Part III – ‘Hells bells and buckets of Bog’

Alston to Bellingham – 41 Miles and cut off at 136 hours

Still smiling but it’s time to get a bit of a shimmy on now !

So with big hugs from Smiley Jo it was now 8.30pm Thursday 16th January and I was off out back into the dark, setting off for another night shift with my 4m head torch ‘bubble’ for company and on my way to Greenhead then Bellingham aka CP 5.

The usual disorientation coming out of the check point as I tried to find my way back to the Pennine Way route set in and I got myself clued up and heading in the right direction with a short road section of the A686. It was yet another gloomy rainy evening. I was about to cross the road to take the A689 to find the footpath which headed north, when this little car whizzed passed me and the lady driver was screamed out of the window ‘Bones’ (my police nickname by the way!) as she drove past. She came to an abrupt halt near to the junction, leapt out and ran towards me – it was non other than Lakeland legend Amanda Kirtley, another fab surprise – after massive hugs and words of wisdom from Amanda I knew time was starting to creep up on me and had to make my apologies as I needed to get a move on and couldn’t stop for any longer than was necessary. What a lovely boost this was to set me on my way on this dreadful evening. Thanks Amanda, such a lovely and unexpected surprise you beauty!

The next part was low lying and flat, muddy, slippy fields and farmland taking in Isaacs Tea Trail and pretty much following the River Tyne to Slaggyford – who’d have thought there was such a place in the world πŸ™‚

Leaving the path, I headed back onto the A689 for a short stretch to the village. By now I had my headphones in listening to some music and was getting back into my zone as was my routine after a CP stop and ahead of the next 41 mile section. It was dark and gloomy and just a street light lit up the junction. As I crossed the road and headed into the village another person was shouting my name… ‘Mike’ – ‘Mike’ they shouted – I hadn’t heard initially due to my music but when I took notice, there was another lady talking to me right by the junction in the shadows of the street light and in front of what turned out to be her house – she was beautiful πŸ™‚ and I was looking shite having not shaved for days and was covered in mud, I had recently showered though so it wasn’t all bad lol… ‘Great to see you’, she said ‘ you’re doing amazing! I have hot coffee and some pastries for you if you’d like them?’ ‘Would you like to come in and sit down?’ she asked or words to that effect. What the hell was going on? – All these random people totally immersed in Britains most brutal foot race and producing such kindness for us Spiners ! I had a mug of fresh coffee and a homemade spicy sausage roll, a toasted tea cake and a brief chat before I was off again and northward bound with a smile on my face. This was just getting better! With every mile I travelled, muddy cow fields got me right back into the groove and back down to earth – literally !! and then I was onto a disused railway. I wasn’t to know at the time and this was a complete surprise but Natasha aka the Angel of Slaggyford tracks us Spiners from the comfort of her front room and pops out as we pass. This little angel has created an unofficial CP 4.5 over the years, such hospitality and generosity. (I visited her on my Summer road trip of the Spine route with my children to pass on my gratitude – hmmmm, do I feel another blog coming on?) So keep an eye out for the Angel of Slaggyford on your Spine journey – certainly an incentive to keep going at least until here πŸ™‚

Approximately 5 km up the slippy path and what was the course of a Roman road over Lambley Common (shame it’s not still there as it would have made the ground conditions much more appealing) is the road crossing back over the A689. Crossing the road I was met by a wall and wooden stile to climb in front of me but before I started to climb, I noticed a large plastic box with goodies in for Spine racers, and so the generosity just kept coming. When you’re in the middle of no-where and you come across something like this, whoever went to the effort of putting this out , thank you for being our little Elf delivering goodies, they were real morale boosters!

And so the fun began, as I unknowingly started what was going to be the worst section to come. It was clearly throw back Friday and my thoughts returned to the Thwaite to Keld adventure and it was here that my Salamon Ultra GTX aka Ultra no grip boots really came into their own – or they would have if I was grass / mud skiing anyway. You get the idea, it’s Mike on his arse time again, let’s go !!!

It’ was wet… what a surprise! It was muddy… even more of a surprise and all the time I was going up or on the flat, I was fine… it was only going down hill on slimy grass or with a camber where I struggled. So after just 1 km further on from the road crossing it all started. I descended from High House towards a river crossing and what looked like a footbridge crossing. Ducking to avoid some low branches, I lost my balance and boom, I was on my arse again. I broke my fall with my arm and the smell of wet grass and mud filled my nostrils again. I must have slipped and fallen about 15 times in the space of 20 minutes. I reached the footbridge and was gutted to see that my new Montane jacket was now a shade of brown and I could feel the grainy. gritty mud in the cuffs of my gloves. To add insult to injury it decided to start to rain heavily. I crossed the bridge and tried to make out the definition of the footpath on the other side but thanks to 100’s of cattle hoof marks I struggled. I should have got my map out for detailed clarification at this point but instead, I relied on my GPS in 1:50 scale but this wasn’t detailed enough to avoid the school boy error of being the wrong side of the dry wall and when I reached the edge of the field I realised the footpath gate was on the other side! A careful wall climb next to a tree which I clung on to while the weight of my sack pulled me backwards to avoid any damage and with a clean jump from the top on the other side, I was back on my way, only this time on the correct side of the wall and on two feet. I reached out to my social media posse and told them ‘I’m losing the will tonight with Navigation and staying on 2 feet :(‘ I really was the closest I’d been to throwing the towel in but knew I still wasn’t going to but seriously wanted the shitty conditions and rain to give me a break. To my astonishment I got some replies, this was like 2am !’This is yours to conquer Mike’ (Clive Bugeja), ‘Keep going Mike, Blenkinsopp Common makes everyone feel like that!’ (Nicki Lygo), ‘Mike, you deserve to make this yours after all the effort so far – we feel your pain and are rooting for you’ (Joe Kenny), ‘Remember you are the storm.’ (Rich Beardsall). These were just a few of so many supportive messages and whilst I had no intention of giving up, I’d laid my my fragile emotions bare for the world to see across Facebook. This journey was relentless…

A short climb and a further km and I came to Batey Shield, I could see the twinkling of lights ahead and what looked like a farm and saw light within a barn, so walked in to get out of the rain and have a breather. I needed to get my thoughts together and sort out my wet kit and regroup before continuing. I saw 3 Spine racers as I entered, who looked like they had spent some time here sleeping. They were gathering their stuff together and as they packed up, one said to the other ‘thanks for letting us share your bivvy spot’. We didn’t really share any conversation. This place was dusty, messy and had that distinctive smell of an old barn cum stable block and the looks of a ‘fuck it’ shed where everything with no home gets dumped – we all have a fuck it draw don’t we ? lol and this was somewhere you’d never consider stopping for the night but when you’ve already been through the hardships of 5/6 days and nights of the Spine race, it’s a 5 * shelter from the wild and, with a few horse stables, looks like a welcome place for a future bivvy spot, but right then it was what I needed in order to do some admin away from the elements. So I de-robed and seeing my race number was hanging on for dear life on the back of my rucksack and was pretty much destroyed from the wind and falls I decided to detach what was left of it and tuck it into the sleeve at the back of my pack. I swapped gloves for dry liners and after a 15 minute pit stop I was back on the go.

So some 4 hours after the welcome tub of snacks, I was in the soggy wilderness of bastard Copp Common and the vague paths which are probably best forgotten. I got to Haltwhistle golf course and talk about contrast in terrain with its manicured tees and greens – then followed a short descent past the 10th fairway on a narrow slippery path and I was at the B6318 road crossing and confronted by the fab sight of Darren and Yvonne Lenhert with her lovely smile – my emotions spilled over at this point and I got a man hug from Darren and some reassuring words pointing out a shelter up the road. It had been a sobering night, physically and mentally it had drained me to my lowest ebb thus far in the journey. I grabbed a top up of water and with a wave goodbye I was back on the path on my way to Hadrians Wall.

I arrived at a Visitors car park about a mile after leaving Darren and could see it had a lean too at the back with about 6 bodies, all asleep. I noticed a picnic table perfectly placed under the roof so I plonked myself there. I had this romantic plan for the race of stopping and getting my stove out along the journey and making a brew or some food whilst admiring the far reaching views of the Pennine Way – but alas, with the weather we were having that didn’t happen and, as my race strategy was unfolding, I was spending more time in my 4m head torch bubble than I was in daylight. Another reason for this was the excellent flask I had with me, which kept drinks hot for hours and hours, so I was able to maintain an efficient albeit slippy momentum going forwards without the need to keep stopping to brew up. On the odd occasion though, I made the most of the opportunity as I knew I still had a long way to go before reaching Bellingham CP. Out would come the stove but, unlike a game of Quidditch with this stove fumbling in my hands, my attempt to catch it before it hit the ground failed miserably- bang as it hit the stone slabs. I now had people waking up around me – yay it was Fluffy and Robbit and then I saw grandpa Hugh Wright. I felt a bit guilty but was so happy to see them all again and took some comfort that I must have been doing something right to have tagged onto them all again.

As the group stirred, several got a brew and joined the party with what was now fast becoming a stove convention. There was that distinct sound of either a lighter or fire steel being put into practice and the sudden whoosh of gas and ignition. I opted for my Expedition Foods high energy Eggs with Caramalised Onions and a hot chocloate – how posh – the breakfast of champions! It was now 06:30 on Thursday 17th January.

Whilst I was busy prepping breakfast, Fluffy asked if I was ex military. ‘No – police, why? I asked. Cause you look very organised’ came his reply. I took that as a compliment and said thanks. I didn’t know the background of these two and whether they had finished the race before but I did know they had taken part previously, so it was very reassuring that I seemed to be doing things right to have got this far.

Exploring the facilities, I made use of the public loos and brushed my teeth in the sink. I had filled up with water back at the road crossing by Darren so now I had eaten, cleaned, tidied away my kit and was pretty much ready to set sail again. Fluffy and Robbit were packed up before me but they invited me to tag along with them. I wished I was able to move along the ground quickly enough to have accepted the gesture but knew I’d only hold them up, and as my feet were really sore I didn’t want the added pressure so politely declined saying if I caught them up great, but for them to not worry thank you – Hare and Tortoise remember. My sincere thanks to you both for in a small way adding to my belief in myself and reassurance that I was doing ok. This meant a great deal to me and my journey thus far. I wasn’t to know it at the time but I wasn’t to see you again. Congratulations on your fab result – a very well executed race.

So once I’d finally packed, I was off. It was tricky getting onto the wall – this was where romans had walked all those years ago and somewhere I’d always wanted to visit – but once on, I struggled to take it all in. Fortunately, not longer after I started along the wall, daybreak arrived. My only wish was that they could have built something a bit more on the flat side – great at building nice flat straight roads but walls were a different matter !!

It is amazing to think Hadrians Wall was built over a period of some 6 years plus starting around AD122 when Emperor Hadrian came to Britain to separate the Barbarians from the Romans. The Wall is 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from coast to coast. The forts along the wall had a long life of nearly 300 years.

And so I started my historic march along this piece of history dating back roughly 2000 years from Turret 45B – all I needed was a shield to accompany my one pole and I would have made for a great Roman extra – just call me Mikus Bonius – hahaha..

Reaching the next high point, I peered over the edge and down a steep muddy path – all I could do was stand there and stare – I had put to the back of my mind the pain from my feet and falling over but what was only about 50m of descent suddenly became a massive challenge! I knew that falling over would hurt, I knew that sliding forwards would hurt and I knew that both of those were highly likely to happen. Tourettes not Turrets was back as I gingerly made the descent – God, this was slow going!

I was so glad to see Wiebke and Jo the medic at the car park near a Roman camp by Burnhead and whilst sprawled out in the back of their vehicle, Jo re dressed my poorly foot- well my infected right little toe to be accurate, and provided me with stronger painkillers too. I was going so slow at this point I really was starting to feel a bit desperate. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace for what was going to be about 60 miles of death march, a race in itself usually without having already done 200 odd miles! Grimacing with the pain as I put my boot back on, I headed off with a spring in my step – well that’s not quite true but the fresh dressing, some reassurance, painkillers and the boost of seeing people did lift my spirits and I wandered off back onto the wall shouting at myself – Come onnnn !

The trig and viewpoint at Turret 40A, 5 days on the trail looking tired and the view East along the wall.

I dropped down to a road crossing and another random guy started talking to me where the path crossed to continue East. The boot on his parked car was up and he beckoned me over revealing a few goodies including hot coffee which I gratefully accepted and a few biscuits. We chatted for a while although I think I was a little tired and probably not the best company.

Shortly after climbing up to Peel Crags I was met by the ever familiar face of Mick Kenyon from Racing Snakes Photography coming towards me, and a chance or not so chance encounter for another photo opportunity high up on the top of Hadrians Wall. After leaving Mick I dropped down to see the magnificent outline and ruins of Milecastle 39 in all its glory and really struggled to comprehend these things are 2000 years old and still in good shape – I’ve lasted only 5 days on the Pennine Way yet am battered and look far worse haha..

Having not been to Hadrians Wall before as I previously mentioned, Sycamore Gap passed me by without a thought, it was just a random tree along the route after all. Well I wasn’t to know , but I knew I had to go back once I did, so visited with Katie & Adam on our summer adventure.

I finally had to say good bye to the journey along the Wall. It had been an intimate, painful, undulating but memorable section and I knew it was somewhere I had to come back to see and discover more of, without having done 200 miles beforehand. I headed due North at Rapshaw Gap (Turret 37A) across what looked like the Somme – welcome to the boggy Ridley Common! I looked back on the magnificence of what was behind me and tried to picture the intimidating view that must have been for anyone hoping to overcome the Roman stronghold.

