls. There are so many obstacles, you seem to never be able to run for more than 500 meters before stopping to go through a gate or over a stile or ladder. For the most part the ground under foot is grass, dry and firm so running is not technical. However, there is sheep poo everywhere. And it appears that most of the sheep in this part of the world have digestive issues! Avoiding the poo is a constant battle, one that we all lose on several occasions.
At this point you are probably wondering why I’ve not mentioned the wall. Well, this is because after 25 miles of running we’ve not seen any wall. Nothing. We have not missed it. There is nothing left to see. It has all been robbed over the centuries leaving no trace. Then at 27 miles (yes 27 miles!) we see our first stretch of wall in the valley going down to Chollerford. We stop and take pictures. It’s a great moment to see the wall for the first time.
We run through Chollerford and stop at Chesters Roman Fort to collect another stamp (I don’t care about the stamps now) and get something to eat at the English Heritage cafe. It’s about 4pm and we have various rolls and sandwiches as we know the next part to Twice Brewed will be tough as we climb out of the valley and over the two kickers.
We start to run up the hill. For miles. The wall is our constant companion now and the landscape is rolling with few trees and crossed by endless dry-stone walls. Gripper makes it look easy. But all’s not well with me. My heart rate is high. Very high. When I run it hits maximum and when I walk it only falls 20 beats. Travelling downhill makes no difference, the beat stay very high. I hit a new max BPM of 184. This is not good but I keep going as there is no pain or discomfort. I can see the rest of the team are starting to get concerned. Then after an hour my heart rate suddenly returns to normal behaviour. We conclude it was the additional load placed on my heart by digesting the food we took on at Chesters Fort.
We reach the top of the valley. We are high up and can see the route in front of us including the two kickers. Worryingly, they look bigger than the elevation profile shows and much further away. The book indicates that we will run about 42 miles today. The hills look a lot further away. We are now tired. The terrain is very hilly. Conversation is less and we start to run on our own for periods with our thoughts and mental battles.
Before we get to the first kicker we have to collect another stamp. The stamp is at another fort ruin, Housesteads. But the stamp is not on the path. It’s in the visitors centre down the hill. It’s my turn to stamp the passport. I “politely” tell Daz that I will not be doing it. I stay on the path, Gripper goes instead.
It’s about 6pm. The kickers are closer now. They look even higher. Much higher than the elevation chart shows. I start to get some light-hearted abuse from the others for the misleading elevation chart. We push on and climb the first hill. It’s steep and we are very tired when we reach the trig point at the top. But we are buoyed by the views. We are way above the surrounding landscape. There are no trees. The hillsides are marked by dry-stone walls and sheep. There is the occasional farm house and outbuilding but no villages or towns. The B6318 runs adjacent to the path a few miles to the south.
At this point, it is clear to see why the Romans built the wall here. The kickers are massive wedges of land pushed up to form 50 meter high cliffs facing north. They are formidable natural defences. One cliff face is covered in trees and hangs over a cold motionless lake at its base. A beautiful sight that will stay in my memory for life. There is no wall on top of the hills. No need as the cliffs make attacks from the north impossible. The wall appears in the dips between the hills.
By now we are very tired and anxious to know where Twice Brewed is. We can’t see it. We all start to give the book some abuse. We have about 40 miles already covered and the run is starting to take its toll. We push on. Talking less. Dazza is out front. He’s quiet. Dealing with his exhaustion. We are all dealing with exhaustion yet Shell continues to beam a smile.
We complete the second kicker. But there is another hill. And another. Where did these come from? They are not on the elevation profile. They are too steep and winding to run up. We need to walk and use our hands to steady the ascents. It’s hard. Very hard.
We arrive at a dip with a sycamore tree at the base. The location was used in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves movie. The pub is close but we can’t see it. Do we turn off the path now and find the pub or follow the path a little further? The path disappears above us almost vertical. We know that if we don’t climb it now we will have to return here in the morning and do it then. None of us want to do it now. We start to climb. My legs are screaming for me to stop. We keep going. At the top we can see buildings to the south with cars outside. This must be Twice Brewed. But there are no lights. Please let it be the pub and an end to the running.
We run up and down for what seems like a lifetime. Eventually we reach a road and jog down to the buildings and cars. It is Twice Brewed! The relief is overwhelming.
