Step. Step. Step. Step.
My watch says I’m moving at 1.4 miles an hour, I glance ahead through the swirling snow and mist at the fence and hill visible in the dimming light of my head torch, and doubt I’m even moving that quickly.
This was supposed to be an easy section, just 4 miles between refuge huts somewhere in the Cheviots. I’d even allowed a small amount of optimism to trickle through the barriers.
No food left in my pack, not much remaining in the group (I’d already done a few rounds up and down the line asking people to share anything they had). Breaking fresh trail through deep snow drifts was sapping dangerously low energy levels. The biting cross wind snatched all warmth as soon as movement ceased.
I’d been on the go since 2:30am yesterday morning, a long 18 hours with a brief stop in Bryness for soup, mince, potatoes and a perplexing mandatory foot check.
I hoped my torch battery would last, it was tucked under 4 layers next to my chest, but even fully charged and warm I’d be lucky to get 6 hours out of it.
This is of course the Spine Race, a foot race that takes on the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm just over the Scottish Border.
It takes place in January, primarily to make it harder; the unpredictable but guaranteed variety of weather turning the easiest trail into a quagmire / river / non-trail under a blanket of snow.
Oh and the 268 miles of mostly rough and occasionally unmarked trail.
Mustn’t forget the hours of darkness, 4pm until 8am, and the time limit of 7 days.
Throw all that together and you’ve got a real challenge, so it’s no surprise that over 60% of the field drop out or get timed out before the finish.
It’s not billed as “Britains most brutal race” for nothing.
What were we doing here? Why were we doing this?
These aren’t questions that came to mind, they didn’t matter and wouldn’t change anything even if I had the answers. All that mattered was that we kept moving, one step at a time, slowly, steadily. Forward motion. Just keep moving.
My existence was here and now, everything else was peripheral and forgotten. In a strange way, this is what I’d been looking for when I signed up for this race, escape from the normal world, pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance, but still moving, still aware of the need for one more step, and another, and another.
Periodically I checked how Dan was feeling, we’d promised to stick together, and after my petulant foot stamping episode in Greendale the day before, I wasn’t going to renege on it.
At one point he was faltering and we debated bivvying somewhere sheltered and heating up our dried rations, but the double decker from Stuart and the last of my beef jerky had kindled a spark behind his eyes.
I met Dan Connors a few years ago when we ran nohtaraM ehT together, and we’d since followed each other and chatted on Strava. We’d leapfrogged each other a few times during the first half of the week, and I was very happy to join his group leaving Alston.
When we finally arrived in Greenhead, hungry and cold, I lost my temper over something daft, and had stormed off up a hill after shouting something like “I don’t fucking care what you do, I’m going this way”. Dan’s comment that I was behaving like a diva and did I need a snickers bar dissipated the tension and we soon found Tom Jones, some shelter and hot food.
When we were finally nearing CP5 in Bellingham, and were working out the optimal plan for the final section (which Richard Lendon helped us finesse, over mountains of hot food and sweet tea served up by his lovely wife Jenny) I said that we should definitely stick together as a team.
Do you mean as a pair of people who happen to be travelling at roughly the same speed in the same direction, or do you mean actually as a team?
Point well made, and well taken. We were a team from here to the finish, whatever happened.
The race is long, and the checkpoints are far apart. On average around 40 miles. In good weather a good days hike, in any other conditions, 20 hours isn’t unreasonable.
I spent as much time on my own as I could. I enjoyed settling into my natural pace, not chasing anyone and not waiting for anyone. I savoured the pleasure of being outside, the satisfaction of navigating by map and compass, thoughts of the outside world receded and I settled happily into the Spine bubble.
There were moments of course, many ups and many downs. The first day was such fun, trundling along a ridge buffeted by wind and rain reminded me of my childhood in Scotland, I passed many people here but my cheery greetings were seldom returned.
Eventually we reached the top of the hill and the long anticipated left turn that would take us down to the second hut with it’s promise of shelter and hot food and drinks.
At this crucial time, I made my first and only serious error of judgement. I can explain it away using a host of valid excuses, but none of them pass muster under the cold unforgiving eye of hindsight.
