Not quite the Way I'd intended....
The Spine Race - January 2018
This race blog was originally going to be called My Way. I had signed up for the Spine Race this year not for any particular burning reason but for a number of slowly smouldering ones. Still in mourning after my Yukon Arctic Ultra experiences I went into my 2014 Spine Race with an unrealistic mindset about British winter racing, expecting a winter wonderland and getting a 7 day rain and bog fest, on a route that was in some places more National Disgrace than National Trail. I then got ill early on in the race and death marched the last 200 miles in an increasingly zombie like state. Recovery, both physical and mental, took months. It’s a truth of long distance endurance racing that it’s not about whether or not something goes wrong, but what goes wrong and how you deal with it. I wasn't after a perfect race this year, they don't happen, but surely I could have a better time than in 2014! I'm also a lot fitter and stronger than I was back then and wanted to see that improved capability play out.
I was also somewhat inspired by a clip I'd seen of Damian Hall, alone on Great Shunner Fell, in the middle of an absolute monster storm, and despite this he was recording a piece to camera laughing and joking (#shamelessdamianhallpromotion). There wasn't a hint of "oh-my-god-I'm-going-to-die-alone-on-this mountain" about him and if there was he was hiding it well. To be comfortable and positive out there whatever and wherever seemed like a pretty good thing, and "comfortable" extended to my physical and mental states. I have the experience but needed to sort out my head and stop it from intervening in proceedings with outbreaks of screaming and negativity.
And finally I had found myself looking longingly over the fence once more when I volunteered for the safety team last year. I had a great time and enjoyed seeing and supporting the racers from first to last digging deep and persevering. Watching Sarah Fuller's emotionally supercharged finish, captured beautifully by Summit Media, was simply the straw to break the camel's back.... I was called to return and do the race again.
Soon after last years proceedings were wound up "The Conversation" was had with Harriet, who in her usual fashion reminded me that I'd sworn blind never to do it again, said I was an idiot, but would support my intent to return regardless. Cliched or not, she is my partner in crime and my rock and I couldn't do half of what I do without her support. Approval granted, forms were filled in and the die was cast.
My training year divided nicely in half, January to June focusing on Montane Lakeland 100, a third finish at another race I swore I would never do again, and then July to December on Spine prep. So the back half of the year saw lots of distance work, lots of solo jaunts on the Way, lots of kit testing in the field, and lots of strength work. Turning up at trail marathons in autumn in full Spine kit does tend to raise an eyebrow or two amongst other competitors but does get the body accustomed to the weight of the pack, how it carries, and how best to shuffle along to avoid crippling yourself. Running King Offa's Dyke Ultra and Lon Las Ultra in close proximity of each other gave me solid multi-day non-stop distance training and honed my sustainable progress skills.
Throughout the year people kept asking why I was going back, which is fair as "know your why?" is a question I always advise other people to be able to answer as its a question you will ask yourself many times, often with inserted expletives, when you are mid-race. My why was fragmented and ill-formed so I approached it from simple objectives instead, and these would be the measure of my personal success or otherwise in the race:
- Finish, and finish well - I knew that not finishing, even if it was a justifiable/understandable DNF, one of those things that just happens, a slip or a trip etc, would haunt me for another year to come. That wasn't acceptable to me so I was touching the wall at Kirk Yetholm even if I’d dragged myself there on bloodied stumps. Finishing well meant not being a wreak at the end and for weeks following. Where in the field I finished was irrelevant but I did want to beat my previous finish time for good show's sake.
- Enjoy the journey - it’s a lot of time away from home and work to dump my responsibilities on Harriet and so having been granted leave of absence I wanted to relish every minute of it, on trail, and at the checkpoints. The bits of the PW that aren't completely shit are actually quite nice and it would be good to lift my eyes from my feet to take it in and enjoy them as I passed through.
- Be comfortable out there - don't go mad, keep the physical exertion measured, know and use my experience and kit, and not let my ridiculous mood swings get the better of me. Laugh at myself, the weather and the PW no matter what they collectively threw at me.
I like to label stuff, and Spine 2018 became a "pilgrimace"; a personal journey to Kirk Yetholm, by me and for me, albeit within the confines and relative security of a formal race with all its support structures available when and if required.
The last few weeks before race day saw me trying to maintain strict training regime while not being a complete misery over Christmas. A few days calorie amnesty was great and then I clamped down hard on my diet so as to carry just the right amount of easily available fat into the race. I was going to need those saddlebag calories.
My previous Spine and Challenger's and more recent reccies had given me a clear picture of my kit requirements. In line with the great master-plan of kit retailers there is no such thing as the right pack, the right footwear, the right waterproof, each in their own way offering so much but then being rubbish in one or more key ways. The right pack had the wrong front or side storage, the shoes that were great on mud were mysteriously rubbish on wet rock, the waterproof that was seemingly indestructible wasn't if we got the "wrong sort of rain", or were to endure a spell of double digit temperatures. The race is simply too long a period of time, and over too wide a range of terrains to be able to settle on a one size fits all approach, and so compromise and flexibility is key. I set about constructing a range of gear that would allow me to deal with whatever mad combos of terrain and weather the Way would have in store for me.
Mind, body and kit ready the last few days before the race dragged along. I had everything packed and by the door three days in advance to stop nerves ruining the attempted relaxed state I wanted to be benefiting from in the immediate lead up. On the whole this worked well and me and Harriet set off to Edale after a relaxed breakfast on Saturday morning. A comedy detour on route (a theme of the coming few days) added an hour but the journey was uneventful and we checked into the Ramblers which was once again Spine Central. Registration and kit check sorted uneventfully (in line with the lottery result Maxine diligently checked I had every one of my 16 paracetamol and a spork so the chances of anything harming me on the hill were now minimal, and if they did I could simply spoon myself an overdose and leave my worries behind). We rendezvoused with friends Andy and Sarah Norman, Michelle, Gary and Peter for dinner and my traditional pre-match medicinal pint of Guinness, then upstairs for a bath and an early night.
|Spiner 214 looking a bit keen and ready for action|
Lining up on the start line I felt relaxed. It was a welcome feeling as I usually feel knotted up inside with nerves. I think the relief of bringing to a conclusion a year's worth of training and preparation far outweighed any nerves about the journey to come. I was surfing the line between confident and over confident nicely and hoped that tightrope walk continued.
My game plan was simple; I wasn't there to race this so don't get tempted to go off hard, but I needed to bank a cushion of time over leg 1 and 2 to underwrite the finish. As went on to happen, history teaches us that you cannot safely operate a 7 day pacing plan on the Spine as over that length of time the weather can have a significant say on events. My leg 1 and 2 plan was simple, in to Hebden by 8pm, out by midnight, into Hawes by midnight, out at first light. That would set me up nicely for the rest of the race and could be achieved metaphorically and indeed literally without breaking into a sweat. A bit of weather was forecast for overnight Saturday but it was a tailwind and nothing to trouble me in the grand scheme of things, and certainly nothing to derail the first couple of phases of the plan.
|And we were off. My sense of relief at FINALLY, after a year's build up, being over the start was palpable|
Phil was in charge of proceedings and as such we started dead on 8am. Conditions were perfect, cold, dry and a modest wind from the SW, and this translated into easy trails and good visibility over Kinder. The Downfall, in recent years being both gravity defying and a raging torrent, was simply a trickle to be stepped over. Even the stalwarts guarding Snake Pass were treated to a moderately less grim environment than is par for that remote crossing. On the long slabbed descent off Mill Hill and the grind up to Bleaklow I had the pleasure of sharing the trail with last years winner, Tom Hollins, who was playing a canny pacing card and keeping back from the hotly competing lead group. His pacing strategy last year was superb and ultimately secured him the win, but the change in support rules, and the all star elite field meant that this year even making the podium was not going to be easy. He was good company and the time passed easily. We hit #1 of the comedy detours, where Scott, in a fit of nostalgia had rerouted the trail off perfectly good trail and onto a historic route of the Pennine Way which was indistinct and boggy. Tom pulled ahead and I realised I was starting to get hot and in danger of starting to sweat so I eased back to return to my sustainable pace.
As I headed on towards Torside confusingly runners started approaching from up ahead going in the opposite direction. Another race was in full swing and given the lack of responses to my cheery "good morning!" it must have been a seriously contended business. The descent to Torside Reservoir took its usual seemingly endless amount of time but I was soon in the warm embrace of the excellent mountain rescue team who had a gazebo set up roadside. A mug of tea! Amazing, and a real bonus that fuelled both body and mind for a good few miles to come. It goes without saying (though I said it to them anyway) that the racers were enormously grateful that the MRT's, who volunteer so much of their time anyway, were there to support the race. Given they had been out the day before too to support the Challenger and their own MRT Challenge, to turn out again for another long stint was above and beyond the call of duty and I thank them.
