The Wall Years – Two Men’s Competitive Obsession on the High Section of Hadrian’s Wall

Everyone loves the high section of Hadrian’s Wall, all that spectacular scenery, a great place for a stroll, maybe visit Sycamore Gap, have a picnic, see what the Romans did for us. That’s what normal people do isn’t it?

For hillwalkers it offers even more, an undulating country walk full of variety and fantastic views yet always close to a road. Bit like walking a mountain ridge without the 2,000ft lung busting ascent. Honestly can’t remember my first visit as it was many years ago but it must have made an impression as I soon went back.

It was reasonably local too, less than an hours drive and even closer when staying at my mates in Hexham. I’d park at Housesteads, walk up to the fort then follow the Wall westwards. There was an obvious turning point at a white trig pillar marking the highest point on the Wall, up on Winshield Crags.
By 2002 this had become a regular seven mile training walk to maintain hill fitness for bigger stuff in the Lakes and Highlands. My mate started joining me, let’s call him Alan, so as not to protect his anonymity. Alan started working weekends which made walking together rarer, he’d do weekdays, I’d do weekends.

I started checking how long it took to the trig, as you do, then strolled back a bit slower. Over a pint I casually mentioned my quickest time to Alan. A few days later he texted me casually mentioning his time. It was a faster time. I found this irritating!

And that’s kinda how it started;-
Hadrian’s Wall became known as simply, ‘the Wall’, and our lives would never quite be the same again, (cue dramatic music)!

The Obsession
Over the next three years the obsession took hold.
At first simply trying to walk a few seconds quicker than the last time, then a bit of jogging on the downhills, then a bit more on the flats. I’d text Alan my time and vice versa, occasional new records were set which gave some extra motivation for the next attempt, harmless stuff really, at first.

One day I forgot my boots so did the walk in my old Hi-Tek trainers. Concerns about possible broken ankles were soon overtaken by a feeling of lightness and freedom I’d never experienced before, it was wonderful, a seminal moment. Even better, I knocked 4 minutes off my record, 4 minutes! That’s a lot of seconds! Couldn’t wait to text Alan that one, just knew he’d be pleased for me. Took the bugger ages to beat it anyway:-)

Weather and fitness varied, if I missed a weekend it became nearly impossible to do a faster run next time. Meanwhile my opponent Alan lived nearer and was getting out more, he was walking to work whereas I was driving to an office. I needed more exercise! I tried cycling, then swimming, both of which helped stamina but did little for Wall record success. In desperation mode I started jogging round the block at work breaks – wearing trousers, shoes and shirt. Must’ve looked a bit strange but I was already obsessed.

Then a second seminal moment, I tried a quick midweek dash over to the Wall after work. It was a revelation, far cooler in summer and immensely quieter – pure pleasure AND perfect timing for a pub meal and pint after.
Evenings were discovered, which meant Alan could join me on the Wall once again, so we moved to the next stage, racing!

The Racing
Friday evenings after work I’d drive west along the A69 and pick Alan up near Hexham roundabout.
We would start together from Housesteads car park and race each other to the trig point at Winshields, no more texting anguish, now the shit got real!
These were the peak Wall years, totally obsessive, yet somehow satisfying in a sadistic crazy old man kind of way!

The Course
Arrive Housesteads, get ready, tighten rucksack, check laces, start cold to avoid layer-shedding delays, first rule of Wall club was every second counts!
Start the watch at the gate, jog downhill then the long uphill path through the tourists up by the Fort to the Wall, pace yourself.
Heart pumping, reach for a quick gate-opening then turn west along the Wall. Through the trees out into the open past the first Milecastle. Downs/ups/steps/grass/mud/stiles/gates, it had it all.
The big dip down to Hotbanks Farm, treacherous at speed in the wet, then a good flat running section before the subtle rising twisty path through trees up to Crag Lough. Gulp for air and hopefully a cooling breeze overtaking less energetic people admiring the spectacular cliff top panorama.
Next though came one of the biggest problems on Hadrian’s Wall, Sycamore Gap!

