I had read about the Wings for Life run a few years ago, when it was held at Silverstone. Last year and the year before I couldn’t make the date, but when I saw it advertised this year I was free for the weekend so decided to go for it.
If you are not familiar with it, I shall try to explain. The Wings for Life charity raises money for spinal cord injury research, and as the event is supported fully by company sponsors, all of the entry fee goes to the charity, which is a major bonus point.
The events happen all over the world (Australia, Florida, California, Chile, Dubai, Norway….), and start at the same time, so the UK one was to start at midday. Basically you start running, and half an hour after you begin, a catcher car starts driving. The car gradually increases in speed, and when it overtakes you, your chip records the final distance that you reached. The person who runs the furthest wins. There are then buses to take you back to the start area. (If you win your country, I think the prize is to do any of them next year, so there were a lot of previous year winners in Australia this year!).
They didn’t send out packs in the post, although they did send out a can of red bull (which annoyingly came the day before our holiday, did not fit through the letterbox, so when I got the note through the door I thought it would be our National Trust membership pack- I was very confused when I opened up a tube and found a can inside..)- not sure why they could not send out the numbers with the can of drink? Anyway, you had to collect your number on the day before 11am. I had originally looked at trains (the 8.30 one got in at 9.30, but the 9.30 one got in at 11.05..) but in the end Andy said he would come with me and drive, so if we could not find parking at least he could drop me off and then find somewhere. We ended up parking fairly centrally and walked to the start (a big park in the middle of Cambridge) at around 10.30.
There was a lot of conflicting information- some said you would need your registration and ID, whereas other info said you just needed your number. The numbers were emailed out, but also they had a large board in the park with all the numbers on it. Anyway, the queues were sorted out by number, although before that you had to queue up and sign a disclaimer (not sure why the sign up didn’t count as this?). Of course they told you not to use headphones, but also in the information they told you that if you had headphones you could keep up to date with where the car was.
I was in a bit of a grumpy mood I am afraid! I think the build up was strange as I wasn’t sure how far I would run, and then I didn’t know what to do about food- I ended up having breakfast at around 8.15am, and although I packed a small nakd bar to eat before the start I didn’t fancy it.
Also, I don’t normally need the toilet before a race (well I do, but I know it is just nerves, and I really hate port-a-loos, so I usually just distract myself and once I start running I am fine). The atmosphere here led me to really panic- it was meant to be “buzzing” and “lively” with a big screen showing the events around the world, but also a person live on a tannoy (which made it hard to focus on one or the other). The queue for the bag drop was huge, and even at 10.45 the guy on the tannoy was shouting about how huge the queue was, and how we had better hurry up, and how we needed to be in the start pens by 11.30, and that the time would go by in no time…. Andy decided to keep hold of my bag (even though he had his own rucksack as he had some work to do while I was running) because we thought that the queues would be equally as long when I finished (correct). I also really felt like I needed the toilet (grrr to the tannoy man). I’d seen some toilets at the corner of the park so we walked back there, but they had a huge queue too by this point. There was a hotel opposite and some guys headed there, but I wasn’t brave enough to be that cheeky. I was totally panicked at about 11.30 when I still had 2 people in front of me in the queue, but of course it was fine and I had loads of time in the pen.
David Coulthard was driving the catcher car, so he was on the start line, and I could hear the tannoy man announcing that he was taking a selfie with the crowd.
The race started at 12 exactly (they had to be co-ordinated as there is a global champion) and as I ran past the car I was a bit peeved that it was empty, only to realise too late that DC was stood on front of it, high fiving people as they ran past.
From their facebook page.
The first section of the race threaded through Cambridge centre, and it was very narrow so it was quite stop-start. Normally with a chip timed race this wouldn’t matter, but of course here if you crossed the line later you would be closer to the car. I was still feeling fairly grumpy at this point, although there were lots of crowds out in the centre of the city which made me decide to smile a bit and try to enjoy it.
As we ran out of Cambridge, it became more rural. Some of the route was on country roads, but it also went through little towns and that was great as there were a lot of people out watching and cheering. I like the races when local people are supportive of it, and it makes it more interesting when you are running too.
We kept passing km signs (which also had the miles- eg 6k, 3.7 miles. This didn’t help me, as I much prefer miles. Yes, the kilometres go by more quickly, but seeing that I was still on the same mile for the next sign made it drag a bit.
There was a pace calculator on the website- you could slide along the bar to show the distance, and it would tell you how long you had to run each distance (something like 35 mins for the first 5k, 62 mins for the first 10k)- I couldn’t remember the first few, and when it got to 12.30 and I realised that the car had only just left, my enthusiasm waned a little (told you I was feeling grumpy!). All I could remember was that I had 90 minutes to get to 15k. I’d looked at longer distances but the 20k was something like 1hr50, so I knew I would be overtaken well before then.