The next leg is a bit of grind, slowly gaining altitude up to Black Hill, but then all changes. You go from a feeling that you are alone in the entire world then as you crest Black Hill signs of civilisation appear front and sides as you start the descent to Wessenden. It always feels like a transition point to me and this year was no exception, added to by the fact that I knew my wife Harriet was (wo)manning a monitoring point at Wessenden Head with Paul Wallis, for SST2. This would be the last time I saw her until Kirk Yetholm so it was a bittersweet moment. In line with race rules she had been hugging and kissing each competitor through to ensure that I received equivalent non-favouritism treatment, and would continue to do so right through to the last runner. Given the tail end of the field would pass this point in the dark it is an ideal station to eyeball the well being of the slower racers before they start a long dark stretch to Hebden, still some 23 miles away. Paul was clearly feeling the cold of the exposed location as he had a second layer on over his usual tee-short only hill attire! He kindly fished out a Cornish pasty from the stuff pocket of my rucksack (I was keen for an independent witness that I'd carried the thing from the start rather than picked it up from Harriet) and I chewed on that happily for the easy stretch of track from Wessenden down past the reservoirs.
I've been happily adjusted to a low carb diet over the last 6 months and that meant at the low intensity I was operating I could comfortably get by on very little, but there is valuable calories and mental benefit to having something "proper" to eat and so in addition to a few mini fudge bars (thank you for the introduction to them Richard) I was carrying salami, cheese, my Cornish pasty, and 4 pigs-in-blankets for their savoury saltiness and all round super food nature. (Editor's Note: they were fresh, not left over from Christmas!!)
|Surely a hallucination.....|
The edges passed without incident and then, miracle beyond miracle, the lay-by before the M62 crossing revealed a tea-van. Never before has there been anything here other than an occasional deep frozen SST team gathered around the warmth of a glowing tab end, so this was a proper bonus. Industrial sized mug of tea consumed I was on the way again. A bacon butty would have gone down a treat but I wasn't hungry and certainly the treat element did not outweigh the lost time involved in waiting for it to be ready. I was focused on getting to Hebden Hey and getting some quality downtime.
Blackstone Edge, once my nemesis, was now equal partners in an uneasy alliance. This year the conditions were perfect and I still had the light so it let me pass without issue. In previous years the "i'm-pretending-to-be-a-rock-but-really-I'm-a-bog"ness off the trail around there had seen me floundering around. MRT and SST were both in attendance at White House Inn and a hot chocolate was gratefully received. That was my marker for no caffeine as I was nicely inside schedule and starting to harbour thoughts of a rebooting 90 minutes of sleep at the checkpoint. As I was about to leave Gary turned up and got about preparing himself another dehydrated meal. He was having a really disciplined race, sticking to his plan, and keeping his energy levels up, and it was great to see given his self confessed predilection for going off too fast.
I set off to the reservoir track and the second of the days comedy detours. In true British style the Warland Reservoir detour has been a red herring on PW website for 18 months with nothing to show on the ground, but upon arrival it was clear they had finally got started with the job in hand. The detour was pretty straight forward if boggy in places compared to the lovely runnable track that section usually is. Reunited with the PW I started the long stretch over to Stoodley Pike monument and the closing miles to the checkpoint. The trail was clear and dry, and I trotted away quite happily. I've had some shocking conditions on that stretch previously and I was deeply suspicious of the whole affair, expecting Vile Weather to leap out from behind a rock at any moment and club me about the head with a stick of pure zero-visibility-ness. It didn't happen, but what did was the arrival of Stephen Murphy, a local, and past Challenger competitor who had answered the call for pacers on Pavel's recent FKT attempt. He had put in about 40 miles that afternoon running backwards and forwards between competitors and it was great to say hi and have company for a mile or so before he peeled off to do another lap.
Passing a group of runners coming the opposite way from Callis Woods we exchanged brief greetings blinded by each others head-torches. Shortly after I met them again as the first appearance of the Gary Chapman Flying Circus arrived in force; Gary front and centre of a cohort of friends storming at breakneck speed down towards the Charlestown Bridge. He was looking in cracking form, and benefiting from his regular disciplined refuelling breaks. I on the other hand was not, my careful tightrope walk of just the right amount of the right foods had failed and as I started the comedy climb out of the valley I felt the strength disappear. After a slow painful ascent, that saw Gary disappear off into the distance, I stopped and stuffed myself with some carby goodness and walked a bit until I felt the calories kick in. Renewed I polished off the last couple of miles to the CP (even the stupid Muddy Hill of Death was better than normal.... at least until the rain started) and got in at 7:30pm, an acceptable 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Other than my energy crash at Charlestown I was satisfied with a well executed Leg 1, and now just needed to build on that by not being an undisciplined idiot in the checkpoint.
|CP1: Tucking into dinner #2 or perhaps breakfast #1 and talking too much|
There was a new sense of order in the checkpoint compared to previous years, and they had expanded to use an adjoining room which really helped. I'm sure it got busier later, inevitably, but I was impressed at how well run everything was this year compared to previous ones. I'm a bit of a planner as my friends may have noticed, and my CP routine was well planned and had even been subject to a full dress rehearsal in the spare bedroom. Within 30 minutes I had necked recovery drink, ate dinner#1, showered and changed, packed for the next leg, ate dinner#2, and was ready to get a bit of sleep if body and mind were so willing. One impediment to this efficiency was the fact I was enjoying being around the CP and catching up with friends from previous races or previous stints volunteering in the SST. I reminded myself that I was on holiday and so chatting with friends was hardly a hanging offence, but then this was a crucial transition in my plan and so I needed to be disciplined. I headed off to bed and dozed and slept for a couple of hours before packing up and leaping into action once more. Breakfast#1 was quickly followed by breakfast#2 (which looked pretty similar to dinner#1 from earlier that evening!). The witching hour was approaching, the rain was hammering on the roof, so it had to be time to return to the trail.
At midnight on the dot I set off refreshed and positive. Spine veterans Harsharn Gill and Stephen Brown were leaving at the same time and we shared the trudge up the Muddy Hill of Death, now returned to its usual state aided by the increasingly heavy rain. At the top the wind was a bit wild and would only be more so as I got up onto the exposed moor, so it was time to deploy the poncho. I'm a bit of a poncho fan, not in isolation as it provides no insulation, but as a barrier layer over another waterproof, or even just a throw on wind proof for exposed sections. I had worn my Rab Proflex waterproof soft-shell so far which is a 2 layer waterproof fabric with taped seams, which breathes really well, but I wouldn't particularly trust against wind powered machine gun rain. The poncho is sil-nylon, non breathable but crucially impermeable, so it takes the brunt of the rain leaving me protected underneath. Kitted up, and looking very much like a kid playing batman with a tablecloth for a cloak, a cranked it up a gear and headed up onto a wild, wet and windy Clough Head Hill.
The pre-agreed deal with myself was to not deploy my music until Top Withins Bothy but I was feeling really good and not in need of a carrot and stick approach, so the music went on and my daughter's music choices inspired Spine2018 playlist kept me entertained and moving at a solid sustainable pace. First pit-stop was at the Top Withins Bothy which I was simultaneously hoping to find both empty, and populated by other racers. In the end it was deserted and I sheltered from the wind and rain for a few minutes, had a mug of supercharged mocha from my flask and one of Tim Taylor's most excellent Chia Charge Mulled Raisin flapjacks. This was a regular stop on my overnight training trips and it felt right to pause here for a second in the race itself.
Pushing on, with not a soul (or the head-torch of a soul) to be seen ahead or behind I crossed the valley at Ponden reservoir, passed the creepy farm on the other side of the valley and prepared myself for the barren misery that is Ickornshaw Moor. The rain continued and everything was slick underfoot hampering progress, but I had no huge expectations of high pace for this leg, simply a steady constant forward motion all the way to Hawes. There was another detour in place bypassing Lower Summer House Farm, a nice 500m downhill runnable track with three times that much of tarmac. I took another pit-stop at the magic bus stop near the school which has excellent benches and seems to manage to be nicely sheltered whichever way the elements are blowing. The lucky dip in the food pocket this time yielded a pepperami, a marmite cheddar cheese portion and a mini cranberry Chai Charge bar, all good and washed down with more mocha from the flask. The flask was always a bit of a weight luxury but worth its weight in gold on that overnight leg.
More sloppy fields and barren moorland passed uneventfully and I pulled into Lothersdale in time to be caught by another runner. We exchanged nods at the water stand outside the Hare and Hounds pub, kindly provided by the new patrons. Word had it that hot food would be available later on which would be a welcome oasis for the runners still to come. But it was 5:45 in the morning and all sensible publicans were tucked up in their beds. I pressed on as I was keen to say hello to Pinhaw. I'd had a wonderful, if somewhat surreal moment on Pinhaw on a training run where the early light of dawn had illuminated the valleys full of mist all in weird and wonderful shapes and sizes. I'd sang and danced around the trig like an madman celebrating the end of the night.... but today I was more restrained, tipping my hat to the trig in a knowing manner. I was on the clock and the Pinhaw gods would understand.
The long descent to Thornton In Craven began and the route into the aptly named Brown House Farm was as muddy and churned up as ever. There is a farmer that really welcomes the PW through their farmyard, routing the path through the best cow churned and fertilised areas of the fields and through a maze of fence-lines through the farmyard. I said hello to the farmer on early morning duties to be solidly ignored. What a guy.
