Sunday, 10 March 2019

So who is carrying the potatoes then???

Ok, so here I am again, less than three weeks after posting about last year's Spine Race failure, I found it really hard to put that together. (Who likes reminiscing about what could/should have been?), but this time it is far far easier to write - with the glow of success still buzzing around my feet (at least that is what I am telling myself that strange feeling I have in my feet is).

Firstly - apologies for an over long blog. I have written everything down I could remember, mainly for looking back on in the future, and for anyone who wants the full blow by blow account (to be honest, probably only those planning to do this race in the future). For others then just scroll down past the boring bits 😁

Anyway, after a year or mixed fortunes I find myself standing on the start line of my second attempt at The Montane Spine Race.

The year between races wasn't the ideal year preparation wise. I had a DNF in the race that followed last year's Spine race. The Hardmoors 110. Basically I timed out in what ended up a scorching second day (I don't do well in the heat). A couple of recce weekends in between went well, (one with Cathy, my training partner, and co-owner of The Climbers shop & Jo Brown shops who had kindly sponsored my Spine attempt by giving me a generous discount.), and the other with a fellow racer Colm O'Cofaigh, and by this time I had covered all the Spine route up to Check point 5 (Bellingham). I had even done stage 3 a couple of extra times as this was the stage that wiped me out last year - it felt good to lay those ghosts to rest.
Next came a solo 100 mile jaunt across home territory, covering the route of a race that I had a DNF in a few years ago. The race does not exist anymore (MK Infinity run) so I was on my own for the duration (apart from some spooked horses in a field at 3am - I don't do well with horses). Happily I did complete this and returned home happy.
The last event of the year was the Dorset Ultra plus. I had entered the longest option (45 miles) but again, the terrain (very hilly and muddy) got the better of me and I was timed out at the 40 mile mark. I still got a medal as I had gone longer than the shorter distance, but it wasn't what I had set out to do, so in my mind it was still not a success.
All these DNFs and on top of this, some very hard personal issues to overcome, meant I probably wasn't in the ideal mindset for toeing the line of "Britain's most Brutal Race".

But here I jolly well was.

After a fairly restless night we drifted down to the start area to get fitted with our trackers, me munching my packed breakfast (egg mayo sandwich, a cereal bar, a yogurt, and an apple - which I gave away).

Killing time in the start area.
We were corralled out into the cold/wet and we made our way to the start field. The slick operation that this is now, we soon heard the countdown to our next few days.... 5...4...3...2...1...GO!

And off we went, the weather was cold, wet and very windy, so full waterproofs were the order of the day.
Not wanting to set off too fast (remember I still had 268 miles to go) I settled in to a slow but steady running pace. I had made myself a very handy timing sheet that used actual times I had hit last year, coupled with estimates of what time I think I should be hitting the later landmarks. It also had my planned stopping times and sleeping times plotted on it. I found this very useful and used it for the duration of the race (I had it laminated and stored in my front pouch for easy access)

My trusty timings sheet - laminated and referred to throughout the race.
So based on my timing sheet, I hoped to reach the first road crossing (Snake Pass) at 10:50. I trotted onward, hitting the heights of Kinder after the slog up Jacob's Ladder, to be hit by a wall of wind. We were warned that it would be somewhat windy up there, but this was rather a strong cross wind, pushing us off route at every opportunity, my poles also joined in with the fun, my upwind pole repeatedly trying to trip me up as it was blown into and between my legs.

Managing to keep upright, I negotiated the Kinder river and turned into the wind, the peak of my cap keeping the worst of the wind off my face, having previously donned my wind goggles to protect my eyes I was happy in my own snug little world, hood up, peaked cap, wind goggles, buff covering the rest of my face I was cocooned nicely from the elements.

Picking up the pace as the path levelled out, I ran onward towards Snake Pass, the wind which was a cross wind again, tried its hardest to blow me off the path, but with some cunning pole placements I managed to stay upright, reaching the road at 10:45, I had made up 5 minutes on last year's time.


