The late cancellation of the Arctic Spine race in which I was due to participate provided an opportunity to put myself on the start line of the UK edition once again. Training had gone well and I was looking forward to toe-ing the line without the chest infection and broken ribs which had accompanied me during last year’s race.
My brother Alan very kindly drove me down to Edale for the statuary pre-race registration which consisted of preparing the runners for race conditions by making them queue outside the registration venue for over an hour in freezing conditions.
Finally I passed the most stressful part of the race and we drove to nearby Castleton YHA where we were staying the night.
Having dinner in the Youth Hostel I bumped into Rich Garland. He runs for Northumberland Fell Runners - I’d seen his name many times on race results and I had met him briefly at the Cheviot Goat a month earlier. Little did I realise how entwined our paths would become in the forthcoming days….
Even though we were in a private room in the YHA which was also in an annex and quiet I slept terribly, only getting an hour or so. I was feeling the early symptoms of a cold and had also developed a sore throat which usually develops into a cough.
I still felt the same when I got up. Although I didn’t feel like it was adversely affecting me at that point I made a decision to start more conservatively than I had originally intended as I didn’t want to push myself too hard so early in the race when I didn’t feel 100%.
It was very similar conditions at the start to the previous year, the temperature hovering around 2 degrees and drizzly rain generally making the atmosphere quite miserable.
As we lined up at the start line I spotted and briefly chatted too Mark Smith – he’d sadly had to withdraw for the race last year because of illness and was back for another shot.
I also spotted Eddie Sutton – I didn’t know her personally but she runs a podcast with a friend of mine, Gary Thwaites, from which I recognised her so I said hi and wished her well for the race.
On the start line we were given some pre-race motivation:
The good news is I have an up to date weather forecast
The bad news is I have an up to date weather forecast.
Basically is was going to be cold and miserable for the first day or so before turning really cold as the race progressed (and probably even more miserable).
Well, The Spine would be no fun if the conditions were good so bring it on.
Edale to Hebden Bridge
It felt good to be moving and it was exciting to be running through and past Edale at which point I bumped into Darren Greasley (who I’d met on Dragons Back) who was out for a local run. He told me the conditions up high were grim and to make sure I had my goggles handy which I did.
Even just running the low level traverse to Upper Booth wasn’t particularly pleasant heading into a sleety headwind. A bunch of sheep were sheltering from the wind behind a wall – they had the right idea. I put my goggles on at the start of the climb up Jacobs ladder as I knew conditions would deteriorate further as I gained height.
The run over the Kinder Plateau and over Bleaklaw was very similar conditions to the previous year – windy, horizontal rain/sleet and very poor visibility. Many of the paths and slabs were under water and at times it felt like trying to run through a river. I hoped my foot strategy from last year of gurney goo, liner sock, waterproof sock and gaiters would work again.
Coming off the Kinder Plateau there is a steep descent on slabs which were covered in water and slushy ice. I took this section very conservatively and was passed by an American runner who was descending quite aggressively more akin to a fell race as opposed to a 268 mile winter ultra (I later learned that he had DNF’d).
Coming down from Bleaklaw I finally left the clag and rain/sleet behind which was a welcome relief. I bumped into another friend Ishmahal Burdeau – he wasn’t aware I was doing the race and it was nice to stop and chat for a few minutes.
The next section from Torside up over Laddow Rocks and up o to Black Hill was incredibly wet and boggy too with a few fast flowing streams in spate to negotiate. I ran/walked much of this section with a Malaysian runner, Alison Walker, who told me she was hoping to be the first person from her country to complete the race.
At one point she asked if I thought we were near the back of the field. I knew we were certainly no-where near the front of the field but in any case, it didn’t matter. It was still very early on in the race and there was lots of time for things to be shaken up.
A few months ago I’d developed a bone spur on the top of my right foot which was sporadically painful. I had completed the Cheviot Goat a few months earlier without it bothering me too much and I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem on the Spine but it had been bothering me from quite an early stage especially running downhill which was concerning.
At the top of Wessendon Head a long stretch of slightly sloping runnable downhill track opened up and Alison pulled away from me, bounding away into the distance. A part of me wanted to go with her but I resisted the urge and reminded myself to run my own race and not other peoples. Apart from anything elase my foot was still letting me know it wasn’t appreciating what I was putting it through and there was still a long way to go.
