Written by Eoin Keith - https://eoinkeith.wordpress.com

A half moon lit up clear cold starry skies this evening, and I ran on up the incline to the high point of Glencullen valley road. Feeling good on this unusually benign night, but common sense says turn around and reverse direction back home now. Yeah, I probably should really. But just how did I even get this far out so comfortably. This time last week I was still in the midst of the Spine Race, making my way through the Cheviot hills towards the finish line. And here I am, comfortably knocking out a 2 hour plus training run, apparently feeling in better shape than almost any time in the last year. And this the after an hour and a half of big-ring power cycling through the hills last night. How did I manage to do this?!

The Spine Race has to be one of the hardest most gnarly running races in the world. The scale and distance of the race, running for over 400km non-stop along the full length of the Pennine way (The eponymous spine of England), are stark enough. But when you add in the fact that it takes place in January it truly becomes Britain’s most brutal race. Extreme conditions are pretty much guaranteed. The cold wet environment of deepest winter in the Atlantic maritime climate is about a tough a set of conditions to endure as you are likely to meet, even with the best available gear.

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The Spine Race Route. Map courtesy of http://www.contours.co.uk (The best overview map I’ve found)

The 2015 edition of the race was my introduction to the Spine. Pavel Paloncy, the defending champion had a reputation of being the invincible giant of the race. But I had every intention of trying to win the thing, and had a plan to beat Pavel. The race was hugely disrupted by the hurricane force winds which swept across the course on several days, causing the race to be halted and restarted on several occasions for safety reasons. This had a hugely disruptive effect on the race, and the racing aspect of the race. Nobody was sure of what the the net time difference between runners was, and it only became clear after the top runners had crossed the finish line.

The weather enforced stops had also undermined my plan of how to beat Pavel. Even so, I gave it a good shot, with the official finishing times showing me within an hour of Pavel’s winning time (My personal calculations have me just 15 minutes shy of his finishing time). Close, very close, but not quite good enough. Pavel is an excellent all-round adventurer and athlete, with great mountain craft and navigations skills. I discovered here that he also has a top athlete’s ability to absolutely bury himself to try to win a race, to give true 100% commitment to the cause.

As usual with any race, and in particular with a highly technical multi-day ultra like this race, I had learned a ton simply by participating in the race. I reckoned I had left hours behind me through various mistakes that would be corrected the following year. Scott and Phil, the race directors, had generously offered me a consolation prize of a free entry for the following year, given the effect of the weather on the race and how close it had turned out. So that made it a no-brainer… I’d be back.

Once I had finished the Tor De Geants in September my focus switched to preparing for the Spine. This started with a good rest and recovery, followed by steadily ramping up my training to full intensity. I had also decided that I wasn’t mixing in enough cycling, so made sure to try to incorporate at least one, and preferably two days of training per week to be cycling. I also enjoyed myself taking part in cyclocross racing season, doing pretty well in the lowly environs of the B class vets. It was excellent racing practice though.

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Cyclocross Racing (bunkered) on my Giant TCX

Training peaked with a weeklong holiday in Tenerife over the christmas period, where I got in my longest training run of the year with a 7 hour trip up and down to the Caldera of Teide at 2,400 metres (starting from sea level). Some of the trails in Tenerife were massively technical as well, so my mind was tuning up nicely for technical terrain. 2 big cycling days mixed-in also added to the preparation.

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Looking out over Teide from the Caldera edge at 2,400m

Arriving back from that it was an immediate taper down, getting used to being back in our winter maritime climate again and getting all the last bits of preparation done. TJ in Columbia was sourcing some new gear for the race for me. This included two pairs of outsized Conspiracy waterproof trails shoes. It also included two crucial new pieces of gear which I really wanted so as to give me a big step up in capability. These were a top-end Outdry Extreme waterproof shell jacket (which wasn’t available for sale yet), and a lightweight down jacket that incorporated an Outdry Extreme outer layer, effectively making it a waterproof down jacket. That’s quite a revolutionary concept in outdoor gear, and one which I had come to realise would be ideal for the Spine Race, while I trained in the cold wet Dublin hills through winter. I really do feel very lucky to have Columbia as a gear sponsor. Their innovations in outdoor gear technology have been amazing.

I had also been working with the lads in the Great Outdoors with some last minute additions to fill out the gear list. As usual, the wealth of knowledge in the shop is super, and I was able to bounce ideas around and get good advice on the finer details of which pieces of kit would be likely to work best in the environment of the Spine Race. The key pieces of equipment I picked up from the Great Outdoors team were a Garmin GPSMap64s and a pair of Leki trekking poles.

I had my race pack configured in race configuration a few days ahead of the race and ran my last few training runs with it as specific training to be sure to be used to running with exactly the configuration I would race with. I also played around with the Garmin GPS to ensure I knew it inside out and wouldn’t have to think too hard to use it during the race. I also configured all the relevant settings to be optimised specifically for the Spine. I made sure to use it on one of my training runs simply to satisfy myself that it was working as well as I would expect (which it was, of course!).

Everything about the journey from home to Edale for the start of the Spine seemed to go better than last year. For a start I got to spend more time with Helen, my wife, as I was able to get a lift from her to the aircoash busstop. On the aircoach there was a classic Irish scene of 3 (the driver, myself an another passenger) strangers who only just met having a great conversation about the joys of being active in the hills. The flight went smoothly, arriving 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which in turn allowed me to get an earlier train to central Manchester. That in turn allowed me to catch the last train to Edale before the 2 hour “hole” in the timetable, and thus arrive there 2 hours ahead of last year’s arrival time, despite starting the whole journey at the same time.

Similarly to last year, people were turning up for the Edale train dressed head to toe in various types of outdoor gear and thus picking out their fellow Spiners and starting up conversations. It leads to a nice atmosphere and enjoyable journey.

The registration process was much slicker this year, with only a random selection of runners needing to undergo a full gear check. Most of us had to produce 3 randomly selected items from the mandatory gear list. The race briefing was also shorter. The main item of note from this was that the diversion away from Hadrian’s Wall was no longer effective, and we were now to use the orignal official route along the Peninne Way. That negated the last bit of preparation I had done the previous night in cutting up and laminating the diversion route.

Again, I was earlier than last year getting up to the YHA hostel, getting in that evening’s pre-race dinner (another social occasion with my fellow Spiners staying at the hostel), and most importantly of all getting in a good night’s sleep.

Race morning was a big improvement on last year. No hurricanes, no driving rain! I had a small breakfast at a leisurely pace, and then jumped into the first shuttle mini-bus to the village hall for the race start. The hall wasn’t long filling to the brim with noisy Spiners avidly chatting away. I found a seat to wait until race start. I was delighted to meet with and chat to some of the locals who I had met at the same place and time last year, and we again had a good chat about the. It’s great to hear the interest that the schoolchildren in Edale take in the race.

Finally without about 10 minutes to go we all made our way out and walked down to the actual start line. One or two small showers had passed in the previous hour, so my last pre-race gear decision was to put on my waterproof leggings before the start. I went and stood right at the startline, with most people choosing to start well back. Only Richard Lendon wanted to be sure to get to the front so that he could lead off the race himself, as tradition dictated.

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Richard leads out the 2015 Spine at the start

We got our countdown from 10, and then off we went. After Richard’s lead-out the expected gang of 3 came to the 4, along with one or two others. I had check the list of entrants to see if there was any potential winners there and couldn’t see any obvious contenders. Neither Pavel, the winner for the last 2 years, or Eugene Rose Sole who had won 3 years ago, were on the list, but I had guessed a long time back that they would turn up. Given this, I was expecting this race to become a 3-way battle for the win.

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The Spine 2016 Start (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The first learning from last year and improvement for this year came a minute in when we didn’t dive into the race briefing venue, but continued on up the road to the Peninne Way start itself. The early pace was good. Nice and steady without being too fast or taxing. Pavel went flying by on the first small descent, and proceeded to slip and continue on down the descent for a few seconds on his back. All was well, it was a classic wet weather slip with no harm done in the splashdown onto the waterlogged grass.

I was happy to lead out to the start of the first major climb up the Jacobs Ladder route. As it steepened to rocky steps I used my poles to fast-march up the hills. Eugene was full of beans and overtook to move uphill fractionally faster without the aid of poles. Similarly to last year I noted how Eugene seemed to have by far the smallest pack in the race. What gear does he have in there? He must have some seriously lightweight kit. As well as the expected 3-some, we also had Richard Lendon with us and racer number 27.

As ever, I was gaining huge advantages from having done the route before. I have a great memory for both locations and maps. As a result I knew exactly where I was going this year without having to cross-check the maps or GPS. Beware hubris! after the steady climb, a lot of taken at running pace, we reached the plateau of Kinder Scout. And of course I ran slightly off-line, not holding the left edge as I should. I spotted Richard Lendon running along to my left on the correct line and quicly barrelled accross the open ground to arive on the correct track just in front of him. As well as being a very capable ultra runner Richard also happens to be a vetern of every edition of the Spine race so has an excellent knowledge of the route.

I had a good conversation with Richard as we made our way across the plateau. We were still pretty much a solid group of 5 runners. The pace was still strong and steady. I knew it was probably faster than last year’s pace, but it seem less “hot” to me, which was a good sign of where my own fitness was at.

On the steepest most technical section of the short descent from Kinder Scout Pavel came flying past. He is an excellent descender. I had no intention of taking any risks at all at this stage of the race, so was happy to plod down and let him fly away. Once we were back on flatter gorund the group quickly tightened up naturally again, and we ran as a tight pack on towards Snake Pass. This was mostly slabbed-tracks over open moorland, under the landing flightpath for Manchester airport (As ever, my inner aviation nerd can be a happy distraction in the middle of ultra near flightpaths!).

In a near repeat of last year’s unhappy incidents with Eugene, he managed to misplace his footing at one pointing running accross the slaps and put one of his feet into a hole, causing him to crash noisly to ground. The others checked that he was OK (I was in front), which he was this time, and on we went. We arrived at the saftey check at snake-pass only slight out of order (we had race numbers 1,2,3,4 and odd-man-out number 27), crossed the road and ran on keeping up the steady pace.

I was still happy to lead out and path find, which I was doing mostly from memory. Occasionally I’d slow and check with the others on the direction (mainly trusting Pavel and Richard to give an accurate answer). I got chatting with number 27 at this stage, who turned out to be Mark Denby. He clearly had good speed anyway to be keeping up with the lead pack. Pavel again showed his speed on the steep downhills, with Eugene following close behind… a pattern that was becoming well established. We had all fromed up into a group again going accross the Dam at Torside Reservoir. Small gaps opened up along the next few sections occasionally, but nothing of significance.

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Leading out the lead group early on day 1 (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The combination of a non-delayed start and moving a a faster pace resulted in us having more daylight to play with further into the course this year. We crossed the A635 at Wessenden head with anoth quick sfety check. I ran straight through, but the others must have stopped for something, as I opened up a full sightline gap heading out form there down to the Wessenden Reservoir. I was happy to keep my own steady pace and let the gap open or close entirely dependant on how much work the chasers were willing to put in. As it happens I made their life much easier by having to stop an do a Nav check at a track junction so that they closed right up again.

One of the Mountain rescue teams had set up a mini-aid station at the next road crossing at Standedge. I took the opportunity to stop for a minute a refill myself with two full cups of dilute blackcurrent. Nice and tasty after a day’s running. We still had daylight running out of there. The pattern stayed similar as we ran on as a group across the high open Moors, crossing the occasional road. After the M62 crossing, and the small steady climb up Blackstone Edge I faced reality and got out and used my head torch. The next section is a little more technical in parts, and I was happy to settle in behind a fast moving group of Challenger racers for a few minutes.

It turned out one of those was Damon Rodwell, taking part in the Mountain Rescue team race, who had shown me enormous hospitality last year puttin me up in his house after the end of the race. We greeted each other, and Damon reminded me that the hospitality again awaited, but only for the race winner! I responded that that was probably the number 1 motivation to win the race, and that I had every intention of being the one taking him up on his offer!

The lead group arrived together at the White House pub, where there was another safety team, and another opportunity to restock on water. The weather was a little worse at this stage, with persistant rain. That combined with nightime meant we had to be careful to stay comfortable. My Outdry Jacket was working a treat, and I was feeling like I was in my own little bubble.

We didn’t depart together… Pavel was away first, with Eugene rapidly off after him. I made a few adjustments to my gear (I needed to fix a strap on my gaitors) before setting off myself. The next section is a very flat run winding through a system of reservoirs. It took me a lot less time than I expected to catch up with the other two. We were now down to the expected three-some. We worked together to navigate our way along this section. I was operating mainly from memory, Pavel from the maps, and Eugene from his GPS. We still manged to make enough minor off-track deviation that Richard Lendon was able to rejoin the group by the time we got to unmissable stone spire of Stoodly Pike.

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Stoodley Pike in somewhat better weather.. hard to miss on any occasion!

I spent most of the rest of the journey to CP1 in the company of Richard, with the other 2 either with us or just behind. Running down the out-and-back track appoaching the CP Richard said “I know it my inner child, but..”. I knew what was coming and let him in front to lead us into the CP. He was planning to take a relatively long stop there so would loose contact with the group here.

CPs are a nice disruptive influence on any cosy group running! I fully expected some moves to be made here. I was going to do things very differently here compared to last year myself. I was happy to let Pavel away last year to go out and build a lead. I was expecting it to happen, and it did. I picked up from the other runners there that they also expected Pavel to be fastest through the CP as a matter of course. So I presumed Pavel would try to do the same again this year.

Howevever all I had to do here was swap maps so that I was going to be carrying stage 2 maps only, and ditch the stage one maps. So I just dragged my bag into the outer porch where the other 3 were taking off their shoes so that they could go into the dining area and get some food and liquids. I didn’t need food, so I didn’t take off my shoes. I asked one of the marshalls if they could fill my “active” water bottle for me, which they did. Another marshall offered to get me a hot drink, and with the racket of the heavy rain hitting the glass roof of the porch I happily accepted a mug of coffee (The caffine would likely be a good help too). So as the other returned to the porch to get their gear on I was walking out the door and away! This time I would see if I could make this one stick for a bit. The front pack was split. Time for the real racing to start! Wooohooo

The racing begins

The entry route to CP1 at Hebden Bridge is a short but very technical slippy trail followed by a steeper section of slippy rocky steps. People have fallen and broken limbs here in the past. To get back out onto the Pennine Way proper this must be reversed uphill. I had now created a gap. I had to be careful and controlled not to let it get to my head and rush out too fast, particularly on such high-energy technical ground. It was still very early in the race. The race couldn’t be won here, but it could easily have been lost. I was way ahead of my exit time from CP1 last year, when I stupidly tried to get some sleep here (big mistake, effectively throwing time away).

I overtook a few Challenger racers in the muddy section here who had left a few minutes before me, and powered away towards the track end. A kilometre or so of road climb takes us back to the Pennine Way again. I found myself able to run steadily up this road, effectively floating up. All was going really well. I had made a few navigation mistakes here last year, so I didn’t want a repeat of that. Jinxed! I managed to miss the right turn onto the Pennine Way and overran the junction. Luckily I figured this out within about 100 meters and reversed back quickly. Unfortunately I could see a pair of head torches heading rapidly for me, which of course was Pavel being followed by Eugeni. Still, I reckoned they must have worked hard to get back so quickly.

A short steep climb takes us up the ridgeline above, which I steadily “pole” up at cruise speed, not worrying about the gap. My 2 chasers close right up behind me. Now at this point I wandered around for a bit last year before heading off on a big obvious, but incorrect, track. This year I skipped the wandering around but still managed to head off on exactly the same incorrect track. If the other two called me back I didn’t hear it (and if they didn’t that was fine too… we were racing after all).

I looked behind after a few hundred meters and could see that nobody was following me…uh oh. So I fired up the GPS which I had on a lanyard around hanging on my neck and used it to make a quick location check. I’m normally used to racing in events where GPS devices are banned, and I’m a big fan of navigating using the traditional tools of a map and compass (which were also hanging around my neck instantly accessible). However a full proper GPS is mandatory gear for the Spine. If I’m going to be carrying a tool as useful as this with me then I’m definitely going to use it when its quickest tool at my disposal.

The speed and accuracy of the Garmin continued to impress me (I have found on this race that they can be used to fine tune pathfinding to within a meter or two in real world conditions). I was high of the path running roughly parallel to it. So I turned downhill and fought my way through the scrubby stumpy ground as best I could, aided by the fact I was descending. A minute or two later I was back on the proper track. I could see Pavel and Eugeni’s torches heading away in the distance. In the space of about 10 minutes I had managed to completely invert a small gap from a lead to a deficit. Cool, no panic! I’ll just carry on from here at my own pace and see how it works out.

I ran on at a comfortable pace. The gap varied by distance over time, but that was probably more down to the ups and downs of the terrain we were crossing. For a few periods I couldn’t see the 2 lads ahead at all. No worries. This is still very early in the race.

As I crossed the road after traversing around Ponden Reservoir I could suddenly see 2 headtorches not too far ahead up the hill. I followed the PW signposts along the road for a few meters before climbing a style taking me over a wall and ….arrgh!!…  a pretty well flooded piece of land. Oh well… onwards and splashdown into the temporary pond beyond knee level. Definitely no dry shoes and socks now.

I was really feeling like I was moving noticeably faster than last year as I climbed the hill up from the pond, and if anything it was taking less effort to do so. As I hit the open mountain again for the long shallow climb up Oakworth Moor I could clearly see the two lads up a few hundred meters ahead. Before the climb was finished, and within about 5 or ten minutes, I had closed the gap completely to rejoin them, again doing so at my own natural pace.

