Let me take you back in time. It’s September 2019, and the world hasn’t heard the words ‘Corona Virus’ yet, Boris took over running the country in July 2019 and we are all sick to death of Brexit.
I am slowly recovering from completing the Monarchs Way 615 mile,12 day ultra, the previous May (read the RACE REPORT here), and slowly getting back to running. In fact, I am giving myself quite a hard time about how long it is taking to get my legs back. In the month prior to Monarchs I ran about 300 miles, comfortably and enjoyably (& slowly) just getting a couple of hours in before work, or a long run on a Sunday. It was easy and enjoyable, and set me up well for finishing Monarchs Way, albeit with a beaten and broken body (not to mention a mind turned to mush).
By September, I could not understand why I was so tired when running, and why I had no pace even for short distances. With the easy benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to diagnose terminal stupidity and complete lack of awareness of just how buggered I was even 3 months later. So, true to form, I pushed quite hard on a little bit of speed work and felt a ping in my left hamstring (the main thigh muscle down the rear of your leg, under your bum). Although I limped home, this did not prevent me from trying a 13 miler with my club the following day, but when by halfway I found myself scraping my left leg along the ground rather than lifting it cleanly I knew something more sinister was up.
No worries, I thought, I’ll rest it and be as good as knew in a few weeks. Nope. As I know now, but clearly did not then, the hamstring injury is a bugger to heal, takes ages and some real quality rehab to return it to where it had been.
I nursed it along for a while, found that while running was painful I could still hike (walk) with some pace, so focused on this while making preparations for a ‘chained’ 36 hour event with a good friend, Mark, in the ESCAPE FROM MERIDEN paired event. Mark was very accommodating of my dodgy leg, and although we ran approximately the first 20 miles, we walked the rest, with me earning the nickname Millstone as I basically hung onto Marks rucksack so that I didn’t fall into the canal we were following.
In the end, we had a great time, won our particular category as we travelled the furthest distance in 36 hours, and my leg did not trouble me as much as I expected.
In January 2020 I volunteered at the Spine race, helping at Hawes, Alston, Bellingham, which was a real eye opener. I was volunteering for two reasons: firstly I had the week booked off as holiday in order to complete the race, but completely bottled out of entering as it was far too intimidating, and secondly, it seemed wise to take a look at the race from the inside for future reference.
I have two vivid memories from my week volunteering.
Memory one; getting off the train in Hawes. I went from a nice warm bright train, to a freezing cold pitch black train platform, with horizontal rain and wind blowing a gale. I simply could not believe that people were outside in this appalling weather, and would actually be making any progress. It was awful.
Memory two was welcoming in the first runner I saw into Hawes, about 2 hours after the memory above. The runner was about 5th position, so was at the ‘pointy’ end of the race and had clearly been pushing hard. She was absolutely wet through, and visibly shivering uncontrollably, her hands shaking like a leaf. She was not entirely with it, struggling to work out how to get her wet kit off due to numb hands and perhaps a little bit of shock. Immediately, experienced volunteers moved in to sort her and get her wet kit off, while the call went out for medics to come and see what was needed. Within a couple of minutes she was wrapped in dry blankets and positioned in front of a heater to get her temperature up. 30 minutes later she was eating and smiling and getting her kit ready to head back out into the black night. I was shocked and impressed in equal measure. Very few of us have ever got that cold and wet and even fewer would be bouncing back within an hour.
So I came away from volunteering with a much better idea of what to expect at the Spine race, but also a healthy fear (or possibly unhealthy terror) of what was involved and what would be required if I attempted it.
I entered shortly afterwards, as you do, thinking that I’ve got a year to get myself in shape. About the same time entered the Northern Traverse, a cheeky 190 miles coast to coast in April 2020 and the Montane Cheviot Goat in December2020, which I thought would be good training for all Spine things.
But then in late January 2020 the news started to mention a virus that was appearing in China, and then the world went to shit.
I work as a manager in large supermarkets, so at the start of the pandemic panic, when people were fighting over toilet rolls (remember that?) or were clearing the shelves of pasta and rice, that was directly related to me. I’ve been retailing for 30 years, but my team and I had some of the toughest days and weeks that I can remember as the glorious public went mental. Lockdown was introduced shortly after, and my wife (in healthcare) and I simply carried on in our jobs as normal watching the world retract behind closed doors in case of catching Covid. Once again, I have massive respect for my whole team, who were well aware that they were coming into to contact with numerous members of the general public daily, putting themselves at risk of catching the ‘unknown’ virus, but kept turning up to work. I’ll remind you that everything we knew about Corona in the early stages was that lots of people were being hospitalised with it, usually the older especially with any sort of respiratory problems. Nowadays, we are much more blasé because of our knowledge and vaccinations but I will remember those months as some of the most stressful of my career. Of course the NHS was rightly lauded for carrying on under hugely difficult circumstances, but my insight into the supermarket sector allows me to hold up these ‘ordinary retail workers’ as being some of the heroes that kept the country running through some challenging months.
Summer 2020 was a funny time. I was able to run (and did) but would start to get pain about mile 9 and generally did not go beyond 12 miles for fear of doing something more serious. I was gently getting my mojo back and starting meeting up with a couple of running buddies for easy miles each week. Despite this, I was limited to how far I could let myself go, and was complaining about this in July 2020 when my buddy Mark made the fateful comment that I needed to commit to sorting it out even if that meant stopping running for a while.
Of course he was right, it was never going to fix itself, so in July 2020 i stopped running, got onto YouTube for some stretches to do, and joined a gym to develop the muscles. It may come as a surprise but I did not get fixed in a few weeks (as I fully expected) and in fact, by stopping running entirely my hamstring went from strong but painful to weak and painful in the space of three months. I did not realise it at the time, but the only thing holding my buggered hamstring together was the workouts it was getting from the running. When I stopped them (and didn’t replace them with the correct exercises) the muscle just withered. I would try to run, and get about 30 steps before a very sharp and real pain stopped me. This was far worse than before and was much more significant: I was limping lightly when I walked, I could feel the muscle struggling when I walked upstairs (for god’s sake!)
Clearly this was getting a little serious, lockdown was being lifted through the summer and I had Cheviot Goat in December and the Spine in January to get ready for. As part of my job I pay for private health insurance, so I went to a ‘proper’ Physio initially, who started off really optimistically and gave me loads of strengthening exercises and stretches, but by three months later was telling me time would heal it and not to rush. I then went to a consultant who thought a steroid injection may help, but 2 weeks later it appeared to be back where we started.
So it’s November 2020, I’ve run 11 miles in the last 3 months and done 100 hours of exercise (I still tracked everything even though it was all rubbish).I was doing quite a bit of hiking, which I was enjoying, but wasn’t achieving the sort of fitness it was used to while running.
Thankfully the Cheviot Goat in December was cancelled, and I was doing a just a little hill training with heavy pack for the Spine 2021, but was totally unprepared if it had gone ahead. The organisers were trying to work within the imposed restrictions (masks, social distancing etc) and so were preparing racers for the likelihood of not being able to sleep at checkpoints and similar precautions. I knew that my odds of finishing the Spine were negligible, even with all the luck in the world on my side. To make it all more difficult by making everyone sleep outside for a week would be a step too far for me.
Luckily (for me), the Spine was cancelled and I managed to get away with another year injured by not having any races.
Jan 2021 to July 2021 we are going to call the ‘fat months’. I did little exercise (that made any sort of difference), I drank beer a lot and ate like I was running 50 miles per week. I would get in the shower and run my hands sensuously over my pot belly, thinking “This is what an extra 10 lbs looks like”.
This was the lockdown that everyone was setting up virtual events and running them on Facebook. As if to prove I could stlll hike, I took on a Cockbain challenge of a 10,20,30,40,50 mile run (or in my case walk) in a week. Unfortunately I only had 5 days, so had to do them consecutively, but it was nice to have a challenge to get back into.
What did I learn from this? I can walk/hike a long way with little ill effects, and keep a pretty consistent pace with it too. Also, it can be unbelievably boring and slow just going along for miles on end. On the positive side, I did get out of the house for a bit!
On the back of this I entered a local looped 50 miler (the Kent 50 mile Challenge), with the plan of walking (fast) every step, and I managed it in about 11 hours.
17th April 2021, 50.27 miles, 11 hours2 mins, 13.08m/m
And I quite enjoyed it too! It was great being part of an event again. So I entered cheeky 100 mile event in the same location, again with the intention of walking every step, but the aim of getting it done in less than 24 hours which is a challenge for anyone whether running or walking.
22nd May 2021, 99.72 miles, 24 hrs 33 mins, 14.46m/m
A bit frustrating to lose a total of 30 minutes in vomiting (20 mins) and sleeping (10 mins) but there you have it. It turns out that I can walk quite quickly for quite a long time. My feet were slightly trashed by the end of this, but I was cheered by the fact that my hamstring was quiet through the whole event.
Despite the events above, I was doing very little other type of training, in fact my stats for the first few months of 2021 are pitiful:
Jan 2021 – 22 hours
Feb 2021 – 43 hours (but this included Cockbain challenge, so actual was 6 hours with this removed)
March 2021 – 12 hours
April 2021 – 26 hours(includes 11 hour50 miler)
May 2021- 59 hours (includes 24 hour 100 miler, and a couple of days out hiking)
June 2021 – 19 hours (quite a lot of cycling in the better weather)
I was fat, lazy, enjoying lie-ins to 10am, rather than my ususal 5am starts whether working that day or not. It was a different way of life to my previous 8 years of running, and I was very aware how much I was enjoying it. Perhaps, without being patronising, I was realising that this was how most people lived…not pushing themselves to achieve a certain goal (hours or miles) of exercise each week, not feeling that lying in bed all morning was a waste or being lazy. Especially, because I wasn’t running at all, I was putting my body under considerably less stress and was not missing it at all.
I was meeting up with running friends for coffee, rather than running, bizarre but very pleasant. But it couldn’t carry on. Towards May & June the covid situation seemed to ease off due to the vaccinations and everyone seemed to be able to look to the future again. I did the same, and told myself that would get myself back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in July. I would start training for Spine 2022 on July 1st 2021.
So now you have a choice….you can either go to a continuation of this long and rambling account of the training and lead up to the Spine 2022 HERE, or you skip straight to the start of the race HERE.
So, it’s July 1st 2021. I’ve had a very relaxed previous 6 months, with a few ‘events’ such as a 50 mile and 100 mile looped races, which I walked every step due to a very dodgy hamstring that has been a problem for 18 months now.
Outside these events however, I was doing a minimal amount of training compared to my previous life and I’d put on a nice rounded stomach and about 10 lbs. I’d happily got out of the habit of exercising and was not missing it at all. Long lazy lie-ins on a Sunday morning were the norm, as well as eating and drinking considerable amounts. It was great.
However, I’d told myself that on July 1st this was all going to change. I had a nice round-number of 6 months to the Spine race, and needed to get my head (and body) into a certain position before attempting my nemesis race.
Firstly, I needed to put some discomfort and effort into the next 6 months, to give myself something to push against when I wanted to quit the Spine. In essence, I needed to be able to tell myself that I’d worked too hard in the previous 6 months to just ‘give up’ whilst doing the race. Does this make sense? If I invested enough time and effort into getting to the start line, I’d have too much committed to easily tell myself it was OK to stop.
Secondly, I needed to get some good climbing into my legs. The spine has a whopping 13135 metres climbing (43090 feet) along its 268 miles, and this sort of elevation is going to be a show-stopper if the legs aren’t ready, especially as I’m going to be carrying a 9-10kg pack as well. I’d spend much of my time climbing the cliffs at Folkestone, but also my local gym had a stepper machine, that meant I could walk upstairs for hours at a time. It wasn’t exciting, but as a form of cardio and strengthening my legs it was magic.
Finally I just needed to get back to the habit of exercising and getting out of bed at unreasonable times. When I could run well this really wasn’t an issue, I loved it and considered myself lucky to get the opportunity to do something I loved and stay healthy at the same time. By losing my running, everything I did was ‘training’ rather than my hobby – it made a big difference.
My goal was simple, if perhaps rather stretching. I would set myself the target of 14 hours training per week, 60 hours per month. It didn’t really matter what the training was at first, whether cycling, stepping on that damn machine at the gym, hiking, or doing weights at the gym (possibly the most pointless & depressing part of my whole training). My first month or so was going to be about getting back in the zone of working hard towards a goal.
July 2021 – 62 hrs 2 mins.
33 hrs hiking (rather conveniently included a week’s walking with my wife)
17 hours cycling (started cycling to & from work)
10 hrs weights at the gym
2 hrs odds and sods.
It was the cycling to work that really started to change things, as I found a nice round 10 mile trip with some stonking hills that really got me working hard. I got in the habit of pushing hard to beat my previous times and with quiet roads at 6am I was able to fly! Great fun. By the end of the summer, when it was too dark to cycle safely in the morning I’d reduced my time for the 10 miles to 37 minutes from 43 at the start of July.
The other thing to note from July was my focus on the consistency, so rather than doing fewer massive 10 hour days, I was aiming for daily effort and minimal rest days. In fact, the whole of July meant only 5 rest days which worked well for me.
August 2021 – 57 hrs 8 minutes
24 hrs hiking
18 hours cycling
6.5 hours treadmill
4.5 hours stepping machine
3.5 hours weights
Ah, treadmill. I was feeling good and thought I’d try a bit of running, but safely on a treadmill. The reality is that the running on a treadmill is subtly different as the belt moves your legs backwards requiring less effort from my hamstring (which was still not happy). So I found I could run reasonably easily on a slow treadmill as my left hamstring could just coast along for the ride while the rest of my body compensated. It was only when I tried to run outside did I realise my legs were absolutely not gaining anything from treadmill running.
This is what pushed me onto the stepping machine. It was the only way to get my heart rate elevated in the same way that running did without actually running. It also made my legs & heart work as hard as I wanted in order to get them ready for some serous ascent.
6 rest days this month, but still some really good numbers here. A second month of really committed training was doing wonders for my mindset and I was feeling good.
September 2021 – 59 hrs 24 mins.
32.5 hrs hiking
8.5 hrs stepping machine
7.5 hrs cycling
4 hrs treadmill
3.5 hrs weights
This month included a cheeky 2 day recce of the end of the Pennine Way, from Bryness to KY, which was a great way to see the Cheviots. I drove my son up to his northern university, and then just kept going to Byrness. Parked about 5pm and walked to the first mountain refuge hut for the night, before setting out for Kirk Yetholm and the famous Border Hotel in the morning. I had lunch at the hotel and then speeding back to hut 1 again for the night (a 32 mile day, with 6000 feet of ascent!). I had a great time and my pack & legs felt good, clearly I was getting my fitness back.
7 rest days this months, but also some longer training days that took it out of me. For example, it took me a couple of days to recover from my Cheviot recce, where my energy levels did not seem to be as healthy as they were when I was running a lot. In fact this seemed to be a consistent issue, in that much of the training I was doing was short 1-2 hour efforts, whereas when running I’d have at least one long run per week of 3-4 hours, and I seemed to be missing the energy levels that would get me through these 4 hour runs. I resolved to push my hiking from 4-5 hours up to 9-10 to simulate the energy expenditure from a long run, and this would also drive me to do more night hiking which would get me ready for the constant darkness of the Spine.
October 2021 – 69 hrs 36 mins
48 hrs hiking (included a 100 mile race)
8.5 hrs cross trainer
6.5 hours running
3 hrs stepping machine
2 hrs weights
Lots going on this month! 2 weeks holiday in Lanzarote, organised by my clever wife despite the various challenges and tests you had to complete to go abroad was a lovely break, and even better our apartment had use of a gym so I was able to beast myself on a cross trainer for an hour when I was bored of lying round the pool. When that got to be too much I would go running, and tell myself that the pain on my hamstring did not exist. It was lovely to be out and about, especially when everyone would look at me like I was mad.
I also entered a 100 mile looped race (SVN Halloween 100), with the intention of carrying my full Spine pack for the distance to see what my back and shoulders would feel like after 24 hours. Answer? Shoulders and back were absolutely trashed by halfway, screaming and sore and absolutely not going any further. My feet (in some less-cushioned Innov8 shoes) were also protesting that they didn’t like walking on concrete for hours…that was the day I began trying all sorts of different insoles to give my feet some bounce.
Just to be clear, I’ve done a number of 100 mile or more races (I think this was to be number 14) and they are all challenging in their own right. The distance is mentally challenging, and there are a number of physical barriers to overcome every time. But I always overcome the barriers, don’t I? Well, not in this case. I jettisoned my pack at about mile 60 as it was just too painful on my poor shoulders; my feet needed painkillers to dull the soreness. In addition, I could not keep my eyes open, and threw myself in the back of my car not once but twice overnight for a sleep. This was a real concern as I would be looking at 6 nights awake on the Spine and here I was not coping with the first night!
By about mile 60 I was also vomiting anything solid, which is very usual for me but not great news for my energy levels, and by the following morning the looped route had been reduced to a 1.5 mile out and back due to incoming poor weather. My brain was addled with the desperately boring route and I was hating every minute of it.
So I dnf’d (did-not-finish) at mile 82. I simply stopped, said “bollocks” to it all, and got in my car to drive home. I was not injured, hurt or running out of time. I was just bored. And predictably, within 30 minutes I was thinking what an idiot I was…whoever heard of someone stopping at mile 82 of a 100 mile race? Over 4/5ths of the distance, and no serious injuries, who gives up? Well, I did, and it allowed me some real soul-searching over the next few weeks to understand why I’d bailed out so easily. I think the summary was fairly simple…the exit route was easy as I passed my car every 30 minutes, I was bored and tired, and the call of the sofa and beer was too strong. It was a painful lesson, but probably steeled my resolve to not let that happen on the Spine. No dnf’ing without good (medical) reason!
November 2021 – 41 hrs
29 hours hiking
6.5 hrs stepping machine
5 hours running
I clearly missed my 60 hours target by a mile this month, but the 100 mile event above was at the very end of October and I was busy licking my wounds for a few days to get back to any sort of training for a few days.
I did a couple of good 10 hour hikes along the cliffs at Folkestone, overnight, which covered 30 miles and 4000 feet of ascent each time. I was carrying everything that I would be on the Spine, and the varied terrain was much more forgiving than the crappy concrete on the 100 miler. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year, usually about 10-12 degrees even despite it being the middle of the night – not very Spine weather!
Although the month has running at 5 hours, these were very cautious 6 mile runs, done extremely slowly to protect my slowly-healing hamstring. At the end of each my left thigh would be throbbing, as if to show me the effort that had been put into what should have been an easy run for me.
Rest days in November – too many! 16 in total, compared to just 5 in July, but I was struggling to maintain my earlier enthusiasm with the night’s drawing in and the fatigue of ‘oh god not this again’ starting to bite a little.
December 2021 – 32 hours
23.5 hours hiking
5 hours stepping machine
3.5 hours running
I was about 5 hours into the long drive north to take part in the Montane Cheviot Goat when I (along with everyone else) was notified that it had been cancelled due to local council issues. Not a problem, adapt and overcome! I turned the car to head back south, and invited my mate that had been travelling up with me to come to Folkestone for a cheeky hike the following morning. Steve had his first experience of the cliffs (which he dealt with very well to be fair) and he stopped at mile 15, while I carried on round the coast to get home in about 60 miles (taking 18 hours). Good news, my pack seemed to be agreeing with me and the only issues was still that my Innov8 shoes simply were not giving me the padding I needed.
The following day I decided that although I loved Innov8 shoes, and the grip the offer, I was going to have to do the Spine in Hokas (a shoe that offers absolutely loads of cushioning) which would mean less grip on the varied terrain of the spine, but happier feet.
So we’ve made it to Christmas 2021, and as you can see I’ve had a fairly productive 6 months. I do not think for a second I was as fit as I have been previously, as without doing any seriosu running I simply did not have the time to drive my fitness up with lower intensity hiking. However, my mind was in a reasonable place and I’d have some good consistent training to push against if i felt like quitting the race itself.
I’d spent months (literally) obsessing over kit choices, mainly shoes but also all those small details that make or break a race. More of this in the KIT post that will be of interest to anyone actually doing the race in the future.
I’d also made a few lifestyle changes, that I suspect made little difference to the outcome but again, meant I mentally was telling myself I was preparing for the race of my life. I started eating (slightly) healthier, I stopped drinking alcohol from about the end of October to Christmas (apart from on a Sunday, a bloke has got to have some happiness in life!) and started with vitamins and similar to give myself the smallest possible chance of getting cold at the wrong time. I think all of these things were tiny changes in the grand scheme of things, but added up to something!
An interesting thing happened to me over the last few weeks of December. As the new Omicron variant became the hot topic on the news, and it looked likely we were heading for another lockdown, I began to hope / pray that the Spine would be cancelled again. Looking back, this seems slightly irrational, but the fear was very real and I simply was not invested in the event, but rather dreading the misery it was going to involve. I simply wasn’t ready physically or mentally, and I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I thought about the darkness, the ascent to climb, the lack of sleep, the cold/wind/rain weather. To put it simply, I didn’t want to do the Spine, and was looking for a good reason to get out of it.
Shortly after Xmas however, it was clear there was not going to be a lockdown of the sort I wanted & needed. I was going to the start line, ready or not!
OK reader, you’re ready…let’s go to the start of the race report….click HEEERRRRRREEEEEEE!