Yes flippin Sycamore Gap, the Robin Hood Tree, famed by Kevin flippin Costner and Morgan Freeman, iconic, photogenic and full of bloody people. Our hearts would sink as we approached the hordes of ponderous pedestrians and static sightseers. All of em potential obstacles to a serious record attempt. Would only take one doddery dawdler on the steep steps to ruin the whole day. Many a time we had to hurtle off-piste in a desperate attempt to maintain maximum momentum.

Next hurdle was clattering down narrow cliff steps to Steel Rigg, another potential nightmare for us obsessed accelerators. How we didn’t break something dodging tardy tourists here I’ll never know. But the end was near, after a tough pull up to the road it was through the gate leaving tourists behind and the white trig twinkling invitingly ahead. Just a final sting in the tail as it’s uphill all the way. One last effort then the pain can stop, just keep going, keep checking the watch then eventually embrace the trig and relax, it’s done.
Next came an instant analysis of where it all went wrong and plan for next time!

The Psychology ‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’
I’d prepare myself silently in the car park, some quiet contemplation, banish any negative thoughts, get psyched up, couple of stretches, usual stuff etc.
Alan was more complicated, he had to prepare for failure. If he expected to fail then it avoided the potential devastating emotional damage of defeat. Not only did he master visualising failure, he felt compelled to share his vision verbally, as we neared the start;-
“I’m not up for this”……….”My legs are aching”………..”Not sure I’ll get all the way”

Just three examples, these became more convoluted each Friday, his classic being;-
“Look if I stop you carry on, I’ll start walking back, text me from the top then catch me up on the way back”. Lets examine the detail here, not just your average, ‘not feeling great’, there’s actually specific instructions on how to deal with his failure!
Then the ailments arrived, he loved a good ailment;- pulled muscle, strained thigh, tweaked calf, runners knee, ingrowing toenail, bruised groin, anything. None of which ever seemed to affect him!

This wasn’t even a deliberate ploy but somehow still managed to tunnel into my quietly contemplated subconscious. I would always start quicker, he could never catch me up to Housesteads Fort, in fact he never liked that section, too many people, he doesn’t really like people. As I steadily established that early lead I’d begin to believe that hopefully he was really suffering this time. But he didn’t fall away as expected, he would slowly close the gap and reel me in. Next came my nemesis through the trees above Crag Lough, I always struggled at this halfway stage, I imagined it flat but in reality it was a gradual climb ending in the steps of doom. That’s where the long-legged bastard would catch me, that’s when I’d get the; “I’ll carry on but you’ll probably catch me up before the top”, yeah I’d heard that one before.

The Low points (there were many)

  • The random text alerts from Alan saying, I’m off to the Wall– then silence, the despairing wait, knowing your immediate future lies in the balance. Eventually a crucial second text;- Well I didn’t feel great, inflamed ankle, made a slow start…….but managed to recover and get a new record.
    There was always a ‘but’, why couldn’t it be something negative like; “but I slipped and was savaged by a sheep”. Now my life was condemned once again to the pain & torture of trying to beat it.
  • The pain & torture of trying to beat it – ooh there was plenty of this, forcing your body through to the end, all too often it was no fun for old men.
  • Section timings;– how these became ingrained. Reaching the fort from the car park, meeting the trees, the top of Crag Lough, Sycamore Gap (bleedin tree), Steel Rigg and the road. They all had one thing in common, we knew the feckin times to each and every one. No record was possible without being very close to those times. You couldn’t just do one section quickly and get away with it, no it had to be a sustained effort. Alan still thinks section times in his sleep.
  • Becoming consumed! My whole week was prepped for it, diet, exercise, freeing up leisure time, the number of alternative weekend trips I turned down to places like New York, the Maldives, Galapagos etc. I’d be thinking yeah it’d be nice but those Wall records don’t happen by accident. We lost our souls to the Wall.