The trail to Gargrave gets progressively easier taking a pretty much direct route between Thornton In Craven and Gargrave. To fix that Scott had put in a pre-notified detour on roads, and added to this with a surprise extra unannounced one just to keep things interesting. It was a fair bit of extra distance and on tired feet the tarmac was not particularly welcome but it finally gave way to Gargrave. It was 8:40am and somehow, despite conditions underfoot and the extra distance in the detours I was an hour ahead of schedule. I popped into the loo to find two racers bivi'd down in there... I'm sure to the delight of the locals who were now getting about their Monday morning duties.
Gargrave Coop is a renowned Spine oasis, and the hot food counter is an oasis within an oasis (when Richard Lendon isn't camped there drying his kit and warming his nether regions that is). Experience had taught me that without care and attention, and some pre-planning, one can arrive at the checkout with an entire trolley load of food. A hungry man browsing the shelves for whatever takes his fancy can do a fair bit of damage and then you are left stood outside with a couple of carrier bags and no idea what you can do with it all. Two hot pasties, a bacon sandwich, a pack of ham, a pack of sliced cheese and a cinnamon swirl were purchased along with orange juice and a pint of chocolate milk. Heaven.
The stretch from Gargrave to Malham has little in the way of redeeming features and this unfortunate claim to fame was added to by the addition of diversion #goodness-knows-how-many which took me on a surprisingly busy road through Airton. Everybody seemed to in a Monday morning rush and unsurprisingly they weren't expecting to find runners (walkers) on the road as they zoomed through spraying up the puddled rainwater as they went. But I had a cinnamon swirl and didn't care.
I passed through the pretty Malham village at about 11am still holding my hour in hand on schedule and pressed on to the cove. Up ahead a familiar (and welcome) figure came bobbing along as Paul Nelson joined me again. I'd seen him briefly on Standage the previous leg as he and Lucie were out for walk, and here he was again. He and Carol Morgan had teamed up in the race the previous year in a partnership that saw the Ladies race record smashed. She was running solo this year, clearly not wanting her progress to be hampered by Paul's little legs. ;-)
Paul told me that Chia Charge were attempting to man a pop up stand on the limestone cliffs above the cove which must have been a challenge in the lively winds. Sure enough, at the top of the climb, there was Tim Taylor rocking what could easily have been a dozen layers of clothing manning his pop up flapjack emporium. Tim is a regular supporter of the Hardmoors events I frequent and it was great to see a friendly face and chat for a minute.
A short lived improvement in the weather could tell me only one thing. Matt and Ellie from Summit Fever Media were nearby. Matt's contract with the weather gods is impressive and I only hope that if he has promised his first child to them he has mentioned this to his wife. As I approached the head of valley on my way to the tarn Ellie popped up, camera in hand. You can't help but like Matt and Ellie - friendly, professional and incredibly talented they have brought together some amazing footage of the Spine race over recent years that have brought the race to life for armchair spectators and dot-watchers, along with capturing some amazing memories for the racers themselves. This year they were excelling themselves, tirelessly popping up on route, capturing the race at the front and the journey at the back, and working miracles to get this edited and live in daily segments. Matt's second (at least I hope its his second) love, his drone, was playing an ever important role and the hum of it inspired many racers, myself included, to endeavour to look and act less knackered than we really were.
|Arrival at CP1.5 having just left no DNA trace at a murder by Malham Tarn|
I was still rocking the poncho'd serial killer look as I landed at CP 1.5 the Malham Tarn Field Centre but the weather was now improved and I could stow it again. The inspiring Spine veteran Sarah "the face that launched a 1000 Spine applications" Fuller was in attendance at the CP and it was great to catch up. She had been on the go since the Challenger start and looked like she was ready for a nights rest. Having been on both sides on the racing/support team fence I can attest to the amazing work the SST, CP and logistics teams do - its more exhausting than racing it sometimes. A quick sock change revealed the feet were doing just fine thankfully, and I hydrated a pack of noodles to give me a carb boost to last to the brilliant PYG cafe in Horton In Ribblesdale. As we hadn't had one for a while the CP staff also advised that another diversion was in place this time missing out the PYG summit due to ice. I was a bit flummoxed by this given the benign conditions and the fact we are required to carry ice spikes but rules are rules so I made a mental note and got on my way. For once the detour was shorter which clawed back a bit of the bonus mileage we had put in so far.
Fountains Fell was clear under foot though it's usually blustery self over the summit. I made decent progress back down the otherside noting that my dry socks from CP1.5 were still dry - a phenomenon rarely experienced on the Spine where a dry pair of socks often last only a few meters beyond the door. The detour was down the Three Peaks track to Horton In Ribblesdale, and after wrestling to open the gate in the high winds, I made good progress down into the village to the cafe.
The owners of the PYG cafe are superstars. They stay open 24/7 from first Challenger to last Spine racer and provide a welcome respite and source of hot food. Unphased by the carnage around them with dirty smelly racers in various states of dress and undress and varying states of consciousness they dish out mammoth amounts of food, tea and coffee to all comers, to set racers up for the last cheeky half marathon over to Hawes. Thanks to the detour I arrived at 16:40 now an hour and twenty minutes better than plan and treated myself to a vat of hot tea, a beef goulash, and a large cake. Fantastic.
There is not much to say about High Cam Road. Ever. It's a journey that is done quickly on reccies on fresh legs, but for tired racers at the end of the long leg 2 it simply takes an eternity. I was refueled though and pleased to have broken the back of the all important timings for my leg 1 and 2 plan, so my head was up and my pace was ok. It was looking like I would be able to get my reward of a good rest at Hawes and be away at first light for Great Shunner Fell. The weather was deteriorating again as I approached the latest in a long line of detours at Ten End. On paper this was a welcome one, as the bogs of the aptly named Rottenstone Hill have swallowed many a racer never to be seen again. Surely the extra mileage of the detour was worth it to bypass that lot. As Cam Road descended after the usual right fork the condition of the track deteriorated further, first to a comedy 2 inch wide tramline of path surrounded by deep furrows of standing water. Difficult to manage at the best of times, but once the windbreak of the wall on my left had stopped I was been hit by knock you off your feet winds and getting start stop visibility as the snow started. I made slow progress using my poles to balance and finding my way as best I could when the visibility went to nothing. The waterlogged track gave way to comedy sized boulders, then gravel farm-track and eventually tarmac as I approached the point where it rejoined the PW at Gayle. The last mile down by the river and back up through the town was an utterly pointless exercise as I had earlier passed within 500 meters of the CP building, but I finally arrived at 10:15pm, still an hour inside schedule. I was a happy bunny. Leg 1 and leg 2 executed well and in the timeframe that set me up with a time cushion and allowed me now to relax out of the racing mode and into my planned "pilgrimace" mode, without putting the finish at risk if the weather turned nasty. Outside the CP, the snow was falling heavily as the weather turned nasty.
|CP2: Kate keeping things ship-shape in the kitchen|
Inside the CP all was warmth and happiness. I caught up with drop-bag, food and friends. Peter Gold, bar the fleshy material of his heel, was helping out after successfully completing the Challenger, Bruce Ballagher who I know from previous Spine encounters, and Kate, a good friend from home and Harriet's Challenger partner last year was there too. It was wonderful to be off my feet, warm and in good company and I let myself have a few unstressed minutes. Then Gary's note arrived and the nature of my journey to come took a different turn.
I had planned from the outset on being solo. I know Gary through a mutual friend and from a few races in recent months but there was never a plan to team up. Gary is a far better athlete than me and had had an impressive high energy and disciplined first two legs and was already upstairs in the dorm sleeping. The note advised me that he had arranged to have the CP staff save me a bed in the dorm he was in so we could go off together to do Great Shunner Fell, for safety. Now the fact that it would be safer going over Shunner in pairs is undeniable, but I wasn't phased in any way by the idea of going solo, and my entire planned approach to the race spoke of solo operation on my terms. Gary is hugely competitive, but also not hugely experienced in winter mountain conditions, and I simply found myself in a quandary. Was this just gamesmanship, or was this a genuine request for help? In races such as these there is a difficult line to walk between personal and collective safety, and competition. Many people's races have been ended early because they sacrificed their own pace to support an injured fellow competitor. Sometime you need to just walk away, but human compassion has to play a part as well. I wasn't entirely sure what to do and it was on my mind when tried to get my head down for some sleep.
|Me and Stephen reviewing the situation and generally procrastinating|
I awoke with a start about 3am. My plan departure time was first light, about 7am, but now I wasn't sure about Gary's timings, or even if any of the dark slumbering forms around me were in fact Gary, or whether he was as I laid here already running up Great Shunner Fell rubbing his hands together at the ruse he had pulled. Funny thing the sleep deprived brain. I headed downstairs to get breakfast #1, see if Gary was about, and review the situation. He wasn't but I caught up again with Harsharn and Stephen. Stephen was having the race of his life having discovered that his personal secret to Spine training was in fact not to do any. By about 4am I'd decided to go back to bed, but then on cue Gary arrived.
