The Summer Spine Race 2021 – Race Report

race

“That’s 20 minutes chap”

“What? It can’t be”

“Fraid so, your foods ready too”

I’d arrived at Malham Tarn, checkpoint 1.5 at too-late-pm on Sunday. So far behind my rough and ready schedule it was borderline depressing.

So, so tired, it had been a long hot day after leaving Hebden Bridge at 5:30am that morning.

Colin’s words from years ago were ringing in my ears:

“I always forget it’s a nice first day and then a week long painful slog”.

I wasn’t in the best place, and it was still early.

My feet had developed deep blisters on the soles of my feet, over one of the many fields or moors I’d run/walked across that day. By the time I realised that my shoes were a bit loose and the movement was causing hot spots it was too late and the damage was done. Not much I could do at this stage but grit my teeth and think of nicer things.

When I got here I’d tentatively asked if there was somewhere I could sleep for a bit and fully expecting to be knocked back. The relief at being offered a camp bed in a midge free tent was incredible.

I seriously couldn’t believe that 20 minutes had passed already, most of it was spent twitching and trying to not think about how little of the route I’d covered.

No point being depressed though, and it looked like a lovely evening (ignoring midges) so I grabbed my refilled water bottles, my bag of steaming Mac & cheese and trundled off towards Fountains Fell.

It’s amazing how a brief rest and some hot food can sort you out and I focused on catching those ahead of me, for the challenge as much as the potential company for the impending night.

Joining up with Kirsty (who was doing the challenger) at the sheltered spot just before the Pen Y Gent climb was nice. We put windproof jackets on and knocked back some painkillers, and swapping stories slowly headed up into the increasing darkness.

At least it wasn’t covered in ice this time.

Somehow I ended up on my own again and began the long painful trudge towards Hawes, desperately trying to ignore the dark place I was in 3 years ago at the same spot.

Going into a second night wasn’t too bad, being in the middle of it was torture. I was shouting at myself to stop dreaming, and keeping a running commentary of where I was and what I was doing almost managed to keep me from falling headfirst into the ditch off cam fell Road.

Even when it got light it was still torture, and a few times I just lay down on the trail and went to sleep. There were plenty of people at this stage so it was never long before “hey there – are you ok?” Woke me up and set me weaving onwards with a “yes thanks, thanks for waking me”.

Eventually I’d had enough of the trudge and the road sign that said Hardraw and the checkpoint were still 1.5 miles away was too much, I just picked up my sticks and ran. Anything to make this stop as soon as possible.

As I walked the final grassy approach to the aid station tent, my feet were in agony, I felt exhausted and honestly couldn’t see a way to deal with the suffocating weight of the 160 miles I still needed to cover before the end of the race. 

Things were looking grim.


The first day had been great, first evening anyway. I’d been very apprehensive before the start, as is right and proper for such a seriously long undertaking, and loitering around Edale for a few hours didn’t really help. It did give me time to fix up my (ridiculously small) pack, and to eat a load of my food that had to be removed from my overweight drop bag.

Looking back to Kinder scout as I headed towards Snake Pass the view was of a lovely sun tinged green landscape, and one of those moments when you can’t think of anywhere else you’d rather be. I literally skipped along the flags marvelling how much nicer everything was when it wasn’t ankle deep in icy water.

That did come though, a surprisingly nasty storm hit at 3am, strong wind which blasted rain and the top layer of reservoirs at us sideways. It felt like winter and everyone had full waterproofs on.

Arriving at Hebden I was soaked and very awake, so grabbed some food and swapped my kit for something dry, which somehow took an hour and a half. Noted that I needed to faff a lot less, Tin would not have approved.

Minor kit explosion

Back at Hardraw, I staggered into the tent (checkpoint 2), sat down and tried to sort myself out, without quitting there and then.

The only thing I could think to do, was to think about my immediate needs, and to solidly, wilfully, ignore what was ahead. Dimly aware through the haze of sleep deprivation that it had worked before. 

Maybe if I focused on my feet, having some food, getting a bit of sleep and re stocking my pack with food and water, I’d forget that I was miserable and everything would miraculously sort itself out.

It did, kinda.

Before I really knew what was happening, I was doing it, I was carrying on, eating an apple and hiking the long climb to the peak of Great Shunner Fell (also nicer when not covered in ice), over the back and into Thwaite, where the cafe was open.

