Montane Spine Race 2018 - Iain's Story
Earlier this year, club member Iain Prentice took on one of the world's most brutal races: The Montane Spine Race. It is a 268 mile, multi-stage race across the Pennine Way with all that the harshest of winters can throw at you. Below is his account of what happened, along with some of the music that inspired him. It's an incredible read.
ASCENDING THE SPINE
It started in the pub. Or strictly speaking in Ludlow Brewery, at Ludlow Runners Christmas party. ‘So are you going to run the Spine next year?’ I loved the idea, but thought at first that I would prefer to run their recently launched summer version (‘Spine Fusion’) so that I could enjoy the scenery in better weather and longer daylight hours. On expressing this, my virility was questioned and I was stupidly predictable enough to rise to the challenge and say ‘ok I’ll do the winter version!’ (Thanks Terri!)
I had been practising the dark arts of ultra running for 10 years, and recently developed a weird taste for the adventure of multi-day races. Mixing with runners of a similar mindset, you hear mutterings about events that are held in awe. I had survived Cape Wrath and Dragon’s Back, both arduous but taking place in the summer. I had survived Offa’s Dyke and Glyndwr’s Way in Welsh autumn weather, but I had never attempted any big winter races. Gradually rumours of the Spine Race came on to my radar – I had a few friends who had attempted it with varying success and was in no doubt that it was a substantial challenge.
The Spine. Britain’s Most Brutal is how they bill it. It takes place in January and encompasses the entire length of the Pennine Way, 268 miles from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, in the worst of the winter weather and in some of the most exposed parts of Northern England. It started in 2011, run by Montane, and has developed a deserved reputation for being extreme and arduous, massively influenced by the weather. It is billed as a race, but in truth for most competitors the aim is just to finish. The challenges are multiple and huge: the distance and nearly 44000 feet of ascent, the weather, navigation in long hours of darkness, sleep deprivation over many days, and the ability to look after yourself safely with kit, food and water (this last was always going to be the most difficult for me).
We had a substantial list of compulsory kit, including GPS and map, decent headtorch, sleeping bag and bivvy bag, small stove, ice spikes as well as the usual extra clothing food and first aid kit. This weighed in at around 10 kg (although one of my friends apparently managed just 4 kg!). We had access to a drop bag at checkpoints, which could hold spare clothing and shoes, extra food, spare batteries for GPS and torch etc. The checkpoints also provided hot food and drinks, space to wash and sleep and access to medics. The only problem was that they were around 40 miles apart, so we had to be self sufficient for most of every day. The Spine Race is now unsupported, so that we are allowed access to shops pubs and cafes along the way but not to have any personal items supplied by friends and family, so that it is a level playing field for all competitors. We had up to 7 days in which to complete the course, and choice of where and when and for how long to sleep was entirely up to us, either in a checkpoint or in a bivvy in whatever shelter we could find along the way. Cut-off times applied to each checkpoint, and while initially these seemed generous, adding in cumulative fatigue and the slowing effects of adverse weather meant that many competitors fell victim to these. Finish rates were highly variable, depending so much on the severity of the weather, but generally less than 50%.
My first mistake was to join the Facebook participants group, which soon filled up with pictures of Spiners who had been practising with their full kit for the last 6 months over every section of the route. I hadn’t had the opportunity to carry out any recces, and was relying on Father Christmas to supply some of the important kit items I was missing. I had the day off work before the event and it took me all day to sort out and pack kit and food. We had to register at Edale at Saturday lunchtime, and I set off in good time with my running friend Louise on the train from Ludlow. We had to change trains at Manchester, found the right platform, set off and had our tickets checked and stamped by the guard. But something didn’t feel right. Eventually I asked another passenger if we were going to Edale. ‘No, Huddersfield!’ was the reply. Apparently there were 2 trains on the same platform….. So by now fairly stressed, we had to retrace our steps from Huddersfield to Manchester and start all over again 2 hours later. At Manchester we fell in with an Irish lad Eoin who had been a previous Spine winner, so we relaxed a little thinking that the organisers wouldn’t stop us from registering late if we stuck with him! At least we got our navigational mistake out of the way early! Registration was relaxed, full kit check was thorough, and the race briefing gave us all the necessary information, including the weather forecast for the week, which was predicted to be ‘Spiny’ – severe enough to get the safety team worried. We were also fitted with our trackers, which allowed the organisers and any supporters to track our progress across the course. We retired to Edale YHA to make final preparations and try to relax before the start the following morning. Unfortunately a combination of adrenaline and noisy inebriated residents made for a poor night’s sleep, not what was needed in advance of a week of sleep deprivation.
