Written by Dan Milton - https://danmiltonblog.wordpress.com/
The previous months had been spent worrying about gear, fitness and strategy, but now I feel relieved as I am stood in Edale barely noticing the rain falling around me.
I bid farewell to my girlfriend Claire Turton, thank Andy ‘Sprog’ Milton, my little bro, for his surprise appearance and head off to the start line with the rest of the over excited Spiners.
And then just like that we we are off….
I started calmly at an easy pace aiming at 15hrs for the first 45 miles. The weather is shit which becomes more apparent the higher you climb. Underfoot conditions were horrendous but I was fresh and in the company of fellow southerner, and Spine vet, Andrew ‘Basil’ Heaney, so the miles ticked by easily enough. The early over-the-knee depth river crossings and slushy hills are still amusing, playful challenges at this stage. Fellow competitors can, for the most part, be seen along the route as well as a few Trigger racers (including Joe Faulkner). Road crossing were often accompanied by MRT support and I even bumped into Dragons Back recce buddy, Laurie Jones, who was out in the driving rain to cheer us on. Thanks mate.
CP1, Hebden Bridge, came along fairly quickly (14hrs20). The descent into the CP was as horrifically steep and muddy as described and sadly no one came out to point me to the mysterious ‘secret path’. The plan was to sleep early and keep ahead of any sleep monsters but this turned out to be a poor call. The dorm room was sweaty, hot and full, meaning although I did sleep a little, it wasn’t ideal and I should have pushed on, as I believe Basil did.
Post CP1, things started well enough although weather conditions hadn’t improve. I pushed on by myself through muddy waterlogged fields following the various diversions in place. Dot watchers popped out at various locations and cheered me by name which is odd but lovely.
At Malham, as darkness fell I picked up some good company in the form of a merry band of PhD-wielding race snakes, one of whom I knew by sight as Nikki, the huggy race medic from Dragons Back. I felt like a right dummy in this crowd but they were a fun group and allowed me to join them, even after I failed my singing audition. It was great to be in good company as the weather took a turn for the awful. The limestone pavements were a menace, being both slick and fully exposed to the strongly gusting wind and driving rain and by Malham Tarn, the weather was cutting through my layers and I was getting pretty cold but spirits are still high.
Unexpectedly, the 30 min time limit had been lifted at the Malham Tarn CP, Pen y Ghent was also declared unsafe due to the winds and a diversion was put in. We stay long enough to add layers and eat a dehydrated meal before leaving in the same group.
Fountains fell was next on the tick list and and is one of the more challenging climbs on the route. I was really starting to suffer with a tendon issue to my left foot/shin. It started as a slight ache, possibly caused by an over-tight shoe or double socks crammed into Roclites, but coming off of Fountain fell every foot lift generated a shot of pain from foot to knee. It was debilitating.
Climbing the PyG on route to the detour, we add a small detour of our own before realizing and correcting to find the official diversion. At this stage, in pain I could no longer hold the back of the Brainy Bunch so I let them go and head to the new Horton CP on my lonesome.
At Horton, I was ready to see a medic but sadly none were present. I had pretty much decided I was done but had enough time in hand that I decide instead to kick my shoes and socks off and try and sleep it off with foot raised on a chair. I slept a decent amount and walked around a bit but it didn’t seem to improve things much. In a final ditch effort, I decided the best option would be to walk/hobble the next 14 miles along the fairly tame cam high road to CP2: Hawes where I could see a medic, find my drop bag and if needs be call it a day. There was no way I was going to continue to push an injury for another 180 miles.
On the climb to the cam high road, now in the light, the foot was unsurprisingly sore. I had seriously loosened my laces, changed into a single normal pair of socks (which gave my foot far more space) and also popped a couple of paracetamol. At some stage on the Cam road itself, the drugs kicked in, the pain lessened and I started to jog a little. Moving, and the loosened laces/socks, seemed somehow to flush through the problem a bit. It didn’t go away entirely by any stretch, and remained sore for the remainder of the race but the serious shooting pain did for the most part pass. I was strangely proud of my approach to this problem, in previous events I feel I may have been too quick to call it a day but here I managed my way back into the right head space and mitigated the problem.