We naturally began working together again, with Pavel or myself making most of the nav calls, and Eugeni being occasionally asked to check his GPS to see were we on track. There were one or two small deviations, but we collectively corrected them very quickly. This settled in as the pattern again and took us all the way through Gargrave (which we passed through at too ungodly an hour of the morning to have a hope of taking advantage of the local shops), and onwards towards Malham.

On the long flatish riverside run approaching Malham we worked really well to ensure we were all safe, as by now the rain was appallingly heavy and the temperatures had dropped through the night, eventually turning the rain to snow. I was extremely comfortable wearing my waterproof down jacket under my Outdry Extreme Shell, with not a trace of dampness developing on my base layers. However I had delayed putting my gloves on for a little bit too long, and was glad to have Pavel’s help jamming them on over my now frozen hands.  Pavel’s super navigation took us right on course over the now snow-obliterated tracks. A quick confirmation on my GPS led us over onto the track taking us to the bridges leading through Malham.

Conditions were really wintry now, with the village being a lovely winter wonderland. We were making fresh tracks in the snow, as of course there was no-one else around. Visibility had become pretty poor too, making accurate navigation even more necessary. The journey up past the cliffs at Malham was steep and hard, but rewarding. As we worked our way towards “cp 1.5” at Malham Tarn Field Centre we could detect the early stages of dawn approaching.

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Thanks to John Bamber for this Gem from Malham Tarn CP1.5 … No sleep deprivation here!

A warm welcome greeted us from the staff at CP 1.5, and we all took advantage of the facilities to have a warm drink. Eugeni also got out a sandwich for himself from his pack. I satisfied myself with a piece or two of Kendal mint cake which was provided here by tradition it would seem. The CP crew let us know that there were only 4 challenger racers ahead of us on the course. I didn’t want to get too comfortable here and we didn’t stay too long. We stuck together as a group heading off again into the emerging daylight.

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Heading out from Malham Tarn, fully enclosed in my Outdry Extreme bubble (Photo by John Bamber)

Just like last year there was plenty of wind around as we traversed around Fountains fell and onwards towards one of the big climbs of the race, Pen-Y-Ghent (PYG). The winds had caused us to be diverted around PYG last year. Given that they were still quite high as we approached, and there was fresh snow covering the ground I wondered would the same happen again. But no, there was no safety crew at the base to divert us. We could see a collection of people at the top waiting for our approach though.

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The leading 3some approach Pen-Y-Ghent (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The very steep technical ground had us all taking this at our own natural pace. Eugeni surged forward and powered up the hill. I had to put both walking poles in one hand so that I could climb more effectively using my free hand for additional balance, as we were still being buffeted by quite strong winds on this exposed section. A collection of photographers greeted us at the top of the steep climb, and a short easy running climb took us to actual peak. Eugeni’s effort of powering up the hill didn’t gain him anything of course, as he waited here for one of us to come up and navigate off the mountain.

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Climbing Pen-Y-Ghent (Photo by Racing Snakes)

As had become the pattern we eventually all closed up again and ran most of the descent into Horton as a group, with the weather getting better as we descended off the exposed mountain top. In Horton one of the race safety crews had set-up a mini aid station at their van. We took advantage of their hospitality to grab some quick hot drinks and a few little snacks, along with a nice chat of course!

And the wide double track leading out from here Pavel made a little surge on one of the first climbs, but we all rolled back together again soon enough. I had encountered very heavy rain (driven by exceptionally high winds) on this section last year, so it seemed quite pleasant in comparison this year, as I only occasionally needed to flick my hood over my head as the odd shower rolled by. I made sure to look around every now and again to take in the views, including a classic English scene of a large stone arched railway viaduct crossing the landscape in the distance.

As we ascended the long road gentle road climb up the Cam Fell road I felt like the other two might be playing games, as they spoke in spanish to each other and then one would then put on a bit of speed to lead up the hill. I just tracked each move and let them at it, putting in the odd running spurt myself. I reckoned that it was equally possible that everyone was thinking the other two were ready to work against them! Lovely little mind games.

We turned off onto the muddy double track past Dodd Fell, with Eugeni making more frequent surges to lead us along. A group of about 5 motorbike scramblers passed us going the other way, leaving plenty of churned mud in their wake. Two or three land rovers followed not long afterwards, leaving even deeper ruts behind. Towards the end of this path we caught and passed one more challenger runner, leaving only the podium placers from that race in front of us.

Pavel was surprisingly slow on the descent into CP2 at Hawes, with Eugeni and myself occasionally waiting for him to rejoin us. Thankfully when we hit Hawes village itself there were separate signs directing the challenger finishers and the Spine racers to their respective aid stations for this CP (or finish in the case of the Challengers), so we didn’t have to do a big loop around the town.

Last year I had grabbed a couple of hours sleep here before being timed out as I went to leave. However we had been much much faster getting here this year, and it was still the afternoon. Plenty of usable daylight left. I wasn’t feeling sleepy either, so I wasn’t going to stop here for sleep. I still had a few jobs to do here. I wanted to switch around some of the clothes I was racing on, so that I had a more cold-weather oriented set-up, and switch from having a spare base layer in my rucksack to having my waterproof down jacket as my cold emergency spare layer (A little heavier and bulkier, but far easier to get on and actually use should the need arise). I also needed to do some standard replacements, such as switching maps, and swapping out batteries for my GPS and active head-torch.

Of course, this being a CP, the fun and games were likely to kick off here again. No doubt Pavel would try a move here. But I was going to do what I needed to do at my own pace and let the dice roll from there. We arrived in and all began taking off our mud-soaked shoes and leggings. Pavel nabbed the only chair in this outer room, but one of the race marshals quickly grabbed another few for us when I had a little whine! As ever, the marshalls were their usual helpful and friendly selves.

To my delight I established that the hot food available here was chicken curry. No way was I going to pass that up, even if I wasn’t particularly hungry. There were large bottles of coke nearby (A new innovation this year), so I grabbed one of those and brought to the table where I was eating. Eugeni and Pavel  joined me at the table, and we ate away quickly enough without too much banter. This was definitely a racing stop!

As we finished up our food and began to prepare to leave things were hotting up and getting spicier than the freshly digesting chicken curry. Pavel had a photographer meeting him around the course, and she was here helping him with his exit preparations. He was definitely in the mood to get out first. Eugeni was moving fast, as no doubt he wanted to stick with Pavel at any cost. I was getting things done as fast as possible, but at the same time ensuring that I didn’t forget to complete any of my little tasks.

Pavel burst out the door and could be seen running off heading down the village. Race on! within a minute Eugeni was hurrying out the door after him. He was looking panicked as he flew off after Pavel. It felt like an age was passing as I was putting my shoes, gators and rain – leggings back on after completing all of my other changes (Change of base layer leggings, adding a fleece mid-layer, and changing socks). But I kept to my own pace, and eventually I was off again, heading down through Hawes village.

This time the split was 3-way, so the race was definitely back on again after a prolonged period over working together and watching out for each other. How we would each pace out from here would be very interesting indeed, as after a day and half of racing, heading for the 2nd night of the race, we had effectively been going non-stop and were all bound to be dealing with the building fatigue in different ways. Sleep deprivation was bound to start to become a factor with the approaching loss of daylight. We now had gaps to build and close as well. And to top all that immediately in front of us was one of the big sustained climbs of the race… about 6km of steady, potentially runnable, ascent to the peak of Great Shunner Fell.

Little Details, Big Effects

Control. That was becoming my main mantra. Control. Keep the pace under control. Keep the effort under control. It’s a long race. Who will be running fastest at the end will more than likely have a much bigger impact than who is running fastest at the beginning.

So I ran down through Hawes village at a nice steady pace, despite knowing that somewhere in front of me Pavel was making a break for the lead and Eugeni was desperately trying to catch him so he could continue to follow Pavel’s navigation. No stressing the quads on the tarmac road descent… no stressing anything at all!

The Pennine way heads off the road and through floodplain parkland just after we exit the town. Much to my surprise I catch sight of Pavel and Eugeni a few hundred meters ahead. I would have expected them to be well out of site at this point. I stopped briefly for one or two more adjustments and then ran on. Again, surprisingly, I was closing the gap easily enough. By the start of the track which climbs up Great Shunner Fell I had overtaken Eugeni and was cruising up behind Pavel. So yet again we were back as a group.

We were losing daylight rapidly at this stage. I was very happy that I was lasting so far into the race without any sleep deprivation issues. The climb up Great Shunner Fell was a long slog, without much of significance from a racing point of view to note. The higher we climbed, the more the snow obscured the path, so that even the stone slabbed sections of the PW were getting harder and harder to find. I’m a pretty good instinctive pathfinder and I was happy to lead out the group and hunt out the track, now under head-torch light. Occasionally I’d lose it and work with the others to refind it.

It was a similar story for the long descent, except that at the higher speed of descent, track-hunting has to be done even more quickly. The potential to have a nasty fall by wandering off the underlying slabs into a hole, or taking a slide on an ice-covered slab section, was always lurking, ready to potentially take one of us out of the race. On a few occasions Eugeni called me back as Pavel had dropped off the back of the group out of sight. We were happy to wait for him to rejoin, given the potential dangers in the darkness.

Hitting the little village of Thwaite at the end of the descent we found ourselves in another lovely winter-wonderland vista. I waited a minute or two for the others to rejoin and be fully ready for the next section, and then off we went. My route memory was proving to be the most accurate means of navigation on the steep climb out of Thwaite. For some reason I find the next high section traversing the valley side to Keld to be a very entertaining run. It’s full of little technical sections and lots of undulations, but is still mostly runnable. Group running remained the order of the day.

After Keld we climbed back out and onto the open moorland of Stonesdale Moor. This was a lovely run in the daytime last year, complete with a low roaring flypast by a pair of F-15s. But at night it was a lot less interesting, especially without the USAF! Still, there was a lot of runnable sections, so we were maintaining our high speed.

We were now approaching The Tan Hill Inn, shining invitingly in the distance, an oasis of comfort and civilisation in a sea of snow smothered moorland. At this point I was starting to feel the very early effects of sleep deprivation. I knew that if I carried on from here to CP3 at middleton without stopping then it would most likely turn into a horrific battling sufferfest of sleep deprivation by the end. So I decided that at minimum I would try to take a 15 minute power-nap here. Depending on conditions inside I might expand that to a more substantial first major sleep of the race. Obviously I’d also see what the other 2 were going to do. Being a virtual CP, this was yet another likely spot for another outbreak fun and games… tactical race chess moves!

spine colin searl approachng Tan hill inn

Colin Searle approaches the Tan Hill Inn later in daylight (Photo by Racing Snakes)

We arrived into a pub that was empty, apart from the Landlord and his wife, along with a small group from the race safety team. Pavel and Eugeni sat on stools right next to the open fire and started ordering food and drink. Language barriers seemed to be causing a few issues with the process. I tried to figure out what the lads were planning to do, but I wasn’t getting any clear answers. I wasn’t at all worried about getting in any food or drink and just went into the adjacent lounge, lay down on the couch and tried to grab a nap. I had asked one of the safety lads to get me up if anything happened, or in about half an hour.

About half an hour later I was awoken to find the 2 lad settling in for a sleep on the other couches in the room themselves. They were going to take about 2 hours. Grand. That’s the first big sleep so. I told the safety lads that I’d take the same sleep myself and went back to my number 1 task, returning to the land of nod.

I heard from someone after the race that the 2 lads were carefully watching each other as they were taking their outer layers off in preparation for getting some sleep, just in case one of them (it could only be Pavel) would make a break for it and leave the other behind. I’ve no idea how true this is, but I was happily oblivious to it all.

In what seemed like an instant we were woken again by the safety lads. I had very little to do to get out, as I hadn’t done much except take my rucksack and jacket off and lie on the couch. I took up the landlord’s offer of some soup, which was lovely and thick, full of big chunks of vegetables. He also gave me a great cheese plate and a piece of chocolate cake. I picked off as much as I felt I could, but I wasn’t massively hungry so left a lot behind. An orange juice went down nicely with this. I had an interesting discussion with the safety guys here too about the various personalities in the race, and the psychology of how being in the race bubble can affect people.

Of course, at this stage there was a live demonstration of race psychology taking place! The other 2 were slowly getting ready to leave. They had taken off a lot more of their layers, including their shoes. This was now slowing them down getting ready to head out again. The landlord came over to me and encouraged me to come back to the pub some time after the race, and I agreed that I’d love to, as it was a great pub in a great location. He gave me some good words of encouragement for the race as well.

By now I was impatient to get going. Pavel was having great difficulty getting his shoes back on, and was loudly uttering quite a few Czech words which I could probably guess the meaning of! There was a good reason why I didn’t take my shoes off… I didn’t want to get too comfortable only to have to face back into large levels of discomfort on restarting. I also knew that my feet would be more likely to swell if I removed my shoes. I was already wearing a pair one size too big, and knew that when I switched to my next pair they would be 2 sizes too big. Pavel appeared to be proving the disadvantages of the alternative approach. Little details!

So with that I walked out the door, telling the others that they would no doubt catch me down the trail, as had been the pattern so far in the race. But I reckoned there was an opportunity to break the pattern here. The trail out from the Tan Hill Inn is one of the more bleak sections of the Pennine way. It’s an unpaved track defined by the erosion of walkers over the years through waterlogged moorland. It is a gentle descent at first. It’s hard enough to follow in the daytime. At nighttime, with a snow dusting on top, it would really have to be hunted out. There were marker poles every few hundred metres for reassurance that you were on track. Given that I had lead out the track hunting up and down Great Shunner Fell, I reckoned I might have an edge in track hunting skills here.

I walked at first, giving the other 2 a chance to easily catch up, but then started back running. Enough of that, we’re in a race after all. Time to test my track hunting theories. So I picked up the pace to a steady cruisy run down the track. The trail was expectedly tricky to find, but I was enjoying the rush of finding it under these conditions. Here we go again! Another breakaway attempt. This time I reckon I have a good chance of making it stick for a while. At worst I can dangle out in front of them and maybe they’ll work a little harder to pull me back. Game on. There’s no chance of sleep deprivation kicking in now! Race mode fully engaged.

Attempted Getaway

I was trying not to look back too much. Just stay focussed on running forwards at a steady pace. The standard mantra… Control. Control. If the trail angle allowed it I would let myself take a sideways peek for head torches out of the corner of my eye. They were following of course, but I seemed to have opened a useful gap of at least a few minutes. It’s hard to judge at nighttime though. Just concentrate on steady progress. Control!

The run along Sleightholme moor went well. I held the path all the way without a problem or a hesitation. The trail then drops to a bridge across a small river, and a small roadway takes us out of the little valley and beyond. I remember this being a good long runnable road section from last year. At this time of night there are a lot of ice patches on the road though. I had to be careful with each foot placement as the chances of slipping and fracturing a bone were quite high, given that I was running along at a nice pace. A few small hollows along the way required stepping along the grass verge to be absolutely sure of not going flying. Control!

I knew that there was a left turn off the road onto track to take me towards a lone house on the other side of the small valley on my left. But I had been concentrating so hard on keeping my pace steady without slipping that I looked across and realised that I was coming too close to the lights of the house on a parallel course. Aaaaaaah feck! A new navigation mistake for my Spine collection. I double checked on the GPS, and sure enough that’s exactly what had happened. I had missed the turn-off and carried on down the road.

An instant decision was taken to just barrel straight across and rejoin the Pennine Way as quickly as possible. This turned into a little mini adventure. For the first hundred meters it was good running across grassy meadows. Then a dive down a steep bank and a quick wade across a river, before climbing the bank on the other side. Another hundred meters or so of nice meadow running led me to the top of a cliff edge… yes I had remembered this would be there from looking across at it last year. No time for niceties now though. A quick glance down towards where the Pennine way should be and I still couldn’t see headtorches. All is not lost yet. A peak over the edge of the cliff reveals a severely steep 10 or 20 meter drop to the grass-banked riverside.

I put my poles in one hand and try to make a controlled descent. Whooosh… there goes the control! I tumbled down 5 or 10 meters, but then regained control and stopped. Crap… I’ll have to climb back up to get the poles , which I had instinctively let go of (so that they wouldn’t cause any injuries to me in a fall. I had learned this from my Alpine Climbing instructor who had instructed a group of us for 2 weeks a broken thumb, thanks to having his pole strap around his arm when he took a tumble). But the poles had followed me. Good old gravity. So I just reached out and picked them up, and was off again. Another quick river wade was followed by a brief run along the riverbank on the other side. There were cliffs next to me now which needed to be climbed to get up to the Pennine Way, so I looked for a relatively safe spot to climb. I quickly came to a wall which provided that opportunity.

Sure enough, it was climbable here without too much of an issue and I quickly topped out with only a wall crossing left before finally getting back on the Pennine Way proper. Despite all this, and to my own surprise, there was still no sign of any following headtorches. Things are going well!

The Pennine way branches here. Everyone in the race was going to take the much shorter direct route bypassing the town of Bowes, of course. It was easy enough following this in daylight last year, but I was making a few minor deviations here and there, slowing me down as I worked through the rougher ground to get back on track. Still no sign of following headtorches though.

Approaching the tunnel crossing under the A66 road I could see across the valley behind me and finally caught sight of the chasing torches. I reckoned the gap was somewhere around 10 minutes, but it’s harder to judge at night. That was pretty good, considering I’d had a wander or two over the last few kilometers. But enough of that… control, just keep moving forward at a steady pace and let the dice roll.

The next section of undulating hills over the open moorland of Cotherstone Moor seemed to take an age last year. This year in comparison it seemed like I was just rolling along, even on the longest climb of this section. I was very happy to be able to take a large proportion of it at a relaxed running pace. I followed the GPS basemap track towards the end of this section, which in reality probably had me off the on-the-ground Pennine Way track, but from memory would have been drier terrain.