At 8am 133 runners set off from Edale. The weather was perfect – cool and dry – and the atmosphere mixed with good humour and nerves in anticipation of what lay ahead. We set off up onto Kinder Scout and were before long onto flagstones which marked much of the early stages of the Pennine Way as it crossed the miles of upland featureless bog and moor. Initially I was running with Louise, as an informal agreement to go together, but after Crowden, while I was faffing with some kit adjustments, she set off at a pace that was too quick for me, and after initially pushing myself too hard to try to catch up, I decided it was early days and that my best approach was to settle into my own pace and rhythm. We had an unexpected boost with our friend Mike meeting us at some of the road crossings – he had been due to take part but had to pull out at a late stage due to family illness, and had come out on his motorbike to support us. You see some strange things on long distance events, but I am pretty sure that at Torside Reservoir we saw lots of dachshunds on some breed-related day out – I think this really happened! It was too soon to hallucinate on day one. The first day took us over the Dark Peak and Saddleworth Moor, where the welcome sight of a burger van greeted us in the dark. After much needed replenishment, I set off again and crossed the M62 with a little unease, getting some vertigo above the speeding lorries. Soon I felt that something wasn’t quite right, and I realised that I had left my walking poles at the burger van. This was my first event using poles, and while they were really useful to keep balance in the mud (and snow later in the week) I did have trouble remembering to collect them. So I had to retrace my steps back over the motorway to the van and back again, losing about 30 minutes and a little morale. Anyway, back on track I teamed up with a fellow Scot Alan and we came to the monument of Stoodley Pike overlooking Hebden Bridge. Here there was a nasty sting in the tail – following a long descent into Hebden valley, we had to climb steeply up again for quite a way before a tortuous descent into CP1 at Hebden Hey (47 miles), at around 10pm. By this time it was raining, and I took refuge to rest up for a short while. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to face any of the food provided, a bad sign so early on, and my shoulder and neck hurt. For the first time of many this week, I had doubts about how far I could get.
After an hour in bed with no sleep, I set off from Hebden at 2 am, now into some steady rain. Fortunately my adjustments to my backpack straps eased the issue with my shoulder, and I got into a steady rhythm tracing the flagstones across Heptonstall Moor. However, the rain became heavier, and by Walshaw Reservoirs I was shivering with borderline hypothermia – despite layering up and my high spec waterproof, the driving rain had got through, and I wasn’t sure if I was safe to head up on to the fells. One of the best ways to keep warm is to keep moving, so I continued up and struck lucky, finding the bothy at Top Withins, where I took shelter, put some dry layers on and cooked up some hot high calorie food with my mini-stove. This bothy is supposedly on the site where Cathy and Heathcliff met in the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Inevitably the Kate Bush song came into my mind, but this wasn’t an easy rhythm for running! 3 other lads joined me, and we set off loosely together off the hill and onwards to Cowling, where Marcus and Gwyn had earlier taken shelter in some wheelie bins during the night to escape the elements! We also came across a Japanese competitor here who needed some help to contact the organisers – he needed to pull out of the race due to hypothermia, and his phone wasn’t working due to the wet. After making sure he was safe and help was on its way, we continued over to Lothersdale, wading through a high water Surgill Beck and down to the pub where the promise of bacon butties awaited. We did indeed receive a warm welcome in the pub, but unfortunately they couldn’t put on any hot food, so after a coffee and crisps it was back out again. Ross and I dropped down off the hill to Thornton in Craven, to waterlogged fields with diversions and along a canal section. On arriving in Gargrave around lunchtime, the café was closed, the chippy was closed, but the co-op was open so I bought some pies and a smoothy and sat outside to eat. By now a cold wind was blowing, and my wet clothes were causing me some chilling problems. I pushed on towards Malham, meeting Louise and Ita again, but knew I needed to warm up so found a pub in Malham where the landlord was happy for me to