Not wishing to waste time, I buzzed straight through the monitoring point at Snake Pass and headed up Bleaklow. I started seeing fell runners coming down the path here. There must be a fell race going on in the opposite direction to us. The front runners were flying, but still found the time to offer a congratulatory well done as they passed by. They obviously knew we still had rather a long way to go.
Heading up Bleaklow, the ground typically very churned up and messy, the path follows an indistinct stream bed through the peat bogs, making navigation a bit more challenging than the stone slabs of earlier, and obviously slowing us down somewhat. There were many runners heading the other way now, and I was a bit perturbed when a couple of runners approached me, asking me if I had just been over Bleaklow? "Yes" I said, "it is just back there", pointing back the way I had come. "Oh, so you must be heading south then" one of them said, "Erm no", I said, "I am heading north" (actually technically I was heading west at this point), but I pointed out exactly where we were on the map (it was a good job one of us could navigate) and left them to their own race, heading down towards the first official timing point of Torside.

I arrived at Torside bang on schedule, but having felt my feet were getting wet through my "waterproof" socks I thought it prudent at this early stage in the race to have a complete sock change, liners and a new pair of Dexshell socks. 10 minutes of foot admin here could save tons of time later when I could be hobbling along on broken feet.

Feet sorted, I topped up my water bottles and headed off towards Black hill.

The path here is fairly easy and flat so I could pick up the pace and hopefully make up a bit of time lost in the sock swap. Powering up the path, leaving the valley behind, the wind still blowing gusts of rain across the path, I eventually got to the top of Laddow rocks where the path levels off a bit and winds its muddy way up Black hill. Several streams crossing the path needed careful negotiation to cross without getting another sock full of water - I had no more spare socks with me, and clean dry socks in my drop bag were not an infinite supply.

Eventually the summit of Black hill came into view, but no dawdling here, I dropped off the other side, now heading north towards the next goal on my sheet - Wessenden. I want to be arriving here at 15:40 to still be on target. And that I did, pulling up over the style, I checked my watch - 15:40 it was, bang on!

No evidence of marshals or water to top bottles up, so I ran straight through and onto the very flat and fast section along side the chain of reservoirs. Really flying now (for me) I was conscious that the light was starting to fail, and in preparation for the first night out, I stopped to don an extra layer, thicker gloves, and readied my head-torches (I carry two Petzl Myo head-torches. It is easier to swap them over when batteries expire rather than be fiddling about changing batteries).

Now equipped for the night, I carried on down to the river, passing a fellow runner who had stopped for a picnic, and then up the other side of the valley and onto Black Moss, part of Wessenden moor. It was now proper dark and I was cocooned in my ten foot circle of light as I made my way across the moor. I caught up another runner who had stopped. This was John Skelton (runner number 213) who was having trouble with his head-torch. His main one had failed and he was on his low powered backup, and thus struggling to see the way clearly. I offered him my spare and said we can continue as a pair until the first checkpoint (Hebden Bridge) where he can sort out his lighting issues.
So we carried on together...

 Making our way down to the next monitoring point (Harrop) we found no evidence of support people there (and still no water) so we just carried on, up and over the bleakness of Standedge and White hill (the wind still hammering across our path), and before not too long we reached the M62 crossing. No burger van here (which was unusual as it had been here every other time I had been this way), but then I wasn't planning to stop as last year I lost a good ten minutes trying to chew a dry egg bap, so we just carried on into the darkness. We crossed the M62 at 19:10, only 10 minutes down on my time planner, which after 30 odd miles was pretty close to target.

Right, I am going to pause for a moment here. Last year's race taught me a few things (I may touch on others later), but one thing I wanted to do differently this year was to pair up with a similar paced runner and we can "drag" each other along. John (by his own admission) was not the best navigator, but was a pretty fast mover. I on the other hand am a good navigator, but often need a bit of a carrot to stop me from slowing to a snails pace. So this was an ideal situation, me navigating and John stopping me from dawdling. A proper symbiotic relationship.
We also had my timing plan to go by - I know I keep harping on about this chart, but to have something to aim for really made a difference and I would definitely recommend this to anyone doing one of the Spine series of races - it helps focus the mind if you have a target.