Not bothering to take a bearing, I burst through the gate and galloped downhill, deliriously happy to be rid of that uphill slog and just moments away from sustenance.
The frozen crust of snow held my weight for a few minutes before giving way and I sank past my knees.
Surely no, no no no no!
For fucks sake no more of this shit!
I changed course and frantically zig zagged down the hill searching out runnable surface.
I could see a few head torches following me.
Stopping to catch my breath, I looked around and was horrified to discover I was way off course, and teetering on the edge of Hen Hole (or Hell Hole as it will be forever etched in my memory). Hen Hole is a steep gulley, and with the covering of snow and ice would be next to impossible to climb out of.
Laying my single pole flat on the snow in front of me, I was able to slowly crawl up the hill and get back onto level ground. I could see the fence and further down a couple of head torches.
Satisfied I was back on track I needed to signal to those behind me to maintain height and not get sucked into the pit of doom.
How do you signal directions with a head torch? Even if I knew morse code, did anyone else?
I ran/fell/crawled back the way I’d come, desperate to catch sight of someone, a thousand thoughts whirring through my head. We were all tired and hungry, and I’d just led people the wrong way, potentially putting them in danger.
My first taste of proper adventure (ignoring the icy scramble over Pen Y Gent in the dark) arrived not long after I almost fell off High Cup Nick in darkness and thick fog, when I decided not to attempt the next section over Cross Fell on my own, at least not in the dark anyway.
My wife was very happy with the decision and I made my way down to the pub in Dufton hoping for something hot to eat.
As luck would have it I found Javed warming himself by the fire, and he was happy for me to tag along. Too late for food but the barman was happy to whack some hot water in a bag so I could enjoy some rehydrated spag bol.
Off we marched into the darkness and I quickly pulled away up the gradual incline, which surprised me as I’d assumed we must have been moving at a similar pace to be at the same point after a few days.
Accepting the advice to plod uphill and conserve energy for the flats and downs, I slowed down and pondered the other useful nugget of advice.
You say one of your achilles tendons really hurts, what happens if you think about the one that doesn’t hurt?
A useful thought, and one I returned to many times over the remainder of the week.
When you’re moving yourself over long distances, mind games and techniques are incredibly important. Not just to provide motivation, but to avoid the downward spiral of painful introspection and obsession that leaves you slightly unhinged at best.
After a pep talk from Tin and upbeat messages from Marissa on Saturday, I’d relied on some simple but effective methods of avoiding negativity and doubt.
One step at a time, step, step, step. Every step is one step closer.
Every tap of my pole, tap, tap, tap. Every tap is one tap closer.
Disney songs, really. Micky Mouse club house courtesy of my daughter Trixy, and the bare necessities, thanks to Paula who texted the entire lyrics.
When I needed something stronger, I remembered a conversation with my mother in-law on Friday night. I was wittering on about whether I’d make it to the end, and she said, very calmly but with total conviction: “you’ll do it”. Lesley, you saved my race, multiple times.
Sometimes though, the only way to block negative thoughts was to fill my head with a single word, over and over and over again.
I was feeling impatient and eager to crack on over the hills to the fabled highest noodle bar in the country, but (with some difficulty) chastised myself and resolved to learn as much as possible from my companion. With a wealth of experience on extreme ultra running, and the spine race specifically, there had to be important lessons available, even if only from observation.
We climbed higher and unexpectedly found ourselves in deep snow with a nasty wind picking up and obliterating the footsteps of those ahead of us.
It was next to impossible to stay on the path, and finding ourselves mostly wading through thigh deep snow, progress was slow and getting slower.
Patience grasshopper, patience.
Gentle cajoling didn’t seem to speed Javed up for more than a couple of minutes, Gregs hut was a few miles away but at this pace, several hours.
Confessing that he’d only slept for 3 hours so far, and was planning on doing the “double“, we debated our options (after I’d informed him that he was bat shit crazy of course, which made us both laugh).
One curious aspect of pacing in a race like this, is finding the optimal balance between sleep and speed. I’d slept for 6 hours so far, and was clearly moving faster. Was that because of the sleep or just down to my legs? Hard to say.
With the teary parting phrase of “I’m scared you’re going to lie down on some godforsaken hillside and never wake up” overwhelming my rational mind, I wasn’t keen on sleeping in a snow bunker on the side of a mountain in a storm. The problem was that our current speed meant that our core temperatures were dropping fast.