It started to turn dark just after I passed the MRT station at Brun Moor. My foot was getting increasingly more painful and I stopped briefly to loosen my laces as much as I could to try and release the pressure. A runner, Claire came past and asked if I was ok which I appreciated.
A little further on the pain hadn’t gotten any better so I stopped again to take some painkillers and also put another layer on as the temperature had dropped significantly. Another couple of runners passed me and asked if I was ok.
That is one of the things I love about this race, and ultras/fell running in general. It’s not cut throat, everyone looks after each other. Turns out one of the lads is from the North East too and recognised my Geordie accent.
About 30 miles in the route just before the route crossed the busy M62 there is an old shipping container that’s been converted into a café – Nicky’s food bar. I stopped briefly, probably longer than I should have, wolfing down a cheeseburger, cup of tea and grabbed some snacks for the trail.
As I was leaving Nicky’s Mark Smith was arriving – he’d just taken a fall in a bog and was covered in mud. We briefly exchanged pleasantries and then I was on my way.
Shortly afterwards I caught up with Rich Garland.
Sometimes in life you meet people awith whom you have the same sense of humour the same values, similar backgrounds and life experiences.
Rich was like that, even the brief moments I had spent with him the night before in the youth hostel we just clicked – there were no ego’s, no awkward silences just good craic.
We didn’t make a conscious decision to run together but our paces aligned and the craic was flowing so it was a natural thing to stick together which we did until Hebden.
I asked what his plans were – he said he wanted to sort his feet out, eat and then get going again without sleeping. This was exactly what I wanted to do too so we agreed to leave together.
Coming down the road to the checkpoint we saw David Cummings coming back up, therefore at least an hour ahead of us if not more. I didn’t really know David, he runs for another North East Club and we have a lot of shared friends but I had never met him until now. By another twist of fate he had travelled down the previous day with Rich. He was obviously having a good race so far.
Similar too last year t was pretty manic at Hebden. I was surprised to see Eddie as we came in her race wasn’t going to plan. She had been feeling ill on the last section and promptly threw up the food she had just eaten upon arriving so the safety team were holding her there until she could keep some food down.
The pain in my foot hadn’t improved so I sought advice from the medics. They strapped it up with some moleskin and k-tape to gave it a bit padding.
We ate, faffed and then were ready to go at around 11-45pm. An hour 20 mins in the checkpoint, not exactly a quick turnaround but at least I hadn’t spent 3 hours trying and failing to sleep like I had last year.
Mark arrived as we were preparing to leave and we had a bit banter before heading out into the night. This would be the last time I saw him in the race but I was glad to learn later that he’d finished the race.
Hebden to Hawes
Leaving Hebden was intimidating. Its 65 miles to Hawes with around 8 hours of darkness ahead of the current night and the inevitability of going into a 2nd night without sleep. It had taken me almost 24 hours to complete this section last year and we were facing the same prospect having already been on the move for 16 hours.
Still, one foot in front of the other, concentrate on getting to Lothersdale for bacon sarnies. The next section over a series of moorland and valleys was pretty uneventful and unremarkable given the distinct lack of visual stimulation, however we made some decent progress. The temperature had dropped further and the ground was starting to firm up with icy patches beginning to develop.
After what seemed like an eternity we descended into Lothersdale and spotted a sign proclaiming that “Jasmin Paris is in Hawes” which provided some amusement.
We were both flagging and decided to take 10 mins to try and get a power nap after greedily devouring our sarnines very kindly provided by thee Craven Energy Tri club.. This proved impossible sitting upright in a lightweight camping chair and in retrospect we should have just pushed on.
We saw Eddie here again, she was just leaving as we were arriving.
Preparing to leave ourselves I took a big swig of my cup of tea which was now luke warm and immediately felt terrible. There was a massive rush of blood to my head, I felt nauseous and thought I was going to pass out.
Rich asked if I was ready to go to which I just about managed to reply that I thought I was going to be sick. I tried to find a sitting position that felt bearable and fought it as much as I could – I really couldn’t afford to lose that Bacon sarnie.
After around 10 minutes I started to come around enough to move and we set off up to Pinhaw Beacon.
I suspect that it was a massive sugar rush that did it, although it was a new phenomenon and not something I’ve experienced before (or would care to experience again in the future).