I was starting to feel weary and got to a stone wall with a wooden stepped stile over it. Climbing over it to the other side, I started to follow what I thought was the obvious path but turned out to be a sheep trodden path. Next thing I knew was I was still upright but woke up in someones garden at West Stonefields having sleep walked about 500m in the totally wrong direction! Initially I tried to convince myself all was good and that the PW must have gone this way and carried on West until I checked again with my map and yep – I was going west and wrong not North and right !! Add sleep walking to the list of unplanned things already for the day but at least I’d gotten my planned 30 minute power nap out the way, right ?

I was in a state of complete exhaustion at this point, plodding along and feeling like everything was going wrong now and that I was running out of time so I kept going! What I should have done was grab a ninja bivvy, the rational thing to do but with this level of tiredness, rational wasn’t something I could do at that moment. It wasn’t until I got home and trawled through all the messages that I found this image showing my unplanned diversion! I had walked all the way to where the red x’s were before turning back, at the time a km off course felt like a big deal.

I was now back on track but not for long in the forest as tiredness, fire breaks and lack of footpath signage made for hard work on this section and I had to retrace my steps several times. A word of warning to you all, stay alert through here for the right paths.

I exited the forest onto Haughton Common and struggling to stay awake, I saw a small walled orchard in the distance, in the middle of an expanse of open farmland. It looked totally out of place but I wasn’t complaining – that’ was my goal – this secret garden had ninja Bivvy written all over it and I succumbed to the need for sleep over and above forward movement. The decision had been taken out of my hands. I clambered over the shallow dry wall into what was about 20m sq of shelter from a bitter wind. There were a smattering of trees. I climbed into my bivvy bag using a black bin liner for my footwear to save removing it and within minutes I was fast asleep but not for long! I woke up cold and quickly packed up to get on my way. Lesson learned that I needed to add another layer before tucking in for sleep as although warm when entering sleep, the body shuts down very quickly reducing your temperature – something we all know but easily forget when exhausted and desperate to keep going. Once out of my secret garden what had looked like a drag of a hill to finish the open farmland before my bivvy, turned into a gentle slope and I made short work of reaching the other side. I could feel that my pace had picked up and I was on it again.

Another 1.5 km of forest seemed far more straightforward for navigation. I could feel the dampness in the air increasing as it was approaching dusk and the short spell of sunshine which had followed me since just after Hadrians wall was now ebbing away. I passed someone walking their dog in the forest in what felt like the middle of no where with no houses to be seen. It felt a bit random and with just a brief acknowledgement of each other as we passed adding to the tranquil atmosphere, I felt like I was flying along after the brief sleep and good forest tracks for terrain and I felt a renewed and deep determination to get to the comfort of Bellingham and the support of all the volunteers.

Leaving the forest I headed into a clearing this time on Broadpool Common and I made hard work finding the path to cross Warks Burn river and after clambering over a 5 bar metal gate I caught sight of the bridge. With the weight of the pack on my back and the small pouch on my chest, and the overwhelming tiredness’ I’m sure they had something to do with the feeling of being very unbalanced as you climb over anything to the point you think you’re going to hit the deck on your back as the weight goes over the tipping point. I didn’t but just simple tasks were taking a lot more effort and then seeing the steep path leading up the other side of the river , it just seemed to go on and on.

I made it to the top and crossed a field with a faint sign on the gate as I approached Horneystead Farm – I may not have been feeling very horney but I was intrigued to see what they had to offer – I walked into the farm workers shed and there was a loo, a kettle and a slow cooker pot of soup ! Did I mention the sofa? and that it was heaven! – A voice in my head said ‘beware of the chair’ but sometimes these things have to be done πŸ™‚ The soup was warm not hot and looked like half of middle earth had helped themselves to it, spilling half of it all over the pot and table in doing so, but although it had turned into a bit of a mess, I enjoyed a cup of potato and stew/ soup or was it liquid stew? Either way it was a wonderful experience and a very welcome respite. It took me back to my farming days in my late teens and early 20’s reminding me of the shed for the workers breaks – it was a mess, not clean, had that subtle smell of cow shit but it was heaven all the same! Sensing it was now starting to get dark outside, I put on some warm layers and gathered my stuff, used the facilities and made my way outside. I had hoped to see someone from the farm to say ‘thank you’ but no one was around. If by any chance you read this, thank you! Such amazing support and generosity towards people you don’t know…

So, off I went through a muddy farm field ending up on a farm track. I turned left and into another farm yard looking for the footpath sign – ‘It’s not this way’ she claimed, ‘what are you looking for – the Pennine Way?’ Yes, I found myself questioning a local on which way the PW was lol … A bit of road later and I came across Shitlington Hall, I shit you not ! πŸ™‚

I met Pete Allanach wandering around the farmyard looking a bit deflated – he said he was giving up, complaing of foot issues and not being able to keep the pace up . ‘Mate’, I said, ‘ you’re so close to Bellingham now, don’t give up! Give HQ a call and have a chat with them’. I knew I was going slow now and although I couldn’t do the maths on timings, I knew I must have lost some time so couldn’t afford to hang around and left Pete making the call.

Heading straight up Shitlington Crags and when I say straight, I mean straight, it was steep, cold, pitch black, lumpy terrain and very eerie – I could see a radio mast at the top and it reminded me of a similar scene in Saving Private Ryan where they deviate from their task with the radio mast and overcome it – but that was daylight and this is pitch black ! I made it to the top and there were no Germans to be seen, just the Relay Station. Still in my 4m head torch bubble I seemed to miss the left turn at a path crossroads but continued and went the longer way round by road. I really didn’t need that especially as I knew I was closing down on Bellingham CP. I hit the B6320 and picked up speed along the road and it wasn’t long before I was met by a couple of the CP volunteers. The way they sauntered up to me I thought they were going to give me the bad news that I’d been timed out and my heart was beating – don’t you dare utter those words – sorry mate but you’re too late !

I arrived at Bellingham at 19:09 on Friday 17th January, some 23 hours after leaving Alston and 13 hours since breakfast at Greenhead – that was some section and I’d really had to dig probably the deepest so far.

So on reaching Bellingham my stats so far since 05:00 Sunday 12th were:

Miles covered – 224,

Sleep – 9hrs 10 minutes ,

Ninja Bivvies – 1,

Boggy fields encountered – too high to count,

Times fallen over in boggy fields – too high to count,

Support from friends and family – off the flipping scale!

I’m totally overwhelmed by the whole experience.

Feeling tired and emotional, I knew my feet were in a bad way and couldn’t see how I was going to be able to leave Bellingham and carry on. Into the Brown Rigg lodge I went, and who do you think was just inside the door? The running Granny! – aka Angela White. I collapsed into a chair just inside the door and was in tears, crouching forwards holding my head and shielding my face from any onlookers. Angela got me a pint of squash and started talking to me as if she was my Mum, although the one thing she didn’t say that I’m sure my Mum would have is ‘Please tell me you’re not going to do this again Mike’ !! She said all the right things and pointed out I had 4 hours to turn things around which was plenty of time but to focus on getting food and drink down me first, then some sleep, before leaving -wiping my face I stood up and staggered over to some chairs facing the kitchen. I had registered there was an audience all standing over me waiting to launch into pitstop mode, and Andy Tyreman was in volunteer pest mode! He threw so many choices of food and drink options at me the moment my glutes even sniffed the sight of the plastic chair, that my response was probably a little curt as I muttered ‘I need chance to breath and I have no idea what I want!’ Sorry Andy πŸ™‚ Once mugs of tea started flowing, the volunteer fairy set about getting my shoes off, getting my bag, and arranging food and a medic to see to my feet – this was streamline stuff guys and I felt so overwhelmed by the attention you gave me. I even booked the spa upgrade and before I knew it my feet were in hot water with bubbles – I cannot tell you how beautiful the sensation of putting your feet into warm water and fairy liquid was (other brands are available) although the pain of my right toe meant I had to take a few dips before they would fully immerse.

Still managing to smile and a happy Bones with footspa and mug of tea!

Spa complete it was time to get my admin sorted albeit much slower now and then I went to an adjacent room for a kip where I was faced with yet more choices of the floor, the floor inside a tent (random) or a sofa which, whilst not being long enough for me, was where my preferred option. The room was pitch black and I had just the small light from a volunteer to help usher me to the sofa like I was late for the start of a film at the pictures! Sinking onto the sofa was bliss and I was off to sleep pretty much immediately but unfortunately not for long enough! I think when I entered the sleep room I had probably just under a 3 hour cushion before the cut off – it was getting tight and I think that was in my mind when sleeping. I’m a light sleeper which also doesn’t help so an hours kip was what I got. I had no problem peeling myself off the sofa and out of the darkness into the bright lights of the Bellingham hospitality unit and the wheels were put back in motion – I was suddenly a thing of purpose for the volunteers and they got right on it with food and drink delivered faster than Macdonalds by Andy Tyerman. Jess Palmer. Sharon Dyson and Jo Winship were generally on hospitality, pamper and fussing duties while Exile Medics were on foot duties. My feet are usually extremely ticklish but this was nothing compared to the whimpering that was going on every time they got anywhere near my little toes – I was now really protective of them and anyone coming anywhere near me whilst I was sat down got the glare of ‘kick my toes and you’re dead to me’ lol. David Broom, who I didn’t realise at the time had DNF’d and was helping out at the CP, sat down next to me. We had a lovely chat and those kind words will sit with me forever more, thank you, you know mate, you know!

With just 40 minutes or so to go to CP cut off, a group came staggering in, Thomas Legrain among them and the scene was started looking more like that of a field hospital! The CP had come alive with every single volunteer hurrying around with a single minded goal – to get these nutters back out by midnight.’ No Cinderella midnight drop outs on our shift!’ – I looked at Thomas and couldn’t help but think there was no way he would make it back out in time, he must have had 4 Exile Medics dealing with separate parts of him by then. Pete Allanach was there too, but I can’t remember the names of the others although I did recognise them. Alan Cormack left with someone else. The hive of activity around these late arrivals was intense but as I sat quietly sipping my tea and feeling in control, I was in a great place. My bag was packed, Monty was sealed all neat and tidy for the very last time and ready for his journey to the elusive finish at Kirk Yetholm, my shoes were on and all I had to do was put my race pack on and go. Panic stations all of a sudden when someone shouted 10 minutes to go !! People started ushering me to get a move on but I still had a mug in hand – they were all worried but I was so chilled – I knew what I was doing. I finished my tea, hugged some of the volunteers and made a point of saying my thank yous to as many of the volunteers as I could that weren’t busy attending to others. Bellingham, you were totally and utterly amazing, you made me feel like the centre of your universe for every second I was there, you were frantic, you were funny, you saw to my every need but above all you were you the last major CP of mine and everyones journey North but most importantly, you achieved a miracle and rebuilt me from a man at his lowest ebb , utterly exhausted in tears on arrival to a warrior with a smile on his face who was ready to do battle with the last 42 miles. I headed out the door with 3 minutes to spare and to a pic from Darren Hunt. I had 32 hours now to get to the finish.

I did a quick check of my messages and saw The Midnight Caller had sent me my evening update whilst I had been asleep – this was such an incredible boost and as always made me laugh as well as smile – top draw mate!

So that was it, I said goodbye to Bellingham at midnight and got on my way to CP 5.5 Byrness…

Don’t go too far – the last part will be along soon

Part II – ‘Poles Apart’

Hawes to Kingsway Adventure Centre, Middleton in Teesdale

Only 34 Miles! Cut off time 84 hours

Walking through Hawes in the early evening of Tuesday 14th January, it was dark and damp. The lights in the shops and the noise coming from the pub as I passed made it feel all the more strange that I was once again setting out into the unknown, to walk alone overnight in the hills. This time I was heading to the next check point at Middleton in Teesdale ‘just’ 34 miles away. Taking a left at Barclays Bank, it was pretty straightforward navigation following the PW signs through fields to the tiny village of Hardraw. Passing the pub and tea room in the village I turned right and started to climb.

This part of the route started off as a wide track / bridleway and as it gradually got steeper the weather started to deteriorate. The persistent rain became heavier as I climbed and as I approached a left fork, decided to check my map for clarification and suddenly realised I was on the ascent to Great Shunner Fell- the highest point of the race so far at 716m! For a moment my mind drifted to the Official Spine Race film which I’d watched several times and could hear Damian Hall in my head – it was daylight for him when he was here but like us, had experienced extremely high winds so I knew I was in for a decent, lengthy and challenging climb. Navigation sorted, I refocused and started what was going to be a tough section. I got to about 500m and it was really starting to get a bit tasty, the wind had increased and the rain was starting to turn into a combination of sleet and hail. I battened down the hatches, got my full 3 layer glove system sorted and bowed my head – the trudge to the top was on. At around 600m the climb flattened out and I came across the first snow on the ground. Visibility was really being stretched now and I had to focus hard to try and make out the trail / path as I kept on veering off onto rough ground and had to keep checking GPS to get me back on track.

