The Spine Race 2016
Having DNF’d just 72 miles into the Challenger in 2015, I immediately knew I would be returning in 2016 to sign up to the Spine race.
Top of the Snake Pass (A57)
Lack of experience, mileage and preparation were all contributory factors as well as a poorly stomach, which put me in somewhat of a downward spiral that I struggled to get out of. Up until then I had loved the experience, a proper Winter adventure, or in the case of 2015, a proper deluge.
Now my running experience isn’t very extensive. Infact I’ve only run once slightly over 50 miles at the Dusk til Dawn Ultra, and other than the Spine training weekend also in 2015 at around 45 miles. The 72 miles in the Challenger was by far the furthest I had been. So why sign up to the full Spine Race?
I learnt about the race back in 2011, prior to it’s 1st running in 2012 and decided to sign up a good friend of mine, Brian Mullan to go and find out what it was all about. More on that later. In 2013 I headed to road crossing on the Snake Pass and walked a few hundred yards towards Kinder, watching some of the competitors making their way across the icy flag stones in bracing northerly winds and freezing temperatures. It looked incredible, the competitors were superhuman and I watched on in awe.
The Pennine Way, Edale to Kirk Yetholm – 268 miles.
Fast forward 4 years and I had read all the previous spine blogs, sought advice from friends Brian Mullan and Jonathan Zeffert who had completed the race, and had reccied around 230 miles of the course. I was fortunate to have the Pennine way as my training ground.
In short, I tried to leave no stone unturned in my preparation for the event. I have after all, little talent other than being able to run 400m relatively quickly (some that know me may disagree), something that I couldn’t possibly foresee being advantageous, unless it came down to a 10am sprint finish within sight of the Border Hotel, though it would be questionable whether I was capable of running by that point.
I needed all the help I could get and more, so I took on the services of Nick Thomas, a highly experienced coach with numerous ultra marathons, IronMan’s, double/Triple IronMan on his race CV. (http://www.man-tri-club.org.uk/Training/Coaches/nick-thomas/
) and also the services of a nutritionist named Rebecca Dent (http://rebeccadent.co.uk/
) who had been recommended by a friend, partly because of the stomach problems experienced in 2015.
After months of obsessing over kit, and spending close to the gross national product of a small country, I was finally happy with my kit choice, and it had all been tested at some point or another. I changed my front pack at least 3 times from Inov-8 to OMM to finally settling on a Raidlight pack that also had drink bottle holders on each end, as one thing I was aware of was what happens when you become tired, and the little things become big things. Infact with me I don’t even need to be tired for that to happen. Some other last minute purchases included insulated water bottles, as I had visions of my standard bottles freezing during the race. This proved to be a good decision.
On the morning of the race a friend of mine Rob offered to drop me off at the start, this meant sleeping in my own bed the night before and having the use of my own kitchen at breakfast, which definitely went a long way to keeping the nerves at bay.
Upon arriving at the village hall in Edale, I was lucky enough to have a full kit check, I say lucky because I’m sure almost everyone goes through the kit obsessing phase in one form or another, and having it all officially ticked off means you haven’t left anything important behind.
It was really warm, too warm and I was worried about overheating. As 10am approached we were all ushered into a small field and the race started pretty much on cue. We all set off towards the beginning of the PW marked by the Nags Head Pub. A quick touch of wall and it was up the trail and towards Jacob’s ladder. This time last year we were getting battered by gale force winds and were being waterboarding not more than 10 minutes into the race. Albeit warm, this was very welcome change.
I was already towards the back of the field and then stopped to shed a few layers, dropping further back still. I took it nice and steady up Jacobs Ladder, trying not to overheat and then on towards the top of Kinder. I climbed comfortably and my pack was around 6.5-7kg, very light when compared to the 10-12kg I had used in training.
Jacobs Ladder – Function over form! (Photo by Rob Harper)
Soon I was heading towards the Kinder Downfall and continued to maintain an steady pace right the way to the Snake Summit, a quick time check; 2:50hrs confirmed my pacing was about right.
Bleaklow came and went without issue and down at Torside some friends had come out to see me; Jon, Julie and Jay and they supplied me with some hot water to hydrate one of my 1000kcal Expedition meals. My nutrition plan was simple, to consume at least 4500kcals a day and this would come largely from food at CP’s, pubs, dehydrated meals and anything else I could lay my hands on. In the lead up to the race, I had put on around 1.5kg in weight, a little short of my 2-3kg target, but this would still act as a buffer, and would stop my slim frame from getting emaciated as the week wore on.
