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….
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.
One of the things I spent hours upon hours doing in the months before I did the Spine Challenger, was to research kit. I spent time reading every race report that I could find, which gave me valuable insight into what to expect and what to take with me. I spent time on the internet, reading about all the different types of kit available, at different prices, and their advantages and disadvantages. And the finally, and most importantly, I tried everything I bought to see if it did what I wanted.
So I’m going to run through the kit I ended up with, and why, and whether it worked for me. To understand my experience of the event itself, you can read my race report HERE, which may be useful as I will refer to certain things that happened.
I should make clear that I was only looking to complete, rather than compete, which means that I worried about weight from a comfort point of view (i.e. I didn’t want my back to hurt) rather than needing to run with my pack. I couldn’t in fact run very far with my 8kg pack, but a strong hike got me finished on 43.5 hours, which was better than expected.
From the ground up:
Shoes – I ended up using 2 pairs of non-gore-tex Innovate Rocklite 305’s. They have great grip, and are quite comfortable. In training I have run long runs in them on pavements, as well as hiking over rough terrain, so they are fairly versatile (i.e. not just hiking boots or trail running shoes). With 2 pairs, I was able to change for clean ones halfway, which meant my feet got a rest. There was lots of debate about whether Gore-Tex shoes were worth it, but the overall consensus seemed to be that Gore-Tex will keep the water inside the shoes once it gets in, where as non-waterproof shoes with quality waterproof socks allows the water that gets in to get out again, and feet stay (mostly) dry in the meantime.
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 thin running socks next to them. Injinji are really expensive, but I find they last for years (I’ve been using some 4 year old pairs, from when I did GUCR in 2014), and they prevent any skin rubbing on skin, preventing blisters. The thin running socks are simply there to absorb sweat that comes out of the Injinji. Over the top of these two is a pair of good calf-high Sealskinz, which although not perfect, keep the water out for as long as possible. Three pairs of socks may feel like overkill, but I have used this combination in numerous ultras and they keep my feet problem-free. In the Challenger my feet certainly weren’t dry after 12 hours, but the socks absorbed most of the moisture and my feet stayed clean. I took 2 full sets of the three pairs, and another for emergency that I carried with me.
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 avoidable 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.
I should also add, that I have great feet! I almost never get blisters or problems, and when I watch people having their feet taped up at events I shudder. I’m just lucky.
Magic pristine feet!
The feet in the middle are mine after the Thames Ring 250…again, in pretty good shape.
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, I invested in a pair of Bergaus 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. The gaiters go from the tops of your shoe (another good reason for using a boot) right up to your knee, and fasten with velco 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 suspect they will last me for years.
Underwear: I wore a pair of compression shorts under my trousers, to keep everything ‘tightly held in’ and prevent any chafing. These minimise any movement of my nethers, and hence no sore bits. They are quite tight to wear for hours, but worth it I find.
Trousers: I had 2 sets of base layers, once was a simple pair of compression tights for the first day that kept my legs warm under a cheap pair of running tights. The second was a pair of merino wool leggings from Mountain Warehouse (about £30). I only bought the merino wool pair as the internet seems to be convinced on the magic qualities of the wool…keeping cool and warm as necessary, and wicking moisture away easily. I have to say this was the first I’ve ever owned, but they did seem to be very comfortable and warm. I’m not convinced they were worth the price however, but as long as they last I will feel they were worth it. I can’t see myself wearing them for any other running events, but possible hiking in the cold.
I wore cheap running tights (from Sports Direct) over the top of both. I started with the compression tights and cheap tights for the first half, when my pace was going to keep my legs warm. After the first day I changed to merino wool and a second pair of running tights, when I expected my pace to drop and my legs to get cold. One the second day of the challenger, when I was in heavy rain and wind, my legs never felt anything other than warm and cosy.
I saw some runners wearing Montane hiking trousers and the like, which I suspect worked fine, but it seemed yet another expense.
Waterproof trousers: I used a pair of Bergaus Deluge trousers as my main pair. 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 a 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.
Top base layers – I had 2 merino wool base layers, for similar reasons that the internet said they worked really well. 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.
Top layer – 2 normal winter running tops that I use every year. These are quality Gore Mythos ones that I’ve had for years, but are fleecy on the inside and warm. They have a thumb hole that keeps the arms stretched all the way down to my wrist, which I like anyway, but this proved invaluable on the Challenger, and there was no skin exposed when wearing gloves.
Jacket – the most important piece of kit. 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. My recommendation is to go for the best you can afford, and I got a Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. It was great, and gave me huge confidence when the weather got really bad on the final night. I spent a few nights training in it in the preceding months, so I was very experienced in unzipping to stay cool (it did get very hot on climbs) but I found that it was superbly wind-proof and overall I was really pleased with it. I strongly suggest you do more than internet shop for it though, research and then get into Go Outdoors or Cotswold Outdoor and try it on! (Then go home and order it for as cheap as possible).
Neck gaiter – I just used lots of buffs. I had a really thick one that I didn’t use, and the normal thin buffs did the job, even in strong wind. The added benefit was that they could be pulled up over the chin and nose if the wind was biting cold on exposed skin.
Hat – I took one very warm waterproof hat, that I got cheaply off the internet a few years ago, and wore at night. 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.
Quite a few people had peaked caps, to shade their eyes from the sun (I always run in one) but luckily we had not one scrap of sun the whole time.
Headtorch – 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 on both nights I was out, and although it was overkill it did a great job.
Goggles – part of the mandatory kit, these were probably the most alien thing I’ve ever taken on an ultra. However, I read reports of racers having to retire a few years ago due to scrapes on their cornea from strong winds, so they are not to be ignored. I wear glasses, so I have a slight advantage in winds that others don’t, and for that reason I was perhaps a bit blasé about the goggles. I read lots of suggestions about them, and in the end I went for a reasonable pair of safety goggles from Screwfix. They have them on display in the shop-part of a screwfix, which meant I was able to try them on over my glasses. I read that a clear pair is much better at night than a yellow tinted pair (which is used for skiing), and mine were quite comfortable. I never actually used them, even in really strong wind.
Gloves – this was really interesting. I was clear that I needed a couple of good pairs that would keep my hands warm in the rain, and also a light flexible pair if it wasn’t raining. So this is what I ended up with – my normal thin running gloves, a pair of tough waterproof thermal gloves from Screwfix, a pair of thick Mountain Equipment mittens, and finally a pair of Sealskinz gloves that I bought at the last minute and didn’t actually use. The thin gloves were fine, but every gate or style that was wet was going to get my gloves wet, and cool my hands. The Screwfix waterproof gloves fitted really well over these gloves and protected them from any moisture, especially when going through the boggy section where I could easily slip and put my hand on the ground. These were basically rubber gloves, but I wore them more than any other glove especially when it was properly raining. My mittens are gorgeous and very warm, and I wore them every evening as the light fell and it got much colder. They are Primaloft, so warm when wet, and would be my glove of choice in the real cold. When I did my recce, 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.