I was suddenly aware of a figure in the distance – I say distance but due to the low visibility it was probably only about 20-30 metres ahead and to my right, coming into view. By now, I was bent forwards to keep my balance so I wouldn’t fall over in the incredibly strong winds and to keep my face out of the hail and snow! This was beyond Type 2 fun and as I passed the figure it was more than I could do to shout out and say ‘Hi’.. I’m not even sure the person would’ve heard me. Maintaining my pace we passed, but didn’t say a word to each other and I continued on, where I hit a section that felt like stone slabs beneath my feet but was icy. I could just about make out the sound of crushing slush under my feet and that smell of slushy snow mixed with mud. I slipped several times but managed not to fall over and started to realise this was verging on dangerous and at any point I could easily slip and sprain my ankle or worse! I considered putting on my Yaktrax but chose to slow down and take it steadier, given that the alternative would mean having to stop and take my sack off to get to them – not great in those conditions! Gemma Towell had been clinging onto my heels for a while and I realised the sensible thing to do was to pair up. She complained about having issues with her knee and I said that we needed to get down off the mountain and was she ok to just crack on, to which she answered that she was happy to do that- pact agreed, we went for it. Passing the stone shelter at the top, I could see Damian Hall sitting there with his Boost bar (my favourite go to choc fix too) but there were no such luxuries for us, we just needed to keep moving. Pushing on, we flew past 2 other competitors who seemed to be happy to just hang around and faff. We invited them to join us but they just grunted and we left them to it. The descent was a lot steeper than the ascent and we made good time over the slabbed path losing height quickly, so not long after descending from the summit, the slabs were free from snow and ice. We carried on with a cracking pace to get down and out of the wind. Eventually the path became a track and we slowed down and took a breather. The wind had dropped and it was like someone had just turned the hairdryer off and we were alone in peace, laughing as we headed down the road towards the little village of Thwaite. We summed it up saying ‘Oh my God that was amazing but horrendous’ or words to that effect! We had just done 716m down to 400 in no time at all and had made it without any injuries. Miracle!

This summed up our Great Shunner Fell adventure – thank you Gemma

Faffing in Thwaite, as someone needed to use the local facilities, we searched the village for loos and after failing miserably, we were totally disorientated and it took ages to get back on track, though even when we did, we couldn’t locate the path out of the village to continue on the PW. Finally I noticed a slit in the hedge on someones drive and realised that was it – a secret path in someones driveway – who’d have thought ffs πŸ™‚

The next section was a bit of a ball ache for navigation and was really fiddly, going through fields and around farm buildings. Her ladyship used the open air facilities here though so all was good in Gemmas world. A steep climb and then a narrow path set us on our way around the hill of Pot Hole Kisdon and at this stage I think I would have preferred to have just gone straight over the top to Keld. The path underfoot was slimy and narrow with a steep enough drop to our right that if you fell down it, getting back up would be a complete bugger. We could see torch light below us through the trees and assumed someone had done exactly that or were struggling with their navigation to find theright path.

Carrying on, we traversed round the hill and the narrow slimy path turned into something much more horrendous – slimy limestone rocks you couldn’t help but slip on. A pattern emerged of slip ,’fuck’, get up, slip, ‘fuck’, get up – you get the idea! I lost count of the number of times I fell over and at one point I fell and was so close to going down the drop to my right I just clung onto a rock. I recall the fuck was replaced by a loud ‘Ouch’ as I hit the rock, followed by the short and to the point, ‘ffs’ I had lost count of how many times Gemma had fallen behind me but our enthusiasm had dwindled quickly and with her knee grumbling, she had dropped behind a little…. and it was then that my head torch started playing games with me…The conversation went something like this:

‘Gemma is it me or do those rocks have eyes’ ?

‘No Mike, they’re sheep!’

‘Oh ok’

Laughing, we had carried on but to this very day whenever I think about it, it makes me laugh ! The limestone rocks with their patchy white bits – I was absolutely convinced had eyes when my torch light connected with them.

We reached a stream which was blended into a mud ditch crossing with a side-wards gradient and I placed my left pole securely before I made the attempt. I had just put my left foot down – and boom, my left leg was gone from under me taking with it my right leg without warning- I was on my arse again! No ‘ffs’ this time, just silence as I lay in the muddy stream, surrounded by the pitch black of God knows where. The all too familiar stench of watery mud from my farming days filled my nostrils. I realised then that my full weight had hit my pole and as I had hauled myself back to my feet, fearing the worst, I saw that my left pole had a new 90 degree design feature. I hadn’t held out much hope but as I slowly tried to straighten it I heard the dreaded snapping sound. I now had 3 poles, 1 good enough for me and a pair only useful to a hobbit….

Just over 100 miles in and with about 150 to go I now had just one pole! My thoughts suddenly sprang back to that moment in Edale days before, when in my panic to get my drop bag down to the required 20kg, Steve had convinced me to leave my spares in the car locked up all nice and safe as they would only be dead weight! Cheers Steve:)

To say I was deflated would be an understatement and a social media explosion unfolded along the lines of ‘Can someone get me another pole?’…. ‘You can’t, as that’s against the rules’…. ‘Find a stick’ all very helpful! All I could think was ‘Have you seen where I am??? – There are no bloody sticks!’ My only hope was lost property at a CP πŸ™‚ What was already a tough race had just become even more so! It wasn’t like I was going to feel better and more energetic as the race progressed was it, not like I was going to need 2 poles to haul my sorry arse over tough terrain when I was too tired to keep upright. I continued in silence and stropped off to Keld, sorry I left you Gemma!

Next followed a deviation off the PW at Keld to drop into the village where my map had reliably informed me there was 24/7 shelter at the public hall. I saw someones bin out by the road so, unceremoniously, placed my broken pole(s) on the ground next to it. It felt like I was at a funeral service placing a coffin into the ground, I said my farewells and left them. With the yellow tape still around the top with my initials to identify them as mine, I walked away from them, never to see them again.

I wandered around the village still feeling sorry for myself while looking for the Village Hall. I saw a man in what looked like his front room, with his feet up in front of a fire, which only fueled my fragile emotions and I walked round to the side of the village hall and peered through the windows. I saw lights on but nothing and no one else – no tables with food on, no medics or CP staff and above all no fellow Spine racers – just good old plain varnished village hall floor. By now, I was really pissed off – Are you having a laugh? I said to myself. ‘ I need to regroup and they’ve packed up and gone? What about us back markers?’ – I was still feeling grumpy as I walked round to the main road and saw Gemma approaching – ‘it’s bloody closed, there’s no one here’ I told her. ‘What do you mean?’ she said, as she walked towards the mans house and opened the door! ‘Well, are you coming in?’ OMG !!! I laughed so hard mostly from relief, I think…

Soaking wet, up to my armpits in mud and a little cold, I walked into this mans front room or, so I thought when looking in from the outside, only to realise it was the reception area for the village hall! The warmth of the room and the smell of the wood burner hit me as soon as I entered, and although it was dimly lit with only one light on and the glow from the fire, the room had a lovely cosy feel to it. I saw Hugh Wright (remember the guy with the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust banner on his rucksack from the start ?) sitting in the corner with his feet up on the protective fire guard looking like someones grandad. He looked up and asked,’Hi guys how you doing? This is incredible !!’ I noticed he looked like he’d done a weeks laundry with socks and cloths all hanging on the fire guard. Taking his lead I thought it was time to get my gloves sorted from my muddy fall so joined him and put them on the fireguard too.

It was hard to believe this oasis we’d walked into. Gemma had put the kettle on and treated me to a homemade cookie from one of the jars on the kitchen worktop… luckily she had brought some change with her as I wasn’t going to use my Β£20 note for hot chocolate and biscuits, no matter how good they were! And so we sat, no CP staff, no medics – just three weary, wet and cold Spiners, who are now life long friends with stories to make you belly laugh and who were still determined to go on despite the challenges we had already faced.

The hot chocolate was amazing, the stuff of dreams especially when you are going through the hardships of this race! Hard though it was to leave the warmth and comfort behind, after about 30 minutes rest we headed out onto the trail again and felt better knowing we were on the way to the CP at the Tan Hill Inn. Having been there for a training weekend and witnessed first hand, the hospitality of this remote outpost, this was one of the highlights I had been looking forward to – and it conjured romantic images of sitting on a seat by the fire warming me through and I was excited to be heading in its’ direction – positive happy Mike was back – let’s do this!

Leaving Hugh still with his feet up by the fire, Gemma and I retraced our steps back through the village and on to the PW, where we crossed a footbridge and made our way up onto the open fells of Black Moor Hill. With about 7 km ahead of us still before we would reach Tan Hill it felt pretty bleak, dark and windy but at least the rain had stopped. The navigation was fairly straightforward on what looked like an undulating Landrover track, although we were on bleak exposed terrain so, in poor weather or visibility I’d expect navigation to be a bit trickier along here. I moved well with my one staff, and soon got used to the momentum of only having one pole, alternating hands and settling into a rhythm.

Heading up a fairly steep incline up on to Stonesdale Moor we took a distinct left turn. By this point, I was urging the lights of the pub to appear – this had been on my race bucket list and suddenly, there they were! Coloured lights in the distance appeared and there was the pub standing solid as a rock at the top of the moor, lit up like a Christmas tree! We’d done it! We were on our way to Britains highest pub! Ok – so it was closed and we’d missed last orders and there would be no fire to snuggle up to, but none of that mattered. On arrival, we were led round to the back of the building and into the barn adjacent to the pub. It was good to be back in familiar territory again as this was the room where the Spine training had taken place.

There was space, there was seating and there was a wood burner but no drop bag at this location so it was just what you had on you and basic supplies from the CP. My butler aka awesome CP volunteer Peter Pierre Henley set about seeing to my needs, thanks mate you were brilliant, and I even got to see you later in the race too, bonus. I saw a figure moving in the corner to my right and it made me think of Fluffy, the three headed dog from Harry Potter, fast asleep guarding the trap door due to him being in a complete slumber snoring! It was Peter Gold – he looked like he’d had a good nights sleep, and as he turned out from his pit rubbing his eyes, I got a grunt of a hello and he began busying himself, packing his stuff before getting a move on. On the stage there were also a few other bodies sleeping and Gemma joined them. My plan was to stay just long enough to sort my kit, get some warm food and drinks inside me so I chose not to sleep and instead chilled in a chair by the wood burner catching a power nap. Sarah Fuller and Lisa Wright were also there and had set up camp onthe comfy sofa. Everyone looked a little deflated and shattered which was hardly surprising as it was something like 3am. Overall, it was pretty quiet inside with just the odd rustling of someone sorting their kit or the sound of a spoon stirring a drink.

In contrast to the calm, quiet interior of the barn, the weather was wild outside and we were advised to wear our safety goggles. I had 2 pairs – my Ali G bolle glasses which I kept in my front pouch for easy access and a pair of bomb proof goggles which I had in my main rucksack. I opted for the bomb proof goggle set up as I had recce’d the next section on the training weekend and knew what was coming. A quick selfie with the awesome check point staff and it was time to go. I left the comfort of the Tan Hill Inn just after 4:30 Wednesday 15th January and was escorted out the back of the barn, into the pitch black night where I was immediately greeted by strong winds. It felt cold, damp and grim. Gemma was still asleep from what I could make out so it was me alone again now.

I set about what I knew was to be a trudge over Sleightholme Moor. It was hard work in the dark keeping to any sort of path and trying to spot the wooden posts with white painted tips which were the way markers to help guide you across the moor. After Sleightholme Farm it was still a bit of tricky navigation wise but I was happy with my route from my recce and ended up at God’s Bridge just before the A66 in what felt like good time considering the conditions. It was just before 6am so wouldn’t be long before daylight arrived.

Breaking news – As I cross the A66 I swap to the North A-Z map another milestone and evidence I am actually getting closer to Kirk Yetholm.

I passed the rescue hut which is at GR 948147 and headed over Cotherstone Moor which was uneventful and actually a bit of a drag as with daylight and improved visibility I could see for miles but the unchanging scenery made it seem very slow progress. I was actually quite enjoying my head torches 4m bubble for company at night – you don’t see a lot so you don’t miss a lot apart from the odd turning and you move along nicely in your own little world.

At roughly 9.00am I arrived at The Old Hayloft, at Clove Lodge, to find a sign inviting Spine runners for tea, cake and shelter. I was feeling quite good at this point and almost didn’t bother, but my inquisitiveness got the better of me and I couldn’t resist – thank goodness I didn’t. Here was yet another example of a strangers generosity that I wouldn’t forget. Beside the kettle, a note was left asking you to put another log on the fire before you left, so I made myself a coffee and grabbed a couple of celebrations chocolates, threw a log in the fire and was off on my travels North again. Thank you – it was amazing and I wish I could have stayed longer.

I arrived at Lunedale down a steep road section and turned the corner to see Tim Laney and Wiebke Lammers – I didn’t know her but she said she had been told to give me a massive hug from our mutual friend Laura Millward. This was such a lovely gesture and as a hugger myself it was a real treat. I didn’t get one from Tim but I won’t hold that against you mate. It was lovely to see you again though after Tan Hill and the weather was a lot calmer and nicer all-round compared to then. I think I may have had a few custard creams off you though so that was pretty good instead πŸ™‚

I crossed the B6276 and headed NE calculating that I was only about 5 km away from Middleton and was really looking forward to seeing Kate Thurman, a friend of a friend, who had messaged to say she was waiting for me.