dry all my wet gear in front of a roaring fire while I demolished a fish finger sandwich and chunky chips. Restored, I emerged solo into the start of the falling snow. I climbed the 500+ steps up and over the limestone pavement of Malham Cove and headed up to CP1.5 at Malham Tarn. Here I hit some problems again when the back casing fell off my GPS into the snow, and after finding that I approached a building in the woods which I thought was the checkpoint. Some teachers with young kids were coming outside, and they denied any knowledge of any runners thereabouts, so I retraced my steps until I saw a group of headtorches coming my way. These were fellow Spiners who told me that I had been right, and when we returned I could see a sign indicating that the CP was just to the right of the main building. More wasted time and frustration. We were allowed a maximum of 30 minutes at the intermediate checkpoints, enough for a coffee and some food but not for sleep. I pushed on and before too long was working my way up and around Fountains Fell. The snow was falling a little more, and for the first time of many during the week I began to struggle with my vision. We had been warned to wear goggles if needed to avoid the cold wind drying out our eyes, and I was a little late in following this advice. In addition, it was difficult to focus my eyes down the narrow channel of light provided by the headtorch, with the falling snow providing nothing to focus on, and lack of sleep also contributing to the general difficulty. I was lucky to pal up with Steve and a Scandinavian runner who let me tag along on the back of their navigation over the shoulder of Pen-y-Ghent (we had been diverted away from the summit due to dangerous icy conditions) and down into Horton in Ribblesdale. I was dead on my feet and convinced that my race was over. But this time my saviour came in the form of a 24-hour cafe, where as well as providing welcome hot stew and coffee, I was able to kip down on the floor for an hour.
And an hour was all that it took. It was amazing how dead I was before and how fine I felt after. At 2 am I joined up with 2 German lads, Andy and Michael, and we set off towards Hawes. Michael was a Spine regular, and knew the route confidently, we made good progress with some steady running, and even were persuaded to play ‘Hop’ where the last of the 3 would overtake us all and shout hop before slowing down, allowing the pattern to repeat itself. This seemed rather lively for 3 am on a multi-day ultra, but I think it really happened! We worked our way up on to the Cam Road, a long exposed section of trail where we were on high open ground with a cold driving wind and increasing amounts of falling snow. In time we dropped down into Hawes and hit CP2 at around 8am. 106 miles done.
Hawes was a great checkpoint – nice YHA with dorm beds and showers. However I had arrived during daylight hours, which were precious during these short days when night navigation was so tricky, so I only allowed 2 hours sleep before heading out again through town and up onto Great Shunner Fell. By this time the snow was falling heavily and visibility was a problem even during the day. Even following footprints in the snow proved tricky as the wind rapidly obscured them with fresh snowfall. High spirits on the initial climb faded as route finding became more tricky coming off the fell, and by the time the back fell off my GPS again after Thwaite, I was becoming seriously hacked off. Luckily at this stage I fell in with another Spiner, Paul, who had attempted twice before without success and was determined to make it third time lucky. Paul was good company and we struggled together up through heavy snow on the moorland leading eventually up to Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England. This was a real oasis in the middle of nowhere, we refuelled on lasagne and struck out again on to Sleighthome Moor, where I was able to lead and make good time homing in on previous footprints through the featureless terrain. After a tricky bit of route finding requiring the use of a narrow beam powerful hand torch, the ice started to gather into substantial balls on my boots, having found purchase on some protruding piece of bootlace, and in time they grew to the size of tennis balls, swinging around annoyingly with each step. Paul and I crossed under the busy A66 and in worsening weather headed out to Deep Dale. The German lads had told us about a bothy out here somewhere, and with some luck we managed to track it down and duck in out of the heavy snow. It was bare and cold with concrete floor, but at least it was out of the wind, and we both bivvied down for a while to try to rest.