Daylight arrived by the time we reached Pinhaw, although sadly we weren’t treated to a spectacular sunrise. It was grey and overcast but thankfully dry.
Now off the high ground we made decent progress to Gargrave where we stopped at the Co-op for some much needed hot food and drink although Rich was distraught when the steak bake he bought turned out to be a cheese pastie.
Just after Gargrave leaving we met John (Bootham) - a Spine veteran who has completed both the winter and summer editions of the race multiple times and we spent a bit of time walking and chatting with him.
As we approached Malham Cove Rich said he wanted to briefly stop to take some painkillers and sort some stuff in his bag so I took the opportunity to lie down on the grass to try and gab a quick power nap whilst he did. I didn’t manage to sleep, but I did feel better once we got going again.
As we climbed up the Cove we caught another runner Roger Montgomery and walked with him to the monitoring station at the tarn. Facilities are limited here but they do provide hot water so I asked if they could pop some in the freeze fried meal I had brought with me. Unfortunately the young girl who filled it neglected to read the recommended water volume to put in and the meal was returned to me in more like soup than a Chicken Korma.
Sean O’Connor was preparing to leave as we arrived. I met Sean on the 2019 Dragons Back Race and we had kept in touch ever since it was good to see him. He is a fellow Geordie, although he lived in Wales these days.
We left together with Roger for the climb up to Fountains Fell on which it became progressively colder. Even more so in the descent which was tricky due to the snow and ice covering the path in parts. As we reached the road despite putting on additional layers I just couldn’t get warm, especially my hands which were numb.
Night arrived as we started the climb to Pen-Y-Ghent. The safety team were also out assessing whether there was safe passage to the top, or whether they needed to enact a diversion to move competitors onto a low level route.
Surprisingly despite the amount of ice on Fountains Fell the route to the top of Pen-Y-Ghent was ice/snow free and we reached the summit without incident. Just what I didn’t need at the point in the race was a steep descent on large stone steps laced with ice but that’s exactly what I got and I was very pleased to get off them.
Things were starting to hurt now. I had doms in my quads, calves and arms (from the poles) and was generally sore and stiff. I also had heartburn and mouth ulcers which made eating uncomfortable. And I was tired – we were now into the second night and I hadn’t slept since starting the race.
I asked Rich what his plans at Hawes were. He said he was planning on 2/3 hours sleep and then push on. That was my plan too so we agreed to stick together.
There was a monitoring station in Horton kindly provided by the Craven Potholing Club in which there was an option to sleep if we wanted but it wasn’t the right decision. I calculated that if we could maintain our current pace we’d spend the entirety of our time in Hawes in darkness with daylight arriving as we ascended Great Shunner Fell. It also meant that we’d maximise daylight for the rest of the race, spending minimal if any time at all in checkpoints in darkness.
Sleeping at Horton would throw this out of whack, and it was only going to be another 5-6 hours to Hawes. We were both tired but not exhausted so we just stopped for some food and a hot drink. Roger had decided to take a nap so we said goodbye to him, however a few seconds he was on the floor (not through any of my actions I must add).
He was instantly surrounded by concerned people but seemed ok – I wondered if he’d experienced the same sensation I’d had at Lothersdale. I didn’t see him again in the race but I was pleased to see that he’d made it to the end.
Right lets get this done.
The High Cam is never the most appealing prospect, its just so bleak and exposed and if the weather is bad (which it usually is) there’s no shelter. It just goes on forever.
Luckily the wind wasn’t ferociously gusting up there as it often is but it was bitterly cold. As we progressed a series of white footsteps appeared on the road. I thought I was hallucinating at first until Rich remarked on them.
They went on for quite a while, I think what happened is that there had been a covering of snow. The lead runners went through and then it turned really cold, freezing their footsteps. The wind then picked up, removing the surrounding snow leaving only footprints.
Either that or there had been a Snowman race earlier in the day.
Descending from the Cam road I felt physically more battered than I had been the prrevious year. The doms had intensified and my lower back was hurting too. I wasn’t quite sure why, my best guess is that last year although I didn’t manage to sleep at Hebden I lay down for 3 hours so that was 3 hours my body was repairing muscle damage that I didn’t have this year.
