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….

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