What a treat, I was actually smiling with a toasted tea cake in hand (all of the butter and jam thank you) as I set off happily chatting to Alex and wondering what treats the Tan Hill inn had in store.

There will be ups and there will be downs. Many of them, so many that you have to just accept how you feel and keep eating and moving. It really became that simple.

No treats at Tan Hill, not without a pandemic enforced pre-booking, but they did have hot water for our dehydrated food, and coffee and chocolate, so all was well.

Alex and I pretty much stayed together for the rest of the day, chatting about the usual stuff (ie everything!)

At one point we passed the half way mark. How could that be true ? It was though, and we had a lovely sunset to go with it.

Alex slept less than me and I set off towards Dufton on my own early Tuesday morning. On the way to cauldrons snout I passed Robert Cullen for the first time, this guy was to keep me entertained for hours to come but neither of us knew it then (I’m not sure he ever knew it!).

Towards the end of the interninably long and rocky track that leads to high cup nick I put on a burst of speed to catch up with someone , anyone, that I could talk to and distract myself from feeling sorry for my poor aching feet.

The tattoos creeping up his neck were a little daunting but races like this tend to attract similar people, regardless of what’s on the outside, and we spend a pleasant half an hour talking about other events we’d done and generally not thinking about our feet.

I unwittingly stopped in the “do not stop” zone and sat down for a mini picnic and rest for 5 minutes (precisely where my tracker didn’t work and I’d nearly fallen off the cliffs in the fog a few years ago).

Then the long hot trudge down to Dufton. Very long, very rocky so no running, no wind so it felt like a furnace. I promised myself a sleep and at the very least a nice long cool down at the bottom. I needed some promise to keep me moving along. It was probably around midday and a beautiful day, some of which I’d appreciated, but was now looking at through a veil of sweaty eyes and grinding jaw.

Someone told me that the cafe had opened especially for us, what a wonderful surprise! Not sure how long I lounged around on some shady grass, being fed a grilled panini (with a side salad, fresh food!), coffee and a toasted tea cake (food of the gods those are).

Chris was there too, and Ellie, all in much the same ruined situation. Somehow we laughed and joked a bit, mostly at the ridiculousness of our endeavour.

“It’s basically a brutal first two days, to weed out the weak, and then it’s a straightforward stage race”

Ellie pushed on and I asked Chris if he fancied doing the next section together. We’d had plenty to talk about earlier and I really felt that I was in need of some human company now. Solitude was a big part of my motivation for signing up, but I’d had a good enough dose of it already thank you.

Feeling that I had to purge it from my head, and prefixing it with “I’m not going to be negative the whole way”, I expunged the story of when I was last here, wading through deep snow in a midnight storm.

Very different today.

Up up up and over, and up and over, a few times, and then we were starting the long descent past Greg’s hut and another rocky bloody road to Alston.

The miles kept ticking by. I kept eating, mostly Huel bars, they turned out to be almost perfect fuel. Not too sweet, packed with accessible carbs, and easy to get down. I didn’t get bored of them (unlike chocolate covered raisins, which I went off after the first mouthful).

As we neared the main road a familiar face leapt out from behind a sign. Only bloody Dave! We worked together a few years ago, actually not together but close enough to spend much time talking adventures by the water cooler. His wife Anne was there too and wow it was so nice to have a blast of familiarity and fresh smiling faces.

I hadn’t realised at the time but Chris had stopped eating a while ago, and was seriously struggling. To be honest I don’t think he knew at the time and it was only with hindsight that he figured out why he’d felt so totally ruined.

Neither of us was in any rush to get to the checkpoint, as weird as that sounds. With a limit of just 6 hours I was so against being awake during the zombie hour again I would rather lose race time than go through it again.

On the other hand lots of people had been banging on about lasagne, and it had been a long old tiring day. There was also pretty believable reports of showers and warm beds (the first since we’d started) which did sway our anti zombie meters a bit.

I’d resolved to try and nudge the aid station towards extra time, with all sorts of clever ideas about them not writing my arrival time down straight away, to the plain old “ah it’ll be fine if I’m here a bit longer eh?”. Nope, I was deposited on the outside step, with my pack and essentials, in my bare feet, at 3:02am – exactly 6 hours from when I arrived.

No hard feelings, and it wasn’t raining, but yeah, nice try.