After 2 hours of shivering sleep, I came to and found myself in a pool of water from snow melt off my boots, hypothermic as my sleeping mat had slipped out leaving me lying on the freezing wet concrete. I quickly made some coffee and hot high cal food, packed up and tried to head out again into the night to get my body generating heat again. I crossed a footbridge and made it about 20 metres before plunging up to my chest in a snowdrift. Now I had serious doubts. It was dark and visibility was still poor due to falling snow. The next few miles were due to be across featureless moor and I had no idea how much snow had fallen. We had no phone reception at the bothy so had been unable to contact the organisers to tell them we were stopping to sleep or to find out if the race was still on. I turned back to the bothy, woke Paul up and he wisely advised that we wait a short while until daylight, when we could better assess the degree of snowfall. I had thought that I was experienced going into this race, but this night showed me how wrong I was – I didn’t know when harsh conditions were just another challenge, or when it really was not safe to continue – in fact there is a fine line between the two. Anyway, dawn allowed us to pick a line between the deepest parts of snowdrift and make it across the bleak moor to Blackton Reservoir and the beautiful Hannahs Meadow. After more snowy fields, I tried to push on so as not to be relying on Paul for navigation, but kept making mistakes and meeting him again steadily following the correct path. In time we made it down off the hill and into CP3 at Middleton-in-Teesdale, 140 miles in, around lunchtime. This was roughly the halfway mark, and now I was hungrily devouring anything and everything on offer, from curry to pork pie and cheese.
I struck out again without stopping to sleep up the Tees Valley, pausing to view beautiful waterfalls at Low and High Force, and passing through rare juniper woods. As it got dark, again I found myself alone and the route-finding challenging. Now I was following footprints but without any real conception of where I was. Eventually I heard the roar of water that suggested the falls of Cauldron Snout were just to my left, and following previous advice put on my ice spikes to assist with the slippery vertical rock scramble needed to progress further. These were a great success, and I celebrated with a vanilla Weetabix drink before heading on into the night. The Pennine Way was now passing into seriously remote territory. The path seemed to climb up and up, the windchill was now severe, and I had to resist the temptation to fall into the verge and sleep. Again I had no idea of where I was or of any features to look out for. My vision had deteriorated and the snow was falling steadily again. In time I was joined by another headtorch, a Frenchman called Christopher, and we pushed on together. My eyes were playing tricks, with the tint around the edge of my goggles suggesting that I was passing through conifer forest. I have absolutely no idea what my surroundings really looked like. We were now looking for High Cup Nick, a spectacular sheer-sided valley along whose northern edge we were to skirt. We crossed a stream and suddenly Christopher shouted in alarm. A sudden sheer drop had appeared 5 metres to his left. A fall would have been fatal. We had found High Cup Nick. We continued steadily along above the edge and eventually began a long and steady descent into Dufton, CP 3.5. Again I had serious doubts that I would be able to continue in the race. My eyes were not working well at all, my feet were soggy and I was so exhausted. The rules stated that we were not allowed to stay more than 30 minutes at Dufton, so I was looking at the prospect of an outside bivvy in awful weather before contemplating Cross Fell, the most exposed part of the route. This did not fill me with joy.
But yet again my race was saved. On arrival at Dufton, the organisers informed us that the race had been halted due to severe weather until they could assess how much snow had fallen over Cross Fell. We were told to get some food and sleep in the village hall, and a decision would be made in the early hours. A local café had stayed open for the benefit of the runners, so I had the luxury of a full English breakfast at midnight before retiring to my sleeping bag for a full 4 hours of much needed rest for eyes brain and body.
At 6 am the race re-started. The medics had given me the all-clear despite some concern over my eyes and feet, and I was off again, this time in the company of my Italian friend Ita who I had met on previous events. I had layered up fully in anticipation of awful weather on Cross Fell, but in the low altitudes around Dufton I overheated and reacted in my traditional way by getting a bad nosebleed. The snow allowed cold pressure to be applied, and in time it stopped, but I slowed badly as I began my ascent up through deep snow onto the fell. At Great Dun Fell we met Michael, an experienced Spiner, turning back as he believed it wasn’t safe to continue. There is a weather station here, and this part of England holds the records as the coldest wettest and windiest part of the country. Today it was snowy. Very snowy. And there was low cloud of freezing fog which limited visibility to around 5 metres. I stopped to put on my ice spikes, and in that time windchill kicked in badly. Dithering a little in the extreme difficulty of route-finding in these conditions, yet again something happened to save my race, in the appearance of Rob, a previous Spiner with great navigational skills. He kindly led me over Cross Fell, stopping to take a photo at the monument on top, the highest point of the Pennine Way, and down to Greg’s Hut.