The only other bit of clothing I took, but didn’t actually wear in the end was a decent warm Rab microlight jacket, that fitted easily under my hard-shell, and kept me fantastically warm when I got really cold. It packed down to tiny proportions, and weighed about 250g, a worthwhile trade-off for the heat and confidence it gave me. I didn’t actually use it, but it was my “hypothermia-preventer” if I had needed it.
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.
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 ltr) and hold everything I needed for easy access. I had a single water bottle fitted to one of the shoulder straps woth an OMM pod, worked very well.
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 to make 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.
Sleeping bag & bivvy bag. Dead simple…Alpkit Pipedream 400 and Hunka XL bivvy. The sleeping bag is good down to -6 degrees, and I 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.
Rollmat – also from Alpkit.
Stove – I used an MSR pocket rocket, and a titanium pot from Alpkit with waterproof matches from the internet. 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 jetboil or something similar, but I love the compactness of the kit I had.
Yaktrak pro – mandatory kit, didn’t use them, but the ice on the last night was eye-opening, so I almost used 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 – a lot of people used the OS A-Z for the Pennine way, which has a highlighted line over the Pennine way. I went a bit more down-market, and cut up the required OS explorer map (i,e. waterproof and pretty bomb-proof) into A4 sized chunks. These were numbered 1 to 17, and each covered about 6-12 miles of the route. Hence, I could have a single piece of map in front of me, that was quite small and manageable, and I would change for the next map every few hours when I got to the top of the page. Worked really well (but it felt like heresy to cut a map up). I saw people using Harveys maps, but I really struggle with their scale. I’m sure I don’t need to say it, but please practice map reading a lot, even if you don’t intend to use them. Your GPS will do a lot for you, but confidence in your own abilities to get you out of trouble will be important.
Pages 2 & 3 of my cut-down maps….I have 17 in total (but only needed 1-8 for the first leg, then 9-17 for the second half after checkpoint.
And what else did I take?
Hand-warmers, from Tesco, one use only but stayed warm for 10 hours on my recce which was was beyond my expectations.
Plastic poncho, to protect in case of poor weather. These take up no space, are very light, and made me feel confident. I used on on the last night, and seemed to help (but that may be down to my bulletproof jacket).
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.
Waterbottles, obviously. 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 wiuld freeze. I learnt to blow the water out, back into the bottle, after every 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’, like bars of chocolate, a cheese roll, a pork pie, boiled sweets, flapjack etc. It was about 12 hours worth of food for me, and I carried an identical bag in my rucksack. It worked well for me but obviously there were people there hardly eating anything from their pack and relying on cafes and pubs.
Spare shoelace. Just in case.
First aid kit, as required, and the smallest sharpest penknife I could find that had a pair of scissors on it. Look on amazon.
Phone, iPod, headphones…not necessary, but very welcome in the night. I also carried a charging block & lead, but didn’t use it…it just made me feel safer.
Poles – can’t forget these! I’m quite a fan of poles up the ascents, and used them for the Arc of Attrition and on the Spine. I know there are loads of sexy thin pair around, but I also read that alot 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 my November recce 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 chuncky 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 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 Challenger, 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.
This is me at the end of the Challenge, after 6 hours of proper spine weather…you can see my front set-up.
My GPS is the grey think hanging in front of the OMM front-pack. I kept it there to be able to refer to it easily, rather than getting it out of a pocket. It was fixed to the front-pack with velco.
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 the checkpoint aft erthe first day – plastic gloves (for keeping hands clean when getting boots off), bin liners (for dirty boots & gaiters), kitchen towel (to dry feet), crocs (for keeping bare feet of the ground…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, so used crocs. Not very good, as they were a bit restrictive and tight on my tender feet, I would have been better with soft sandals).
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 (if I had used them in the fist leg, I would remember to replace them).
In the mid section of the drop bag was everything else! Complete change of clothing for the second half of the race (and a bin liner for all the dirty clothes to go in), small towel (which I didn’t use, probably a bit of a luxury to be honest), more spare batteries, maps for the second half,
And obviously the most important thing….a checklist ot make sure I did everything I needed to. With only one crack at the checkpoint & dropbag, you simply cannot forget anything, and no matter what you think your mind will not be running at 100%. Doing yourself a checklist also means you have run through what you need to do at the checkpoint previously, and so save you thinking on the day. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s vital. Even though I had ‘fill water’ on mine, I was so keen to be on my way that I forgot…idiot!
Naturally, it doesn’t say “call the wife”, but I did.
And what else can I suggest…
Personally, I had all the big elements of my kit sorted by start of November, ready for a recce for a few days and a test of the kit. That gave me a chance to replace if things didn’t work, and also allowed me to use the vital Xmas period to justify spending yet more money on the smaller bits. Even more important, that allowed me to shop around and get everything at internet-cheap prices. Also, that allowed me to use November to practise will full race kit, clothes and pack, to get used to it. I cannot stress enough how important that is…you need to know where everything is without thinking about it (for example, I always put my gloves in the same pocket, so I always knew where to find them…as lack of sleep starts to bite that becomes really important as I found on the Thames Ring 250).
Training on muddy hilly ground is crucial, just to get used to it. I was driving for 45 mins to get to my cliffs, and then spending 7 hours going up and down, before driving home. Best to do this at night too…good practise, and also you are home for 10am Sunday morning and a day with the family (I didn’t say this was easy!). Also, staying up most of the night and then the rest of the day is great practise with sleep deprivation.
The few weeks beforehand, spend some quiet time working out what you want to achieve…not so much a finishing time, but if the weather and conditions get really poor, what is going to give you the motivation to keep going rather than DNF’ing. This sounds a bit cheesy, but you will be tested to the max out there, and it’s a big expense to quit halfway.
Read every race report that you can find, even if they scare you to death. It’s critical to know what to expect & where you will hit the big ascents. I didn’t watch videos of Pen-y-Ghent before hand (there is a link in my race report) but with hindsight I should have. Some people had used Google streetview to look at areas they could get to, but that is (perhaps) going a little to far. The internet has huge resources!
And finally, enjoy the experience. It’s not about a couple of days on the pennine way, but rather about taking on a huge challenge and spending 6 months getting ready for it. I’m sure there are some people who started preparation in December, but they are better than me! I’ve been left with a massive sense of achievement, as well as a “job-well-done” feeling, that is worth all the hassle.
It’s the middle of the night, about 1am. Totally pitch black. It’s blowing a gale strong enough that I have to make sure an occasional gust doesn’t blow me over: the weather forecast said the wind would reach 50mph tonight, which would bring a wind chill of -15°. It feels that cold. It’s raining/sleeting/snowing, horizontally, but thankfully coming from behind me. Visibility is very low: I can see the ground for about 1 metre in whatever direction I point my head torch, but if I look up, there’s a wall of sleet/snow/mist and it all looks identical.
I can’t find the path I should be on, and I’m telling myself not to worry.