If you’re reading this, you are thinking about or are doing the Spine or one of the shorter versions of it. If that’s the case, well done! It’s scary isn’t it! Well done for putting yourself out of your comfort zone, and giving yourself a challenge that (at the moment) you really are not sure about.
I’m writing this as a person on the other side of race, who felt pretty bloody terrified in the weeks and months before doing the full Spine in January 2022…but pretty pleased to finish it in 143 hours. I normally write a long and detailed about my races, to replace my poor memory in a few years rather than to gain popular appeal, and this can be found HERE. (If you’ve already read it, then double congratulations…clearly endurance is a strength of yours).
So, I am writing this to put onto paper the training and kit that worked for me. I am absolutely no expert in this (or anything) but I reckon I’ve read every blog, Facebook post, and website about Spine-related stuff, so I’ve got a bit of insight. But I’m no expert, and everything you read here is my own opinion – feel free to disagree with it and tell me I’m wrong, you may well be correct. It doesn’t matter because this is the internet and pretty much anything can be quoted as gospel if you want.
Very very quickly. What do you need to know about my running experience…?
2023 – Retirement from ultras, become fat and lazy and boring.
Although I loved running, most of the above ultras were hiked after perhaps mile 50, due to my entirely crap running prowess. A torn hamstring in late 2019 stopped me running completely.
There, that was quick wasn’t it!
Before I write anything about training, I need to write about luck. Luck is important. In something like the Spine, luck is really important. I was really lucky in January 2022. The weather, after the first couple of days, was cold but with little rain or snow. The ground was saturated with water, but I didn’t slip and pull a muscle or twist my ankle. My electronic kit (GPS etc) all behaved itself. My feet, although poorly, just about held together to the end. Overall, I was blessed with problems that I could deal with rather than any show stoppers that would prevent me from completing. I call this luck. Now don’t get me wrong – I was well prepared, well trained, and I had backups or contingency for things going wrong – but nothing can prevent a twisted ankle from becoming a show-stopping issue once it’s happened.
It’s because of this that a lot of racers in the Spine are well-trained, have great kit, but still don’t finish. That’s the lottery of attempting a race with so many factors outside your control. I would politely suggest that running a spring marathon, if you get to the start line uninjured, is a fairly safe bet to finish. Unfortunately the Spine works by a different set of rules. Some people will finish first time (like me) and some, equally deserving, will not.
Once you get to the start line, the lottery starts. And keeps running until either you finish, or your luck runs out. The point of what you are about to read is to give yourself the maximum possible chance of not needing to rely on luck because (for example) you are so practised at travelling on muddy hilly terrain with a heavy pack that you are practically like a hairy mountain goat and will stay on your feet no matter what (or if you do slip, your sinewy legs will accommodate a bit of awkward stretching in an odd direction).
Luck? Yep, you get the idea.
Someone famous said “The more I practise, the luckier I get” and I suppose that is my understanding too. Part of my (real life) job is to implement change and new things in my workplace, and so I spend a great deal of time imagining what could go wrong (when the new thing or change is in place) and how to either avoid that or deal with it when everything is crashing down. I apply a similar logic to my races…what could go wrong with my GPS device and how can I deal with it? So I make sure I’m really comfortable with the device (a little Garmin Etrex 30) and can handle the multiple menus and maps, but if all else fails I carry a spare device, setup in exactly the same way, so if my GPS fails in the middle of nowhere, I can carry on. If my spare fails, I have got enough skill at map reading to get out of trouble, although I’ve never needed to. In this way I’m allowing myself to get out of trouble if necessary. You got to give yourself the opportunity to be lucky sometimes.
Anyway, you get the idea…enough about luck.
Let’s talk about training. I’m guessing you are a runner at the moment, and have somehow ended up doing ultras, and then have somehow ended up at the Spine. Have you been dot-watching for a few years, thinking “I couldn’t do that”…? Yup, me too.
If you’ve come from a different background, that’s OK too. You don’t need any special talents to suffer. Just a stubborn mindset.
Running is great. Running gets your heart rate high and keeps it there. It’s a brilliant cardio workout, and if you are running a marathon, then you naturally need to run a lot. Unfortunately, if you are going be doing the Spine, or the Challenger or Sprint, it’s less likely you will be running too much. If you plan to run a lot, then you are too good to be reading this – you should go and email your coach instead (haha).
So if you are not going to be running much in the race, then your training shouldn’t consist of mostly running. It has to be hiking I’m afraid, which is not exciting or hard, but actually time consuming and slow. You cannot hike a cheeky 20 miler on a Sunday morning and be home for 9am when the family wakes up…instead you will leave the house at midnight, hike through the night, ideally in some shitty muddy hilly surroundings, getting rained on periodically, and then get home covered in mud and dog-tired at 9am…ready for a family day. You will stay awake all day (good sleep-deprivation training) and then attack a late roast dinner and some red wine (in my case) before falling into a coma about 7pm. Enjoyable? Yes, sort-of…..provided your family are understanding and you make damn sure you remain in a good mood throughout the day (you are choosing to put yourself through this, remember?).
Does that make sense? My best training was very like the paragraph above, as it replicate the worst parts of the race perfectly…overnight, mud, poor weather, lack of sleep…with no real chance at the end to go to comfy bed and recover properly.
You will need to find the perfect place to go and do this. It needs some serious elevation (unless you are willing to go up and down the same hill a few times) and it needs some rough terrain. Ideally it will be exposed so that on a stormy night you will get the full weather experience, and hopefully it will be in the middle of nowhere so there’s no danger of you bailing out early and getting a bus home. You will know if you’ve nailed it when you seriously do not want to go there for another absolutely crap training hike. But when you do go, the sense of achievement is significant…as is the relief that you do not have to go back for at least a week.
My own personal pit of doom is near Folkestone, about 45 minute drive from my house. I would leave the house at 10pm on Saturday, hike about 30 miles through the night, getting home about 8 or 9am. I think I probably did the 30 mile route most weekends through October and November, leaving December alone as I work in retail and I’m at work too much to train seriously. One of the most satisfying things about finishing the race is that I will never have to go back to Folkestone and go up and down the cliffs there again… I disliked it that much.
Needless to say, you won’t only do overnight hiking, that would be far too depressing (and too far from home!) I used to do another mid-week hike, across some local fields, for between 3 hours and 5 hours, with the focus on going as fast as possible on the better terrain. As fast as possible? Perhaps 16-17 minutes per mile or quicker if possible. I’d normally start quicker, than slow after the first hour, but it was rough version of a tempo run, pushing a bit. Generally I’d be aiming for 11 miles in 3 hours to 16 miles for the longer times.
Use these hikes to learn what you like to eat. Eat a lot of it.
OK, so that’s hiking covered…build up to 30 miles (once per week) and a shorter faster effort mid-week by October/November. I’d do this will full pack (maybe 8-9kgs) and wearing something close to the kit I’d wear on the race.
Other training? Yes, absolutely. If you are as bad at hills as I am, then get some practice in! I spent more time on the stepper machine at my local gym than was probably necessary, but it was an easy way to replace the running that I enjoyed. This was the equivalent of the cardio that meant I could keep my heart rate high for an hour, sweat pouring off me, while everyone else in the gym looking at me worryingly, hoping I wasn’t about to have a heart attack.
Weight-training? Probably a good idea, but I’m going to confess that I did not really bother. I found the effort of lifting a heavy weight (and then putting it down) was profoundly pointless. I suspect weight-lifters would tell me that running for an hour in a big loop to end up where I started was equally pointless (but I love it!)
And that’s the extent of my not-very-complicated training regime.
Or is it?
I gave up alcohol for about 3 months before the race. At least, I reduced my considerable consumption to just one day per week (Sunday red wine anyone?) which is supposed to be very good for you.
I started taking multivitamins and vitamin C for 4 months before the race, which made absolutely no noticeable difference at all. But I got no colds, flu or Covid during these months. (Remember what I said about giving yourself the opportunity to be lucky?)
Practice sleeping out in your bivvy & sleeping bag. Unpacking it, packing it away, dropping it in a muddle puddle, whatever you fancy. Practice. I really like and enjoy wild camping with a lightweight tent, but I will still bivvy as a training exercise to get an hours sleep and then pack up and carry on up the trail.
Hang on a minute. Let’s quickly touch on the idea of bivvying out during the Spine race for a minute, and please take some advice from me. You should be ready to do it if necessary but only the absolute last resort. That’s it. The likelihood of unpacking your gear, getting your muddy clothes off, managing to get into your sleeping bag and bivvy, and finally getting some decent sleep, and getting back on the trail in a reasonable amount of time is low to zero. Don’t get me wrong, you may need to do it, but personally I happily recommend a 10 minute nap on the trail (or ideally under cover) which will refresh you without eating up hours of time. Practice both a ‘proper’ sleep in your bivvy for a few hours, and also a nap that refreshes without needing to unpack everything.
So what do you use for a quick nap? I bought a very lightweight tarp, Pike Trail Pocket Blanket, and I would wrap myself up in this to keep the wet ground off me, and the wind/rain off. It may well be cold, so I would wrap up in a foil blanket before wrapping the tarp around me, it was surprisingly warm. The only time this didn’t work was when I was wet through to my clothes under my hard-shell, and predictably just lay there getting colder and colder. A rough way to learn that movement is the best way to keep warm if you are wet.
Foot care, or more specifically, foot taping. I bought the very excellent book, Fix Your Feet, and read it. I practised the likely taping I would need (balls of feet, heels, toes) to get ideas about what worked and what came unstuck. It’s quite an art! At the race itself, there are some brilliant medics that will put tape all over your feet if you ask, but it helps to be able to guide them with your experience. More importantly, if you need to stop on the trail and fix a hot-spot, there’s not a medic to help! I can tell you that the strip of KT tape I need to cover my little toes is exactly as long as my thumb, and exactly half the width of the tape…that’s how much I practised.
If you’ve never needed tape on your feet before, then it cannot hurt to practise anyway! I used to think my feet were bomb-proof, but the waterlogged conditions you will experience on the Spine will put most feet at risk of maceration and blisters.
OK, so you’ve spent a good few hours hiking, you’ve got all the kit you’ll ever need. You know what you like to eat on the trail and you can refresh yourself with an hours sleep under a hedge. What else do you need to do?
Train your brain.
Yes, seriously. Your brain needs to learn to suffer, and take it in good spirits. It needs to be able to be blown to buggery by the wind, and remind itself that at least it’s not as bad as storm Angus was on Folkestone cliffs. Your mind needs to reach exhaustion, and tell itself that your body has got hours of hiking left in it. It needs to reach maximum boredom and be sick to death of the slippery mud, and know exactly which song or playlist will lift it out of the gloom.
Unfortunately, the only way to reach these depths is to put your shoes on and get outside. You cannot do it from the sofa. The more you commit to training, the more you’ve got to lose by DNF’ing during the race itself….and you will want to quit at one point or another.
I think it was Sarah Fuller that made a very perceptive Facebook post a few years ago, that said (and I paraphrase) you needed to go into the race “knowing your ‘why’” so that when you wanted to drop out you could tell yourself why you were there in the first place. Have a think about that. And then train your brain.
Lastly, recce what sections of the route you can. I was able to do most of the route, solely because Covid delayed my race by a few years. Recce 1, 2, 3. That gave me time to juggle work, family life, and other commitments to zoom up north, hike a section between two aid stations, and then get back home as quickly as possible. I was helped in this by my son going to university up north, so I would drive him back for the start of term, and then recce more of the Pennine way for a few days before getting home again. Would I recommend any particular sections? Personally, the section from Middleton to Alston encompasses Cauldron Snout, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell, and Greg’s Hut. It’s just got everything, in my opinion. I found it the toughest section, the climb up to Cross Fell is genuinely the toughest climb I’ve done in any race. It’s a section that you want to try first in my opinion. Second, is the final section over the Cheviots, simply because it’s so remote. Recce with all your kit, make some mistakes, sleep badly in Hut 1, run out of water, take some pictures and fall in love with the Pennine Way.
Right, I think that’s enough about training. Let’s get to the meaty juicy bit you’ve been eagerly waiting for. Let’s talk about kit and see how easily we can blow a couple of grand…
Some of what you are about to read is just a duplicate of my kit list for 2018 Challenger, but this is what I used, discarded, retried and tested for Winter Spine 2022.
Shoes – I ended up using 2 pairs of Hokas boots in the end. A pair of Hoka Challengers for the first half, and Speedgoats for the second half. I’ve used Hokas for a while, but originally discarded the idea of using them for the spine as they would be too narrow with the multiple pairs of socks I intended to wear with them. I had a nightmare choosing other brands though, working through Innov8 Rocklites (really comfy, but simply not padded enough for long 24 hour sections) to La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II (nice, but not enough grip), to trying all the above with special expensive insoles. In the end I came back to Hokas and I figured I’d just have to cope with the slight narrow fit. I had the first pair one size larger than my usual shoes, and the second pair were two sizes larger. Even with some foot swelling, those Speedgoats were a pleasure to put on at Middleton.
I did have a spare pair of very big shoes in my drop bag in case of foot-swelling disasters. They were a whopping size 14 Innov8 Rocfly 390, that resembled boats rather than shoes. I’m thankful to say I didn’t need them, but having spent the last few days of the Monarchs Way in tight shoes, it’s just agony to walk for days in shoes that are too small and I won’t make that mistake again.
All the above shoes are boots, to give the ankle added stability and prevent anything getting into the shoe.
I experimented with gore-tex shoes & non-gore-tex, because there is a huge swell of opinion (I found) that said you wanted non-gore-tex shoes so the water could run out. Well, I walked through ankle high grass, soaking wet with dew, in non-gore-tex shoes, and my socks were soaking in minutes. Gore-tex shoes, in the same field, kept my feet dry. It was a simple choice for me…I hate having wet feet. So my shoes would be gore-tex, and I would find some quality waterproof socks to keep the inevitable water off.
Socks – I’ve been wearing this combination for a few years, and have found they work really well for me. I have a pair of Injinji toe liner socks next to my feet, and some quality merino wool hiking socks next to them. On top of them, waterproof socks. Now you can see why my shoes felt a bit tight!
Injinji are really expensive, but I find they last for years (I’ve been using some years-old pairs, from when I did GUCR in 2014), and they prevent any skin rubbing on skin, preventing blisters. The merino wool socks are simply there to absorb sweat that comes out of the Injinji, and also do the usual merino job of keeping my feet warm or cold as required.
There are two main brands of waterproof socks…Sealskinz and DexShell. I read that the first half of the route is the wettest, and that knee-length socks are essential to prevent water going over the top…so I wore knee length Sealskinz for the first half (at an eye-watering price of £50) and then calf length DexShell for the second half. I’ve worn a lot of waterproof socks over the years, and usually find them very reliable, but their performance deteriorates over time, so the ones I wore for the spine were packet-fresh and untouched…and predictably they did a great job. I even had to traverse a couple of deep streams in the Sealskinz and didn’t feel my feet get wet.
I only used the two pairs of waterproof socks, but I had spare Injinji/merino socks with me in my pack and enough pairs in my drop bag to ensure I could change them multiple times if the need arose.
A quick note here: no waterproof sock will keep your feet dry if you go through every puddle and stream available. I will do everything I can to keep my shoes dry, skipping around puddles and mud until it is absolutely unavoidable to get them wet. I don’t like running with wet feet, and the cold would have been serious if my feet had been wet for hours. If there is no danger of feet getting wet, then don’t use waterproof socks, as they are bleeding expensive and hold the sweat inside, basically poaching your feet over a long period of time.
Gaiters: when I’m out running I have a simple pair of dirty-girl gaiters that cover my ankle and prevent sticks and stones going into my shoes. For Challenger in 2018, I invested in a pair of Berghaus GTX gaiters. These are expensive, but are probably one of the most important bits of kit after jacket and shoes. The gaiters have a strong thick strap under the shoes that can be easily replaced when worn out as they are attached by Velcro (I’ve replaced mine 3 times). The gaiters go from the tops of your shoe (another good reason for using a boot) right up to your knee, and fasten with Velcro all the way down. They close nice and tightly around your lower leg, and provide superb protection against water and mud. I don’t think you can run in them, but I didn’t try to be fair. They were comfortable and secure; I didn’t have to adjust them at all once I fitted them correctly. I’ve used them for multiple hikes, recces and finally the Winter Spine in 2022. They are magic.
Underwear: just a simply pair of running shorts, with a nice worn liner inside that I’ve done multiple miles in. Whatever feels really comfy.
Trousers: I had a pair of cheap running tights under a brilliant pair of Montane Terra hiking trousers, which I’ve been using for years and I find they are very comfortable and dry amazingly quickly when they get wet. Over the top of all of these I wore my waterproof trousers from the very start.
Waterproof trousers: I used a pair of Berghaus Deluge trousers from the start (as it was raining/snowing), and wore them every single mile. Brilliant things, although they look a bit bedraggled now! They performed well in the heavy rain, and even better they have a long zip up each side so can be put on over shoes – the last thing I wanted out on the trail was to struggle to put trousers on over shoes. I’m not a massive fan of waterproof trousers, but these did a great job without overheating my legs. If you want to have a look at them, go to Go Outdoors, where they have racks of every different type of waterproof trousers in different sizes, and try loads on. It’s like internet shopping but with stuff to try on. I had second, cheap, pair in my drop bag in case of the inevitable hole that would appear, but didn’t need them.
Top base layers – I had 2 merino wool base layers in my drop bag, ready for the cold weather. Interestingly, I usually overheat on long runs and I found these worked well. They did fill with sweat if I didn’t vent them on big climbs, but did a great job of keeping me warm. I also had a pair of merino wool tights in case I started to get cold, but I never actually needed them.
Top layer – During Challenger in 2018 I used thick winter running tops, which worked well, but I was very conscious that when they got wet they would take hours to dry. For the full Spine I used light long sleeve summer tops, but multiple layers of them so able to change them out easily if wet. I learned this from doing the Monarchs Way in 2019, and the benefit of being able to keep cool by removing a layer is invaluable.
Mesh vest. Yes, it sounds strange, but these are amazingly warm and light. I used Plant X Carnac Mesh base layer and it was very comfy and warm. Unfortunately you look horrendous in it, but that can’t be helped can it?
Jacket – the most important piece of kit. For Challenger I spent hours literally deciding which to get, as I didn’t own a good enough jacket previously. I went for a hard-shell jacket, which was going to be bulletproof in poor weather, but was heavier and less breathable. Ifyou are going slow and steady like me, my recommendation is to go for the best you can afford, and I got a Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. It was great for the Challenger, and was again absolutely amazing for the full Spine, and every other serious ultra I’ve done in between. It’s a magical jacket and easily my favourite bit of kit. It’s saved me more times than I care to think about, and I get a feeling of real invincibility when I wear it.
However, while researching for the full Spine, I was also reading about the mythical properties of Paramo jackets. The Altra 3 jacket specifically. Paramo jackets work very differently from hard-shell jackets. They don’t try to resist the rain, but rather absorb it and then use your movement to ‘squeeze’ the water out. They are a quality piece of kit, and are rightly raved about. I managed to get one, and decided to carry it with me as a warm jacket that could go underneath my Mountain Equipment jacket if it got too cold, or my hard-shell gave up the ghost and started letting water through.
Most people would feel that this is a bit of overkill (and they’d be right) but the risk of getting completely soaked from a suitably torrential bit of rain, or the risk of getting some proper hyperthermia from a particularly cold night out on the Cheviots is not a great prospect either. Please don’t underestimate the cold that you feel after days on your feet with minimal nutrition, at elevation, in January, in Scotland. It’s not funny.
The Paramo jacket was great, but I never got used to the idea of wearing a jacket in the rain that doesn’t repel the water. There’s a really good reason it is not allowed to be your main jacket on the Spine kit list!
Neck gaiter – We’ve all got loads of free buffs from previous races, and these are what I used for the Challenger. But take a tip from me…splash out on a merino wool buff. It stays dry (somehow) in the rain, it feels warm all the time. It was my favourite bit of kit, almost.
Hat – I took one very warm waterproof hat, that I got cheaply off the internet a few years ago, and worn through every cold ultra for years. I think it cost £2. My jacket hood kept the rain off when the rain started so it didn’t need to be particularly waterproof, just warm. During the day, or if it was too hot, I used a buff on my head instead. Get something that covers your ears.
Head torch – I usually use a Petzl myo, which I find does everything I want and had great battery life. For the Challenger I traded up to a Petzl Nao plus, which was horrifically expensive (really really expensive) but after a recce in November with the Myo, I wanted more light for the night sections (i.e. most of it). I found the Nao plus gave loads of light (750 lumens I think, for 16 hours) and I liked the reactive lighting (which meant it dimmed in well lit areas to save battery), but in truth I didn’t like the rechargeable battery which forced me to buy a spare rechargeable battery just in case required out on the trail, and was fiddly to change. The charge time is 6 hours too, which meant it wasn’t possible to fully recharge while at an aid station. You can control the torch through an app, which also tells you how much battery life you have left….but it’s a gimmick.
I also took the Myo with me as a spare, just in case, and spare batteries for both torches. The Nao plus worked superbly, and although it was overkill it did a great job.