I’m not a particular fan of the section between the Woodhead Pass A628 and the Isle of Sky Road A635, it feels remote, desolate with miles of moorland stretching out before you. I stopped once to put on my head torch and my waterproof trousers since it was starting to rain. Once up and past Black Hill the darkness descended, despite this another runner was holding off switching their light on and said something along the lines of enjoying moving in the dark for as long as possible. Rather you than me I thought and with that my headtorch was switched on and gone was my night vision.
Before I knew it I was at the Isle of Skye road. I was feeling a bit low and the rain and wind was now becoming a more permanent feature. Another friend; Hadrian had come out to see me and had thoughtfully bought tea and jaffa cakes for me, I stopped briefly to chat with him and thanked him for his support. The short stop raised my spirits immensely and I pushed on towards Marsden with renewed enthusiasm. It was shortly after this that Tim Miller joined me and we were to stay together for until we reached CP1. We had met previously on the training weekend in 2015 and I was aware that he had already completed the Challenger in 2015 and then gone on to do the Dragon’s back race later in the year. I was in good company.
The Pennine Way turns back on itself and drops down to a bridge before a steep climb up to an aerial mast. On the climb, Tim and I had become a little separated due to our difference in pace, and so onwards along a muddy trail. To my left about 40ft away I saw something reflective moving about and it appeared to be another racer well off the trail, I left the path to investigate and started to shout towards them, as I neared and my headtorch made out the movement. I had been shouting to a polythene bag that was caught amongst the undergrowth, and which was flapping about in the wind. Blimey that was a bit embarrassing. I looked back and was relieved to see that Tim was still far enough behind as not to have noticed. I wasn’t hallucinating, If I was, I was in serious trouble as we were barely 8 hours into the event.
The next stop came just by the A62 in the form of a mountain rescue shelter with hot tea and an outdoor toilet. I took the opportunity to use the facilities and have a quick cuppa, they even had a few chairs to sit down on. It was chucking it down now, but fortunately the wind was blowing from the South, which meant it was mostly on our backs, I’ll take that I thought and before I knew it, we were at the layby on the A672 just before the M62 motorway bridge. A lovely lady who was supporting her husband came out and offered us some pasties, which was really appreciated as I was already starting to get fed up of eating cereal bars. Not far to the pub now I thought.
Once over the M62 bridge the trail briefly turned westwards, the rain now coming in sideways and frontally at times. The route was fairly obvious to begin with and then splinters off into various other trails. I remembered from last year to not go too closely to the trig as it then drops you down and away from the main trail. The path turned to quagmire, and it was slow going over the top. Just as we reached the gate I saw another racer going straight on past the Aiggin stone instead of turning left down the PW, and shouted to him. We eventually reached the White House pub which about 9.20pm. It’s the 1st significant landmark on the day one at 35 miles in, and it’s just another 11 miles to CP1, acting as a bit of a mental breaker.
Once again, a few friends Rich, Shona and Andy had come out to see me. They welcomed me into the back of their land rover and filled me up with hot tea and snacks. I didn’t realise it at the time, but these kind of stops can make all the difference in the race. Short stops where you can fuel up and take the weight of your feet, even just for a short while helps to break up the long miles and recharges the batteries. I joined Tim who had taken refuge in the ambulance vehicle and we headed down past Blackstone edge reservoir. He had forgotten his gloves in the van and so headed back to get them, finally returning, only to realise he had them in his pockets all the along.
Now this is a particularly fast section of the course, some 2-3 miles of perfectly flat trail where you can make good time. Tim was racking up the pace and we were cruising along at somewhere around 5-6mph, a little too fast for my liking, but this eventually faded on the approach to Stoodley Pike. I remembered a quote from Ian Bowles blog, which said ‘run your own race’, and I was annoyed at myself for allowing myself to lose discipline so easily. The area around Stoodley Pike was pretty grim, mostly like treacle it was so muddy and slow going. The trail eventually descends and just as we were within reach of the woods another couple of more friends had come out to see me, Greg and Pauline. It was lovely to see them and we chatted down as far as the road crossing, before they wisely left, leaving us with the unenvious climb up the cobbles and out of Hebden Bridge. Fortunately this passed relatively quickly. Finally through some more fields at the top and we hit the road down to Slack Top. I was careful to pick the right track down CP1 as it’s a bit easy to go off the path here, eventually arriving at 1.15am. It had taken 15hrs15mins to cover the 46miles from Edale, some 40mins faster than last year (which was due do spending too long in the pub than actually being faster this time around).