Annoyed with myself but resigned to a stint of escort duty I had another couple of breakfasts and started to gear up for the next leg. In my head the leg to Middleton in Teesdale was billed as a rest leg, the lowest mileage of any, moderate terrain and the remote Tan Hill Inn as a perfect lunch stop. On the brightside a bit of company over Great Shunner Fell was safer and overnight a good fall of snow had hit the tops which would make nav harder and passage slower.
|Heading out to see what Great Shunner Fell had in store for us|
We were out the door at 5:25am nearly a couple of hours before I had intended to be so, and made steady careful progress up the hill. As I got higher and it got more exposed and colder the BTN made its first appearance. The Better Than Nothing jacket born on the borderline between genius and stupidity, designed to be put on as an over-layer without stopping or having to take off your pack. With a large panel cut out of the back, with an elasticated hem, the rucksack pops through the precut hole allowing the jacket to be put on and zipped up. It's a bit draughty around the back hole but is pretty toasty otherwise and is certainly Better Than Nothing, which is the likely alternative when you simply can't be bothered to stop and layer up, instead letting yourself get colder than is perhaps wise in winter racing.
|Modelling the BTN to an understandably mystified checkpoint crew|
Concerned kit-check minded citizens note - I still carried an unmodified primaloft smock as well for prolonged use in the cold. We summited Great Shunner Fell at 8am and were treated to a period of good visibility down the valley as the dawn light slowly grew in strength. It was Christmas card pretty and worth the slog up in the dark to be there at that time.
As I hit tarmac at Thwaite I was simultaneously buzzed by a suicidal gritting lorry hurtling past at at least 60mph down the hill and and equally speedy Mick Kenyon from Racing Snakes photography heading in the opposite direction. Having missed us the first time he turned around to try again before heading up the trail to find a suitable photo call location.
|A wintery scene leaving Thwaite. Picture by Mick Kenyon|
The route around to Keld bridge is a bit treacherous at the best of times and wasn't much better with slush and mud on the ground. Progress was pretty slow but eventually I crossed the river and stopped to enjoy the scenery and take a bit of food onboard. This is the crossing point where the PW crosses the infinitely more enjoyable Coast To Coast route. As Wainwright said.... "“You won’t come across me anywhere along the P.W.” he wrote, “I’ve had enough of it.”. Having done both a few times I'm firmly in his camp on that one, and I haven't even got started about Isaac's Tea Trail yet. Me and Harriet are doing the Northern Traverse Coast To Coast race in May as a holiday and seeing the junction filled me with happiness at the idea and made me miss her at the same time. We had reccied the PW together in a couple of stages in 2017 and had a fantastic time together in our expedition bubble. I had replaced many poor 2014 memories with happy 2017 ones which made me smile again as I saw the familiar landmarks and picnic stops. It also helped solidify my thinking about what I enjoy about expeditions like this one, what I don't, and how I want my life to be in the future.
My musings were interrupted by French competitors Daphne and her racing partner. They had passed me earlier but I think had taken detour, accidental or deliberate, into the metropolis of downtown Keld village. We set off up the hill towards the farm and the moor but I was refreshed (and knew the way) and quickly left them behind. Stonesdale Moor goes on a bit and the Tan Hill Inn has an amazing ability to remain hidden from view until you are almost in reach of the bar. Halfway there I thought it would be a good idea to break up the monotony by tripping over my own feet and landing heavily on my right knee - no immediate damage but an annoying injury that I would carry to the finish and beyond. We rocked up at the Tan Hill Inn at 12:10pm (slipped a bit at 50 mins ahead of schedule.... which for a bag of a fag packet schedule was looking ok so far) and the SST who had managed to blag getting stationed in the pub came out to meet us, including the newly sheared Ben Taylor who I hardly recognised without his curly hair, and Mark Caldwell a rightful resident of the Spine Hall Of Fame. They took a few photos and I quickly got settled inside by the fire.
|The Tan Hill Inn oasis with welcoming open fire. 2nd and 3rd Lady in attendance....Gary on facebook...|
I was also glad of a toilet opportunity as my increasingly frequent travelling companion, uncontrollable diarrhoea, was once again with me. It stayed with me through to the finish sapping my energy and causing dehydration issues but given one too many (ie one) of my race reports have gone into that previously I'll spare us all further details in this report.
|Refueling at Tan Hill Inn. Giant filled Yorkshire pudding and veggies - yeay!|
A couple of coffees, a soup and a massive Yorkshire pudding bedecked with beef stew later (I was thankfully able to get it in as quick as it was going out!) I was out the door just inside an hour after arriving and still holding an hour up on my outline plan.
|Leaving Tan Hill Inn. Gary appears to have shrunk in the cold|
I stared at Sleightholme Moor which glared slushily back. We have some previous, me and Sleightholme having given me and my little band of comrades a real hard time when we crossed it in the dark back in 2014. The American Werewolf In London line "don't stray off the path" is never truer then when referring to both werewolf infested moorland and Sleightholme Moor. That's if you can find a path to stray off. But this year wasn't so bad as it was partly frozen and the snow helped keep feet up and out of the worst of it. Progress was steady but we finally hit the good track and pressed on to the delightful A66 underpass. We reached the Deepdale shelter just after 4pm and Gary declared that he was stopping to make a meal again. I wasn't hungry and should have pressed on but again I vacillated and instead chose the wholly unhelpful on the fence option of pacing up and down irritably in the shelter while Gary brewed up. I usually go segment to segment without stopping, doing everything on the move and the food stops and photo sessions were starting to irritate me. Another 40 minutes of precious time disappeared without trace. (Editor's note: I should point out that I was perfectly capable of doing, and at liberty to do, my own thing - Gary had every right to run his race as he wanted to - and in fairness to him said I could go on without him if I wished. I was oscillating between concern for his welfare and a desire to run my own race and my tired brain was making a pigs ear of making a decision)
Finally pressing on we spotted a head-torch ahead on the Cotherstone Moor and shortly afterwards made our first pick up of a wandering Kirsty, an occurrence to be repeated most nights until the finish. I had briefly chatted with Kirsty in the Tan Hill Inn before she darted off, keen to put some distance between her and Daphne who were now vying for 2nd Lady position (Carol Morgan being many miles ahead by now). I was impressed by Kirsty's determination and confidence - nothing seemed to outface her - and now she was stood in the middle of a bog asking us if she was on the right track as the maps on her GPS had disappeared. We teamed up to ensure she was safe until she could sort out her GPS. Safe off the moor I was reunited with the car-park at Balderstone Reservoir where I spent a happy 48 shift last year seeing through all the runners from Pav through to Phil Clarke bringing up the rear. Phil ultimately didn't make it last year but with the grit and determination he showed then, he was back again this year and successfully touched the wall with a good hour and ten minutes to spare. Legend! This year the car-park was devoid of life except for two empty frozen over vehicles. More meandering trail and another hop over a snowbound moor brought us to Lunedale where we criss-crossed field boundaries before starting the final climb up and over to Middleton In Teesdale, another checkpoint that seems to take forever coming. Somewhere on route, unsigned and unnoticed, I silently slipped past the halfway point of the PW. Gary needed to make the co-op in the village before closing time for a resupply so pushed on hard; his footsteps in the snow being quickly covered by fresh snow and spindrift. Me and Kirsty finally landed at CP3 at 8:10pm, 20 minutes later than schedule my cushion of time been eroded by the snow and the unscheduled stops.
|CP3: Another checkpoint, another round of stuffing my face with any food available.|
Middleton In Teesdale CP has always been a bit basic.... and that was now reinforced by a load of building work that seemed to render various bits unusable. Only a single shower was available, there was no hot water in the taps, and the room used for the drop-bags could have doubled easily as a large walk in freezer. But it does have a large warm seating and dining area and that's where everyone gravitated. I grabbed a shower and changed then commenced my usual routine of eating my body-weight and catching up with friends on the CP crew and SST. MY feet were fine apart from two small blisters between my big and next toes on both feet. My abbreviated and undisciplined rest at Hawes had resulted in more swollen feet than normal and my injinji/sealskin sock combo felt tight on my feet resulting in the blisters. Schoolboy error and I was annoyed at myself. I opted to have them drained by the medics but left undressed as they would have time to heal over as I rest and I didn't want to get them taped around the toes taking up more valuable shoe space. I was more tired than I should have been given the modest day and the fact it was only 9pm-ish, but I had got next to no useful sleep at Hawes the night before and so I needed to get some proper rest here if I was going to keep my head in the game and positive. My plan had me leaving at 2:30am to take advantage of the easy valley path in the dark but give me best chance of daylight over Cross Fell at the other end of the leg. But I had to be realistic - turning around and being out the door in 5 hours would have trimming sleep to three and I knew I needed more than that to be effective. I text Harriet to warn her I was going off plan but deliberately and for the right reasons, and got my head down and feet up, with the plan to catch up a bit with a luxurious 5 hours of sleep, get up at 3 and get out the door by 4:30am. I was on holiday after all. Outside the weather was starting to turn a bit nippy and more snow was falling.
Once Gary had updated the facebook world we were out the door at 4:35am. I wasn't sure where his head was at regarding Cauldron Snout but he certainly didn't want to be solo over Cross Fell which was waiting for us in the back end of the day. A double traverse of the Pennines, with features along the way including High Force, Cauldron Snout, High Cup, the cafe at Dufton, Cross Fell and Greg’s Noodle Bar all combined to make this the most enjoyable leg of the whole Way. And a bit of proper winter weather could only add to the fun. I was a happy bunny.