On arriving at CP2: Hawes, with Peter Gold and Mandy, the crazy sheep lady, I had pretty much decided I was good to push on.
I fed my face, sorted my batteries and then left with Geoff Partridge, who I knew from previous events. My projected timings were now well out and I knew I would be travelling by night and likely sleeping during the day which was unfortunate.
Shunner Fell loomed in the distance. The climb was fairly uneventful as we made the most of the remaining light. Headtorches went on close to the summit as we fought across the paving slabs which were more like an ice slushy river than a path. The bottom of the track leading to Twaite was covered in fist sized ankle breaking, hateful stones with a good foot of water running across the top of it. Geoff and I survived unscathed but not without some cursing.
I had anticipated the next section, from Thwaite to Keld, to be soft valley running and was rather looking forwards to it but how wrong was I! The terrain was really rough, permanently climbing or descending the steep valley sides, littered with foot teasing rocks and slushy mud. By Keld, Geoff was a sleep deprived zombie. We negotiated with ourselves for a cuppa at the specially opened village hall a couple of hundred meters off the PNW.
On entering we found ourselves confronted by heaven! A toasty fire, a selection of goodies to feast upon and some comfy wicker seats. We dried some gear, got a cuppa, ate some soup and an amazing almond slice. Geoff declared he was going to dose for 15 mins, he then decided to get his sleeping bag out and 15 minutes turned to 60, despite us having agreed previously that this definitely wasn’t the plan. I let it go and took the hour’s sleep here, rather than the planned Tan Hill, and woke to Geoff’s alarm. I gave him a nudge but he rolled over uttering some profanity or other and went back to sleep. I got up and left him to count sheep just as another larger group walked in the door.
I arrived at Tan hill in good time having felt pretty strong, and hurried inside as the weather worsened. I ate a little and as I readied myself to leave the warmth of Tan Hill watched jealously as Peter Gold settled himself down for a snooze muttering something about sleep strategy’s. At least he was now covered up and not wandering around in his pants and string vest.
I had been dreading the next super boggy section and even with a friendly group of folks (including the crazy sheep lady, Mandy) I struggled. Between us we nailed all the correct lines but the night was still a horror show of boggy ground and sloppy fields that seemed to last an eternity. Sleightholme Moor was bad but I had anticipated the route improving after that, however I think Cotherstone Moor was pretty much just as bad. For the most part I hated it all and swore the Spine was dead to me…. Who the hell chooses the watershed line as the route for a long distance path anyway and why would people run it in the winter when the mess of bogs are at their worst?!?
As dawn broke we found ourselves at a lovely little camping barn, called Clove Lodge, that had been left open specifically for Spine racers. To me, this place felt like a trap I would never have escaped from. The group wanted a cuppa with the exception of Mandy and I who wanted to push on. As luck would have it, we found a new group who had just woken up and were pushing for Middleton full of beans. We hitched our cart to them and spun up the overdrive in an effort to keep up until we reached CP3, Middleton.
The original plan had been to stop for 5’ish hours at each main CP; 3 hours of sleep and 2 hours of eating and admin. The long Horton stop had messed things up and ‘the coach’ (Nicky Spinks) had informed me by text I was to push out of Middleton ASAP to make the most of the light and keep clear of any cut offs. A big issue here was my 4 rechargeable head torch batteries were now out of sync with the charging plan (long stop at Horton no charger, followed by short stop at Hawes hadn’t got them to full). I was exhausted at this stage and felt a little like I was losing control of my race which I found quite upsetting. I think I managed 47mins sleep whilst I charged batteries and then it was time to leave.
Leaving was DIFFICULT but I had a few hours’ of light remaining and so did as instructed. I made it out the door and down the road before a car pulled over and out jumped photographer and old fb friend Gary Richardson. I have never actually met Gary in the flesh but have been chatting to him and admiring his photos for the best part of a decade. It was great to see him and, despite my sleepy fuzzy head, it was a real boost.