I also carried a small hand-held torch that could be focussed to provide a very narrow strong beam in the dark. It’s a little known fact that in rain or mist, a head torch will diffuse the light throughout the moisture, and give hardly any visibility beyond about 2 metres. That’s when you get out your torch and shine a beam of strong light that actually shows you where to go. Much better.
Goggles – part of the mandatory kit, you’ll find pairs by Bolle are cheap, comfortable and do the job. Don’t spend ages searching around for an alternative, they’re all rubbish. Just get Bolle. And then practice with them wear them for hours, work out where they rub.
Gloves – this was really interesting. I had a few pairs, but the ones I used most were these from Amazon. Waterproof, thermal, brilliant.
These kept my hands warm, dry, and although I couldn’t feel much through the thick membrane I did have some mobility. I really liked these, and wore them a lot. Dry and warm hands no matter how much it rained.
In addition, I got a pair of Gore-Tex Extremities Tuff Bag over-mitts which allowed me to move my fingers around more than the thermal gloves above. These were great, and very light to carry around. They got a bit sweaty inside after a while and gently disintegrated throughout the week, bless them.
I saw loads of other people with really expensive mitts, by Montane or others that just could not cope with days in the rain and simply became completely waterlogged. Don’t do this! Avoid wearing them in strong rain, unless you have something waterproof over the top! My version of these was a pair of Mountain Equipment mittens. They are Primaloft, so warm when wet, and would be my glove of choice in the real cold. When I did my recces, I was able to put hand warmers into the mittens which kept my hands toasty when I was getting cold.
Overall, I have learnt that if my feet, hands and neck/head are warm then the rest of my body generally follows. Hence socks / gloves / buff & hat are probably the things that I already knew what worked for me, and I didn’t have to look around too much.
I was really tempted to carry more layers, t-shirts or more long sleeved tops that I could put on if required, but I kept them in my drop bag and in the end didn’t require them. Something I saw when I volunteered at the 2021 spine was racers getting in to aid stations completely soaked through, and running out of dry clothes to change into. I made sure my drop bag contained enough clothes to change most layers at every aid station. Luckily, I didn’t need most of them as there wasn’t too much rain after the first couple of days.
Rucksack – OMM classic 32ltr. Was bigger than I needed, and I had to be controlled so that I didn’t fill it with even more stuff, but I’ve used it a lot and it fits well. I especially like the various pockets it has on the waist belt and top. I used an OMM trio front pack, which was great, very big (4 litre) and hold everything I needed for easy access. I had a single water bottle fitted to one of the shoulder straps with an OMM pod which worked well, and on the other strap I had an OMM pod holding a flask of hot drink.
GPS unit – Garmin Etrex 30. I’ve had this for a few years, and it is simple to use but very good. If you don’t use one much at the moment, then get out and use it, especially if you aren’t very technological gifted. It is a bugger to get used to, but I can strongly recommend making your mistakes when you’re not in a race. Please don’t underestimate this, unless you are an expert map reader. I can read a map, but not after 40 hours with no sleep, and the GPS saved me more than once. As I mentioned earlier, I carried a spare GPS with me in case of emergencies which I’m thankful to say I did not need. It sounds expensive (and it is) but see if you can borrow one to use as a spare rather than buy one…I’m convinced most GPS units in the country spend 90% of their time in a drawer somewhere, not being used.
Sleeping bag & bivvy bag. Dead simple…Alpkit Pipedream 400 and Hunka XL bivvy. The sleeping bag is good down to -6 degrees, and I’ve slept outside in frosty weather in November with no problems. It weighs 800g, which is heavy, and is quite bulky, but it is such a reasonable price it seemed daft not to get one. The XL bivvy seems to be decent, but quite small (even though XL) for me – I’m 6ft.
Sleeping mat –Alpkit Numo. Just get the lightest. You’ll be so knackered it won’t matter if it’s comfortable. The only checkpoint that doesn’t have beds available is Bellingham, and by that stage sleeping on the floor (on an inflatable matt) is the least of your problems. I already had an Alpkit Airo 120, but chose the Numo as it was a whopping 100g lighter and much less bulky.
Stove – I used an MSR pocket rocket, and a titanium pot from Alpkit with windproof matches. I didn’t take a heavy wind blocker, but a couple of pieces of stiff silver foil (cut down bits of silver tray) that would work if I couldn’t find any shelter. I didn’t use them in the end, but practised until I could set them all up, boil 2 cups of water to make cup-a-soup, drink and pack up in just under 10 mins. Even in that short time I was getting really cold (practice when out hiking, not in your kitchen!), so it is vital to practise to be quick. I was tempted to go for a jet-boil or something similar, but I love the compactness of the kit I had.
Yaktrax pro – mandatory kit, didn’t use them. You need to practice putting them on! Get them cheap from the internet (mine cost £7.50, they are £20 in the shops)
Maps: I used the OS A-Z for the Pennine way, which has a highlighted line over the Pennine way. Simple, easy. I used it a lot on my recces, but very little on the race itself. Make sure you have it in a waterproof cover or it will fall apart.
Rear red light: Loads of different versions available, I ended up using a Silva Simi Red Safety light. Light, bright, great. I had 3 with me in case they all died after one night, but in fact the first one I used was still going strong at the end.
And what else did I take?
Hand-warmers, from Tesco, one use only but stayed warm for 10 hours on my recces which was way beyond my expectations. Nice to have if you get proper cold!
Plastic poncho, to protect in case of poor weather. These take up no space, are very light, and made me feel confident about encountering some proper weather if my hard-shell started to leak.
Rubber gloves – plain old Tesco washing-up gloves, very light, which I kept on the outside of my pack and used when I took my disgustingly muddy boots and gaiters off. Purely psychological, but I hate to get my hands covered in bog when taking my shoes off.
Water bottles. If using one with a bite valve and straw from the bottle, do put a bit of insulation on them. I found that while my straw didn’t freeze up (it was wrapped in felt and duct tape), my bite valve would crack when I used it as the water inside would freeze. I learnt to blow the water out, back into the bottle, after every drink. Flask for hot drink on the other strap, mine had a screw lid, but I was envious of the people that had a flask with a flip-top so they only needed one hand to open it and take a drink.
Food – tough one this, as everyone is different. I took 2 freeze-dried meals in my rucksack, 1000kcal each, in case of emergency. In my front pack I had a small bag of ‘nibbles’, but after the first leg I found I wasn’t eating loads outside the checkpoints. My other recommendation (as with any long ultra) is never pass a pub or shop without buying something to eat, whether it is a massive lasagne or just a pack of sweets, the monotony of identical food is easy for 12 hours, but after a few days is an easy way to stop eating.
Spare shoelace. Just in case.
Spare batteries for GPS, headtorch etc.
First aid kit, as required, and the smallest sharpest penknife I could find that had a pair of scissors on it. Look on Amazon. Make sure you have foot tape included in here.
Phone, headphones…I often listen to music to keep my mood positive, and on the Monarchs Way I listened to the same artist for about 9 days straight, charging my phone as I went. I’d suggest carrying a charging block too, just in case. Charging phone or watch or head torch while on the go is a big part of these long ultras, and I always carry too much electronics ‘just in case’. Just imagine not being ableto leave a checkpoint because some bugger has unplugged your kit while you were sleeping. Put the electronics in a plastic bag, as they will undoubtedly get wet at some point.
Poles – can’t forget these! I’m quite a fan of poles up the ascents, and used them for multiple ultras like the Arc of Attrition, Monarchs Way and on the Spine Challenger. I know there are loads of sexy thin pair around, but I also read that a lot of the thin ones get broken on the spine as there are a lot of nooks and crannies for the tip to slip into and get snapped off when you keep moving forward. On one of my recces that was exactly what happened to me. So my pole of choice is…Amazon best seller “Pair of Trekrite Antishock Hiking Sticks / Walking Poles – Black”. These are chunky and strong, and even when I did snap the tip off one on my recce I still used it for days. They are telescopic, which means they are bulkier than folding poles, but they work fine. Best of all they are £20. They weigh 285g each, which is loads, but I think worth it (Black Diamond are £80 and only a little lighter). Personally, I’d rather spend my money on a better jacket or solid gaiter than poles, but that’s just me. I had a spare pair in my drop bag also, in case of disaster. And I think it’s common knowledge, but make sure you mark them with something unique to prevent another racer accidentally picking yours up at a checkpoint (I found bright pink duct tape scared away everyone else, or perhaps they just didn’t like the look of the cheapest poles out on the trail).
I should point out that if I was in an event that only used poles for a small amount of time, these would be a nightmare to carry with you until they were required, so I’d probably get something smaller….but for the Spine, perfect. Oh yes, almost forgot, put duck tape around the top third of the pole, as it’s much warmer on bare fingers than the metal pole when holding them horizontal. Also, the duct tape comes in handy when you tear your waterproofs on barbed wire as you can unpeel it from the pole and cover the rip.
I didn’t need to carry a poo kit, so can’t advise too much on that thankfully. In my day we just dug a hole with a stick and covered it up afterwards.
What else did I do? I had a couple of loops of elastic added to the waist belt of my pack so I could hang things on them that I didn’t want to carry. For example, all my gloves had a loop sewn into the wrist so I could take my gloves off to eat and not drop them. Overkill? Yes, possibly, but losing a glove on the trail in poor weather is not a great idea.
I marked the water level I needed on my aluminium pot for the dried meals I was carrying, so it was simple and easy to boil the correct amount of water.
I counted how many socks I would need in the absolute worst case weather, and had enough to change my socks at every checkpoint, and once between checkpoints.
I practised putting those damn Yaktrax things on until it wasn’t an absolute bloody nightmare. This is possibly only necessary if you are wearing Hokas.
I sewed everything on my kit to ensure it didn’t come loose on the trail. I also had a tiny sewing kit in my drop bag. Thankfully not needed. I also carried 4 big safety pins on my pack, ready for re-attaching something in an emergency. I swear by safety pins as the ultimate ‘just in case’ accessory for an ultra.
I also had a tiny laminated spreadsheet of distances between checkpoints, cut-off times and other useful stuff.
I used a Suunto 9 watch to track my progress, lovely thing.
And my drop bag….
Two compartments at either end. One was filled with the immediate stuff I’d need to swap my muddy shoes out at every checkpoint – plastic gloves (for keeping hands clean when getting boots off), wet wipes to clean feet, comfy slide-on shoes…I wanted my soggy feet to dry out as much as possible, so they needed to spend some time in the air, without socks on.
In the other compartment was all the ‘important’ stuff for the checkpoint that wasn’t clothing…about 3 charging blocks & leads (for charging head torch rechargeable battery, watch, phone), spare batteries (for GPS), replacement hand warmers etc.
In the mid section of the drop bag was everything else!
Everything was in clear plastic food bags with press-seal tops. Easy to know what was in every bag and could be compacted down, air squeezed out and then sealed to take up minimal space.
Two pairs of shoes, both bigger sizes than the pair I’d be starting in. I.e. I started in a size 12 (I normally take an 11) and my Hoka Speedgoats were a 13, and my ‘last-resort’ shoes in case of foot-swelling disasters were Innov8 Rocfly 390 size 14’s. Both pairs in plastic bags to keep everything clean.
Spare trousers, leggings, merino wool leggings, & spare waterproof trousers (cheap ones). Spare warm hat. Spare waterproof gloves (as well as the multiple pairs I was carrying).
4 standard running long sleeve tops, 2 heavy running tops. 2 merino wool base layers. 1 spare string vest. 4 spare buffs, and one spare merino wool one that I didn’t need.
Water filter, just in case the last section over the Cheviots looked like not having any water available, which is what I found on my recce. In reality the mountain rescue super-stars were manning Hut 1 & 2 so that was not a problem.
Batteries. Lots of batteries. Mainly for my GPS, but my spare head torch also used AA so they were for that also. To simplify things I planned to replace the GPS batteries at every checkpoint, so that meant having that many, plus a few extras for emergencies. Lithium seems to be the battery of choice for cold weather. Naturally, they are the most expensive too.
5 dried meals, to replace the 2 I was carrying if necessary. All had between 600-1000 kcal.
10 cup-a-soups (I use these when my stomach refuses to eat, which is pretty much every time)
2 bags of boiled sweets…sherbet lemons & butter mintoes if you are interested. I tried to only carry 5 sweets with me at a time though. A boiled sweet can give your blood sugar just the kick it needs it you are feeling low.
A bar of Cadburys chocolate, yum.
A few tins of mackerel in sauce. I carried one with me too, useful it you want protein rather than savoury. Mackerel has saved me a few times on ultras (especially Thames Ring 250 on the final night) but it does make me smell a bit fishy.
I had everything in a huge 100 litre bag, that had wheels and a handle built in for easy movement. It was water-resistant, very important! And yes, I did manage to get down to the 20kg weight limit.
Is that everything? Yes, I think so. I spent a great deal of time (and money) getting my kit together (over a number of years & ultras), and I have no hesitation in recommending it all, and the spares I took but didn’t use. Frankly, the Spine is difficult enough without making it harder by trying to do it in a pair of wellies and a flimsy cagoule. I know myself well enough that if I DNF a race I have to go back and finish it another time, so it was simply self-preservation for me to prepare well for my one and only attempt at the full Spine.
Was it worth it? After a few months of reflection and with the distance that only time gives, I think I’ll remember the Spine for the rest of my life, but not just the race itself. Rather, the journey I took to get to the finish line: numerous difficult ultras that built my experience, a selection of kit that I built over the years that I knew would not let me down, and building a mindset that knew how to suffer and keep suffering. The final 6 months of training were really tough, but exactly what I needed to feel I had invested too much time and energy to DNF this particular race.
Having finished and ‘retired’ from ultras, I now find I have quite a nostalgic view on my past efforts. It’s like I’m an old man that views his younger days with a rose-tinted view, forgetting the pain and the effort it took.
I remember it as being easy and fun, when I know it wasn’t. Funny that. Maybe I need to go back and remind myself.
….and that’s the end. Good luck if you’re doing the spine (whether the full, challenger or sprint) and have a great time. Please leave a comment if you’ve found this useful!
The Spine race is the hardest ultra in the UK. There, I said it.
It bills itself as “Britain’s Most Brutal…” and although there are some that would disagree, I’m not one of them.
The race covers 268 miles of the entire Pennine Way, from Edale to Kirk Yetholm across the Scottish border, with 13135 metres of climbing (Everest is 8848 metres), terrain that varies from bog to occasional flagstone paths and then back to bog again, in some of the most isolated places in Britain. It takes place in January so you get the “full intensity and ferocity of the British winter” according to the website.
Due to the isolated nature of the race you are required to carry a significant amount of kit such as sleeping bag, sleep mat & bivvy bag to sleep outside if necessary, cooking system and dehydrated meals, spare clothes and more gloves than you can wear at one time. I could go on, but you’ll begin to glaze over with kit fatigue. Unless of course you’ve done the race or are planning to, in which case you’ll talk for days and weeks about the relative merits of lithium versus alkaline batteries (lithium last longer in sustained cold) and weights of numerous types of expensive sleeping bags. Usually the pack you end up carrying will be about 6-7.5kg, depending on how much you’ve spent on getting the lightest possible kit, and then add in a couple of litres of water and some emergency chocolate biscuits and you are carrying up to 9-10kgs for a week.
There are 5 indoor checkpoints, allowing access to a drop-bag, medics and some light and heat for eating and sleeping, but the clock keeps ticking throughout so they are not places to linger!
The darkness in January descends at about 4.30pm, and is all encompassing until perhaps 8am, so easily 15 hours of darkness each day. And let’s be clear, this is ‘proper’ dark, with no streetlamps to guide you or houses to illuminate the surroundings. You are in a small pool of light from a head torch, allowing you to see a couple of metres in front of you…but that’s it. There could be a steep drop a few feet to your left and you would never know until you stumble in that direction.
And did I mention the weather? It’s cold, windy, wet underfoot, and hopefully the rain will stop every few days to give way to snow or sleet. The route is beautiful but exposed, and there is little or no chance of shelter if the wind gets too much. Generally the climbs take you to a different weather system, so at the bottom of a big climb you are in damp cold conditions, but after 30 minutes of hard leg-sapping climbing it’s blowing a gale in thick fog, with the temperature an easy 10 degrees colder than before. The changeability of the weather is a constant challenge – it’s quite easy to get too warm on a climb, fill your jacket with sweat and heat, and then freeze when you unzip at the top to let the heat out.
If you know about the Spine, then you already know all this. If you’ve never heard of it, take a look at this 56 second video ‘teaser’ that has been released by a media company that do some awesome videos during the race itself.
What that video cannot portray is the human stories which develop each year, usually at the back of the field, where ‘ordinary’ people like me struggle against incredible adversity to complete the race within the cut-offs. Over the last few years, when I along with many others have been following the race trackers, people have dnf’d (did-not-finish) a mere 5 miles from the end, or have been prevented from continuing due to impossible weather at the final checkpoint, or have missed the final cut-off by simply going too slow for the final 40 miles over the Cheviots.
Alternatively, ‘ordinary’ people have achieved the finish against incredible odds, when they rightly should have collapsed with exhaustion and lack of sleep days previously, they have somehow dug deeply within themselves to carry on, proving once again the indomitable spirit that each of us is capable of.
As you can maybe tell, the Spine race brings out something special in people, driving them to heights that their normal humdrum existence does not give. It elevates them to achieve results and emotions that are perhaps the most elusive, difficult to reach, but the most memorable.
It was on this basis that when I became aware of the race in about 2015, I decided I could never do anything like that.
A little about me and my running life? OK. London Marathon in 2008, followed by more marathons, all quite slow.
Got bored of marathons and took up Ironman triathlons in 2012 & 13 (having believed in 2010 that I could never do anything like that).
Got bored of Ironman after a couple of years (far too much training for only 13 hours of racing) and discover ultra running…and got an entry into the Grand Union Canal Race, an iconic 145 mile race from Birmingham to London in 2014. Lots of training for an epic 32 hours of suffering…this was great!
A few years later I was a happy slow ultra-runner, having a great time at the back of the field treating each race as a holiday. The Arc of Attrition in early 2017 was a 110 miles round the south west coastal path, but training for it through winter with my good running buddy John made it seem bearable. The Thames Ring 250 in mid-2017 was a great time and at 80 hours for 250 miles showed I was a poor runner but a great hiker! In fact my race style was becoming defined as a bit of running at the start and then lots of walking, quickly. And it worked, I was less sore and stiff after 100 miles of walking, and only slightly slower than the runners.
In 2018 I screwed up my courage and attempted the Spine Challenger, a shorter version of the full Spine that this race report is all about. It was a good opportunity to see how I found the dark & cold, not to mention the terrain and carrying a heavy pack. I enjoyed the race and found myself less bothered by the biblical weather that I experienced for the last 8 hours or so of the 43 hours that I took.
All this time I had been watching a certain race called the Monarchs Way, a monster 615 mile race put on by Lindley Chambers of Challenge Running. This race was simply lethal, and in about 5 years of being run had no finishers until 2018 despite having some superb racers. With a bit of confidence from the Challenger finish, I entered and completed the Monarchs Way in May 2019, although I took some damage to mind & body along the way. It was a long hard race, and my feet simply fell to pieces from about halfway.
I should quickly point out here, my success in these races is not down to athletic ability. I have no athletic ability. I spend the vast amount of these races walking/hiking albeit quite rapidly. My success, in my opinion, in down to a certain stubbornness, an unwillingness to stop or give up. I have an inclination towards finishing what I start, despite setbacks, and as my good friend John told me, I know how to suffer. And keep suffering, and keep moving throughout it. It may not be pretty, but it usually gets me to the end.
Summary of May 2019 – July 2021….finished Monarchs Way, tore left hamstring & stopped running. Global pandemic. Got fat and lazy. Enjoyed being fat and lazy.
Time jump! Its July 2021, we are mid-pandemic. Winter Spine 2021 was cancelled, but it looks like it may go ahead in 2022. Better do some kind of training if I’ve any hope of getting to the start line. Follow this link to PRE-SPINE July 2021 to Jan 2022 if you want to understand what sort of training I did, despite a dodgy hamstring preventing any purposeful running (my favourite thing). Without running, I was going to have to ‘train’ in a meaningful way rather than just ‘go running’ when I felt like it.
TL,DR for July 2021 to Jan 2022 – lots of climbing the cliffs Folkestone, especially overnight, and lots of climbing on a stupid stepping machine at a local gym. And lots of hiking with a heavy pack. Lots of training basically.
Time jump! It’s January 2022. Despite my best hopes, it does not look like the Omicron variant of Covid is going to cause a lockdown that will cancel the Spine 2022, and that means I may have to do it after all. I’m not exaggerating when I say that just thinking about what was ahead of me caused my heart rate to increase and to feel my chest tightening and breath quickening. I had a severe case of race-terrors, all entirely justified, and my usual nervousness was developing to raging anxiety and fear.
My long-suffering wife knew what was up, and running friends, Mark & Sharon, came round for a post-Xmas Christmas dinner, to wish me well & commiserate with what I was about to do to myself, but looking back it all seems like a bit of a blur, that I was not really in the room as I was focused elsewhere.
On the day before I was due to travel to Edale, Facebook suddenly filled with pictures of snow, ice and skidding cars that could not get to registration for the shorter Spine races that set off a day earlier than the full Spine. At work, out of my window in sunny Kent, it was blue sky, 10 degrees, and bore no relation to what the north was experiencing.