Tim had decided to stop for a short while and then push on, whereas my plan was a little different, I had planned on getting around 4hrs sleep before getting back on the trail, plus a couple of hours either side eating and general kit sorting. As it happened, I barely managed even 2hrs and then stayed longer to try and compensate for this. In hindsight I should have used ear plugs, but I was afraid my alarm wouldn’t wake me.
I left at 8.50am and had spent a whopping 7hr35mins at CP1, I wasn’t on bloody holiday and it was time to get a shift on.
It had snowed overnight and heading out onto the next section felt considerably colder, for the better I might add as the day before had been far too warm.
I passed a few people over the 1st few miles, one of which was Ryan Wood. He looked fresh and seemed to be moving well within himself. We exchanged a few words and then I carried on, eventually stopping at Withens Height to answer a call of nature. I checked the door and it appeared locked or at least jammed as myself and another racer tried our best to open it. He stopped to make a brew and I carried on down to Ponden reservoir. At the road crossing the PW goes over a wall and then climbs up steeply. Just as I was going over the wall I noticed that the exit to the stile was completely flooded, to at least knee to waist height. I was keen, but not that keen and so stepped back and found a farmers gate next to the stile, which I climbed over and then continued the climb. A friend had come out to see me, and plied me with hot tea and sandwiches. I felt guilty for taking advantage of these little stops. I wasn’t officially supported, but when friends came out to support, I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity of food. Here I caught up with 3 of the German racers, Andres Siebert and Micheal Frenz had both had finished the full spine in 2015, but both were now complaining of injuries which were stifling their progress. At Lothersdale I visited the Hare & Hound and ordered the Spine specialty, and a small mountain of food arrived, just what I needed.
Rob had come out to see me again and we chatted away, an hour passed and it was time to get back on the trail. It was here that Michael decided to pull out, he told us of where he had planned on staying in Malham; the public toilets, and in the Women’s, which made sense. Andreas and … didn’t look so impressed, their game plan had been revealed and it was now a race to get their towels down first.
Britain’s most brutal pub crawl (As quoted by Rob Harper, Photo by Rob Harper)
Since darkness was falling, I thought now would be a good opportunity to pair up with another racer. Sean Powers was just finishing up, so we agreed to head out together. I was confident of the route, but some company over the coming miles would certainly help to pass them quicker. The route into Gargrave came as no surprise with squelching mud up to our ankles, but it was expected and once there we headed to the Masons arms for another nosh up. An hour later as we were heading out of the village, we were met by Phil Love, one of the mountain safety team who checked we were okay and gave us some good advice for the next section. It was here that I had pulled out last time and continuing on served as a good moral boost. Gargrave to Malham was extremely wet, with alot of the route under water. We passed around several racers thinking each pair would be the German contingent, but it was clear after Michael had given away their well laid plans that they had got a shift on and wanted to be the 1st to the ladies at all costs. As we arrived we saw Sarah Fuller and her racing buddy outside, much to our relief they had decided not to take the mens, instead choosing to camp further up the trail, maybe Malham Cove. With the temperatures around freezing in Malham and with CP1.5 being a few hundred metres higher, we took the warmer option and were glad to have somewhere indoors and dry. We had planned to be away by 5.30am, and we were, reaching CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn a short while later. John Bamber welcomed us into a room and offered us tea and hot water, a perfect spot to hydrate one of my Expedition porridge meals. To my surprise Ian Bowles was there, which could only mean one thing, either I wasn’t doing as badly as I thought or Ian was behind schedule. Whatever it was, I felt better for having seen him, as he’s a man that gets the job done.
Sean needed to get his feet seen to by the medic, so I got a few more cups of tea down me and we eventually left around a 75 mins later along with Alzbeta Benn. Onwards to fountains fell, we slowly rose above the fog. What a magnificent sight it was, snowy hills, sunshine and a great inversion, we lost all sense of time and started taking pictures and acting more like we were out for a jolly on the hills.