Rich was in a similar state of physical tiredness although we both agreed that from a sleep perspective we could have continued.
As we reached Hawes we discovered the village’s road gritting strategy. Apparently the strategy was not to bother so we were treated to an ice rink of which Torvel and Dean would be proud.
After what seemed like forever we finally arrived at the checkpoint at the Youth Hostel. I was glad to have arrived although cramp ensured that removing my socks and shoes was a real challenge.
Having now completed 2 Spine races (spoiler alert) I believe more than ever that the crux of the race is getting to Hawes in one piece and not totally broken. Know your plan and stick to it, and most importantly don’t worry about what anyone else is doing.
Sean was already inside and we got chatting – he asked what my plan was and how long I was staying for. Eat, faff, sleep for 3 hours, eat faff leave. So about 9 hours should do it ….
I popped some paracetamol and Sean asked why. I wasn’t really sure but everything was hurting so hopefully they would help something.
Hawes to Middleton
I managed around 2 hours sleep at Hawes before getting up and recommencing my faffing routine.
One of the medics asked if I needed anything. My feet felt fine but I thought I might as well get them looked at as Rich was still busy getting his feet taped and looked like he’d be a while.
He didn’t find any hotspots or anything that needed attention and remarked that my feet were in great condition and some of the best he’d seen which was comforting and assurance that my foot care plan was working.
We briefly chatted to spine legend John Knapp who was setting off at the same time as us and then started the long climb up Great Shunner Fell. This was a real highlight of the race for me, I felt full of energy after a full English breakfast and the sunrise was amazing, just breaking as we reached the top.
Sean had left Hawes after we had, but he passed us at Thwaite as we had briefly stopped so Rich could take some painkillers.
I felt sleepy climbing out of Thwaite even though it was a fantastic day – calm, bright sunshine and I was warm for the first time in the race. Rich remarked that he felt the same. Around Keld I spotted a secluded spot next to a waterfall, it looked ideal for a quick power nap which I suggested to Rich. We agreed to have 10 minutes, Rich plopped himself on a bench, I lay on the ground beside it.
It was a blissful 10 minutes, the gentle roar of the nearby waterfall was soothing and I could have stayed there forever. Once we got going and climbed up onto the moor the wind returned and the temperature dropped again forcing my jacket back on which I had removed after our nap.
The next section took us to Tan Hill where we saw Sean again who was getting ready to depart. We stopped briefly, resisting the lure of a pub meal and set off over the dreaded Sleighholme Moor.
Normally this area is like the Somme, but thankfully the bogs were frozen so we made decent progress, avoiding a recently opened sink hole of which we had been warned about. This isn’t a particularly stimulating section so it was just a case of grinding it out for a couple of hours.
By the time we had reached God’s bridge the temperature had dropped significantly so we stopped to put on our down jackets in the shelter of the subway under the A66. One of the event photographers came racing into the subway – “why aren’t you sleeping? Your trackers say you are sleeping”. We had to explain that was just because we had briefly stopped and that in fact the tracker wasn’t intelligent enough to know if we were awake or not.
The next section over to Middleton is another uneventful trudge with dark falling around half way in. Cresting the brow of the hill looking down into Middleton was welcome and quite a nice run down under normal circumstances, however Rich’s knee was preventing him from running so we just took it easy.
The smell of the chippy in Middleton was appealing as we passed, however the thoughts of eating outside in the freezing cold less so.
Entering the checkpoint I was greeted by Gary Thwaites who was volunteering there for a couple of days. It was good to see a friendly face and we exchanged some banter as I greedily wolfed down 2 potions of chicken curry.
Eddie was here too having some food before preparing to leave – I was glad she’d made it to Middleton after the problems she’d had earlier in the race.
Sean had arrived before us and we started chatting. He asked what our plans were which were to sleep for 3 hours and then leave around 1am. He asked if he could tag along with us which we both agreed to.
I had a blissful sleep at Middleton, pretty much a full unbroken 3 hours which is unusual but I guess I must have needed it.
Middleton to Alston
Upon waking I devoured another portion of chicken curry before setting off into the night.
We made decent progress along the first section by the Tees and caught up with John who had set off just before us. The conditions worsened as we gained height after High Force, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and we were heading straight into it.