I’ve been awake since the previous night, when I had a restless single hours sleep in a dorm room with 5 other blokes. That has been my only sleep since 5am Saturday – today is 1am Monday, 40 hours ago. I’m probably not really lost, just confused, but I simply cannot work out which way to go.
I have been going along a long track called Cam Road, which is at about 600m altitude, high enough for the rain I was in an hour ago to have turned to snow and sleet. I’ve been steadily getting slower since my last stop at 9pm, and am at my most tired and sleepy. My GPS device is telling me that I need to take a simple left-hand fork off my current route, but it isn’t here. The footsteps in the snow I’ve been following since getting high enough for snow are equally confused, showing how they walked in circles looking for the same route.
I decide to walk in a square, 5 paces in each direction, which should bring me across any new route. After walking 4 squares, I realise that the circling footprints I’ve been following are probably my own. Shit.
I’ve slowed down in my confusion. Slow means cold, as I’m not generating the heat needed to fend off the wintery conditions. Every time I turn into the wind I am reminded how lucky I’ve been for the last few hours, keeping the conditions blowing behind me. Walking into that wind and sleet is mentally and physically shattering. Going back the way I had come is not an option.
I thought: Can’t go forwards. Can’t go backwards. Mustn’t get cold.
What you’ve just read isn’t made up, or exaggerated for effect.
There’s a good reason the Spine Race and its smaller ‘fun run’ partner Spine Challenger are marketed as Britain’s Most Brutal Race. The full Spine Race covers 278 miles up the Pennine Way, and sets off 24 hours after the Spine Challenger which is just a mere 108 miles up the Pennine Way. They are not true ‘ultra races’ in the traditional sense, but more ‘expedition races’ that happen to cover an ultra distance.
The typical sort of people that start the longer Spine race are hardcore mountain experts, used to winter conditions and looking after themselves against some serious adversity. They are the people that Bear Grylls admires and wants to be when he grows up.
The sort of people that start the Spine Challenger (my event) are those that want to attempt the full Spine at some point in the future, but are far too intimidated (terrified) to go straight for the hardest race in Britain. The Spine Challenger is known as the hardest 100 mile race in the country. Having also completed its closest competitor, the Arc of Attrition (race report HERE) I would happily say that it wins that particular accolade easily.
Why? Why is it so hard? OK, the route is rough trail, very hilly (5600m of ascent…that’s about 5½ times up Snowden) and very open on high ground for changeable weather conditions. The Pennine Way is deserted and desolate, perhaps crossing a road every 6 or more miles; there isn’t a welcoming pub or village every few miles to stop and rest. It’s wet and boggy for long sections, to the extent that some stretches have had a long path of stone slabs put on as the ground is too treacherous.
A typical 100 mile event has 4 or 5 checkpoints, with hot food and drinks, access to a drop bag full of spare kit, and a friendly face. The Spine Challenger has one checkpoint, at Hebden Bridge, after 45 miles. (You can stop at the few pubs or cafes you find on the route however, which is very necessary).
A typical 100 mile race asks you to carry water and a waterproof jacket as mandatory kit. The Spine Challenger has a mandatory kit list that includes a sleeping bag effective to -6°, a bivvy bag (basically a big bin-liner made from tent-material to get into in your sleeping bag and stay dry), goggles to protect eyes from strong winds, 3000 kcal of food, a full set of maps covering the route, and lots more emergency equipment. All of this weighs a lot, and that means that every gram counts…I became slightly obsessed with keeping the weight down, and I even snapped my spork in half to save perhaps 3 grams. I will write a lot more about the kit I used HERE, for future entrants of this race.
The Spine Challenger has a cut-off of 60 hours, which means you are likely to be outside in the elements for a minumum of 48 hours unless you plan to win. If it rains, you get wet, very wet, with no way of getting dry.
Because it’s January, the sun comes up about 8am and it’s getting dark by about 4-5pm. That means you have 8 or 9 hours of daylight, and then 15 or 16 hours of inky darkness. It’s very hard to push through the night on any race, but the depression you feel when you know that you will see the sun for the last time at 4pm is very real and it makes the dark night last forever.
And finally, a typical 100 mile event will allow your friendly support crew to meet you every few miles with a supportive hug and hot food. The Spine Challenger, for the first time this year, allowed no support outside the race-provided checkpoint or local pubs & shops. This meant that you felt truly on your own in the wilderness.
Perhaps I can explain in a more simple way. Come with me on a journey…
I can run 100 miles, and I have quite a few times. It’s always hard, but it gets easier as you know what to expect. I suspect you can drive, and if I asked you to drive from Manchester to London, you’d say “OK, no problem”. It’s about 4 hours driving, 200 miles, so it would take you a few hours and you might be quite stiff at the end, but you would cope with it, wouldn’t you? Ah, I have a few conditions for you. I want you to drive in January, and the windows of your car are stuck down & the heating is broken, so it will be cold and windy in the car, but I’ll let you wear whatever thick coats you want.
I will not allow you to take smooth easy motorways, but twisty lanes that are covered in potholes, and take much much longer. You cannot have your satnav, and there are no signposts on these back roads, but the good news is that you have a compass, a 1988 AA road atlas, and a small GPS unit that sometimes points the way to go.
Oh yes, last couple of things: you can stop only once for hot food, and I require you to tow a caravan (the equivalent of carrying my massive rucksack) just in case the worst happens and you need to stop and shelter. And these back roads are very hilly, which means that your poor car will really struggle to get up them with the damn caravan you’re pulling.
It all sounds a bit rubbish now!
I should add at this point, I’m not a super-fit athlete, smashing out miles of running in between hard sessions at the gym. I run a bit, work a lot, eat rubbish food, and listen to some awful music. I’ve done a few longish ultras, but generally can only manage one or two per year because I take a while to recover (both mentally and physically). On the positive side, I’m stubborn and I like to finish what I start, which puts me in a good place for putting up with some discomfort.
And what brought me to the Challenger? As usual, a bit of escalating banter with a running buddy John Hunt, coupled with an “I wonder if I could do it???” attitude, saw me applying for a place shortly after entries opened in February 2017. Common sense then made me made me let my place lapse, as there was clearly no way I could attempt this monster. Then, a few months later in May, something else made me email the organisers to say that I had bottled it, and could I get back in the race. And they said yes!
I then spent August to November reading up about the types of kit required for the likely weather conditions, buying lots, and cramming it into a rucksack. November saw me manage to squeeze 3 days off work (Sun-Tue) to recce some of the route, and understand the likely terrain. I was struck by the isolation and bleakness of the route…there really was no sign of life (human or animal) on majority of the route. Because there was no grass there’s no wildlife, only endless bog and heather. The recce also involved sleeping out in my bivvy bag, which was a good test, and carrying full race kit, which weighed a whopping 9kg and ruined my back by the end of the first day. Back to the drawing board for what to pack.
November also saw me spend every Sunday morning driving to the nearest good training hills, the cliffs at nearby Folkestone, and going up and down them for 7 hours. I think I did this 4 or 5 times in November before I ran out of time and put all my training on the back burner while Xmas monopolised my time in December (I work in retail). Although I started running again on Boxing Day, my mileage in the 6 weeks before the race was a measly 110 miles in total. Not great preparation!