After the M62 comes the boulder field that is Blackstone edge. Picking our way carefully across this, and also the tricky descent, we made our way eventually to the easy path into the next monitoring point by The White House pub. Here was one of the Mountain rescue vans equipped with hot and cold water, squash, coffee, cake (I think it was flapjack) and lots of other goodies.
Not wishing to waste much time here, we quickly filled up water bottles and stomachs and then headed out into the darkness.

Then we were on easy ground for a bit, running alongside several reservoirs on flat well maintained paths, so we picked up the pace and flew along.
Leaving these paths we turned the corner, now in a light mist, and headed along the ridge towards Stoodley Pike monument. Local knowledge enabled me to take a slightly higher line, thus avoiding some energy sapping bogs that would lie in wait if navigation was lacking, and eventually the monument loomed out of the misty darkness. It is really spooky to be so high up, in the wind/rain/darkness and see this huge monolith emerge from the gloom.

Turning right at the monument we headed down into the valley of Hebden Bridge. Just the long slog up out of the valley and we were soon heading into checkpoint one that is Hebden Hey scout centre. Landing at 23:55 Sunday night, a full 35 minutes ahead of schedule.

Now the plan for CP1 was just to stay for one hour, sorting feet and grabbing a bite to eat. Things changed a bit and the total stay time was 2:30 due to John needing to sort his feet, and me spending a full 30 minutes in the loo trying to prevent a future forced stop on the trail later.
Fed and watered and everything else sorted we left the CP at about 02:30 Monday morning. so technically we were now one hour behind schedule.

Thundering north into the darkness we were soon making good time. John was doing a great job of pushing the pace and I was hanging on doggedly, while navigating us through the dark moorland of the Yorkshire dales.
Heptonstall moor
Wadsworth moor
Stanbury moor
Oakworth moor
Ickornshaw moor
All passed by under our tiring feet, but still motoring along at a great pace - we wound our way down into Lothersdale, the next target on my plan. According to the plan we should hit here at 10:38. It was 09:30. We had recovered the lost hour, and as a bonus made up an hours cushion - lovely!

A bite to eat and a hot drink here and we were off again. It was nice running in daylight. It made a nice change to actually see the lovely views that the Yorkshire dales has to offer.

The next target was the village of Gargrave where we planned to arrive at 14:30. Perfect timing as I wanted to grab a hot pasty or similar from the co-op there. Fast forward to here and we arrived at about 13:10, meaning we were now up 1:20 on the target time.
I had a hot spot developing on my little toe so I parked up to sort this, leaving John to raid the hot food cabinet in the co-op.
Toe suitably dressed (yes a small blister had appeared) and a hot pasty devoured, we headed out at a smart pace, not wanting to squander the time we had made up.

Our next target was Malham village where I had planned to sleep for a bit in the public toilets at the visitor centre. Just one problem with our plan, we arrived too early. Not planning to arrive until 18:20 we actually rocked up at 16:15, nearly two hours early. Trouble is that there were still people milling about. Going in and out of the toilets etc, so we couldn't really bed down yet. So we had a bit of a quandary. Wait until it was dark and people had gone home (probably after 17:00) or push on to Malham tarn and find a (far less comfortable) place to kip. We opted for the former and to while away the time we popped into the nearest pub for a refreshing (non alcoholic) beverage.

5pm hit and we sneaked over to the visitors centre to find it deserted. Perfect - so we got our sleeping bags and mats out and bedded down for a bit. The plan was for 1.5 hours sleep, but unfortunately as soon as I laid down I started coughing uncontrollably. It was like my lungs were suddenly full of gunge. I was so tired, but the coughing just kept me (and poor John) awake - I recon I managed no more than half an hour sleep.

We packed up our kit and set off into the darkness...