Beyond Fountains Fell (Photo by Sean Powers)
It did a lot to lift our spirits and I felt almost guilty for enjoying it so much. This was a race after all, a brutal one apparently. I was careful not to lull myself into a false sense of security.
Founains Fell Panoramic (Photo by Sean Powers)
The views were short lived as we descended back into the fog and made the short section to along the road to Dale Farm. On the way down Fountains fell Alan Purdue cam bounding past, I later found out that he had over slept at Malham tarn and then got a move on having been made aware of the cut off time there.
We eventually reached the café in Horton and tucked into lots of food and more tea. A short while later Alzbeta arrived and I saw her spying my left over jam/cream scone. I know it was against the rules to leave any food behind, but I had gorged myself within an inch of being rolled out the door, and offered her the appetizer whilst she waited for her main course to arrive.
The trackers were displayed on a large screen and it was good to see exactly where everyone was. I had gone from around mid pack into CP1 to being 4th from last. I wasn’t too concerned at this point as we still had several hours before the cut off at CP2 in Hawes, which was only another 14-15miles, 5 hours max by my calculation. Another hour and it was back on the trail towards High Cam road. Just as we left the trail and joined the road, we stopped briefly to put on our head torches. We had seen no one else for the last 9 miles, but a head torch was now visible in the distance. The owner turned out to be Bobby Cullen, and we teamed up just before Ten End, making the long descent into Hawes together, arriving at 7.41pm. It had taken 57hr41mins to cover the 108 miles from Edale. A lot longer than I had expected given our many pub excursions and unnecessarily long CP stops. Still I had knocked off the Challenger distance and this was the 1st objective complete.
It was good to see a bustling checkpoint and this made me feel that we were still very much in the race, but it was sad to see some of the other competitors who had had to pull out due to one reason or another. They had all taken on support roles and were doing a great job at looking after us along with the dedicated checkpoint staff. Just 2 checkpoints in and I was starting to realise what makes this race so special. It’s the all the people that unselfishly give up their time to support the racers. They thought we were brilliant, but actually the opposite was true.
Lots of food and kit sorting in preparation for the next leg. The 10pm cut off time was fast approaching and we left not long before, heading towards Hardraw. I wasn’t looking forward to this next section, Great Shunner Fell for one is a blot on the landscape and having been over it on a cold weekend in November in snow and fog, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Sure enough the next 8 miles to Thwaite were pretty grim and mostly in low cloud. Just as we made our way to the summit, a brief flash of a head torch indicated a couple of runners were departing. It’s the last we would see of anyone until the Tan Hill Pub. The descent of GSF is just as grim and goes on for miles eventually leading to what can only be described as a rubble shoot. Finally into Thwaite and I was tired, we had been on the move for nearly 38 miles without any sleep and I was starting to flag. Sean had found a phone box and suggested we both sit down inside and get a power nap as it had started to rain. I wasn’t convinced and would sooner have put my tent up. I looked around and found an outbuilding, which inside looked like a toilet from the post war era, thankfully no longer in use. I had subscribed to Sean’s idea of power naps, though I had no prior experience with them, and I’m not sure how long we were in there for, but I was cold and still sleep deprived as we left. We headed out of Thwaite passing 2 tents next to a river, Sarah and Bobby, the 2 racers I would team up with later in the race. We passed Keld and started the climb up the hill past the river. By now I was grinding to a halt, whether it was the exertion over the last few days or lack of sleep, it was taking it’s toll. We came across a small barn and Sean checked to see whether it was open, it was. What a result! and it had hay on the floor. I took out my OMM matt and within seconds I was fast asleep waking some 45 minutes later and feeling considerably better. I knew it wasn’t far until the Tan Hill in and we made good progress, the last mile or so felt like it went on for ages in the low cloud.
The Tan Hill was a welcome sight and it meant we could get some proper food and a short rest. Once inside and by a warm fire, I had a chance to reflect on the last 15 miles from Hawes, which had taken an age due to the slow going and stopping. I had hit a bit of a low and thoughts were running through my mind to quit.
Sarah and Bobby soon arrived as did Gerard Bareham (007, his nick name due to his race number) and Constanze Escher, a German lady. It was good to see Sarah as I had briefly caught up with her in Hawes, just as we were leaving. She was visibly upset not having had much sleep, but she said she wasn’t giving up without a fight, and I drew inspiration from this, especially given how I was feeling.