Starting to look a bit tired and 2 beautiful views on approach to CP3

The views were amazing and I could see Middleton was in what felt like touching distance. I jogged and shouted out loud to myself ‘Get in there!’ I’d made it to day 4, which was my first goal thinking back to discussions I’d had with Uncle Stu on the training weekend. Middleton was a massive boost and I was feeling strong although I was now suffering from proper chaffing so once in the town I spotted a pharmacy and took the opportunity to get some more Sudocrem. Picture the scene – a man in full spine kit, muddy and looking somewhat disheveled in this old fashioned pharmacy – I grabbed a tub of Sudocrem and proceeded to pay . The assistants face had that knowing look – the one that says she knows why you need it, she’s been here before! We smiled at each other and with a passing good luck I left and headed up the road towards the check point ! Greeted by a beaming smile by the bridge – it was Kate and I’m not sure who was smiling the most, but boy, I was so glad to see her and chat on our way in to the check point. It amazed me how the sight of friends brought out such raw emotion during this race due to battling on your own for such long periods in those conditions. Looking back, the whole of the last section had felt like a bit of a battle starting with the Great Shunner Fell adventure, then the tale of the poles and the wind over the moors by Tan Hill but it was one with so many memories and stories to tell, not least sharing those with Gemma who I had left behind sleeping at Tan Hill.

It was 11:44 on Wednesday 15th January that I arrived in the check point after 75 hours 44 minutes. The cut off here was 84 hours so I now had a cushion of 8 hours and 16 minutes with a planned 4 or 5 hour stop, I had made up some time as a buffer, but not as much as I’d hoped but a cushion none the less and given the conditions I was pretty pleased with that.

I was greeted by David Wood again, another guy with a great smile to welcome you. I remembered him from Hawes but it is only when you see someone for a second time that you relate to them from the first meeting. I was looking forward to the warmth of the check point so was a bit disappointed when I was lead into the main hall. There was acres of space and a table where my drop bag had been delivered but it wasn’t a warm haven, quite the opposite in fact. I did a quick sort through my kit and did the usual processing before I hit the warmth of the catering room. There were quite a few people and I managed to snaffle the last of one of the hot meal choices although I don’t remember what it was but I do remember David recommending it, so made sure my name was on it.

Admin and food done, it was time to shower! Surprisingly, I didn’t scream as the hot water made contact with the chaffing, but once I was done, I applied plenty of sudocrem and decided it was time to sleep. I woke up again ahead of my alarm after only 2 hours and I just lay there. I couldn’t get up, I’d had enough, it was relentless and I just wanted someone to say ‘Stop, it’s all over, its ok’ but they didn’t, I peeled off my eye mask, unplugged my ears and went about trying to orientate myself out of bed in the dark. It was like being at a YHA and I was the early git getting up while others were still trying to sleep! I tried to gather my things, find my watch and get up without making a noise but I knew it was impossible. Why is there always a creaky door in those dorms? Eventually a slight selfishness kicked in and although I tried to be quiet it was time to just crack on and get my race going again.

I dressed, went back for more food and got some treatment for my clean but painful feet. By now I was getting to know the Medic team quite well. What seemed like my personal angel, Anna set to cleaning and dressing my little toes, though by now there was concern that my right one was becoming infected which explained the pain I was in.

Pictures of my feet were taken so they could monitor me up the course and I had one medic working on each foot which gave me time to catch up on Facebook. So with both feet dressed it was time to get my socks on and sort out my kit before leaving. There were just too many messages to read but I scanned a few and when I was struggling to find the motivation to get going again, this gave me a valuable boost. Another cuppa and I was back in the cold room finalising my kit. As I left the comfort and warmth of the canteen area, I saw Gemma walking in and thought she’d come in under her own steam, so congratulated her. I was gutted to hear that she had been picked up and brought into the check point, she was gutted too but it was yet another reminder of the harsh reality of this race! After a big hug and warm wishes from both sides, I thought of the fantastic but incredibly challenging section we had shared together, from the terrible weather and underfoot conditions to the laughs surrounding sheep eyes and rocks, broken poles and the debacle of the village hall at Keld. It all made for a short but very close few miles. I was gutted to see you drop out Gemma and can’t wait to see you kiss that wall when you finish next time.

I zipped up Monty, performed last minute adjustments on my race pack including adding the next 3000 Kcal of rations which you need to have at the start and when leaving CP 3 and 5 and signalled to the CP staff that I was ready to go. It was then I heard ‘Hang on, one of the safety team needs to see you before you go’. Cue Chris McClymont from the SST. -‘Have you already packed? Oh no, I’m really sorry I need to see…..’ and he reeled off a few items they needed to check on the mandatory kit list before I could leave. So there I was unpacking my race pack to show my 3000 Kcal food, stove, sleeping bag and bivvy. It was so funny but not so funny and we both chuckled about it but I could see Chris was felt really terrible about asking me to unpack and re pack my bag.

Going back into the reception area, which felt even colder, I put my gaiters back on – everything was becoming such an effort now and putting all my outer gear and race pack on was turning into something like getting an astronaut dressed before take off – nothing happened quickly.

The weather report was looking really grim on the white board and I hoped the race diversion was still on, but no, they had reversed it back to the original race route just before I left and although I didn’t know the route, it sounded daunting where they had diverted around Cauldron Snout. There was one route diversion still in place on the road to Holwick instead of following the PW along the River Tees due to flooding. So I walked out the door and into the darkness and rain and saying final goodbyes to the volunteers and with a smile and best wishes from David and Yo I was off.

I was hoping to leave at 16:30 but it ended up being nearer to 17:00 so I still had a 3 hour buffer in the bank.

Thank you Kate, David, Chris, Anna and all the rest of the check point team at Middleton for the memories and just being out right fabulous. πŸ™‚

Total distance covered so far – 144.1 miles – Yay I was well over half way and 6hrs 40 minutes of sleep since I started on Sunday but more importantly, I was still going.

Middleton to Alston YHA – 39 Miles with a cut off of 110 hrs

Walking through the town, with the shops and takeaways still open, I remembered back to someone mentioning the fish n chip shop here.It smelt amazing, but I wasn’t hungry so carried on over the bridge and turned right up the lane to the south of the river. I realised I hadn’t spoken to my children for ages as I’d been so wrapped up in the race, so seeing as the terrain wasn’t challenging, I called them before deciding to switch off with some music for a while. These sections were long so getting your thoughts right and settling into the knowledge you were going to be out all night and for hours before getting to the next check point was invaluable. The important thing was to feel comfortable, not rushed or panicked. I said my goodnights to the kids and cracked into a nice speed up the road.

Rejoining the PW at Wynch Bridge and following the River Tees this was a relatively flat section for a while. I passed Low Force, having never been there before, and I was only aware I was next to a fast flowing river because of the noise,By the time I reached High Force I was starting to become intrigued and certainly knew it was something I didn’t think was a good idea to fall into. The sound and the chill coming off from the water was quite incredible if not a little scary.

After High Force it was a small climb up Bracken Rigg. I passed through a wooden gate into a clearing and spotted a runner wandering around but coming towards me. He was Japanese and he seemed to avoid me but I made a point of calling out to him, as not only was he walking towards me but was veering off course completely heading North and in the wrong direction. There was no answer so I ended up shouting to him and trying to ask what was happening, He kept showing me the map and I got the impression he wasn’t happy or understanding me. I said ‘Middleton CP’ and pointed in the direction going back to the CP. I tried to call HQ to point this guy out as being lost or in difficulty but there was no signal. I tried to get across to him to go back and continued trying to call again. I headed West and could make out the dark shadow of steep ground to my left and right – it began to feel like I was in a scene from Lord of the Rings. The fog had now descended to add to the eeriness, but I made good ground initially although slowly my speed reduced to a crawl. I struggled to make out the path as it turned to rocks and while I usually make good ground over rocky terrain this was seriously treacherous, ankle snapping stuff. I found myself slipping and coming very close to the waters edge. I looked for an easier route but never found one, boom, then I slipped with one foot ending up in the river and it felt really bad as if I’d sprained my ankle – this was the alarm bell I probably needed, and I literally crawled for the rest of the way around Falcon Clints. I managed to find the path again and began to climb before I realised I was now scrambling quite steeply, which with the strong winds which had returned and the bulky spine kit I was carrying, it certainly required extra care. Crossing the bridge at the top, I was relieved that section was over. The bridge was the point where the diversion would have reconnected with the route and I was thinking I would have preferred to have done that, but the exposure, the terrain and the thrill of doing Cauldrons Snout, however risky, was worth it and certainly would have achieved a 2.5 or more type fun category.

I met Pascale Mathonet as I reached the top of the scramble but she had stopped by the bridge for a while, so I carried on and saw her later at Dufton. That was some route we had just done, and not knowing her I remember thinking kudos and fair play to you Pascale for what you’d just done, and I was sorry I didn’t hang around and join up with you. It was a fairly straightforward yomp across the moor passing Maize Beck and then to the top of High Cup Nick.

The vis was poor at the top with low fog and a couple of times I got a bit too close to the edge for my liking on the descent but once on the obvious northern edge path was quick to get down into Dufton.

Walking through the village of Dufton, I saw the Post Office Pantry cafe who had said they would be open 24/7 to support the race. I headed for the village hall which was fairly empty, and could see ‘Fluffy’, once again, flat out on the floor to one side of the room and a couple of other Spiners who were making use of the break in the 30 minute rule. I felt drained but glad to have stopped. Somewhat late, I passed on the info and location of where I last saw Mr Japanese as there was now a full scale search party on! For my part, I was happy I did what I could at the time – he was not injured and he wouldn’t listen to me, a lesson there to know how to self nav. It was great to see Wiebke again, although everyone was clearly tired, though it was the middle of the night, I’m guessing 3 or 4am. Jo the medic, who was another regular face helped with my feet but they had got to the stage of being beyond help now and I was just managing the pain with medication and the dogged determination to continue. How could something so small create so much pain? I decided to sleep here but no soon had I arrived, the CP staff were advising racers that we should leave by 5am as no one had ever finished the race leaving after that time. At this point Pascale came in and basically collapsed into her sleeping bag refusing to listen and didn’t look like she was going anywhere fast. ‘Fluffy’ and ‘Robbit’ (Peters nickname for Rob Spalton, not mine) who had paired up, had left by now. Whilst I can’t recall what the time was exactly I knew I had about 30 minutes remaining to go with their advice so, I threw out the plan to sleep and with it, some of my positivity. I packed and left feeling a little deflated, but I was determined to have some breakfast at the Pantry to support them supporting us so, the action of opening the door woke them up and I ordered a full English breakfast – how random this felt but I reckoned I’d earned it and although we were told we had to go, I felt sure even with my sleep deprived head I was inside my time plan. The smell of the fry up was surreal, being in civilisation and being cooked for at that time of day was a lovely and much needed experience.

Walking up through the village, I could still smell the fry up on my clothes as I retraced my steps back to the PW. I left Dufton and stumbled across Paolo Girolami coming from my left, what is it with me coming across people who seem disorientated? We chatted and I said I was happy with the route but he didn’t sound convinced and started faffing just outside the village – By this time I was thinking to myself if what the Dufton CP people say is correct, I’m getting a move on and haven’t got time to hang around and wait.

I climbed steadily watching the head torches of Fluffy and Robbit in the distance but quite high up and decided I would try and catch them up, but then some bastard hill got in the way! This one was steep enough to embrace the zig zag style of ascending and having started at 150m in Dufton at this son of a … up to the top of Green Fell was 790m !! I reached the summit but there were no head torches to be seen, so we now have a classic hare and the tortoise situation, with me being the latter as I had less sleep under my belt and although I was moving steadily, they were better rested and faster on the move.

Turning NW at the top of Green Fell there was a slight descent and I headed across and up to the top to Great Dunn Fell at 848m ! There was snow underfoot now and wind to contend with on the tops. I approached the radio masts and thought ‘this is just incredible’, I screamed at the top of my voice ‘Wahooooo come onnnn’ like a kid and shoe skiied in the snow, ticking another Spine Race bucket wish off my list but as I passed the radio masts, it became quite steep, falling away to my right. I was about to do a live feed on Facebook as this just made me feel so alive, but when it came down to it I realised this was a bit too tasty as the wind was really gusting and I needed to be careful. Heading down, then back up to Little Dun Fell, I was now leaning over to the left to counteract a gusting westerly wind and to prevent being blown over. Down again to 772m and then back up to Cross Fell at 893m to find the shelter of the Trig point. I wished at this point I could attach the video Facebook live feed I did to give you the experience of the wind and cold up there but I can’t seem to add it. Fair to say it was brutal and I had to stop filming as I couldn’t move my lips for the cold!

With low visibility and having done the live video, I decided to do a quick bearing off the summit to be on the safe side and to make sure I was sliding my way North towards Gregs Hut, home of the legendary spicy noodle bar and Father Christmas, which was about 2 km away. The hut came in to view and I had a massive smile on my face – John was right and I’d only gone and made it to the hut which had to be one of the highlights of the race for me. I think my smile when I reached the hut said it all. Even the media guy who ushered me in said I was one of the few people who were so chirpy and smiley there.

So with 170 miles done – 6 hours 45 minutes sleep, I’d made Gregs Hut – wow !

The amazing Check Point staff with Alex Pickerell, Paul Shorrock and his trusty companion Mist – woof and the legend that is John Bamber – thanks guys for what was simple but unforgettable experience at Gregs Hut.

Link to my interview in Gregs hut below;

So it was time to leave this Airbnb and finish this section off and get on my way to Alston (CP4)

Me and Paolo Girolami leaving Gregs Hut – Next stop Alston

Paolo shot off like he knew something I didn’t about cut offs, but like all these races you need to do your own thing and I didn’t try and keep up. At this point I was on the Corpse Road which sounds more ominous than it is. It was a good track and made for steady progress round Backstone Edge and past Corn Rigg, Pikeman Hill and down into Garrigill. I don’t know why but I thought this was where the Check point would be, but by the time I had reached the other side of the village I realised I was a bit premature in my thinking. I thought I must have missed it but had heard from other racers that there was a resident who provided tea and a warm seat in the village as they passed by. I was zoned out at the time with my headphones on, listening to a podcast but it was one to look out for. I was about to turn off the road and back onto the PW path probably about a park run away from Alston YHA when Mr Tomb-Raider aka Alistair Black in his Landrover Defender, accompanied by his Exile Medic posse pulled up alongside me to check on my welfare. I had a moan about my feet and was assured that they would take a good look at them once I reached the check point so, with a renewed boost I cracked on along the path. It was flat but muddy (what a surprise!) and followed the river for some distance but by now the heavens had opened and I was willing the CP along for some shelter as it was so grim.