An uneventful climb up Malham and over the limestone pavement, up the hanging valley, round Malham Tarn, and then into the "sub" checkpoint of Malham Tarn. We got here at about 22:15 and stayed the allowed 30 minutes, just time for a hot beverage and a bite to eat, before heading out again.
By now the wind was getting up and as we climbed the cloud descended, the slog up Fountains fell was terrible. Very strong gusting winds, trying to knock us off balance, and as I was navigating I was forced to hold my head-torch in one hand so the glare of the fog didn't block my view, this meant that what was a very unstable footing, became worse when using only one pole and being buffeted by very strong gusting wind.
We eventually made it off Fountains fell and onto the road, where we could speed up. As we got to the turning off towards Pen-y-ghent (PyG) we bumped into one of the safety teams armed with diversion boards. It looked like they were contemplating putting the PyG diversion in place due to the high winds.
We had a chat with them and told them how bad it was high up, we said that the strong gusting wind would make climbing PyG very perilous. One said "Thanks for making our minds up" and they set off in front of us - presumably to put the PyG diversion in place.
As we got to the hole in the wall where we were expecting to see the diversion boards in place we saw nothing. So armed with the knowledge that the safety team were ahead of us armed with the diversion boards we assumed they were "back signing" the diversion (going to the end of the diversion first and then reversing it so the first sign would point to the next etc, instead of putting in the top sign pointing to nothing).
Unfortunately - as we found out later - this was the wrong assumption and it turned out that there was no diversion being set up, and we were now going to be penalised one hour for taking a "short cut" (despite our earlier conversation with the safety team).

Anyway, we descended into Horton where the café was open, and had a hot meal and some coffee. It was now about 03:40 Tuesday morning.

The next section was pretty uneventful, apart from the pre-dawn nods. The time where you feel most tired. We chatted nonsense to each other in the fight to stay awake, and eventually the sky got lighter which in turn banished the sleep demons - by now we had been going for 48 hours on 30 minutes of sleep.

Descending into Hawes

We arrived at Hawes (Checkpoint 2) at 11:00 which was still an hour ahead of schedule, despite wasting all that time waiting for it to get dark in Malham, so we agreed a 5 hour break here and got on with sorting ourselves out.
I had a blister to get sorted by the medics, so I showered to ensure my feet were clean, sorted kit, ate, and then got a bunk to get some sleep. I was hoping for a good 2 - 2.5 hours of sleep, but my cough returned, and even more worrying/annoying was some sort of sleep apnea arrived, where I was aware of drifting off, only to be awoken by my body panicking that I was not breathing. I got up a couple of times, thinking I should talk to a doctor to see if I was ok, but scared of consequences (being withdrawn from the race) I went back to bed.

I estimate I got about an hour and a half of sleep in Hawes.

Giving up on sleep I went downstairs and got my toe taped up. I had a couple of other hot spots on my feet so they taped these also as a precaution.

More food and sorting of kit and I was ready to go - except John wasn't. He seemed to be struggling to get ready, almost in a daze. The clock was ticking....

Earlier I had bumped into Stephen McAllister who I knew from another race, and he asked if we could run the next stage together, the more the merrier I said and we both waited for John to get sorted. As we waited outside (we were too hot in the checkpoint) he sent a message for us to carry on and he would catch us up. Fair enough we thought and off we popped.

We never saw him again.

Note: John left a while after us, but his knee was really playing up and he retired soon afterwards. If you are reading this John, thanks for your company during the race. Some lovely memories to savour, and I am truly sorry you had to pull out. Better luck next time John.

So now I had a new running buddy - Stephen.

We left Hawes Checkpoint at about 17:15 Tuesday evening (by now 15 minutes behind my timing plan) - it was already dark. Unfortunately we lost the light as we slept - this seemed to be a continuing theme as the race progressed.

We pressed on into the darkness, me acutely aware that this was the stage that wiped me out physically last year, however, as a result of this I had repeated this section two full times over the summer, once solo and once with a fellow racer (Colm O'Cofaigh) in his quest to complete his recce of the full route. This recce with Colm armed me with something else. Earlier I mentioned my hope to pair up with another runner in the race to hopefully push me along and stop me from grinding to a slower and slower pace, well this day with Colm reinforced this. Colm was a bit faster than me and I had to keep things together to stay with him. Not over quick, it was just fast enough to comfortably push me. It helped me realise that I could sustain a faster pace over a long period, and that with another runner that was doing this pace it mentally pushed me to keep going at a speed that I could obviously manage ok.