A little nav confusion and a ‘help me’ phone call to super girlfriend Claire helped me escape Middleton along the road diversion and even on little sleep, I felt like I was fairly bopping along. Low and High Force were flowing strongly and it was great to see them having seen so many pictures posted by Gary, I was, weirdly enjoying myself again. Along the trail, I caught Toby Simpson and together we enjoyed a cereal bar from a lovely dot watching farmer before we separated again.
Soon the inevitable, and ever present, darkness started creeping in as I was hopping from boulder to boulder along the river towards Cauldron Snout. Full darkness struck as I climbed up besides Cauldron Snout and I can tell you it was a hairy scramble. Now I suspect there is a better line that doesn’t follow the side of this immense body of fast moving water but I wasn’t on it, I was hugging the edge and moving VERY carefully. Had it been icy I wouldn’t have attempted this line as a slip would have put me in the drink and I wouldn’t have come back out. Either way I made the top and I was, briefly, WIDE awake!
As I circled the massive water outflow, on a decent vehicle track I looked back and could see Toby, highlighted by his head torch, picking his way up the same line as I had just managed. It looked no less hairy than it had felt.
From Cauldron Snout, I tiredly pushed on, firstly on decent vehicle tracks and then on small trods winding along a river, High Cup Nick took an age to reach. Sadly I arrived in the darkest of night as the map showed what looked to be awesome scenery but Dufton was calling and the legendary Penny Pot Cafe.
The trail down to Dufton was longer than anticipated and I was having some mild hallucinations by the time I arrived, so had did a double take when out popped both my little brother (Sprog Milton) and Lake District buddy Victoria Miller. What a lovely surprise! I checked in with Lindley at the CP, dumped my bag and headed off for a sociable cooked breakfast with the pair of them, plus a variety of other sleep deprived, mildly hysterical and snorting Spine racers (Looking at you Fiona Ward and David Lynch). Wow, that food was amazing and I can’t thank the Penny Pot cafe enough for opening for us.
Back at the Dufton CP, the 30 min limit had once again been lifted to enable competitors to tackle the reportedly poor weather on Cross fell. It was advised to tackle it in pairs, if possible. I stripped off my shoes and socks to check on my overworked feet and then waited for the attention of an equally overworked medic. At least it got me another couple of minutes sleep whilst waiting.
Upon waking from my doze, I was surprised by none other than big bully, coach extraordinaire and legendary fell runner Nicky Spinks, come to pass a kiss on from my girlfriend (Claire) as well as a kick up the arse. I must confess I felt pretty lame laying on the floor waiting for a tiny blister to be re-taped whilst Nicky stood there but it was lovely to see her and claim my kiss on the cheek, even if she did essentially kick me out of the CP shortly after with new Cross Fell buddy, Toby. I left feeling pretty empowered by friends, in good company and loaded with ‘weird o’clock’ breakfast.
The Spine doesn’t have any truly big climbs to tackle but Cross Fell is about as close as it comes and is the highest point on the route, at a shade under 900m, but what the Spine lacks in elevation it makes up for in weather. The snow was deep, there was ice, unfortunately there was still also bog and standing water but there was also a ridiculous and exhilarating wind. I was having a ball and new chum Toby was great company being as calm and cool as a cucumber so we made good progress even picking up another two chaps who didn’t seem to be having quite so much fun (one has lost his glove which we helped remedy).
My sense of fun did eventually begin to waver but the idea of Greg’s hut and its noodles called me ever onward. As with many things on this route though, no sooner do you look forwards to getting somewhere than it seems to get further away like some twisted and evil game of cat and mouse.
We did eventually reach the hut and what an oasis it was! Warm and full of friendly folk dishing out noodles with John Bamber’s special chili sauce. Post noodles, I thankfully accepted a cup of tea, only to fall asleep, sat up, with it in my hands. I probably only dozed 10 mins like that but was groggy as hell afterwards, so much so that when I went to pick up my bag the dammed thing tried to pulled me over which earned me a suspicious glare from the resident medic. Following that embarrassing incident, I quietly slipped out whilst the medic was preoccupied and chased after another group of folk down the hill (Toby had left whilst I dozed, the sneaky bugger).