Hitting the roads taking my around Blackton Reservoir I was nicely tapping along, still running, still at a very steady controlled pace. I got a big surprise crossing the first cattle-grid I encountered on these roads. It turned out that it was much more icy than it looked. I had no traction on it whatsoever and ended up with both my feet and poles sunken into the cattle grid. No harm done, but a little bad luck could easily have caused a serious leg injury there. Every cattle grid from then on was crossed at the edge, holding onto the sides!

Climbing up the road here I again could see headtorches on the other side of the valley. I reckoned the gap was opening up though. I’ve been dangling out in front for quite a while now. If I could keep mistakes to a minimum then I should be able to make this gap stick all the way the CP at Middleton without a problem. That would give me an opportunity to turn this into a significant breakaway.

The pattern continued on. I was finding the going much easier than last year, even though I had covered this section in daylight then. Perhaps the familiarity with what lay ahead was having a good psychological impact. And again, anytime I caught site of the head torches behind the gap had, if anything, grown a little.

One of my personal favorite views on the race is rounding around Harter Fell and seeing Middleton in the valley below. At night time the view was even nicer, especially now that the weather was clear and there was a nice dusting of snow covering the ground. The descent down to Middleton is a truly joyous affair. It’s one of those descents that you just love as a trail-runner. A lovely moderate slope that is covered in fairway-esque grass. This could potentially be run at full-on 110% sprinting descent speed. I was happy to led gravity do the work of pulling me down the slope to effectively “float” down the hill at good but controlled speed.

Bruce from CP3 was waiting just after the bridge in Middleton and ran along side me for while and chatted. He asked what I wanted from the CP, then ran ahead to get it all ready. I trotted on through the deserted town and made my way into the CP building. After the sleep at Tan Hill Inn I wanted to make this a quick stop. I didn’t actually need to do much other than make my standard swaps of maps and batteries. I took up the offer of hot food and drinks, as I might as well get some in whilst doing my swap overs. My main aim here was to get out of the CP before the other 2 arrived in, thus ensuring I would maintain a gap. At that hour of the morning I wasn’t at my conversational best, but it was still good to chat with the volunteers in the CP, who as ever helped me in every way they could.

It wasn’t too long before I was heading out again. I’d achieved my main aim to get out before the chasers arrived in. Now lets see if we would meet in the next kilometer or so in Middleton as I make my way back to the Pennine Way proper (It’s another out and back trip to the CP in Middleton). I made my way steadily back through the town, anticipating the moment I’d crossover with the chasers, but to my delight I made it all the way back to the Pennine way. As I started heading out along the flat riverside track out from Middleton I could see the headtorches making their way down the hill above me to my left. It would seem that I had grown the gap again. I’ve a good chance of making this stick for quite a while. At the least, I’ve got control of the race from this point. Even with an instant check-in and turn around at CP3 they would still not be able to see me ahead through the next section along the river Tees.

The dawn light for a lovely run up alongside the Tees. I’d had a few mini-mistakes along this section last year, but went along flawlessly this time. On the farm track down to the bridge crossing over the river I did find a nice ice patch and landed on the track with a thud in a short blast of expletives. Last year we were diverted around Cauldron Snout due to the cold weather and high winds. At CP3 one of the Volunteers had asked how long it would take me to get to the diversion point, as he was going to go out to check if it was safe. There was no sign of a diversion when I arrived at the decision point, so onwards on a section I hadn’t seen before.

Even though it is shorter on paper than the diversion, the original route proved to significantly slower. For whatever reason I felt a wave of tired as I ran along the river-side track towards Falcon Clints. Every so often the cliffs almost merged into the river so that the track disappeared into huge boulder fields which were very hazardous to traverse, since the rocks were quite slippy. The views were undeniably stunning though. Cauldron Snout itself was roaring in spectacular fashion. Getting past it proved to be slightly easier than traversing the earlier boulder fields.

falcon clints

The Pennine way, Looking back near Falcon Clints (on a much better snow and ice free day)

From there it was back to ice covered roads for a while. I carefully worked my way along those, before crossing Maize beck. A fast march uphill followed, going past red flags on adjacent flagpoles (presumably indicating an active firing range), and then working across the isolated landscape up towards High Cup Nick. This for me is where the best views of the race are to be had. The steep cliffs nearby make for exhilarating running around here. The earlier tiredness had gone away and I was back to steady paced running again. I hadn’t seen any sign of the chasers since back at Middleton.

High Nick Cup

A summer view of High Nick Cup from near the Peninne Way…. Stunning!

The long descent down to Dufton from Dufton Fell eats through the kilometers, especially with the views down into High Nick Gill and beyond. The trail widens into rough road lower down, allowing an even faster comfort decent speed. Near Dufton one of the race safety teams were waiting to check that all was OK. I just slowed to walk to say hello, but quickly headed on into Dufton village, having a quick conversation with some cycling locals along the way. I was wishing for a shop in the village, but there was none… time to stop fantasizing about the various drinks I now couldn’t have, since it’s going to be water all the way from here.

decending towards dufton

Descending towards Dufton. (Photo by Andrea Nogova)

Getting back onto the Pennine Way after Dufton I had memories of it being-unrunnably awful here, but more of it turned out to be runnable than I thought. There was still plenty of deep muddy section to squelch through though. Now begins the climb to the highest point of the race. Time to put the head down and churn out some power pole climbing. I had lost some time on this climb last year wandering across the mountain from track to track, so I made sure to nail the navigation this time. I felt like I was making good speed powering up. The weather was quite variable, with blue skies changing to grey murk at different altitudes. In the blue sky sunshine it was particularly beautiful, with light bouncing all over the place on the snowy ground.

As I climbed higher and higher the snow cover became more pronounced, with the trail correspondingly less so. I found the trail all the way to the first of the peaks, Knock Fell, without a problem. From here the snowdrifts made things a lot harder though. It took a little crunching about and sinking into the drifts before I was able to locate the trace of the underlying slabbed tracks again. Even at the the snow was thick enough that it was still slowing me down considerably moving down off Knock Fell towards the road leading to Great Dun Fell. I looked back once or twice here to see some stunning views. Temperature inversion had the snow-covered peaks emerging from the cloud banks in an alpine style vista.

I didn’t immediately find the Pennine Way track that heads directly off road to Great Dun Fell, so had to do a little cross country through the snow drifts to re-acquire it. Thankfully the trail itself wasn’t too deeply drifted and I made it up to the boundary fence of the huge Radomes at a good enough speed. Coming off Great Dun Fell was a different matter. The snow had built up quite deeply on this side, obliterating any trace of a track for the early line of sight. It was back to being closed misty weather now as well, so visibility was getting quite restricted. Boy was I glad to have moved fast enough to get this section in daylight. I didn’t have too much of that left either, so time to kick on and try to get across these peaks with that significant advantage.

The trip from Great Dun Fell to little Dun Fell should be a short little undulation, but it took a huge amount of concentration and track-hunting to the ground covered efficiently. Any time I lost the track I was quickly reminded of the advantage of having the slabs somewhere under my feet when I would sink beyond my knees into drifts. From Little Dun Fell to the flanks of the highest peak of the race, Cross Fell, upped that a notch again. There wasn’t much of a track to be found on most of the climb here, so it was a matter of learning to read the patterns of snow over grass and rock to find the lines of least resistance.

I was very happy to reach the huge stone construction that marks the peak of Cross Fell still having reasonable daylight, even though it was definitely very murky at this point. Descending from here is not as easy a task as it could. It’s vitally important to stick as closely to the official track as possible as there a huge number of hazardous features from abandoned mines to the left, and heading too far to the right is just going so far off course that it would all need to be reversed. To me the correct line off the top is an “unnatural” line which isn’t the direction you would instinctively run. So I paid good attention to navigation here. On the steeper upper slopes before the sharp right turn towards Greg’s Hut I was going so quickly that I ended up flying off and arse-skiing for a moment!

After the right turn the mountain road that headed past Greg’s hut (A small stone built mountain bothy) had a good snow covering, but I had enough light to hunt out the most efficient lines and was able to keep a good controlled running pace for most of the road. I ran straight past Greg’s hut. everything was good and I had nothing to gain, but plenty to lose, if I stopped. A couple of kilometers of steady running, with the occasional uphill walk took me to the end of the eastwards flatish section of the road to where it start to turn northwards. In my head this is the point where I’m leaving the high Fells and starting the long descent towards Alston and CP4. It was also the end of the usable daylight, so I turned my head torch on.

I hadn’t been doing much looking for chasers in the the last while, but the turn in the trail and the fact that head torch lights are easy to spot over long distances meant that I was taking the odd sideways glance. At first I thought I could see them in the distance coming down off Cross Fell. But I soon corrected myself to realise I had my angles wrong and that I was seeing the light of buildings or streetlights in the far distance.

On the next gentle uphill section I tried turning off my headtorch. I found that there was enough ambient light bouncing around the snow that I could trot along quite happily on the mountain road. So the headtorch stayed off. Approaching the Apex of another short climb in road I could see the beams of bright lights approach from the other side, which I guessed was a vehicle, and further guessed would be race staff heading up the hill, probably to Greg’s hut. All guesses proved correct, as they stopped in front of me, check all was OK and if I needed anything. After a brief chat we all set off again in our opposing directions.

spine - decending from cross fell

Chatting with the Race Crew during the descent off Cross Fell

It was noticeable that their four wheel drive had had quite an effect on the snow and ice covering the path, cracking the ice along its tracks and leaving a solid trail. It would definitely alter the characteristics of the descent for a while.

This is a very long descent, and all of it is on road from this point. Anyone who runs this too fast will fry their leg muscles. Anyone who has moved too fast to get here will have problems sustaining a downhill run on the continuous hard surface. My standard mantra was as important as ever here. Control. Keep the pace to a good steady run. Don’t run too fast, don’t give in and walk.

The descent down to the village of Garrigill was very long, but uneventful. The onset of the night was triggering my sleep instinct. I didn’t want to do too much to stop this, as I had every intention of taking a good length sleep in the comfort of CP4 at Alston, which was now getting very close. Just like last year, running through the village after the long descent is a bit of a drag, but the ultra-runner in me just keeps up the discipline and digs out the steady unspectacular run. Good metronomic instinctive ultra pacing.

Beyond the village is another turn onto a riverside (downriver thankfully) run towards CP4. Only a few kilometers to go. I had heard other runners before the race discussing this as being about an hour away. So I mentally put that time in my head, knowing I would probably beat that, but to prepare for the worst. The race crew had warned me that this section had been affected by the floods over christmas and to be careful of flood debris left on the riverside sections of trial. Such was the mental readiness I had that the reality moved along swiftly and easily. Within about half an hour I found the first of the race signs directing me up towards CP4.

On the steep road up towards the CP two of the CP staff had come out down the road to meet me. They checked if I wanted any food and drinks. I gladly accepted the offer of a hot meal, but then had to let them I actually don’t like pasta (which they had offered). The suggested alternative of scrambled eggs was perfect though!

Knowing that I was going to rest here, I could really start to feel myself slowing down approaching the CP. As ever, all the staff at this CP were super-helpful. I asked one of them (Phlip, I think) to dig out a jar of hot chocolate powder from my re-supply bag. That was a delicious treat. I was of course very interested indeed to see where Pavel and Eugeni were at this point. They were making their way down the track way beyond Greg’s hut, getting closer to Garrigill. I guessed there was maybe an hour’s gap there. I was still increasing the gap, but not by much, and given that I was going to sleep here it was likely to disappear shortly.

I let them know I was going to take a 2 hour sleep, so I was led up to a bedroom where I hit the sack, finished off my second mug of hot chocolate and went out like a light! My expectation was that when I awoke the other 2 would either well into a sleep themselves, or would have skipped sleep and be out on the trail ahead of me. That would be their call. I was happy that I was making the right long term decision in grabbing a relatively big sleep here, even if it meant surrendering a lead built over a complete day. Once again the stops CPs were the source of big tactical calls!

Defining Moments

As usual, the wakeup call felt like I was being dragged away from the briefest of brief moments in nirvana and slapped back into harsh reality to a world of darkness and pain (that bit is close to the truth!). I had to get into action quickly now. After spending a day building a one hour lead it would the easiest thing in the world to throw it all away with a lethargic approach to exiting this aid station. The first job was to get on new shoes and socks, and make sure I was happy that the rest of my gear was good to go. I also had to make sure the usual task of map and battery changes were completed.

When I wandered down the stairs to the main hallway I was surprised to see Pavel and Eugeni there in their race gear. Apparently they had only recently arrived in. It must have taken them more time than me to cover the ground of the last few kilometers since I checked their progress before sleeping.  Possibly they might have pushed too hard chasing earlier in the day and paid the price later on. Who knows! I said hello, but concentrated on getting my own jobs done. I asked for more hot chocolate, but was also offered porridge which I was happy to accept! knowing that my lead into the CP was bigger than I expected I was happy that I could now afford to burn a little more time on extra comfort items.

Spine - with gearpile in alston

Getting the gear ready to go at Alston

I heard on the grapevine that the lads had decided to go for a one hour fifty minute sleep. So they were slightly undercutting me. Given that I had slept a bit more at Tan Hill Inn, I was happy enough to head out with a reduced lead, or indeed any lead at all, knowing that I had more sleep banked overall. It all adds to the control!

Phlip was being extremely helpful as I sorted out my maps and batteries, and finally geared up to leave the hall. Restarts are one of the more difficult parts of the race, particular leaving such a comfortable environment. The outdoors which I was so confident moving about coming into the CP would be a harsh reality check on leaving. But leave I must!

spine - about to depart alston

About to depart Alston, with lovely clean new shoes!

I managed to confuse myself on the road down from the CP back to the Pennine Way itself, but figured it all out eventually. The Pennine way from here is wanders and weaves through fields and walls for a while, before eventually turning into a nice flat trail into the village of Alston itself. After passing through Alston the Pennine Way heads downhill in a big way. Unfortunately that’s in a figurative rather than literal sense! I really disliked this section last year, and that was in daylight. It was probably going to be in even more of a challenge in the dark. At least I knew to expect it.

For some reason, even though I had recently left a well supplied CP, I was beginning to fantasise about various drinks I might like (which of course I had no chance of getting), eventually settling on lemonade as being my ultimate fantasy drink at that point in time. So I was now also self-torturing myself mentally on top of dealing with probably the worst section of the Pennine way.

The route wanders either side of the A689 road, mostly passing through farmland or scrubland, avery high proportion of which had been churned up by farm animals to become a muddy mess. It really was awful, no doubt made all the worse by all the heavy rains over christmas leaving a lot of waterlogged areas behind. It was pretty slow going working through all this.

Quite a few dreary kilometers later I eventually got my wish and the Pennine way ran along the A689 for a little while into the village of Slaggyford. After that it was back onto better trail for a while before passing under an arch of railway viaduct to uphill for a short climb. I had being starting to get some feelings of sleep deprivation in the previous 20 minutes or so, and it was still a long way to go before the natural waking effect of dawn would arrive. So passing under the arch I made a snap decision to have a 10 minute power nap to try to neutralise the sleepiness.

So I just lay down on the ground, grabbed my GPS, found the alarm setting on it and set it for 10 minutes after the decision to nap. There was a probably another few minutes of just lying there with my mind racing, but eventually I did nod off. Thankfully the alarm did wake me, so it was up and off again, beginning with a few seconds of staggering about before properly getting go. I made a conscience effort to dig in here and do a good strong climb up the hill to try to push myself into a fully woken state.

After what feels like a short trip through a few people’s front gardens the Pennine way descends through a few fields again back to near the road. At the bottom of this hill last year I had slipped on a flagstone and landed so hard on my nose and knee that I was surprised not to break one of them. So I beside the flagstones this year, and then crossed over a style. On crossing the style I glanced back up to hill to see two headtorches heading down the hill towards me. That was a big surprise. I was not expecting that at all.

(I have since heard that Pavel did not take the 1:50 sleep he had said he would, but instead got up after an hour to get going again and put a gap between himself and Eugeni. Eugeni then heard him and got up himself to do whatever was necessary to stick with Pavel)

I headed off with a bit of a start and soon came to the climb up the next hill . Near the top of the hill I looked back to see the two lads just starting the climb themselves, maybe 300 meters behind me. Murphy’s law kicked in and I made a minor navigation error to lose another 20 or 30 seconds before kicking on and heading cross country, and then on to another short climb beside a wall. Looking back near the top of that climb the gap had closed again I reckoned it was closer to 200 meters now.

I had quick think. Should I just relax completely, let them put in the work to close the gap, and then work with them through the navigationally tricky flatish section that was coming up next. Or should I switch from running at a relaxed pace to pushing on to a faster, but still cruisy pace (I still had no intention of pushing hard here. I still needed to exercise control and ensure that I would still be able to run all the way through). I opted for option 2! At worst they’d have to work harder for longer to catch me, and given I had more sleep banked that would theoretically leave me level pegging, but better rested heading into the business end of the race.

So I concentrated on pushing up to a  controlled fast cruise pace over the next flatish section of trail, and then working with gravity to keep the pace up on the descent down to final crossing of the A689. When I looked back up from the road I couldn’t see any headtorches, so I must have started opening up the gap a little again.

The next section is probably the most navigationally challenging of the race. The first section is straightforward enough, running a little downhill parallel to a wall. On this section last year Tim Laney got distracted in the dark as he ran past a large dark cow, only to run slap bang into the middle of another cow (which apparently was unperturbed by this). Any large bovine obstacles were a little further away from the trail this year. The track then meanders around a boggy flat section, where I lost the trail briefly before finding slabs and boardwalk again. Looking back I could see the other 2 leaving the road. The gap had increased to maybe 400 meters now.

I pushed on, down an unnatural feeling trail which dives down to a river crossing, before turning sharply and heading back up the opposing banks. At this point all traces of a trail disappear, and don’t re-appear for several kilometers. I kept the concentration on solid forward motion with occasional GPS checks to keep me on line. Eventually we cross a large boggy area with a long shallow climb and descent. There was a bit of a trail here, but it was incredibly waterlogged. Another look back seemed to indicate that I was consistently growing the gap.