The last few weeks were spent packing and repacking to try to minimise the weight of whatever I could. Also sorting out transport arrangements, due to a train strike on Friday 12th January scuppering my journey that had been booked for 6 months. And the other big task of the weeks before the race was trying to get my head around the fear I was feeling. It is normal to feel a little apprehensive before a big ultra, but I was deep in the fear zone, being all too aware my lack of experience in winter conditions and the terrain. Perhaps more significantly, I simply didn’t know what to expect: the weather forecast was changing daily, detailing winds and heavy rain that no one would choose to go outside in. And most importantly, I’ve spent the last 30 years living in the South: this means we avoid rain/mud/hills, and I’ve not seen more than a few centimetres of snow in the last 15 years. The threat of snow triggers Southerners to panic buy bottled water at my supermarket, whereas the north simply gets on with daily life. I was well aware how unprepared I was for this.
The rucksack is quite large, but dwarfed by the dropbag!
On that cheerful note, I set off on Friday morning, with my rucksack and a gigantic drop bag of spare kit. I’d packed some cheese rolls, and had quite a nice journey snoozing the miles away from Kent to London to Sheffield, where my train journey stopped due to the train strike. I’d managed to arrange to share a taxi to race registration with another couple of runners, Stuart Mugridge and Lizzie Rosewell, which meant a slightly less stressful arrival even despite a taxi driver chattering away happily to me with such a strong accent that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The three of us made an interesting group: Stuart had done much of the Dragons Back race last year, a hugely tough mountain race in Wales, and he was clearly a very good runner, but perhaps he wouldn’t be able to run much in boggy terrain with a heavy rucksack. Lizzie had recce’d a lot of the course and was a strong orienteer and long-distance runner. I was just out of my depth, but clearly I had the biggest drop bag, so I had something going for me.
Arriving at the village hall for registration at about 3pm, the first Montane flags in the car park brought home the realisation that I was actually about to do this thing. Cue faster heart beat and more deep breathing. Calm down!
Registration was surprisingly quick, and I got lucky in the mandatory kit check, only needing to show 3 items rather than the full kit check I saw some others have. There were a number of well known faces there (hello Lindley), who would be forming different Spine Safety Teams that would be on the course for the Challenger and full Spine (as well as the standard Mountain Rescue Teams) in case of difficulties.
A swift race briefing followed in another local hall, which was fairly routine until the head medic stood up, introduced herself, and then proceeded to explain how dangerous this race was. Excellent news.
I cadged a lift up to the Youth Hostel I was staying at from a fellow runner, and checked into my room. I spent about an hour of faffing with kit, and double checking I knew where everything was before going down to dinner. I had originally intended to go back into Edale for a meal, but it was a few miles that I was happy not to cover again, so I ate 2 main meals (lasagne and sausages & mash, if you’re interested) and chatted to a northern farmer called Dan who looked very relaxed. The previous summer he had completed a Bob Graham Round (a circuit in the Lake District that takes in 77 peaks) in just under 24 hours, which is an amazing achievement. After we’d chatted about nothing in particular for a while, he proceeded to check the mountain weather forecast, which would probably be accurate by now: no rain, but 45 mph winds moving the temperature of 0° to a wind chill of -12°. Not really what I wanted to hear!
After stretching out the evening as it clearly felt too early to go to bed, I went upstairs at about 8pm, and finished packing all my bags, ready for an early start in the morning. A quick chat with the wife, and it was off to bed. Obviously not to sleep, that would be too easy, but it felt like I lay there for 8 hours with my mind racing about what was to come.
I was up before the alarm at 5.30am to get ready for the race start of 8am. I’d stupidly not planned anything for breakfast, and the YHA breakfast didn’t start until 7am, so I resorted to some of my race food…there may be worse things to eat in the morning than coffee, a tin of mackerel and a rehydrated chicken curry but I’m not sure I know what they are…..however, they were calories, which is what I needed.
I checked in my massive drop bag, which weighed in at an impressive 18kg (the limit was 20kg, so I just squeaked it in!), and got the minibus back to the village hall which was the starting point. My tracker was quickly fitted and confirmed working, which was good, as it also contained my SOS button if required (especially in places where the mobile signal is non-existent).
Interestingly, there was no queue for the toilets, which is unusual, but clearly goes to show how everyone else was taking it in their stride and I was sh*tting myself (in a very real and physical way).
As I sat in the hall, waiting for the start, it was a chance to watch everyone else around me, and inspect the varieties of backpack everyone had, from unbelievably small to extremely heavy. I even saw one bloke who had his spare batteries still in their cardboard packaging, which must have added at least 5 grams to his pack – outrageous.
A quick note on my pack…while weight wasn’t the only consideration when deciding what to take, I was very aware that my appalling lack of strength would cause me problems the longer I went on if my pack was too heavy. While an extra 200 g may not sound much, if I packed 4 or 5 extra things (like a bag of boiled sweets or a few warm tops) I would soon be adding serious amounts of weight, and that would slow me down and tire me out.
And then the shout went up to make our way to the start…it was just about light outside and the familiar metal gantry (securely strapped down in case of the inevitable winds) was standing proudly in the gloom. I had time to snap a quick picture (naturally) and then get to my customary position at the rear of the pack.
Me! At the start!!
Note from Bob:
Congratulations reader!! You’ve made it to the start of the race, about 3000 words in. Feel free to get up, have a walk around, and make a cup of tea. It all gets (even more) tedious & painful from here.
The view from the back…..
From where I started at the back, it was quite slow going. I was happy to settle in gently, and take it easy. The first serious climb was a few miles in, and on the way there I started chatting to Mal Smith, who I knew vaguely from a few ultras in my native Kent, organised by a great RD Mike Inkster. Mal (who is not a spring chicken any more) used to drag a tyre around the 6 mile looped course that I would run round, and has done some of the Yukon Ultra series, so it was great to hear some stories of his adventures (but not the ones where he kept seeing wolf tracks around him).
At the bottom of Jacobs’s ladder, the first big ascent, I went ahead and felt good all the way up. About halfway up, ultra-legend Damian Green was wishing everyone luck, which was great. The difficult thing (for me) on these long ascents is trying not to sweat too much, as I found while training that once sweaty, my merino wool base layers would transport the water away from my skin, but over time they would become damp unless I vented them (i.e. unzipped everything) to release the moisture.
Nice and steady at the start
The moisture would simply sit under my jacket until I stopped climbing, and would then make me cold. So I spent a lot of my time zipping and unzipping my various layers, putting on and taking off my hat and gloves, ultimately doing everything I could to keep my temperature cool or cold, rather than warm.