Before I knew it, I was on the train to Edale, listening to classical music to try to calm my nerves and clear my head. I got a taxi from Sheffield with two other racers, Richard and Mark, and whipped through registration and full kit check in record time. (Full it check? No problem! Like most people I knew the mandatory kit list like my own address and sailed through it).
Beef burgers at the YHA in Edale were a last hearty meal, chatting to an ex-commando who used to spend winters in Norway with the army, living in a snow-hole. As usual, I’m feeling some strong imposter-syndrome here, and get myself off to bed as soon as I can, looking the poor weather forecast as I go. Facebook pictures of the racers that set off the previous day show horrible icy conditions underfoot and a fair bit of rain and snow. Not encouraging.
Having sorted my kit for the umpteenth time, I get a half-decent sleep, being woken up a few times by impressively loud rain on the window to my room. Excellent.
Sunday morning, 5am. Shower, breakfast, kit faff, give in my drop bag. I’m standing in the YHA reception waiting for a minibus to take us to the race start, with a few other racers and the eventual winner Eoin Keith. He’s a proper gent, chatting away to the others about waterproof jackets and kit while I skulk in the corner keeping my imposter-syndrome company.
Mini-bus to the start, tracker fitted to my race pack (useful for locating my dead cold body) and then we are moving to the race start.
It’s actually happening, I’m about to start the Spine race, a race I’ve been terrified of for years, a race that I’ve never really considered I was qualified to start. I chatted to a lovely guy call Paul Dunn on the walk to the start and we took pictures of each other under the start gantry. I suspect that most people will not understand the significance of that picture, but there is not many people that stand under the gantry about to start the hardest race of their lives.
And we started.
Congratulations! You, dear reader, have made it to the start of the race. You deserve a cup of tea and a stretch. Well done.
It is 5 minutes in, we are crossing the fields on the first mile of the Pennine Way, it starts to snow and the wind make is horizontal and blow into our faces. Excellent. This was a taste of things to come, but it was what we were here for.
The first proper climb is Jacobs Ladder, a mere 183 metres (600 feet) but it’s the first of many and will get us high enough to change the weather for the worst and give us all our first taste of proper Spine weather. Sure enough, it is noticeably colder at the top, and the mist is restricting visibility to just 5-6 metres. I could see vague figures in the distance moving slowly over the icy rocky path, using their poles to stay on their feet, and found I was doing the same. It wouldn’t be good to slip and twist an ankle so soon.
I began trying to keep up with the figures in the distance, not because I needed them for navigation (I’m quite confident using my GPS unit) but more for the reassurance that there were other people out there. Even that early in the race, it felt like another world away from cars, shops, light and heat.
I gave up trying to move at other peoples’ pace, the ground was too slippery and icy. Wherever the icy rocks stopped it became boggy and muddy so did not seem worth it to move at a pace I was not comfortable with. I drew level with a guy call Luke who I would end up spending most of the day & night with as we had both decided that speed was better sacrificed for safety. Luke was great company, and we chatted the morning away swapping stories of home life and what brought us to the Spine. We reached the first small aid station at Torside, and I had a coffee, surprised to see other having a full sit down and dehydrated meal.
I left the aid station shortly before Luke, expecting him to catch me up quickly, but it seemed to take ages and I was worried he’d think I was trying to avoid him. Luckily, he’d spent a bit more time kit-faffing than I’d realised, and he soon was back with me, and we were soon joined by Graham as it got dark. Although it was only the first night, we all seemed to take comfort in travelling together as the light and company kept the monsters away.
The terrain varied from grassy bog to flagstone paths. A lot of the paving slabs were slightly icy, but the real traps were the ones with a puddle of water covering a layer of ice, which you would happily step into only for your leg to shoot out the other side when there was no grip. I took to following the path but remaining on the boggy grassy verge to avoid the inevitable ice.
That first night was the most conversation I had all race, and we learned that we were all about 50 (after I joked that I was the old man of the trio) and that Luke was the legend that had run to the top of Pen-y-Fan in a string vest and posted about it on Facebook – legend!
The weather through the night was cold but not horrendous. Snow falling on the tops of climbs turned to rain or drizzle on the lower stages, but my kit was holding up well and I was quite comfortable. I’d opted to start in waterproof trousers which, although bulky, meant I stayed warm and dry whatever the weather threw at us and also meant I did not get wet when I inevitably fell over in the mud and wet.
The three of us got into Hebden Hay at about 00.30am (74km, 46 miles, 16 hrs 31 mins), with Grahams wife waiting patiently at the roadside for him (She’s a keeper Graham, I didn’t see anyone else’s wife there!). Hebden Hay was well organised, with a corner marked out for getting rid of muddy boots and sorting kit. I was well-disciplined, sorting myself out (new batteries into GPS, all rechargeable bits plugged in to charge, feet checked and cleaned etc) before eating a little and getting some sleep. I had originally intended to have just an hours sleep before moving on, but Luke suggested an extra hour would not mean much in a weeks’ worth of racing and I took his good advice. I felt much more awake after a decent sleep of a couple of hours, although a bunk room with 6 other snoring racers was not an ideal environment.
I ate a little more, just feeling a touch of nausea, and then put on some lovely clean liner socks under my waterproof socks and the same heavily waterlogged shoes which went back on easily enough and the rest of my kit slid back on as if it had never been away. The next stage was going to be a tough one, 61 miles and over 3000 meters of climbing, including the serious climb of Pen-y-Ghent. I’d done this section during the Challenger race in 2018 and although I had finished it I did not have happy memories of it.
I left the checkpoint at about 4am, about 4 hours inside the cut-off, and linked up with a Portuguese racer in the dark who told me about his struggles to get to the start line due to Covid restrictions. As it got light I was moving well and was looking forward to Gargrave, a town that I would likely hit during opening hours so I could get some food from a cafe or shop (the legendary Co-op). I was not eating much by this time, as usual my stomach was gently protesting about what I was putting it through by resisting all attempts to get solid food into it, but I was confident that, like on Monarchs Way, once I stopped and rested, I would be able to eat enough to keep me going for another 12 hours.
There was nothing of note in the next few hours except I felt good. I was making good time and moving easily over the rough terrain. The weather was reasonably forgiving, cold but not raining, in fact the only water was underfoot as the ground was extremely wet and boggy in places. I came across a couple of hikers going the opposite direction, hesitating on the far side of a stream before crossing it. While I call it a stream, it was probably nearing river status as the usual stepping stones were submerged under a few inches of water and the water was flowing quickly over and past them. Clearly the run-off from the previous few days rain and snow was reaching lower ground and swelling the usually tame streams.
The elder of the two hikers started first, and the water was just short of his knees as he strode quickly across. He avoided the stepping stones as they looked slippery and just put his feet where he hoped was good footing using his poles for steadying him against the flowing water. His companion was hesitating so I took the opportunity to get across, following the path the hiker had already taken. The water was surprisingly cold on my shins, but I thought that if I moved quickly enough I would lessen the time the water had to get through my waterproof trousers, gaiters, walking trousers, running tights, Gore-Tex boots, knee length waterproof socks, and finally my liner socks, and feet covered in a thin film of Vaseline. As you can see I was prepared with anything to keep my feet as dry as possible. This would be the first of a number of stream/river crossings in this area. The widest took 8 big strides to get across, the shortest only 4, and I’m thankful that I stayed on my feet through them all. By the end I could not tell if my feet were wet or not, and did not allow myself to dwell on the possibility of hiking in wet shoes and socks for the next 40 miles. In the end I think my multiple layers of protection did the job and my feet seemed to cope with the crossings, although by the end of this leg the permanent boggy ground would begin the gentle deterioration of my feet.
Gargrave came but all I could see was lots of racers having a rest and eating dehydrated food in a central bus-stop and even more heading off to the Co-op. By this time, with no solid food since the leaving the last check-point, I wanted proper food! I backtracked to a pub I’d passed, the Mason Arms, and proceeded to get their floor muddy while I drank 4 pints of milk and had the best part of 2 large lasagnes. The landlord was gently bemused at my slightly odd behaviour, but was happy to feed me. Another runner came in while I was eating, and proceeded to DNF in front of me despite me using all my (disappointingly) persuasive arguments for why she should carry on to the next checkpoint. It was quite maddening actually, as she was clearly in a good place physically, but had mentally checked out of the race and I knew she’d regret the DNF at a later stage. I didn’t get her name, but I vowed to myself when I left her that I would not let that happen to me, I would not stop until I physically (or medically) could not carry on.
I stayed much longer at the pub than I planned, and Gargarve was deserted when I left, having been full of runners when I went into the pub 90 minutes earlier. Whoops. However, my unreasonable stomach had been quietened with lasagne and I was on full-speed hiking to catch everyone up! Unfortunately the path to Malham Cove had had a few hundred runners on it for the last couple of days so was particularly muddy and slippery. It was getting dark on the road through Malham, and fog descended leaving poor visibility as my head torch bounced light off the million or so droplets of water suspended in the air.
I powered my way up the steep steps alongside Malham Cove, not realising just how disoriented I would be at the top in the dense fog and dark.
I’m told there is a route that does not involve balancing on the edges of slippery rocks and risking a broken ankle by slipping into a gap, but I could not find it. Subsequently, I was making my own way on the shortest route along the slippery rocks to get to the far side, simultaneously swearing at myself at how f*cking stupid this was and how much I was risking if I took a wrong step. After a fairly sweary 15 minutes, I reached relative safety, and told myself that I really should have waited for some people that knew the correct route across the limestone. I’ve been over the top of Malham cove twice now, once in daylight (during Challenger in 2018) and once at night…but I’ve never found the fabled ‘safe’ route that avoids the nightmare balancing on top of pointy slabs.
Clearly I was taking a genuine race-ending risk by doing these slightly more difficult sections alone, and it was with this in mind that I made my way to Malham Tarn aid station, a brief 30 minute stop for food and rest before setting off for the climb to Pen-y-Ghent. I was in a bit of a state when I got in, far more worried about finding someone to go over Pen-y-Ghent with than eating (which was a mistake). Everyone else was resting with their shoes off and eating a dehydrated meal, and I was going around the room looking for someone that I would judge knew what they were doing over the climb. I’d found the relatively easy Malham Cove to be challenging, but Pen-y-Ghent was a whole more difficult animal. I was lucky enough to find a group of 3 that were leaving shortly, and agreed I could tag along with them. I was more relieved than I could say, despite the fact that I had not eaten or really rested I was happy enough to feel I had some company over the climb. I should probably defend myself at this stage, I was not being a complete wimp, but had gone over Pen-y-Ghent alone in the dark during the Challenger in 2018, in strong winds shortly before a diversion was put in place. I took risks there that with hindsight was just plain stupid and didn’t fancy repeating them in the current freezing fog.
The group of 3 introduced themselves (Richard, David & a bearded-man-with-no-name (BMWNN), and we set off over Fountains Fell and towards Pen-y-Ghent, with the mention of a possible diversion dancing in our ears from the volunteers at Malham Tarn. A diversion would remove the final difficult climb of Pen-y-Ghent and even better shorten the leg by 3 miles…bargain!
Fountain Fell was a long climb and the fog made visibility poor. The higher we got, the denser the fog until it felt like drizzle on us keeping everything wet. The others in the group, who had been up Pen-y-Ghent “more than 10 times” were clearly hoping for a diversion as even they were saying how they didn’t want to go over the climb in this weather. At the far side of Fountains Fell we could see a car parked on a road, which would be a most likely be a mountain rescue guy telling us to take an alternative route, but the disappointment was crushing when it turned out to be someone waiting for another racer to wish them luck. We were gutted.
We followed a road for another mile before coming across another vehicle, thankfully with a guy in high-viz and possibly the world’s toughest dog standing next to him in the wind and rain, to inform us of a diversion further on that would take us past Pen-y-Ghent. I won’t lie, the relief was massive as was the happiness at missing out 3 miles of the route. Happy days.
What we didn’t realise however, was that the diversion took us down one of the slipperiest rockiest hillside I’ve even descended, which was thoroughly unpleasant in the dark. The mud was too slippery to stay on, but the rocks were wet and even more slippery, and hurt a lot more when hit at speed. It was a rubbish descent. I was extremely pleased to be with people that knew the way, as apart from a hastily erected sign pointing us the way at the start of the diversion, we were expected to find the rest of the way ourselves….I’m not sure I’d have made it on my own without turning around thinking I’d gone the wrong way. However, Richard and David got us all to Horton in one slightly soggy and bedraggled piece.
It was the middle of the night, perhaps about midnight, and we were all looking forward to a small aid station at Horton, positioned at the end of the Pen-y-Ghent section as a replacement for the now-closed Horton cafe. Unfortunately, rather than an oasis of warmth to sit and recover in, we were made to stand outside under a porch (no! Can’t let you indoors, you buggers) while the volunteers stayed warm in the lobby. Do I sound bitter and pissed off? That’s because I was, we all were. I tried to eat, while the other guys sorted themselves out, but I ended up spitting everything out into the grass verge to prevent me vomiting my stomach contents everywhere. I refilled my flask with hot tea, and gave myself a mental shake…although there were still hours left to go, I was warm enough, dry enough and not out of the game yet. I had not eaten for probably 12 hours, but still had some life left in me!
I’ve read another race report that called it Horton Hell, and I can see why. Although you feel like you’ve accomplished something by getting that far there is still a hell of a long way to go! And most of it is on the Cam Road, a long depressing climb.
We left Horton and were quickly back on the route. Richard and David hung back a little while they sorted out their kit, and bearded-man-with-no-name (BMWNN) and I steamed up the start of Cam Road. At the start we passed a short guy going the other way that mumbled something about not finding the route but we were confident in our navigation and turned him round to follow us. I had a good chat with BMWNN, but never actually asked his name for some reason in all the time we were together….bizarre. After 20 minutes of strong climbing my phone started to go off, and after three missed calls I thought I’d better see who was trying to get hold of me.
Just to explain this, I usually take calls from friends and my wife during events, but for various reasons had not actually answered any calls so far in the last couple of days. Some of this was because I was with other people (Luke and Graham the previous night) and the group I had been with since Malham Tarn, but also I was really very focussed on the job in hand….surviving the Spine and not making any silly errors in my navigation or kit. While this may sound like I was taking things quite seriously, I was! I was “in the zone” and really concentrating quite hard on everything going on.
So, after three missed calls I pulled my phone out, and returned a call to the unknown number. Only to find it was race HQ telling us that we were heading up the down-route from Pen-Y-Ghent which we had been diverted away from. What a cock up! A minimum of 20 minutes of hard climbing, which then meant 20 minutes of descending, passing the short fella and telling him he’d been right and we were going the wrong way (sorry Mike!), passing Richard and David and telling them we were going the wrong way. What a bloody cock up. Whilst it wasn’t entirely my fault, I was definitely at the front and felt terrible, but everyone was quite understanding and [philosophical about it. Unfortunately, this unnecessary climb wiped out most of the 3 miles saving we’d gained from the diversion so I was quite dispirited after this.
We went back through Horton and got onto the correct route this time (cue lots of checking and double-checking) and BMWNN and I went ahead again, this time up the correct Cam Road. I don’t even want to recall how long this took, but it felt like hours upon hours of relentless climbing on a long reasonably straight track. BMWNN started to go ahead as the sleep monsters told hold of me and my energy dwindled. It had been well over 12 hours since I’d eaten anything solid, and while I was drinking loads of water to keep hydrated my body was starting to feel a bit weak and slow. I was keeping a boiled sweet in my mouth at all times to keep some sugar going through my system, but this was a poor replacement of something real to digest.
I was getting more tired, beginning to hallucinate a little, just enough to enjoy it. Suddenly I wasn’t on a track, but there were houses along both sides, they were the old style houses from Muppet Christmas Carol with old front doors and wooden beams….very picturesque. Up ahead I could see meteors falling from the sky…no, that was a lost racer coming towards me from a hill. I was just starting to lose my mind, in a very conscious way. I’d had about 2 hours sleep in the last 44: it was 3am on Tuesday and I’d begun racing at 8am Sunday. I was in a bit of trouble as I’d lost all the other racers (I didn’t know where they’d gone, probably up ahead but I couldn’t see them ahead). I knew I was on the correct route, but started second guessing myself. At one point I seriously considered stopping for a sleep if I could find any shelter, but I knew that I would get very cold very quickly unless I unpacked my sleeping bag and that would take too long. Waking up after a 10 minute sleep sounded great until you’re too cold to think properly. So I carried on, at my lowest ebb so far in the race. I was slipping and sliding all over the sodding muddy track and I remember trying to climb a grassy bank that was so steep I kept losing my footing and sliding down. Someone, possibly BWMNN, kept looking back at me and I could see their head torch lighting the bank ahead of me. Or maybe that was totally my imagination.
I got to the top of the bank, came to a gate, and was really struggling to see the way forward. It was one of those times my brain just wasn’t making sense of what was going on around me. I had over 50 miles of this leg done by this stage, but the lack of sleep was really biting hard.
And then I had a stroke of luck. I was caught by a group of three that were moving fast and went past me like a steam train. I had one realistic chance of salvaging the final part of this leg and that was to hang onto this group for dear life to get me to the next checkpoint. So that’s what I did. It wasn’t pretty, I was falling over constantly in the mud on the long descent to Hawes. One memorable occasion I somehow ended up on my back, my pack deep in the mud, with my head pointed downhill…no idea how that happened. I was hugely lucky that these guys came along when they did, and I told one of them that as we walked the last mile in the town to the checkpoint at about 5am.
Hawes checkpoint reached approx. Tue 5am, 110 miles done in 44 hours. Checkpoint left at approx. 11am
In the bright lights and warmth of the checkpoint I came back to life quickly, and wanted to make the best of my time, so I treated myself to a shower to wash off the horrors of the night and went straight to sleep. I did not eat or sort any kit, both things that I told myself I should absolutely do before the luxury of sleep, but I was in such a state that just needed to get my head down. 2 hours sleep later and I was back in the game!
Back with my drop bag, I started sorting my kit with one hand while eating as much as possible with the other. I had an excellent medic called Sam tape up a few bits of my feet that were just beginning to suffer from the constant waterlogged terrain, especially my little toes.
I was really chuffed to be told that the next leg was only 33 miles, rather than the 38 I had thought. Those 5 miles made a huge difference mentally! I practically skipped out of there (well, hobbled) on my way to Middleton. And even better, I was going to visit the Tan Hill pub, the highest pub in the UK. It was one iconic place I had not been to on my various recces and I had heard so much about it, it was going to be a treat.
It was lovely daylight and while it took a few miles for my feet to loosen up and stop hurting, but once they did I was enjoying myself again. There was a long climb up Great Shunner Fell, only to be met at the top by a particularly demanding Jo Winspear who took my picture while berating me for keeping her waiting in the cold…good work Jo! It was lovely to see a friendly face, and to be fair it was a decent day to spend on the hills. The sky was reasonably clear and although it was cold, was certainly not Spine weather! To be fair the rest of the week, after the first two days, stayed very cold but quite clear with minimal rain which was really lucky.
However, my stomach decided to play its games, and was refusing anything solid again. I hoped that Tan Hill pub would allow me to get a good feed in, as I was really feeling the lack of solid food, but I made the best of the day and moved quickly across the route.
I passed the edge of a village or town called Keld, with a tempting sign saying that a certain Keld cafe was open 24 hours for Spine racers. With hindsight I absolutely should have investigated this and stopped to try to eat (even if had just been soup) but in my addled mind I was better to carry on to Tan Hill pub before it got too dark. Mistake. My pace dropped as I got progressively more tired but luckily I saw what I hoped was the pub just as dusk was falling.
It was lit up like a Christmas tree, and was a real oasis of light in a dark landscape. I was welcomed in by a chirpy northern chap, perhaps called Steve. The racers were put in a backroom that had a massive fire, a few big armchairs, warmth and light that felt like a fabulous party room after the bleak outdoors. The room had a few racers in, but I didn’t really pay them much attention as I was focused on getting some milk inside me to settle my stomach and then some real food. I was shown to the bar where I ordered 2 pints of milk and a massive fish & chips. I drank the milk fairly easily, but it didn’t go down as smoothly as I wanted. The fish & chips arrived, and there was no way that was going into my stomach and staying down….bugger it.
Giving food up as a bad job, I took myself away to a quiet corner and had 45mins dreamless sleep on the hard stone floor. I felt slightly better on waking up, so set myself up with the slightly cold fish & chips, and a massive black dustbin next to me in case I was sick. I managed a few mouthfuls, and a few painkillers too which cheered me up enormously. I have a thing about only taking painkillers with food (rather than with liquid)…it’s bloody annoying but unfortunately means that if I can’t eat I cannot take any painkillers either. It’s a bit of a pain.
As I’m working my way through cold fish & chips, who should turn up but Richard and David, my saviours from the previous evening, and another runner called Kirsten. They had stopped for a rest in Keld, but that didn’t stop them having another meal at the pub. Kirsten was worried about the next section and had agreed to accompany the two guys across a notorious boggy section that I think is Sleight Holme Moor. The route is partially covered with flagstones, but there are some deep bogs that will swallow a tired racer up to the waist without any difficulty. I hadn’t really understood what this next section was like, but hearing Kirsten talk about it, I bottled it and decided to tag along with the group as it was pitch black by this point and it didn’t seem sensible to go it alone. It was a shame to leave the pub, as it was an oasis of warmth in a black inhospitable landscape.