Last year Pavel and myself had worked together on this section and we diverted into the village of Greenhead to get some refreshments at the hotel there (including a pint of that fantasy lemonade in my case!). The timing is wrong for a repeat of that this year for multiple reasons. So I stuck to the Pennine way and made my way towards Hadrian’s Wall. I had been looking forward to the Hadrian’s wall section last year, but sleep deprivation made the whole experience more of a survival challenge. I’d cleared out my earlier sleep deprivation with my power nap, so I was determined to enjoy it a bit more this year.

Approaching the carpark at the main entrance to the wall there was a car parked on the road with its lights on. Given the time of night it could only be race staff. Sure enough it turned out to be Phlip, who had been tasked to remind us here that we were to follow the original Pennine way route along the wall and not the (much easier and faster) diversion route. He asked if I’d like a coffee, but I asked if he had any lemonade! He did have coke, and I gratefully drank a good amount of it. Knowing the other two were still chasing I moved off quickly.

The first Hadrian’s wall section went a lot better than last year, and with my concentration on keeping up a controlled running pace I felt I was making very good progress. At a farmhouse near the end of the first section of the wall (I let the 3 road crossings divide up the journey along the wall into 4 parts) two people were waiting on the track. These turned out to be part of the race safety crew. They were there to meet us and do an assessment of our mental state (presumably physical too, but since all 3 of us out here were running there clearly was no issues there).

I slowed to a walk and they walked with me, explaining what they were doing, which was to ask me a series of questions. Unfortunately their first question was “what year was September 11th”. I was 100% mentally alert at this time. Too alert maybe, as I couldn’t contain my inner smart-alek with the answer that “every year has September 11th. That’s the way it works”, even though I knew exactly what they were trying to ask. I did manage to hold myself back when they asked what day of the week it was (real answer : “I couldn’t care less, I’m in a race bubble and that has no relevance at this point”), and gave them my best guess. But then I had no idea what time of night it was… all I was paying attention to was sunrise and sunset, so I hadn’t allowed for the fact it was after midnight.

After the brief interrogation they let me off again, and I made my way down to the road. When I looked back I could see 2 head torches again, but of course that was just the safety team watching me head away. In fact that was the last time I was to see any trace of anyone behind me. I had done a good job on building the gap again. I was confident now that I could continue to slowly build this, or at worst hold it, all the way to CP5 at Bellingham.

The rest of the trip along hadrian’s wall went smoothly. A bit beyond halfway the light of the dawn started lighting the landscape up nicely, and I was treated to views that I didn’t get to witness last year. I maintained my concentration on keeping a good steady pace, whether marching up the steep steps of the multiple “bumps” the wall traverses, or running across the tops of the hills.

Finally the trail junction and left turn that signifies the end of the the Pennine Way’s traversal of Hadrian wall. It was nice to see this section of the route in daylight this year… a completely different and much improved experience. At the road crossing near Ladyhill two different carloads of supporters were waiting. I gratefully accepted the offer of a little soup from the first group, as the forest around Haughton Common had yet again proved itself to be a few degrees lower in temperature than Hadrian’s Wall. I asked the second group if they had any lemonade or coke, but no luck there!

heading towards bellingham

Leaving the supporters, heading towards Bellingham

A few Kilometers later I approached the farm buildings at Horneystead. Last year the couple who farm there had greeted Pavel and myself at about 3am, and led us into one of their farm buildings where they had set up couches and chairs, and plied us with all sorts of refreshments. We stayed chatting with them for a lovely 20 or 30 minutes. This year they were not out to meet me, even with the more sociable hour, but there were several signs directing Spine racers into the same building to help themselves to refreshments.

On arriving in I found a similar set-up to last year, along with a not to help ourselves, and a note apologising to Pavel and myself that they couldn’t be there to meet us in person this year, but wishing us well. What absolutely lovely people! I had a quick peek in the fridge and lo-and-behold what did I find but some cans of lemonade. Oh these people are the greatest. After hours and hours,and whilst still out on the course between CPs I got to indulge in my fantasy drink!

On the road just after that the second group of supporters from the earlier road crossing met me again, this time offering me a bottle of coke and some chocolate. Wow, people are so good!

The rest of the journey to  CP5 went nice and smoothly. I was thinking to myself that the long road sections were likely to fry the legs of anyone who had run too hard earlier, and as usual I was exercising my standard mantra of control, and just running a steady metronomic ultra pace. I was trying to calculate the time of day I would arrive at the Bellingham CP, eventually thinking that 3pm was the worst case scenario. Even that time left plenty of daylight to be exploited, so my plan was to go through CP5 in the minimum amount of time, and utilise the daylight to get to Byrness at a good speed.

There was plenty of race signposting near the CP in Bellingham to bring us in on the proper Pennine Way and avoid the road, as the official signposting is pretty poor here. I was a bit ahead of my worst case predictions arriving into the CP.

approaching bellingham

Approaching the Bellingham CP (Photo by Andrea Nogova)

Phlip had clearly been tasked with moving the bags of the front 3, as he was here again being his usual extremely helpful self, along with a few others manning the CP. As I simply wanted to make a few changes (the usual maps and batteries, along with socks and possibly a base layer) I was declining any offers of anything that would slow down my exit, including a shepherd’s pie.

There was a bit of discussion about the need to carry 800 calories of food with me leaving the CP, and I wondered who was making up this rubbish on the fly. I pointed out that I had eaten a grand total of about 3 chocolate snacks outside CPs in total over the course of the race so far, and I had the same amount again with me now. I did get a bag of jelly babies and added it to my food store to be transported to the finish line to placate them a bit. I did drink two more mugs of hot chocolate (Phlip knew exactly where to find it now!), and after asking was there any real fruit juice, I was also given some orange juice, which was great.

Of course I was also asking about my lead, and what was happening behind me. Apparently I had at least an hours lead built up by now. Also, interestingly, Pavel had managed to create a gap to Eugeni. I was glad to hear that. I wouldn’t like to see Pavel do all the navigation only to be beaten to the finish line. An hour was a useful lead, and all the better considering I was feeling in great shape, and fully motivated to head out and make good time to Byrness. An enquiry with the CP staff about passing shops revealed that I would pass right by a co-op and a cake shop heading through Bellingham. I’d definitely allow myself a stop in the co-op to get something different to drink.

It took me a little bit of time to get going properly again, but after about a 20 minute stop I was off and running down the road towards Bellingham village itself. I was most definitely on the home straight now, with no more full CPs left, and race-wise I was in an excellent position, in the lead and apparently faster than the chasers.

In Bellingham the cake shop came before the co-op, and after a brief look in the window I couldn’t resist going in and getting two nice cakes. I then picked up a litre of fruit juice and a bottle of strawberry flavoured milk in the co-op. A nice new variety for the palette. I threw the water from my “active” bottle and replaced it with fruit juice, keeping the weight gain to my pack from this stop to a minimum.

After walking up the steeper hills out of Bellingham I concentrated on running as much as possible for the next sections. It would be easy to relax too much into a lazy style at the point. I was very happy that I was still setting a nice running pace, even on the waterlogged gentle climbs. To be running at all on any climbs at this point in the race was a good sign that I was pacing well. I had also learned from a few minor navigation slips on this section last year, and didn’t make any deviations from the route this year.

Progress to and from the B6320 road crossing and onwards across the hills of Troughend Common was an excellent controlled ultra pace. Even the sharp climb up by the forest edge after Padon hill felt like it was at least as fast as last year. Light was rapidly running out at this point, and I was back to running by headtorch light. I was glad to have made it to within a few kilometers of the long forest fireroad section in the daylight.

The next two or 3 kilometers are an extremely slow very waterlogged marshy section that seems to take forever, before finally emerging onto the fire roads of Redesdale forest. I upped the pace to a nice controlled fast cruise for the long long descent on the fire roads, which relatively rapidly closes the distance to Byrness. On the uphill intervals here I managed to get a powerful nordic walk going with the poles, so that I was maintaining a good pace all the way.

Getting to the bottom of the fireroad descent feels like the end of the journey to get to the checkpoint at Byrness, but there are another 3 kilometers or more of flat running remaining that have to be bludgeoned through. This section had a few fallen trees to be negotiated, which disrupted my running rhythm briefly, but after what seemed like an age I eventually got to the race signs directing us on to the out-and-back trip to the checkpoint at the forest view B&B in Byrness.

As it had been dark for a while now I was starting to feel the early symptoms of sleep deprivation again. At minimum I would take a half-hour nap here in preparation for the big-push over the Cheviot hills to the finish. But I would see what the race situation was before making a final decision on what to do. Hopefully the race volunteers would have a full picture of what was going on from the tracking. My decision on what I would do here would most likely be my last big call of the race. I knew I had controlled my own pace so well to this point that I more than likely had full control over the race at this point, but I still had to be careful not to get this wrong and give Pavel a sniff of an opportunity. How to balance the timing of this last sleep could be pivotal.

Control!

The checkpoint at Forest View B&B was a very welcoming place again, as expected! Priority one for me was to get an overview of the race situation. Everything else would be governed by that. I was glad to hear that Pavel had created a gap on Eugeni arriving into CP5 at Bellingham. But I was amazed to hear that they had both elected to get some sleep there. This meant that I know had a massive lead on the ground. In reality a lot of this lead was “virtual” as I now needed to bank some sleep here for myself. But with such a huge gap I could take a relatively luxuriously long sleep to ensure I could get to the finish without needing any more stops. I felt I had control of the race now. I could decide how close to let Pavel get to me, and how much sleep to get.

I let the volunteers know that I’d like to take a 2 hour sleep here. I was very kindly offered the use of a bed by the B&B owner. I had to decline it though, as the rules state that racers cannot use hotels or B&Bs for rest, which I interpreted to rule this out. I’d just use the couch in the check-point area that every other racer would have full and equal access to.

Two hours later I was woken, and my first priority again was to get an update on the race situation. There had been plenty of drama in my absence from the real world! Eugeni had yet again had a much shortened rest in Bellingham and had left with Pavel. He was now over 3 days in, running on someone else’s race strategy and presumably deeply into sleep deprivation territory. I was guessing that at this point he was probably a danger to himself as a result, and would have been even more dependant on sticking with Pavel. They were on their way, but had yet to reach the large forest before Byrness. So they were still several hours behind by my reckoning. I was still on absolute control of the race here.

Given the lead, I elected to take another half an hour of sleep to try to ensure that there would be absolutely no need to take any power naps at all once I left Byrness. Sleeping now was a much better option, as this was the most comfortable location left on the course, and I was also utilising nighttime to sleep. The only real danger here was I was loosing my discomfort levels, so it would be harder to restart and get going again.

Half an hour later I was woken again, this time with even more high drama on the race news front. Eugeni had retired from the race, apparently due to a knee injury, and the race safety team had taken him from the course and were bringing him down here to Byrness. Pavel had had to assist Eugeni, but was now free and making progress down the forest fire roads towards Byrness. He was moving quite quickly, but I would have expected this, as this was the fastest section of this stage of the race.

As anticipated, getting up and getting going was a bit of an ordeal. The generosity continued, and I indulged myself with both a hot chocolate and a lemonade (of course!), whilst slowly getting all my things together and kitting up for departure. In the middle of all this Eugeni was brought in by the race safety team. They were of course taking good care of him. Poor Eugeni was wrecked. No doubt he would have been hurting badly at having to pull out of the race as well (as any of us would). I commiserated with him, before he was brought off for a lie down on a proper bed.

After the slow uncomfortable process of getting ready was complete I finally left the checkpoint. Pavel was a few kilometers back up the road, but I knew these were slower kilometers than they looked on paper. The reality was I had total control at this point. I would be heading up the mountain and out of site, fully rested and in excellent shape,  before Pavel would have the opportunity to see me or my headtorch. All I needed to do was keep my pace controlled and steady, and to make sure to navigate well. It took one or two hundred meters to get warmed up and get running properly again, but after that I was quickly back to banging out a steady ultrarunning controlled pace.

After turning off the road out of Byrness comes one of the more sustained steep climbs of the race, with the sharp haul up to the top of Byrness hill. There was plenty of snow on the ground to make life interesting! I made good steady progress up the hill with a controlled pole-climb, taking a small bit of time to enjoy view as I topped out onto the flatter ridgeline at the top. Back to steady running for the gentle climb along the ridgeline towards Raven’s Knowe. This section had a reputation of being a man-eating bog, but with the cold and snow temperatures, along with what I presume to be relatively new paving slabbed and boardwalked sections there was very little sinking! In fact my progress was pretty steady.

However after starting the ridge under a lovely starfilled sky, I was soon moving through fog, with visibility down to only a meter or two (pretty much confined to my head torch beam). This required very careful concentration on pathfinding. This effort made the time move along a little more quickly. Descending form Ogre Hill I very briefly lost the track, before re-finding it and heading into Scotland for the first time in the race. Almost before I knew it I was at the signpost for alternate Pennine Way routes.

I opted for the familiarity of the longer “tourist” route through the roman camps near chew green, as I knew this route from last year, which was a definite plus-point in the murk, and I knew that most of it was runnable. It really is great to run through such ancient historical sights (even if my sight of them was quite limited).

Running through the night in the Cheviots is a very lonely experience. Nobody would be up here at this time if it wasn’t for the race. I love the isolation though. There is an immense feeling of freedom being out here, totally reliant on your own skills to make your way along in the very harsh unforgiving environment of the Scottish border hills at night in January.

The section from the rejoined path split towards Refuge hut 1 before Lamb Hill is was tricky navigation in the conditions that night. There are quite a few track splits, and not all are signposted or obvious. With low visibility it would be easy to get it wrong. I did loose the track once or twice, but was able to figure it out and correct it with minimal loss of time. In general I was pleasantly surprised that I was still running nearly of all the trial here, despite the conditions and the fact that it was an overall climb.

A flashing blue light in the distance indicated that I was approaching Hut 1. One of the good things about the isolation up here is that if there is any sign of life out here then it is almost certainly race related. I had no need at all to stop at the hut, as I was in great condition and didn’t need anything in the way of food or drink (In fact I was carrying huge surplus of both). But I knew that whoever was in the hut had made the effort to be up there to look out for us racers, so a courtesy call was the least they deserved!

So in I went, intending to just say hello and thanks, and then head off again. There were two race volunteers in there in great spirits. They asked if I wanted a hot drink. I couldn’t be bothered with tea or coffee, but when I asked what they had they said hot chocolate. Bingo! These lads knew what they were doing. So I accepted the offer and sat down and hat a good chat, whilst enjoying my favourite hot drink. They were both ex-Spiners and I recognised their names from various online sites.

After a few minutes I got going again. There is the usual danger of getting too comfortable, so I wanted to get back out into the cold night as soon as possible. It only took a minute or so to get back up to speed again. I was still making excellent progress with a very controlled paced effort which still included a bit of uphill running when the slope was gentle enough. It was particularly straightforward to keep the uphill running going when there were stone slabs on the trail (which there was more of than I remembered).

I was soon recognising parts of the trail that I had run with Damon last year. He had come up to meet the leading runners. The wind was so strong last year though that we barely managed to communicate much more than basic information to each other as it was so hard to hear. In contrast things were much calmer this year. I had now climbed above the earlier mist and fog (or it had dissipated), and now had great views out over the landscape. I wondered whether Damon would make it up this year, as he had participated in the mountain rescue race just a day or two back.

From Beefstand hill (or thereabouts) I could see some lights on the mountain ahead. Knowing that only race related people would be up here I hoped this would be Damon again. Just after Mozie Law I finally met with the pair who owned the lights, which were Damon and another member of the border’s mountain rescue team. It really was a lovely experience to meet a friend up here in the remote wilderness in the middle of the night.

spine - damon

Damon during the Mountain Rescue race

Damon offered me tea or some chicken stew. I jumped at the offer of chicken stew. Damon had slow cooked it the night before, and poured it from his flask into a mug for me. It was absolutely delicious (A definite winner of “food of the race” award!), so I even went for a second helping. We all had a nice chat. Of course I asked what the gap was to Pavel, as I hadn’t seen any trace of him behind, and I had had no update on gaps since Byrness. They said I had roughly a 5 hour lead. I would have been happy with 5 kilometers, but was surprised to hear 5 hours, so had to recheck with them. If this was anything near the case then the only way I could lose from this point would be to injure myself.

With work to do, we all headed off in our opposing directions. Unlike last year, when Damon was blown clean over a fence as we were saying goodbye, Windy Gyle didn’t live up to its name this year. From the top of Russell’s Cairn here to the upper slopes of the highest point of the Pennine Way in the cheviots it is nearly all a stone slab track which is mostly a gentle climb. Damon had warned that they had found the slabs they encountered to be quite slippy. And indeed they were. Nearly every step had to be taken carefully. I could feel little skids and slides with each foot strike. Despite this I was maintaining a very solid steady metronomic pace.

After running along several kilometers of this, and starting the ramp up to climb the main peak I had a great realisation. I was running along, mostly gently climbing, and was so controlled and so relaxed that I was actually breathing through my nose. As an indication of controlled relaxed pacing this was remarkable. To be managing to do this at the start of a race would be good. But to be doing it on the last significant climb of a multi-day trail ultra was mind-blowing. This really was one of those moments that you appreciate as being the culmination of years and years of putting in the hard hours and hard work of consistent training. This was creating a good positive motivation feedback loop now. Control! Such Control.

Eventually the slope became steep enough that I had to switch to power walking up with the poles. The snow cover was also becoming thicker, so that the trail was getting harder to pick, but I still managed to find the line the whole way to the peak. On the peak I had a quick look around, knowing it was broadly speaking the start of the final push down towards Kirk Yetholm, and the finish!

