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.
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.
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?
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 🙂
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!
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 £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 ? 🙂 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 🙂 Steve – you’re a Lakeland legend and true friend, thank you!
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 “you 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.
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.
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’ 🙂 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.
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 🙂 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 🙂 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 🙂 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 🙂
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 🙂
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 🙂 . 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’