To be fair, apart from a couple of knee-deep boggy parts, there wasn’t much to report on the next few hours, but lots of mud, watery bog, flagstones, more bog. Very boring. I had a good chat with Kirsten who was Danish I think, and had done some iconic races, including Dragons Back (one of the toughest mountain races in the world). She was great company, chatting away through the dark.
At the end of the moor we got to better terrain, and linked up with another foreign racer, Bobby. Then the 4 of us made good time, sometimes together but often apart, with different people taking the lead and showing the way. I was struggling with lack of sleep again, and tried a couple of pro-plus tablets tucked inside my cheeks to dissolve and keep me awake. I can report that it didn’t work at all, other than send my mouth fairly numb wherever I moved the tablet too (as you might expect).
The A66 underpass, which I’d heard was something of a landmark, was a massive letdown. Just a corrugated tube going under a main road in the middle of the night….very disappointing.
We were all flagging a bit, and passed a farmyard with an honesty box outside for Pennine Way walkers. I immediately saw a can of full-fat coke that I thought may give me some much needed sugar, so while the others went ahead I fumbled through my pack for a £1 coin to leave. In my blurry mind it took minutes to work out what coin to leave, but the coke was nicely chilled and hit the spot. It seemed unwise to drink all of it on an empty stomach, but about half the can was enough to catch me up to the others quickly and got me through the last few miles to the checkpoint at Middleton. Over these miles I got the chance to chat to Richard (who I’d now followed over the previous two nights over the Pen-y-Ghent diversion and Sleight Holme Moor), who had completed the summer Spine (the same route, but in easy-peasy summertime) and had started the winter Spine previously, but had Dnf’d about 8 miles from the end when he had slipped and knocked himself unconscious on the final leg over the Cheviots. I cannot imagine anything worse than that, but massive respect to the guy for coming back to repeat the experience, hopefully finishing this time. He was a good guy.
Middleton checkpoint reached approx. Wed 2am, 143 miles done in 66 hours. Checkpoint left at approx. 11am
Middleton aid station was busy at 2am, but light and warm and again I felt myself come back to life in the lively environment. I got my boots and kit off, and headed straight to get something to eat as I was starving. My stomach had woken up and wanted feeding! Unfortunately, I think I managed three bits of pasta before my stomach changed its mind and I had to run to a sink in the corner of the eating area to vomit up the pasta and whatever was left in my stomach, mostly just the can of coke. It was as frustrating as it was embarrassing…being noisily sick in front of a room full of racers wasn’t the best start to my time at the check-point, but actually I really wanted to sleep with a full stomach to get a head start on my digestion and replace some of my depleted energy stores. This wasn’t going to happen, as I went off in search of a toilet to be sick again in private and I did a proper job of emptying every nook and cranny left in my stomach.
I’d left Hawes at about 11am and got into Middleton at 2am. In that time I’d eaten very little, just some fish & chips at Tan Hill pub, numerous boiled sweets, and half a can of coke. I was still moving well, but using reserves that I would soon need on the later stages.
However, if I wasn’t going to eat, I was going to use my time effectively by showering and then sleeping the darkness away! I was allocated a high bunk which was an experience climbing into, but I wasn’t fussed and crashed out for 5 glorious hours of sleep. I’d only slept about 4 hours since the start (8am Sunday) and it was 2am Wednesday so I was due a bit of catching up!
Again, I woke up after a great sleep feeling like normal again, and apart from my blistered feet whacking the bottom of the bunk bed, I’d pulled back a lot of my sleep-debt (or it felt like I had). I did my best to eat a decent amount, and I did pretty well. There was a lovely chicken curry, and then followed with a beans on toast and jacket potato. Eating this while getting my feet taped up was great, and again the medic (Chris) did a brilliant job. He expressed a little concern over my right little toe that was looking a particularly angry colour, and asked to send a picture of it up to the next checkpoint so they could see how it was developing when I got there. With a mouth full of food I said do what you want, not really understanding that this probably wasn’t good news. I had a few other foot issues developing, but nothing that tape couldn’t cover and protect.
As I’m eating and chatting to the medics, I was quite preoccupied, but as soon as they had finished I was struck with what the next leg had in store for me. I had recced the next section, and it involved a long 40 miles, with a few boulder fields to traverse, followed by a scramble up the side of a waterfall called Cauldron Snout, and then a town called Dufton (where there would be food!). After Dufton things got really tough, with a monstrous climb up to some fells (Great Dunn fell, Little Dunn fell) and then the massive Cross Fell, the highest point in Britain. The weather at the top of these fells was always going to be horrible, with wind and fog guaranteed (Cross Fell has its own named wind, called the Helm wind, which is usually strong enough to have a go at knocking you over) and the section is widely regarded as the toughest of the Pennine Way. I’d recced it in a pleasant couple of days in May, and I knew exactly what I had in store in the next day or so.
Bizarrely, but perhaps because I knew what wasin store for me, I really struggled to leave the checkpoint, sort my kit out and get myself ready in reasonable time, because I was finding reasons to procrastinate. I’d swapped my shoes to my next (clean) pair, a size larger to reflect the swelling and taping I’d had done. These were Hokas again, with fabulous cushioning underneath my soles, and felt like slipping into heaven simply because they were clean and dry rather than the soggy shoes I’d been wearing for the last three days.
I was wobbling bit (even despite the morale-boosting new shoes!) and getting myself in a bit of a state about going out on the route. This next section was going to be 40 miles of really tough terrain, and my usual matter-of-factness had deserted me in favour of a “I’d better check this again, just in case”. Rather luckily I was spotted by a couple of the volunteers who had seen this before, and without much ceremony they scooped me up and got me on my way. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this procrastination before (usually feeling good enough to want to get moving) but this was something else. I cannot put into words how hard the climb from Dufton up to Cross fell is, I cannot put into words how much I didn’t want to do it.
So I’m out on the pavement outside the checkpoint. Its about 11am. I’m not in a great place mentally, genuinely not wanting the next 24 hours to be as tough as I think they will be. However, there’s literally nothing I can do except get on with it. I got some music in my ears, took a picture of my shiny new shoes and got on the road.
Predictably, I was a bit emotional for much of the morning, but I was getting the job done as I passed some iconic landmarks of High Force and Low Force waterfalls. I had a phone call from Pam Philpott who (again) got the brunt of my melt-down.
It was 20 miles to Dufton, a natural halfway stopping point, so I decided to split it into 3 lots of 7 miles, and reward myself with a sit down at the end of each 7 mile leg. That probably gives an indication of how tired and weak I was feeling at that point…I was allowing myself a rest after a distance as insignificant as 7 miles….rubbish!
There had been talk at the checkpoint of a diversion around Caldron Snout due to it being thoroughly iced up, which made the route longer but easier. I wasn’t too worried either way having already been up it once on a recce, so I was not too disappointed when I passed a diversion sign crossed out saying “no diversion, carry on the Cauldron Snout”.
Before the climb up the side of Cauldron Snout however, I had to negotiate 3 treacherous boulder fields. I suspect most people would not struggle but with my ridiculous balance issues I really struggled to move across the top of a stretch of 100 metres of boulders, all irregularly shaped that meant I was doing my best not to fall or slip an ankle into a void between two boulders. It’s just not what I’m made for. By the end of the third stretch of boulders I was thoroughly pissed off with them and was happy to have made it with no injuries.
Towards the last one was a hiker taking pictures of the racers, and I must have looked a right state as I picked my way carefully over the boulders.
The hiker said that Cauldron Snout was in full flow, and wasn’t joking as the roar of the water was very loud. After the boulder field, the climb up the side of the waterfall was not too difficult, but I absolutely would not have wanted to do it in the dark….even in full daylight I found the correct route was very debatable. But 10 minutes later I was standing at the top, feeling triumphant, and rewarded myself with another sit-down and tried (unsuccessfully) to eat a oat-type bar to give myself something to digest. Although I was still trying, I was fairly resigned to not getting any decent solid food into me, and was just treating it as another part of a fairly tough adventure. Unfortunately it still meant no painkillers, which was more of an issue as I was a feeling quite sore, especially my feet.
With Cauldron Snout behind me, I knew I had a long climb to the picturesque High Cup Nick, and then a descent to Dufton. At Dufton I would be able to rest and try to eat at the most excellent Post Box Pantry (open 24 hours for Spine racers) so that was driving me forward with a bit of motivation.
I climbed as dusk was falling, and High Cup Nick appeared (or didn’t appear) to be shrouded in fog and dark which was a shame. The fog was particularly wet and claggy, it almost felt like I was in the clouds rather than just a bit of mist. Odd. I knew what the view should look like from my recce however, and pictured that as I followed the route round the edge of the valley. I knew that the edge of the path I was following was about 6 foot from a very steep drop on my left, so I made bloody sure I didn’t stumble and take a dive!
The long slow descent seemed to take a while, but I eventually hit a road that would lead me in to Dufton. I was met by Bill, a runner with Borrowdale runners who lived locally and was meeting the Spine racers descending. It was great to chat with someone who loved the race like I did, and he told me about the other racers he’d accompanied down the last few miles into Dufton. He also had brought a few snacks to tempt me with (and all the other runners), so offered me a Mars bar, can of Coke and something else I can’t remember. I initially refused on the basis I could get food when I was in Dufton, but he was quite persuasive so I took a can of lovely coke and carried it with me for miles. He was a great guy and really passionate about the race and helping the runners, one of the high points of all the people I met.
Dufton arrived (with Bill leaving me to go to his home) and I stepped into the warmth and light of the Post Box Pantry with a sense of relief. I was halfway on this leg, and had negotiated some horrible bits (like the damn boulder fields) but also I had the toughest part of the leg (and race) to go…I really wasn’t looking forward to the climb out of Dufton.
I asked the two lovely ladies in the cafe for 2 pints of milk, a bowl of soup and a bucket in case I was sick. Although they looked at me a bit strangely, they did what I asked and brought me all three. I’m happy to say the milk and soup stayed down, but the bread roll the y served it with made me retch immediately so went in the bucket. I was just pleased to get the soup inside me!
In fact I ended up having three bowls of soup and another bowl into the flask I was carrying for later. Tasty!
I used the time to sort my kit before tackling Cross Fell, new batteries everywhere and a bit of organisation of my kit so everything was easily accessible and organised. I also got my goggles out and had them ready in case the wind was as strong as I’d been told on the tops. Although I wear normal spectacles, strong wind from the wrong angle can slide in between the glasses and face and funnels across my eyeballs making a particularly unusual pain. Goggles (like ski goggles) were the answer (and part of the mandatory kit)!
As I was finishing up at the cafe, just getting my stuff together, another racer turned up to eat and order about 3 main courses (which I looked at longingly). Mike and I had a chat while he tucked into his food, and we agreed to go over Cross Fell together for the safety of numbers. To be fair, having somebody else to help if you get in trouble, fall into a bog, get blown into the middle of next week seemed like a sensible idea. Mike had already checked into the village hall (a mini-aid station) where he’d grabbed a quick sleep, but said he’d finish his food while I popped into the hall to show my face and show I was still in one piece. Northern Steve, the guy from Tan Hill Inn was there and we exchanged a little banter before I went back into the cold dark night to meet up with Mike and tackle Cross Fell. It was about 7pm when we left Dufton, I’d been on the trail since about 11am.
I’d already explained to Mike that I would be slow up the long climb, and he was very understanding. Almost immediately he started having problems with his GPS unit, and we spent a few minutes rebooting it and trying to get it working properly. Rather sneakily, I would take these halts to have a play with his GPS as opportunities to have a bit of a breather and get my heart rate back down to something sensible.
I cannot stress enough how tough this climb is. From my records it looks like the initial climb is about 2000 feet in 3 miles, and then there are three smaller climbs (Great Dunn Fell, Little Dunn Fell, Cross Fell over the next 3 miles.
I was really struggling, both with lack of energy and my heart rate going at a million miles an hour (making my breathing really difficult as I just couldn’t get enough breath into my lungs). This meant I was having to stop every 45 seconds or so just to catch my breath. Mike was the perfect companion and didn’t put any pressure on me for my slow progress. There are two possible reasons for this….firstly that he was as struggling as much as me, but was following my lead and gratefully stopping when I needed to. The second was that he was relying on me for the navigation over Cross Fell, so was happy to fall in behind me and follow my lead. This made him easily the most trusting person in the world at that stage, and to his credit he never complained or asked if we were going the wrong way. Whatever the reason, he would doggedly stick by me, ready to pull me out of a waist-deep bog when I took a wrong turn, but without pressurising me to find the route when I would pause to double check where we were going. A good guy!
We finally reached the end of the first major climb, and the wind really started to bite. The fog/cloud was absolutely dense and we both paused to put on goggles and tighten up our coats against the wind that was tugging at anything loose. My goggles misted up straightaway and came off immediately, but Mike kept his on throughout.
The route was not easy to follow as we made progress though the dense fog, and on occasion I was having to stop and shine a torch around to try to see tracks of any runners ahead of us. Unfortunately there generally was no sign of anyone passing before us. We had to climb through a few snowdrifts which strangely had no other footprints in, so either we were lost or no-one else had followed the route very closely (I think it was the first reason).
Although I’d recced this section (in daylight) and I knew we had three peaks to get to before descending, I got quite disoriented as we went up and down, and in fact when we finally got to the trig point at the top of Cross Fell I wasn’t sure if it was Cross Fell at all or some other peak that I’d forgotten about. None of the plaques on the trig point actually said “Cross Fell” so without knowing it, we began the descent to Gregs Hut, having survived getting to the top of Britain.
I should probably explain a little about Gregs Hut, if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about. Gregs Hut is a mountain bothy that is an absolute icon of the Spine Race, as it signifies the successful crossing of Cross Fell, and the legend that is John Bamber cooking noodles (with chilli) over a basic stove. There’s no electricity or running water, but strong stone walls and some iconic photos every year, especially when there is snow on the fells. To get to Gregs Hut is a landmark and something to look forward to.
As we descended, the route got really waterlogged, and we were bouncing through thick grass covered in water, so moving quickly seemed to be required to prevent sinking too much into the mush. At one memorable stage I remember having to have a quick sit down (in a dry patch) and shining the torch around to try to work out where the route went. As always, with a bit of rest and clarity the route showed itself quite easily.
I knew the route would turn into a well-established track as we descended, and at some point we turned corner and saw flashing lights that had been erected outside Gregs Hut. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but having known each other for a just a few hours, Mike and I hugged each other with joy as we realised we’d put Cross Fell behind us.
I’m not sure what I expected as we got to Gregs Hut, but was a little underwhelmed with the lack of noisy marching bands celebrating my arrival, or even anyone to say hello. To be fair it was about 2am and the occupants were dealing with some racers that had got there before us. As soon as we got inside though, the welcome was great and the racers ahead of us made their way out into the night and we went in to be greeted by the unique John Bamber, a medic Mary, and another chap that I didn’t get the name of.
It was wonderful to actually be at Gregs Hut, taking part in the Spine Race, something I’d only read about but aspired to for years. I was slightly awe-struck, and absolutely chuffed to bits to have made it that far. John Bamber was making his famous noodles in mess tins, and we chatted about the length of time they had been at the hut, sleeping on the floor with no running water or electricity.
I was excited to be there, but unfortunately not excited enough to fool my stomach into getting some solid food into it, so my noodles remained un-eaten, which I was genuinely gutted about…imagine going for a long-awaited meal at some fancy Marco Pierre White restaurant and then not being able to eat anything. I was gutted.
I was able to take a particularly bad picture for the occasion though!
As we finished up, Mike said he was going to try for 15 minutes sleep in the next room before we headed down the long descent to Alston, so I lent him my thick mittens (he’d been complaining of feeling cold) and he settled down to snore for a bit. Strangely, I wasn’t sleepy despite it being the early hours of the morning (perhaps the excitement of the occasion!)
I woke him after 15 minutes, and we got our packs back on for the long Coffin Road to Garlinge. Mike stated getting some pain in his shins and was a bit slower than me descending, but we made it eventually to a nice bench in Garlinge. I shared my can of Coke with him, that I’d got from Bill as I descended into Dufton. I’d cleverly carried it from Dufton all over the climb to Cross Fell, planning to have it as a celebration at Gregs Hut. With a bit of coke inside us, the pace picked up a little as we followed a river to the next checkpoint Alston.
Alston checkpoint reached approx. Thu 5am, 183 miles done in 93 hours. Checkpoint left at approx. 1.00pm
It seemed to take ages to get there, but thanks goodness it finally arrived. It was 5am on Thursday at this stage, and the last 40 miles (and 2000 metres of climbing) had taken 27 hours. I‘d been on the move for 93 hours, with about 9 hours sleep, and had only eaten decent solid food about 4 times in the last 3 days. There was no question of sorting kit, I had a lovely shower and went to sleep in the highest bunk that has ever been built. My intention had been to stay at the checkpoint for hours, as long as it took to get me caught up on my sleep and recovered mentally to tackle the next leg…if necessary I’d stay for over 12 hours. Unfortunately I was told I was only allowed 8 hours in the checkpoints, and stupidly I’d not realised this before the race.
When I woke up I felt strangely good. I had the section over Cross Fell behind me, which I’d been really concerned about (rightly!) and in fact I only had about 80 hilly miles to go with a decent amount of time to complete it. I was feeling stiff and sore, my feet really REALLY didn’t look very good but as I lay in the bunk I felt a lovely, unusual feeling, that I hadn’t felt for days.
I felt hungry.
As I came downstairs to get my kit sorted, I was aware my feet were pretty trashed, and that I needed to get them taped up and sorted asap. If I could get some food inside me while the medics were taping me up then all the better. So instead of going straight to my drop-bag and sorting kit, I headed for the medics corner, being intercepted on the way by a lovely volunteer who asked what I wanted to eat…did I want lasagne? Oh yes I said, in fact, could I have two as I would have some time sitting down while the medics sorted me out?
I should explain that the lasagne at Alston is something of an institution (with its own Instagram account and everything!) and although I hadn’t really registered it, I was in for a treat!
While the medics ummm’d and aaahhh’d (and more importantly ooooooohhh’d) over my poorly feet, specifically over my little toe that was going a very dodgy colour (and becoming a bit of a star in the medics WhatsApp group where they were sharing pictures of the worst afflictions), I was eating my way through a couple of (admittedly) small portions of lasagne. As soon as I’d finished them, the lovely volunteer came back to collect the plates, and I asked for another. This carried on for a while…the medics doing their stuff and me sitting in a comfy chair eating lasagne. It was a very pleasant place to be for a while, far from the bog and shite of the Pennine Way and allowed me to forget what I was there for.
Feet sorted, I moved to my kit bag and got myself organised. I was time for new waterproof socks and lovely things like that, making me feel like a new man!
And all the time I was eating more lasagne, asking for another plate every time the old one was taken away. It was filling a stomach that had refused solid food for pretty much three days outside the checkpoints, and I’d burnt a gazillion calories in the meantime.
It was with a little surprise then, when I’d asked for my latest lasagne that the volunteer asked if I’d really had 7 portions of it. I said I didn’t know, I wasn’t counting, but that it was lovely lasagne. A couple of minutes later I was accosted and photographed by a couple of medal-wielding volunteers that wanted to crown me the “top lasagne eater at Alston Checkpoint”, having eaten 7 portions. I’m embarrassed to say I felt a little emotional, it was so unexpected and lovely of them.
It was a proper distraction (but not enough of a distraction to not eat the latest lasagne they brought me) and I was a little lost for a while, but then I was told I was nearing my 8 hours’ time-limit in the checkpoint, and was hurried to get my shoes on and get back on the trail. I was absolutely fine with that, as this was without a doubt the best checkpoint in existence, and I didn’t want to break the rules, and got my last bits of kit and shoes on.
Unexpectedly, I was then ambushed by a load of volunteers outside, to celebrate my greedy-guts reputation for eating the most lasagne of all the runners that had been through the checkpoint. Just time for a classic picture (which I shall treasure) and it was back on the race!
The next stage was Alston to Bellingham, a chunky 40 miles with 1674m ascent. This leg would take me along a long section of Hadrian’s Wall, then a long diversion leading to Horneystead Farm, a Pennine Way institution (but more of that later).
I had a full stomach, a healthy lead over the cut-offs meaning that I was going to get a good sleep at Bellingham checkpoint, and the knowledge that the final leg was only 28 miles rather than the usual 40 due to storm-damaged forests that we could not go through. I was not looking forward to this leg, but knew that it was moving me towards the end. The end!
I had recced this section, but strangely I could not remember much about the first part of trail to where it met Hadrian’s Wall. As I travelled up this part, called Isaac’s Tea Trail, I remembered why…it is a rubbish boggy trail with absolutely no redeeming features, lots of rolling hills, lots of slippery climbs and mud. What a crap-hole.
I played leapfrog with another racer a few times, a guy called Rob that I would spend time with later. At one road crossing, there was a couple of plastic boxes full of snacks and water, labelled “For Spine Racers”. It was a pleasant surprise and the Haribo sweets I took were a lovely change to my boiled sweets I’d been living on.
I left Alston at about 1.00pm, and it was dark 3.5 hours later. I got to Greenhead when it was dark and a couple of volunteers were manning the public toilets (yes, really) and helping the runners with hot water. I had a couple of cup-a-soups, which went down really well, and had 10 minutes sleep on a convenient bench. I also refilled my flask with more soup as I did not realise until I asked that Horneystead Farm was 20 miles away, which is a long time to go without access to water…potentially 8-9 hours of hiking with no breaks.