After crossing the wall here there was no sign of the path with all the drifted snow covering the area. I had a few seconds of sloshing about in deep snow before finally figuring out where the underlying slabs were located. Having done that I was able to accurately guess from there where the slabs were from the pattern of the overlying snow. 5 minutes of flattish running followed, and then the trail nosedives into a very steep descent, taking me right past the edge of Hen Hole, and it’s cavernous looking depths.

Once I was on the descent I could see lights on the ridgeline ahead, indicating the presence of more race volunteers at Hut 2. Even with the aid of gravity it took another good 5 minutes or so of descending, followed by a short climb, before reaching the 2 people at the hut. Similarly to the first hut I didn’t need to head in, but with 2 people having gone to all the trouble of coming up here to look for me, and make sure I was safe, then the least I could do was call in for a quick chat.

This time the two lads were members of the local mountain rescue team. I was offered homemade soup, so asked what the flavour was. “Butternut squash, with a hint of pepper” was the answer. Now I like butternut squash soup at any time, but the way he phrased “with a hint of pepper” made me sure I was dealing with a real foodie here, so this soup was definitely going to be worth trying for epicurean reasons alone! To say the least, it didn’t disappoint. More great food on the Cheviots! I was also offered a little bit of christmas cake, which also went down a treat. One of them pointed out to me that if I got to the finish line before 10a.m. I’d complete the race in under 4 days. That appealed to me, so I had a new target to get me home.

Having gone into the hut in the dark of the night I emerged only 5 minutes or so later to see the nice dull blue glow of impending arrival of the dawn behind the mountains I had just descended. This was almost exactly the inverse of last year where I was loosing the last of daylight at this point on the Cheviots. Given that I had no sleep issues at this point in time it also meant that I should have no problem making it to the finish without needing a rest of any kind.

Again, restarting was awkward and it took me a minute or two to properly get my rhythm back and get running again. I could now see the ridgeline ahead of me more clearly in the early morning light. One small undulation ahead, followed by the last mountain of the race, the Schill. The Schill looks big, but really its a short enough climb. In my current state I knew I’d have no issues working my way over it at good speed. However the ground under foot for this section was mostly bad waterlogged boggy ground, with only occasional good trail. I was still able to keep up some kind of running pace over most of the route though, barring the steeper section of the Schill climb.

Once on the Schill, now under bright blue morning skies, I had the wonderful feeling of knowing it was downhill most of the way from here. Whilst there was still quite a few kilometers left I knew I would be able to take a lot of it at relatively high speed, trading off height for distance on the relatively good trails from here on. It really was a glorious morning as well. As good weather as you could possibly expect on the Spine. I must be getting some good karma here with such perfect conditions to finish.

The descent down off the mountain went as well as I hoped. Indeed I completed the descent towards the farm at Burnhead faster than I had estimated I would when I was on the peak of the Schill. Along the way one of the race photographers met me on the trail. I apologised for the lack of witty conversation, but I was putting all my focus into keeping up the steady controlled running pace. Just at Burnhead the Video crew were waiting, and we all made our way down to the road. Getting close!

spine decending towards finish

The last descent off the Cheviots (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The photographers and videographers all hopped into their car and drove ahead of me as I plodded on down the road. The road itself was quite icy, so I had to be careful. It would be tragic to fall and fracture something at this point (I’d probably have tried to crawl to the finish if I did). The one notorious sting in the tail on the road is one last hump to get over before descending into Kirk Yeltholm. I wasn’t going to run this one! I had more than enough time to get to KY before 10a.m. So I got my nordic walking style going and powered up the hill as best as I could manage.

One last 5 minute effort of careful descent on icy roads took me to the green at Kirk Yeltholm. I had to make a conscious effort to rouse myself to enjoy the moment and knock myself out of my metronomic forward movement. So with a cheer I raised my poles in the air and ran to the wall of the hotel to touch it and officially complete the Spine race. Woooohooooo!

spine - touching wall

Touching the wall… the official finish

I knew from the early days of this race that the pace was high, and that the winner would probably break the record. But my aim was simply to win, and everything else that derived from that was a bonus. I was absolutely delighted to beat the 4 day mark though, and equally delighted to learn that I’d knocked about 15 hours off Pavel’s old course record.

I was soon presented with my finisher’s medal, and more importantly to me my hard-won winners trophy. This trophy would stand proud in the (virtual) trophy cabinet. It was won the hard way in a good race against quality opposition. After some questions from the camera crew I was offered a seat, which I was very glad to accept!

spine - holding winning trophy

With the winner’s trophy… not letting go!

About 10 minutes later Damon arrived and whisked me away back to his house. This was perhaps the greatest reward for finishing the race! Most of the rest of the race crew followed on to the house. Despite being finished, suitably wrecked and sleep deprived, I didn’t want to crash to sleep. We had a most wonderful breakfast in Damon’s house, with lots of lively banter around the breakfast table. It’s these little things that make for special memories.

spine - breakfast at Damons

Breakfast at Damon’s, with some of the race Crew (Photo by Andrea Anogova)

Iwa surprised myself at how good a state I was in. The controlled way I had paced the entire race has meant that I hadn’t really hammered my muscles at any point. As a result the main issues I had at the end of the race were simply cuts and abrasions on my hands and feet from grit. I didn’t really have any blisters of note either. The cuts on the back of my heals did make walking awkward for a few days though.

Later in the day Pavel finished (with a gap of about 5 hours), and he was also brought back to Damon’s house where he was able to shower and freshen up. Damon and his family treated is all to a lovely dinner, with much good conversation and post-race discussion. Pavel had to leave that evening to get an early flight the following morning, but I had the pleasure of another day’s R&R in Damon’s house before making the journey back to Ireland.

And so it was that only a few days later I found I was able to go for a 2 hour+ training run on the roads through the hill of south Dublin, under the unexpectedly clear night sky. It really was remarkable how fast I recovered, even by my own standards. It just showed how well I had stuck to my overwhelming race mantra… Control!

(I’m hoping to write up one or two more articles on the Spine, one being a gear review, another being thoughts on nutrition, safety and other aspects of racing the Spine)

 

Written by Daragh Kelly - https://ultrarunningtriathlon.home.blog/

The beginnings:

I first came across The Spine Race in 2015 just before heading off to the Sahara desert for Marathon Des Sables as I dot watched an Irish athlete, Eoin Keith, complete the 430 km course that follows the Pennine Way from Edale village near Manchester to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish Borders in the middle of January and I thought to myself that it was just pure nuts.

But it somehow had got my attention so the following year was dot watching again and suggested to Sean my friend and training buddy that we should enter the baby/sprint version The Challenger in 2017…. a mere 170km with a 60 hour time limit. Seemed like a doable challenge…. what could possibly go wrong.

2017:

So in March 2016 Sean, Alan (brother in law) & myself sent off our applications with a full list of our previous race history to The Spine Challenger wondering if we would be accepted. A few days later the acceptance mail arrived and entrance fee paid…. no turning back now.

Roll on January 2017 & the three of us headed off to get the ferry to Hollyhead with another friend Brian who was acting as crew for us during the event.

Friday consisted of registration, kit check, race brief, food & few pints. Personally I felt like a duck out of water as everyone else seemed like hardened mountain men & women well capable of doing the event.

Saturday morning we headed off to the start to be fitted with trackers & the gun went off at 8am in light snow. Shortly after Jacobs Ladder the first climb we made our first navigational error in whiteout snow conditions. Following the group in front we all veered off course costing us about 1km and 10/15 minutes. This was to be the first of many. We were now at the tail end of the competitors. During daylight hours we were moving well but the real problems started once it got dark and our inability to use our Garmin sat navs efficiently. We just kept missing small turns by a few meters here and there but left us on the wrong side of walls in various farmer’s fields with no way out bar the obvious backtrack.

We stuck together and arrived at the first checkpoint, Hebden Hay, at 6am with just 2 hours to spare over the cutoff. Totally spent after c75km we had no time to sleep so just food, change of clothes and back out just before 8am. Over next few hours we moved well with no major nav errors but stopped with Brian for a bacon roll & an hours sleep in the back of the jeep.

Still at the back end of the field every time we overtook someone they seemed to retire from the race leaving us in last place all over again. Dusk arrived and with it our nav errors reappeared through the low lying fields around Cowling, Lorthersdale and making a complete hash of the section off the canal into Gargrave. Sean decided to pull out here with foot blister issues that had been slowing him down for the previous few hours.

On out into the night along the river into Malham with some interesting detours along the way and being passed by the race leaders of the full Spine Race…..who started a full 24 hours behind us. At about 4am we arrived into Mahlam village totally spent, ready to throw in the towel and get into the jeep with Brian & Sean only to be met by two members of the Spine safety crew who encouraged us to keep going as there was only about 5km to the next checkpoint with 3/4 hours to make it. Fu)k it….. on we continued up the road to Mahlam Cove where after climbing all the steps we couldn’t find a route across the top. Hallucinations stared in earnest and we were like a pair of zombies…. we were now a danger to ourselves and decided to make our way back down to Mahlam just as dawn was breaking and phone HQ to retire. Game over but were any lessons learned?

2018

Straight after DNFing whilst having a few sociable Guinness in The Board Inn in Hawes we realised that the Challenger Race was doable for us providing we could sort out our navigation issues. Maps & Garmin sat nav weren’t the problem…. it was the fools using them.

In May 3 of us flew into Leeds and between a hire car & a taxi we reccied Gargrave to Hawes with an overnight bivi on Fountains Fell. Staying in YHA Hawes the following night on our way to the airport we reccied Stoodley Pike to the road before Hebden Hey.

Roll on January after a 50 mile race in December on the Wicklow Way we were on the start line again. No issues whatsoever…Navigation was spot on all the way. Into Cp1 with over 7 hours to spare, 10 minutes cat nap in the bothy at Top Withens, 30 minutes in Mahlam Tarn & felt strong finishing in Hardraw in 51 hours…..even with terrible weather from Mahlam to the finish. Job done, box ticked, itch relieved etc…… not really.

The following morning we hobbled into Hawes YHA … Cp2 for the Spine Race (which started 24 hours after The Challenger). As Sean was getting his feet sorted by the medics I surveyed the room of athletes still in race mode with less than half their race done….. I was in awe of them. Seed planted in my head for next year…. now to convince Sean.

2019

Back home and after a week I was back into training for Ironman Austria which kept me focused until July…. 2 weeks family holiday & then it was all about The Spine…..Sean had signed up in August…… Dublin City Marathon in October, plenty of 5/6 hour night runs in crap conditions finishing up with a 100 mile race on the Wicklow Way in December in atrocious weather ….perfect Spine training……5 weeks to The Spine. Took it fairly easy over the Christmas period. Nothing to be gained…. time would tell if the training was right or not.

Kit sorted, flight to Manchester, train to Edale & 2 nights in Ramblers. It was great to catch up with Steph last years MRT female winner now on Spine Safety duty, Caroline & other members of the Spine crews. A few quiet pints to settle the nerves.

Saturday was all about registration, kit check, race brief, food, more food & an early night of fitful sleep listening to the rain and wind hopping off the bedroom window all night…. not a great omen for the week ahead.

Sunday morning up early for breakfast to discover that my left knee had locked and I couldn’t bend or straighten it…. it had been niggling me a bit for a few weeks but generally came good with light stretching….not this morning of all mornings though. Not much to do but keep doing gentle stretches and head to the start to get our trackers fitted. Weather outside was wet & wild so our original plan to wear light OMM jackets was quickly revised to our heavy Columbia jackets and waterproof leggings…. which would make moving slower.

Eight am and we are off up the road past Ramblers Inn and onto the Pennine Way proper. The wind and rain kept the pace slow but gave my knee time to free out and after an hour or two it was completely fine and didn’t bother me again until a few days after the finish. By the time we got up Jacobs Ladder and onto Kinder we were been blown all over the place. Pace was much slower than this time last year as we ran lots of this section down to Snake Pass and beyond….not a possibility today. Quick stop at Torside where MRT (mountain rescue) had kindly set up offering hot drinks & top up water. The weather calmed a bit for a few hours but the rivers were swollen and Sean managed a dunking into one of them. Head torches out and the wind & rain reappeared battering us. To our disappointment there was no sign of the burger van just before the M62 so on we moved over Blackstone Edge towards the MRT unofficial checkpoint beside the Whitehorse pub.

About 2km from here we noticed a headtorch about 50 meters off to our left & off course. We called out to it and got a confused response so we made our way over to investigate. Another competitor was trying to bivi out in a storm drain (Broad Head)…. less than 2km from hot drinks & some shelter. Turns out the guy had fallen, had a nasty laceration on his cheek, couldn’t see properly with wind blindness and was extremely cold. He had tried to hit his SoS button on his tracker but it wasn’t working and he couldn’t read his phone to call race HQ so he decided to try to bivi unsuccessfully. We gathered his stuff up and got him moving down towards the White Horse pub. I ran on ahead with some of his stuff to alert MR while Sean walked him down to safety…… if he had bivied out nobody would have seen him in the storm drain off course. Drama over and with a soup and some food we headed along Warland reservoir and up towards Stoodley Pike … a brief respite from the weather which was still battering us. Not too far now to Cp1 at Hebden Hey….. just down hill to Charlestown and a long slog up to the road before the turn off to the Cp.

We arrived in Cp1 about 2 hours later than last year but considering the weather & our good deed we weren’t too concerned but it had taken a lot more out of us. In & out in about 1.5 hours and back out into the night with plenty of moors ahead. As daylight approached the tiredness really was affecting us so we decided that if the bothy was free at Top Withens we would take an hour there. Fortunately as we arrived there were 2 or 3 competitors were just about to leave so out with the sleeping bags for an hour of sleep. Feeling refreshed we started out towards an unofficial Cp at Lothersdale set up by a local Tri club. Along the way we met up with Emiko a lovely Japanese lady & we all fell into pace for the next 24 hours. Into Gargrave at dusk & the Co Op for last supplies before Horton. Here we met up with James & Tony and the 5 of us made good time to Mahllam, over the cove and into Cp1.5 at Mahlam Tarn where Sean, Emiko & myself decided on an hours sleep before tackling Fountains Fell and Pen Y Gent in worsening conditions. We slept out on the veranda of the old house but sleep didn’t happen as someone was shaking the foundations with their snoring.

Just before leaving the checkpoint we were told by the Spine Safety crew that a diversion was in place for Pen Y Gent due to high winds and poor visibility. Two minutes later we were told that it wasn’t fully confirmed but by the time we got there a safety crew would be there to advise us one way or the other. I clarified that in the event of no safety crew being there could we then make our own decision re the diversion taking into account the weather conditions….. The answer was absolutely yes but not to worry as a crew would be there. Happy with the clarification we headed out towards Fountains Fell.

As we headed up visibility was a few meters at best with driving rain and strong winds…..goggles made visibility even worse. So it was heads down with our eyes glued to our gps units keeping on the purple line & keeping close together as a group. TBH I really struggled here after not getting any sleep due to our snoring friend. Eventually we were on the road section upto the turn off point to PYG expecting to meet a safety crew at the turn off point. Nobody there so on we went up thinking that they were further up the track or that a diversion sign had been put out further up. The weather was getting worse if that was possible but most concerning was the visibility ……Head torches had to be used as hand torches to get any idea of where we were going. About 1km from the summit we had to make a decision as there was no sign of safety crew ….. decision was to look for a diversion to Horton as there was no way that we were comfortable scrambling over the top in driving wind, rain, fog with 1 hand being used to hold a torch. Maps out, diversion found and we started making our way to the haven that is PYG cafe in Horton for a nice bowl of stew. From there its a long 23k to Hawes on a lonely exposed Cam High Road. Sean and Emiko had said to me to push on as I was moving slightly faster so on I went solo just as dawn was breaking. The last few km into Hawes take an eternity through farmer’s fields but eventually I arrived into Cp2…… about 7 hours ahead of the cutoff. The place was jammed with crew and weary competitors so after sorting my feet out I grabbed my spare sleeping bad & got 2 hours sleep. Then it was up, food, sort kit, change batteries and out to tackle Great Shunner Fell. Just as I was putting on my boots and waterproofs I was called aside and informed of a 1 hour time penalty for diverting off PYG. I was fuming & my explanation fell on deaf ears…. to be fair to Andy, who told me, he was only the messenger of the RD’s decision & I apologised for my grumpiness but did ask for him to speak with the powers that be to explain my discussion with the Cp crew in Mahlam. Out the door and down the road only to realise that I had forget to put on my waterproof leggings which were sitting on a chair in the Cp…. back I went and set off again.

Sean had gone ahead of me but I made good time going over Shunner Fell and caught up with him going into Thwaite. Here we met up with Chris Whorton and his friend where had a 5 minute break & chat before the tricky section to Keld followed by the never ending slog upto Tan Hill pub. Somewhere along here the wind & rain reappeared with vengeance. Battered again I arrived here around midnight and took an hour or so to dry off and have a freeze dried meal before tackling the bogs of Sleightholme Moor. Sean arrived in just before I headed out and was in good form but was going take his time there.

This night section into Middleton-in-Teesdale was probably the hardest for me mentally…. I saw nobody from Tan hill so it was wet, dark & lonely. I found navigation on some parts quite difficult …. just finding the right track in the dark was frustrating but generally I was heading in the right direction. Tiredness was affecting me again and I had a 5 min nap somewhere around Lunedale but it wasn’t enough. The section from here to Cp3 through the churned up farmer’s fields was mentally draining especially with the Cp so close but yet so far. Here Leslie Binns passed me but neither of us were capable of conversation …… just wanting warm food & sleep. I pulled out my phone to call my wife Orla to catch up with events at home and take my mind off my pain & suffering. If there any 1 point that I would have DNfed it was here but after the call everything seemed somewhat better….. she told me to look at all the WhatsApp messages of support for Sean & myself.