Progress up the valley was slower than I'd like but not problematically so, the snow deep in places especially around walls and gates. High Force was just noise in the darkness to my right but it allowed my mind to drift back to mine and Harriet's fantastic reccie trip. By Bracken Rigg things got a bit interesting with a strong headwind, poor visibility and a lot of deep snow to plough through. By its nature a lot of the first half of this leg is westerly and so was into the strong wind that had so far been favourable to progress. More of that was waiting on the high moor.
Shortly after crossing Cronkley Farm bridge, and with daylight upon us, Andy Sample arrived heading in the other direction. He was done with it, he said, as the snow drifts were impassable ahead. We played out the usual "are you sure" soundtrack but he was resolute and headed on back to the CP at Middleton. But not for long, having had a change of heart to his change of heart he turned back around again and caught up with us a new and improved positive man by the foot of the Snout. The Spine is funny like that. Stuff can build up in your head until a single incident, however small, can tip you over the edge (if you let it), you start swearing away at all things Pennine Way and negativity and defeatism gets a grip on your soul. Andy got the demon back in its box and I was pleased for him (and his eventual finish!). His role in our day wasn't over yet however... more of that in a bit.
|A (very) brief break in the weather just in time for photo call at Cauldron Snout|
After the inevitable photo and facebook stop at the foot of Cauldron Snout, and the slightly more constructive time spent putting on ice grips, we made steady progress to the farm road basking in the 10 minutes of sunshine the Way had kindly decided to offer us. (Editor's Note: Yes, I am aware of the implicit irony in being grumpy about the time lost taking photos, but using them anyway in this blog. Hello, my name is Karl Shields, and I have double standards.) Ten minutes after that there was a blizzard, visibility dropped to nothing and the headwind hit unimpeded. Two hours of hard graft later I crested the lip of High Cup and was again rewarded with a few minutes of visibility. After the zero vis nothingness of the proceeding 2 hours it looked amazing and I broke my no facebook rule for the first time to post a quick picture of it. Proper winter conditions, and a reward at the end. I was beyond happy, and even more so as I could now start to dream about the all day breakfast I had planned at the Post Box Pantry in Dufton courtesy of Gary Hope who had kindly agree to open up especially for the race. Superstar.
|Wintery fun on the way to Dufton|
|A momentary lift of the cloud base, just in time to grab a photo of High Cup.|
The route down to Dufton from HCN is easy going generally speaking and I even managed to get a few trundling runs in where the ice and snow allowed it. It was great to feel like reasonable progress was being made after the slow hard work of breaking trail in a headwind over the high fell. Arrival was 1pm (two and a half hours behind my now residing in the bin schedule), a quick mandatory check in at CP 3.5 where (Spine Legend) Allan Rumbles and Mike Stevenson were presiding over a tense international relations incident with the two french competitors over mandatory kit infringement, and then on to the Dufton Cooked Breakfast Emporium. Gary (Hope) outdid himself and my best expectations with a Spine Special of no-holds-barred cooked breakfast, tea, toast, and a brick sized slab of home made flapjack that looked like it could summit Cross Fell on its own little legs. (Editor's note.... these situations are the only time that spreading butter on top of jam on top of butter on top of toast is permissible. I have tried it since as part of a "recovery plan" and it was frowned upon as being "not normal")
We had given ourselves an hour, and 60 seconds before the deadline Gary was posting on facebook that I was telling him off for being on facebook. What neither the post, nor Gary, mentions were that having posted the post he still had all his gear to get together! Ten minutes later we were off back along the muddy dog walking track north of the village in a Scott-special go back the way you came'ism rather than taking the obvious lane out of the village and not carving up the locals pathway into pure mud. I was struggling for traction in the slick mud and Gary pulled ahead. Then one of those cumulative problem things happened, the kind that can turn a good mood bad in milliseconds. Leaving the farm-tracks behind there was a short flag section which was icing up. I was inattentive for reasons I'll come to, and my feet shot out from under me, leaving me flat on my back and winded on the flags. To add to the fun a small carabiner on my pack had also snapped and needed replacing from my repairs bag. And finally, as seemed to be commonplace a short while after eating, my bowels demanded some attention in a very immediate way (yes I know I said I wouldn't come back to this but it's necessary for the plot of what followed). Gary was now a dot in the distance and I was unable to alert him to my situation. As he was in need of an escort over Cross Fell I assumed he'd wait, but he had spotted a new best buddy further ahead of him and pushed on quickly to catch his new friend. I was annoyed and happy simultaneously as it meant I could take on Cross Fell solo which had always been something I had wanted to in the race, having had the comedy traverse in a large pack back in 2014. Gary was buddied up for safety and I was getting some quality Karl time..... all worked out well.
At the Knock Old Man cairne the daylight finally surrendered to the dusk and I sheltered for a minute to sort out head-torch, goggles and an extra layer as the next 3 miles or so to Cross Fell summit, steadily gaining (and losing) altitude, are pretty exposed. The snow was heavy on the ground and despite the fact that Gary and his new friend had passed only 30 minutes before there were no tracks to be seen. I got my compass out to keep me orientated and bunny hopped from feature to feature probing ahead of me for solid trail and any hidden bogs. The weather was challenging and yet behaving itself, a strong wind but not gusty, a bit of snow and spindrift but not impeding visibility too much, a crisp cold but not dangerously so. Perfect. Around the communications centre on Great Dun Fell it got pretty entertaining with huge snow drifts that were now borderline in their ability to take the weight of a foot. Careful progress allowed me to stay on top of them, whereas one wrong move and I sank deep. At the Little Dun Fell shelter, a poor excuse for a shelter being practically a horseshoe of rubble, was still surprisingly effective and I used it to don the BTN outer layer ahead of the last push up Cross Fell.
It always amuses me the blind optimism of the cairn builders on Cross Fell. On a mountain that must have 25 meter visibility 360 days of the year, the cairns are massively spaced out. Any little intervening ones were obscured by snow, and the big ones must have been 200 meters apart or more. I tracked steadily on the compass bearing occasionally meeting tracks or even signs of a flagstone or two deep below the snow. There are a lot of nasty bogs up there and time spent probing the trail ahead was time well spent. A couple of hundred meters off the summit I saw head-torches ahead and three people tracked my way. I figured it was SST but it turned out to be Gary and two new wingmen who had been to the top but had got turned around and were heading back the way they had come. Suitably teased, they headed off in the (correct) direction of Greg's and I popped to the summit shelter arriving at 6pm, though it could have been 2am for all that one could tell.
Out of the wind it was really pleasant and I recorded a quick video and put on my ice spikes as we'd been warned that the descent to Greg's Hut was treacherous. I scampered down the slope quicker than I should, my own voice ringing in my ears that care was needed and I should underwrite the finish. This was one of those times where, when faced with a decision - how quickly do I get to Greg’s hut - there was only one decision that would best underwrite my ability to get to the finish line in one piece. But I was too hyper and ignored my own counsel ploughing down the icy snowbound slope without a care in the world. An idiot yes, but on this occasion a lucky one, and my passage was safe.
|Greg's Hut: The winter retreat of John Bamber and Paul Shorrock|
In 2014 I lost 2 hours in the hot and steamy oasis that is the John and Paul Noodle and Chilli Bar Extravaganza that is Greg's Hut. I debated running straight past as I wanted to maximise proper quality rest at the Alston CP but there was a checkpoint sign outside and regardless, I wanted to take in the rare sighting of a John Bamber in its native environment. I popped in, said hi, declared myself leaving, and was immediately pulled up as unbeknown to me the race was held. My phone pinged a message from Harriet who was on the case - saw the danger - and simply said - "race held GET OUT OF GREG'S NOW". I was trying. The weather stop was race-wide, and required holding competitors at the next safe place. Completely understandable but where Greg's Hut was concerned it was lunacy for a number of reasons: Greg's is tiny and would struggle to hold any number of competitors, the weather was scheduled to hit at 10pm according to the safety announcement and it was only 6:30pm, and it was downhill all the way to Alston off the hill, dropping altitude and back to the relative safety of the valley. I knew this, and the safety team knew this, so a deal was brokered for the 6 competitors there at that time to leave together, and stay together, as a group and get to Alston CP. This freed up valuable space for those competitors who had already left Dufton and were on route over Cross Fell.
We pushed out the door, pausing only for the inevitable photo, then got to work on the long trail down to Garrigill. After half a mile we were pulled up as Andy Sample was struggling to breathe. Showing asthma symptoms though he wasn't a sufferer, he said he had really felt the sharp temperature transition from the stove powered super-heated environment of Greg's Hut to the maybe minus 5 ambient outside. He said his chest had tightened and he was struggling to keep up. He stabilised, tried to keep a buff over his mouth to warm the air he was breathing a bit and we carried on. A mile from the hut he came to a more permanent halt (though thankfully not as permanent as it could have been). I called it in to race control and we returned as a group back up towards the hut to be met by the medic who took Andy in tow and sent us on our way. Thankfully Andy was fine and it was good to see him later at the CP and even better to see him ultimately at Kirk Yetholm. An eventful leg for him.