Saturday morning dawns. There has been some light rain overnight but nothing substantial. We eat breakfast and review plans. Within a mile of the restart we will reach the highest point on the walk, at about 12 miles there is a cafe and stamp at Birdoswald Roman Fort so we decide to stop at the cafe for refreshments before pushing on to Carlisle about another 15 miles more. Then do the final 14 mile leg to Bowness.
We leave the pub and start to walk to the highest point. The book says that the air is of outstanding quality and is the only place in England to find a rare plant. The air seems the same to me and we did not see the plant. Rubbish book. We start to run. The elevation trend for the route to Carlisle is downwards but the terrain is rolling and challenging. There are lots of ruined wall on this stretch with remains of buildings clearly visible.
Again, I struggled to control my heart rate for the first hour of running. We conclude that bread might be causing the issue so I resolved to avoid bread for the rest of the run. At about midday we reached Birdoswald Roman Fort and collect another stamp (no one cares about the stamp now except Darren). We eat some cake and drink coke and tea. We are making great progress and it is only 15 miles to Carlisle.
We set off again in good spirits and proceed to click off the miles, laughing and talking as we go. The landscape slowly changes to low level rolling countryside. The pastures turn from sheep to cattle and small villages start to appear on route.
After about 13 miles, with Carlisle nowhere in sight we start to question the planned mileage. We conclude probably not 15 miles, maybe 17-18 miles. We are tired and spirits start to drop. This is longer than planned. We were hoping for no more than 41 miles today. This was going to be hard. We push on and reached the river that would lead us to the end at Bowness. We follow it for a while but then lose the acorn markers. We check the route. We’re off route adding another half a mile. We run back to the route. We are quiet. This is hard.
Slowly we reach the outskirts of Carlisle. It’s about 3:30pm and we can hear the Carlisle football ground in the distance as Carlisle score. We are all very hungry. We have a few gels and sweets but nothing substantial. 18 miles clicks over for this leg and the stamping point is still not visible. We are all very hungry and tired. We are running, almost, struggling physically and mentally. The route takes us through a large sprawling park. The path winds through the grounds and buildings. Suddenly a running track appears on our left. We are separated by a large wall. We laugh that we can’t run it because of the wall. Abruptly the wall stops and is replaced by a small, foot high fence. We all look straight ahead, say nothing and keep running.
Finally, after almost 20 miles we reach The Sands Centre, the stamping point and a cafe (even Daz appears not to care about the stamp now). We look like ghosts. We are exhausted and hungry. We order slush puppies, food (I avoid bread) and eat quietly. Looking at the book we conclude that it is no more than 13-14 miles to the end. All flat. How hard can it be? We drop some of our stuff at the car and set off again at about 5:30pm.
The route takes us out of Carlisle, through the suburbs and into green gently undulating countryside. We pass through picture postcard villages and run on well maintained roads which is welcome relief as road running requires less concentration. About 7 miles in we lose the acorn signs again. We’re off route. We could go back one mile to pick up the track or go across several fields. We decide fields and run along the edge of the ploughed land, squeezing ourselves over and under barbed wire and hedges, trying to move quickly. Flash catch’s her ankle on a wire. Daz says he can hear dogs barking. All I can hear is the farmer has set his dogs on us and it’s time to get some Woodbridge 10K training in. I set off at the fastest pace I can muster leaving my team mates to the dogs. We eventually reach the path. There are no dogs. Laughing we continue running.
We pass through Burgh by Sands and join “the road” to Drumburgh. “The road” is dead straight, boarded by marsh land on the right and farmland on the left. The estuary can be seen in the distance to the right. The whole landscape is completely flat. Regular signs tell drivers how deep the flood water is when it reaches the sign and the road is lined with posts showing the carriage way when submerged. It’s bleak. We can see Drumburgh in the distance. We start to run. After 20 minutes the village is no closer. “The road” now stretches behind us and continues in front. We keep running. The village is no closer. How long is this road? We don’t appear to be making any progress. On and on and on we go and finally we reach Drumburgh. It has taken us almost 40 minutes to run “the road”. “The road” is over 5k long of misery. Dazza tells us that it’s a parkrun to go. I shout back that it’s over 4 miles and we keep running in silence.
We run together with Dazza leading. All talk is about how far we have to go and where the finish is. We are hurting. Mentally and physically this is hard but Gripper continues to look effortless. We pass a couple walking their dog. She tells us that we a nearly there. Brilliant. Maybe we have got the distance wrong. We pick up the pace and feel great, then we work out that we have over 3k to go. We’re broken. We hate the woman. I think I see Shell’s ever present smile drop slightly. We’re quiet again and keep on running.