Eventually into Cp3 with about 7 hours to spare…… At this stage my brain could only handle Cp to Cp and cutoff times…..the old story of how to eat an elephant…..small chunks at a time. Shoes off and feet cleaned, powdered. They were in bits….. half a dozen big blisters & toe nails falling off. The medics were busy so I grabbed a bed to sleep for 3 hours. Just before dozing off I checked my messages to see nearly 600 whatsapps from various groups….I couldn’t believe the support, quite emotional tbh, and whilst I just scrolled through before sleep it gave me a huge boost.

Up & refreshed I got food while the medics did a super job patching up my feet. Relaxed and had a good chat with Caroline and some of the safety crew. Sean appeared but gave the bad news that he was pulling out…. his feet were killing him and making him slower than normal. He told me just to focus & get the job done…..he was making arrangements to get to Newcastle & a flight home.

Back out around 5pm along the river towards Cauldron Snout…..I really enjoyed this section and made a few calls to Orla & Brian … our crew from the 3 years ago…no better boy to get you fired up. Just as I arrived at Cauldron Snout wondering how the feck I was going to get up there Leslie appeared. He knew the way up having done the summer Spine & being timed out on the winter one last year. He was on his way to doing the double so I asked if he minded me tagging along……up and over with no problems. We were fairly evenly matched pace wise but he was stronger overall. Good time made to High Cup Nick where I took 5 minutes & he motored on. Along the way we had passed Will & Graham and Graham caught up with me on the descent to Dufton where there was a Spine half Cp….. hot water only. There we grabbed a quick nap and in the meantime Will had arrived ready to pull out. The Safety Crew encouraged him to eat and get back out there which he did…. fair play to them because he moved really well all the way to Alston.

The next section was a steep climb up to Great Dun Fell and Cross Fell. It was bitterly cold, snow, ice & wind with reported wind chill of -17. A group of 5 formed and in single file we made our way over Cross Fell and down to Greggs Hut for some of Paul’s & John’s now famous chilli noodles whilst having experienced one of most beautiful sunrises ever.

Graham, Will and myself didn’t hang around and started the long descent to Garrigill where we met a lovely mother & daughter who invited us into their home for breakfast…. we settled on coffee & homemade flapjacks…. they were offering this to all competitors wanting nothing in return & they do it every year….hats off to them. 6km to Alston along a lovely riverbank on a crisp morning …. the nicest lead into a Cp along the way.

Alston was a somewhat quieter Cp with the field more spread out and reduced numbers. Excellent food & staff. Again with 7/8 hours to spare over the cut off I set my alarm for 2.5 of sleep but slept through it for another 1.5 hours…. panic stations. Will & Graham whom I had arranged to leave with had well gone. Nothing to be done but more food and my feet sorted…. they were in a complete mess now and really hurting. Medics did a great job while I was eating my second dinner & having a good chat with Emiko….. telling her that my youngest son was stalking her all week….he’s only 9. In fact she had a huge following in Ireland. She was very tired & didn’t have much time to get a long sleep but overall she was as strong as the rest of us.

Multi tasking…food, feet, phone home & a chat with Emiko

Out again around 7pm with a probable bivi at Greenhead. These first few hours after a Cp see me in a good place feeling strong. A nice easy to navigate section I soon met up with Leslie and we moved well together with easy conversation. About an hour before Greenhead we caught up with Will & Graham with all of us planning a hour or 2 sleep before tackling Hadrian’s Wall.

Arriving at the public toilets there between 4 & 5 am we all started boiling water for a hot meal & got our sleeping bags out for a few hours sleep…. the stench from the men’s toilets was too much for a few of us so we slept out in a covered area…. it was -5. Waking up around 8am I made some porridge whilst trying to defrost my shoes which had frozen solid while I slept….the hand dryer in the wc was put to good use.

Breakfast at the Greenhead Hilton

Beautiful morning on Hadrian’s Wall with nobody in sight. I was moving well but did have to stop a few times to drain & tape blisters. The downhills were agony on my feet which were now a problem. Off the wall and the long forest sections to Horneystead Farm for some warm food and coffee. There I met with Peter Hoffmann and continued together to Bellingham feeling better after the food stop.

Arriving in Bellingham around 6pm the Cp was like a war zone….. bodies looking shellshocked, kit everywhere and a big queue for the medics…. nothing to be gained hanging around here as there was no chance of sleep. So food, kit check by safety team and got a great job done on my feet by the medics. Out the door around 9pm with Graham & Will and a vague plan to bivi in the forest section on the way into Byrness

We moved well together but tiredness hit us around 2am near the end of the detour around Padon Hill so as soon as we got into the shelter of the forest we found a spot under trees and got our sleeping bags out for two hours sleep……our last before the finish nearly 24 hours away.

Arriving at Cp5.5 in Byrness around 8am, meeting Will’s parents outside, we were given drinks & a hot meal by Colin & Joyce the owners of the B&B where the checkpoint is set up……great supporters of the Race for many years…. many thanks. Max 30 minute stop so back out for the final push of 44km over The Cheviotts….we had about 7 hours of daylight but this was going to take a fair bit longer than that.

Straight into a hard uphill climb for a few kms making our way to Hut 1 & a chance to make up a hot meal. Everything was now taking forever with us frequently having to stop just to sit & close our eyes for a few minutes. My feet were in absolute agony…. just think of walking on lego in your bare feet for hours on end. We met some woman with her dog along the way who was planning on entering next years event…..I think she was shocked by the state of us. Hut 1 arrived so food and a drink and back out relatively quickly……About 5/6 hours to Hut 2.

Dusk on The Cheviotts

Weather cleared up with some views and spectacular scenery especially around Windy Gyle …..we were really up in the clouds. The light began to fade along with our energy ….we were running on empty with nothing left. The ground became icy just before Hut 2 so traction aids on and soon we were greeted by a welcome party from Hut 2. Safety crew led by Steph ( mad as a brush in the best possible way) & Laurence came out to meet us & walk us into the Hut. More food and the final 10k or so ……about 3/3.5 hours of agony for my feet.

Finishing was only a matter of time now and the realisation of what was achieved was beginning to dawn on us. It was quite emotional but that was probably more to do with tiredness …. real men etc. Orla had phoned me to say that Sean had got the ferry over & driven up to the finish with his wife and two friends Brian & Brian….. This news was completely chocking me up especially since I had no plan made to get home or anywhere to stay.

An amusing drug dealing exchange with Graham on a Scottish mountain, worthy of a cameo in Trainspotting 2, had us ready for the final sprint to the finish….We managed to run a whole 200m to a great crowd of supporters and spine crew. Wall of The Border Hotel kissed and a pint of Guinness handed to me by one of the Brians…. down in one go….how it stayed down I will never know.

We ended up having a few pints in the bar & Sean had booked a room upstairs. It was so nice just sitting with friends, a few drinks & a stupid grin on my face.

Aftermath

Three weeks later I’m still coming to terms with it all. Physically the tiredness was something else. If I closed my eyes at all during the first week I was gone asleep. Every night I was waking up every 2 hours or so in a panic thinking that I was still out there on the course. This passed after about 2 weeks. Blisters took about a week to dry up and I’m now the proud owner of 1 toenail. No feeling in my big toes yet. I wore a pair of runners 3 sizes bigger for about a week waiting for swelling to come down. The only real injury is my knee which troubled me on day one….it’s some tendon damage in the back of my knee which will take time to sort out but in the meantime is quite painful especially at night.

Emotionally its been more of a rollercoaster. On the journey home I read through all the messages of support and it created a nice timeline of events during the week and some realisation of what I had done. In my head I just went out for a long “run” but reading the messages back tells me something else…. how family & friends went about their daily lives…work, school, travelling to various part of the world for an entire week and all the time I was just moving north, eating or sleeping…..but yet they were all glued to my little dot on a map. Haven’t got my head around it yet. Honestly I am totally humbled by all the kind words from everyone and especially with so many of them coming from much more talented & accomplished runners than myself.

What went right……Well before heading over to the event I knew that so many things had to go right if I had any chance of finishing. Mentally I think I’m fairly strong & can push through the bad times. Breaking the event down into more manageable sections worked well for my sanity…..ie getting from Cp to Cp with X number of hours to spare & tried to keep that cushion all the way….. being tight on the cutoffs all the way would have affected me mentally & physically through reduced sleep/rest time. The weather was another major factor…. heavy snow in the Cheviotts would have dented my chances seriously but we were lucky IMO that the worst of the weather was upto Middleton and after that it was just very cold but dry. Kit wise everything worked well with the exception of my tinted goggles. The best bit of kit was my paramo jacket. I wore this most of the time with just a marino wool top over a Bjerne long sleeved string top and was warm all the time…. I didn’t let it get wet & wore a Columbia outdry jacket during the heavy rain over the first few days. Sleep wise I think I did ok….often I pushed hard just to make it into a Cp a few minutes earlier which resulted in more rest/sleep..fairly obvious but try to tell that to your body when you are trying to push on. I left myself open to the idea of biving out when totally knackered & the two times I did this made a huge difference to my pace afterwards. Feet wise I don’t know what else I could have done. They were ok upto Middleton and after that it was managing them as best I could …..& suck up the pain. In all I feel lucky that most things went in my favour and gave me the opportunity to finish.

Finishing up with Graham & Will was great …..Mentally I don’t think that I could have done the Cheviotts on my own & I think that the 3 of us worked well together & had good craic along the way. Well done to Leslie on his Summer/Winter Double & the best of luck on his future exploits. Emiko is a fantastic woman and came so close to finishing……. hopefully she will be back again to get that medal.

The Spine crew… safety, checkpoint, medics, transport etc are a special bunch of volunteers. Each and every one of them will just do about anything to get you to the finish line….safely. Scott & Phil should be so proud of them. They really make the race.

Sean my running pal will be back again and is already tempting me by saying a two time finish would be special…..way too soon pal.

Orla and the kids thanks for all the support over the years. At times juggling work, kids & sport can be difficult but we manage well….. I will let you know soon about the next adventure. Would I do it again? … as I finished never but as time passes…….

Finish Wall with Graham & Will
Finish with Dee, Sean & the 2 Brians
Battered feet

…..Seven months on & I have entered The Challenger again in 2020. Luckily the full was sold out so wasn’t an option. Only back running since May with long recovery from above knee injury. After an MRI scan showed up torn ligaments and cartilage (again) running was not possible but hours of turbo training & gym work have paid off so I’m back in the Dublin/Wicklow mountains with Cody (dog) who had put on a few lbs whilst I was injured.

Roll on January 2020

Written by Allan Rumbles - https://ogeerunner.wordpress.com

“The Spine Race should be hard and glorious. And it was.”

Damian Hall

The Spine Race, for those who don’t know is a 268 mile non stop foot-race from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders along the entirety of the Pennine Way. Its described as Britains most brutal race & the 2015 race very probably was…

Spine route

The 2014 Spine race left me a broken man with just 34 miles left to go until the finish. 2014 Blog Cellulitis in both my feet finished my race & just about finished me off as well. Learning from my mistakes I made my plans for the assault on the Pennine Way in 2015.

New kit & lots of extra foot care was the order of the day for me. I talked over my change of regime & my race plan with a couple of my running buddies but as with all plans, they have to remain fluid on a race such as this.

Race Day

I stayed at some friends (Liz Greg & Simon Edwards) house the night before the race, the wind was certainly howling & I was hoping it was going to calm down a bit before the race started. It wasn’t to be & on our drive over to the start, my wife phoned me to say that she had seen we were going to have a 2hour delay to the start due to, well, adverse conditions…. I phoned through to HQ & queried it only for it to be confirmed by Scott the RD, race start will now be 11:30am. That’s a bugger, Simon quickly span the car around & off we went to the nearest café for a coffee. Sitting there & discussing the weather with them, we realised that it was in for the foreseeable future & that I & the rest of the racers would have to make the best of it.

Coffee time

Race start

Finally arriving at Edale Village Hall, we all milled around for ages as the news was trickling through that the Mountain Safety Team (MST) had already been deployed to assist a runner from the Challenger race which had started at 6:30am. Crikey, they must be tough conditions if people are having trouble already. Catching up with some old buddies, we all discussed how our race tactics could change due to the weather although the one thing we all agreed on was just to get the race started as we were all chomping on the bit & raring to go.

And we’re off

Starting just after 11:30am, we were away. Take it steady Allan & stick to your plan. I found myself walking up the Hill with Rob Coleman who’s taking on the 6633 in a few weeks time & we chatted about our expectations in the race. (The night before we talked in the pub & a bet was made with Andrew (Fergie) Ferguson who was doing the Challenger. If I made it to Hawes before him & finished the Spine, I would win a free Arc of Attrition place in February. If not I would have to pay for it)

15minutes into the race & I had my first kit malfunction with my pack cover coming off & I didn’t notice. Happily though a young lady who was out walking caught me up & handed it back. We all walked the hill & just before Jacobs Ladder I popped into the INFO hut to sort the pack out. Coming out of the hut I found myself in last place & even behind the sweeper. Hmmm, I seem to have been in this situation before. Ah well, never mind, head down & carry on. Climbing Jacobs Ladder I started to catch up the other racers & quickly passed a few. The pack cover was again problematic & kept coming off, I stopped again to adjust it but with the wind being so strong it kept coming off. Stopping one last time I clipped it to a couple of points on my pack & hoped that would keep it safe.(It didn’t) Moving on now, I was approaching Kinder Scout & the wind was really picking up & coming in very hard from the West. Heading towards Kinder Downfall & I could see the waterfall defying gravity & going up rather than down. This is where I took the 1st of hopefully many photographs, (actually it was the only photo I took).

Kinder Upfall

Crossing the rocks to the right I had my 2nd kit malfunction when my pack cover came undone again & the wind caught it throwing me over the rocks in a near somersault. Picking myself up I saw the cover flying off into the distance, I think it ended up in Holland…. I dusted myself down & moved on. I wasn’t overly bothered about the cover as all my equipment was in dry bags so it wouldn’t get wet, just the pack would soak up some water if it rained. I didn’t realise it at the time but in doing my circus stunt I had lost my food (Still had my emergency rations) & a water bottle which held half of my water supply, they’re probably still lying up there so if you find it, feel free to keep it.

Thankfully, there were no more dramas for a while & I ploughed on as best I could, passing other racers & keeping up a fairly decent pace. The wind was still relentless & driving in hard from the West, I was starting to struggle a little as the wind was whipping through my glasses & causing a few problems with my left eye which eventually led to wind blindness or a frozen cornea although I didn’t realise it at the time. Moving through & across the roadhead to go over the M62, I saw a couple of runners in the MST vehicle who looked to be in a bit of distress. Not wanting to stop in case I started to get cold I gave the MST my race number, said thanks for being there & cracked on & over the road-bridge towards the White House Pub. Walking across Blackstone edge the weather really took a turn for the worse with the 80-100+mph winds coming in from the west, the snow decided to show up. A complete whiteout & it was the type of snow that was dry & hard & battered you into submission. This is where my GPS decided to die with low battery power. Bugger, there I was, stuck on the side of the hill, dead GPS, almost blind in one eye so I couldn’t focus on my map when the wind was whipping it around.(it was fairly easy to keep focusing on the arrow on the GPS as I kept scrolling in & out & it highlighted my route) Don’t panic! Never panic, even though I couldn’t see more than 10ft in front of me, I thought through my options, either stop & bivvy to wait until the storm passes or take a heading from my compass & keep moving forward. Compass it was! Crouching down, I took 2 minutes to check the map & take a rough bearing as to my direction. Treading carefully now, I moved on as fast as I could but was still probably a snails pace but at least I was moving. Checking the compass every minute or so to make sure I was still heading in the right direction, the snow was still hitting me horizontally & making what vision remained in my left eye pretty much useless. Thankfully after about 15 minutes, I picked up what looked like a trail, following it for a while I made out the distinctive footprint of an Adidas Kanadia trainer. That has to be one of the racers just in front of me, fairly fresh as the snow had hardly covered it. It was pointed in the same direction as I was travelling so I followed it. Thankfully it was heading in the right direction & although I lost it just before the trail towards the Pub, the snow storm had blown itself out & I could see the pub in the distance. The one good thing about such a strong wind is that even though a weather front can hit you in moments, it can disappear just as quickly. Down into the pub & I gave my number to the marshal who sensibly was well wrapped up in her car & only just wound her window down to check if I was ok & if I needed anything. Dipping into the shelter of the pub I took stock, changed my batteries in my GPS, cracked open my emergency rations & moved off as quickly as possible. Looking at the racers in the pub grounds, I don’t think I was the only one who got caught up in the storm as we all looked a little shell shocked.

Next stop was the CP at Hebden Bridge, no further dramas, until I was on the approach to the CP when for some reason I thought I knew the way & veered off track ignoring the map & the GPS & headed towards the town. Still can’t figure out why, I just thought that I recognised the way & took that. I ended up in the town & realised I’d made a major cock-up. Out with the map & the GPS again & I plotted a route towards the CP. I only added a couple of miles on but was a little disappointed with myself for being such an idiot. Walking through the town a lady stopped her car to check if I was ok & told me I was on the wrong route, “It’s ok, I know, I’m just coming into it arse about face”. Amazingly, even though it was about 4am I also bumped into some local teenagers who were gobsmacked to see a dishevelled looking chap striding through their village in the early hours. They walked with me for a while chatting about what the heck I was doing. I told them & they asked if I was winning, “Nah, I’m just a little lost” I replied. “No shit mate” was the reply back & we had a laugh about it. Wishing me well, they walked back down the hill probably talking about how daft we all were.