A long stretch past Kinder Downfall and through to Snake Pass (the first road crossing, at about mile 10) was my first proper taste of the wind. I was high up (over 500m) on very flat terrain and the wind just whistled through your clothes, really biting into any exposed skin. There was a couple of mountain rescue vehicles at the Snake Pass road crossing, with fresh water, and at that point I remember thinking that everything was going pretty much according to plan. I was trying to keep my water intake to a minimum, having learnt on previous ultras how easily I can drink too much and overload my stomach. I’d rather suffer with a bit of thirst, than be vomiting all over the floor by mile 50.
Still smiling somewhere near Kinder downfall.
Thick cloud & hills
After Snake Pass was a long boggy stretch over Bleak Low, where I got chatting to a lady called Jo Barrett, who agreed with me about how bleak and desolate the surroundings were. She was clearly very prepared for the Challenger, having recce’d pretty much the whole course and was moving through the boggy sections very quickly. We chatted about lots of things, including her dog, my new puppy (Golden Retriever if you’re interested, being collected next week), and families.
It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, and again I found myself moving on ahead when the terrain flattened out…I may be rubbish at ascending or descending, but by god I can move quickly on nice flat stone slabs (some might say, like pavement).
Lizzie (from the taxi) caught me up before the long slow descent to Torside reservoir, and was moving really smoothly. I think I complimented her on how good she was at skipping down the rocks, while I picked my way down like a geriatric goat terrified for his life. At the reservoir there was another Mountain Rescue team, this time with a gazebo, and hot drinks. I had a quick coffee, and one of the cheese rolls I’d been carrying. I had made my mind up to eat a small amount about every 2 hours, to keep my stomach & digestive system working while I moved. It would be important not to stop eating or I have found that my stomach simply stops wanting anything, and the ensuing exhaustion is not pretty.
Leaving Lizzie at the mountain rescue gazebo, I moved quickly through Crowden, remembering that it had taken me 6 hours to get there in November, and today it had only taken 5 hours (albeit with a lighter pack and dryer conditions underfoot). The long climb up Oaken Clough was just as hard as in November, and again, I was getting hot on
the way up and having to make sure I didn’t sweat too much. The next section included a stream crossing that in previous years had been a knee deep wade-through job…not good news to get your feet that wet at such an early stage. I was wearing quality waterproof socks (as well as 2 pairs of liner socks under them) and gore-tex gaiters, but nothing was going to keep the water out if it was that deep. Luckily, this year was a small splashy crossing, and I skipped through it easily. Phew!
Another fill up with water at Wessenden reservoir, and onwards towards where my recce had ended in November. Beyond this I was going to be hoping my navigation and GPS would keep me on track. It was just starting to get dark, and I took this picture
Last of daylight at the reservoir
in the last of the sunlight for 15 hours, at Black Moss reservoir. It was about 4pm at this point, and I managed to restrain myself from switching on my head torch until 4.55pm, when it was properly dark. The weather was still being kind, with constant strong wind, but no rain. The temperature dropped quickly as it got dark and I became slightly used to existing in my little bubble of light. It was rather like being on a treadmill, as there was no sign of any distance travelled, the terrain stayed very similar and I could see nothing in the distance. Time seemed to stand still and I had no idea of how far I’d gone.
Which was when I got to the M62-crossing burger van.
Let me explain. It was suggested on Facebook a few weeks beforehand, that it was quite likely there would be a burger van at the point we crossed the M62, perhaps about 30 miles in. The thought of hot food, at a perfect time (about 6pm I think) was just too good, and I think I had purposely not depended on it in case it wasn’t there. So imagine my surprise to descend a hill and come across this picture:
There was a group of about 10 runners there, some already eating, and a surprisingly reasonable service being run by a very stressed burger-van-technician. He could probably have charged £20 per burger and we would all have thrown money at him, but as it was he was only asking for £2 or £3 for a single or double burger. He did ask, as I got to the front of the queue, whether we had the correct money, as he was running out of change, clearly not realising that we all would have given crisp £20 notes for a burger at that point.
I had a double burger and a can of coke, and it felt fantastic. (OK, to be fair, I was expecting it to be the best food I had ever tasted, and it wasn’t as I was missing onions, mustard and all those things, but on that dark evening it was an excellent start to the long night.)
With that inside me, I didn’t hang around, and set off into the dark.
Footbridge over the M62
The M62 at night
The footbridge over the M62 was bizarre, with loads of bright cars whizzing underneath, but once it was behind me everything became the same kind of dark treadmill, and I had no perception of distance being travelled. I followed a long diversion at Warland reservoir and then set off cross country towards the monument at Stoodley Pike.
I caught up with a husband and wife team, who were quite chatty as we made our way through the night. He had almost finished the full Spine twice and was full of good stories about catastrophic things that had happened in previous races. It was quite an eye opener and made the time pass quickly. I was lucky to have met them as the navigation over that part felt quite complicated, but as we dropped off the heights, and back to better paths, I moved off by myself again.
As we were very near to Hedben Bridge, the site of the first (and only) checkpoint I was feeling tired but not exhausted, having been on the go for about 13 hours (it was about 9pm.) The weather had behaved itself and I was counting myself lucky to have got through the first day relatively unscathed. I dropped down to the level of the canal and railway that run through the centre of Hebden Bridge, and then started an hour of constant steep climbing and descending. It turns out there is two massive hills to go over between Hebden Bridge and the checkpoint, and although it was not far in mileage, it was the last thing I wanted.
After the two massive climbs, the checkpoint was signposted off the Pennine Way and down a long road, and then one more steep descent, covered in thick thick mud. It wasn’t as if I was worried about my shoes getting muddier, but the thought of coming out of the checkpoint in nice clean clothes and boots and having to go straight up this climb was very depressing. In fact, the climb wasn’t bad at all when the time came to do it.
And then I was there! It was about 10pm, so not late exactly, but the next few hours would decide totally how the next 65 miles of the race went. I had expected to arrive much later, nearer 3am, so I was keen not to waste any time at the checkpoint, but also I knew I had a decent bit of time in hand.
The whole operation at the checkpoint was very slick, with muddy boots coming off before you left the entrance hall, and then drop bags being worked through in a different room. There was hot food available, hot showers (which a surprising number of people were using) and even a bunkroom for getting some sleep. I had a checklist to follow to ensure I didn’t forget anything, and numerous bin liners for dirty stuff, to be replaced by clean everything! After plugging everything electronic in, and changing clothes, I had a meal of chicken and rice (with loads of salt) and lots to drink. I gave myself an hour to sleep, although I wasn’t sure I would be able to, and in the bunkroom I tossed and turned, listening to the snoring of a number of tired blokes. Probably not the easiest place to sleep! I didn’t bother to set an alarm (and I thought it would wake everyone in the room too) but I returned to consciousness after exactly an hour, and made my way back downstairs. It was amazing the difference in my legs between stiffly going up the staircase to sleep and then bouncing down them an hour later.
I finished off with my kit while drinking a coffee, remembering this would be the last access I had to my drop bag for the rest of the race. I swapped my thin gloves for thicker mittens (as I expected it to get colder) and still carried my waterproof rubber gloves (£4.99 from Screwfix if you’re interested) in case the rain started early. I had a full new set of clothes on, except my hard-shell jacket, and felt like a new man!