As I set off, for some reason I became very thirsty and although I had a decent amount of water with me, when I got to the next set of public toilets (there was about three sets all within a few miles of each other) I spied an outside tap, and quickly drank about half of my water to try to stop being so thirsty. Unfortunately I then tried the tap, which had obviously been switched off when all the toilets were locked up. Oh dear. I had about 250ml of water to last me the next 17ish miles which wasn’t really going to work. I briefly though about heading back to the last set of public toilets, but quickly discounted that. I had a full stomach of water, which was going to last me a while, and no-one had ever died of thirst while on the Pennine Way…there was always water around, it just wasn’t very clean sometimes.
So I moved on, and began the section of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s a beautiful section, with a lot of very sharp climbs and then descents following the route of the wall. On my recce, done in daylight, I’d been able to see all the views (like at High Cup Nick) and I had to imagine what I was missing as it was pitch black.
At about midnight I reached Steel Rig where we were diverted onto a road, and a volunteer showed me the route on my map that I needed to follow to avoid a few sections of trees that had been weakened by a recent storm. I was a little nervous at leaving the GPS route and following my map, but I seemed to cope with it (and to be fair I could see the actual Hadrian’s Wall on my far left at all times so it was not too difficult.)
After this part of the wall I started to find a few farmhouses and outbuildings, and I carefully shone my torch all around the outsides looking for an outside tap to fill up my water with. I’d been perhaps 4 hours without much water, and while it was just uncomfortable so far, I was keen to find a water-source before having to resort to bog-water.
Finally I found a small cottage alongside the trail, and tip-toed into their garden to access their tap. I’m not exaggerating when I say I drank 1.5 litres of water before filling all my bottles and getting on my way. I hope no-one was looking out of the window while I was doing it as I must have looked a state!
After Hadrian’s Wall was a 6ish mile diversion, firstly following the wall and then going across some fields before turning north to get to Horneystead Farm and a much-needed rest. It was getting to be very late, and I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. At about midnight I took a couple of pro-plus as I was losing track of the route, which perked me up for an hour, but did not last.
The diversion turned into the section of field, and I couldn’t understand why I was struggling to find the path so much. Until I realised the diversion was just a straight line across miles of fields, and it was going to be a bit of pot luck to find stiles over walls and the best place for river crossings. It may have been obvious in the daylight, but it felt very complicated while half-asleep at night.
I think these early hours of the morning, 2 to 6am were probably my lowest point of the whole race (with the Cam Road a close second!) as it was just endless, boring and pitch black. My only possibility of getting through this section was just to keep going, even though all I wanted to do was stop and never move again. I would tell myself that all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, that I had no other purpose in being there than to keep moving. I had not spoken to my wife for the best part of the week, simply so that I could just keep walking. I had trained hard for the best part of 6 months so that I could keep walking. My life just consisted of keeping going, keeping moving. It was as simple as that. My stubbornness was a living, breathing thing!
At about 4.30am I gave up trying to stay awake, and had a much needed 30 minutes sleep at the trail side. I was lucky top find a sheltered hollow for this, and although I woke up cold and disoriented I made myself get moving and quickly warmed up. Shortly after waking up I saw two very bright lights heading towards me extremely quickly, and was gobsmacked to find I was adjacent to a road that had a lorry moving along it. It was a bizarre sight after so many hours of darkness, and that I was not aware of the road at all.
The last few miles into Horneystead Farm were horrible, tracks that had been churned up by tractors and machinery that were being used to deal with the local weakened forests. I properly lost my sense of humour here, even though it was getting light, and spent a good couple of hours composing emails to people I didn’t like telling them why I didn’t like them. I’ve never done this before, and hope to never need such an approach again, but it did the trick giving me a vent for a bit of aggression to keep moving for these last few miles.
Horneystead Farm is on the Pennine Way route, where a farmer & his wife have created an outbuilding with some comfy sofas, kettle, food, heating and basically everything a tired hiker could want. They keep this open 24/7 for all Pennine Way hikers, and I’d passed the gate in September 2021 on my recce. At the time I’d spoken to the wife, who had invited me in but I’d said that I’d only come in during the race in January. I had been looking forward to it, but I was genuinely a little worried about getting to Horneystead Farm and being in such a foul mood that I would be rude to the lovely people that run it.
Luckily, my mood lifted the minute I got into the warm environment, sank into a lovely sofa and was offered some hot soup by the wife, who chatted away for a few minutes, telling me that she (and husband) had walked the PCT in 2006 and how much she enjoyed seeing everyone coming in. I struggle to put into words how welcoming that place was, and how fabulous it was to just be able to sink into a sofa after the night I’d had. Horneystead Farm rightly has a reputation as an oasis of comfort in a sea of bog and mud, and the couple that provide it are the absolute salt of the earth, taking enjoyment from the gratitude of their many visitors.
I spied Mike (that I’d gone over Cross Fell with) asleep in another sofa, buried under a load of quilts and not snoring for a change. He gradually woke up as I was chatting with the wife, and we left together a half-hour later. I was keen to get the next 5 miles to Bellingham checkpoint out of the way as soon as possible and set off at a cracking pace. The final descent into Bellingham was particularly muddy, having had a load of racers over it already, but I didn’t care as all I wanted to do was get there and get some sleep.
Bellingham checkpoint reached approx. Fri 11am, 228 miles done in 123 hours. Checkpoint left at approx. 6.30pm
An organised checkpoint had me removing all my muddy boots and waterproof trousers in a gazebo outside, and then getting inside where I was greeted by volunteer Debs White, who I’d volunteered with in 2020. It was great to see a friendly face, but all I wanted to do was sleep so I made my excuses, had a shower and went into an adjacent hall and slept on a surprisingly hard floor with my sleep mat. As usual, with a few snoring rhinos in the corner, I was asleep in seconds and 5 hours later gradually surfaced feeling much happier.
I’d arrived at about 11am, so when I came out of the sleep room (with the extremely hard floor) it was dark already. But I was awake and alert and looking forward to the last leg and getting this damn thing done. My feet had woken up and were showing few new blisters to go with my old ones, so it was first stop at the medics, while eating food and drinking coffee. The food was good, but it didn’t go down as easily as at previous Alston and I struggled a bit to get the calories in…I still wasn’t managing much solid food on the trail and I knew this was (potentially) my last food before the finish. Mary the medic was very gentle, but I still jumped every time she poked and prodded my feet while taping. She carefully drew a line on the angry little toe, to show how far the infection and rot had moved up it, before putting it on the medic WhatsApp group for review at the finish, to understand if the infection was moving (so she told me). A guy named Rob and I were sitting opposite each other while having our feet sorted and chatted away about our experiences so far, while eating and wincing with foot-taping-pain. Good ouchy fun.
After surgery, I sorted my kit, reminding myself that it was probably the last time I would be doing it, and to absolutely not forget anything.
I’d been extremely fortunate so far that I hadn’t set off from a checkpoint without forgetting anything important, so I wanted to keep the positive record going. To be fair, if I did forget something my nature would be to just work out a fix, but it is the mental beating up I would give myself that is the bigger issue. Rather like making a navigation error, where the error is quite easily fixed, but the frustration at going the wrong way is far more significant.
I had a brief chat with Lindley Chambers about the diversion we were taking and the likely terrain we would find, which did not sound too disastrous. I also tried to find out who was likely to be meeting us at Hut 1, a mountain refuge hut about 9 miles into this leg, which would be a welcome place to stop and rest before the final push of 19 miles to the end. I had promised myself that I would not have another night spent awake and slogging through the sleep monsters, so a sleep at the hut would break up this leg nicely, while wasting some of the darkness and making me finish (hopefully) in daylight.
I touched base with Rob to see if he wanted to set off together, which he did, so we agreed on another 20 minutes of getting sorted and then we’d make a move. The route was shortened to 28 miles, rather than the usual 40 for his leg, and even better we were getting driven in a car for the 12 miles…imagine moving faster than 3mph for a change!! It was going be a real treat.
I realised just how tired and jaded I was as I said my goodbyes to Debs, asking her to do up the zip on my purple drop-bag….not only was my drop-bag not purple, but I couldn’t get the damn thing to zip up properly. I think I was probably a lot more knackered than I was letting myself believe, but by keeping moving and focused I could stay on target.
I sat in the back of the car, and was asleep in about 0.5 seconds. Getting out at the other end was slightly less fun, but my feet soon got the message that we weren’t stopping anytime soon and quietened down. We had left the checkpoint at about 6.30pm I think, and we had a long climb to get up to the heights of the Cheviots where we would find Hut 1.
On the way Rob and I chatted, and he admitted he felt a little out of his depth on the Spine (didn’t we all!) as his history was doing marathons very quickly (2hr50), doing 1000 miles self-supported across Eastern Europe (Forest Gump style) and setting up his own business with some friends. He was a great example of the unusual and interesting people you meet doing these crazy races!
After what felt like a long time (but it was probably only 5 or 6 hours), we got to hut 1, and were met outside by a mountain rescue guy that welcomed us and asked us to be quiet as there was someone sleeping inside. The minute I stepped inside the small hut (probably 3m by 1m) and hearing the snoring it was clear that Mike had got ahead of me and was crashed out in the hut. I still don’t know how he got ahead of me, as he wasn’t at Bellingham when I went to sleep, and he wasn’t there when I woke up…but somehow he got in there and out in the 5 hours I slept.
Anyway, I’d caught up the snoring man, and he was fast asleep again. Rob and I had a bit of a chat with the MR guys, while we had some of their hot water for soup (for me) and a dehydrated meal (for Rob). With a stomach full of soup, I just leaned over to my right on the bench I was sitting on, and was asleep in seconds, in perhaps the most uncomfortable position I could imagine. I would awake periodically as I got colder and more uncomfortable, or my legs twitched, or my feet moved, but always managed to get back to sleep. As I was getting colder, I put on some thick mittens on my hands, but there wasn’t much I could do to keep the rest of me warm as I was already wearing most of my clothes.
I woke up feeling really shivery, about 3 hours later, to realise that Rob and Mike had left, and I was being watched silently (yes, really) by one mountain rescue guy and his dog, while the others had a sleep in their tents outside.
I had a lovely hour chatting with MR guy (apologies, I can’t remember his name, but the Collie dog was Dottie I think), and drinking multiple cup-a-soups and coffee. I think I had 5 soups and 2 coffees by the end, and they gave me just the boost I needed.
At about 4am, when the next racer was just reaching hut 1 and would need my space, I got my stuff together and left. It was the most extraordinarily clear night, without a breath of wind and bitingly cold, and the sight in front of me was fabulous.
I just drank this view in, believing for the first time that I may actually finish the Spine. I had 18 miles to go, and I was exhausted, but I had plenty of time and just needed to keep moving forward over the Cheviots.
I probably need to explain the mind-set I’d occupied up to this point, to demonstrate the massive difference in my head once I left hut 1. I’d been very focused so far on concentrating on what I was doing…this race did not allow you to forget where you were or what you were doing for any length of time. I’d told my wife not to call me until the Wednesday (after starting Sunday) but being as focused as I was, I’d then told her not to call until nearer the end…meaning I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly a week (the longest we had gone without talking in over 25 years). To be fair, we’d exchanged a few texts, to let her know I was ok, but probably less than 10. Even my running friends, who I would normally speak to daily (if not more often), had realised that I was simply totally absorbed by the race, and my usual fairly relaxed demeanour had deserted me for this race.
Leaving hut 1, into the still night, meant that provided I did not break a leg by falling over, I should finish. I took massive pleasure in texting my wife and friends with a picture of the night (even in the middle of the night), and the news that I was expecting to finish. It’s a magical memory.
But I still had miles to go, and after the initial euphoria wore off it was just a long long hard slog. The ground was wet but crisp on the surface as it had frozen overnight, and the hills were relentless. I was back to my method of stopping frequently just to catch my breath, and some of my slowest miles were taking 30-40 minutes (with 40 minutes being my all-time slowest).
It got light slowly, and dawn was a lovely sight, realising I had completed my last night on the trail. My next sleep would be in a proper bed, which was an amazing thought. I passed a couple of photographers on the peaks that would take a lovely shot of the sun rising behind me, and they tried to have a quick chat with me while videoing it. I don’t think I was very capable of stringing two words together at this point, so I hope those videos never materialise.
A sharp descent down to hut 2 (another refuge hut, about 8 miles from the finish line) was taken unbelievably carefully so that I did not DNF with a broken leg or cracked skull, and I was a little surprised to see quite a crowd at hut 2. There were more mountain rescue guys making sure the racers were ok, but also a load of runners that had come out to see the racers. I was in no mood for stopping here, and just carried on past, hurrying to the finish.
A few other locals were on the trail, and it was great to see ‘normal’ people. I started to get more and more emotional as I neared the end…even with 3 hours to go, just knowing I was going to finish had me in pieces both mentally and emotionally. I had invested so much time and effort into my preparation for this race, and had placed it high on a pedestal for so long, that just the thought of getting to the finish was a mind-blowing thought.
I struggled up (and then down) the last hill, called the Schill, which was a lot steeper than I remember, and then I was heading downwards to Kirk Yetholm, the Border Pub (which has the famous wall that signifies the end of the Pennine Way), and civilisation…including beer, Doritos and a bed.
I passed through the farmyard that is the last bit of trail, and then onto tarmac road which was the last 2 miles to the finish. A couple of cars went past, hooting at me to celebrate the nearing the finish line. And then the village came into view. And then I was turning the last corner, to be able to see the finish line in the distance with a crowd of people waiting for me….little old me…who had somehow finished the spine race.
I’ll admit I was in no hurry to get to the wall, but savoured the feeling as I went under the finish gantry. I was in floods of tears (very unmanly of me!) and could not see anything but that damn wall to touch. No apologies, one of the most memorable race finishes I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a few).
Finish time – Sat 12.23pm, 148 hours 23 minutes. 57th of 72 finishers of 121 starters (40% dnf rate)
I had a medal put over my neck, had time to answer a couple of questions from the crowd, which I have no recollection of at all, and then was shown indoors for a sit down. I was a little overwhelmed by pretty much everything at this stage, and just sat for a few minutes gathering my head. I saw Mike in the room and we had a few words about the finishing experience.
My superstar friend Steve had driven up from Kent that morning, to be there for the finish, and I just about registered him in the crowd as I finished. I popped outside to say hello and thanks for coming – it was great to see a friendly face, almost from a previous life. Steve, on the ball as always, let me get back inside to sit and get as much of my muddy kit off as possible, while drinking pints of milk. Absolutely lovely.
I soaked my feet in a tub of hot water, and managed to peel off most of the tape covering my feet which was extremely painful but would allow them to dry out as much as possible. I would give them a few hours and then comeback for the medics to take a look.
I had finished at about 12.30pm on Saturday afternoon, a total of 148 hours after setting off from Edale 268 miles earlier. 6 days and 4.5 hours. I had slept for about 20 hours at the most over that time, which I think was quite a lot compared to some others, but was the absolute the minimum I could cope with.
Steve and I walked (well, he walked, I hobbled) to the local B&B we had booked for that night, and I had the best shower of my life. Then I had the best beer and Doritos of my life while I texted people telling them I had finished. I was a Spine finisher. Unbelievable. Then I passed out/fell asleep for a few hours.
Then, feeling much more human, I got my feet checked out by the medics for the last time (“get to a doctor when you get home, they’ll probably give you antibiotics for the infection etc.”) and hit the pub with Steve for food, food and more food, and beer. God, what a great feeling.
And that’s it! The end of years of aspiring to finish (probably) the hardest ultra in the UK.
The end of (I think) my racing career – I cannot see any real need to do anymore massive races. If you ask a climber which mountain they are likely to climb after summiting Everest, I imagine they will look at you a bit strangely. I’m feeling the same way, what race could I possibly want to do that would set me that same sort of challenge as the Spine? I absolutely need to fix my hamstring to be able to run, and I need to run….but I do not feel the need to go to the extremes of the last few years (Arc of Attrition, Thames Ring 250, Spine Challenger, Monarchs Way etc.)
I think I’m retired! Incidentally, literally everyone that knows me has said I will reconsider this statement, but ‘m not so sure. Time will tell.
And if I have retired, what a race to bow out on!
So, a couple of thanks, as usual…
Firstly to the awesome organisers of the race, to the brilliant volunteers at every checkpoint, to the mountain rescue guys (especially at hut 1) that were ever-present to make sure we were safe. Thanks to the lasagne at Alston that gave me some much needed energy and fabulous memories of winning the most unexpected medal ever.
Thanks to John, Mark, Sharon, Derek and Pam…for keeping me sane even though I hardly spoke to you. Just knowing you were out thinking of me and dot-watching made all the difference.
Thanks to my wife, the long-suffering (gorgeous, wonderful, clever, beautiful, wise & generally lovely) Claire, who has put up with this obsession (dare I use that word?) for years and was really really clear with me that she did not want me to do this race. But then supported me fully when she saw I was going to do it anyway. Love you. Thanks also to my kids, who were entirely un-phased by their dad disappearing for hours at a time and almost killing himself for the previous few months, and just carried on as normal.
Thanks to my poor feet, who were just as smashed up as during the Monarchs Way, even though this race took half the time. No more, I promise!
And thanks to all the organisers of my races over the years, from the very first 100 miler I did organised by Mike Inkster in 2011 here in Kent, to Lindley Chambers who I seem to have done most of the really ridiculous races with.
This has, I think, been my longest race report ever. And you’ve made it to the end…so thanks to you, reader, for persevering to the end. If you aspire, like I did, to finish the Spine…then hopefully you’ve got your entry in and have a read HERE for my kit choices and training thoughts.
If you are just reading because you like hearing about my suffering….you’re welcome!
And that’s it. THE END
And now for all the pictures that didn’t make the cut….
Incidentally, despite all this talk about retiring…my head has been turned by a rather interesting race called the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. Hmmmmm….
Alston to Byrness, taking in a memorable section of Hadrian’s Wall.
This was just a lovely excuse to get out on the trails for a few days, and try out my new sleep system of a tarp & bivvy bag rather than a tent which is slightly heavier to carry. Conclusion, yes tarp & bivvy is lighter, but bleedin’ cold and windy if you camp in the wrong spot (which I did). Still beautiful though.
In the covid-ravaged 2020, with every race cancelled or postponed, it was an easy decision to combine taking my son to a northern university with snatching a few days recceing a section of the Spine race, which I hope to do in January 2021 (if it’s also not cancelled!)
It was an even easier decision when deciding which section to recce, as the website describes the Middleton to Alston chunk as the hardest! It covers 40 miles, with a healthy amount of ascent, and best of all… it goes over Cross Fell, 1084 metres high and usually foul weather, before going past Greg’s Hut, one of the icons of the whole race.
I would wild camp depending on where I got to each day, and planned to camp at Middleton on Monday night, start Tuesday, finish Wednesday, and get public transport back to the car late Wednesday or early Thursday, and drive home Thirsty In total, 3 nights camping, 2 days on the trail…. sounded perfect!
…. and it was. Memorable views of High Force, Caldron Snout, High Cup Nick, Dufton (for lunch), of course Cross Fell & Greg’s Hut, then Garogill and home. A really good few days.
Sometimes you need a break, to refresh and rediscover your mojo, which seems to have been lost along the way somewhere. A sort-of-holiday that will remind you why its fun to run ultras, to push yourself harder than is sensible, and come out the other end feeling more energised rather than less. It doesn’t make much sense to suggest that by flogging yourself out on a trail for a weekend, you will end up feeling better than before you started, yet that is what happened.
Back in May I was lucky enough to complete the Monarchs Way, a 615 mile, 12 day, suffer-fest, and came out of it ‘a shadow of my former self’ (as described by a running friend). I did finish, but was physically and (more importantly) mentally trashed. Predictably, I couldn’t see it (despite my long suffering wife telling me) and tried to get back to running after 4 weeks, but simply couldn’t manage it with any consistency. After another few weeks off I was able to run, but didn’t enjoy it like I felt I should be, and certainly would rather stay on the sofa than get out the door.
Fast forward a few more months, the summer is ending, and I’m starting to get proper lardy (yup, still eating, but not working off the calories at all). Running is possible, but unbelievably slow (think 10m/m at full speed!) and simply too much like hard work. Things were not getting better, and I was genuinely thinking that my ultra-running adventures were coming to a slightly sad end.
I somehow got myself round the Richmond Marathon in mid-September, in what was for me a very respectable 4 hours 29, although the last hour consisted of me digging myself into a deep dark hole and simply refusing to stop running and walk. I came out of that feeling pretty invicible to be honest, and promptly went and injured myself trying to get some pace back into my running.
I’m quite used to running with a small degree of dull pain in various places, but this sharp pain in my left hamstring was something new and unpleasant, and followed me around for weeks. I tried a couple of runs with my club, the most excellent Thanet Roadrunners, but dragging a leg behind you while running is a dispiriting way to carry on amongst lots of healthy bouncing gazelle-like runners.