Finally arriving at the CP, I asked the marshal if Race mum, Nici Griffin was about. If I’m honest I didn’t really want to see her but having had the news earlier in the week that my dad had been rushed into hospital & may not come out I’d talked to Nici & asked her that if he did go, then would she tell me the news. Nici was an absolute star about this & insisted that I give my sisters her own personal phone number as well as the race contact details for any news. Just for this I am forever grateful to her. (Oh, he did make it & came out, we popped in to see him on our way home & told him to stop scaring me like that)

Best laid plans & all that….

Before the race, my plan was to hit each CP, eat some food, sort out my kit & get out as fast as possible sleeping on the trail, but the weather was so bad & I made the decision to crash out for an hour or so. I ate some food, meatballs & cheesy mash I think it was, then had a quick chat to the medics.

“I have a problem with my eye”

Tom : “Left eye”

“Yes”

Tom: “There’s a few with this already”

“Ok, I’ll have a kip then come along & see you in a bit”

I grabbed an hours sleep on one of the bunks then headed down to the kitchen for some more food, eating some breakfast I chatted to a couple of other runners, some who were heading out again & others who had DNF’d. I told them about my eye problem & they said that some of the racers were being stopped because of this. Bugger that I thought, I’ll just keep it covered & it’ll be alright.

Back into the medical room, it was the only place with space to sort my kit. One of the medics asked if I was ok.

“Yes” I replied, “all good thanks”

Lydia “Do you have a problem with your eye?”

“Me, I did but its ok now thanks”

Lydia “Are you sure?”

“Yes, it was a little troublesome but its fine now”

Lydia “Have you heard that we’ve pulled racers because of this?”

“I’ve heard a rumour that you may have yes”

Lydia “So you’ve no problems with your eyes then”

“No, they’re fine thanks, I’m just a little short-sighted”

Lydia “I see, are you one of those really stubborn types?”

“Who me, no I’m never stubborn”…

Lydia “Ok, but any issues at all make sure you come to see us straight away”

I know, that was very probably stupid of me but I had my race head on & was determined to get to Kirk Yetholm no matter what the cost & I always had another eye. The disclaimer here is that the medics were absolutely amazing & catered for all of our medical needs, coming up against a stubborn old bugger like myself, they knew I had a problem but also knew I wasn’t going to stop so allowances were being made.

Onwards & upwards

Leaving the CP, there seemed to be a lull in the weather & I took full advantage of it. Striding out, I was looking forward to getting to Gargrave & the hot pasties in the Co-Op. I joined up with a couple of other racers & we all made good progress towards Lothersdale, I stopped here in the shelter of a house for a couple of minutes & got my night gear on. The weather had turned again & it was now sleeting, it was around this time that I started to get a little cold. So cold that I actually wondered what the hell I was doing there & wondering if I could justify a DNF to myself. Thankfully after about an hour I shook these thoughts off & the DNF monster never entered my mind again. Moving across the moors, through Thornton & finally hitting the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Being a Narrowboat owner, I’m always glad to see a canal & was heartened to see a few boats out on the “Cut” braving the winter weather. I caught up with another racer here, Spencer Laine & we ran together for a few miles until we got to Gargrave when he pushed on & I hit the Co-Op. It was a great chance to re-fuel & make a couple of kit adjustments. The weather was still pretty poor & I felt ridiculously cold when I stopped so after a couple of minutes I pressed on as quickly as possible. Passing the marshals back onto the Pennine Way & I gave them my number & said I was ok, my teeth were chattering again but I quickly warmed up walking up the hill. Next stop was CP 1.5 at the Malham Centre. Approaching Malham cove I caught up with several other racers & formed up with them. They had all reccied the route before so I switched off & just plodded along with them. Bit of a mistake as they navigated by committee & after the 3rd bit of pilot error I pulled out my map & GPS & moved on. No disrespect to the chaps but I was tired & needed a coffee at the CP. Taking it steady over the “Moonscape” of the cove I pushed on hard after I crossed it. I was soon joined by another runner, I think it was Roberto & he was asking me if this was the way to the coffee. “I bloody well hope so” I replied. We quickly made it to the CP where the legendary John Bamber was on duty. Getting us in & brewing up he told us of the race update in that due to the conditions we weren’t going to go up Pen-Y-Ghent. The wind was gusting upto 100mph & the MST had made the right decision in making us detour. I was quite glad about this as I’m no good with heights & struggled going up it last year when the weather was good!

Bloody hell fire

Leaving the CP, I was joined by Andy “Fergie” Ferguson. The bet was still on & I was surprised I had caught him up. By now the weather was really giving it to us in spades & on the crossing of Fountains Fell we felt the full force of the wind, Fergie was struggling a little here & needed a pit stop for a kit adjustment but we were totally exposed for ages until we got to the descent & I found a small hollow where he managed to sort himself out, I’m not saying I wasn’t unhappy about having to stop but those were about 5minutes when I was wishing he would hurry the heck up. After he was ready we cracked on but my concentration had slipped a little & we missed the path, only realising a few minutes later. Stupidly, we instead of cutting back the 200yards or so, we made our way across the fell to try to get back to the track. We finally made it but it took a while & we were certainly glad to see the trail again. Reaching the base of Pen-Y-Ghent we came across the MST who were safely ensconced in a 4X4 at the base of the Mountain. They gave us the news that the race was being held at Horton & that we were to detour round the front & down the hill towards the café where we were bivvying out. The route had been glowsticked & they warned us that the wind was even worse than what we had encountered already. They weren’t wrong! Marching up the hill, Fergie told me that he had lost his bivvy off his pack when he fell over earlier in the race.

“K’ing hell mate, this is serious, this is no place to lose your bivvy, we need to contact your mate Sharon”

Making it to the emergency tents the MST had put up, we clambered into one & Fergie made the call to Sharon to meet him in Horton. Thankfully Sharon agreed to meet him & we prepared to go through THE GATE!

Steve Baker captured the sheer brutality of the wind in a short video

Bloody hell fire, that wind tore into us with a vengeance & it took all of our strength to open the gate leading down the hill. Piling through we made a relatively fast descent although we missed the turn halfway down & just carried on to the bottom. We made it to the Café & checked into the marshal there. We were told that we would be on hold for at least another hour. Grabbing another coffee, we both agreed that was one journey we would tell the grandchildren!

Restart

8am & we were off again, now moving as a threesome as Colin Searle a Spine finisher I ran with a bit last year joined up with us to make the journey to Hawes. Colin had arrived at Horton a couple of hours earlier than us & grabbed 40 winks although he said it was a fitful sleep. Not really surprised after running through those conditions on Fountain Fell, I was way too wired to even contemplate sleeping. Hawes wasn’t too far away & despite the still very strong winds we made good progress although the stretch on the trail by Dodd Fell & Sleedale was pretty damn horrendous with all three of us being blown off our feet several times. Rounding the corner & making the descent into Hawes I slipped & twisted my knee. Feeling something give, I lay there for a minute thinking “bugger, hope this isn’t a game over tumble”, thankfully I walked/limped it off by the time we made it into the CP.

Quick chat with Nici & she gave me the “No news about your Dad” statement I’d hoped for. With that off my mind, I threw my wet kit on a radiator & grabbed some food. We only stayed here for a couple of hours & I managed about 45 minutes sleep before seeing the medics to get my feet & my knee taped up. The feet for a couple of blisters & the knee was mainly precautionary as they thought I may have stretched/torn a few fibres in one of my ligaments.

Getting ready to leave, I managed to get a video message off to Jill via Darren Barnes from the MST.

Tan Hill

Leaving Hawes, we said cheerio to Fergie as he was basking in the glow of the Challenger finish & Colin & myself cracked on putting in a good pace towards Thwaite & the rocky path at Kisdon. I was pretty much dreading this as the Kisdon Trail tore my feet to shreds last year. Surprisingly though, we made it through without any twists, strains or sprains. Just the bog at Tan Hill to go & we were through what I thought were two of the worst parts of last years race. Approaching Tan Hill pub, I was seriously flagging & told Colin that I was going to bivvy for a couple of hours as I wanted to cross the bog feeling fairly refreshed. He agreed & we found a barn with a lean-to & crashed out in that for two hours. It’s amazing how comfy a pile of old sheep shit & straw is when you’re really tired. Up, a quick cup of very strong coffee & we were on our way again. Making our way through the bog I did end up going in up to my waist again but other than that we navigated our way through remarkably smoothly.

Leaving behind two of my worst parts of the race from last year we made our way to Middleton & despite the stops & the weather, we arrived about 8hrs ahead of my schedule. Food & a couple of hours sleep were the order of the day for us here. After a couple of platefuls of food I cleaned & disinfected my feet & was going to crash in a dorm when one of the MST chaps said that his private room was empty & we could crash in there if we wanted. Result! Nice quiet room with an en-suite, how could we say no. Making the most of a comfy bed I was out like a light for a couple of hours. We woke to the news that unless we got to a makeshift CP before 10pm we would have to detour around Cross Fell as a massive storm was heading into the area & 10pm was going to be the cut-off. No worries, we thought, we’ll easily make that & prepped up ready to leave. Ten minutes before we went, the news came through that anybody who hadn’t left the CP already had to take the detour as the front had moved in a lot quicker than anticipated. The checkpoint crew & MST were bloody marvellous here as they relayed the instructions to each & every racer giving clear & concise instructions as to what we were going to expect.

Heading off, now we were a trio again with Colin Searle, Colin Fitzjohn & myself. Finding the diversion we followed the glowsticked route as it took us behind Cow Green reservoir, along the Tyne Trail & off the edge of our Harveys maps. We met up with a mobile CP crew out on the road & they pointed us in the right direction telling us to just keep going up the road for miles until we see the glowsticked turn. We did, it was.. The weather had deteriorated yet again with the wind increasing & the snow falling. We kept a steady pace up & eventually came across the great white beast or Daisy, Sean Powers campervan. Getting us aboard to take our numbers, Mark Caldwell (Spine Veteran) made us all a coffee whist he gave us some detailed directions to Garrigill where we would pick up the Pennine Way again. He emphasised the safety point & told us to keep pushing hard & to stay warm as quite frankly the weather had turned really bad by now, the wind was gusting to 80-100 & the snow was coming down so hard it was a complete whiteout in places. Despite this we all made good progress & followed the route that Mark had put into my GPS arriving at Garrigil a few hours later. We picked up the Pennine way again & pushed on towards CP4 at Alston. We got to the CP well ahead of schedule & I asked Nici if there was any “News”. No News again, all good as far as I was concerned. Getting us up into the common room, Nici told us the race was being “Held” here for a while & asked me to come down again when I had got a bit settled. Popping down after I’d tended my feet, Scott & Nici asked what our plans were for this Checkpoint, I told them that we were going for a six hour stop here. Two hours for faff & four hours sleep. Ok , they said, we’ll mark that down but it’s more than likely you’ll be held here for a fair few hours. As it goes, we were eventually held for twenty three hours.

Eating, sleeping & racing cars

These twenty three hours were put to good use as I showered, managed to dry out all of my kit & eat enough food to feed a small army. Many thanks to Lili & the rest of the volunteers in the kitchen who did an excellent job in feeding fifty or so racers plus the MST, the CP crew & the Medics who all ended up camping here. The best bit for me though was finding a Scalextric set & setting it up with the two Colins. I think I had more fun assembling it than I did playing with it. I clicked onto twitter for a quick catch up as although we as no phone signal, we did have some Wi-Fi. I had to chuckle when somebody posted about how tough it must be for me out there braving the storms as I headed up to Scotland. I did come clean though & replied that I was at that moment, drinking a coffee, chocolate & donuts & playing Scalextric. Hmmm, this race wasn’t supposed to be fun…

News came through that there would be a mass start at 8am but we would be updated with a weather report at 6am although the White Board told us what we would be expecting.

Spine race wind report

My pack was a little problematic this time out & was moving around on my shoulders & had cut into them a little, so getting them taped up was a priority. The medics taped them in the evening so that I would only have to get my feet taped just before we set off in the morning.

6am & we were told that we’d be off at 7am instead of 8am. Excellent, everyone was just glad for the race to be restarted & to get back on the course. There was a lull in the weather & we were all going to take advantage of it, but the race to beat the Storm was on.

Just past seven & we were off again. Just 40 miles to go to CP 5 at Bellingham with only the MUD ROAD in the way, well there were lots more than the Mud road, but that part of the race destroyed me last year & had given me nightmares for days after the race.

Putting in a good pace we made it to Hadrians Wall but looking to the West we could see the storm approaching fast, heads down & passing the Visitors centre, the wind really picked up & we had to battle a continuous 80mph windstorm all along the wall & the Military Way. We finally had a respite when we got to the forest & boy, although we were glad of it we knew that the Mud road was fast approaching. Finally making the turn into it, we were greeted by a completely different road from last year. It was fenced off at the end & that meant no lorries had recently been down there. I was grinning like a Gibbon walking up there. We made it through in about 5minutes & with absolutely no swearing from me this time. Now that the third and last part of my nightmare sections from last years race were behind me, I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders & I knew that I was going to finish this race. A couple of hours later we got to Bellingham & the last CP.

Into Bellingham & it was quite the bunfight in the sleeping area! We dumped our gear & tried to get it dried as best as possible over the one little heater that was in the entrance. Tucking into omelette & beans we decided that the best course of action was to get straight out again & bivvy on the route. Talking with the marshals & looking at the maps, we thought we saw a barn a couple of miles up the road that we could sleep in so we packed up our gear & set off. Unfortunately, there was no barn so we cracked on & eventually came to the barn I DNF’d in last year. It was boarded up quite solidly! Damn, no sleeping in here either. I must of really shocked the farmer last year when he went past as I was brewing up waiting for my lift….

Right decision made, next stop Byrness where we could hopefully get some sleep. This was now unknown territory for me & this is where my race began. The last 34 miles of a 268mile race, I’d come this close last year & nothing was going to stop me now. Although ridiculously tired I was really enjoying myself & had a beaming smile on my face, but it has been suggested that we had lost the plot a little & insanity was creeping in. Yep & looking at Colin Fitzjohns Video of us on that section, we very probably were.

Making good time through Redesdale Forest we hit the forest road, this was such a treat for us after wading through bogs for the previous 240 or so miles. We would have loved another 30miles of this to the finish but although this wasn’t to be we made the most of it all the way into Byrness. Shortly before we got to the mini CP, Richard Lendon & Simon Beasley came powering past, both of them looking very strong. We had a quick chat & Richard berated us for not going into every cake shop we came across, saying that we should get an hours time penalty for every one we missed. I said that it would have played havoc with my diet if I started scoffing cakes at every opportunity.

Finally making it into Forest View B&B at Byrness, the owners Colin & Joyce fed us homemade soup &sausage & mash. Great food & they were perfect hosts. (A small donation has gone off to the Great North Air Ambulance Service that they support) Taking advantage of the comfy seats we crashed out for an hours sleep. Thankfully nobody took photos of us & put them on any social media sites, Oh wait……..

The Colins sleeping.sleepyhead

After a couple of hours, off we went again, this time into glorious sunshine. The weather was absolutely perfect & we were all smiles as we headed off up the road to re-join the Pennine Way & finish the race. Just 26miles to go, a mere Marathon distance, having already done nine of them in horrendous conditions, this was going to be a walk in the park.

Us leaving Byrness

Climbing Byrness Hill & heading towards the Cheviots it was so warm, the jackets came off & the suncream went on. Only kidding about the suncream, but it was the warmest it had been all week.

Climbing out of Byrness

Out on the cheviots

Splitting the final section into three 15km sections, Hut No1 was our first aim & we made good progress up to there where we met up with Mark Caldwell again. He was with MS Team 4 checking to make sure everyone was ok. We took advantage of the stop for a coffee & some Noodles. Mark was “Paying it forward” with the food & we were eating the previous racers noodles so we left him with whatever food we could spare so he could prepare it for the next racers. Great idea & we ate our fill before heading out again. The weather, was turning again & by the time we hit Windy Gyle, it was dark, snowing & blowing a gale again.

Skirting the Scottish/English border for a while, we encountered the worst snow of the race so far & it was drifting up to 3 foot in places, it made for a tricky time if you stepped off the path & I ended up going up to my waist on a couple of occasions. Nothing too serious & a lot drier than the bogs I’d been in earlier in the race. I was really enjoying this section though & loved going through the snow, even getting a little “Skiing” in on the downhill sections. Unfortunately I was loving it so much I had pushed on quite far ahead of the two Colins & made it to Hut 2 about 20 minutes before them.

A couple were in the hut waiting & I mistook them for a safety team, I asked if they were making a brew & the chap said I was welcome to make my own. Fair enough, I took off my pack & made ready to get a brew on. The lady then said not to worry & that she would make it. She prepped her stove & after a few minutes, there was still nothing happening. “Hang on” I told her, “let’s use my Jetboil, it’ll be done in a couple of minutes”

Firing it up, she made a couple of coffees within minutes, always good to have decent kit. I used a Trangia last year & found it severely wanting in the conditions we encountered then let alone what we were encountering this year. Drinking the coffee & tucking into a pack of expedition food, the two Colins, arrived. Throwing some more water into the Jetboil, they quickly had a coffee each as we all warmed up, took photos & sorted out our kit for the final push towards Kirk Yetholm.

Hut 2 with Colin

Me & Colin Searle at hut 2

15Km to go & we would be there, first though we still had to navigate some pretty awful Icy conditions & climb The Schil, the last big hill before the finish. Climbing it, we all took plenty of tumbles as the ice was a couple of inches thick in places & with new snow sitting on top was pretty lethal. After about my 20th time of going on my arse, I remembered I had my microspikes in my pack. Tiredness was playing a major factor in my decision making & putting them on made a huge difference & I could stride out quite comfortably. I was cursing myself for not remembering about them earlier. Although I was fairly sure footed now, we still made slow progress as Colins spikes had broken earlier in the race & his replacements hadn’t turned up as promised.

The last leg.