At 1.15am, as I was leaving the CP, I met up with Stuart, who had been in the checkpoint a full hour longer than me, and we teamed up for the next leg. He had had a similar rest to me and felt well refreshed, although we both were very aware that we weren’t even half way yet.
Stuart was an expert map reader, having done a lot of walking in Scotland, and his map skills coupled with my GPS “skill” made for some interesting confusions, as we discussed exactly where we were. It would probably have been easier to follow one or other, map or GPS, but we muddled through somehow.
We passed Top Withins bothy, a shelter at the top of one of the fells that I’d marked on my maps as a shelter if the weather was poor. It was just a stone hut, but in quite an exposed place and was nice to know that it was there. Apparently, Stuart told me, it had been some of the inspiration for the location of a house in Wuthering Heights. Very impressive in daylight I suspect, in the darkness it was just a ruined farmhouse.
Oh dear….in the excitement of leaving Hebden Bridge checkpoint I had stupidly forgotten to fill my water bottle, and only had about half a litre of water with me. I knew there was water available to the next village, Ponden, but even more stupidly didn’t ask Stuart to remind me when we got there, so only realised we’d gone past it about a half mile past. Stupid stupid. I wasn’t dying of dehydration, but I was thirsty, and too proud to ask my companion to borrow some of his water just because I was a bloody idiot. I unzipped everything to cool me down and reduce any sweating possible, and got my head down to the task in hand.
And somewhere shortly after Ponden, we met Mr X. This is going to take a bit of explaining, so I’ll go slowly. Stuart and I met up with 2 other blokes, one of whom was Mr X, and as we went over Ickornshaw Moor Stuart and friend moved ahead, leaving me with Mr X. He then proceeded to stop every 5 minutes or so, shouting his friends name as loudly as possible (and remember, it was totally quiet, being the middle of the night) in the vain hope that his friend would come back for him. Mr X wasn’t very good on the rough terrain, and every time he made a small slip on the mud or rocks, he would let out a yell at the top of his voice, sounding like he was falling to his death. After the first few times of this, it became really annoying. Mr X wasn’t navigating at all, obviously having been following his friend, so now was following me and making no attempt to get a map out or look at his GPS, except asking every few minutes if we were on the right track.
I am a generally quite chatty person, but Mr X really got me cross, to the extent that I wanted to have a proper go at him, that if he couldn’t navigate he shouldn’t be trying to do this event, and would he please stop relying on me to keep us on track. In the end, I held my temper, but put my headphones in and tried to zone him out. This was coupled with being bloody thirsty by this point, and stupidly not eating anything since leaving the checkpoint which had been a few hours, and my stomach was starting to turn over when I thought of eating. I was generally in a bit of a low, and was getting quite cross (can you tell?) at everything.
At the next village, Cowling, I luckily managed to find an outside tap on a house, and snuck through their back gate to drink about a litre of freezing cold water and fill up my bottle. I did trigger the security light though in the back garden, which gave me a hell of a shock, but I hope I didn’t wake the household.
Naturally, shortly after finding this water source, we came across a pub in Lotherdale, who had put water outside for runners, and later on would be bbq’ing for runners going past. I was gutted to miss that!
I was too early for the bbq…butI’m told it was great.
Daylight arrived about 8am, and it was great to feel that the night was behind me. I got a bit of energy going and picked up the pace a little. I still couldn’t eat anything, but felt like I was making good progress. A couple of small navigation errors had us climbing over fences to get to the right side of a field, but nothing serious.
I took a full frontal tumble into some bog, which was quite memorable by virtue of the bog getting into every nook and cranny on my front. I caught my foot in some grass, slipped and fell forwards, and was basically lying flat on my front with my forearms being submerged and everything on my front under water. I was lucky to keep my face out of the bog, and got up bloody quickly before the water soaked into my clothes. I was angry rather than feeling sorry for myself, but as I tried to brush the mud off it just spread the watery mud more all over me. I philosophically thought I’d just let it dry and then would be able to brush it off, but that damn bog got everywhere. Even as I write this report in my living room a few days later, I have bog on my maps which were sealed in a Velcro-fastened map holder. The damn bog!
It was approaching mid-morning, and I was starting to consider that I needed to eat or I would not get too much further. I still hadn’t eaten since 1am, and was feeling tired and sore. I only take painkillers with food, and so not eating prevented me from lessening the discomfort I was starting to suffer.
Up ahead was a reasonably sized village called Gargrave, where there would be places to shop and eat. Mr X was starting to suggest we stop for something to eat, but I was so cross with him by this point I really didn’t want to have him shadow me through a cup of tea and then all the way to the finish line. Reading this back, I think I maybe sound really unreasonable, but unfortunately at the time I was so pissed off at this guy and his ‘mannerisms’ and lack of nav.
Anyway, I ducked into a tearoom at Gargrave to ask if they could do me a cup of soup or something to take with me (as I couldn’t sit down in there, being covered in bog) and who should be in there but Stuart!
Covered in bog at the café!
And he was just finishing off a clean plate of food. After he said hello (actually he took one look at me, and asked what on earth had happened to me, being covered in bog), I asked what he’d just eaten, as it looked great, and he said that he had a full English breakfast. Wow! That was all it took for me to sit down and order a pot of tea and the same breakfast. I really think that accidentally going into the same tearoom as him, and being prompted to have a sit down and eat changed the course of the day for me.
(Mr X hung around for a couple of minutes, before carrying on with another runner that came along. I refuse to feel bad about my shitty treatment of him. If he finished, I’ll allow that he may have covered the distance but didn’t complete the event by following the person ahead of him for 108 miles. Absolutely not.)
Stuart didn’t stick around, so I made myself comfortable, went to the toilet, called my wife and basically sorted myself out. It looked like about another three hours to the last bit of civilisation at Malham Tarn before a big climb a Pen-y-Ghent, the tallest and most challenging climb of the whole route.
Here comes breakfast, with a slightly embarrased waitress
I didn’t finish the breakfast, but ate most of it, and more importantly took some paracetamol, which just took the edge off the soreness for the next few hours. My stomach woke up and I started to feel a bit human again. It was 11am, and the bad weather “heavy rain” was predicted to hit at 9pm. It was now all about getting as far as possible, as quickly as possible, before the weather hit.
Leaving the café, apologising for the mess it’d left on the floor, I felt like a new man.
I don’t remember much about the next few hours. I bought an ice cream in a little shop in Airton or Malham, which tasted like nectar, even if I was getting strange looks from everyone else walking up the street on Sunday afternoon.
I got to a park called Malham Cove where there were lots of families out for a pleasant Sunday afternoon walk. I was moving well at that point, and could feel the miles passing.
Malham Cove….a big old set of steps to go up.
