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