We re-join the estuary path. We pass Port Carlisle and a man tells us that we have a mile to go. We don’t believe him. We keep running. Back on the road. Then some houses appear in the distance. They are not the pub we want but at least a village. Suddenly the village sign appears – “Bowness-on-Solway”! We’ve made it. Smiles all round and a photo. But where’s the Kings Arms for the stamp? We run towards the village, through the narrow single street and up a small incline but still no pub. On we go, then something that looks like a pub comes into view, we get closer, and yes it’s the Kings Arms. WE’VE DONE IT! We hug, we laugh and wear massive grins on our faces. We have run 45 miles today, almost a mile more than yesterday and 89 miles in two days. Amazing! The book was wrong about the mileage and we had still made it!
We enter the pub. It’s packed as the TV shows the warm up to the Joshua vs. Klitschko fight. We find a table near the bar and TV. We order drinks and food. The bar staff are amazing. They order us a taxi and find the final passport stamp. The Hadrian’s Wall passport is now complete. Dazza then produces certificates for us and fills them in with our names and the date. I’m speechless. He’s carried these all the way from Wallsend!
We eat and reflect on the last two days. We can’t quite believe what we’ve achieved. The fight starts, we watch the first few rounds and then leave for the taxi. In the taxi, we pass the time with the driver and listen to the fight. The taxi driver asks how long it has taken us to run the wall, 3 or 4 days? We tell him two days. He looks stunned. He says in 27 years of taxiing and picking up walkers and runners from The Kings Arms he has never picked up anyone who has run the route in two days. He is amazed. He is genuinely impressed. His reaction puts us on cloud nine. We pick up Gripper’s truck and drive to Borrowdale Youth Hostel smiling all the way.
The morning brings our last challenge. To the top of England. Climbing Scarfell Pike. We’re up early, have breakfast and work out a route. We’re hoping for a short 2-3 hour walk but we’re out of luck. The shortest route is 6-7 hours to the top from the Seathwaite direction. We are all dreading another long day on our feet. We pack up and leave for Seathwaite.
The morning is clear, with sunny spells and a light breeze. We park up and start walking. We’ve decided not to run given our tired legs and bodies. The initial gradient is not steep and we make good progress but the path is full of rocks and uneven making every step a conscious decision. Flash and I find the initial 30 minutes hard going but we soon adjust and the climb becomes easier. At about half way up more paths join ours and there are many more people walking up and down the slopes.
Gripper and Daz look strong as we climb higher. They regularly wait for me to catch up. As we near the top the terrain is a mixture of large boulders to be stepped across and loose shale. In additional the wind has increased. At points the gusts cause you to crouch down and hold on. But we are making quick progress and we are all enjoying the walk. We stop for a moment to shelter near a cairn. Gripper points out that the summit is only 20 meters to go and Shell leaps up and dashes up the slope with us in her wake, it’s the fastest we have seen her move all weekend.
Finally, we are at the summit. It is very windy and very busy. There are people everywhere, taking photos, eating or soaking up the stunning views. We stay for a while, taking photos on the summit cairn and then start our descent via another path.
Soon we lose the wind and ease the walking pace to enjoy the views. Our progress is stopped regularly to let people pass as they make their way to the summit. We discuss the probability of others having done what we have achieved, Hadrian’s Wall and Scarfell Pike in three consecutive days. We decide it’s very unlikely and with good reason – it’s hard.
We reach the car park after only 4 hours of walking. We fist bump and smile. We smile lots. We’ve completed the whole challenge!
In hindsight, I don’t think we really understood what we were taking on when we embarked on this adventure. We underestimated the mileage, the physical toll and the mental strength we would need. But we did it. And we did it well. As a team we grew together, thriving and enjoying the friendship and banter in good times and the support and concern when things got tough. We were stronger as a team than individually. In the later stages of the run it was clear that it was the team bonding done in the earlier miles that pulled us through the difficult final stages. And for that reason I would not change anything about the challenge. It was the unreasonableness of the whole three days that made it tough, that made us better runners, that made us stronger mentally, that made us push the boundaries, that made us a team.
When I’m older and greyer (if that’s possible) I will remember these three days with fondness and pride. I feel privileged to have been part of such an amazing challenge and adventure with three outstanding athletes, club members and friends.