Meanwhile, I had to start thinking about a ludicrous ultra I’d entered almost 9 months previously, which would mean 36 hours chained to a good running mate:
Escape from Meriden (from Beyond Marathon Events) is a really novel type of ultra, where everyone starts from the supposed centre of Britain, a place called Meriden, near Coventry. Everyone follows their own route, with the aim of getting a far away ‘as the crow flies’ within a certain time limit. Hence route choice is vital – it’s surprisingly easy to cover large distances of linear miles without necessarily moving as many ‘crow’ miles. Most people do it a singles, but the sadistic Mark Cockbain, of Cockbain Events, adds in a ‘Chained’ category, where we had 36 hours but had to remain chained at the wrist for the duration.
Because all runners have a tracker, the final effect is loads of GPS traces heading out across the land…
Thanks to Richard Weremiuk, race director, for the picture. The different colours signify single male / female runners etc. The gold circle is the 60 mile perimeter, black is 90 miles.
As a single runner, the challenge is to make it 30 or 60 or 90 miles as the crow flies, within 24 hours. As a chained pair, we had 36 hours to pass the 60 mile perimeter, and then try to make it 130 linear miles to achieve one of the legendary ‘chained’ medals. We had little or no chance of that sort of distance, but wanted to make it to 60 ‘crow’ miles and then see how far we could get. One of the novelties of the race is that there is the option (if you wish) to run in convict-style orange boiler suits, which make the whole experience far more ridiculous and open to abuse by members of the public.
Just before the start, looking vey sexy in orange…
I had done the same event last year, but been cut loose after 75 miles when my partner had encountered some horrible blisters and I carried on by myself to reach Liverpool and 100 linear miles. This year I was back to see if I could do the same but remain chained this time!
I would be running with Mark, a really experienced ultra runner that I knew quite well. He was in really good shape, and I was frankly a bit of a wreck, and genuinely not sure whether I had the capability to keep moving for such a length of time. Mark was (as he kept reminding me) a few years older than me, but had completed huge numbers of marathons and ultras. To be fair, he hadn’t done so many of the long 100 mile plus races that I was more used to, but there was nothing about long distance running that he didn’t know. He and his wife Sharon had crewed me on Arc of Attrition and Thames Path (with another ultra runner, the youthful John, who currently is taking a few months rest) and so they knew my usual form of destruction. Mark had been on the end of the phone through some of the tougher patches of Monarchs Way, and had been hugely supportive toward the end when I was hurting.
We had a few meetings to discuss the route options, and agreed (thank goodness) that the overall distance was less important than actually having a bit of fun, so we would follow the Grand Union Canal from near the start towards London. This would be much less direct than a road route, due to the winding nature of a river/canal, but would be flat, picturesque, and I had a bit of knowledge of the path due to running it a number of times over the previous few years on the Grand Union Canal Race in 2014 and the Thames Ring 250. We planned on a 100 mile target in linear miles, about 75 miles ‘as the crow flies’, which would have us finishing about Kings Langley. Our race started at midnight Friday, and so would finish at noon on the Sunday…hence no sleep from early Friday morning to Sunday afternoon – probably 55 hours or so.
Sharon (Marks wife) kindly offered to crew for us, which is no mean feat for someone to navigate/feed/look after two tired runners, whilst keeping herself in one piece. Sharon is a no-nonsense supporter (frighteningly, rightfully nicknamed ‘Taser’, but obviously not to her face) – she will absolutely make a call for you to stop if there is a good medical reason for it, but otherwise will happily push you out into sub-zero temperatures with an extra pair of gloves and a Cornish pasty. However, her experience means she knows when to force you to eat and not to fret if you’re copiously sick all over the floor (as usually happens with me). As you can maybe tell, she’s a bit of a star.
Anyway, route decisions were made, and I was hearing noises that Mark was training hard, covering some good mileage before meeting up with club runs to carry on his training. I was still struggling to walk without pain, and was resorting to stretching (a sign of my desperation!) in the hope of some miracle fixing my leg. I was mentally looking forward to the challenge, but desperately didn’t want to let Mark down halfway. With 4 weeks to go we met for a chained night ‘run’ that I think I ran for about 3 or 4 half-mile sections before having to walk. Mark was very understanding, but we covered 23 miles in about 6 hours, most of it walking due to my leg not accepting that I was supposed to be a runner. Not good, although we found the chained aspect was surprisingly easy to get used to.
The race drew nearer, and I suspect that I would have bailed out if I hadn’t committed to taking part with Mark. My leg was finally starting to mend, and I managed a 4 mile run without stopping due to the pain in the preceding week. Unfortunately, it was going to be a long slog rather than a cheeky bouncing run, and I was thankful that Mark was understanding in this aspect. I didn’t appreciate until afterwards that he was actually quite worried about the whole ‘staying awake for 36 hours’ but he needn’t have worried as that was the least of our problems.
On the Friday in question, we set off for Meriden, checking the many flood warnings that the previous weeks torrential rains had set off.
Just a few flood warnings then! Our start line was somewhere right in the middle…
It was all over the news that there were numerous road closures due to floods, and the race Facebook page was full of warnings to avoid any routes that went near rivers or canals as they would be impassable. As we had planned 80 miles of canal route this didn’t look promising. Mark and I had both packed 5 pairs of shoes and even more dry, clean socks so we could keep our feet in the best possible condition, but that wouldn’t help if our route was impossible to follow.
We had planned the first 20 miles of our route to be on road before joining the canal at Stockton Locks, to allow for as much quick running at the start as possible. As we got to Meriden quite early, we took the opportunity to drive the first 10, and understand the likelihood of flooding (very little, thankfully) and the possibility of having created a route that took us down fast ‘A’-roads with no pavements (also very little, thankfully).
After a hearty last meal in a nearby pub, we got to the race HQ in a bright Methodist church hall, and quickly found a corner to get changed, and faff with a bit of kit. Registration was quick and easy, and getting fitted with the chain was over in minutes. Mark Cockbain was being helped by Dave Fawkner, who I knew from the Thames Ring 250 in 2015, and they smilingly chained us together knowing the difficulties it would cause. There were quite a few chained pairs, and one triple (god help them) doing the race this year, and the whole church hall was full of orange boiler suited runners, excitedly waiting for a few minutes before midnight, and a slow walk to the starting point.
Mark Cockbain helpfully told us to be really careful when we said we were following a canal for most of our route, which didn’t instil confidence in our route choice. Everyone we chatted to, when we said we were following the Grand Union canal, repeated the Facebook message of ”don’t follow a river or canal due to floods”. It seemed we were making a mistake.
I had a couple of coffees and cheese rolls while the race briefing was going on, and as we left the hall just before midnight I felt my previous worries easing away, as there was nothing to do now but keep moving for as long as possible.
Is there ever a time when cheese rolls are a bad thing?
Mark seemed in good spirits too, it seemed he was itching to get started. It was gently raining and quite cold, but we knew that some decent movement would warm us up soon enough. One of the biggest issues of being chained at the wrist is that there was no option to put a jacket on or off, so waterproof ponchos were our only hope of staying dry if the rain increased. We both had fleecy blankets (with holes cut in the centre for our heads) to wear as ponchos if it got cold, but they were there as a last resort only.
Without too much fuss, someone shouted ‘go’ and simultaneously 200 orange-boiler-suited people shot off in different directions. Quite a bizarre start to a race.
Mark and I started gently (no surprise there!) and chatted to a few runners for the first 30 minutes, but soon were all on our own. One chained couple were heading for Winchester (near Southampton) which was a huge target I think, but unfortunately I’ve no idea if they made it.
We had planned for Sharon to meet us about every 10 miles or so, allowing us to access our kit frequently enough that we wouldn’t have to carry too much. I must point out the advantage that Sharon gave us over the unsupported runners, and they not only carried more than us, but also had to plan for places to eat and get water. We were able to simply plough on until the next point at which Sharon would meet us.
The first 10 miles passed quickly, although the rain that had been a small matter of drizzle at the start had become quite strong after about an hour. We passed a train station and discussed stopping to put on something more waterproof than our boiler-suites. At that stage the advantages of the boiler-suits were showing themselves – as well as keeping us warm they were repelling the water just as well as a soft-shell jacket. Obviously, they would not continue forever like this, but in the short term they were a huge advantage. I suspect we have all fallen for the marketing of the running apparel companies, whereas a paper jacket will offer some huge benefits (for a few hours) at a fraction of the cost. Luckily the rain stopped after an hour, and did not return for the rest of the run.
We passed through the quietest university I’ve ever seen at 1.30am on a Saturday morning, without even being heckled by drunk youths (I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed), and hit our first rendezvous with Sharon at Stoneleigh. It was 2am, and happily Sharon had not expected us until 2.30am so we caught her having a brief doze. It was a testament to her organisation that she had a hot drink in our hands within minutes, as we sat in the back seat of the car.
We were moving well, my leg decided to behave itself (for now at least) and the decision to start on easy road surface made our progress swift and painless. We left Sharon for the next 10 mile road section with a spring in our step and headed out into the dark night. Neither of us was feeling the usual low of the middle of the night, which was great, and we both knew that making good time on the road was our best chance of hitting our 36 hour target.
At the next rendezvous we knew we would be changing from road shoes to trail, as that was the point we would be starting on the Grand Union Canal. We had no idea what the trail would be like, as my recollection was a mixture of both narrow and wide trail, a bit of tarmac and lots of grassy surface. Basically a mixture of everything, but that could all change if the routes were flooded.
Sharon was in a pub car park at Stockton Locks when we arrived, again we had taken a little over 2 hours to cover the 10 miles, although I had been forced to walking for a fair proportion on the last few miles while my damn leg shouted at me. Mark was very patient though, and did not complain.
Sharon fed us tea (for Mark) and soup (for me) while we changed shoes and had some rolls. We both put on Sealskins waterproof socks in case of flooded paths and some heavy duty trail shoes. Without wanting to sound dramatic, running directly adjacent to the canal posed a very real risk of falling in, and trail shoes will give a small amount of traction on a muddy surface. As a single runner, the likelihood of falling in was relatively small, but chained together was far more difficult, especially if the path was narrow. And even more if one of the runners (me) had the worst balance due to a slight inner-ear issue. Put simply, I can’t stand on one foot without wobbling over. Make me run on some nice slippery mud near to a watery pit and I won’t last long without lurching in one direction or another.
Anyway, suitably kitted out and well fed again, we left Sharon and proceeded onto the canal-side for the first time. Both of us were nervous about what sort of trail we would find. Almost immediately we were overtaken by two single runners, and then by a chained pair who were easily recognised in their orange boiler suites. They had covered their chain in an orange wrap, that meant it did not flap about and clink quite so much. Both sets of runners were moving really quickly on the muddy trail, and were quickly out of sight. They must have joined the canal further up behind us and were quite used to the muddy trail, whereas Mark and I were gingerly choosing our steps with care. We would soon learn!
As they went past, the two chained runners (who we were to learn were called Chas and Dave) asked us where we were heading, as they planned to follow the canal as close to London as possible. We said we were hoping to follow it as far as Kings Langley (which was probably 20 miles short of London) but that we were just out for a bit of fun, rather than destroying ourselves in the process. I am quite a fan of canal running (hence the choice of route) but they said they were already finding it a bit depressing in the dark. Oh dear! However, they looked in great shape as they sped off into the distance.
Canal running, with a nice wide path is lovely…I promise.
The trail for the next ten miles was poor, being mainly very narrow muddy path. This meant single file movement, with the person in front having to trail their chained wrist behind them to give some slack to the poor bugger behind, who was having to extend their chained wrist and watch the floor in front for obstacles. It was slow and back-aching work. I generally went behind and got used to putting my chained wrist onto Marks shoulder so there was less danger of walking into him (and also steadied me from falling in the canal).
We were both thinking that if the next 80 miles of canal was like this we would be in trouble, as it was hard work to concentrate on just the few feet in front of you…nothing else mattered, as you simply couldn’t afford to trip. Luckily, we both later agreed this was the worst section of trail we encountered in the whole run, so we got it out of the way early.
Our next rendezvous with Sharon was at Braunston Marina, and we got there at about 7.30am thankful of the daylight.
A crow waited for us at Braunston…
Sharon had parked in a small carpark, just off the canal, and had a fabulous pan of sizzling bacon waiting for us. We had covered about 30 miles, relatively slowly, but had survived the first night and were happy with the new daylight. We were in good spirits, and had a bit of fun with a ‘slightly vague’ resident that ignored the whole car park, choosing to park in their usual spot directly adjacent to us. After she enquired what we were doing, she turned down our offer to chain up with us for a few miles, but wished us luck for the rest of the run.
Sharon, expertly posing with bacon.
We had more tea & soup, bacon rolls and generally felt like we could take on the world. The new daylight had given us a surge of energy (as it would the following day too) and we were quickly finished our admin and on our way. By this point we had also become accustomed to the chain, and were automatically only using our free hand for doing things, unless we forgot and gave the other person a good hard tug (oo-er missus!).
At this point, about 8am with a good long stretch of daylight ahead, we were in great spirits and making good time. As the day warmed up , I remembered why I loved canal running so much, with the tranquillity and beauty and simple stillness. Luckily Mark was in a similar place, and we ate up the miles chatting away about nothing in particular. It was easy.
Most of the trail after Braunston Marina had opened into wide grassy trail or path, so we were side by side for most of the time. When ever the trail narrowed, Mark would automatically move in front and I would move my hand to his shoulder so I could follow closely without the danger of careering into him. I imagine we looked like a bizarre couple. As is tradition with my long ultras, I found a handy ‘Gandalf’ stick to bring with me, and take some of the pressure off my back. It would also be useful to beat off drunks as we got closer to Milton Keynes.
Our next rendezvous was in a rather pleasant pub garden, at the Heart of England pub in Weedon. Although the pub wasn’t opened yet, we could see people inside watching as Sharon treated us to Danish pastries and a cafetiere of ground coffee.
Hopefully you’re getting the idea of how vital Sharon was to this run…definitely ‘most valuable player’.
Mark fetched his pole from the car and we set off without too much faffing. It was about noon, we had covered 40 miles and the day was warming up nicely. The canal started to get quite busy with dog walkers, and most people asked us what we were doing (and why!) which broke up the monotony quite a bit. Again, the trail was wide and easy, and we were making good time. We had spent about 12 hours covering only 40 miles, but the midnight start and chain made everything much slower than usual, and we were being careful to pace ourselves to cope with the full 36 hours.
Teaching Mark what a good Intragram picture looks like…
Having said that, both of us were starting to suffer a little and I was very conscious that at noon we were only one third of the way through the event but I was careful not to say that out loud. Mark spent much of this leg feeling some real pain in his left foot, and debated whether to take his shoes off to look at the damage or wait until the next rendezvous when he would have clean socks to put on. I was beginning to feel the sleep-deprivation (about 30 hours so far), and started to fall asleep on my feet in the middle of the afternoon. I’ve had this a few times, and it’s the oddest feeling of entirely losing consciousness while still walking along. While still having my hand on Marks shoulder, as my head would drop I would automatically lurch away from the canal, pulling Mark with me, waking myself up and apologising to him for pulling us both into the adjacent hedge. After a few near misses, I asked Mark if I could have a few minutes sleep on the ground (while he sat patiently next to me) and sure enough, 7 minutes later I was fully awake and ready to go. Bizarre.
The next rendezvous was at the entrance to Blissworth Tunnel, and gave Mark a chance to get his shoes and socks off and see what damage he had done to his feet, which he had convinced himself were blistered to pieces. In fact, they were pink and healthy, and after he gave them a clean and a dry they looked in great shape, certainly not the feet that had carried him for 50 miles. He chose to change his socks for a clean dry set of waterproof socks and liners, but remaining in his trail shoes that, although wet through, were serving him well. I chose to stick with my existing combination as my feet felt battered but no real pain.
Coming up the bloody steep path from the canal to the car park.
Sharon fed us well again, with tea and soup hitting the spot. Both Mark and I were eating snacks during each leg, but having a roll (or something) at the meeting point with Sharon. I was carrying soup in a flask with me, which I find keeps my stomach settled, while Mark was drinking gallons of electrolyte mixed with water. Both of us were feeling energetic and cheerful (so far) but definitely starting to get sore & achey.
While we sat with Sharon, Chas and Dave turned up, the runners that passed us shortly after we joined the canal at mile 20.
Nothing strange here!
They had been making good time, but so far had been unsupported and had made a few diversions for food and water. One of them took the opportunity to remove a shoe and have a look at a blister, and generally sort themselves out a bit. They were suitably impressed with the support that #mvp Sharon was giving us and we all agreed that Sharon was a better wife than most, and clearly we had some work to do with our own wives to bring them up to scratch.
On that positive, but slightly libellous note, they set off ahead of us, onto a road section. It was about 2.30pm, and I was very aware that the next time we saw Sharon it would be getting dark, and that darkness would last for at least 13 or 14 hours, while our bodies would be crying out for sleep. This night would be the hardest part of the whole race, and the need for sleep by 2am on Sunday morning, having not slept since getting up Friday morning, would addle our brains and jeopardise our decision making skills. One of the best reasons for simple following a canal for as long as possible is that it is almost impossible to take a wrong turn, no matter how tired you are. However, the danger of falling in is magnified ten times, making life much more exciting.
After leaving Sharon, Mark and I faffed to make sure his Garmin was charging properly before it got dark, and Sharon zoomed ahead in the car, arriving at a turn off in time to point Chas and Dave the correct way. (She’s too good! I’d have sent them absolutely the wrong way).
We quickly passed through Stoke Bruerne, where they were holding a ‘floating market’, basically lots of canal boats selling tat (if you ask me). The multitude of public on the path seemed to be enjoying it though, and Mark and I wound our way through them causing much amusement. The other side of Stock Bruerne consisted of miles more canal, and darkness soon fell. I started feeling quite nauseus (quite usual for me) and started eating boiled sweets continuously to keep my blood sugar up.
As it got dark our conversation dried up, and we begun a night of a lot of long silences. We both knew that the next rendezvous was critical for getting some good hot food on board, so had asked Sharon to heat up some spaghetti Bolognese as well as hot water ready for our arrival. A small diversion brought us off the canal but we had planned to meet in an Asda car park that was just off the canal, thinking it would be a good place to top up supplies and possibly use a toilet, but disappointingly it didn’t have toilets so we just camped in a nearby car park for 10 minutes, in the dark. I changed my shoes and socks and ate pasta, while Mark kept his eyes out for doggers and drunks (there were a surprising amount of cars that drove in, saw us, and then drove straight out).
Clearly in good spirits, with mugs of spag bol too…
I was pleased to be able to eat a decent quantity of spag bol, as my nausea was pretty much a constant companion at that stage. In fact, I was feeling good, and ready to take on the long night section. Mark, unbeknownst to me, was not feeling quite so cheerful, and quietly asked Sharon to look at when we would likely be past the 60 mile perimeter ‘as the crow flies’ in case he needed to drop. He was beginning to feel the onset of the night ‘depressions’ that always hits as the body gently start to shut down ready for sleep. Not good.
I put on some music as we left, as it was a treat I had been looking forward to for the last 20 hours. It was quiet enough that I could still talk to Mark, but it gave me a bit of a boost.
We were back on the canal and moving quite well by about 7.30pm. A bit of mental maths said that we had covered about 60 miles so far, and we had slowed to a consistent 10 miles every 3 hours. 12 hours from now should put us at mile 90 at about 8am, without any stops…and we would need plenty of stops! That left us less than 4 hours to complete the last 10 miles if we wanted to cover 100 linear miles in the given 36 hours. It was slightly concerning at how little time we really had to finish what should have been a fairly easy distance in the long timescale.
The next 3 hour leg was rough. We got to the rendezvous at about 10.30pm, and we were in bad shape. The first hour had been fine, with coffee and hot food having the predictable positive effect. It was very dark and the path went from easy and wide at one moment, to being narrow and slippery the next. The freezing cold pitch black canal water beckoned to me to come in for a swim. I had graduated from resting a hand on Marks shoulder to hanging onto the handle at the top of his pack (between his shoulder blades). This was both easier to hang onto, and also slightly more central , hence less de-stabilising for Mark when I lurched left or right. It also gave me the added ability to pretend to hold him up when he slipped on the mud. Obviously, I had no chance of actually supporting him (by holding my left arm up at shoulder height) but it made me happy to feel like I was contributing to the partnership.
The second hour was a downward spiral into silence and depression. It was dark and we had a long night ahead of us. I couldn’t help think that it was not even midnight…we were still less than two thirds of the way through this monstrosity, and the hardest parts were to come. Oh god, this was going to last forever.
I do not remember anything about the last hour. Mark was in better shape than me, and did well to keep urging me on while I just wanted to lie down and sleep. I was back to my trick of falling asleep on my feet, and lurching away from the canal, destabilising both of us and putting us both at real risk of an early bath. The rendezvous seemed to be taking too long to arrive, and we were both checking our gps watches every few minutes to see the distance ticking away.
Just as I was admitting defeat and saying I needed to sleep on a convenient bench, we saw a torch waving in the distance from a bridge, and thank goodness Sharon had been found. There was no mucking about, both Mark and I slumped down and went to sleep. Although it was not even halfway through the night, the previous day had taken its toll and I think we had pushed hard to get as far as we had without any rest.