Greg’s Hut is a mountain bothy and has a famous Spine tradition of serving fine chilli noodles. It was a wonderful refuge from the elements, and provided much needed hot food and drink and good company. Restored, I continued out and steadily came off the fell and dropped down to Garrigill, where a young girl and her dad ran after me proffering home-made flapjacks, then along the valley bottom to Alston, CP4 around 4pm (179 miles). Here I was encouraged to use the local garage supermarket as one of the last places to stock up on food before the end of the race – at the checkout the bored girl looked over my full winter kit and asked ‘Any fuel today?’…….. I’m not sure if I had the energy to manage a withering look.
Back in the CP I managed 2 hours sleep and another nosebleed, and was attended by a medic Julie from Cornwall who had mutual friends and had been told to look out for me. After again eating everything going, I made to leave and discovered an enormous rip in the groin of my waterproof leggings (how?!), rendering them unfit for purpose. Luckily, ultra runners are a generous bunch, and Malcolm a retiring participant offered for me to use his to allow me to continue. I set off into the dark evening by myself. This section of the route was mostly low-lying, generally following the South Tyne valley northwards, but route finding was tricky as it crossed and recrossed the A489 through multiple fields. I was joined by Jerome as we fiddled with directions around Slaggyford and a disused railway line, then found myself alone again as the way climbed on to the moorland of Hartleyburn Common. Things became difficult with my vision again and I had to resort to my spare headtorch after apparent fading batteries. Going became boggier and my pace slowed as I struggled to find the right route through muddy fields, eventually emerging again out onto the open boggy moorland of Blenkinsopp Common which seemed to go on forever. Eoin had warned us that this was the hardest section for navigation, and when I couldn’t find my way off the common down onto the farm fields I believed him. I knew now that I desperately needed some sleep, and after a rather scary and dangerous crossing of the busy A69, found some flat ground behind a wall, sheltered by trees and disappeared into my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. It was 7am and just getting light.
After 90 minutes of shivering sleep I woke to find myself in a snowy landscape on the edge of Greenhead golf course. I cooked up some coffee and breakfasted on Spanish lentils in a bag while packing away. When I got back on course, a familiar face greeted me – Paul, my companion from Tan Hill and Middleton, was still pushing on. It was great to see him again, but he carried the unwelcome news that the cut-off times had been brought forward and that we might struggle to meet them (this may have been rumour rather than fact). In any case, Paul was struggling with a sore leg, and much as I enjoyed his company I didn’t want to miss the cut-offs so I reluctantly pushed on by myself. Inevitably, I almost immediately made a navigational error trying to find the start of Hadrian’s Wall and found myself behind Paul again – this had happened several times before when I had tried to be an independent navigator!
I soon made it up on to the wall section, and in the morning sunshine the snowy landscape was something special. The going was hard with plenty of up and down, and some of the downs were steep enough for me to slide down on my backside, not always intentionally. After coming close to sheer drops from crags on the left down to a lough, the Pennine Way left Hadrian’s Wall and headed north through sections of forest and open moorland. I was conscious of looming cut-off times so kept up a fair pace, but was starting to fade when I found an oasis: Horneystead Farm, an unofficial pitstop. Part of the tradition of the Spine is that the farmer opens up a barn for racers, with comfy chairs, hot drinks and snacks available. It was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time, a lovely generous gesture, and it recharged me as night fell.
But I soon ran into familiar problems: yet again my eyes were not functioning well enough, and although the last section into CP5 at Bellingham looked short enough on the map, navigation was again difficult. I had difficulties finding a river crossing, and then the route climbed through boggy fields to the cold bare top of Ealingham Rigg. This was ridiculously soggy, and I was much relieved to descend finally to the road and approach the checkpoint. At this point, I had pretty much resigned myself to this being the end of my race. I was fed up not being able to see where I was going, and repeated soaking over many days had penetrated my goretex running boots leaving me with soggy blistering feet. But I had reconciled myself to this, having had plenty of luck to get this far, my first DNF approaching.