As we ascended Great Shunner Fell (GSF) we chatted about our previous races and how we had fared. Stephen's running CV was impressive with multiple finishes of iconic races such as the Lakeland 100, Thames ring (250 miles), and The Piece of string race (length unknown). We carried on upwards, me in the warm comfy knowledge that my new running buddy certainly had the experience to go the distance (although, by his own admission, he did lack a bit of mountain experience), I hoped my meagre Ultra race CV would be sufficient, but was buoyed by the fact that I had a good pedigree in mountain craft - and navigation, and that I had covered virtually the whole route at some point in the last two years - some bits several times. This was to prove invaluable in the later stages of the race - and also a huge negative when I got to the stage that I had purposely omitted (I wanted to save the last bit to the race itself).
Continuing upwards, I soon became aware that I was quickly running out of water. It seems that I had neglected to top up my water bottles, and was down to only half a bottle. We still had a fair distance to travel to the Tan Hill Inn, the next place where I could get clean water, so became very worried very quickly. Then, as if by magic, on the path in front of me appeared a water bottle, practically full of water. This was not a hallucination, a racer up in front must have dropped it - it was a proper race bottle, not just a bottle of Evian (other bottles of water are available), so I picked it up, knowing the runner will be missing it, but hoped I could salvage the water for my own use.

We summited GSF and immediately started the descent to Thwaite. Not much happening here apart from reaching Thwaite we stopped for a bite to eat on a handy bench. Two other racers soon joined us (I don't know who they were, apart from that they were Irish).
Leaving Thwaite we pushed on - again a pretty uneventful section. The Irish chaps soon fell back as one of them had taken a small diversion and the other waited. We pushed on - it was a race after all.

We arrived at the Tan Hill pub at 00:30 which was great as we were now 1 and a half hours up on my plan. I handed in the bottle, hoping someone there would be moving onto another checkpoint and reunite it with its owner, and then quickly filled up my bottles so I didn't run into the same issue again.
We had a quick bite to eat, and a hot beverage, and set off - we were limited to a 30 minute stay here so no dawdling.
We dealt with Sleightholme moor very quickly. It was still dark, but visibility in the torch light was manageable and being able to pick out the guide posts in the gloom meant we made good progress. Reaching the track we relaxed a bit, trotting along, chatting, and trying to stay awake. Suddenly I started having the feeling that things were not right, I was seeing buildings that I didn't recognise and shouldn't be there, so checking the map and GPS we realised we had missed our turning. We had only gone about 400 metres too far, so we back-tracked to the huge and obvious sign pointing the correct way, and set off with tails between our legs and a sense of "must concentrate more" in our minds.

We plodded on in the darkness, desperately trying not to fall asleep, we were on one of the boring "go on for ever" sections, the path is easy, the navigation is easy, and there is just nothing to stimulate the mind...

And then - I woke up mid stumble.

That phrase says it all. It is amazing what can happen when you are so tired. Remember. It was early Wednesday morning and we have covered over 130 miles by now, and I had logged around 2 hours sleep since getting up Sunday morning.

Desperately trying not to fall asleep we started chatting about all sorts of things - anything, just to stay awake. Eventually the light started to appear and this made a HUGE difference to how we felt. You can be nodding and walking at the same time when it's dark, but bring on the light and all of a sudden every thing is rosy (well it's all relative).

We arrived at Middleton-In-Teesdale (Checkpoint 3) at 09:18 (just over 2 hours ahead of target), and set about sorting stuff out. I ate, sorted out kit for the next stage, showered (so my feet were clean for the medics) and then I went to get some sleep, setting the alarm to allow for 2 hours - which I pretty much got. No trouble falling asleep this time, and no coughing fits.
Waking - and feeling surprisingly sprightly - I got some more food inside me and then got my feet sorted by the medics. Still only the small blister on one toe - and some sore bits on the heels and balls of the feet - so these were also taped up for protection - my feet were slowly turning blue with all the tape.

Feet being "Sorted"
We packed up the rest of the kit, and readied ourselves for another stage. I was feeling very strong and very confident now. The 2 hours sleep had obviously helped. This time last year I was a broken man - this year I was buzzing.
We exited the checkpoint at about 15:00 which still put us about 1:30 up on the target. We left feeling strong and raring to go.

Leaving Middleton.
So to make the most of the fading light we moved fast, running at every opportunity on the relatively flat section along the river Tees.
This stage was last year's finishing point (for me), so as the evening progressed and darkness fell I was getting increasingly excited about how I felt now compared to last year, but I didn't want to get over complacent as I knew the section that finally scuppered my chances was still to come, an area named "Falcon Clints".