After what seemed like endless fields and mud combined with persistent heavy rain, I finally made it to Alston YHA at 14:38 on Thursday 16th January, some 102 hrs and 38 minutes into the race so still had a 7 hours and 22 minute cushion – again not great but with a short stop the race was still on.

This had been by far the toughest section of the course so far and Hawes seemed like a lifetime ago with all the adventures and memories to look back on. Reaching the safety and welcome of Alston felt like a small miracle and was very welcome.

After the customary shedding of outer wet, muddy kit I was ushered into the seated dining area – that sounds posh – trust me, it wasn’t! Time seemed to just slow down here. The room was cramped and busy with lots of noise of people standing around chatting. One of the safety teams had sort refuge at the check point and it was fab to see a familiar face in my friend Caroline McCann who I first met when we did our Summer ML assessment. Jo Smiley Stevens who was part of the check point team was also there so I was starting to feel at home, maybe too much so! I made hard work of performing simple tasks like changing batteries and sorting out my race kit. I sat staring at it all in a zombie state, hoping the birds from Cinderella would come along and sort it all out for me, alas of course they didn’t! I remember seeing Andy Norman again, and he seemed to bypass others who looked like they were going to DNF, in order to get me food and drink. Cue the a plate of the legendary Alston lasagne, it tasted as good as it looked and the Alston team most definitely delivered on their promises !

With a full stomach, I headed up the stairs to the showers and sleeping area, the effort of just climbing the stairs alone wasn’t pretty and it seemed to take an age to get to the top. Ouch!- Chaffing v hot water again made me jump but I was pleased it wasn’t getting any worse and the Sudocrem application during my CP period along with copious amounts of Vaseline when I set out on the trail seemed to keeping the worst of it at bay, just!

With a sigh of relief, I collapsed into bed and slept with a pillow under my feet to try and keep them elevated to reduce the swelling. I struggled to get quality sleep due to over tiredness and my body ached all over. The constant weight wearing the sack for hours and days on end had taken its toll on my upper back and shoulders, and my legs – whilst they were still attached to my body, had all but disowned me by this point.

The alarm went off and I just lay there staring at the underneath of the bunk above me again. I literally dragged myself out of bed and somehow managed to reach down enough to get my socks on, and what followed could only be described as a descent of the stairs like a 90 year old man. There was a reception lady at the foot of the stairs who whispered ‘good morning’ to me, it was early evening but I figured the sentiment. I was now wide awake and responded in a similar fashion.

The CP was more like a ghost town, and after more food and hot tea, the medics set about doing their thing with my feet. They looked ok from the top and apart from my 2 little toes, my right one being clearly infected by now and a bit of swelling, they were looking remarkably ok. But, despite their looks, they were incredibly painful and just putting boots back on was an effort in itself. How can something so small produce that amount of pain?

I was surprised that I was asked whether I was carrying on.. ‘Hell yeah, I’ve not come this far and gone through what I have to give up just yet!’ I responded. I really felt like I was getting stronger as the race unfolded.

Jo from Exile medics becoming part of my personal outpatient team and quality hugs from Jo Stevens before departure into the unknown once more – still smiling! Thank you Alston you were just amazing!

So, now with only a 90 or so minute cushion and 80ish miles to go, I headed off to Bellingham wondering if my feet would last the distance! Watch out for the final part to see how my race unfolded – there’s never a dull moment in the life of Bones πŸ™‚

To be contd….

The Fellowship of the Spine

We’re in Edale, Derbyshire, it’s just before 08:00 on Sunday 12th January 2020 and my fellow competitors from all over the world gather on the field behind the main village car park to take on the challenge that is the Spine Race, and the common goal of somehow reaching Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. No rousing music, no motivational speeches, just a gantry which says ‘START’ in a relatively small field of competitors compared to what I’m used to. It feels like we’re all huddling for the start of Park Run, nothing as Epic as the Spine Race. There’s an eerie silence, only a few mutterings between fellow racers can be heard. I don’t actually know what to say….. ‘Have a good race’ seems sort of inadequate for what lies ahead.

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And we’re off, 268 unknown miles lie ahead on our journey

So what brought me to Edale – The Journey so far

In 2012 I suffered an ankle injury and to cut a long story short my consultant advised me to stop running anything more than 5k and recommended my training should be confined to a tread mill. What a blow! It was just 4 weeks before my second London Marathon attempt, but he had agreed I could run it and would fix me after. I surprisingly ran a PB but still fell short of my goal time. The good news, however, was that after the marathon, I was fixed, and a second opinion gave me the hope I needed and that I should just ‘manage’ the situation and be sensible!

Whilst in my post op recovery, I saw a great friend of mine, Darren, complete the Lakeland 50 and seeing the smile on his face hooked me and, from this moment on, I knew I wanted to combine my Mountain Leaders qualification with running in the hills! And so, in July 2013 I entered the Lakeland 50 and that was it! No looking back now – I was an Ultra addict!

When I entered I never considered the Lakeland 100 as being something more than an event I would never be able to consider, but when I finished the 50, something told me to enter it again. The following year saw me trying to beat my time but the heat and the course had other ideas and I DNF’d. I felt I had nothing to prove, so rather than going back for the 50, I entered and completed the Lakeland 100 in 2015. The feeling of satisfaction and connection with fellow racers was off the scale, something I had never experienced in my life. Since then, I have made some truly fabulous friends and lifelong connections as a result of participating in these events.

So, fast forward to summer 2016, when I first became aware of the Spine Race and I entered the 2017 Winter Challenger race. As Autumn approached, I remembered my friend Steve who had run it the previous year and had to pull out with a calf injury, had said it was horrendously brutal and he had no interest in returning to the race for a re match due to the bog and so I decided to pull out… My thinking went “Why would I want to run in the winter over that distance in bog, I hate the cold’. I never gave the race another thought and certainly didn’t think it would feature on my bucket list but then the winter 2019 race happened.

We all know about Jasmine, about her amazing race and story which electrified my senses, pushing me to join the dot watchers who were glued to their screens as the race unfolded, whilst at the same time following my friend, Michael Burke, who was also taking part in the full race, finishing despite a slight injury. This started me thinking ‘I wonder, could I do this?’ and so the seed was sown. I caught up with Michael in Starbucks (other coffee suppliers are available, although sadly not currently) where he showed me his medal. The deal was done, I wanted one of those for myself…

And so, my preparations began! I don’t mind admitting I was daunted by the kit list as well as the trail, which was completely unknown to me, having never set foot on the Pennine Way in my life! I absolutely relished the prospect. I set about sorting out a plan. Those who know me will know I’m not that strict when it comes to a training plan, preferring to ‘wing’ it through my baseline endurance and fitness level and leap frog from one event to another that I think are relevant. In fairness, my shift patterns didn’t lend themselves to a stable training structure, so I learnt to adapt and do what I can, knowing what it takes to get me to a start line. This really works for me and whilst I’m never going to win a race, it keeps me focused on training in between events, creating a platform to jump from one event to another leading up to a big race. It also takes away the stress of the ‘big’ event until the last minute as I focus on the others one at a time.

Something I learnt very early on in my Ultra running from Lakeland 100 winner Stuart Mills is that non physical training is as important as physical training, so I set about getting my mind in gear for this epic event perhaps even more so than my body. I have learnt that if my mind is right and I believe in myself, then my body will come through somehow and I can achieve by adopting a system of process and progress, not outcome or goal. So my non physical training included a weekend ‘Spa’ retreat at the Tan Hill Inn in the Yorkshire Dales. At Britain’s Highest Pub I attended a Spine training session held by Stu, Scott and Philip along with guest speaker, and previous multi finisher, Stephen Brown and Al Pepper on drums (sorry that sounded like I was describing a band line up there for a minute but to be fair they all rocked !!). The Tan Hill setting gave us a glimpse of the wildness and exposure of what might be in the race, and on the first evening, I thought the pub sign was going to be blown off its bracket. The rain pelted down and the noise and rattling windows made it feel more like we were in a caravan on the West Coast of Scotland, rather than a solid stone pub on the tame Pennine Way (cue reality check!). Sitting round the fire with the smell of wood smoke filling the bar area, nursing a pint or 3, none of us felt like we would be able to set foot outside and start walking in the dark on this wild night, so how we would do it in January?  God only knew – this just added to the daunting prospect of what lay ahead.

Tan Hill Inn – calm before the storm!

There was an absolute wealth of information, almost too much to take in but it was a case of picking out the bits which I felt were relevant and important to me and stuff which could make a difference without being overwhelmed. I came away with the Spine skills wheel, a greater appreciation of kit & clothing, a race strategy, an ‘expedition not a race’ mindset, an appreciation of Pennine bog and some idea that if I made it to day 4, there was a slim chance of completing this beast, something I could only dream of at that point. Most of all, there was a feeling that this weekend could be the make or break for my race. There were vocals by guest speaker Stephen Brown with his wealth of race participant input which was invaluable – advising on Check point transitions, modular packing systems, ‘Be kind to your future self’ quote (something I reminded myself of every time I was in a check point and felt like just throwing kit back in my drop bag rather than returning it in a tidy modular state) and sleep strategy all being placed above forward movement in order of race importance. His advice on the ‘Ninja Bivvi’ is something that will live with me forever and something which I was reminded of leaping forward to the race, which I’ll touch on later. Whilst this was a wake up call, I remember me and my good friend, Steve Blythe, from many a Lakeland 100 venture who had also attended and entered the full Spine, looked at each other and pretty much said ‘Oh fuck, what have we done?’ simultaneously! This was exactly the wake up call I needed with just 2.5 months to race day – a focus, a strategy and some homework set by Uncle Stu – it was time to order some maps and start with the rest of my non physical training. The training weekend was spot on and if there was any chance of me finishing, I felt this had given me the tools to make it happen. At least I now knew where the Tan Hill Inn was, a long way North of the M25, what else did I need to know?

The Awesome Spine training team and fellow racers who are now lifelong friends. Spine Training weekend Oct 2019 at the Tan Hill Inn somewhere on the Pennine Way!

Luxury of the open fire – PW on our way to Gods Bridge – Camping with a view

Training recce from Edale to Hebden Bridge – Nov

So, following on from my training weekend at the Tan Hill and the massive boost this gave me, I decided to plan what I thought would be my one and only opportunity to recce the course. I set off straight from St Mary’s University, Twickenham, one Wednesday evening where I was studying Sports Massage Therapy and arrived in Chapel-en-le-Frith around 23:00 to a super little Airbnb. A short nights sleep was followed by a meet up for breakfast in the morning with my fab friend of 10 years, Caroline McCann, one of the Spines Safety Team members. I first met Caroline on our Summer Mountain Leaders Assessment together in Llanberis, Snowdonia back in goodness knows what year. The weather was pretty rubbish – it didn’t bode well, but Caroline gave some good advice about double dry bagging my kit and spots to grab water and kip.

My plan was to just do the first section to give me a confidence boost and familiarise  myself with the start of the race in a little under 2 months time. I wanted to test my kit to make sure my Bivvi plan would work and to see if my movement across the ground would see me in Hebden within 18 hours. The race plan was to be able to get there, spend 4 hours in the CP and be out within 22 hours to provide a 2 hour cushion. It was bleak, but offered a great insight, particularly regarding under foot conditions, into what I needed to do in January. The main insight for me was the lack of water gathering opportunities, as what looked like a map covered in streams and water ways soon turned into the grim realisation that this was just bog and that the likelihood of grabbing fresh stream water en route the way I’m used to doing in The Lakes, was pretty much 0%. I was tired well before I hit the 18 hour mark so tested my Bivvi set up at Standege in a perfect clump of trees at the back of a car park. I woke 2 hours later, cold and to a heavy frost, cooked up some food to warm me up and realised I needed to get on the move again as it was way too cold to hang around. The smell of the frost, the fresh air with the pine trees awoke my senses and I quickly packed up and set off on my final leg to Hebden. My hands were absolutely freezing and this was one of my big worries for the race of suffering from cold hands and feet – kit plug ! On went my Montane Primino merino liner gloves and over those my Prism Primaloft mitts and then topped off with the Minimus waterproof mitt. Montane, if you’re reading this feel free to sponsor me in future! – these were first class and within a minute or so my hands were toastie, it must have been -5 and yet my hands were almost too warm, my cold hand worries were over and this system worked, a big confidence boost. That path to Stoodley Pike doesn’t half go on! I’m sure someone is having a laugh by keep moving the 1.5 mile to the Pike finger post as it never seemed to get closer πŸ™‚

Well needed refueling in Hebden

It was tough and I looked like I’d finished the race not just the first section of 46 or so miles. Caroline suggested I went as far as the ‘shute’ which takes you down to the CP but time was against me as I was meeting a friend for breakfast and needed to get back home to Sussex for work – I was pretty knackered but a full English in the company of Nikki, who very kindly had offered to give me a lift back to my car at Edale, was very welcome. Parts of the recce had boosted my confidence, other parts had tested my kit teaching me that a few adjustments would be needed –  like the next size up Bivvi bag so that, if needed, I could get some kit as well as me in but mainly I was left feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead. Funny how time heals, a bit like finishing a race saying never again but within hours saying, ‘well maybe I was a bit hasty saying that!’ Within 24 hours I’d forgotten how tough I found it and I could see that it was achievable with a bit of luck.