After a bacon butty and a few cups of hot tea, I decided to push on. I had read a race blog from someone that had said ‘If I was going to fail, it would be on my feet, not at a CP’ or pub in my case as that was what happened the previous year. The next section from the Tan Hill to Middleton can only be described as utterly boring. Nothing to see here folks other than miles and miles of boggy moorland. For me Hawes to Middleton is probably the most mundane part of the Pennine Way.
Viv keeping me company. (Photo by Hamish Haynes)
Just before the 2 reservoirs I recognised a runner coming towards me, it was my friend Viv, it was great to see her and Hamish with her too. My pace picked up and we were chatting away merrily. Viv told me that she had bought lots of food for me, but then ended up giving it away to hungry racers further up the trail, which made me laugh, that was just like Viv. Having read some of the other blogs I think it was Peter Gould and Kevin Otto who were on the receiving end of her kindness.
I think Sean had probably had enough of me by now and knowing my thoughts on pulling out at Tan Hill and potentially Middleton, he asked if I was okay and then headed off at speed to CP3. I joined Viv at her van and she made me something hot to eat and drink, with Sarah briefly joining us.
My feet were in absolute agony now. Every step felt painful. This was the 1st time I had experienced this much pain and I wondered if it was normal or whether I was just being soft. I’d also forgotten just how many hills there were before reaching CP3. In the dark these just appeared to be a series of false summits before dropping back down again before he next climb. As I crested the final hill I saw a head torch wondering above me. It was clear someone was lost and so I remained stationary and put my head torch into SOS mode to attract their attention. The runner eventually followed the light towards me. It was Alan Purdue. He was walking with severe slouch to one side, and had something wrong with his back. I felt sorry for him and walked him down to make sure he got off the hill okay. Once at the road I asked if he was okay and if he knew the way to the CP, he did, and so I pushed on arriving at CP3 at 7.11pm. I was ready to throw in the towel, I had had an utterly shite day, my feet were killing me. I was looking for a way out. I voiced this to Stephen Brown who said he had been feeling exactly the same having arrived some hours earlier. Having had just 2 hours sleep, he felt great, with his head making a complete u-turn. I texted Rob and another friend and before I knew it I started to receive a barrage of text messages, one from my coach Nick. He called me and asked me what was wrong and I told him I’d just basically had enough. Now had this come from anyone else it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact. Nick pretty much told me the score. 3 days to go seemed like an eternity but Nick explained to me that it wasn’t. It was very little time in the grand scheme of things and having coached me over the last 3 months he went on to say that I had come too far to give up like this. I was already at the half way point in the race with it all to play for. It’s exactly what I needed to hear, and I felt much better having spoken with him. Ronnie Staton, Ryan’s coach also offered some words of encouragement, which really helped.
The cut off at CP3 was fast approaching and I left pretty much on cue along with Alan Purdue. We had hatched a plan to bivvy in the public toilets in Middleton. Sleeping bag out, sleeping matt inflated, eye mask on and ear plugs in, I had it down to a fine art now. Constanze Escher would also be joining us, although by the time we had got our heads down and got up again, she had been and gone.
The alarm was set for 1.30am, and we didn’t wake until 4am. Time spent asleep was time spent well I told myself. Just as we were in a bit of a packing frenzy my phone rang. It was Race HQ, asking if were leaving anytime soon. A bit embarrassing, but ‘yes’ I replied we were. We were most certainly in last place now.
We headed out into the darkness and picked up the PW just after leaving the town. Now I hadn’t reccied the section from Middleton to Dufton and was reliant on my map and gps. Alan’s back was feeling better after the extended kip and he was moving well. At one point he stopped and said he would catch me up, so I carried on not realising that it would be the last I would see of him. I met the mountain safety team at the beginning of the diversion and told them that Alan wasn’t far behind. I crossed the bridge over Harwood Beck and just as a car was passing from behind my right foot gave way under me, I tried to maintain traction with my left foot, but it went the same way and before I knew it I hit the deck in spectacular fashion. The car carried on its journey seemingly oblivious to what had just happened. Black ice was the culprit and the next few miles was covered in it.