At Garrigill we were beckoned into a house by a pair of avid race supporters who reported that they had been offering tea and flapjack to every racer past apart from Pavel who was just too damn quick for them and was past the door before they could get to him! It was a case of it would be rude not to, but I really wish we hadn't as wonderful as it was we were burning quality rest time at the checkpoint. But the instruction was clear - we had to stay together or risk disqualification - so I took the tea and cake with gratitude and took the opportunity to use their loo with relief! (Editor’s note: this just sums up the grip the Spine race can have on people, even those with no connection to the endurance racing world. The trackers, the brilliant media coverage provided, and the weather which was doing its bit to create both positive narrative and imagery for the race, all combine to draw people in. Spine Supporting and Dot Watching were reaching cult status. As I enjoyed a hot chocolate in a kitchen in Garrigill I was thankful that it was). Twenty minutes later we were back on our way and on to the riverside path to Alston, rocking into the CP at just after midnight. I was pleased to be in with a good leg behind me, but I was also trying not to think of what was to come.
|Endless kit sorting at Alston CP|
Richard Lendon, not on the Spine start line for the first time ever, was helping out at the checkpoint and it was great to see him. Had he not turned out in any capacity I feared that the whole race, lacking in one of its major foundation stones, would simply have slipped into one of the bottomless bogs to come on the way to Greenhead. I showered and changed, sought help from the medics for a couple of minor feet niggles, and plotted. The race was on hold, and at 3am there would be an update on when it would be released, though that meant it was at least until 4am. Big snow on the Cheviots was reported and I knew that that meant there was a material risk or a material change to the Bellingham cut-offs. I agreed with Gary that we would be ready to go as soon as the race restarted to insulate ourselves from any major cutoff revisions. I headed to sleep but my mind was a whirl of calculations of pace, arrival times and cutoffs. I set an alarm for 3am, just 90 minutes away, so I could get the restart time update as soon as possible. In the end it was 6am restart and I lost a lot of valuable sleep time, by eating and faffing my way through from 3am to 6am. Gary was a no show so at 5am, 5:30am and 6am I asked a marshal to go check on him and wake him. He was non-responsive at first and word then reached me that he was having some extra sleep and leaving at first light instead. I dislike the next section with a passion and of all the legs I would have like company that was the one!! I was out the door by 6:30am and on my way to see Isaac.
|Leaving Alston, for a hot date with Isaac|
The Pennine Way from Alston to Greenhead needs to have a sit on the naughty step and long hard think about what it's done. Historically speaking it may have been the only way, but now with the invention of the the South Tyne Railway Heritage Trail time spent ploughing through boggy, cow crap heavy, farmers fields and topped off with a stretch on the busy A689 seems pretty silly. Giving it a twee name is like rolling the turd in glitter, and Isaac's Tea Trail is an insult to Isaac's and tea drinkers everywhere. The stretch between Alston and Slaggyford should be promptly rerouted via the South Tyne Trail and everyone; man, woman, fauna, flora, farmer, and ultra runner, would nod approvingly and get on with it. In fact given that the final moorland trail into Greenhead isn't in fact a trail but is an inland sea, and the good people of Greenhead seem to have gone out of their way to keep the Pennine Way out of their village - its a local village for local people I assume - then why not bite the bullet and just carry on with the South Tyne Trail all the way to Haltwhistle? Rant over.
I trawled my way through the slushy snow topped garbage that constitutes the field paths, my day only improved by a random mug of tea offered by a kindly trail runner whose house was on trail at Slaggyford. The sun was now shining, the warmth melting the snow rapidly, and I was down to a baselayer only. But off to the distant North East a huge bank of cloud was clearly visible parked on the Cheviots. The shape of things to come was snowflakey. At the Holly Rigg swamp I stopped and was moved to break my facebook ban one more time. I was concerned that images of the snow topped vista would circulate and people would get the wrong end of the stick. Be in no doubt - the trail on that stretch is more National Disgrace than National Trail and my feckin' farmer count was sky-high. Less said the better, but in the whole of the Pennine Way that is by some margin my least favourite bit, and even Ickornshaw Moor dances fondly in my memory by comparison.
It was slow, and wet, going over the last moor stretch to Greenhead, and then I got to risk life and limb doing the dual carriageway dash over the A69. The trail loops over Greenhead and I caught up first with Kirsty again, and then with Lindley and his SST at the approved entry/exit point for those racers wanting to visit the Greenhead pub or cafe. I was ready for my reward for getting the shite bit done and headed into the village to cafe (and its essential toilet), arriving at 2pm. A lasagna, two coffees, a coke and two cakes later I was renewed and headed north out of the village to regain the trail where I left it. Kirsty, having regained her now legendary strength at the cafe disappeared promptly into the distance. I had eaten well, and with the inevitability of me ranting about Isaac's Tea Trail in this blog, I needed to find a loo.
Thankfully the PW intersect with the Hadrian's Wall Path is well provided in this regard and unlike other authorities I could mention they left their toilets open in the winter months obviously so that Spiners can have somewhere out of the elements to sleep lined up in their cocoons. As I contemplated this, sat in a cubicle at Walltown toilets, Gary arrived having finally got out of bed. We set off together once more over Hadrian's Wall path and immediately set about falling all over the place due to the trail conditions. The warm afternoon had melted much of the snow saturating the grass underneath so the trail, with some quite steep short hills to contend with as well, was now a layer of slush floating on a layer of slick soggy mud. We must have clocked up a dozen comedy falls between us before we escaped Walltown Crags and on to the flatter section above Haltwhistle. Even here the going was much slower than I would have liked and it was nearly 8pm and pitch black before we started on Hotbank Crags. At the last farm before leaving the wall Gary joked that if he lived there he would be out offering racers tea and bacon sandwiches. Sadly none were forthcoming so we finished off the wall trail and turned North off the wall path and on to Ridley-culous Common
We splodged through the mire of the common on our way to what must surely be better terrain in the woods right.... yes.... ? All of a sudden the black nothingness was illuminated by car headlamps and a two people came bounding up to us offering tea and bacon sandwiches. I looked at Gary who was clearly shocked by his magical abilities and was now wishing he'd ordered up a Jacuzzi and the Swedish female hockey team to go with the bacon sandwiches, or at least a pork pie chaser.
|Caught up in a drive-by-bacon-sandwich'ing incident. |
Random acts of kindness by strangers were highlights of this year's race for me.
Refreshed by bacon sandwich and human kindness we trudged on through first more boggy slushy common, into boggy slushy woods, back to boggy slushy common, and back to woods again before we hit tarmac before Ladyhill. I tried to explain to Gary how bad Ladyhill used to be (Editor’s note: veterans will remember the 3 foot deep ruts made by the massive tyres of farming vehicles filled with a further foot of liquid mud, with slick sides and zero traction. The 500m section could easily take half an hour or more) but I lapsed into an adaptation of the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen Sketch "We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank..." and that was that. The new and improved Ladyhill is wheelchair friendly and everything.
It was Kirsty o'clock and sure enough there in the distance was a head-torch. We were approaching Horneystead and its secret pit-stop room so we hurried to catch her just in case she was unaware of it and cruised straight by. She was on a low ebb, had plenty of food on her, but not enough in her. I'd have preferred to press on, it was only 5 miles to Bellingham, but a quick stop would be helpful and Kirsty looked like she needed it. Gary made himself useful being mother and soup and tea were consumed along with a couple of chocolate biscuits.
|Horneystead farm: Gary on tea and soup duty...|
|.... and attempting to force calories into Kirsty|
A tenner in the honesty box and we were back on the trail to Bellingham, via the delightfully named Shitlington Crag. We landed at the Brown Rigg CP at just before 2am.... it had been a long day full of shite bits, fabulous bits, lasagna, slips and falls, and many ups and downs. But now I was the last major checkpoint before the final push and I was ready to stop for a bit. The weather on the other hand wasn't.
Conventional wisdom would have me leaving at first light for the last stage but with the weather being what it was and reports reaching me of 1mph averages over the Cheviots by the front of the field I was not rushing anywhere until I'd properly mentally regrouped, refueled, and rekitted. This was aided by a surprise full kit check that at the time had me raising an eyebrow but actually turned out to be a useful opportunity to confirm that I had everything I should and equally as importantly I knew where it was. As any race of this length progresses "things" end up walking. Either they get put down or in a drop bag and never make it back in, or more frustratingly you have it with you but have no idea where. When on a monitoring or safety gig I always ask competitors where their spare batteries and spare head-torch are as they are the key items you don’t want to have to unpack your entire rucksack looking for while all the time going "but I'm sure I put them in that pocket" (Editor's note: they are in that pocket all the time, they were just buried under the things that shouldn't be in that pocket or had slipped into the ultra-alternative-universe where things often slip for an hour or two while you need them most).