So Edale Here We Come!

Skiing La Plagne 1st Jan – Happy New Year

My plan on going skiing over the New Year  seemed like a great idea at the time of booking and whilst we had a fabulous trip and it took my mind off the Spine race, we arrived home late on Sunday 5th January 2020. I had early shifts to cover at work on Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th, University to attend on Wednesday 8th and then a late shift to cover Thursday 9th. I managed to finish early at 20:00 instead of 23:00 so I could wake early on the Friday, finish packing and head to Edale mid morning. I couldn’t wait to hit the road and leave a life of uncertainty behind to get to a race of uncertainty! My race packing involved mostly chucking stuff together around the times I had free outside of work. Luckily I had ordered everything I needed, as well as some bits which had arrived while we were away, and so it was just a case of sorting it out. I don’t think I’ve felt less prepared for a race ever, but at the same time was pretty cool about it all! I’m usually, packing – sorting – arranging – faffing – on repeat for about 2 weeks prior to a race but oh no, not this one, not the biggest race I’ve ever entered, ‘chuck it in and go’ springs to mind.

The plan had been for my partner to drive me up to Edale after work on Friday with her daughter and dog. We had booked a lovely cottage just down the road from race HQ and she would see me off from the start on Sunday 12th and then drive home, and I’d get the train back, hopefully from Berwick upon Tweed or from wherever else I ended up. So, the first glitch in my well oiled logistics machine was when my partner dropped it on me before we left for skiing that her daughter wasn’t able to join us due to other commitments! No problem I thought, makes life easier in my book, then on the way home she stated that she too wouldn’t be able to come to Edale! Well this was a right kick in the nuts for my logistic plans – the world suddenly caved in, how, where, what, how the… would I get back ? My car would be stuck in Edale, where would I leave it? I didn’t know… and what about my pre-booked Β£70+ non transferable train ticket? All of a sudden things got a bit fraught and I hurriedly made phone calls and spent most of Monday on Google trying to come up with a plan rather than looking forward to my race and getting my kit organised! With 3 days until I was due to travel to the Peaks for the biggest race of my life – could anything else possibly go wrong ? πŸ™‚ My mate Steve Blythe came up trumps and we arranged to share the cottage and I had a provisional plan of a lift back from Kirk Yetholm to Edale courtesy of the ever fabulous Nikki again. So, I had a plan – not ideal but it was a plan, and my race was back on and I was desperately trying to find some positives rather than feel lost and hit with a sudden lack of confidence. By this stage, and for some time, I had doubts my relationship was going to last and although had not voiced it to anyone, knew in my heart of hearts it was over and that once back from the Spine I would make the change and look forwards not back. This was not an ideal position to be in and I was stressed from the whole heap of uncertainty and worry and concerned it would massively affect my mindset, leaving me drained and significantly impacting my chances of finishing. Steve B was so lucky having me as company and turned into my very own agony Aunt – something he has become used to with our shared trips over the years πŸ™‚ Steve – you’re a Lakeland legend and true friend, thank you!

I’m packed – Let’s Go !

So after a straightforward drive I arrived in Edale, set up camp at Brown Bread Cottage, caught up with Steve and started finalising my packing. It was then time to pop down to check out race HQ location, and mingle and chat with friends and race companions. I just love this part of a race, a real high and you’ll always see me with my beaming smile wandering around, bumping into folk, chatting and laughing for ages. It was here I met Darren Hunt for the first time, face to face, despite being great social media buddies for a few years and after a brief chat, selfie and man hug it was off to visit Penny Pot Cafe for the first time of many trips that weekend. I felt like I had arrived and was settled – something to do with the tea and cake maybe ? We hit the pub for our evening meal before a presentation in the hall by Montane. With a nice little freebie thrown in of a small soft flask and a chance to watch the official Spine film – it was quite chilling and the scene was set with narration by Damian Hall. Well that was it, we were in Spine mode and there was no turning back now.

Brown Bread Cottage – what was to be pre race HQ

On Saturday, I cooked breakfast for Steve and I, then it was off to race HQ for registration and kit check. The kit you had to show depended on your number but you didn’t know that until you arrived, so you still had to take everything with you. The kit list is quite extensive. Luckily, my number meant I had a relatively small amount of mandatory kit to show. The hall, where registration was taking place, was quite small and was filled with competitors and volunteers with an air of excitement and nerves. I bumped into loads of familiar faces although I still felt out of my depth among the regulars to the Spine as this wasn’t Lakeland and I was a newbie, a position I hadn’t been in for a while. I saw the lovely Niki Lygo for the first time and got a lovely reassuring hug as well as meeting John Bamber who I’d heard about from previous blogs. He was ‘Mr Greg’s Hut’ and I remember saying to him that I wasn’t sure I would but if I made  it to the hut then I’d be very happy to just be able to soak up that part of the race and try the legendary spicy noodles. John was very reassuring and replied β€œyou will”. I then moved on to see Gandolf aka Lindley, the race kit check warden. Mine passed, but I took the opportunity to check on a couple of bits of my kit from a practical point of view using his expertise of the race, and then it was on to James Thurlow, from Open Tracking, to have my trackers fitted. I was expecting a couple of lunch box size tupperwares to cope with for 7 days but was very surprised to see a couple of match boxes fitted to each shoulder strap of my rucksack – result! Lindley and James are both familiar faces and it was nice to chat to them and catch up, making me feel more at home and relaxed.

It was then on to the race briefing given by Darren Hunt, who was coordinating the Safety Teams, and the wonderful Exile medics talking us through our pee colour. I would get to know the team quite well during my race. We then met up with my friend Andy Blain who had been an inspiration from our Venture Scout days. Andy pushed the mountaineering and climbing limits and was known to be quite extreme in what he did, and I guess some of that rubbed off on me for me to be doing what I do now. He lives in the Peak District so it was fabulous to catch up and reminisce about the past and some of our adventures over tea and cake once again at the lovely Penny Pot Cafe. It was a real boost for me to be surrounded by like minded people who were all making such an effort to show their support and belief in what I was about to embark on. Thanks Andy for making the effort to come over, it was great to see you.

Me and Andy at Penny Pot Cafe Edale

We headed back to the cottage to do more kit faff, pack race packs and make sure my drop bag was down to 20kgs. When I weighed it at home it was a little under but by the time I added the ‘extra’ bits and spare poles it weighed over 22kg. I set about trying to offload kit I felt I couldn’t justify like someone desperately chucking sand bags out of a hot air balloon basket in an attempt to avoid crashing. The result was aided by Steve saying ‘what do you want spare poles for, they’re just dead weight?’, so out they went! Finally, I reached target weight so there was only one thing for it – food – this time we chose to eat at the cottage to save driving back to Edale again. After Pizza, Guinness and rice pud – oh that tasted good, we finished off with a chilled evening watching a film then headed to bed to try and get an early night.

Race Day – 12th January 2020

Edale Derbyshire to Hebden Bridge West Yorkshire – approx 50 miles

So the day arrived and we were finally off to do this thing. I hadn’t slept well but that wasn’t something I could change now. The Challengers had already been out all night and I had heard the brutal wind and rain they were battling through as I lay listening to it through the velux window in my room – this had probably had a part to play in my lack of sleep, but it was a fair morning although the threat of rain was in the air and there was a gloominess about the sky. And so, it was time to get up, breakfast, get my kit on, put the last bits in my race front pouch and load the car up.

This was it!! We dumped our drop bags at the main hall and, to my relief, mine passed so now it was time to head off to relocate and park the car near to the railway station. We hadn’t left a great deal of spare time on purpose as we both love a good faff, so the less time we allowed for this the better. We headed back to the hall to keep warm and do some final dress code tweaks. Trying to find somewhere to sit seemed pointless, we were going to be on our feet for days so resting for a few more minutes by comparison wasn’t going to make any difference. I found myself checking what others were starting off in and I opted for the bombproof set up – waterproof knee length socks, gaiters, waterproof trousers and my Paramo smock. Shoe choice was based on my recce so with the first section being quite tricky under foot and wanting maximum grip I opted for my La Sportiva Mutants, a decision I would soon regret. We wandered out of the hall with about 10 minutes to spare.

As I walked out of the hall who did I bump into but Joe Kenny! We go back a few years, again from Lakeland days, and I first remember Joe from when we were climbing out of Sadgill on our way to Kentmere on the Lakeland 50 in 2013 or 14…. At the time I was crippled with stomach cramp and hardly moving going uphill, but as he flashed past me with the sound of his poles on the rocks, he asked me if I was OK and with a passing comment about ‘too many gels maybe?’ he was gone. I’ve followed Joe since and we bump into each other occasionally, but this was amazing for him to come out and see me at the start of the race! It was cold and raining but we walked towards the start line and he uttered some very reassuring words to me along the lines of “you know what to do, just keep moving forwards”. We said our goodbyes and I headed into the line up area. This felt quite surreal and I’d lost Steve by now, so I found myself standing alone with about 150 other competitors around me and didn’t really know what to do or think. If there was a race speech by the organisers I didn’t hear it – I was in a zone of my own by this point. It was then that I suddenly thought about what was ahead and couldn’t comprehend what I was about to do – the 268 miles before me didn’t want to sink in as it was off the scale and something I couldn’t visualise. I had posted an image on Facebook before the start to boost myself and I was aware loads of messages of support were flooding into my profile, so I read a couple of these which brought with it some emotions or maybe it was just the rain on my face? I took a deep gulp and switched my phone to air plane mode to save the battery and heard a loud hooter – Shit! That must mean it’s time to go – I put my phone away and started what was a slow jog across the field, right onto the lane and that was it –  what lay ahead was a journey into the unknown.

Just remember – ‘You are the storm’ – Thanks Rich

The pace seemed quite swift, something I’d expect for a 100 mile race, which worried me, so I slowed my pace to a walk up the hill and then we turned left at the pub past the official Pennine Way finger post start sign and hit the footpath. After a slight pause at the first couple of gates we were out on to the open field, treading on uneven wet flag stones and generally settling into our own stride. There wasn’t a lot of chat going on and I think most were just lost in their own thoughts, getting into a rhythm and pace which suited them. I didn’t recognise anyone around me so just kept my head down and passed a few people who were going slower than me. It was raining and quite grim but I was comfortable in my choice of kit. I saw Hugh Wright for the first time, although I didn’t know him, but he stood out because of a banner attached to the back of his rucksack supporting the Eptopic Pregnancy Trust! I remember thinking ‘Good luck keeping that for the whole trip’ πŸ™‚ but fair play to him, he did.

We arrived at Jacobs Ladder quite quickly and made the climb up towards Kinder Low and then Kinder Downfall, which, I was hoping would show us a nice upward waterfall as the wind was in the right direction.

Nearing the top of Kinder Low (I’m far left) – A bit grim

Kinder Downfall came and went but was a bit of a damp squib unfortunately – no up fall to see, in fact not a lot to see at all as visibility was very poor so just rain and low cloud. It was even difficult to make out any familiar faces as everyone was pretty well wrapped up with hoods up, and it was a case of just going through the motions of forward movement in the strong winds – Storm Brendan was playing with us already. So, we headed on to Mill Hill and with a slight right turn it seemed like we were going properly North for the first time towards Snake Pass. I bumped into Ben Cooley literally for the first time along this stretch which was laid to flag stones, not that you would know it, as they were submerged by about 6 inches of freezing water like a river. It was here that I realised my shoe choice could have been better, as although my feet were dry, they were becoming very cold from being in the water constantly, and whilst my socks were waterproof, my shoes weren’t, so the cold water was just surrounding my socks for hours – I was concerned! Making good speed along the flags going down hill, I had my first introduction to the unpredictable bog – we hit a little chicane of stones and I could see Ben was fiddling with his kit and had removed a glove which he dropped. I shouted and gave it him back but he must have taken his eye off the path because next thing I knew he was up to his waist in bog on one leg – I stopped to help him back up and make sure he was OK before we had a bit of a laugh and carried on. We ran together for a while as a group with Sarah Fuller too, and would bump into each other several times over the course of many miles until shortly after Hebden CP. I considered stopping at Snake Pass A57 crossing point but decided to carry on and not long after doing so I was dodging oncoming running traffic who were running The ‘Trigger’ Fell race. They had supporters on the path handing out jelly babies but not to us sadly – did they not know who we were? Not some little fell race jolly but The Spine Race!!! Haha!