I passed a tent further up and recognised it as Bobby’s. I decided against doing my best cow impersonation and passed silently by. Further up the road I heard a trickling stream and diverted off the road towards it. I was out completely out of water and also hungry with not having eaten properly since the previous evening. On with the stove I boiled up some water and hydrated a 1000kcal Expedition porridge meal and stuffed it into my front pouch, refilled my water bottles and was back on the road within 15 minutes. In training I had tried this method of hydrating food and then eating it from my front pouch while on the move, it worked well and saved time too.
Dawn had passed and the sun was rising into a small bank of cloud to an otherwise clear sky. It was absolutely freezing.
Drawing closer to Cow Green reservoir I began to realise how remote this area is, you simply feel like you are miles from anywhere. Prior to the race I knew I would be in for some memorable experiences, and this proved to be the one of the highlights. I hadn’t expected for it to come when I was alone however.
I had felt a complete sense of immersion sat by the stream, the feeling I was on a real adventure while being in the Spine Race. It was exciting, and the beautiful few hours that passed in the dawning of a new day, were the defining moments in this years race. Memories that will stay with me long after any pains of discomfort have left.
Having a belly full of porridge, I was moving well and at a steady pace. The coming miles passed swiftly and eventually I caught up with Sarah and Spenser. They were both good company and we continued for a good while together, over the top of High Cup Nick, soaking up the views as we went.
Looking ‘Pedestrian’ at High Cup Nick, purported to be the best view in England. (Photo by Sarah Fuller)
Just as the trail began to descend I bid my farewell and broke into a bit of a trot down to Dufton, eventually catching up with Sean and Constanze. We all arrived at the village hall together. Here I hydrated another meal, aired my feet and took a hour’s planned break. I had taken around 8 hours to get there, which seemed about right and I was hopeful that the next 17-18 miles would be done in around 9-10 hours. How wrong I would be.
I was conscious of the remaining hours of daylight and wanted to get as far on Cross Fell before the light gave out. Constanze had decided to bed down here and get a couple of hours sleep, which I thought was risky, given she would be tackling the section over Cross Fell on her own and in the dark.
Just as Sean and I were about to leave I noticed my left shoelace had broken. I remember Ian Bowles saying something about gaitors wearing through the laces of your shoes and that’s exactly what had happened. I had packed some paracord just incase. But it wasn’t that simple. Salomon Speedcross have very thin laces and equally thin tubular eyelets. Try as I might I couldn’t get the cord though, I couldn’t even get the original laces back in and subsequently ended up tieing the cord numerous times around the whole shoe to keep it fastened. Hopefully this would see me through the next 17-18 miles to the Alston CP before a necessary shoe change. I set of in earnest and in hope of catching a few of the guys ahead of me. Towards the top of Green Fell I met up with both Sarah and Spenser again and stayed with them for a while chatting as we went. Not long after and I decided to push on, eventually catching up with Sean. He asked me if I wanted to pair up again and I thought it would good a good idea given the conditions.
I was confident of my navigation as 2 weeks earlier Rob and I had reccied this section and I had our actual trail on the GPS. The trail was now under several inches of snow and visibility was poor, boy was I was glad to have done that reccy. We stopped a few times as Sean said he needed to do some ‘admin’, a term I would become familiar with over the coming days and which my own interpretation of it became known as ‘faff’. A short way up Little Dunn Fell, there was a bit more admin and in the distance I saw 2 other head torches. Knowing it was Sarah and Spenser I suggested we wait for them and go over the top together, the weather now deteriorating with sideways snow adding to our small bubble of light in the darkness. Shortly after my phone rang, I wouldn’t normally have answered it, but Sarah mentioned that it could be Race HQ, and with that I did. It was Brian Mullan ringing me from South Africa. Brian was one of the racers caught in the 2013 snow storm on the Cheviots. The group of 4 he was in had to take refuge in Hut 2 and although he made it to the finish, he’s never quite been the same since. I mumbled something down the phone about being in the middle of a snowstorm and that I couldn’t chat.
I wasn’t aware at the time, but Spenser was suffering from a knee injury and this was slowing his progress. This soon became apparent as every 10-20m we had to stop or slow down to regroup. My core temperature started to drop and I had stopped generating heat by now. The next time we stopped, I took the opportunity to put on another jacket. The other issue was that other than Spenser, I was the only one who was relying on my GPS to navigate. I was confident as I was following a GPS track produced from the reccie a fortnight previously, and whilst Sarah was happy to follow, Spenser and Sean were less confident in my ability, and I was constantly being quizzed. Time and time again we hit the cairns marking the way, and eventually the interrogation subsided.