Well, here we were. The last 6 miles & boy we were going to enjoy them. The mood had certainly lightened & although we were going slow, we were still making steady progress. The route was fairly easy to follow until we came to a farm. Here we ended up walking alongside a river, literally alongside a small river. We were bumping our heads on overhanging branches from a farmers garden. After a bit of a large whack on my head, I had a little bit of a meltdown & attacked every further branch with my poles, cursing the farmer for not being considerate to folk & trimming back his f**king trees. The two Colins had a little giggle at my expense & looking back I can certainly see the funny side of it. Pushing on now, my hissy fit over & done with, we made our way to the bridge over the river, crossing it & onto a metalled track. We soon went past a MS team, waiting by their vehicles in case anybody had any last minute problems. Saying thanks for being there we pressed on to the end of the track & onto the road. We knew that we were only about twenty minutes away & I turned & shook both their hands saying that it had been a pleasure to share such a great journey with two fantastic friends & that I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.

Pretty soon, Kirk Yetholm hove into sight, grinning madly now we could see a welcoming committee just outside the Border Hotel. Resisting the urge to run in like madmen, we waved our sticks & strode, chins out upto the Hotel Wall, finally touching it after 131hours 30minutes of racing in the worst conditions I have ever experienced.

Greeted by the Scott, Phil & Nici along with a lot of the race crew, I got my medal, shook Scott & Phils hands & had a huge hug from Nici, telling her thanks for not being the bearer of bad news but also thanks for saying that she would if needed to. I then turned to my wife, gave her a huge kiss & a cuddle as she handed me a bottle of beer & a packet of TUC crackers. Ah, she knows me all too well does Jill. With that, Colin Searle, Colin Fitzjon & myself shook hands, said cheers & drank the beer. The race was over.

Spine finish 2

Spine finish 1

Relieved yes, elated NO! For some strange reason, I never felt the huge satisfactory feeling I normally get from finishing a massive race. There may have been a few reasons for this. My Dad being ill had been on my mind all week, the race being put on hold several times may have contributed or the fact that I still felt relatively fresh at the finish so could I have done more, been faster? Who knows…..

Written by Debbie Brupbacher - http://macrunningadventures.blogspot.fr/

As I sit in my warm living room trying to put a few paragraphs together of my race, am I finding it hard to start trying to describe this mammoth experience and all that I went through.  It is so overwhelming knowing where to start, and it has been stopping me from writing.  So I decided to do it in a format of a question and answer session, and use the questions people often ask me when we get chatting about my endeavours. 

At the start in Edale
I ran this race to support The Gracias Foundation. Gracias’s mission is to empower vulnerable and impoverished women and children with holistic resources to lead dignified and self-sustainable lives. They work with small grassroots organizations that are already catalysing social change in their communities but just need an extra boost to maximize their impact – like the safe house in the Congo that heals young women and girl survivors of sexual violence, or the youth home in Ethiopia that cares for adolescent orphans living with HIV. Thanks for taking the time to donate using the link on the left hand side of the page.

 

Why did I choose to do this particular race?

I entered this race to give myself a challenge between seasons.  However when I entered the race I thought it was 268km and it was only after I had paid and started to read through the details of the race that I realised it was 268 miles.  This was a bigger challenge than I thought and was the first time I got really scared and would not be the last time.   This would be the longest race I would be attempting and I had trouble fathoming how long the distance was and whether I could even complete the distance.

Sunrise at Walshaws Reservoirs
However, there was another reason why I wanted to do this race; it’s also a reason why I enjoy taking part in Ultra races.  It’s to get back to nature and experience something unblunted and real. To experience the pain of pushing myself beyond my boundaries but equally the joys of seeing the beauty of nature, feeling the lowest of the low moment and some great high moments and seeing sunrise in the mornings.  I like to feel all the emotions of real nature, which are often supressed in the world we live in today.  I like to escape from the TV, the i-pad, the internet, work and budgets and all those homely comforts I enjoy.  It about going back to basics,  being in the moment and experiencing what nature has to offer whether it is good or bad.

What is the Spine race?

It’s classed as the most brutal race in Britain and it lived up to its name!  The race is 268 miles (431km) in length and I had 168 hours (7 days) to complete the course.  This was not your normal ultra-race and had many differences comparing to your standard Ultra.  

Firstly this course was not marked, so I had to use a compass, map and GPS to follow the route.  The route is the Pennine Way and a large part of it is sign posted, as it is a hiking route.  However don’t be fooled into thinking it is just as easy as following the sign posts. Very often there are no sign posts and you are left to follow a loose path which might be clear in daylight however in the dark following the route can become very difficult.  This meant I would need to ensure my navigation skills were on the mark as I didn’t want to waste time and energy getting lost!

 

Pub Meal from Hare & Hound at Lothersdale
Secondly there were no water/feed stations catering to your needs every 5 or 10kms.  There were however 5 checkpoints which were approx. 70km apart, therefore I would have to carry enough food and water to last between checkpoints.  It was only at these checkpoints would I be able to get access to my drop bag, extra clothes, hot food, tea and a bed, however we were allowed to make use of local services such as pubs and shops, if we passed them when they were open.  This was one of the best rules in the race.  You cannot believe how great it is to arrive in a little village after being out for 10 hours in the wilderness.  To sit in a warm, dry pub and order some hot food.  It’s like feeding all your senses with the most amazing things possible.  As this is now the 3rd year of the race, the locals were not fazed by my muddy tired appearance and hardly batted an eyelid when I stumbled through the door to order a dish that I had been fantasizing about for the last 3 hours. It’s like heaven and Christmas all rolled into one.

 

 

 

Thirdly most ultra’s finish within a day or two of the starting time so sleep deprivation is limited.  As this race lasted up to 7 days, sleep deprivation was going to be something I would feel and have to overcome.  In fact my sleep strategy would be major part of this race and getting it wrong could mean I might not finish.   In total I had roughly 13 hours sleep which was about 25% of what I would have in a normal week. While I did have times where I had hallucinations and sometimes was falling asleep walking along a path only to be woken up when I waded through a large puddle, I felt this was roughly the right amount of sleep and think that I could have done with a little less, if I was to push myself harder. 

 

Some of the Muddy trails
Fourthly and finally the running ultra-scene and races normally take place in the summer or early autumn months so you can make use of the long daylight hours and warmer weather.  This makes it all the more pleasurable to see where you are placing your feet and enjoy the wonderful beauty around you.  The Spine however is held in the middle of the British winter where I would have approx. 8 hours of daylight each day, so the majority of the race would be ran in darkness.  Additionally for those that know Britain and its weather, winter is not the best time to be running around moors and mountains in the dark.  In fact before the race, Britain had endured a very wet start to winter with much of Britain seeing extreme flooding. This meant that the course was going to be very wet and muddy, not the easiest of running conditions and something my feet would not enjoy.  We also got to experience the best of Britain’s changeable weather with gales, hale, snow, rain, but were luckily enough to see some sun.



What was the best part? 

There were so many good parts to this race, so I will give you some of the highlights of my race: 

No sooner had we started and the heavens opened.  I saw a lot of people stop to put on their waterproof trousers.  I had polar fleece pants on and was moving fairly quickly so decided not to bother with mine and it was a good decision as I didn’t feel cold at all on route to CP1.  I stayed warm even when it started to snow.  I secretly had been hoping for snow during the race, as I love running in the snow.  I was so happy that I got to experience some of the race with snow.  It made me smile and I got energy from it falling from the sky.  Smiling is always good on a race like this, it creates positive energy and keeps the forward momentum.

 

 

I loved the route from CP2 (Hawes) up Great shunner fell.  At this point I had teamed up with Karl and Ed and it was beautiful morning with the sun shining.  The views were stunning and the terrain was fairly dry with a great firm path.  From the top I was skipping down the hills on an easy runnable route towards Thwaite.  This gave me energy and another smiling moment.
 
Me and Karl 
Me and Ed

 

The route from CP3 to CP4 was fantastic.  The path along the river going passed low force and high force was firm and dry, we passed many waterfalls and again the sun was shining.  We had to cross a few boulders and continued further up the river to the magical falls at Cauldron Snout.  What a great sight.  From here to Dufton was a long trek via High Cup Plain.  I believe this was my best moment.  I was still with Karl and Ed but at this point I was ahead marching through the snow to High Cup Plain.  I began singing to myself and made up little songs of the race, they were basic but I sung them over and over.  Then I just hummed the tune or la la’d to the tune.  During this whole time I was singing out loud, with the biggest grin on my face. Here I was in the middle of nowhere, taking part in the Britain’s most brutal race, hiking through snow, singing to myself and I loved every single minute.  I even took time out to stop and make little baby snowmen on the bridge.   Feeding my inner child!

 

 

Cauldon Snout

 

 

High Cup Plain

 

In Dufton we were told the conditions on Crossfell were harsh.  The wind was howling, it was dark and there was a lot of snow. With such tough conditions we were advised to team up, so Karl, Ed and I teamed up with Gary, John and Steve.   I was really nervous at this point.  I had not experienced being up a mountain in the dark, having to find a path through snow, while the wind was howling and being sleep deprived.  This was new for me and I was so scared of getting Hypothermia and having to drop out that I was being super cautious with what I was wearing and ensuring I had enough on but not too much where I might overheat and then the sweat makes me cold.   Massive thanks to Karl and Gary who took the lead of the navigation and the rest of us followed in single file behind them, sometime in thigh deep snow. 

 
 As I got used to being in the conditions I started to enjoy it, which was good as there were 4 summits, Green Fell, Knock Fell, Little Dun Fell and Cross Fell.  Each time I thought we were there we would go down a little and but up again.  The one thing keeping me motivated was making it to 

Greg’s Hut.  Waiting at Greg’s Hut was P&J’s Noddle bar with Kat, John and someone else (sorry can’t remember the name but I bet it begins with a P) who looked after filling us with hot noodles, cups of tea and coffee, biccies, chocolate and Kendal mint cake.  The time we spent there was amazing, all cosily gathered around the fire.  Whilst this part of the race pushed me the furthest out of my comfort zone, it was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying having managed through and making it to Alston (CP4) without Hyperthermia.

 


My Kit at Checkpoint 1…making use of the space
A great part of the race that I cannot miss out, are the Checkpoints.  Most checkpoints in a race are basic, where they are designed to allow you to quickly come in, restock on food and return to the race.  The spine checkpoints are completely different and feel like luxury.  They are a haven for hot food, multiple cups of tea, a mix of snacks and the best feet fixers I have met!  My feet suffered badly during the race so I can attest to their first rate service, which was often done while they were sleep deprived themselves.   The checkpoints were where you got access to your drop bags to changes clothes, restock on food and have a sleep.  In most of the checkpoints there were beds and it was fantastic to grab a couple of hour’s kip after being out for nearly 24 hrs.  A massive thank you to all those that helped out at the checkpoints and words cannot describe how much us runners  appreciated your support.
My feet at the end…taping as a result of the excellent Medics…thank you!

 

Another big thank you was to Sharon Dixon who let me use her car for a nap at Byrness.  At this point in the race I was completely exhausted and sleeping as I walked along the paths.  I do really mean I was sleeping.  My eyes were shut and I was moving forward or sideways and suddenly I would wake up again.  We didn’t stop as Karl assured us we would be arriving at Byrness very soon.  When we arrived at the car park I fell to the ground and just wanted to sleep.  After much persuasion I got into Sharon’s car and had the best 10-15 min nap of my life.  It is amazing what a power nap can do, it really picked me up and energised me for the next leg.



What was the worst part?

My first low point and probably my worst, was going up Pen-y-ghent.  It was very windy, the rain was lashing down and we had to scramble up rocks.   I got very dizzy.  I was seeing little spots in front of my eyes, which wasn’t a good thing when scrambling up rocks.  Once at the top I tried to eat more bars to give me energy as I suspected my blood sugar was low.  My stomach wasn’t happy with this as it didn’t understand that I was doing a race and it should expect to be digesting food every half hour or so.   From here it didn’t get any better.  I still had more than 25km to get to Hawes which was the next Checkpoint.  My stomach didn’t want to digest anything but I knew I had to keep eating or I would pay for it later.  I tried to each a little every half hour.  My stomach continued to plague me, I was still a bit dizzy, I felt exhausted and disorientated.  Thankfully the route was fairly easy to follow up the cam road which went on for km after km.  I was with a group of around 7 people and me and another guy followed up the rear.  I was plodding away, barely holding on, but at least I was moving.  I kept moving forward believing it would pass.  It probably took 4 or 5 hours to get to Hawes and it was only in the last hour did I begin to feel a bit better.   I was so thankful to get to Hawes, where I could sit down, get some hot food and get into my sleeping bag and get a few hours kip before heading out again

Another one of my low points was moment where I split from Karl & Ed after Windy Gayle. Karl, Ed and I had been together from CP2, so had spent a good part of the race with them, almost like a small running team.  However I felt totally empty of energy, tired and overcome with the task at hand.  I was having trouble breathing when we went up hill and had developed a slight cough.   I was moving slowly and I was trailing behind both Karl and Ed which meant they had to keep stopping to wait for me.  I could tell they weren’t happy with the situation and it came to a head when Ed shouted at me that I needed to keep up.  That broke me, I burst into tears and shouted some stuff back, I was very emotional and was just trying to keep it together to get to the end (in fact re-living the moment brings tears to my eyes even now).  I had around 18kms until the end so not that far but I knew it would still take another 3 or 4 hours.  We carried on and I mulled the situation over in my head.  I eventually stopped and told the boys to carry on without me.  I couldn’t keep their pace anymore and didn’t want to hold them back.  After being together for so long , they were reluctant to go but on the other hand I could tell it was what they wanted to do.  Eventually after talking through the situation and ensuring them I would be ok, they both went off together towards the finish, leaving me upset and alone.  I was feeling very sorry for myself and had a big cry. My feet were hurting, making it hard to move and I was focusing on the pain which was also slowing me down.  This was my lowest point, I gave my sister a call something I never do during races, but I knew she was at the finish waiting for me to arrive.  I chatted and cried to her probably making no sense what so ever but she was great, she was super positive and gave me encouraging words to get me moving.  I don’t know if it was what she said or just hearing her voice but it was the encouragement I needed to push forward.  I had been walking since CP5 and had not done any running, so I decided to try and run the downhills, something I always love doing and something that brings me energy and smiles.  The only problem was that my feet hurt so much it was going to be a hard task to tell them to move from a plod to a run.  The first few attempts were hard, but I persevered and used the pain to give me energy to get to the finish sooner.  I was now running the downhills and some of the flats and it felt good.  I had a smile on my face and I was enjoying the race again!   Races like this give you hard negative moments, sometimes for hours at a time but I always keep in the back of my mind that there will be positive moments to come and I will get out of the bad times.  Whilst these moments are often the worse part of the race, having them makes you stronger and provides you with an experience of what you can cope with when times get tough, making those good moments all the more enjoyable.   

 

 
How was the navigation, did you make any mistakes?

I don’t remember a lot of the journey to CP1 so that means I was going well and feeling good, however the bits I do remember were the silly Nav errors that were made and where I wasted about 1 hour going back and forth on Castleshaw moor.  I was with Andy and it had just started to get dark.  I had not really used my map yet and I had been following the queue of people but at this stage the queue had disappeared and with the darkness setting in it was necessary to use my map.  Andy however had done this route before so I made the assumption he knew where he was going, my first mistake.  My second mistake was to not get my map out and check where we were and where we were going.  The frustrating part was I had read about the route and marked my map that there was a specific right turn I had to make which was tricky so I should be aware.   We went straight on and somehow we ended up on the Pennine Bridleway instead of the Pennine way (Yes they are different).  We managed to get to the A640 and realised our mistake so set off back up the road to get on the right route.  However mistake 3 came about when I trusted Andy’s GPS instead of my map.  I knew the turning we had to make was beside a carpark but we took an early turn as according to the GPS it was within 5m correct.  This took us down a path which led again to the Bridleway…..ouch.  Now we were frustrated.  I took over the nav, realised where we were. We had 2 options;  go back down  the route we had just come and find the right path further up the road or to go cross country and get back on the Way.  I preferred the latter option as we had a great handrail of a stream to take us there.  This was our choice and it worked perfectly. Back on route and back to nav.

Written by Richard Lendon - http://richrunnings.blogspot.fr/

So The Spine v3 2014 starts tomorrow at 08:00.
 
This morning I woke with nervous anticipation as the start looms ever closer. Not the sheer terror and panic before the 2012 race, or the brewing excitement and determination of last year but just a gentle anticipation of the task ahead.
 
I remember all the highs of last year and also some of the pain and huge lows during the race, but as time passes the highs become more memorable and the lows less important. They say this happens to women after childbirth.
 
'Newbies' will be feeling understandably scared; the fear of the unknown. Us ’veterans’ just nervous; we know what’s out there. It doesn’t make it any easier; we just know what to expect.
 
It’s been a very long trip to even get to the start. On the running front, an almost perfect first 6 months of year with finishes in The Spine (5th=), MdS (77th), Hardmoors 110 (7th) and Lakes 10 peaks (7th), followed by a less memorable second 6 months when I had to focus of getting my enjoyment and motivation back. On the personal front, a pretty poor first 6 months following by an even worse second 6 months. I have spent much of the year drowning under the weight of my depression and have pushed all my family to the limits of their love and patience. I know it has affected everyone around me and for that I am truly sorry. I also thank everyone for their love and support when I have most needed it.
 
My enthusiasm for life has been pretty low at times. I didn’t make it to the Spine Training weekend as my head was in a torrid place. Even as late as this Monday, I put all my Spine kit back in the drawers, not sure that I could face it.
 
But face it I can, and face it I will.
 
Over the next week, I (and I imagine all competitors) will have moments that encapsulate all possible emotions. There will be laughter. There will probably be tears. However, the finish and the whole experience is worth it all. Good luck to all
 
That which does not kill us makes us stronger