After I finished work this weekend, Aaron and I went for a wander to enjoy the fading light by our city’s beautiful quayside. We were walking along the river, deep in conversation, when two men with light backpacks ran past us. At first we barely registered them, but a seemingly drunk man made a big deal of turning to clap them as they passed. The runners didn’t acknowledge this and it seemed in rather poor taste – perhaps the partygoer was mocking these runners for their gear and commitment so late on a Saturday night? But then as we watched them run down the quayside in front of us, group after group paused their conversations to honour them as they passed. More runners appeared from behind and these, too, were clapped as they passed. We realised we must be witnessing – or, more accurately, walking through the middle of – a race, but we couldn’t quite fit the pieces together. As we got closer, we heard a microphone announcing times, but…hang on…was that 14 hours and something? What the…?!

We passed a couple of clappers without getting up the guts to ask what was going on, but when we saw a group with a runner in their midst walking towards us I couldn’t resist, and trust me, it was worth the conversation.

These runners had started in Carlisle at 7am that morning, had run 69 miles along Hadrian’s Wall and were just minutes from the finish line. I had never heard of this particular race until that moment and at first I couldn’t quite process the information I was hearing. These women and men had indeed been running for over fourteen hours. Some of their fellow Rat Racers would be running (and walking and resting) all night and would make it to the finish line just before the race closed at 9am the next morning.

No wonder everyone was clapping!

2016-06-21 Gateshead Millenium Bridge raised

Gateshead Millennium Bridge – the final stretch for the runners – raised to let a boat through or, as one of the organisers more romantically claimed, to pay the city’s respect to the racers!

We obviously went straight to the finish line to join those clapping and cheering and to soak up some more of the atmosphere. It was wonderful to watch people cross the finish line. There was the a man relieved to beat 15 hours, the dude who pumped the air and cheered himself excitedly as he approached the end and the couple who grabbed each other’s hands and finished together. We were taken aback by the young woman who can’t have been more than about 18 (the lower age limit) and moved by the family who cheered when they caught a glimpse of their runner and ran to meet him, running the final few metres by his side. I was quietly impressed by the man who couldn’t bring himself to run another step but walked to the end anyway and equally so by the women and men of all shapes and sizes who kept going, half-limping, half-running, for those last, brutal few metres.

There is something uniquely moving about a hardcore sporting event that gets me every time, but the thing that really stayed with me after we walked away this time was a little tale from one of the event organisers. He had been in Carlisle that morning when the race started and there was a man he noticed who started off at a leisurely pace. While others sprinted ahead, this runner lagged behind, but one-by-one the other runners began to flag and this man kept going at the same leisurely pace. He kept going, and going, and going. In fact, when he crossed the finish line, he had only stopped twice – once for about two minutes, and once for just a few seconds for a drink of water. He had neither eaten nor rested in over 10 hours of running; he had simply kept going at his unremarkable but consistent pace.

He won the race, of course. In fact, he finished more than two hours ahead of the second fastest runner! I love that so much. Slow, steady, consistent and determined, the real life tortoise won the real life race.

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Featured image and in post image by Rachel Hughes Shah – the beautiful Gateshead Millennium Bridge marked the final stretch for the runners.