Unfortunately I found that there was what felt like a huge set of steps up to the top of the cliff, before some rather dicey skipping over some bare limestone rocks. Apparently, most people take a slightly longer route to avoid going over these limestone rocks, as one slip would be race over, but in my naïve way I assumed it was all part of the fun. It was quite a bizarre place, and I wish I’d done a bit more homework to know what to expect in this latter section.
It was starting to get noticeably cold, and a bit gloomy, so I stopped to get kitted up in my warm gloves, neck buff, and warm hat for the final trek into Malham Tarn Field Centre, the last place to get anything warm before nightfall. The facilities were actually a bit better than I expected, as it had been described as a “half-checkpoint”….which meant medics to look at feet, hot drinks, but no access to drop bags and a maximum stay of only 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, there were only 5 seats, all taken, which actually made me even determined to get in and out quickly. I squatted on the floor (yes, I could still squat with my legs stiffening up) and spent a quick 20 minutes sorting my kit for this last push. I had a couple of cup-a-soups that I’d brought with me, and put on my waterproof trousers for the oncoming rain. I managed to eat a cheese roll (yes, I was still carrying cheese rolls, but for emergency use only) and take a couple of ibuprofen, to keep the general tightness I was feeling at bay.
The next, final, section was going to go over Pen-y-Ghent, which, at 694 metres, would be the highest point of the whole route. I’d read only enough about this climb to be worried about it as it is quite challenging in summer daylight, but in January winter darkness it would be very tough. Little did I know just how tough!
Have a very quick look at this video and skip forward to 1 minute 43 seconds, to give you a little idea on what I had in store.
I had hoped to leave Malham Tarn with someone that knew the route well, but in the end I left with a guy called Michael who was having trouble with his feet. We kept each other company for the first few miles, before he said he was going to stop and rest his feet for a few minutes to prevent the pain getting out of hand. It was quite a brave strategy, and showed some real commitment to getting to the end in one piece (which he did). To stop and rest meant getting cold, and that’s quite a sacrifice at night when the weather is closing in.
So on I went, not being too phased by the cold and wind, but really feeling that I was getting the job done and that once I had got Pen-y-Ghent out of the way I would be on the home straight.
The route became steeper, and turned into steeply climbing large steps of rocks. The wind was picking up quite a lot, and I could see nothing in front (above) or behind (below) that gave me any indication or how far I’d travelled. It was tiring work, but was just a matter of getting one step done at a time. I could see little tracks of ice starting to appear on the rocks, and made sure I stayed well clear of them. But it was hard hard work, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled by the constant difficult (dangerous) climbing.
At about halfway up this climb I was lucky enough to get a call from Derek, one of the coaches at my running club. Derek is a superstar, and ever since I’ve been doing ultras he has been willing to call me at various times for a quick pep talk and to find out how I’m doing. Often he’ll call in the middle of the night just to check I’m OK, which is massively beyond the call of duty, and on one memorable run when I was suffering a bit he called me every 40 minutes to keep me going. He’s quite a guy.
And this time Derek had called at just the right time, as I was beginning to feel I may be on the wrong route as the climbing was getting harder and steeper. I had a sit and a chat for 5 minutes, as the wind was whistling past me, and it helped enormously to settle me down and re-focus me. Just talking about how I was doing and where I was stopped the (slight) rising panic at how difficult this was getting.
After talking to Derek, I stood back up, and took a proper look upwards at my route, but it was just steps of rock disappearing into the distance and absolutely no use to understand which way to go. It was going to be much more difficult to go down if I went wrong, as it would have been shuffling downwards on my bottom like a toddler, so upwards was the only way.
As I got to nearer the top, although I didn’t realise it was the top, I was faced with the complete loss of route, and basically climbed near-vertically moving one hand, one foot, another hand, another foot, to keep as anchored as possible all the way up. Apparently they call it “scrambling”. The wind was pulling at my rucksack, which was the only part of me sticking out as the rest of me was plastered to the rock. I knew there was nothing soft beneath me if I fell, and I remember thinking as I climbed that my wife would kill me if she saw what I was doing.
I’m hoping this isn’t sounding too exaggerated, as it’s not meant to be. It may be the case that in daylight I would have known I was safe, and the drop just felt exaggerated in the dark, but I genuinely felt like I was risking life and limb.
I got to the grassy top and basically rolled myself onto it, feeling very grateful to still be in one piece. The wind at the top was very strong indeed, and very cold. The grass was iced up and there was a stone wall at the top that was completely covered in front (I wish I had taken a picture, as I’d like to know if it was the same as I remember, but I was suffering from far too much trauma from the climb to even think of it.)
It was cold up there!
There was no obvious sign of a path at the top, and my way of getting moving was to simply move in the direction that my GPS suggested and hope for the best. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t have the facilities at that point to get my map out and try to work out the required direction, so I just pointed and walked in the (hopefully) right direction and not off a cliff. Sure enough, I soon came upon a line of stone slabs that marked the route, and I was off on my merry way.
Really really cold!
The slabs turned into lovely shallow steps that took me down the side of the hill, and as I walked it slowly dawned on me that I’d just completed the toughest part of the route. I got to a signpost that stated Horton in 1.5 miles, which meant I could expect a café, or something similar (I didn’t know what exactly) and some warmth and light.
(I didn’t know until I finished, but there was a diversion put in place around Pen-y-Ghent due to the conditions shortly after I came down, and I was one of the last people to go over it. I’m not sure whether to be gutted that I had to go through it, or chuffed that I got the full experience!)
Sure enough, 20 minutes later, I entered this glorious friendly café, with three volunteers sitting around a table, and hot food and drink available. I asked, as you do, whether I had definitely just gone over Pen-y-Ghent, and it was now definitely behind me…and it was! I was just slightly excited at this news and even happier when some of the other volunteers there said it was easy going from now on (which didn’t turn out to be the case at all, unfortunately).
Beef goulash soup….yum!
I had a cup of beef goulash soup, which was wonderful, and refilled my water. I texted a few friends to tell them I had just done the most dangerous thing I could imagine, but I don’t think they believed me. I called my wife, and then I realised that Stuart was sitting on the other side of the dividing wall, and we had a bit of a chat about what a nightmare the last section had been. He was eating, again, and looked pooped (like I probably did).
Stuart eating again. Please note that he is drinking a pina colada in a pint glass (they ran out of umbrellas).
Without too much faffing, I got going again, leaving before Stuart to get this last section done and finish this damn thing. The checkpoint team had said the last section was an easy 15 miles, and because it was on a diversion called Cam Road, I thought it would actually be a proper road – but no such luck.
Leaving Horton was also easy as I was expecting a strong 15 miles, which would take me 5 slow hours, but it was 9pm at that point and the weather was spitting rain but nothing more than that. I’d be finished by about 2am and in a hot shower 15 minutes later. Magic. I was feeling great, and called a friend to chat as I walked up the next hill. He said I sounded ‘excited’.
Famous last words. The next 6.5 hours were the roughest, most challenging I’ve ever had outdoors, and while they didn’t contain the (perceived) danger of Pen-y-Ghent, I will remember them as being the very spirit of the Spine race, with proper spine weather!