Chris waited patiently while I sorted myself out, a cup of jam filled porridge quietly distracting him. We hadn’t explicitly arranged to team up, but it just felt very obvious to and I was reminded of the winter race where I’d headed off at this point with Dan Connors and we’d stuck together for the rest of the distance. Our pace was similar, and the ability to have a laugh most of the time rather than sink into painful introspection was the perfect way to make this as positive an experience as possible.

The sun came up, we walked and jogged over some moors, dodged some rain and almost before we knew it were hiking up onto Hadrian’s wall. 

Someone was gaining on us, but not quite catching up. We got a good look and decided that “they didn’t look very happy”. Eventually Ade caught us up, as we caught Ellie, and sort of set off together, though they were solidly “not very happy” whilst we were more than chipper but seriously in need of some sort of sustenance.

“How far to the next aid station?”

“About 20 miles mate”

“What?!”

Ade (now known as “Ade Station”) looked so crestfallen I couldn’t help but laugh. 

“There is a cafe about half a mile off the trail about 6 miles ahead though, but no other water stops till Bellingham”

Poor lad, but I’m glad I’d asked before we left Alston, it’s not nice to have nasty surprises like that. We had hoped for a big fat breakfast in Greenhead but nothing was open, so the joy at finding a little van selling coffee and snacks in the car park near the turning for Twice Brewed was very real.

A traditionally grumpy Scot sold us one each of everything he had, gave us hot water for our food and sent us off with some free energy bars. Such a treat and we didn’t even leave the trail. Fully powered up we picked up the pace with a plan to get to the checkpoint around 6pm.

Neither of us wanted to get there that early, but with just one more section ahead the end was within smelling distance. Not really, it was at least 50 miles away, but we were feeling good and sprightly and made the most of it.

Ellie caught us just in time to negotiate a huge herd of cows (I’d seen her take massive detours around others earlier in the week). There was no way I was going to add unnecessary distance so ploughed through the middle of them keeping up a constant stream of friendly chatter.

“Thanks girls, coming though, mind your babies, that’s right move aside, thank you.”

No dramas.

The day was by now a familiar pattern. Leave somewhere. Get up on a moor for ages. Drop down somewhere after about 20 miles. Get water and if lucky some food. Climb up onto something for another 20 odd miles. Drop down and painfully cover the last few miles to a checkpoint.

As we walked in the last mile or so, Ellie was deliberating whether to sleep and risk being overtaken by Sharon Gayter (ultrarunning legend) in third place, or to push on after a brief pit stop. 

All I could think about was sleep, and I’d been doing a lot more of it than Ellie had. Sleep deprivation is truly horrible and I’d been getting as much as I could (which ended up being about 9 hours in total, not much!).

Ellie was asking for advice, but I was clearly the wrong person to advise on sleep denial, so I used the future self approach.

“Fast forward to yourself 5 or 6 weeks from now. If you look back and are annoyed with yourself for not just pushing on, then there is your answer”.

Part of her ploy was to put pressure on Sharon and hopefully get her to ease off and get some sleep (even though she’d told Ellie that this race was sleep deprivation training for reclaiming her John O’Groats to Lands end record).

Anyway it paid off and Ellie literally staggered her way to a second place finish in 120 hours and 35 minutes.

A few short hours later Chris and I were on the move, a midnight start and the final big push. Still lots of mileage to go and the Cheviots to tackle, along with the emotional baggage I would realise I was carrying late that day.

Right now though I tucked in behind and yawning whilst chucking back caffeine gels we got up onto yet another moor, this one dark and misty for a bit of summer novelty.

Coming down towards a road crossing there was a light ahead, which seemed to be coming towards us. Someone was on the trail, wtf.

“Bit of a god forsaken hour to be out on the hill eh mate?”

I got closer and realised it was only bloody Angus! He’d driven down from Edinburgh!

I’m getting emotional just writing about it, I was genuinely touched, it wasn’t just that my emotions had stopped working properly by then.

Massive covid unfriendly hugs and he joined us for a little way while we chatted and caught up with all things spine race and our respective families.

Having done the Scottish island peaks race a couple of times we’d had plenty of good bonding time, not to mention several long forays in the Lake District retracing the footsteps of a certain Mr B Graham.

It was getting light and Angus had three children to get ready for school not to mention a long day lawyering for a multinational bank, after starting his day at 1am.

What a bloody hero.