Motorbikes kept driving past, some with cameras on them, so you kept looking over your shoulder to see what was approaching. At one point we ran through an airbase, and although it was good to run by fields, there were no members of the public allowed so it felt fairly lonely. Lots of people were running in groups so I listened to the conversations going on- it seemed that a lot of people had run it last year and were aiming to beat their distance.
At around 12 or 13k, we were told that the car was around 800m behind us. I was surprised and decided that at least I had run a 10k so it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t get to the 15k point. However, the car took a long time to catch up. It was weird because some marshals were telling us time (e.g. the car is 10 minutes behind) and some distance. It’s hard to work out as they know the speed of the car, but they don’t know our speed I suppose.
I had a very dry mouth and I was hungry, so I decided to stop at the next refreshment station (which, by the way, also stocked Red Bull, and some people were actually drinking it in the race…)- I was going to have some water and a bit of orange, but I chose the wrong side, so I only got water- it was on a wide bit of the course and it seemed too much effort to cross the runners in the middle to get one bit of orange.
I’d passed the 14k point and thought that the car was right behind me, so I sort of gave up on the distance. However, one of the motorbikes pulled alongside and talked to me (the person on the back talked to me, it wasn’t a Knight Rider situation), saying that I could get to the 15k point if I pushed on. At that point a wave of people started running past me- as the car was getting closer people were speeding up for the end, so I joined with them. I got to the 15k sign, but the car didn’t go past. It felt weird as in my mind I was aiming for that sign as a sort of finish line, but of course the finish line was constantly moving. The faster you run, the longer the race takes to finish! As the car went past I tried to take a photo, but as you can see I was a bit slow!
My official finish was 15.17km. I don’t think you get a time but it was around 90 minutes.
Then it was time to find a bus stop. I had passed a couple, and every now and then you would pass a sign saying “nearest bus stop now ahead”. Now, I didn’t think I had seen one of those signs since the last bus stop, but there were so many signs (loads in the air base saying “stay on the route through airbase”, loads about drinks stations), so I wasn’t sure if I had just missed one. Everyone stopped after the car went past, and followed the route forwards. I ended up running fairly slowly, as I didn’t know how far it would be. Annoyingly a bit later I saw the sign saying “closest bus stop now ahead”- I should have trusted myself! I think I was right in the middle though so it wouldn’t have made much difference.
Lots of people were taking selfies next to the signs.
I ended up getting to here (17km) before I saw the next bus stop, so even though my race had finished earlier, I had still run over 10 miles. I was glad of my top then- they had recommended bringing something warm to wear when you finished, and even though I was super sweaty, I started to cool down as it was fairly windy.
There were loads of buses lined up and it was really efficient- as soon as one bus filled up, it drove off and they started loading people onto the next one. Bottles of water were available as you got onto the bus so I gladly took one and had a drink. By this point it was probably around 2pm, and of course the bus had to drive back to the centre of Cambridge. I looked on google maps and it thought it was around 25 minutes away, so I messaged Andy so he knew when to expect me. The bus ride was rather stinky! Someone joked that they felt sorry for the next people who would use the bus!
Andy had offered to get a drink, and I was fairly warm when I finished so I said some kind of iced drink would be good- he met me at the finish area with an iced tea, but by then the wind had picked off and my sweaty clothes were making me really chilly. I had to queue up to get a finisher pack, but after that we didn’t hang around (I was wishing we had shared a hot drink instead!).
A quick photo and then off to find something to eat- we’d seen a Nando’s close to the car park (and they validated parking to make it cheaper) so we headed there. Once we had ordered I went to the toilets to wipe my face and change into the top from the finishers pack. I went for a beanie wrap and sweet potato wedges- the wedges were so good, and very much needed as it was probably gone 3pm before we had some food- that toast was a long time ago!
After walking back to the car and driving home, it was about 4.30 before I even got in the shower!
The finishers pack was OK- a weird magazine, Red Bull, bottle, beer token (which I would not have used, and as Andy was driving he couldn’t have it either), a technical top (in fetching yellow), a pretty pants medal and a Meridian peanut butter bar (which I should have eaten on our walk to Nando’s really). But as all of the entry fee went to charity, all of these bits were provided by sponsors so it isn’t too bad. I think it only cost £25, which compared to some races (e.g Brighton half at £37 for 2018) isn’t too bad either. Also, I will get some use out of the technical top, so that’s always a bonus.
All in all, I am glad I did it. I don’t think I would do it again as it felt more pressured than other races (for example when I did the Cakeathon the finish distance was up to you, but if you ran slowly you could still carry on). I think if I lived closer it would be more tempting, but the time made it a bit more awkward too. Pretty cool to see DC in the flesh, and be part of a global running event.
Have you ever run something like this before? Would you be tempted by it?