Kit nerds look away for a moment. I compress my race sleeping bag into a walnut sized blog which has the density of a small black hole. Its bad for the down I know, but needs must when space is at a premium and I wrap the sleeping bag in a rubble sack, compress the living daylights out of it, and then secure it with duct tape. Being asked to show it for a surprise full kit check would have been annoying but fate intervened through the removal of the end wall of the sleeping room, which was now just plastic sheeting and tarpaulin, which in turn dropped the temperature of the sleep room to just above freezing. My summer spec drop-bag sleeping bag was out of its league so I ended up unpacking my race spec bag and using that AND my summer spec bag on top to get that toasty warm feeling. So having it out for kit check was no bother - serendipity at work.
|CP5, Bellingham: Keeping Robin and Bruce busy supplying me with an endless supply of food.|
I ate, I sorted, I ate (huge thank you to Robin and Bruce who tirelessly delivered unto me a variety or weird and wonderful food and drink combinations and whose cheesy scrambled eggs avec vegetarian chilli (made with real vegetarian I was assured) was a big hit with my taste-buds) I slept, I ate once more. Finally, facebook updates and essential kit checking done, armed to the teeth with food for the expected epic to come me and Gary were out the door just before 9:30am for the long walk to Bellingham shops. Far away I could almost hear Harriet twitching about why I hadn't left yet, and making her final preparations for her journey north to Kirk Yetholm to collect my carcass. I was worried about her driving that way in these conditions and in the end she did indeed have quite a journey, fine all the way, and then horrendous for the last 5 miles into the village.
|Two out, one in. Me and Gary leaving Bellingham CP, Andy Sample, our asthma survivor from leg 4 arriving.|
Photo courtesy of Bruce Ballagher who was glad to finally see the back of me after an extended stay!
At Bellingham I had two essential objectives and in fact part of my tarrying at the CP was to ensure one of them was met. On our reccie Harriet had popped into the bakery at Bellingham and purchased their home made take on the "wagon wheel". This thing is maybe 6 inches in diameter and an inch thick, two layers of biscuit with marshmallow and jam. It is a thing of beauty and should you EVER get the opportunity to buy one do so, if for no other reason than to support a proper little high street bakery. Your taste buds will thank you. Given the calorie burn I was about to experience in the next 30 hours I probably wouldn't be far off the mark if I said that slab of sugary goodness made a significant difference to my wellbeing! I also had a shopping request for the superstars of SST2 who had text ahead with an order for biscuits and an avocado. Well given what they do for the competitors it would have been rude to turn up empty handed!
|The Village Bakery at Bellingham: Now joining Gargrave co-op, PYG cafe, Post Office Pantry, |
and Greg's Noodle Bar on my list of essential stops on any Spine Race
Supplies purchased we were on our way up past the farm and onto the open moor. The going was not too bad, the snow deep but not prohibitively so until we started to swing North West over Whitley Pike. Here the layout of the land and the direction of the wind had combined to create some pretty deep snowdrifts. There was little or no sign of the tracks of previous competitors as the wind was constantly blowing the spindrift to erase any tracks made. I pushed on slowly, feeling my way forwards with my poles, search for safe and ideally firm ground for each footstep. The wind howled and I was fully concentrating to the point I completely missed the engine whine from the Summit Fever Media drone which had been circling my head for the past few minutes. Not far beyond we were met by Matt and Ellie and took a five minute breather to regroup. I've never made one of the daily video updates before and was delighted to appear in an episode. Even more glad that I managed a trot up the road even though my tired legs were complaining - it was all for show, but worth it to get on film! (Editor's note: Director's Cut full length movie has been pre-ordered.... beware if you live in close proximity to me as there will be compulsory screenings to attend!)
|Breaking trail over Whitley Pike.|
The final detour of the race was probably the most welcome and the most loved. Apart from Pav, who decided his day wasn't hard enough already and he should go over Padon Hill, just about everyone else took the official detour around it. It's not the hill itself that's the problem but the quagmire afterwards and fresh forestry operations beyond Brownrigg Head had eliminated the footpath (such as it was) and replaced it with a post-apocalyptic scene of devastation with felled trees lying over the route on a bed of 3-4 foot deep swamp water. It was bad when we reccied it in November, with lying snow on top and limited visibility it would have been a death trap. Once on the forestry road the going was easy though needed ice spikes where the forestry vehicles had compressed the snow to ice in their tyre tracks. It was a relief to be making steady progress for once and over the next 8 miles I doubled my average speed from a snail challenging 1.4 to a hedgehog challenging 2.8mph. But I was chipper as I was looking forwards to seeing Colin and Joyce at Byrness.
The Forest View Walkers Inn at Byrness is legendary. Colin and Joyce have supported the race actively in recent years offering a warm welcome, sound advice, and excellent food, and as a result have been an important part of many racers plans and stopping point on many reccies. This year the new 30 minute rule was in effect mainly to stop people sleeping there and taking up valuable space but it was a shame to rush in and out. I could have spent twice that catching up with the two of them especially as they are looking to sell up and move on and so it may be the last time they are part of the Spine. (Editor's Note: If you are reading this thank you Colin and Joyce, for your time in the race (and the very welcome meal) and your hospitality on our reccie - best of luck whatever you end up doing. K)
|Arriving at Byrness in good spirits having just done what was going to prove to be |
the fastest part of the Bellingham-KY leg by a factor of 2.
My stop at Byrness required a check-in with the medics over my ongoing "fluid management" issue, and another essential items kit check, but then as the darkness fell we set off on the final leg. I'd checked in with Harriet and was relieved to hear she was safely installed at the bar in the Borders Hotel at Kirk Yetholm. That would make the finish all the sweeter as I was missing her. No going back now, it was KY or die trying.
The last section over the Cheviots is about 26 miles and previously traverses had taken me 8-12 hours depending on a number of factors. This year the standing snow was deep, the drifts were deeper, and there was ZERO broken trail visible from the passage of previous competitors. It was going to be hard graft all the way, breaking trail, and having to lift my legs high for every step, not aided by the kilo or two of ice that quickly accumulated on shoes as the boggy ground beneath the snow drenched shoes and the fresh snow affixed to it. The first target was hut 1 at about 10 miles which would offer a shelter for a quick break and regroup.
It was slow going at first especially with the steady climb to add to the mix but if I thought that was slow, I would have laughed had I known what was to come. What did the Romans ever do for us is a question regularly on every ultra-runners mind and in the context of the Cheviots the answer is that they built a camp the remains of which the PW helpfully swings by to visit. Now being canny these Romans they build the camp in a nice sheltered spot, in a dip nicely in the lee of surrounding hills, and a perfect location for lots of snow to gather should there be a lot of snow and wind about. Race rules had banned us from taking the preferable high direct alternative route and as we dropped towards the camp the drifts and the depth of snow built. The orientation of the drifts made nav more difficult, especially in the dark, as it altered the apparent topography of the terrain making it seem very different to what map and reccie memories would have us expect. Progress was slow, and exhausting and more than once I needed to be dug out of a hole.
|Making a pleasant change to getting my foot out of my mouth, was getting my foot out of a bog. The snow masked it well but deep down the Cheviot bogs were still their waiting for a poorly placed footstep.|
Finding this out to her cost up ahead in the darkness was Kirsty and we saw her head-torch flashing ahead as she saw us and slowed up so we caught her. She was pretty drained having fought her way solo to the same point that me and Gary had pushed through to together. We teamed up and pressed on.... hut 1 would be very welcome, and I had in mind a 30 minute pit-stop though Fate had other plans.
|The gathering at Hut 1. It's the place to be.|
Hut 1 finally surrendered to us at 12:30am. 9 miles covered in 7 hours of unrelenting hard work. We were all tired and in need of a break and as we entered Gary and Kirsty declared themselves in need of bivi'ing for a couple of hours. In this environment we were a team and I wasn't going to argue, and besides I was hardly in peak condition after that stretch to go floundering on alone for another 10 miles to hut 2. Besides there was a more pressing problem to deal with.
On the far bench in the hut another competitor was already bivied. He was pale, his breathing was shallow and he was visibly shaking violently. When I managed to rouse him his speech was as he assured me he was absolutely fine. I told him he wasn't fine. He said he was. He was in his sleeping bag but then feeling the cold had got into his emergency foil bag too and his sweat, unable to escape the impermeable foil bag had soaked the down of his sleeping bag rendering it useless. Finally forcing him reluctantly out of his cocoon I shook out his foil blanket and got him back in it first, then did the same for his sleeping bag trying to get some loft back into the down before getting him back in that, and putting my bivi bag over the top of him as an extra layer. Then I got my stove on and made him a hot chocolate dissolving some pieces of chocolate into it to add to the calories. He devoured it then disappeared again into his cocoon shivering still. I made myself a quick noodle meal and checked on him every few minutes of so until he seemed to stabilise and stopped shivering. All a bit scary and I was very glad that I'd found him when I did and not an hour later when he may have been beyond my ability to turn around and I'd have needed to call in the cavalry. By now Gary and Kirsty were sleeping and I sorted my act out and joined them setting my alarm for 30 minutes to check on my new friend.
BY 4am I was itching to get going, we were burning time and I was keen to make KY at a sensible time, i.e. one where the bar is open. I did a simple calculation in my head - if we were moving by 5am, with 17 miles to go at a worst case estimate (hopefully!) of 1mph over this terrain I would be in the bar by 10:01pm, maybe 10:02pm if I allowed a bit more time for a photo at the finish! So a finish before last orders was looking good, and anything I could pull out the bag above 1mph was all gravy. I knew the last few miles were easy going so all was looking good.... so long as I could get our knackered group moving. I started packing up in a noisy fashion but was aided by another competitor bursting into the hut. He and a group behind him would rightfully have claim to the use of the hut so we needed to get moving. I'd decided that my no longer shivery friend was coming with me at least as far as the SST in hut 2, though he required slightly more persuasion about this. At 4:45am our newly enlarged group vacated the hut and pressed on into the darkness. 10 miles to hut 2 and, SST2 notwithstanding, the first vestiges of civilisation.