So it was on to Bleaklow, with Ben, Sarah and Pete Hutchinson in tow. I found this route fairly straightforward on my recce but the path was just bog and a river by now with all the rain we’d had and I made hard work of finding the route up to the Wain Stones and Bleaklow head and had some wise Spine racer aka Sarah on my heals thankfully keeping me on track. Once we arrived at the cairn and metal pole at the head I was happy and made short work of the descent and caught up with AL and a few others heading into Grouse Butts and quite a raging junction of streams which seemed more like small rivers at this point. We all gingerly crossed safely and headed down Clough Edge towards Torside Reservoir and the safety of a mini check point staffed by Oldham MRT and a much welcome break. The first 16 miles had already taken their toll and I felt drained from the terrain, weather and picking ourselves through the bog and heather so by the time I was nearing the road I was feeling pretty beaten up although knew I had made good time. This beaming smile was walking up from the road towards me and for a moment thought he must be walking up to meet someone else (lucky them to have support) as I wasn’t expecting anyone or could picture who he was initially (probably due to the context of where I was) so just carried on and wondered why he kept smiling at me – weirdo πŸ™‚ Then I realised it was Mark Radford and the smile that hit my face must have been plain to see and at the same time I saw Julia Mahan leaning on the gate post by the road smiling like a cheshire cat, the relief and emotion of seeing a friendly face after a bit of a battle of the first 16.5 miles was pretty amazing. I remember saying “I think I’ve bitten off a bit more than I can chew this time” but Julia gave me a massive welcome hug and said “you look just as shit as everyone else so don’t worry about it, the weather and conditions are brutal, you’ll be fine” My Lakeland family friends know me so well hahaha. So with a “you’re doing amazing, keep going” a farewell hug and shaking of Marks hands I crossed the road and was off into the comfort of the MRT shelter !

The checkpoint staff were amazing as they always tend to be but there’s something special about being helped by the helpers, the work that MRT volunteers do is just incredible and to have my own MRT waitress sorting my fluid and snack requirements out with a ‘nothing is too much trouble attitude’ really was fab. Hot coffee and biscuits and top up of water and I was good to go, timed perfectly with Sarah looking to leave at the same time. Ben and Peter looked like they were stopping for a 3 course meal so we left them to it. I usually favour Mountainfuel products when it comes to fluid and Endurance races but due to the distance involved and my ‘expedition’ mindset I chose to steer away from any specialised fueling products with the exception of Expedition dehydrated high calorie meals to keep things as simple as possible so it was plain water or hot drinks when I could get them. I also had a cuppa soup and tea and coffee sachets in my food supply which I carried with me between main check points if I needed something on the move. Crossing the reservoir it began to pelt it down with rain again so I paused briefly for Sarah to put her waterproof back on (I had opted to keep mine on to save the faff) and muttering about not liking the next bit coming up. I knew we were in for a climb but as this bit of my recce was done in the dark I couldn’t really remember it being that bad, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually it flattens out and you reach the top!!. We were heading up to Laddow Rocks which is a pretty steep climb up to 520 metres from 210m back at Torside and I seemed to leave Sarah behind a bit but she caught up with me stopping to take pictures. One thing that struck me was the steep drop off to my right which I hadn’t been aware of due to the dark on my recce, it was pretty windy that night so I’m just glad I kept upright.

On our descent from the ridge of Laddow Rocks we joined Lisa Wright who pretty much completed the crazy bunch who I would share the trail with for a while. Black Hill at 582m came and went and I got a decent bit of speed going and felt really good having put my fears from Torside behind me and was well on my way to Wessenden Head and the A635 finding myself on my own again. I began to notice runners seemed to be choosing to stay together in groups where as I was running my own race and staying in the moment, keeping momentum going when I felt good, this was something I was happy to continue and wasn’t fearful of being alone. I was shuffling along quite nicely when I saw these 2 figures ahead and I couldn’t miss the red Lakeland 100 bobble hat and orange coat and didn’t give them a second thought as I couldn’t make out who they were, I dropped into Dean Clough a stream cutting and as I climbed back up the other side looked up to see where I was going only to be met by my second surprise of the day seeing Sally ‘it’s a bit wet out there’ Howorth and Steve Foster – wow my face lit up, these two are just amazing friends of mine and I guess at this point I was starting to get a glimpse of what was to come with this race, it electrifies peoples attention for a week dot watching and following the human progress of friends or unknown people trudging their way north up the Pennine Way in varying conditions. I can’t remember what they said, I think I was just so super happy to see them and so surprised and amazed they’d made the effort to turn out without telling me. I remember Steve (he’s the roughty toughty 4 Parachute Regiment guy giving me a hug) saying how grim the weather was and how well I was doing, also glad that it wasn’t him. It was just starting to turn dark, raining slightly and was pretty gloomy with the prospects of being a wet n wild night but I remember being oblivious to it and felt toasty warm and wrapped up from the elements in my Paramo Adventure Velez smock (love this jacket) – no such thing as bad weather and this certainly rang true here as my gear set up was spot on. Thanks for making me smile and setting me up for the rest of the journey to Hebden, SAS, proud to call you my friends x

So it was onto the A635 road crossing at Wessenden Head and a brief catch up with Alistair and the SST crew and by this time it was starting to get dark. Crossed the road and started to head down to the reservoirs where I stopped to put on my head torch (I realised it would have been sensible to have done that back at the road where it was lighter!) It was then the steep climb up Blakely Clough and on to Standege, crossing by the A62 where I had bivvied on my one and only recce. I apologise for not knowing who you were but, unexpectedly, there was a small support crew in the car park by the road crossing with a gazebo so, although I didn’t stop long, it was nice to have a brief catch up, grab a few biscuits (custard creams of course) and crack on towards Stoodley Pike. After crossing the road a further 2 km on there is a path deviation, where if you take the left fork it turns into the Oldham Way, and initially I started to take this as it appeared a more obvious path, but it’s strange how your gut instinct tells you something different and after a minute or so of checking my position on the GPS and map I realised I was heading in the wrong direction! This was the first time that I appreciated GPS isn’t always great because if you switch it on at the point where you’re unsure, you need to walk a while for you to orientate yourself . Lesson to self – if you’re unsure of any part, better to have the GPS on before you get to that point so you are able to make quicker decisions and perhaps use the map too if needed. Passing the trig point at White Hill I headed down to the road crossing at the A672 and was suddenly aware of the road traffic noise of the M62 – It felt a bit too close to civilisation for me here so I was looking forward to getting it over with and putting it behind me. At the car park just before the motorway (more a rough lorry park really) I was chatting on the phone when a guy approached who gave me the impression he was something to do with the race and started talking to me. He was asking if I was ok – and felt it necessary to point out that someone who had stopped in the lay-by earlier asking what the race was all about had kindly left some custard creams (my favourite biscuit) but that they had all gone !! Err thanks πŸ™‚ As I walked across the edge of the car park trying to pick out where the path continued, I wasn’t looking where I was going as I was still on the phone and suddenly found myself knee deep in a muddy puddle! I could also smell the awful stench of diesel and oil which wasn’t pleasant but picked myself up and carried on to the motorway crossing, and with an even greater desire to put this section behind me, I hit the trail with renewed vigour.

Next came Blackstone Edge- making sure I kept right of the rocks and with its fabulous distant views towards Littleborough and on to the Old Packhorse Road / Roman Road, here was another navigational twist I found on my recce – that it is very easy to carry on down the Roman road and forget to turn right to the White Horse pub, the stone flags lull you into thinking it’s the PW. With this in mind, I took a right turn passing the concrete culverts to the right and dropped down to the pub where another fab group of MRT were awaiting us. I felt ok, by this point, but not great and I deteriorated quite quickly in the CP, I think I was just getting cold and started shivering. After the kind offer of a warm seat in the van and a hot cup of coffee and numerous custard creams, I started to feel human again and decided it would be a good time to change my base layer and get my clothing system sorted before leaving the comfort of shelter. Thank you to the MRT for the perfect timing and location to catch me when I needed a boost. So, now it was just a case of negotiating the fairly flat terrain from the pub past White Holme and Warland reservoirs before heading up to Stoodley Pike, all in pitch black but dry conditions above although less so under foot. What had seemed to drag on my recce passed quite quickly but then I guess maybe this is down to not being able to see the Pike until I was literally upon it, so didn’t have a reference point to focus on for ages. It was quite spooky up there and the head torch glimpsing the odd sheep added to this. Passing the Pike I made fairly quick work of getting through to Lower Rough Head farm at the top of the farm road and then it was down to the A646 at Hebden Bridge. I crossed the road and realised to myself that this was now all new territory for me for the rest of the race. I’m not sure if that was a good or bad thing but god, that climb up from the road was vicious, I reached the top and got to Badger Lane and the first road crossing and was expecting to see the check point signs, but no! Undulating field after undulating field seemed to come and go and still no check point signs, I was starting to worry that I’d gone wrong and was considering going back but decided to call HQ for some reassurance. I started the call by saying ‘if what I’m about to ask isn’t allowed please hang up on me as I don’t want to be penalised for it’…. After we both stopped laughing, the voice of Jamie told me I hadn’t missed the signs and that I’d a little further to go before reaching the next road. Continuing on, it seemed I was walking through someones orchard before reaching the road but, sure enough, the CP signs appeared, and I couldn’t wait for the chute to get me into the first Check Point!

Taking a left turn, almost straight away I found myself slipping and sure enough the path was as bad as I had been warned pre race. It was as if 100’s of feet had actually trashed it before I’d got there…. oh wait….. they had! All the Challengers and 75% of the full race at trodden that path both ways πŸ™‚ Picking my way down the steep, very muddy and slippy path, with no secret path that I could see to avoid it, I eventually made it to the very welcome site of CP1 at Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, in 17 hours 33….. 27 minutes faster than my plan, first tick done. The downside was that I didn’t feel good and was feeling similar to how I do sometimes on ultra events – sick !

Walking into the CP I was greeted by Nikki Knappett, who was her usual bubbly, smiley, happy self but before she could say anything, I uttered the words ‘I think I’m going to be sick’. I thought I’d get this out there early on as I know her well enough to know that the thought, sight or smell of sick would send her into a dry heaving frenzy – funnily enough I saw her very swift exit from the reception area never to be seen again, for a while. Thanks Nikki πŸ™‚

OMG MUD GLORIOUS MUD FROM THE CHUTE into CP1

So there I was, at my first ever Spine Check Point and I’m being sick after only 46 miles – I thought it didn’t bode well but carried on with my CP processes as efficiently as possible, in the hope that a miracle would happen and I would make it out within 4 hours, to keep to my schedule.

I discovered that Marigolds were to be my best friend on arrival, second only to the volunteers who were/are just amazing people – leggings, gaiters, muddy shoes all removed without any trouble and I was good to go – no need to worry about touching anything. All my muddy stuff lay piled on the floor and the check point angels set to marking it and putting it away to dry. I was ushered Into the small transition room where I was greeted by ‘Monty’ my drop bag. and the relief that I had put a lot of thought and effort into its modular system. I was provided with what couldn’t have been more than a 1m square area and a chair to sort myself out and sitting down, it was a great surprise to see Jo Barrett also in the room, but bless her she was suffering and didn’t seem confident that she was going to carry on. Also there were Sarah Fuller and Lisa Wright who were discussing leaving at 04:30 – fair play to them, but that wouldn’t be enough time for me so I stuck to my plan.

Well they may have taken the Micky out of my precise check point task list as I opened Monty with it there on top and to be honest I ended up not sticking to the times as it was too precise but I did stick to the process and plan of it. After all I was still chucking up at the 5 minute point when I was supposed to be drinking copious amounts of tea lol. But in essence my check point strategy was spot on and I’m sure in conjunction with my sleep strategy these 2 had a massive impact on my race and the other factors which affected the outcome.

I had organised ‘Monty’ into modular system with coloured Dry bags and had a laminated sheet of what was where. A few people opt for CP specific bags but I can’t see how you can predict what you will need for the next section when looking at conditions and your own needs at the time so I preferred the idea of dividing kit into similar items to be able to make an informed choice and know exactly where it was. On top of this I had separate clear plastic CP freezer bags labelled for the specific CP’s which had all my race bag consumables to replace or top up. This contained all my food, hot hand pads, batteries, mini first aid inc pain relief tablets etc. I found this all worked really well and wouldn’t change a thing next time – did I just say that πŸ™‚

I managed to grab some hot food and pud before heading for a shower and sleep. The Key is getting everything squared away, electricals on charge (a 4 gang short extension lead in your drop bag is mighty handy to help with this) and race kit replenished before trying to sleep so those worry demons don’t attack mid way through trying to sleep – did I replace my GPS batteries, is my next section food in my race bag etc etc. So I hit the sack put in my ear plugs, put on my eye mask and had a fab 2 hours sleep. I had hoped for 3 but with all the years of unsociable shifts and being a light sleeper, when I wake up that’s it, I’m either awake or asleep – there is no in between. I decided that lying there for another hour was pointless so feeling fresher. I got up, dressed had more tea, got my name down on the medics outpatient list as I had issues with a small toe and needed some attention and taping. Breakfast was in the form of scrambled egg and bacon washed down with more tea and then came the horrible job of putting dirty kit back on and getting out again. Stupidly, and because of the state of my La Sportiva Mutants, I chose to opt for my Hoka Tor waterproof boots to help with keeping the water away from my feet, and in hindsight this was a mistake. I should have stuck to the Mutants for a little longer or, at least until my feet couldn’t fit in them anymore, as this was the start of my foot issues with the Tors being too narrow. This combined with the 2 pairs of socks I was wearing – Injinji liner and Dexshell knee length waterproof socks meant my 2 little toes were too cramped. I made sure ‘Monty’ was all packed and neat ready for the next time I would see him – remembering Stephen Brown’s advice of ‘Be Kind to Your Future Self’! I knew things were not going to get any easier as I progressed through the race so my advice is don’t just throw it all back in. Have a system for everything, even things like batteries, new ones bagged and sealed, and used ones I just chucked loose in the bottom so I wouldn’t get confused!! Sarah Fuller and Lisa had left already but I was sad to see Jo still in the room and not going anywhere fast, she sadly DNF’d. Jo, you were in my thoughts my lovely friend. As I was about to leave there was another guy who had DNF’d and he kindly gave me some of his dark chocolate and wished me well – I didn’t catch his name but a lovely gesture and it went down well, so if you are reading this, thank you.