As we descended towards Garigill, the light began to sneak slowly back into the sky, however, the usual wake up kick that gives didn’t arrive. Instead, I spent most of the descent having my first ever true bout of strong hallucinations… The trails were bordered by massive barb wire topped prison fences, the rocks underfoot were all alive in various ways, squiggling around and there were strange goings on on the hillside. All of this took place whilst I essentially sleep walked my way down the trail. A very surreal, and slightly hazy, experience which only stopped when I was greeted by Spine Safety Team (SST) member and friend, Tim Laney, who had popped out to inform us of a lovely Garrigill local who had opened her house up to feed us toast and tea. Honestly, the support both from the race and the local community is above and beyond and it really makes this event what it is.
With only a few miles to go to Alston, the promise of sanctuary and my freshly woken mind operating to some degree I pushed on hard and arrived to be greeted by Running Granny, good friend and Spine CP volunteer for the week, Angela White.
A swift feed, watering and some admin, and I crawled into a bed for 2 hours sleep whilst all my gadgets charged but I woke after 90 minutes with absolutely no idea where I was or what I was doing there. I’m not even sure, had you asked me, if I would have known my own name. It was massively disorientating and quite distressing so I messaged Claire.
After stumbling around for a bit eating and stuffing coffee down my face, my mind came back to me and I pushed out of Alston. Listening to music for the first time gave me a proper kick, I was back on it and motoring! Up hill, down hill, along river: I was hot to trot and loving life again.
Just before Slaggyford, I joined a few other Spiners and then bumped into Joe Faulkner for the second time. This time he was dishing out hot squash to all and sundry.,cheers Joe! Not much further on the Angel of Slaggyford charged out of her house in running gear, proffering sausage rolls and banana cake, apparently having seen our dots closing in on her house she had put in a 7 min mile of her own to get back and feed us. What a hero 🙂
From here on, things got worse (although random boxes of food by gates for Spiners was awesome). Our group was making good time through the darkness but the terrain deteriorated back to boggy shite that went on and on! Blenkinsopp Common was horrific… and I thought the post Tan Hill crud was bad!
Eventually, after years and years, we left the bogs and with great relief started traversing slushy, sodden fields on our approach to Greenhead and its SST team situated by the public toilets. A short stop here with some snoozing in the toilets for some, and some food and a hot drink for me, and we were off again to push along Hadrians wall.
To start with, I really enjoyed Hadrian wall; the walls were interesting, the terrain underfoot was a massive improvement and the hills weren’t worrying me too much. Our group eventually split as sleep monsters claimed their souls but I pushed on feeling good. I obviously hadn’t read my map properly though as this section of wall goes on far longer than I anticipated. The sleep monsters finished devouring my erstwhile companions and then came charging along the PNW in search of me, leaving me desperately eyeing up any likely looking spot of ground for a power nap, but the weather was ‘unpleasant’ enough that I didn’t want to stop. Minus the sleep monsters, and in day light, I suspect this section of route would probably have been a joy to traverse.
Turning north off the wall the underfoot terrain once again deteriorated into bogs and churned up forest tracks. A quick 5 min power nap on the pine needle covered forest floor did little to revive me, but the promise of shelter at Horneystead farm pulled me forwards across the horrific terrain.
Horneystead farm appeared in front of me eventually and I was greeted in the farm yard by its resident angel who escorted me to shelter and made me a brew. Here I found a slumbering heap that turned out to be Steve Jones. I didn’t want to sleep here but push on to Bellingham and grab a proper 5hr turn around, so post brew, the angel guided Steve and I across the dawn lit farm yard before heading off for her shift at the local hospital.