Checkpoints are great. That brief opportunity to rest, even if sleep is fitful or short, to get hot food and drink inside you and to get some medical attention is priceless. There was nothing special about CP5, the opportunity to sleep was in a room so cold that I had to get off the floor and try to sleep propped in a chair, and my multiple layers were not enough to prevent constant shivering inside my sleeping bag. But the food was good, the checkpoint support was encouraging, with the assumption made now that they would see us at the finish (‘in the pub’), and after some consideration the medics were persuaded that it was just about safe to send me back out into the wilds with enough vision to get by. And the cut-offs had not been changed. It was predicted that we would need 26 hours to reach the end from CP5, but it couldn’t take that long could it?
Around 2 am I set out again through Bellingham town, using my GPS well to pick the right route over the farmland until the open moor when I was fortunate to be able to follow footprints through the deep snow, with no visible landmarks for guidance. Again I could have been anywhere. After Whitley Pike our route had been diverted away to the left along a lane – everything was snow-covered so it was difficult to tell what I was walking on. I was singing out loud in an effort to keep myself awake, and think I may have treated a house to some Pulp in the early hours, but that may have been an illusion.
I entered Kielder Forest at daybreak, and after a while put my ice spikes on as the going was slippy on a forestry road, but straight and at last easy navigation. After some beautiful sightings of deer I passed some event photographers, then my GPS took me off the Pennine Way and up on to the main road. This was a mistake, but my efforts to get down another footpath back on to the correct route were thwarted by no entry signs, and in any case I arrived at Byrness, CP5.5 in good spirits around 10am. This was a small checkpoint but much needed – well looked after, great food, just what was needed before heading up on to the Cheviots for a tough last 26 miles.
Today was sunny with a soft red light playing on the snow which showed the Cheviots off at their best. Early on it was possible to appreciate the beauty, but around the Roman camp the snow became deeper and the going harder. It became difficult to judge distance, and it took longer than expected to reach the refuge of Lamb Hill mountain hut, where I had a hospitable welcome and great chilli noodles from the 2 safety guys there. This section of the route follows the crest of the hills along the Scottish border, mostly a question of keeping the fence on your left. After another hour or so darkness fell and that’s when everything started to go wrong. I was following snowy footsteps but again without any idea of where I was, and efforts to confirm my position with GPS and map were hampered by my worsening visual problems. The windchill was now significant, so I couldn’t really allow myself to stop and faff too much to check location, better to push on and stay warm. At Windy Gyle I crossed briefly over to the Scottish side, then back again with the fence on my left and now had my worst section of the week. The trail seemed to go on and on for ever, gradually and then more steeply upwards, stepping through snowy heather, deep in places, and whenever I stopped to check my position I didn’t seem to have moved any further forward than the time before. It was without doubt my lowest point – without realising, I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for a few hours, and now all my water was frozen. I didn’t know where I was and tried to phone the organisers to check if I was in the right place but my phone died in the subzero temperature. I was in the middle of nowhere by myself in the dark and the cold and my eyes wouldn’t work. For the third time this week I thought that I might die – it would have been easy to drift off up there somewhere and succumb to hypothermia before any help could arrive. I was bad enough to think that I would never see my kids again, and yet one thing that I was never ever going to do was press the emergency button on my tracker that would have summoned help and automatically taken me out of the race. Somehow I staggered on uphill and at last found a sign off to the left indicating PW to Kirk Yetholm. Soon the path dropped quite steeply and I slid down the snowy bank cursing and stropping. Before too long I reached the second mountain hut, where the 2 safety guys were subjected to my grumpy behaviour. I had a coffee and some food and within 5 minutes felt better. More Spiners arrived to eat and sleep before the final push to the end. I felt quite embarrassed about my behaviour and apologised to the safety team for my strops. ‘Don’t worry mate, everyone who comes off the Cheviots is behaving weirdly, that’s just what it does to you!’.