The heavy rain began properly after 30 minutes, as I climbed out of Horton, and I stopped to put a plastic poncho on over my waterproof jacket, with my rucksack on top to hold the flapping plastic down. I knew the poncho would keep the water out to some degree, but I didn’t realise how much would be blown up the sleeves and down the neck. Luckily, my jacket then took over and kept me pretty much dry (on the inside). As I went higher, the wind got stronger, temperatures got colder and the rain turned to sleet and then to snow on the ground. It was all coming from behind me luckily and that made the weather more bearable, except that every so often there would be a gust that would come from the side and sting the side of my face.
As the route got wetter underfoot there started to be puddles of slush, that became indistinguishable fro m the ground until you stepped in one and your foot was covered with icy water. My waterproof socks were struggling, understandably, and my feet were getting wetter and colder.
Footprints to follow….
I was able to follow footprints of others that had gone ahead of me, and that made the isolation I was feeling slightly better, as I knew there were some humans around. Visibility was very poor, only really allowing me to see a metre of ground in any direction, but nothing beyond that. I was only feeling the cold on my hands and feet, but the wind behind me would have made that a different story if I turned around.
And that was when I lost the route, which I explained at the very start of this huge monstrosity (both this story and race).
I was walking in a square, 5 paces in each direction, looking for my missing left-hand turn. Of course I found it in the end, after a bit of fretting.
In fact the thing that made the difference was starting to understand that the wind had been coming from behind me, which meant that if I stood with the wind at my back I was facing the direction I had been previously moving. Therefore, I could orient myself and start again looking for a left hand turn that had been there all the time. I felt a palpable sense of relief that I was back on my way, and not staying still any more. It had been a scary 10 minutes.
It didn’t get any easier. I started to descend, and the snow turned back into rain, but that rain had nowhere to go and was completely flooding the muddy track I was on. The wind seemed to be picking up, and was threatening to blow me over with every gust. Falling into that mud and water would have been a terrible experience, and would have destroyed any chance I had at keeping my temperature up, which I was doing OK with so far.
The descent (the final descent!!) on the Cam Road seemed to take forever, although it was probably only an hour, on the roughest rocky trail I’ve ever seen…I was hopping from rock to rock keeping my balance with my poles, and doing my best not to twist or break an ankle. It was about 2am at this point, and I was feeling very sleepy, despite the awful weather and terrain. I considered taking a caffeine tablet to wake myself up, but didn’t know what effect it would have on my stomach.
And then I started to see lights in the distance, which looked like a town that could only be Hawes, close to the finish in Hardraw.
I’d like to say I stormed the last couple of miles, but I got lost in Hawes and simply couldn’t find the way through. I even got a phone call from my wife, who was waiting at the finish, to say I was really close and she was waiting for me. At that point, I was in a public toilet, taking some shelter from the rain, and trying to sort out where I needed to go next and giving myself a proper talking to. Answering the phone reminded me that I could use Google maps to go this last couple of miles, and so that’s exactly what I did. Of course, as soon as I was moving again, everything made sense, and I met up with Jo Barrett about a mile from the end. We chatted to the finish about how appalling the last few hours had been, and how we would never come back to the Pennine Way (or maybe it was just me saying that!).
And then we finished! A couple of volunteers put our medals on, and persuaded us to get our muddy boots off before coming inside. My lovely wife appeared from the dark and we had a lovely hug. In the rain. And I had my picture taken…there is literally nothing dry in this pictures at all.
Nothing dry! Thanks to Drew Wilson for the photo.
An efficient finish station sorted me out some soup as I tried to get out of my wet stuff as quickly as possible, throwing it all into yet more black bin-liners. I didn’t stick around as a hot shower back in the B&B was beckoning, and my traditional beer and Doritos. There were a few other finishers slumped in the room, but everyone was either knackered or sleeping.
Claire zoomed me back to the B&B, where we discovered that the shower wasn’t running hot water…not great news. But such is life. Hence 4am found me sweaty and smelly, wrapped in a thick jumper and two duvets, eating Doritos like it was going out of fashion, and reading messages from friends and filtering through Facebook. Job done!
And there it is! I finished in about 43 ½ hours, 24th male (68 men finished, out of a field of 95), which is far quicker than I ever expected: truthfully I was not at all sure I was going to finish, so I never really considered my target finish time. I was pretty stiff for about a day, but that passed quickly.
Magic pristine feet!
My feet and ankles swelled for a few days, but that passed to. I had no blisters, no sore patches, just a lot of general ache. My mind, which previously I have struggled to get back on track after an event of this magnitude, was not too bad this time, and after a couple of days dozing on the sofa I think I’m pretty back to normal. I’m still eating like a horse, but that is probably just me being really greedy.
I feel that the last 6½ hours of my race gave me the full Spine experience, with wind, rain and snow making it as memorable as anything I’ve ever done. I finished strong, quite positively and energetically, but I’m not sure how I would have felt if I’d had to go back out there again after a couple of hours.
For the few days following my race, I’ve been following the full Spine race, and the pictures of snowfall further up the course look wonderful. It was the only thing I never got to experience, breaking trail through a foot of snow, but maybe another time.
So in summary, was it as #brutal as suggested? Yes, definitely. The terrain, ascent and weather all contributed to make it harder than any 100 mile race I’ve done. My kit all worked extremely well, but I’ll go into full detail of what I used and how it worked HERE.
I’d like to thank Scott Gilmour and everyone else involved with the race for superb and smooth organisation. Every volunteer was relentlessly cheerful and helpful, which made life much easier at the various stages where you wanted help.
I think all the competitors were there for their own reasons, but it was great to meet some like-minded people on the course. Stuart finished about an hour after me, and Lizzie a few hours after that. From meeting randomly on Facebook to just share a taxi, it’s great that we all managed a finish.
And what’s next? I’ve got a couple of decent races later this year, like the Ultra-trail Snowden (but only 50 mile course!) and Lakeland 100, which will keep me busy for a while. I’ve pretty much lived and slept for the Challenger over the last 6 months, and it’s a bizarre feeling for it finally to be over, especially after it went so well. But no more races in winter (this year).
And finally, I’d like to say massive thanks to my long-suffering wife, Claire, for putting up with the anxiety of watching me do something like this. She puts up with my daft ideas with a minimum of complaining, and is really supportive of all I do. Thanks Claire, love you.
My kids, bless them, only notice I’ve done a run after I walk downstairs a bit stiffly. But thanks anyway.
And that’s it! You made it to the end (like I did!) Congratulations. Now go out for a run or something useful.
And the pics that didn’t make it, but should have…
The slabs on the approach to Snake Pass
This must have been later on the second day, as the ground isn’t grey and brown and scorched, but rather green = Yorkshire Dales
There weren’t many signposts, but by god they told the public that the event was BRUTAL
It’s a bit grim isn’t it!
I think this is near Kinder Downfall, possibly
Looking back at the limestone rocks at the top of Malham Cove….notice the people out for a pleasant sunday afternoon walk, unlike me!