The rocky section alongside the river was treacherous as the boulders were covered in ice. Sean had a brief moment of panic as he teetered precariously on the edge of one and narrowly avoided taking a dip. We speculated on the outcome of falling into the river in these conditions, the consensus being that the anorexic chap with a scythe wouldn’t be too far away.
The scramble up to Cauldron Snout was similarly fraught with large sheets of ice to negotiate. A diversion had been enacted the previous year avoiding this section due to ice and I wondered why a different decision had been made – I couldn’t imagine the conditions being any worse than they currently were.
After the brief excitement of Cauldren Snout we were treated to a never ending section of bridleway followed by another never ending section of singletrack into a freezing headwind. There was no craic in this section, it was dark and cold and miserable we moved together in single file battling the headwind and our own negative thoughts. For me this was one of the toughest parts of the race.
We eventually reached High Cup Nick just as the first light of day began to illuminate the sky and just like that everything changed.
For me, these are truly magical moments, having spent hours battling through a seemingly endless night in grim conditions to witness the birth of a new day. We were now sheltered from the wind and we were greeted with views of the magnificent High Cup Nick and the distant snow capped Lake District Fells.
The craic resumed and everyone was in great spirits on the descent to Dufton.
At Dufton the lads all wanted to take advantage of a cooked breakfast in the local café but I decided to go straight to the monitoring station in the village hall. I was really looking forward to the freeze dried Chicken Korma I had brought (and also didn’t want to carry it all the way to Alston). Sadly the Chicken Korma turned out to be a beef casserole which was minging but I forced it down as I knew I needed the calories.
Rich and Sean arrived after around 30 minutes without John, he’d decided to stay in the café for a little longer and so we set off without him.
In last years race I felt really good climbing up Cross Fell. Not so much this year- I felt bloated, lethargic and sick. Lesson learned – don’t eat a 1000 calorie meal right before a big climb.
Sean set a good pace and I was quite warm for a time until we reached Knock Old Man and we were once again battered by the wind.
The next section was physically tough - we were walking directly into a strong headwind and it was bitterly cold.
For me though it was one of the highlights of the race, snow blanketed the plateau and it was like a winter wonderland. The sun was out and the views across the eden valley were truly stunning. I felt truly alive and there was no-where else I’d rather be.
We dropped off Cross Fell down to Greggs Hut and waiting noodles. To be honest I felt like I could have kept going – I felt ok and it was early afternoon and still light. At the same time however we were no-where near the front of the race, and similarly in no danger of being timed out so we took advantage of the brief pit stop.
The next section down to Garrigill went on for a long time, but was easy terrain to cover and before we knew it we were being ushered into Annies. Annie is a Spine legend, for years she has invited people into her house in Garrigill to feed, water and generally cheer them up.
A cup of tea, some soup and snacks and we were on our way again. Again in retrospect we probably didn’t really need to stop here so close to Alston but it was another Spine tradition ticked off.
We had also had a previous tactical conversation about our race strategy. If we wanted to maximise daylight then we didn’t want to get to Alston too early whilst it was still light, and this also meant that we would probably arrive at Bellingham in daylight. If we had a more competitive outlook then we would have stopped less but at that point in the race none of us had that mindset.
We almost made it to Alston before having to switch on out head torches so we timed it pretty well.
Alston to Bellingham
We’d all agreed to try and have 3 hours sleep at Alston (I actually managed about 90 minutes) and then get going. The usual faffing, taping ritual was enacted interspaced by eating portions of lasagne (although I sadly fell short of the record or 8 portions).
As we were preparing to leave we were intercepted by Noel and Kimberly Hitchcock who were reporting for marshalling duty. It was good to briefly chat to them before we headed out into the cold night.
The quality of the conversation took a downward turn on this section - we were getting used to each others boundaries, and the boundaries were low. Most of the conversation isn’t publicly repeatable but it lead to some truly laugh out loud moments and definitely helped us get through this section.
The Angel of Slaggyford (i.e. Natasha) was sadly missing again this year as she was sunning herself abroad, however one of the SST team met us there and we shared a sip of hot blackcurrant.
Sadly Rastaman Ralph wasn’t present as we passed through his abode to provide any entertainment but thankfully the bogs in Blenkinsopp Common were frozen which made it a little more pleasant than usual.