Steve suggested running the downs but I had no run left in me so I watched him disappear into the distance before eventually pulling him back as I put some effort in on the climbs. We arrived at Bellingham together where the brilliant volunteer pit stop crews spun into action feeding us and tending to our needs. 3 hours sleep later, I pulled my sorry self out of bed and went for breakfast. Being offered food choices by the brilliant volunteers left me feeling massively overwhelmed and I had a wobbly bottom lip moment, sorted by a hug from the ever lovely Angela White, before I was stuffed with food and tea. What an emotional bubble I am!
Whilst in Bellingham I heard CP staff chatting about Nikki the huggy medic from earlier who had flown to Byrness in 5hrs and was now placed 4th woman. Feeling pretty good now, I thought 5 hours sounded like a great target to aim at, so off I went from the warmth and shelter on a mission. No competitors in front were within catching distance and Steve Jones had only just emerged from a dorm as I was readying myself to leave so I was on my own.
Quick stop at co-op and it was on!
I still had a little light to play with and I was motoring, working my cheat sticks hard on the climbs, running the descents where I could. Some of the ground was shitty, some was paved but I didn’t care, I had 5 hours to get to Byrness and the terrain flew by under my feet. Darkness inevitably came but still I was on it! The hard packed forest tracks above Byrness arrived and I found myself running almost all the descent and to hell with the battered feet. I was having a great time and was being thoroughly amused by all the little hallucinations playing out around me, my personal fave was a school of baby African animals swimming across a puddle together but there was plenty to choose from.
Roughly 5 hours after leaving Bellingham, I was approaching Byrness when a shadowy figure stepped out onto the trail and scared the bejesus out of me. It was, once again, my little bro… Nice! He walked with me the 100m or so towards the CP along with the resident SST members who were briefing me on the 30min turnaround and taking food orders (bro stayed outside in the rain).
Byrness CP was a smoothly oiled machine… Arrive – seat – medic chat – tea – kit check – soup – tea – Depart.
My little bro was still waiting for me outside when I emerged and we had a nice little chat as we walked back towards the trail, it was lovely to see a familiar face every time one appeared and it’s a real boost but I couldn’t hang around as I was still on one and only had ONE section of this slop fest to complete. ‘See ya later bro, my poles and I have business to attend to!’
I made short work of the sloppy climb and fairly skipped along the trail to Hut 1, where I found none other than Tim Laney. Tim didn’t really want to get out of his warm bag but eventually he took pity on me and made me a brew, I think almost as much to get rid of me as anything.
Sitting in Hut 1, even for that short time however had done me no favours; I left feeling more tired than I did when I entered, I had spilled the wind out of my sails. The temp seemed far colder, the slabs were now icy but the bogs hadn’t had time to freeze over properly so every step was a gamble and I was now wearing pretty much all my warm gear. In my head, hut 2 wasn’t too far; in reality, I had to really struggle to get there.
At some stage I slumped into a bit of heather to grab a quick 5 min power nap but my befuddled brain conjured a charging naked warrior to scare the hell out of me, so up I got and groggily slipped almost immediately into a deep bog up to my waist… SHIT! Well and truly awake now I thought I could actually be in a bit of trouble but a bit of a push on and I had generated enough body heat to sort me out.
The next problem for my sleep deprived brain was why I couldn’t see very far! I could barely see from one side of the current bit of bog to the other, the wind driven rain and clag weren’t helping and my sleep deprived brain decided maybe I had gone wind blind. Obviously all the safety talks about goggles had weaseled their way into my head, so I donned goggles which only made things worse… After what seemed far far too long stumbling around half blind, I remembered I had another head torch in my pocket so I pulled that out and the brilliant bright beam that jumped forth was a revelation. (It turns out my new torch has a 15 lumen 2 hour emergency mode when the batt is low, who knew! – Petzl Reactik).
Cometh the light, cometh the man! RAR! Head torch giving out a fair old lick of light I felt reinvigorated and I fairly flew up the long ascent to the corner under The Cheviot proper. Reaching the top, my new found energy deserted me as fast as it had found me… I was again exhausted and very sleepy but I managed to pick out the trail down to Hut 2 where I was greeted by 3 member of the SST all wrapped up in soft warm bags… I wasn’t at all jealous, Honest!