We needed to make a decision, and the choices weren’t great. Sleep on the mountain, retrace our steps to Dufton, or find the quickest way down to anywhere there was shelter.
Casting a glance back the way we’d come, the snow and wind had already turned the ground into a pristine blanket with no trace of human activity.
Nearby was a hollow/bunker on the hill and the decision was made for us.
I called HQ to let them know, then grumpily (at least I appeared grumpy, I was actually just scared) followed my bunk mates instructions:
Put on everything you have, dig a coffin in the snow and put your mat in it, get into your bag with everything on and take anything you don’t want to freeze in with you.
Still grimacing from the choice of words, I found myself to be surprisingly snuggly and warm and settled down comfortably, only to start hyperventilating and, for want of a better expression, freaking out.
Headtorch on, and I had a long conversation with myself about the relative perils and merits of the current situation. Assuring myself that if things got really bad I could get myself down to the village very quickly, calling for help on the way if necessary. “Anyway”, the conversation concluded, “you wanted an adventure, and this is pretty exciting”.
Finally calm, I fell asleep for 2 hours, then woke up cold. My companion was in a similar situation and as we debated what to do heard voices calling our names.
I thought I was hallucinating at first but when I saw lights realised it was real.
HQ had sent a couple of chaps up to make sure we were ok, we leapt out of our coffins and within minutes were back on the trail, marching along with fistfuls of mini baby bells and tummies warmed by hot chocolate. The wind had eased off, it had stopped snowing and Gregs Hut and its famous noodles (with fresh chilli, from John Bambers greenhouse) were a hop, skip and daybreak away.
At the time I was upset that my race had been disrupted, had I known Javed was so tired and was planning on returning to Edale along the same route after finishing, I would have got some sleep in Dufton. I knew he was experienced, but I didn’t feel comfortable abandoning him in a storm on a fell. You have to do what feels right at the time, you look out for each other and make your decisions with collective safety in mind.
It might be a race, but it’s not always about you.
Although we had let everyone know what we were doing, spending 3 hours on the wrong side of a mountain in the middle of the night, in a storm, triggers an alert. Hence the physical check.
It’s this kind of intervention that makes you realise that you aren’t at the mercy of the wolves, and whilst in danger, there is a very high probability that help would arrive before anything too dramatic happened.
It just feels like you’re on your own and exposed to survival mode choices, this is where the organisers have got it just right.
I couldn’t see the head torches that were following me any more, and there was no way I was going back into Hell Hole.
The quiet but must-be-obeyed voice in the deepest part of my mind, took over. I sat down and got my phone out, calling HQ I let them know my race number, where I was, and that some people behind me had just gone off course. Swapping my head torch batteries, and resisting the urge to take some layers of clothes off (I was boiling, but wasn’t sure if the feeling was real or imagined, so opted for the safer choice) set off for the hut.
Soon I met some MRT people coming back up the hill, they asked how I was and I think I did a passable impression of seeming normal as they carried on saying they needed to make sure people didn’t take a wrong turn off the route.
Finally arriving at the sanctuary, I stepped into a situation no less surreal than the one I’d just fought my way out of.
Anna was borderline hypothermic and was being manhandled into a blizzard bag, whilst being force fed hot sweet juice. Douglas was helping sort Anna out, Zoe was asleep and Dan was looking totally spaced out.
I made sure all the mountain rescue people knew there were at least two people off course, and eventually our addled minds figured out their names (Stuart and Colin), also that Javed was behind us and in debatable shape given he’d lost his food (though I’d given him most of my meager stash which should have helped).
After a while Stuart appeared, looking hot and relieved.
I sat worrying about Colin, about Anna, about everyone. I had some hot food. I got colder not warmer. I worried and worried. Tom said we all had plenty of time to make the cut off, I thought he’d lost the plot, talking about the race in this kind of situation, this was survival man, survival!
Eventually Dan and I decided to move on. There wasn’t anything I could do for Colin now, and we were taking up valuable space. Realising that I was cold because I had indeed sweated during my feverish efforts earlier, I put on a dry thermal top, lost a mitten, got my spare gloves out and we prepared to head out for the final section.