It did have a sting in the tail however for Rich as he snapped a pole on this section. It was still dark by the time we reached the golf course just before Greenhead. The tiredness was catching up with Rich so I suggested having a quick 10 minute power nap in some shelter behind a wall which we all did.
We probably couldn’t have managed much more than that as the ground was frozen and it was well below zero but again it definitely helped invigorate us all and we were all in good spirits again as we approached the monitoring station at Greenhead. In fact we were so jovial I think one of the support team caught the tail end of another inappropriate discussion.
There wasn’t much at Greenhead other than some public toilets in which another runner was sleeping. The runner was Fanny Jean. She had been leading the race at one point but had since fallen back and was clearly now suffering. Rich knew her from having ran with her in the Challenger North the previous year. He asked her if she wanted to join up with us which she did, although I think his wife had a double take after he sent her a text message informing her that he’d picked up Fanny in Greenhead.
Fanny was an interesting character, she talked incessantly and although she had slipped down the rankings she was determined to finish the race.
“I pushed my body to the limit and my body says FUUUCK YOUUUU” she screamed at one point.
Sadly her body continued to say f*ck you and she quickly fell of the pace as we climbed up onto the roman wall. She obviously recognised that and told us to push on without her which we did.
Dawn was now breaking and again I felt invigorated and filled with energy. I love this section of the route, it’s very dramatic and I enjoyed the steep climbs/descents as opposed to the bland terrain we had been traversing since Alston.
At one point I felt a bit of a hotspot on the back of my right heel so we stopped and Sean quickly taped it for me whilst Bagpuss Garland had a quick power nap, again highlighting one of the advantages of travelling as a group and good teamwork.
Luckily we didn’t have to follow the previous year’s awful diversion around the forest which had been devastated by storm Arwen, but there was still a smaller diversion to navigate which added on a few miles. It was pretty bland and uninteresting, but Sean set a good pace through here. He’d spotted another runner up in front and was keen to catch him which we did just before Horneystead.
As always, Helen welcomed us in and before we knew it we had bowls of soup and cups of tea in front of us. Bagpuss Garland also managed a quick power nap.
Spine SST were also here and informed us of the situation in the Cheviots. Waist deep snow in places with the chance of more snow to come. They were monitoring the situation and would react appropriately.
I felt strangely excited, l certainly wouldn’t relish the heavy rain bit snow is so magical and the prospect of an adventure through the Cheviots spurred me on.
We covered the remaining 6 miles to Bellingham without incident and actually arrived in daylight, a first.
It was a lot quieter than previous checkpoints but there were some familiar faces including Eddie who was just getting up.
We had made a decision to try and have a quicker turnaround here – 2 hours sleep + faff before heading out for the final push.
Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm
The sleeping facilities in Bellingham consist of a large unheated hall. Upon entering I was immediately struck on how cold it was. It was below zero outside and didn’t feel much warmer in here. A tiny electric heater in the corner of the room was about as effective as trying to heat the Albert Hall with a match.
I grabbed my down jacket from my bag but this and my meagre sleeping bag wasn’t enough to warm me and I spent 2 hours shivering and not sleeping.
Rich was already getting his feet taped when I got up, although I had to wake Sean up as he’d overslept. Its funny what thoughts go through your head when you’re tired and sleep deprived. Would it be really wrong to throttle one of your friends and team mates because they’ve had more sleep than you.
My croaky voice had deterioted to the extent that I’d pretty much completely lost it other than being to manage a feeble whisper. Maybe Rich and Sean were secretly pleased about this as they wouldn’t have to put up with any more of my craic.
More food and kit check and I was ready to go – Sean and Rich were still faffing so I took the opportunity to lie down on the floor and try to have a power nap prompting concerns that I had died.
We set off at a good pace – the excitement in the prospect of catching a few runners ahead spurring us on. This helped get through the section to Byrness in around 5 hours. We passed John en-route on his way up Byrness Hill.
The mid checkpoint at the Forest View was very welcome as was the mince and mashed potato. The team here was awesome including serial volunteer and race supporter Sharon Dyson. This is another great thing about the Spine (and many other ultras). A lot of the volunteers are runners themselves but even if they aren’t they understand what the runners are going through and what they need.
We were only allowed to stay 30 minutes here but there was a church 500m down the trail that we could use to try and get some sleep so we decided to give it a go.