One of the SST kindly crawled out of their warmth and made me a brew, as two other folks breezed into the hut, turning out to be race photographer, Jimmy Hyland, and his Spine social media guru side kick (Andy?). It seems the camera wielding pair had come up to see sunrise which they were worried they may have missed. All of which was a bit of a surprise to me having arrived in the dark what seemed only 10 minutes earlier.
Brew finished it was time to finish the Spine off!
Jimmy pleaded with me to allow myself to be photographed which I grudgingly conceded to (I begged him to take my photo really) and with that I threw open the door to Hut 2 and exited to the most astonishing view of the entire event… A stunning sunrise and crisp white feathered hills, dappled with morning light. They didn’t at all resembled the boggy, icy, hell hole I had just fought my way out of, what liars!
It didn’t matter though as I felt like a computer game character given a power up! The sleep fog receded and I grew to be at least 8 feet tall with legs like train pistons… The first step reminded me I was, in fact, still myself., complete with sore feet and various niggles… but I was going to finish the damned Spine Race!
I set off down the hill at ‘top’ walking pace, and even managed an occasional jog, spewing the random, and undoubtedly garbled, contents of my mind to Jimmy as he skipped around me with gay abandon, snapping away with his camera. I passed the Schill with barely a second thought where I was interviewed for Facebook. No doubt some wise words were uttered.
At some stage I remember Nicky had amended the plan so I should aim for sub 150 hours, so a little math and I realized I would have to be finished by 10am. On I pushed, harder than ever… I was on a time limit and it was CLOSE! I asked Jimmy if he thought I could make my time but he refused me any assistance, so I upped the pace to full steam ahead… My piston legs were pumping hard, my cheat sticks a whirl of erm… pushyness!
I flew down the trails flying over the, now mostly iced, boggy sections, past farms and on to the tarmac. How much further was this damned finish line anyway?
Photographer Jimmy ran off ahead but, instead of letting the little bugger go, I upped the pace again and tried, vainly, to hold him. I would make this damned, ridiculous, arbitrary time. In my mind, I was now doing 7 maybe 8 minute miles (fat chance). I was even running up hills! Then I saw Jimmy disappear up another hill to my left that I recognized as the ‘last hill’. I pushed hard up the hill for a few meters before seeing it kicked for a second time. I looked at my watch it looked back… 09:59hrs, Bugger! No way I was running this if I wasn’t going to make my arbitrary time so I slowed to a swift walk until I crested the rise and caught sight of Kirk Yetholm in all its glory. I managed to get back to a trot but my glorious piston legs were back to being wet noodles. Then there it was, ‘the green!’. I had seen it in many finisher videos, where dots had become people again.
I stumbled across the green towards a crowd of paparazzi, cheered by the once again present little bro (Andy ‘Sprog’ Milton, who was popping up everywhere); Spine volunteer, running granny and friend (Angela White) and southern friend / shouty-banshee-queen (Rebecca Brennan, who was up to cheer her brother Matty Brennan to glory). I rudely barged past the lot of them and collapsed in a heap by the wall of the pub. I was presented with my medal and that was it… I was done… I had finished the Montane Spine Race. Wow, what a ride!
After a lovely cuppa tea, provided by Jimmy, in payment for my brief modelling career, I hobbled bravely inside where I was handed my Open Tracking official finish time by ever present cheeky-chappy, James Thurlow. Now I was sure I had missed my arbitrary time but this magic piece of paper stated 146hr 11mins! I queried it with James who did some fag packet math and confirmed the time. Dunce hat for me, I was always crap at math!
My original goal had been sub 145 hours, but after my Horton foot issues that time went right out of the window and I was, at some stages, nearly 9 hours off, but somehow I had pulled some of it back. Feeling quite smug, I ate my weight in soup and crisps, laid on the floor with raised feet and fell asleep. THE END