Just before 06:00 on Monday the 13th January I headed out the door to face the steep climb that retraced my steps from a few hours earlier. My thought was ‘just make a start and don’t think too deeply about it’ as I knew I would reach the top at some point and hopefully all being well, without falling over if I took my time.

Monday 13th January 2020

Hebden Hey Scout Centre to Hawes – 61 Miles !

I joined forces with Ben and Peter again at this point and after a short section of road we were back on the open moor with daylight approaching as we passed over Heptonstall Moor. Passing a couple of reservoirs and after a short climb, we found ourselves literally in the literary landscape of Bronte country and headed up to Top Withens – which is suggested to be the inspiration for Emily Brontes’ Earnshaw family house in her novel, Wuthering Heights. Reaching the Top Withens bothy, the wind was quite strong so I chose to have a breather inside, sort a few things and have a coffee from my amazing flask (brand plug – Zojirushi) which kept drinks hot for over 12 hours so saving me from having to get my stove kit out all the time. This will get another plug towards the end of my race. Before arriving at the bothy Ben and Peter had dropped behind a little so, as I was clearing my stuff ready to leave, they were just arriving and looked like they were going to stop for a while. I had the feeling I wouldn’t see them again but it was fabulous to spend the first 24 hours with these guys.

Dropping down to Stanbury Moor there were superb far reaching views. I headed on past Ponden reservoir up onto Ickornshaw Moor before reaching a route deviation which extended the road route and looped round into Cowling village in North Yorkshire. I realised this added a little to the distance but as I rounded the corner on the approach to the village, a friendly face appeared in the shape of my friend Mick Browne! Wow – another fantastic surprise that put a massive smile of my face. I had no idea he would be there which was just wonderful and added to pleasure of my journey. It’s fair to say that whilst I had an idea where I was on the PW, I had no idea where this was in relation to the UK. I was just heading North all the time until someone said I could stop. I was moving well but we were so busy chatting I missed the PW turning and ended up going all the way through the village before turning left to get back on track! It was great to see you Mick but that added even more distance to my race, thanks mate haha!

My next stop was at Lothersdale and an unofficial / official aid station had been set up outside the Hare and Hounds pub run by Craven Energy Triathlon club. What a little oasis this was! The route to the CP was horrendous and about a mile beforehand I washed my boots to get them as clean as possible. My plan was to do some foot-care at the CP, so I thought it would make it easier to get my boots off .What a waste of time that was! The fields on the approach were like a scene from the Somme and any chance of having anything other than completely mud covered sodden boots to the point you couldn’t even make out laces, was futile.

I had pre-marked all my A-Z maps (my first point of reference with GPS) so that as I was moving along I could see any significant points like shelter, water, unofficial aid stations or compass bearings for difficult sections in case the conditions were poor.

By the time I got to the pub the wind had picked up and it was raining. By comparison, the gazebo was warm and I had access to soup, potatoes and bread, which was brilliant. I wish I could remember everyone’s names but there was one guy, Gary Chapman, who treated me like royalty and couldn’t do enough for me. I think he recognised that I was flagging a bit and gave me a valuable boost and some detailed info about the next section that lay ahead. Thank you Gary – another Spine race star . I think I spent about 45 minutes maximum here but it was all I needed as a resting point during what was the longest section of the race – so thank you guys, you were just amazing. By now it was late afternoon and wouldn’t be long before darkness fell again so after a quick photo by Gary and I was off on my way to Hawes.

After a short climb up to Pinhaw Beacon, it was mostly downhill and on to Thornton-in-Craven. Fields, the Leeds & Liverpool Canal towpath and more fields take you to Gargrave. It is worth mentioning there was a footpath diversion on the way in to Gargrave which somehow I missed, so I ended up doing the PW route into Gargrave which I guess must have been tougher, otherwise why the diversion? Or was I just kidding myself. Feeling a bit down at this point, I was worried I’d be penalised for this. I hit the road and turned left. I was considering the church for a place to hopefully kip or even ninja bivvy in the graveyard but typically, the parishioners chose that night as their bell ringing practice night. Starting to think about plan B I was aware there was a Co-op store and that it was likely to still be open. I needed Gaviscon to settle my reflux issue – must’ve been all the good quality cheese and Red wine I’d been consuming (I wish !). I could see a figure walking up the road towards me, OMG- it was Andrew Hardy, my good friend! This man is incredible, always going the extra mile and thinking of others before himself and I don’t know anyone with a bad word to say about him. After big hugs, we laugh and chat and decide to pop in to the Old Swann Inn at Gargrave. I’m treated to a pint of coke, a pot of tea and some cheesy chips, not to mention a warm seat for a while, in a pub. I was covered in mud and dripping wet but they didn’t care, clearly a yearly occurrence and/or normal behaviour for Gargrave. I had time to catch up on where I was and what lay ahead, check others who were ahead of me to see if I could catch up with anyone. Andy gave me some encouraging news that the Malham check point was only 4 miles away and that Sarah Fuller wasn’t far ahead of me either… but I think he had got confused between Malham and Malham Tarn …. I forgive you, my dear friend.

Andrew Hardy my friend, you are such a superstar and like most of the journey, I had no idea where I was in the big scheme of things, but I do know you don’t live in Gargrave and put yourself out on a wet dreary night on the PW to make a wet and soggy Spiner very happy with your company.

And so, it was onward to Malham. The next section I wasn’t a fan of, as it was fields and farmland. Navigation was a bit fiddly but it was the muddy fields that will stick (literally) in my memory. As I passed through the sleepy village of Airton, I received the first of what would become nightly messages from Oliver Brearley who I nicknamed the ‘Midnight Caller’ – if anyone has seen that 1980’s TV programme – boy he made me laugh out loud !

Ok, so the jokes were horrendous but the lighthearted relief and fun we had exchanging a few messages each night really set me up for all the night sections. Thanks Oliver, another friend I owe so much to for what seemed like a small contribution but these messages raised big smiles and positive thoughts into each night – sometimes that’s all you need to make it through to daylight and another day ticked off on the journey North.

I arrived in Malham and started circling round the village looking for the check point before I realised there was no one there – a quick check of my map and it’s another 3 miles up the trail, doh. The pub in the village was closing so it was already 23:00 and I needed to get cracking to find the checkpoint. Heading up to the mouth of Malham Cove it felt quite eerie and I was just able to make out the daunting shadow and cliff of the Cove. I headed up the steps to ascend to the top and then followed the path or what I thought was the path and before I knew it I was getting disorientated. I spent what felt like about 20-30 minutes climbing walls, heading up steep sections, checking my GPS and map but nothing seemed to make sense, on top of being tired, so from an outsider looking at my tracker it was probably like watching a newly choreographed dance on Strictly. I had completely missed the limestone slabs which form the top of the cove! This was something I had been really looking forward to experiencing having watched programmes about it by Paul Rose and Julia Bradbury. I did end up back on the path going north but ahead of the slabs so I’ll have to revisit them another day.

Arriving at CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn House Field Centre, with what I was expecting would be a 30 minute maximum stop rule, I found this had been wavered. I took my time to take on basic food and plenty of hot drinks. I also got my foot seen to by medics as my little toe was beginning to get really painful now but I couldn’t change to bigger shoes until I got to Hawes. I saw Adrian Leigh for the first time since the race start, he is a friend also from the Lakeland family, but he looked like he was suffering and not sure if he was continuing although I could see the look on his face was someone who wasn’t inclined to carry on. This race is brutal and Adrian is a much more accomplished fell runner than me but in his own words he was ‘toast’ and it is a gentle reminder that the Spine takes no prisoners and isn’t fussy who it spits out. Sorry to see you DNF’d Adrian, but I look forward to seeing you finish another year. In a way this gave me an added boost knowing I was still good to carry on when others around me were falling.

I was keen to get going so didn’t hang around there too long. On leaving the Field Centre it took me a couple of minutes to orientate myself which caused me to miss a footpath turning and I had to retrace my steps back but I soon caught up with Sarah and Lisa who had slept at Malham and had left just ahead of me.

Fountains Fell was next on the list and was deceptively tough terrain not least the slog up to the top of the Fell! Having survived missing the sinkholes and mineshafts lurking near the path, the descent was something of a crazy Carry On film, falling and sliding on the mud, slimy grass and steep ground. I was following Lisa Wright and I don’t think I’ve seen someone fall over, get back up, fall over, get back up so many times in my life and not once a grumble, just a few laughs and ‘oh well’ comments. Her trousers, rucksack and jacket were all just brown with mud! I was pissing myself laughing inside but this woman is just amazing and just kept going. It was fair to say it was steep and really slippy. We made it to the road and then plodded along, for what seemed like forever, on good tracks. I was feeling exhausted, the sleep demons had caught up with me and I felt a little low but Lisa kept my spirits up and we eventually hit the climb up to Pen-Y-Ghent (Hill of Winds). It certainly lived up to its name thanks to Storm Brendan and a route diversion had been put in place so we prematurely turned left and headed down into Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Thank you so much Lisa for your impromptu entertainment and keeping me going. You little star !!

We arrived at Horton, which had a small CP run by the Cave rescue team. I contemplated the effort of taking my kit off but I knew I needed a kip so I decided it was worth it and literally collapsed in the sports hall. Looking back, I could and should have stayed in the hall area and slept on the chairs to save the hassle of taking all that stuff including my boots off- I think I would have achieved the same but wasn’t to know that at the time, I guess you get used to the lack of comforts and put up with the hardships you’re faced with which is what makes this race what it is and why we subscribe to it. I think I must have dozed for about 30 minutes and then had some coffee and lukewarm custard and cake. I knew it was morning as we had literally walked in as it was getting light. The weather wasn’t great outside but then it was January so what else would you expect so there was nothing else for it, but to don the clobber and off I headed to make my way back on to the PW with Hawes CP as my next focus point more than 24 hours after I had left Hebden.

I got the impression that the Cam High Road isn’t a favourite of peoples as it does go on a bit but I made good ground and got into a nice rhythm using my poles and as I reached the top, I passed Lisa and Sarah. The cloud was really low and we had really poor visibility and heavy rain so although I was moving well it was a pretty miserable section and my thoughts were always ahead to Hawes and the shelter, warmth and hot food I’d get once there. I reached the high point of Ten End, which was rough under foot, and then headed down the long decent to Hawes where I first clapped eyes on the Wensleydale Cheese Factory! My thoughts turned to Katie, my daughter, who not only loves cheese but is also a Wallace and Gromit fan. We have to come here again I thought! My next thought was Yay! I’ve done it! The first 2 legs were under my belt and I had covered the first 107 miles in 53 hours 9 minutes arriving at 13:09. There was a cut off of 60 hours to get to this point so I had a cushion of just under 7 hours.

I was greeted 100m from the Hawes YHA aka CP2 with ‘Welcome to Hawes’. The check point staff were so lovely and made you feel so good. I entered the small reception area and took off the muddy wet outer layers. I was organised, having wire coat hangers with my name on them as I’d heard rumours of Alan Rumbles leaving a CP with a pair of XS waterproof trousers one year and I was determined not to let that happen to me. The ladies doing kit storing were clearly impressed ! Ask yourself, how many people have the same set of poles or waterproofs or gloves as you ? I was pre-warned so got my self organised and on the way into a CP I made a point of stowing kit away, folding poles and attaching them to my bag and switching off things like my GPS so that nothing would be left separate and get lost in the transition process.

I went into the main room to be greeted by ‘Monty’ and loads of halogen heat lamps – I thought I’d walked into a cannabis plant factory at first, lol. I picked my spot and went about the business of getting my electrical devices all plugged in and refreshed my race bag, put new batteries into the other devices and performed general faffage. It was great to bump into friends… Dan Milton was just getting ready to go back out, a couple more faces I knew who had DNF’d were a further reminder of how lucky I was to still be going. A few friendly faces on the CP team like Andy Norman all made for a wonderful setting. I was handed a yummy bowl of hot cottage pie – the steam was rising still so had to leave it to cool a bit before I could eat it but when I did it hit the spot so much so I had seconds πŸ™‚ . I grabbed my wash kit and although I didn’t realise it at the time the hot water certainly highlighted my worst fear… the sting from the heat of the water in between my thighs was shouting back at me – I had bad chaffing and hadn’t realised. Someone had mentioned Sudocrem as a must for your drop bag but I knew now that the little 25g taster pot I had with me wasn’t going to see me through to the end.

So, fresher from a shower and after another 2 hours of quality sleep, more sponge and custard and a trip to the medics, I was starting to become a regular outpatient and recognised some of them. The Hokas were too tight now and the rubbing on both little toes was starting to take its toll so some TLC and taping was required to set me up for the next section and then it was time to get my race kit back on and get a move on. Because of the issue with my feet I opted to transfer to my larger Salamon GTX boots, school boy error here as I had only got them (secondhand) last minute as footwear for when my feet started to swell but I needed the extra room. They hadn’t got as much grip as I had hoped to cope but it’s what I had so had little choice. It was dark outside and I could see from the gloom through the windows and street lights it was raining quite heavily. The time was roughly 17:30 so I was still retaining my 2 hour cushion with a bit extra at this point, which wasn’t a lot but it’s not something that I spent much time dwelling on. I’was kicked out onto the mean streets of Hawes on the Tuesday evening, the weather was damp and the sound of water under the tyres of cars as they drove past reminded me of the conditions waiting for me as I headed through the High Street and North to Hardraw and beyond knowing that Great Shunner Fell was coming!!

TBC – Next in the series – ‘The Tale Of Two Poles’