We posed for a photo just before leaving - I don’t know what problems he had going on down there but I don’t think Rich appreciated me pinching his arse judging by his squeals of pain. We all had a good laugh about it anyway (well maybe apart from Rich).
Marco Consani was also here busy getting his feet taped and was clearly in a lot of pain.
None of us slept in the church. It was absolutely baltic and the wooden pews were far from comfortable.
In retrospect we should have just pushed on.
We passed Marco on the top of Byrness Hill, he was clearly in a lot of pain but was bravely soldering on. We chatted briefly, wished each other good luck and then parted ways (I’m glad to report that Marco made it to the end).
This is a very common occurrence in ultra races such as the Spine. You start off with great intentions and high hopes, and then something goes wrong. It might be a foot problem – blisters, swelling. It could be tendonitis, shin splints, back pain , foot pain , pain EVERYWHERE.
Then your race switches from anything you had previously planned and its just about survival, about getting to the finish. It’s about a deathmarch. I’ve been in this situation many times, although mercifully never on the Spine.
This is where you learn a lot about yourself this is where the “why” really matters. Because if it doesn’t matter enough you will give up.
This is where I don’t think enough exposure is given to people further down the field in ultras, the coverage is normally focused on the front end of the field.
Whilst this exciting, most people simply are unable to relate to this – they will never be at that level and their race is very different.
They are moving more slowly, therefore not able to generate as much heat to stay warm, they are out on the course for longer so they need to carry more clothing and more food therefore their packs are heavier, therefore they more slowly.
I say “they” but really it should be “we”. I’m never going to be anywhere the same standard as Damian Hall (even though I’m the same age as him), but what does inspire me is the people who continue to participate in these types of events well into later life.
That’s where I want to be. Being outside in beautiful places with people sharing the same interests and feeling alive.
The section after Lamb Hill was tough. We were all physically tired and massively sleep deprived. Dawn was still some hours away and it felt like it was a long way to the finish. It felt like we were moving at a snails pace.
After trudging along for a few hours we spotted a signpost – 2 miles to Lamb Hill. I’m very familiar with this section but for some reason it seemed unfamiliar. Snow covered the ground and we were mostly following footprints which would periodically disappear, or lead us off the path so we were constantly battling to stay on course.
At one point we stopped for a pee break and Rich fell asleep leading on his poles, only to awaken to us gone not realising we’d left him behind.
I’ve never wanted anything to come more than the hut. I was falling asleep on my feet and staggering all over the place – I just couldn’t seem to keep my balance and without my poles I reckon I’d have been on the deck on more than one occasion.
Finally the hut appeared and I collapsed inside utterly exhausted. A number of the Spine Safety Team were also there, some inside the hut and others camped outside in the snow which was becoming increasingly deeper.
I fell asleep sitting down almost instantly although I had a weird sensation of being aware of everything going on around me which was very surreal.
When I awoke 2 questions immediately came to mind. Firstly where was I, and more pressingly why was I so cold.
One of the SST came into the hut and asked if any of us were Rob Brooks or Rich Garland.
“Yes that’s us!”
“I’ve got a message from Mark Clarkson asking after you both – he says I bet they’re cold as f*ck!”
Yes I was as cold as fck. In fact I was colder than 100 fcks, perhaps the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.
My attempts to make a speedy departure were thwarted by Rich & Sean performing some ritual faffing, but it was invigorating to see that dawn was breaking as we left the hut.
I powered up Lamb Hill as fast as I could to try and generate some heat and warm up, although I didn’t achieve this until Beefstand Hill.
Spirits were high again, we’d got through the last of the long nights and the end was almost in sight.
The Cheviots are my local hills and I’ve spent countless hours in their company. They sometimes get a bad rap but I find them such a beautiful area and they were particularly mesmerising today with their winter coat on.
From the top of Windy Gyle there is a long flagged section for around 4 miles which leads to the Cheviot which would normally mean fast progress. Unfortunately the lead runners (or maybe walkers before them) hadn’t found it beneath the deep snow and instead cut a knee deep trail through the long heather.
Those miles were hard going but Sean again set a good pace and up ahead we spotted John, and another small group of 3 runners just on front of him.
Could we catch them? The chase was on.