The leg wasn't quite as tortuous as the proceeding one but still very heavy going. We were breaking trail but now, with the weather conditions improving by the second, our broken trail was remaining for following competitors to utilise. As such we were slowly caught up by faster moving competitors taking advantage of our efforts. It was easy to predict what was going to happen, we were caught up, and the catching competitor thinking he was faster than us, made for the front, only to have to break trail himself and slowing down. Nobody got beyond 50 meters in front of us before we caught them again and so slowly the group grew in numbers. Gary came up with a cracking idea (in theory) to attack the trail in a team cycling model with the front (wo)/man pushing hard for a minute before stepping aside and letting the next person take over trail breaking while they dropped to the back of the queue. I thought this was genuinely an inspired idea and it bought us a few extra minutes and if nothing else gave the group something to talk about and a purpose. In practice everyone was spent, and we had varying terrain, varying pace, varying physical attributes to add to the mix. The group splintered, the pace at the front faltered, the group reformed again. The drag factor of the deep snow was huge and we were all suffering. At the top of Windy Gyle we paused to admire the panorama and to take the obligatory photos. Dawn had broken and the scenery was jaw-droppingly stunning. The Cheviots were pristine in their white coats, the sky blue, and visibility was forever. I was beyond happy to be there.
|First light looking out from Windy Gyle to the snow bound Cheviot Hills|
The stretch off Windy Gyle almost to the foot of the Cheviot is (mostly) downhill and mostly (slabbed). Not that we would have been able to tell. The trail was under deep snow and apart from the occasional flirtatious hint of a flagstone they helped us not one iota. We ground it out, finally starting the steep climb to Hanging Stone and the psychologically important spur junction for the Cheviot on the right, and the finish line to the left. We went left.
Starting to get a bit finish-line euphoric I ploughed through the deep snow on the slope down to hut 2. Behind me a voice vocalised my own words back to me.... "underwrite the finish Karl". Gary was quite right, and having come this far to let indiscipline lead me to a wrong footstep and a race ending injury would be simply unforgivable. I took my/his counsel and took the safer route by the fence.
|Arriving safely at Hut 2 after Gary rightly curbed my reckless enthusiasm down the steep slope.|
At midday I strode to hut 2 and delivered the safety team their packet of chocolate biscuits and their two avocados. I'd almost forgotten about them until I saw Darren and Dan at the checkpoint - I had an inkling who had ordered which item! Given the massive calorie burn of the 20 mile stretch to there it would have been ironic dying from starvation while delivering biscuits and two super-fruits to a deserving safety team.
|Its fair to say Dan was pleased with his chocolate biscuits. He's a stalwart of the Spine Safety Team|
and nothing was ever too much trouble for him.
Matt and Ellie were also in attendance at the hut and in the warmth of the sun, surrounded with such amazing scenery, there was a happy party mood about the place. I could have stayed longer but Kirsty was on a mission - Daphne, the challenger for the 2nd lady position had come into sight on the hill down to hut 2.
|Ready to be on the trail again after stripping off outer layers to enjoy the warm sun. |
As soon as I hit the shade cast by the hill I was flipping freezing!
A quick pit-stop and strip down of layers and we were off. My pack was a mess from our bivi break and I had to stop to sort things out a bit by which time Kirsty and Gary both putting in solid speeds up The Schill (the penultimate and second worst hill on the last part of the route). Kirsty was clearly motivated but she would need to find hidden reserves of she was to hold off Daphne who was now gaining on me like I was stationary. I tried to close the gap on them but didn't have the legs for it and besides I was loving the scenery and couldn't find the enthusiasm to ruin my final hours with any of that horrible running!
Up ahead there was an ungodly coming together of three forces. The race for second lady was on, Damian Hall arrived to capture proceedings live and as it happened, and Gary Chapman's Flying Circus was riding once again. Figures were leaping about taking photos and video then running ahead to get it again from other angles. It was the anti-Karl and I pulled up and held my distance. Eventually Dick, an on-tour member of the GCFC, came bounding back to me, saw Daphne was close, and turned and ran back to alert Kirsty and Gary. I didn't have the inclination to be part of it, and I didn't have the legs to help Kirsty much and certainly not more than Gary could ably provide. So I sat on a handy rock, ate some chocolate, and admired the scenery for a minute or two. Daphne passed me going like a train, with a big smile. She looked incredibly fresh and strong and I didn't fancy Kirsty's chances of holding her off.
I pressed on only to pause again for a while to chat to Mick Kenyon of Racing Snakes Photography who was loitering at the High/Low path sign and took this wonderful picture of me for which I will be forever grateful. Well worth buying the photo from these guys to support their work in the future. We stood together and admired the amazing scenery that was laid out around us. Its rare to get a day like that in January and for it to fall at the end of the race, with the finish barely a couple of hours away, was so lucky. I soaked it in, thanks Mick, and moved on.
|What a day to finish on. Amazing photo courtesy of Mick Kenyon, Racing Snakes.|
Alone at last I reflected on the race. It wasn't, in many ways, the "pilgrimace" I'd set out to travel. The Gary factor had been a big stone lobbed into my mental pond, but I'd equally enjoyed his company along the way too and was glad that I had played a little part in his arriving at Kirk Yetholm in one piece. I doubt he needed me as he demonstrated race discipline I must confess I hadn't expected to see from him, but I was never quite sure of where his head was at so didn't regret my decision to err on the side of caution and buddy up with him for the pointy bits. I considered my original objectives....
- Finish, and finish well - the finish was minutes away, I was weary but not drained, elated by the scenery, and physically in great shape. Feet were fine, head was fine, and in between only my right knee was sub-par having been injured mid race then inflicted with the equivalent of 26 miles of high knee raise exercises.
- Enjoy the journey - apart from the inevitable low ebb as I passed from Alston to Greenhead I had loved every minute out on trail, and amongst the warmth, humour and support of like minded souls in the checkpoints.
- Be comfortable out there - big tick. Helped by the weather which was testing but not dangerous I had looked after myself, kept warm, barely ever broke a sweat, and laughed at everything the PW attempted to throw at me. Some demons were banished.
I was happy. The finish was imminent and my mental checklist reported the race was everything I wanted it to be, albeit not necessarily delivered in the manner I anticipated. Pausing only to sweep up a dawdling German I route marched the remaining few miles, touching the wall of the Borders Hotel at 15:20 and the final cherry on the top being that even with the comedy slow Cheviot leg I'd shaved an hour and 50 minutes off my previous best finish. Harriet was there to welcome me and my race was complete.
|The three of us reunited for one last time. |
And for once it wasn't dark and we were not in the middle of a moor.
The finishers room was abuzz with competitors and race staff. After a sit down and being reunited with my drop-bag I retreated upstairs to the room we had booked to clean up. Back in the bar we caught up with Kirsty who, despite not being able to hold Daphne off at the finish, had secured 2nd Lady when Daphne's time penalty from earlier in the race was factored in. She had run a brilliantly strong race and it was great to see her finally relaxing with husband Robin and sister Vicky. After a bite to eat and a quick catch up with the awesome Carol Morgan who had won the ladies race, I headed up to get some rest before I keeled over and drown in my soup.
Gary had gone home and with his mate Peter due in at around midnight there was the risk that he received a quiet reception at the finish. Pete had run a storming strong race and Gary had kept me informed of his progress all the way so I asked Harriet if she would wake me up in time for us to see him in. She achieved this after 10 minutes of shaking me, shouting my name, and slapping me across the face.... she enjoyed it a bit too much for my liking. We saw Pete in, and helped get him sorted. He grabbed a quick shower in our room before being transported up to the village hall for some sleep. We were giving him a lift home so arranged to meet up for breakfast.
|The Three Stages Of Pete..... Arrival...|
|.... and Realisation. Job done. Superb effort.|
At about 4am we repeated the process to welcome in the Norman Conquerors, Andy and Sarah Norman the first husband and wife team to crack the Spine. The fact they were still talking to each other was miracle enough, but they were tired but happy and unscathed by their experience. As someone on facebook commented, "I can't get around tescos with my husband so how they managed that is amazing". Damn right. We welcomed them in, helped them get sorted, then headed back to bed.
|The Normans: A Super-couple in all senses of the world. First husband and wife team to crack the Spine|
After breakfast, thank yous and goodbyes we collected Pete who was much improved for a few hours rest and a breakfast, and set off for home. Mission accomplished. My heartfelt thanks go to everyone who made this adventure possible; the Spine team, the amazing volunteer team who kept me safe, warm, fed, and my gear close to hand, the wonderful spectators/supports on route whose acts of kindness were a highlight for us racers, Gary and Kirsty for sharing some of our journey, and finally to my long suffering wife Harriet whose support is unwavering and I love very much.
Karl, January 2018