20 minutes later, I woke up feeling much better and refreshed, and Sharon woke Mark up shortly afterwards. We were in a residential street, where everything was well lit by a rather convenient streetlamp. It was chilly, but not too cold (that was to come later) and once we had some coffee inside us we both started to come back to life. I had some more hot spag bol, and Mark had cold rice pudding. Yes, that’s right, it was near midnight, he’d been awake for the last 41 hours (apart from the last 20 minutes) and all he wanted to eat was cold rice pudding. Yuk!
Sharon ran around us getting bits and pieces of kit from the back of the car, whilst keeping us entertained with stories of the sights she seen so far that night. I don’t think we were actually at the rendezvous point for very long, probably only 45 minutes or so including the sleep, but it helped me reset my brain for the rest of the night.
And onto the next 10 mile leg.
I’d like to say this one was better than the last, but in fact this leg signified the absolute lowest part of the whole run. As before, the first hour passed quite rapidly, we covered 3.4 miles which kept us on target for a 3 hour / 10 mile leg. We both tried to keep nibbling snacks during the night, if only to pass the time. The soup in my flask had gone lukewarm and was pretty gross. We went pass midnight, and the canal was deathly quiet and pitch black. We both had good head-torches on but they created a pool of light around us, rather than penetrating the dark to any depth. The canal was, predictably, identical for every mile apart from some of the trees and bushes lining the path changing. Every so often a hanging bramble would catch one of us, waking us up as the damn thing tugged hard at the boiler suit. It was getting cold, but our constant motion was generating enough heat to keep us warm – there was no chance of stopping though.
By the third hour the silence between us had descended again, and it was the lowest part of the night – about 1.30am. Our bodies were settling themselves ready for sleep and could not understand why, after 43 hours awake, we were not getting into bed. Mark was struggling more than me this time, and whereas I had battled with falling asleep, Mark was just ready to sit down and quit. Bizarrely, this rather brought me to life and I went a little hyper trying to keep Mark:
a. moving (“We’re nearly there”),
b. positive (“This is the absolute lowest point of the whole run, it can’t get any worse than this”) and
c. focussed on the end point (“The rendezvous after the next one will be in daylight, yay!”)
It must be said that Mark did amazing well through this, in the depths of depression as he was. The classic quote, which I shall spend the rest of his life reminding him, was when I’d said about nearly being at the next rendezvous, he said “I can’t really see the end”, in a small weak voice that perfectly summed up how desperate he was feeling. It was, indeed, the lowest point of the whole run.
Thankfully, somehow we made it to the next rendezvous, a dodgy lay-by in a place called Slapton, and Mark threw himself down to sleep. It was too cold (we found) to be outside the car, so we all got in and shut the doors to keep out the cold. The temperature display in the car said 2 degrees and at 2.15am it was bitter. We all fell asleep, Sharon included, and I woke almost an hour later to see Sharon in the driver’s seat, asleep, with her forehead on the steering wheel. Undoubtedly the most uncomfortable way to sleep I’ve ever seen. Sharon woke up when I started trying to move my stiff legs, and we bravely tried to wake Mark up. Both Mark and I were shivering and groggy, and Sharon made the ultimate sacrifice of getting out of a cold car into a freezing outside to make coffee. Predictably, with coffee warming us Mark and I slowly came back to life, but we were both stiff and cold.
I’m not going to lie here, I think Mark would have happily stopped at that point if I’d let him. He’d had a terrible last hour and I think was mentally counting the 10 hours he had left to continue and realising he simply didn’t want to carry on. I didn’t want to continue, but knew that just a few minutes of movement would warm us while dawn and daylight beckoned. Daylight, I knew, would change everything by bringing our tired brains back to life.
So I was pretty ‘no-nonsense’ with Mark, not really giving him the option to consider how much nicer his day would be if he dropped, but getting him to work out what kit he needed to be as warm as possible and getting him moving. Sharon had, rather cleverly, not put the car engine or heating on so it was not tropical temperatures in the car. I suspect if she had we’d still be sitting there now desperately trying to muster up the courage to get out of the car!
It was about 3.45am when we left the car, and the difference that the coffee and food had made to us in the last 30 minutes was amazing. It was freezing cold (the temperature display in the car dropped to 1.5 degrees in the end) but with some brisk movement (even some running by Mark) we were warmed and much happier. We were both very aware of how close we had been to dropping at the last rendezvous point, and once the coffee wore off we potentially would be back there again. Sharon had filled my flask with coffee rather than soup this time, and we agreed to share it after 90 minutes, which would hopefully be halfway through the 10 mile section.
It didn’t take long to get the first indications of dawn arriving, and I must have said ten times how it was going to change our thinking and bring about the final push to the end. I think I’ve done too many night events.
At a bridge up ahead, at about 6am, we saw someone in a orange boiler suit waving at us. It was Chas and Dave, shouting that they were done in and were getting a taxi to their hotel. B*stards. We still had 6 hours of hard graft to go, and the thought of getting into bed was a lovely one (although, not with Chas and Dave, I should point out).
At about 6.15am we stopped for coffee from the flask, but it was lukewarm and positively nasty. I managed 2 mouthfuls before passing it to Mark, who helpfully retched after drinking some nearly sending us both into the vomit zone.
We checked the tracker, and realise that Chas and Dave had dropped as we had just passed the 60 mile perimeter circle. Although we have travelled over 80 linear miles, we had only just passed 60 ‘crow’ miles, and that shows how our route choice was so vital. Although the canal was easy to navigate, very flat, safe from cars etc, it was undoubtedly not a direct route due to its winding nature, and we were paying the price for it’s lack of straightness.
We were tracker number 589, one of the few still going, and had just passed the 60 mile gold perimeter… Thanks to Richard Weremiuk for the tracking system.
However, the ‘chained’ challenge is about the furthest linear distance, once you have passed the 60 mile perimeter, so our target now was just to keep going. Dawn was making the surroundings look almost pleasant and we both started chatting again and behaving almost normally. I had resumed my normal position of moving along slightly behind Mark and holding onto his handle, and we kept up a good pace.
The path was generally good, apart from one memorable section that was completely washed out from one side to the next, and was too deep to just run through. In the end, despite gingerly walking around the mud at the edge of the small lake we both fell over a got a bit wet, although not as bad as it could have been.
This leg was turning out to be closer to 11.5 miles than our usual 10, but that didn’t matter as we were awake and cheerful, and Sharon had promised bacon (if possible) at the next 90 mile rendezvous.
Something in the distance!
At that point our whole world had shrunk down into 10 mile sections, lasting about 3 hours, and the thought of bacon was pretty damn exciting.
As we got to the pub car park, Sharon was waiting on a bridge up ahead, and it was great to see her in daylight. She said that someone from the pub had been cleaning and had come out to see what she was up to, and had switched on the patio heaters for us. So we not only had bacon, coffee, but sat under this tiny heater that did little except look nice. It didn’t matter, we were all in good spirits and fooling about, perhaps a little punch-drunk from coming out of the other side of a rough night.
Mark and I had gently talked about what we would do if we had time to spare once we got to the 100 mile mark, as he was adamant that we would stop as soon as the watch indicated we had covered the distance, whereas I was more keen to maximise our distance to the full 36 hours. Although we were both stiff and tired, I think it shows how cheerful we still were by being able to joke about that. At least, mostly joking, as I was dead serious about wanting to carry on until noon, and I know damn sure that Mark was serious about stopping at 100 miles. We were edging towards disagreeing about it (whilst eating lovely bacon rolls), when we both realised that actually we did not have too much time to waste, being at about 91 miles with 3.5 hours left. A simple navigation error or twisted ankle would cost us time we did not have, so in a bit of a panic we swiftly sorted kit and left the rendezvous point…then returned a minute later to collect the pole & stick we had left and a charging block for Marks garmin gps watch, which had been nominated as the official distance record.
Second time lucky, we set off again, with Mark wondering aloud what we would do if we did not make it to 100 miles before the 36 hour cutoff. We were properly panicked!
Although Mark was getting tired he was still moving well, and we made good time. I was being helped by the coffee and bacon at the last rendezvous and feeling pretty positive (although I did have to keep slowing to sort out its of kit, which was starting to annoy Mark).
Mark remained adamant that he would be stopping at 100 miles no matter how much time we had left, and I didn’t want to push it. Besides, I knew my Suunto gps watch was tracking about a mile ahead of him somehow, so if his watch stated 100 miles I knew mine would be slightly more. Mark asked quite a few times to see what distance my watch was showing (he also knew it was ahead of his) but I wouldn’t show him, stating that I thought the battery might have died.
The only thing I remember about this last section was a long stretch of canal that was holding a fishing competition and we tapped our way past numerous anglers with huge long poles blocking our way, and we just had filthy looks from them all. We were pretty bedraggled at that stage, and although most of the passers by said good morning, literally no-one asked us what we were up to, unlike the previous day.
And then, before we knew it, we had reached the final rendezvous point and walked up an adjacent slope to find Sharon parked at the top. Predictably, Marks’ watch only showed 99 miles, so we had a nice stroll through a local park, back through the park, again, round the park to try to make up the magic mileage. We had the bright idea of drawing a massive phallus for the benefit of the gps trace, but sadly the end result didn’t really look like what we wanted.
Mark’s watch finally (finally!) showed 100.1 miles, and we took some obligatory pictures in front of landmarks to show where we had got to.
I unveiled my watch, happily showing 101.6 miles (which is the Suunto distance, versus the measly Garmin 100.1 miles) and we had our final sit down by the car. Phew!
After that, it was a quick change out of muddy shoes and boiler suits, and a zoom to the hotel, with a quick stop at a garage for Cornish pasties and pork pies. What a relief!
And that’s it! 101.6 miles chained, wearing orange boiler suits, and a total of about 55 hours without proper sleep (I’m not including the two short dozes in the back of the car). After a shower and a couple of hours sleep in a comfy bed we hit the bar, and relived the whole event over dinner. Excellent.
This is the final traces from all the chained pairs, with our trace being the bottom right, closest to London. The gold circle was the 60 mile perimeter. Thanks to Richard Weremiuk for the picture.
It feels, with hindsight, like the whole weekend was an exercise in good planning really, from the route details to the meeting points with Sharon. Running while being chained together is actually not difficult if you both go at the same pace, but the usual admin required to travel a significant distance is made much harder while chained. It helped enormously that both Mark and I were fairly experienced so knew what to expect, and what to do. We decided, during the run, that the chain slowed everything, from travel to admin, by about 20% and we were lucky that we both felt the same lack of pressure to reach a huge mileage total. I think our relaxed approach also meant we enjoyed (?) the experience rather than stress over it. It was an unusual way to spend a weekend, but not unpleasant…although that could have been different if the weather had been unkind and the floods had been a problem, as they were for some.
At the end…in one piece!
And so, a few thanks:
First, and of course most importantly, the award for most valuable player goes to Sharon. As I’m sure you’ve worked out by now, she was the driving force behind what we achieved, and we would not have made it anywhere near as far without her supporting us. To everyone that went significant distances unsupported, congratulations, as that is tough. Sharon somehow coupled the difficult tasks of drviving, navigating and meeting us at the right places, with cooking, feeding, helping and most of all looking after us…all at the same time. And staying awake for days too. I don’t know how she did it.
Secondly, Mark, thanks for letting me borrow Sharon for the weekend…….and for being such decent company and patient while I slowly plodded along the canal. I’m chuffed to bits that we made it, which was not certain at all when we started (and was definitely unlikely at about 2am that morning). You were a huge source of knowledge when I first started ultra running a few years ago, and it’s been a pleasure to run with you this weekend. I hope your ankle feels better soon.
Yup, definitely some slight swelling here…
I should probably say thanks to Beyond Marathon events & Cockbain events for putting on a great ultra, but as all they did was strap a tracker onto us and push us out the door, I’m not sure they warrant it. It was great fun though and I heartily recommend their events.
I’d like to thank my wife Claire, who doesn’t read these reports apart from the last few paragraphs to see if she’s mentioned. Thanks for putting up with me being a bit wafty since Monarchs Way in May and thanks for letting us borrow your car, again. And happy 50th for next week.
No caption required!
And lastly, at this stage I normally thank my legs for putting up with another weekend of being trashed, but as the left one in particular has been such a bugger for months I’m going to skip past that, and say thanks to my feet, who didn’t destroy themselves like they did on Monarchs Way. Good work fellas. Until next time….
Before I start this, I suggest you read my race report from Monarchs Way 2019 first, as it will give you a bit of background and insight into how I found it and what I went through. Obviously, any tactic I suggest is tailored to my slow, back-of-the-pack style of running – if you’re quick then a lot of this probably won’t be for you.
I’ve split my advice into 3 areas…physical, mental, and kit.
Good news! This race isn’t about being able to run a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 hour 100 miler, or a 15 minute park run. In fact, while I think a good pace for the first 50 miles is critical to create a buffer against the cut-offs, after that you can probably get by with a strong fast-hike (and not much sleep).
As always, the starting point of the pace requirements starts with the numbers. I created a spreadsheet for the 2018 runners to show their paces across the various leg, versus the cut-offs. This showed fairly clearly that the three finishers were not the fastest, but the most consistent. Everyone lost time on the two long legs (8 & 9) because they were out there for so long, but the buffer that had been built up was adequate to allow a finish. This is the link to my spreadsheet: HERE and although it may take a little time to understand the various tabs along the bottom, it should hopefully be fairly self-explanatory. You will also see my planned timings for the 2019 race, and the actual timings for all the finishers. (Its a pretty sizeable file, so may take a while to load).
So, physically, you don’t have to be a beast to finish the Monarchs Way (unless you want to win), however, that does not mean it is easy. In fact, I would say that more important than huge levels of running fitness is experience. If you have completed one or two 100 milers, and think you are ready for a crack at Monarchs Way…you’re not. That is not to say you definitely won’t finish, but the odds are against you. I would politely suggest that the next step up from a 100 mile run is to a 200-250 mile race (such as Thames Ring 250), which will give you 3-4 days on your feet on a safe (easier) route, and will give you a taste of the sleep-deprivation you can expect. Foot problems will likely rear their head on a 250 mile race, as well as some dodgy weather, which will all be good practice. A few races in January will give you confidence in poor conditions, as well as spending a lot of time in the dark! Obviously, moving at night is an integral part of the Monarchs Way, so familiarity and confidence no matter how lost you feel is really critical (as well as being able to bivvy out (sleep out) if required).
On the surface, travelling 45ish miles each day and sleeping at the checkpoint every night sounds easy…you need to trust me that its not that simple. The ability to fast-hike (i.e. walk) at 3 or 4 mph for 18 hours is an acquired one, a bit like running I suppose, so takes time and training. The training will toughen your legs and feet to resist the stiffness and damage that will inevitably settle into them. Being able to run well does not automatically mean you can fast-hike (and vice-versa).
Foot care, as you will have seen form my race report, is an acquired knowledge…buy a book and read it! I’m not convinced you can always avoid foot deterioration, but you can definitely treat it.
I’m quite dismissive about the physical side of the race to be honest, I think that if you have bashed out a few long races in tough conditions, then you have a rough idea of what to expect. But you need to trust me when I say that one Centurian 100 miler does not (physically) qualify you to finish this race.
How much do you want to finish? What is your motivation for being there? What is your ‘why’?
I can guarantee that at some point in the Monarchs Way, over the 12 to 14 days it will take you, something will go wrong that will give you real motivation for wanting to stop. You will experience a low that is unlike anything you have experienced before. What will take you past that?
I can tell you about the time I learned that I can put up with serious discomfort, during a race I did in January 2017, called the Arc of Attrition. It is a fairly simple 100 miler, but follows the South West Coastal Path, and has enormous amounts of descending down into coves and bays, and then climbing back up on the other side. I had covered 70 miles, reached the last checkpoint in 20 hours, with about 30 minutes to spare. I was absolutely shattered, stomach issues preventing me from eating anything for fuel, and I was totally understanding how much the next 30 miles were going to drain me. I had a brilliant crew and was running with my running wife John (who had waited an hour for me to arrive at the checkpoint) which made the whole experience easier, but as I left the checkpoint, I had to tell myself that I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 10 hours / 30 miles. And I did.
So it was a simple extension of this to reach the point in the Monarchs Way where I told myself I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 5 days. But I do not know whether I would have reached that conclusion without putting myself through some rough experiences in the past.
The reason most ultra runners enjoy putting themselves up against a challenge is because modern life is (relatively) easy much of the time. There are complications and ‘boring’ stuff like morgages to deal with, but provided that everyone around you is healthy, a lot of modern-day living does not put you in a place where you have to decide between going forward and retreating. An ultra, done well, allows this to happen.
If you have mastered the above mental challenge, the rest is easy!
Can you be self-sufficient for long stretches on your own? The checkpoints are 45 miles apart, so you will be on your own for over 12 hours (at the start), up to 24 hours by the end. The are some shops and villages along each leg, but not as many as you will need. Personally, I love the solitude, both in the day and at night, which is something of a help. The more you carry, the slower you will go, so a light pack is essential…but running out of water and food is not really an option, so you need to know yourself well enough to judge what you require.
A flexible approach to your race sounds like an obvious statement, but I frequently come across people that tell me exactly when they will be eating/sleeping and they struggle to change their plans when things go south (and things always go wrong). Mending something on the move sounds obvious, but making sure you have the necessary parts is much harder. For example, I always used to put a few strips of duct tape onto walking poles, to distinguish them from other peoples…until I broke one and used the tape to fix it. Every since, I’ve always had some strips of duct tape on my poles for this or any other purpose. Being able to problem-solve is a really useful attribute.
The mental approach to the distance is also (I found) critical. It is easy to say “don’t think of the whole distance, just a leg at a time” but rather harder to do it in practice. However, you will be out on the trail for days, so some kind of ‘distance’ strategy is required.
Planning ahead, knowing where your next village or shop is, will be hugely useful. I spent a few hours going over the route on google maps looking for signs of civilisation, and being able to look forward to a meal in a few hours time is hugely motivating. Similarly, churches usually have an outside tap for water when shops are closed.
Recce any sections that you can, as it will give you an advantage on the day. I would say the two long sections would be most useful to know beforehand, but others will probably disagree with that. I did not get the chance to recce at all, so it is not critical.
Have a good list of what you need to do when you get to the checkpoint, as it will serve you well when your brain has turned to mush. It does not need to be huge, but if it lists all the important stuff it will give you confidence that you have not forgotten anything. Mine included:
MW Checkpoint checklist
Shoes & socks off. Wipe down feet. Dry.
Newspaper into shoes.
New batteries? Replen spare batteries?
Lie out bivvy to dry?
Get rid of rubbish.
New charging block.
Put stuff onto charge. Headtorch, watch, phone, blocks.
Wipe down all over.
Fill water. Fill flask.
Scrape feet. Vaseline. Socks & shoes. Gaiters.
News shorts? Long trousers? New top?
Clean buff. Hat. Gloves. Warm hat & gloves?
I could go on about the mental preparations for the Monarchs Way, as I think it is the most important factor (as for most ultras) but I won’t.
Shoes – at least 4 pairs, as it will take days for them to dry out from the dew on the long grass in the mornings. I used innov-8 roclite 325’s (boots), but learnt that they are not padded enough underneath after 6 or 7 days hence some of my foot pain. Most other runners had hoka’s or similar. I put newspaper into my shoes while they were drying, which was simple but seemed to work well.
Socks- whatever is your preference. I used Injinji liner toe socks, and then a normal pair on top (usually More Miles crew socks). For the waterproof socks I always use Sealskinz, but there is a variety of different makes that others swear by too.
Gaiters – my hardcore set are Berghaus goretex gaiters, and are made for winter races. However, they stopped anything whatsoever getting into my shoes and were also semi-waterproof.
Long hiking trousers – Montane terra trousers did me really well. Quick drying but great protection for the legs in long shrubbery.
Waterproofs – Berghaus deluge trousers, and Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. The trousers are great because due to a long zip up the side you can put them on over your shoes. The jacket is simply bomb-proof and has got me through some serious weather. I started off carrying a thin lightweight Gravitas jacket by Alpkit, which would keep me warm and reasonably dry, but as time went on and I got slower, I changed to the hardshell as warmth would become critical.
Something on your head for hot & wet weather.
Poles – I have a nice pair of mountain king poles, but for Monarchs Way I wanted something with really comfortable handles…hence I used a pair of cheap (but heavy) poles by Trekrite from Amazon…a bargain at only twenty pounds.
Charging blocks – I managed to keep my gps watch, phone, and head torch all charged throughout the event, using charging blocks that would themselves be recharged periodically by Lindley. I used ones at 20,000mAh, which would contain about 5 full charges for my phone before dying. I would carry one with me, and have one being charged by Lindley throughout. I believe Anker ones are the best, but I just used cheap ones from Amazon.
Food – it really doesn’t matter, as long as you know you will enjoy it after days and days of eating it. As I learned, there’s only so many days you can eat the same thing. Take more than you think you will need, as the checkpoint food is great but limited.
GPS – everyone seemed to have Garmin Etrex 30 or 64. Get used to using it beforehand (they can be quite tricky), especially zooming in and out to make sense of the GRX track you are following. Do not try to use your phone or a watch (or a map, unless far more talented than me) as it won’t work!
Headtorch – I used a Petzl nao+, but anything with a decent amount of lumens will work. And carry a spare!
Bivvy – as part of the mandatory kit, a bivvy bag was one of the heavier bits of kit. I had an Alpkit Hunka bag with me, but did not actually use it, as it was not cold enough or wet enough to need it. It was reassuring to have it with me though.