Mildenhall pilot 'hits' wall, keeps on running

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Many people have heard of runners "hitting the wall" when they run long distances, whether it's a 10K, half-marathon or full marathon.

Other people, like Danny Franz, take it to the extreme. Instead of "hitting" the wall, he ran it - all 84 miles of it.

The "wall" in question was Hadrian's Wall, which spans England's peninsula between Wallsend, near Newcastle upon Tyne in the east, and Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast.

The 67th Special Operations Squadron C-130 pilot ran it all in one stretch, alone, and on May 14, finished it in just 19 hours and 24 minutes.

Built in 122 AD by order of the Emperor Hadrian, it took three legions more than six years to build. It was once 15-feet high and up to 10-feet thick.

Hadrian's Wall is 73 miles long and is the largest ancient monument in northern Europe. However, its national trail, known as Hadrian's Wall Path, stretches 84 miles along a riverside route in Tyneside, through farmland in Tynedale, Northumberland, and gradually descending to the pastures of Cumbria before finally ending at the salt marshes of the Solway Estuary.

At 29, the captain, from Sierra Vista, Ariz., has served seven years in the U.S. Air Force, the last four years and three months at RAF Mildenhall.

So what makes someone decide to run 84 miles when they could have just chosen to run a 26.2-mile marathon?

"A couple of years ago, I started to feel the itch again for long distance running," he said. "I'd already done a couple of 100-mile marathons (in Colorado), and heard the wall was really cool to hike. But when someone mentioned that some British guys had run it, I figured, why not do that?"

One of the people he heard about ran it in a little more than 23 hours, so he decided he wanted to beat that time if he could.

"When I finished, I was told I'd beaten the unofficial record," he said. "When I saw my time was under 20 hours, I was really happy - though I had originally wanted to do it in under 17 hours."

The long-distance runner had never set foot on Hadrian's Wall or its surrounding area before his 84- mile run there, but he'd seen it from above, several times.

"We regularly fly up there doing low-level training, and I've been lucky enough to fly over it about three times recently," the pilot said.

"Last time, I got to fly down Hadrian's Wall so I could see all the terrain around there. It was really steep, with lots of hills. As I was going over, I kept thinking to myself, 'Wow, that's so cool - I can actually see the wall!'"

He took the first steps of the trek at 1 a.m. on Saturday, finishing just before 8:30 p.m. that night.

The pilot had originally planned to sleep in (to get some rest prior to his run) then take the train to Newcastle on Friday during the day. But his plan fell through, as he had to do a check ride, which meant he didn't end up getting the train from Cambridge to Newcastle until much later that day.

The station in Newcastle is 5 miles from where Hadrian's Wall Path begins, so as soon as he got as far as he could by train, he caught a cab from the station to there. Then just started running.

Most people take at least a small case of luggage when they're away from home overnight, usually taking much more than they need.

Not this guy - he travelled light, bringing just the bare necessities for his run.

"I had a backpack with 3 liters of water, six muffins, some energy shots of caffeine and a guidebook. I also had another pouch with an extra liter of water, my phone and wallet," he said.

The pilot said he ran most of the time, but would walk for a few minutes every so often, to give himself a break.

"I set a target pace of 12 minutes a mile, and kept checking to make sure I was keeping to it. In some places I was running a 10-minute mile, so every mile or two I allowed myself to walk for a couple of minutes, to take the load off my legs," he said.

"But I was constantly moving the whole time - if you have a break, you don't tend to keep going afterwards, you kind of just stay there. So it's better, for me at least, to just keep going," he added.

Captain Franz said his legs were sore and started to cramp up around the 50-mile mark, which was made worse by the constant stopping and starting when going through farm gates.

Running such a long distance all in one go requires strict training in advance. The pilot said he runs almost every day, allowing himself one day off a week.

"If I'm not training, I'll run 3 to 6 miles a day; on weekends, I'll go for a 12-mile run. When I'm training, I do sprints and run farther."