Unfortunately the chase ended on Auchorpe Cairn as Rich’s knee was f*cked and he couldn’t run downhill. I had blasted round the last section last year and has visions of doing the same this year but alas it was not to be.
Rich suggested we push on without him but that just wasn’t an option.
We’d come so far together now and the thought of not finishing together was unthinkable.
And so we completed the final 7 miles together, the three Geordigo’s.
Sean jokingly suggested a sprint finish which none of us were up for, although somehow he managed to finish 20 seconds ahead of us on the official results despite us all crossing the line at the same time.
There were a few other runners in the Border Hotel. Eddie was there having finished a few minutes ahead of us as was John who had put in a big push at the end to leapfrog a few places.
Dave Cummings finished a few hours behind us, I hadn’t realised but we had leapfrogged him at Alston whilst he’d been tending to his battered feet.
Our race time was 126 hours (5 days and 6 hours) – just over an hour slower than last year albeit over a longer route (271 miles as opposed to 260 last year with the removal of the Bellingham-> Byrness section) so faster in real terms. My moving time was slower than last year, but I spent less time in checkpoints.
158 people started the race of which 81 finished. We were joint 26th.
This years race was a very different experience to the previous year. The weather was completely different. Mild and wet last year compared to much colder cold and crisp this year.
Last year I spent the vast majority of the race alone including most of the night sections. This year I spent more of less the entire race with Richard and with Sean from Middleton.
There’s pros and cons to both.
Working as a team you can share decision making and nav which relives some of the pressure. It’s also good to have people to talk to, especially during the low patches of which there can be many.
Conversely you are always restricted by the slowest person (which isn’t always the same person – different types of terrain suit different people and your bad patches aren’t always aligned) whether that be out on the trail or faffing in checkpoints.
This can however sometimes motivate the slower person to dig a bit deeper or be a bit more efficient than they would perhaps be of they were alone.
I thought our group, the 3 Geordigos worked really well together. We regularly helped each other out, the craic was great and even though there we some really low points no-one vocalised them and brought the mood down.
Although I’m happy with how my race went I still feel like I have unfinished Spine business. I’d like to really push myself and see how competitive I could be, although I’m keenly aware this could result in a DNF or much slower time.
So what would I do differently?
Improve efficiency at checkpoints & spend less time on admin & faffing.
Don’t stop at most of the unofficial checkpoints such as Greggs Hut, Annies, Horneystead etc.
I don’t think I could get my pack weight down much further, but I always had spare food at the end of each leg so there’s improvements to be had there.
Run more, especially in the later sections.
Be more efficient with my sleep and try to get by on less
And I think ultimately I will need to primarily run alone.
That will have to wait a few years though as next year I will be doing the Arctic Spine along the Kungsleden in Sweden.
Final thoughts – why do I do it?
I mused some thoughts on the “why” in my blog from last years race.
Everyone is more capable that they think and able to complete a race such as the Spine, but you need to have a good “why”.
When it’s the middle of the night and you’re being battered by the elements, your body is being battered and aching and all you have to look forward to is another 4/5/6 days of the same then you better have a good “why”
The Spine race is badged as “Britain’s most brutal”. It’s certainly a tough race, the toughest I’ve done and although there’s lots of trudging through boggy fields & open featureless moorland, long dark nights, inhospitable weather, extreme tiredness, sleep deprivation and soreness.
But its not all like that all of the time.
There’s long periods of solitude to think about all the things you don’t have the time to think about during everyday busy life
There’s stunning sunrises and sunsets, beautiful stary skies, vast mountain vistas and stunning unspoilt scenery.
There’s the sense of achievement in pushing through some really dark times and coming out of the other side feeling invincible.
There’s the random people who invite you into their houses and feed you, and who come out on the trail call you by name and feed you jelly babies.
There’s the knowledge that no matter how bad the conditions get you have the skills and mentality to get through it.
There’s pushing for hours on end during the night and then be greeted by the first light of day.
There’s feeling like utter crap, sleeping for 10 minutes in the middle of a gold course on the ground in snow when it’s -5 degrees then waking up and feeling like a million dollars.
There’s the friendships, deep connections and shared experiences formed out on the trail which last a lifetime.
No other race I’ve been involved in comes close to replicating this– it’s the Spine bubble, the Spine family. It’s the reason people come back year after both as competitors and as volunteers.
That is my “why”