I knew that safety should come 1st and that the aim was to get everyone to Greg’s hut safely, but at the same time I was becoming increasingly frustrated at the pace we were moving at, and concerned at the very real possibility of becoming liability myself in the cold conditions. It took us 3:20 hours to cover the 3 miles to Greg’s Hut.
Arriving at Greg’s Hut (Photo by John Bamber)
We were all relieved having reached the hut. Inside John Bamber made us some of his legendary hot noodles and hot drinks. I hadn’t planned on staying too long, but prior to reaching the hut we had agreed to stay as a group, at least until the snow gave out. Spenser announced he needed a power nap and feeling I had little choice (since we had agreed to stay as a group), we all soon followed suit. Finally we left, over 2 hours later, having spent far too much time there. Just as we were leaving one of the group launched into a bit of a faff, John Bamber recognised the symptoms and commented, but they were quick to defend themselves.
We learnt that Constanze and 007 had turned back in the deteriorating conditions, their race now over. I was gutted for them. Alan Purdue was still going strong, and was somewhere out on Cross Fell on his own.
Leaving Greg’s Hut (Photo by John Bamber)
We parted company just as the snow receded and Sean and I descended towards Garrigil, eventually following the diversion to CP4 arriving at 2:57am, it had taken 13 hours to cover the relatively short 17.5 miles from Dufton.
We had agreed to be away by 8am the next morning. I was conscious having printed out my own schedule that I should be leaving no later than 3am, but having lost around 3-4 hours on the last section I didn’t have much choice but to reschedule and try and make it up on the next leg. Food, a quick shower and hit the sack for 3 hours. I was woken up at 7am by one of the CP staff and went about getting myself ready. 8am came and went and Sean still had to get his feet seen to by the medic. Sarah and Spenser had already left and it was 9am before we headed out the door. Just as we were going down the track, we saw Alan Purdue on his way up, he had been out all night by the looks of it.
I really wanted to get a shift on now as time was beginning to slip away. Sean was struggling however. It wasn’t clear what the exact problem was, but his foot seemed to be the primary cause. To his credit he pushed on and said that he would eventually get up to speed. Unfortunately this didn’t happen and if anything we seemed to be stopping more often. After a few hours we had to have a few words, he was clearly agitated by my reluctance to stop, and my frustration was growing at him for the opposite reason.
Near Slaggyford, hot soup and snacks compliments of Chris Wilson. (Photo by Chris Wilson)
We caught up with Sarah and continued as a trio, and finally with Bobby catching us up were now a 4 some.
At Greenhead we were met by Tom Jones. Up until that point I had only heard from Sean at what a great bloke he was, and he lived up to this reputation, fueling us up with hot chocolate and hydrated meals as we took refuge in the toilets once more, nothing was too much effort. What a top bloke.
I was grateful to be in a group as I knew what was coming. Hadrian’s wall is just a slog and relentless in its up and downs. We stopped a few times and turned off our head torches to admire the night sky, there was no light pollution and the view was magnificent, Bobby pointing out the Milky Way. Sean and I had already spoken about staying at the bothy in Haughton Green and we mentioned this to Sarah and Bobby who were also game. The night dragged, we were all tired and finally reached the bothy at 1.15am. Sean went about trying to get the fire going while the rest of us got some food down us and got our heads down for 3 hours. It was 4am before we stirred, the alarm hadn’t woken us and we arose in a bit of a panic, packed and got ourselves sorted. Sean exclaimed that it was the end of his race as his foot had swollen up and to inform Race HQ upon reaching Bellingham. Later we heard that he had made it to Horneystead before pulling out.
A few miles before Belligham. The sun rising into a clear blue sky. (Photo by Sarah Fuller)
Sarah, Bobby and I set off up towards the main trail with Bobby taking a lead and eventually missing the turn off for the PW. A few miles later and just before Horneystead, he caught us up. Once we arrived at the farm, the lovely lady there took us into the small room around the back where we had coffee and snacks to rejuvenate us. It did the job and we pushed on with new vigor. Just 5 miles to Bellingham, which we knocked out in no time, arriving at 9.15am. This was it, just another 40 miles to go, I knew I was going to finish, and I was feeling stronger than I had over the last few days.