Reassured, I struck out again into the night, initially with company, but I wanted to push for a fast finish to make myself feel better for what had gone on before, so I powered on by myself up the Schil, the final hill, and followed the snowy steps down the winding valley towards KY. My pace and mood had improved hugely, then the footsteps scattered near a stream crossing and I spent 10 minutes going backwards and forwards following sheep and rabbit tracks before eventually stumbling on the PW again. After just 5 more minutes of running the steps came to an abrupt stop by a farm, with evidence of plenty of people having retraced their steps. As far as I could tell on my map, I needed to cross the burn, but could find no way of doing so. I sat down in the middle of a field and tried to use my GPS but my eyes wouldn’t work well enough. I tried to phone for advice but my phone was still dead. I was as close to despair as I had come – so nearly there and running well, then this. Then I saw a fence. And a bridge. And some footsteps. Sure enough, in the next field was the Pennine Way, and I got back on track and jogged on again down the valley.
During this last section my mind was playing all sorts of tricks on me. Parts of the Cheviot (in daylight) and of this descent looked familiar, and I could remember reccying them with my friend Pat – except that in real life that never happened and I had never been anywhere near there in my life! As I joined a tarmac farm lane a mocking sign displayed Kirk Yetholm 2 miles, and again this seemed to go on and on. After a final climb, the lights of the town appeared, and I staggered across the green to the Border Hotel which marks the end of the Pennine Way, at 3am, to be greeted by the organisers and support team. After the formality of touching the wall (my kids told me this looked more like a head-butt on the video!), I received my finish medal and had a short interview which was pretty incoherent and accurately reflected my mental state at that point.
I was led away inside for hot food and medical attention (apparently I had been carrying 2 kg of unnecessary weight with ice instead of drinking water!), and before long disappeared inside my sleeping bag on the floor at the back of the room, not emerging until the noise of the support teams having breakfast woke me quite a few hours later. I was absolutely completely totally done in. But I had finished, when I never really thought that I would.
53 of us finished out of 118 starters. I came 46th in 163 hours 24 mins, with just 4.5 hours to spare in the end. Pavel came 1st and was the man having to break the trail through the snow and choose the route across the hillsides, a huge undertaking let alone at speed. Local Shropshire lad Phil came in last finisher, after a near miss last year, a massive achievement. Sadly my companion Paul from earlier in the week didn’t make it. One runner even had to retire at the last mountain hut, so close to the finish.
I’m not very emotional but this week sent me up and down and all over the place. So much good and bad was packed into one week. During the event I made sure that I enjoyed it (in places!) so that it wasn’t just a slog, and while I could well understand the massive satisfaction of reaching the finish, I just couldn’t understand why so many people returned to do it year after year. Why would you put your body and mind through all that all over again? And yet….
Maybe one day I will return. On the one hand, part of me feels that I could do it better, whatever that means – I would be familiar with the route (well at least the bits that I could see!) and more practised with the equipment and winter survival skills, having learned the hard way through the week this time. On the other hand, despite my hardships, I loved that week so much, it was such a full-on experience, and the weather was so Spiny, that it would be difficult for it to be that special on another occasion. I know that my wife wouldn’t be keen on me having another attempt, having watched my tracker stop in the middle of nowhere for hours on several occasions when I had to take emergency shelter in the awful weather.
So that was the Spine. It lived up to its billing as Britain’s most brutal. The weather played its full part and sleep deprivation did for most of the rest. Despite all the risks and hardships, the organisation was fantastic, so well supported by volunteers and safety teams and excellent medics. It has been going for just 7 years and yet seems full of tradition. I used every bit of my compulsory kit from ice spikes to stove (OK not the immodium in the first aid kit!). I covered 268 miles in 7 days in rain and snow. Lots of snow. I made friends, I was lonely, I saw some beautiful scenery then for long hours I saw nothing, I was cold, I was wet, I was tired. Very tired. I had help and luck at some vital times and at others I relied on myself to get out of a hole. But somehow I finished, in what has to be my best achievement in long-distance running. And my eyes got better! Well, I now have my most difficult challenge of taking a break for 6 months – much needed but easier said than done! Will I come back? Watch this space….
Published: 6th May 2018