As we were shuffling out of the hut, Colin arrived looking as if nothing untoward had happened (maybe it was hidden behind the beard), and noting that “reports of his demise had been much exaggerated” joined us.
We saw a chap being brought in by the race MRT, he was wearing a t-shirt and I recognised him from Saturday night (we’d joined forces along with Damon and battled through the blizzard together). He wasn’t in the race but was covering the route at the same time as us, which had seemed impressive then, but in my now confused state looked risky at best. He was shortly airlifted off the mountain as was fully hypothermic (a classic sign is believing you’re overheating, as per my caution earlier).
It’s been a week since I touched the wall of the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, yet life hasn’t quite returned to normal.
I’m still waking up multiple times in the night, drenched in sweat, with visions of the trail fresh in my mind. At least I’m not panicking that I’ve fallen asleep in the snow, those nightmares stopped after about 6 days.
My food intake is approaching normality, though I still feel distinctly weak and faint before I’ve had breakfast, 8 hours without food is now unusual.
Maintaining body temperature is still a manual process, I spend the hours in the office (when I haven’t had to sneak off for a 15 minute nap) without shoes but wearing a scarf.
The damage report from my physio was surprisingly positive, although my super tight achilles bent lots of her needles, I now start the day with a slightly less painful hobble than a few days ago.
The cracks in my fingers have healed, and I’ve de-grimed enough so that my iPhone recognises my thumb again.
Both of my big toes are still mostly numb – some (hopefully temporary) nerve damage.
When encountering a fellow racer for the first time, every conversation was almost identical: “have you done this race before?”, “will you do it again?”. Nobody every asked what you did for a living, it was irrelevant.
Until I’d settled into my stride and the rhythm of the event, I found it unfathomable why anyone would want to put themselves through such an unpleasant experience more than once, in fact I was struggling to make sense of the once.
As time passed however, and I’d had more time on my own to reflect on what was going on with my body and mind during those long long hours, I began to understand.
I’ve often said to people, at least in the last year when my running habit took a slightly different tack, that what I really enjoyed about the hours spent on my feet, was the meditative aspect.
When running, and especially when covering long distances, I ease into a mental place where I’m hyper aware of my body and my immediate surroundings, but little else.
How do my feet feel? Any hot spots? Legs? All ok? Are my shoulders relaxed? What’s going on with my stomach? Time for more food? Is that pain something to worry about or just temporary, check back later. How’s my bearing? What does the map say the next landmark is? Am I warm enough? Too hot? Is that something in my shoe? Empty it out at the next stop. How do my feet feel?…
The Spine throws in a few more things to think about, such that the bubble is almost complete, only the thoughts of family and my daily call home really penetrating.
Physically it’s a challenge, being long enough that any slight niggle has the potential to turn into a race ender after a few days.
Mentally it’s tough too, sleep deprivation muddles the sharpest mind, and there are so many reasons to stop. I think I called upon some deeply buried part of myself to manage the rest of me, a tiny but powerful voice that forbade giving up, and was rational and calm when everything else went tits up.
My first real encounter with proper sleep deprivation happened on Sunday night on the long and tedious road from Horton to Hawes.
In the absence of any navigation (which I later found be a real help to stay awake), I felt completely drunk, staggering all over the road and desperately fighting the urge to lay down and sleep.
People talk of sleep monsters, I don’t know about monsters, but I had to fight so hard to stay upright and moving in roughly the right direction.
By the time we got to CP2, 108 miles in and the Challenger finish, I’d been awake for 49 hours with a 1/2 hour nap somewhere in the middle.
I felt bloody awful.
My race strategy, if you can call it that, was:
1) It’s not a race
2) Determine pace by terrain and what feels sustainable
3) Stop as little as possible
4) If have to stop, keep faffage to a minimum (apparently this is called “personal admin” – looked like faffing to me)
5) If I get to the last section, and conditions allow, it’s a race
I soon modified this to include:
6) When an opportunity to eat presents itself, take it. If hot food is available, even better.
On the subject of food, people keep asking me what and how much I ate.
