Upping The Ante; Why I Entered The UKs Most Brutal Race

pre race

I needed a hobby, at least I thought I did. It wasn’t that I was bored, a twenty something in London has plenty of distractions, it was just that I needed something to focus my jumble of thoughts. Something to stop them from ricocheting off the inside of my eyes.

Writing software was one option, I had no shortage of ideas for websites. But I already spent all day hunched over a keyboard, tapping out line after line of algorithms and business logic for a ‘certain to be the next big thing’ start-up telecoms firm. Any more of this and I was sure to turn into a full-blown, out-and-out computer nerd.

The pub was an excellent distraction, it calmed my swirling mind, and there was never a shortage of drinking partners.

Ah, the pub. The lovely, lovely pub. A dear friend on the surface, but sadly one that doesn’t really have your best interests at heart.

An expanding waistline and a chance conversation with a recently reconnected Brummy friend, and running was suddenly something I was going to do. Maybe this could be my hobby?

In keeping with how I approach most things in life, I embraced this new pastime with arms wide enthusiasm and went at it with everything I had.

Typical “too much too soon” injuries followed, but after a few years my body settled down, and I started training for The Fell Race (there is only one worth mentioning, like The Marathon).

I’d never been all that interested in the Paps when I lived on Jura, fell running and young teenagers aren’t an obvious pairing. Now that I was a Runner however, the lure of the challenge was drawing me in.

Trundling around my now favourite 20 mile loop which took in the West End of London and many Thames river sights, I noticed that something strange had happened to my body.

It was a bit sore, but seemed to want to keep going. Not fast you understand, but not walking either.

“Just to see if I could”, I rapidly increased my long run distance, and a few weeks later clocked up 26.2 miles in 4 hours.

The subsequent euphoria damped the complaints of my (now very sore) legs, and I dreamily contemplated a future of long distance running.

It turned out that running produces endorphins (endogenous morphine – say no more!) which not only give you a nice post run boost, but imbue you with a calm and gentle feeling of wellbeing. The perfect antidote to working on a busy and aggressive trading floor (which is where all that tapping had taken me).

Some years passed, I accrued running paraphernalia (garmin watches, heart rate monitors), obsessed about nutrition, gained and lost weight, and entered the odd race here and there.

Dimly at first, I became aware of something called “ultras”, or more precisely ultra marathons. These were foot races longer than a marathon, typically at least 30 miles but apparently there was no upper limit.

Someone at work had started doing them, I thought there was something wrong with him, he didn’t even look all that fit.

Running a marathon was hard, ‘AL’ Fell Races were even harder (category A, long. Jura falls into this classification), why on earth would anyone want to do anything even harder than that? The whole idea was preposterous.

The seed wouldn’t go away though, as much as I tried to ignore the idea of these races, the ridiculous concept kept finding it’s way into my thoughts.

Inevitably I gave in (home alone with a bottle of wine and the internet, I’m not the first and won’t be the last to do something silly in that situation). The dusk till dawn ultra marathon sounded perfect.

I was keen to minimise time away from my (now) wife and small child, so the idea of an overnight race was ideal. Sleep deprivation was something I’d been practicing, (unintentionally, babies force that upon you), so that aspect didn’t bother me much.

Neither did the facts that it was to take place in October, was 50 miles long, entirely on muddy hilly trails in the Peak District, and was the inaugural running of the event.

They should have caused me some pause, as it turned out to be really hard (and cold, and wet).

I finished though, in a respectable position. Other than a few scrapes and aches I didn’t suffer particularly afterwards, and felt, quite frankly, invincible.

Without really seeking them out, I stumbled into various races over the next few years, invariably longer and tougher than the ones before.

They were all hard, and I swore I’d never run an ultra again through gritted teeth a few times, but the memory of pain fades quickly, and more challenges duly presented themselves.

Which brings me finally to The Spine Race.

I don’t know where or how I first heard of it, but the mere suggestion of taking part made me feel physically sick. No other race had done that before!

The details don’t sound all that bad:

  • 268 miles of trails, in the UK, in winter
  • 31,000 foot of ascent and descent (Mount Everest is only 29,000 by the way)
  • A generous sounding 7 days (and nights) to complete the route

The description from the website adds a bit more colour however:

The MONTANE® Spine® Race is a 268 mile, non-stop, uncompromising winter challenge encompassing the entire Pennine Way. Widely recognised as one of the most demanding National Trails in Britain. The Pennine Way crosses some of the most beautiful and, at times difficult terrain found in England, including; the Peak District, Cheviots, Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Park – finishing on the Scottish Borders.

The MONTANE® Spine® Race is open to anyone with appropriate experience* who wishes to test themselves and compete in a truly demanding race. Expect to race through extreme weather, deep snow, ice, mud, bogs, strong winds and rain in a gruelling non-stop, 7 day race from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

It’s not just the conditions that are against you – your own body could become your worst enemy with tiredness, fatigue, sleep deprivation, exposure and the general pains of wear and tear playing havoc with your performance. To finish you must be prepared and willing to push yourself harder than ever before.

Ok, that was more like it. Throw in the fact that only 25% of starters typically get to the finish, and you have something that sounds really preposterous.

I turn 40 this year, and what better way to celebrate such a significant milestone than by putting myself through the most gruelling ordeal I could find, and pay cash for it too.

After months of fretting and feverish planning I toed the muddy line in Edale with 67 other athletes (I’m calling myself that now!) on Saturday the 9th of January, and gently trotted off into the unknown.

4 hours shy of 7 days later, I touched the wall of the pub that marks the end of the Pennine Way, in Scotland.

I was physically exhausted, had found places in my mind I didn’t know existed, and was sobbing like a child.

I’d done it.

That was nearly two months ago, and so far at least, I have no desire to up the ante on this one.

Mind you, I met someone who went there and back, so there’s a thought…

[Full report here]

2 thoughts on “Upping The Ante; Why I Entered The UKs Most Brutal Race

  1. Very interesting, I now kind of understand why and how you do these things.
    But still find it incomprehensible!


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