According to the captain, running 84 miles alone gives a person plenty of time to reflect.

"There's so much to think about - what's coming up next week or next year, your past, memories or imagining yourself in an event," he said, adding that he likes running without headphones most of the time, so he can take it all in and enjoy the scenery. When he does use headphones, which he did just for a few miles during this run, Captain Franz said he just zones out for a while, and doesn't really think about anything.

Pushing yourself to run that distance certainly takes a toll on your mind as well as body, he explained.

"To do that distance is more of a mental game you have to play. Physically, as long as I stayed at my 12-minute mile and drank lots of water, I was OK."

During the daytime, the weather was really good, and pretty warm, he said, adding that there were no trees or shelter. He was also running directly into the wind most of the way, which he said slowed him down a little.

"I like the feeling you get miles - and hours - into the run. You get such an adrenalin rush, and it's a pretty euphoric feeling," Franz said, adding that he likes doing long runs, by himself or with a handful of people, rather than with huge crowds, such as when running a marathon.

"I tend not to run organized events, because you have to sign up way in advance, then I usually don't end up being able to run them, because of my job," he said.

Around 8:30 p.m. May 14, he finally reached the end of Hadrian's Wall Path.

"It was a pretty good experience," Captain Franz said. "The last 5 miles I was hurting pretty bad, and with 3 miles to go, I started feeling dizzy and found it tough to keep focused on the road (some of Hadrian's Wall Path goes through part of the city of Newcastle). That was because I'd run out of water several miles back."

At the end of the run, he went to the bed and breakfast where he was staying that night, extremely hungry. Chatting to the owner, he told him he'd just run the wall, and in under 20 hours, and now he was desperate for something to eat.

The owner, surprised and amazed at the achievement, recommended the local pub, though he said they usually stopped serving food at 8 p.m. But after seeing the disappointment (and look of hunger) on Danny's face, he immediately phoned the pub landlord, whom he knew, explained what his guest had just done, and was told to send him over immediately.

"They served me a huge meal, which they had waiting for me when I arrived, and gave me a drink on the house," Captain Franz said. "Word had obviously gotten out, because other people started buying me drinks as well. They all treated me really well," he said. "Everyone at the pub was really excited."

"There was also a book there, signed by people who have hiked the path, with a page just for those who'd run it, and the landlord made sure I signed it too."

He said the feeling of having finished was wonderful, though physically he felt really drained.

"It was such an awesome feeling of relief and accomplishment; I couldn't really take it all in at first - it hits you more the next day. I was aching pretty bad in the morning, and found it pretty hard to climb the stairs."

The owner of the bed and breakfast, Alan Graham, said the American was the first person he'd had stay at his house, who'd actually run the wall.

"The first 'official record' in the pub book was around 23.5 hours," Mr. Graham said. "It's really blown everyone away who looks at the book - they can't believe that Danny did it in that amount of time."

The pilot said he felt almost back to normal on Monday, and though he was still aching a bit, he tried to hide it from his work colleagues. He also ran again that evening, just a few miles, to help relieve the soreness in his muscles.

So, with two 100-mile runs, three marathons and now this 84-mile run under his belt, Danny Franz's next goal will have to be big.

And it is.

"I also do a lot of triathlon training. My plan is to do an Iron Man competition, fast enough to qualify for the one in Hawaii," he said, explaining that an Iron Man contest involves a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run.

With as much passion and dedication as this 67th SOS pilot has for fitness and running, it seems his goal of competing in the Iron Man contest will be a walk in the park.

(Editor's note: According to Lt. Col. Kelly Passmore, 67th SOS commander, when doing his PT test - just over two weeks after running 84 miles - Captain Franz ran RAF Mildenhall's 1.5 mile track in 8 minutes 11 seconds - setting a new track record and smashing the previous record of 8 minutes 18 seconds.)