It’s very hard to work out how many calories I got through, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Food is a very personal thing, but what worked for me was a combination of: cold pizza, Lesleys home made fruitcake, fresh beef jerky, wine gums, snickers (no surprise there), pepperami (wouldn’t bother next time, proper salami or kabbanos would be much nicer).
In checkpoints I supplemented the supplied food with pots of rice pudding, and always kept a couple of expedition food packets in my pack. These are super light (~140g), contain 1000kcals and are genuinely tasty. I have a vague memory of Pavel mentioning them on a blog once.
I discovered that I really dislike 9bars, especially out of date ones, and binned my entire stash somewhere around CP4. Far too sweet and sickly somehow.
The General gave me some advice he picked up on the Dragons Back Race, which was to eat something shortly before hitting a checkpoint. Not only does it give you a nice boost, but it helps kick your brain into gear and avoid mindlessly shuffling kit between different bags. There is also the added bonus that you’re not super narky when you arrive so have no excuses for not being smiley and friendly to the support crew, which makes everyone happier.
After being a bit blasé with gathering all my kit for the challenger in 2014, and suffering with shoulder agony from my horrible and horribly heavy pack, I shelled out for a 22L Aarn Mountain Magic this year.
It didn’t disappoint (once I’d adjusted the 5 thousand straps ‘just so’), and it felt less like carrying a load of kit than having some warm and comfortable creature hug you from behind (nicer than it sounds).
I didn’t take anything superfluous (but making sure I had enough to be safe in an emergency), and with a borrowed PHD sleeping bag got the total weight down to around 7.5KG, including water. This was about half the weight I had last time, and once the pack was on I hardly noticed it. The huge front pockets meant I rarely had to take it off either, double bonus.
Expecting lots of rain my drop bag had a complete change of clothes for each checkpoint. As it happened it didn’t rain that much, I didn’t really move fast enough to sweat much, and the drying rooms worked really well. So I pretty much cycled through two sets of clothes. Basically my best kit. Apologies to the checkpoint volunteers and anyone who ever found themselves downwind of me!
My best kit consists of 2x helly Hansen “warm” merino wool tops, 5x decathlon wicking base layer tops, columbia and Inov8 3/4 leggings, Rab eVent trousers, North Face Summit Series jacket, Patagonia gilet, OMM Rotor smock, Montane Via Trail gloves, Seal Skinz mitts, a wool hat given to me by my mum after a trip to New Zealand, a random buff from snow&rock, 2x sealskinz long socks, 5x injinji liner socks and 5x decathlon wicking pants (some things just shouldn’t be recycled).
Oh and two pairs of Inov8 trailrocs, one pair slightly bigger, which were lent to me by Matty though he refuses to have them back. Can’t really blame him after everything they’ve been through, the snow and ice ripped so many holes in them I’m not sure they’re up for any more outings.
We left hut 2 and went straight into a short steep hike up the Schill, which was just the job as I was definitely cold by now, if anything I’d got colder sitting down for such a long time, even though I’d had a big bag of warm food.
I was sent off with Dan, Ryan and Colin. Tailed by a couple of mountain rescue guys we began the simple trudge along the last section.
4 months ago I was probably the fittest and healthiest I’d been since I was a teenager. Training was going brilliantly and I’d had a huge confidence boost by placing 3rd in the Crawley 12 hour race.
What felt like a minor groin strain after a nondescript 20 mile run, escalated over a few days (and some shorter runs) into excruciating shooting pains every time I tried to stand up, start walking or roll over in bed.
Convinced it was a torn something important, I stopped running, enjoyed my holiday in Italy and booked in with a physio on my return to London.
Our sessions were normally chipper and chatty, so I knew something wasn’t right, and I was referred for an MRI scan under the dark cloud of a potential stress fracture and facing at least 3 months of: No Running.
Suspicions confirmed a compression side femoral neck stress fracture (common in the military and old people) and I was handed a pair of crutches.
Super fit to depressed invalid in the space of two short weeks.
All my training and racing plans for the rest of the year went out of the window, but I hoped against hope that the Spine could still be a possibility.
Determined not to turn into a sad, fat and unfit blob before winter even arrived, I solicited advice from anyone who would lend a friendly ear, and devoured lots of books and blogs.