THE HIGH POINTS (luckily there were many)

  • Driving along the Military Road;- the anticipation, the scenery, varying light, views, wildlife, fresh air, exercise.
  • Becoming addicted; the sheer fun of whooshing downhill, dodging mud, rocks, sheep, slow people, being outside, feeling fit, feeling alive.
  • We knew every step, every rock, every dip, descent, ascent, the best line to take where ground was firmer, best way to climb each stile, how each gate opened.We understood seasonal differences, late autumn and winter would become too soggy and muddy, summer brought firmer ground but was often too warm for record attempts, especially in the warm sheltered dips.
  • The trig pillar;- (we always called it Steel Rigg, but technically Winshield Crags).
    Our refuge of utter relief and the best views, you could sit and gaze to distant Cross Fell, Cheviots and on a good day, Solway Firth. From here we strolled back to the car.
  • The post-walk pub food & real ale;- could look forward to this all the way back to the car, often whilst pounding up to the trig too. A feeling of smug satisfaction that you’d had a damn good workout and the weekend had hardly started. Beer always tasted better after a Wall attempt.

One fine evening September 29th 2004, we arrived together at Housesteads for a last record attempt before autumn. Despite Alan complaining of a slight hamstring strain we were fit, we were ready and we set off. It felt good, split timings were very good, a silent awareness grew that this was the day, this was the one. Concentrate, don’t cock it up, ignore pain and potential heart attacks, timings were everything. I checked the watch whilst crossing Steel Rigg, this was exciting. To Alan’s credit he could’ve gone faster at the end, but he stayed with me and we reached that trig together. We set a highly impressive new record, a joint record and it was immensely satisfying, a great feeling.

Sadly the one thing we didn’t realise was this would be the last great run, this was the end, that joint record still stands, we would never go faster again.

Next spring my knee problems started, I tried ignoring, tried exercising and running through it, took ibuprofen, eventually saw a doctor, then a specialist, paid for a private MRI scan and X-ray. Two years later I had a knee op and the specialist confirmed I’d worn my cartilages, virtually bone on bone. Could still hill walk but with care. After months off I started back slowly, obviously running was not recommended, but still tried, it was the Wall after all. Sadly had to concede that running aggravates the knee pain so it had to stop. Years later both knees can ache in the hills, and every time it reminds me of the Wall.

Nowadays I seldom do the Wall, my knees are happier and stronger in the gentle Cheviots, no clattering down steps and sharp up & downs. But if we do go back we both suffer memories of section timings and an urge to go faster. We were scarred for life, for me it was cartilage for Alan it was section times, he still wakes up screaming. Or is that constipation, perhaps, we’ll never know.

We weren’t that great, proper runners could run uphill, we never could.
All we did was gradually get faster, timings were only relevant to ourselves and our mini competition.
But up on the Wall mere walkers saw us as super fit blokes, many would stand aside to let us pass, nudging each other with admiring glances, muttering muttery things. For a brief period we were athletes, we were contenders, we could have been fell runners -almost, well in our minds at least!

Many a Friday evening strolling down from that trig with a setting sun casting a golden glow across the landscape, I’d say to Alan prophetically;-
“most guys our age are at the pub right now whilst we’re up here, it’s fantastic, make the most of it, these are special days and won’t last forever”.
They didn’t of course but despite the pain and anguish they were indeed great times.

Was it worth the knee damage?
Course it bloody wasn’t, but that’s not the point.

Right, it’s Friday night and like most blokes, I’m off to the pub 🙂

Research – All about Alan In Praise of Hillwalking Companions – Mine’s an Alan!

7 miles out and back on the high section from Housesteads (again)


Hillwalker with dodgy knees and dodgier sense of humour. Lover of the outdoors, Lakes, Highlands, Cheviots, nature, good food, real ale and leaf tea.
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