Hugely bouyed and very awake now we skipped over the last bit of moor (hurrah!) and climbed up into a huge pine forest, the last part before the Cheviots.

After a brief savaging by John Bamber’s midgie hordes we marched on filling our bellies with hot rehydrated mac & cheese and contemplated the final big push ahead.

It was 7ish by now and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. Probably a bit too lovely for 20 odd miles without shade but we had some water and it would just have to be enough. Only a few hours till KY (as it was now known, thanks to the medics at Bellingham, made me laugh every time).

Hut 1 delivered a lovely surprise of water and hot coffee, worth a sit down for sure. The volunteers didn’t seem very happy, maybe it was something we said, but when Robert appeared from around the corner and set off, we fell about laughing.

“OMG, we’ve overtaken that guy so many times! What the actual fuck!”

“Oh yeah Bobby Cullen? He’s a machine, does it every time – doesn’t sleep and just keeps on going, this must be his 5th spine”.

Machine? He’s a goddam trail ninja is what he is!

Chris pulled ahead by the time we got towards hut 2, partly as he was chasing a sub 5 (days) but mostly because I massively slowed down to contemplate the scene of many nightmares and a probable dose of PTSD.

Everything is so much nicer in the sun it’s true, not buried under hillocks of snow with monsters lurking in every shadowy blemish. I was surprised how strong the emotional memories were, and sat down for a while to contemplate the whole thing.

You can really see how the snow drifts here, there are huge gaps with deep heathery fringes that would trap anything. Coupled with reasonably high altitude (for the UK) and exposed sides, it was just perfect for making human sized traps.

It was good for me to see it again, I realised that we’d done incredibly well to drag ourselves up that crazy steep slope, no wonder it took hours. Then when I almost ended up in Hell (Hen) Hole, and Colin actually did, it was clear I’d just made a bad decision and it really wasn’t life threatening, I had just been really really tired.

Snapping back to reality and my sore feet, there was still 7 miles to cover and I’d had enough now. Eating the remainder of what I’d packed last night, which by this stage was caffeine gels and shot blocks, munching on pain killers I decided to leg it and see how early I could get in. It was only early afternoon which meant that pints in the pub later was most definitely ON!

Of course my body had other ideas, despite my head feeling more suited to a nightclub than a sunny hillside.

My right shin had been a bit achy since the long descent on a rocky forest road early that morning, and had slowly gotten more achy through the day. Now it just gave up and cramped. Cramp in my shin? This was a new one. A really bloody painful new experience.

What would you do? What could I do? I spoke to it that’s what. Spoke nicely and stroked and massaged it. I told it about how well it had done and how we were all tired and sore now. I listed the lovely things that waited just down the road for us, lots of rest, food and massage. It just needed to keep it together and we’d all soon be able to sit down and not get up again until we wanted to.

Of course it worked. Why ever would you think it wouldn’t.

I don’t know why it does, but I’ve done that a few times over the years with different muscles. The best theory I have is that by focusing my attention on the area that needs it triggers my brain to send in whatever reinforcements are required to sort the problem out.

In much the same way that I don’t know how to move my hand, but if I focus on what I want it to do then it just happens, somehow. It’s clearly not magic, and it works for me so I’m going with it. As bonkers as it sounds.

Sprint finish and over the line in 119 hours and 48 minutes. 14th place. Very happy.

A surprise shower near the finish line, a plate of food and two bowls of oh so delicious fruit salad, then I dumped my kit in the village hall and hit the local with Chris.

What a way to finish the week. This was no 4am dark and miserable end, with nobody to meet us and just a bowl of nasty soup and a cold floor. This was glorious lager and seats and crisps.

That was magic.

Guess who else was there? Oh yes, ninja Bobby!

The aftermath was surprisingly benign. Yes I was tired for a couple of weeks and had to sneak off for afternoon naps at work. It took me over a week to have a decent nights sleep and not keep waking up thinking I was on the trail .

My weight and body fat took a pleasing tumble, despite constant snacking, and I’m losing toenails every few days.

Oh my hips are a bit stiff, but I didn’t even have DOMS. Weird but I’ll take it.

One thing is for sure: I don’t have any desire to return to the Pennine Way again, I’ve made my peace with it and have more than enough memories now. I’m glad I got to see it in the daylight, there are some truly beautiful parts and they’re well worth a visit.

Of course if they did a race from north to south, that would be a different thing altogether…

https://www.strava.com/activities/5527447189

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