Richard Lendon was serving up breakfast in the kitchen, I felt like I already knew him having heard so much about him, and he didn’t disappoint. A thoroughly nice chap, there was nothing too much and he just kept the food coming. I just kept on eating, as did Bobby. My body had turned into an eating machine. Just as we were about to set off, Jenny gave us the news that the cut off time at Byrness had been reduced by 6 hours to 2 pm instead of the original 8pm cut off. How could this be? It was around 11am and we had just 3 hours to cover the 15miles to CP5.5. We hadn’t been given any notice, no one had told us about the conditions on the Cheviots despite the snow coming in days earlier. I was fuming and was carrying on to Byrness regardless. I had to satisfy myself that I had made it there within the original cut off time. As Sarah and I were heading off, Richard Lendon came running down the track. He had heard the news and was offering words of comfort. He didn’t have to do that, and it just showed that he really did care about us guys.
The last 15 miles were some of the most memorable of the race, up past our ankles in snow, trudging along and having a heated discussion on how they could do this to us. I took the decision to ring Scott and find out more about the revised cutoff, and to see if there was any room for negotiation. Scott explained that it was taking racers upwards of 20 hours to cover the 25 miles over the Cheviots, he said that’s why the cut off time had been bought forward. He explained that people in the race were still making forward progress and that it hadn’t been stopped.
On our way to Byrness
Continuing to Byrness was more important than just covering the miles as it gave us time to absorb the news and vent our frustrations amongst each other. Over the coming hours we went through a series of emotions, from denial, to anger and finally acceptance, and with that the mental driver that had been working over the last 6 days started its gradual decline. I had only heard from other runners that once your mental state of mind switches off, your body soon follows.
Just about to enter the woodland before Byrness
The race was over for us, and as I approached Byrness the aches and pains stared to kick in, the end couldn’t come fast enough now. At the road junction Scott and Phil met us and once again, explained the situation and apologised for us having come this far for it to have ended like this. Our race had come to an end after 151:30 hrs and 235 miles. We were still 2.5 hours inside the original cut off time, and that was consolation enough for me to know that under normal circumstances we would still have had 16 odd hours for the final section to Kirk Yetholm. This is what I had saved my reserves for, I had planned on going hard over this section and using whatever energy I had left, though having read other blogs, I don’t think I would have had much choice.
Someone had mentioned that trying to complete the race within 6 days and not 7 would give you enough margin for bad weather. Whilst this is a good idea, it would increase the daily mileage from what was already a challenging. I would say that leaving a full day for the Cheviots alone would more than likely be sufficient.
Other things I learnt were about teaming up with others. I wouldn’t change anything in this year’s race regardless of the outcome as it all served as a learning curve. In future, I would be more self-reliant and manage my pace better to align with my own race strategy. Not bound myself to a team, but allow a more flexible approach to moving with other racers and on my own as and when others wanted to stop or take breaks. The one tip that rings true here is to run your own race, trust your own judgment and don’t allow your race to be run by someone else. I saw this happening with other racers too, and it’s all too easy to allow it to happen. Be efficient at checkpoints and keep track of the time, especially when stopping. Everytime we stopped at a place to eat, we factored in at least 1 hour, when in reality, we could have been done in half the time. I could never have 2nd guessed the revised cut off at CP5.5, especially if the race directors couldn’t, and the cut off for 2017 has now been revised to 148 hours, thus allowing upto 20 hours to cover the final section over the Cheviots.
Another thing that is important is to have a good reason why you’re doing the race. Not just one, but several, as it’s these that will come to haunt you in the dark lonely hours of the night when you are struggling and wondering what the heck you are doing out there. I had made a list of the cut off times and had a race schedule (which I ended up neglecting), and also had a list of reasons ‘why I should carry on’, as often these thoughts tend to get buried somewhere in the depths of your mind when you are going through low moments. Finally I had another piece of paper with all the distances from place to place.
The questions I had going into this race were all answered somewhere along the way. I feel like I finished my own Spine race, ie. to the point we were not allowed to go any further, and to that end I feel satisfied. I’m hoping to return in 2017, and hope to make it to Kirk Yetholm, but I also now realise that getting there is just a small part of the race.