The upshot was that I covered many miles on my crutches (and slowly weaned off them into walking unaided), spent dull hours in the gym building upper body and core strength, changed my eating habits and food intake (again), swapping a kilo of fat for muscle and dropping to my lowest weight in years.
I saw a bone specialist, went for lots of tests, took so many supplements I rattled (vitamin D, K1, probiotics, Omega 3&6).
After 3 months I tried a few runs, but the muscle atrophy was so severe that within a week my knees were agony and it was clear that everything was totally out of balance.
More trips to the physio, more specific exercises, more dull hours in the gym. I didn’t dare try any more runs, and just kept my fingers crossed that nothing else would go wrong before January the 8th.
In the meantime I slowly added to the mountain of kit, food, maps, lists of pubs and lists of lists of lists that contribute to the huge amount of preparation that a week long expedition demands. I was pretty sure that if I made any serious cock ups on that front, it would derail my race just as much as any physical ailments. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
So when I stepped (slipped in ankle deep mud) up to the start line at 10am on Saturday morning, I was under no illusions about how tenuous my situation was.
I’d promised family, friends and physios that I wouldn’t run, this was strictly a walking race, and whilst I expected to be in pain, I would drop out if it got to a worrying level.
Many people urged me to postpone it a year, but given how easy it is to talk oneself out of anything, and post rationalise anything using a host of feasible reasons as excuses, I determined to rock up and race, and see what happened.
Two people saw through my façade, both who apparently know me better than most. One was my wife, for obvious reasons, who worried that my sheer bloody minded stubborn determination would drag me to the finish regardless of what pain my body threw at me.
The other was my boss, which sounds weird until you realise that he has an uncanny ability to figure out what makes people tick. He commented that someone who ran so much they fractured their hip isn’t best placed to judge how much pain is too much. I resolved to avoid all painkillers, and his parting words of “if you were fit, I’d absolutely think you’d do this race, as it is, I can’t see you making it” helped me grit my teeth in some of the lower points of the race, no doubt as intended.
Coming down the final road to the pub that marked the end of the Pennine Way, I finally allowed myself to accept that yes, I was going to finish. Normally visualising the end of a race is a powerful motivator, but 268 miles is such a long distance, 7 days an eternity, and with so many obstacles to overcome I never allowed myself the luxury of hoping to get there before the cut off.
All the pent up emotion, stress of that tortuous section to hut 2 and serious sleep deprivation surged up through my chest and I sobbed the final hundred yards.
I remember muttering stupid nothings to myself, “you tosser, how the hell did you just walk to Scotland?!”
There was nobody to be seen, and after quietly touching the wall I sat down on an old plough, thinking this was a suitably low key ending to a very low key race, tears still running down my face.
Colin appeared from the darkness and gave me a hug, which was just what I needed.
Dan arrived and touched the pub, I gave him a hug, but I don’t think army men do that sort of thing. Anyway, it had seemed appropriate given what we’d just been though.
Moments later Lindlay arrived with our medals, apparently our trackers were a bit off and we were early. No matter, medals and photos were taken and off we went for food and sleep.
Much has been made of the hardships endured, and it’s easy to overlook how many things made me smile over the week.
Sun rises and sun sets over frozen mountains were spectacular, the views you only see when you’re prepared to travel by foot overnight.
Low Force and High Force on the river Tees were mesmerising waterfalls, especially given the amount of rain this winter.
Leaning on a gate, in the middle of a snow laden forest shortly after first light, chatting to an inquisitive, chubby little robin. This wasn’t a hallucination, but the massive house size owls I saw earlier probably were.
Finding a box of flapjacks at the top of a steep field in Thwaite, marked “for Spine racers”, thanks Emily, that got me to Tan Hill.
Being intercepted by family friends Bill & Janet in Lothersdale. They had a warm car, a flask of black coffee and the best chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had (and I’m very particular about my sandwiches). Thank goodness Peter Gold wasn’t slinking around.
Some parting thoughts.
It’s a long way, the weather changes everything, it needs to be treated with respect.
There is excitement, camaraderie, beauty and pain.
You’ll meet like minded people and will form bonds that will last long after the event has finished.
Some will make it to the end.
Some will succumb to injury.
Some won’t move fast enough.
You’ll have an adventure.