Let me paint the picture.

On the left is a wide, shallow, but fast moving river. On the right a very steep slope descending all the way to the river's edge. The area where the slope meets the river is a complete jumble of rocks and boulders, there is no way round, so you have to make your way over these rocks/boulders. You are very tired, it is dark, and your legs and feet are complaining all the time, so to balance over this section takes great care and attention. Last year I slipped here on the icy rocks and tore my right quad, so this year I was extra careful (but thankfully there was no ice).
We both moved across this section at our own speeds, passing a fellow runner Jo Barrett who was struggling with severe blisters. This section must have been particularly painful for her.

After crossing this section we could speed up a bit, and once the climb up the side of Cauldron Snout was out of the way the path improved dramatically. We trotted onwards, pausing for a quick snack by the bridge that spanned the river, and then continued on to High Cup Nick. The view down High Cup Nick was - non existent, it was dark!
Quickly onwards, we started our descent towards Dufton. A slight pause and a bit of confusion as to which path to take a bit of the way down, but otherwise pretty uneventful. We were both feeling strong and surprisingly sprightly considering it was fast approaching midnight on the Wednesday.

The target time for Dufton was 03:30. We both felt great, and there was another racer ahead - so the correct thing to do was to break out into a run - which we did. And I am not talking about a slow jog/plod either. We both took off at a proper pace, running down the track as if on a park-run. We quickly overtook the other runner who gave us both quizzical looks as to what the hell we thought we were doing running at this pace 160 miles into the race.

We hit the checkpoint in Dufton at 00:09 Thursday morning. 3:20 up on the target time. That was a nice buffer we were building up. A quick coffee, a bite to eat, and half an hour later we were back out into the night.

The next section was proper mountains. The route climbs steeply up into the heart of the Pennines. Knock fell, Great Dunn fell, Little Dunn fell, and lastly Cross Fell - the highest point of the whole race. The weather now was windy and bitterly cold. The ground was frozen and there were patches of very icy/slippery ground all about. You didn't want to hang about in these conditions or you would get cold very quickly, but the ground conditions demanded we put on our "Yak-Trax", (metal grippy things that slip on to our boots to help prevent slippy moments on the ice), so stop we did. Sitting on the frozen ground and stretching the cold rubber that held them on, with cold fingers (we had to remove our mitts to do this), wasn't the most comfortable moments of the race, but it was a necessary evil.
Feeling more secure now we set off down towards Greg's hut, a small stone bothy only a mile or so from the summit of Cross Fell.

Greg's Hut
Greg's hut is a bit of a hallowed place in the Spine Race story. Every winter, John Bamber installs himself into the hut for the duration of the race and feeds  every racer who comes by with his legendary noodles and a hot beverage. For this one week it becomes the highest noodle bar in the world (or at least we like to imagine it is).
We rocked up to the hut at 06:30. We had lost a bit of time on Cross fell but were still up 2:30. We quickly downed the noodles and drink and headed back out, the light of morning not far away now...

Now comes the long boring slog down to Alston. The first few miles just follows the road/track down the hill, which was easy so does not tax the mind. It was starting to get light now though so no falling asleep as we moved this time.
A couple of navigation errors along the river on the way into Alston checkpoint, but we eventually got there at about 11:30 having gained the time we lost on Cross fell - back to a 3:30 buffer

Arriving at Alston checkpoint
The usual ritual of food, shower (to get my feet clean for the medics), pack ready for the next stage, and then sleep. I managed a full 2 1/2 hours sleep here - a bloomin luxury!

Getting ready to go I noticed my footwear was getting a bit tight now - swollen feet starting to make their presence felt. Squeezing them into the ones I had been using was a bit of a struggle, so I took out my other pair I had in my drop bag. These were a size up, and a light weight boot, rather than a trainer, so had ankle protection. Hopefully the larger size and protection will help prevent problems as I got more tired and battered.

And off we set. Unfortunately we had used up all the daylight in the checkpoint and at 17:20 it was now dark again.

This next section contained the infamous "Issac's tea trail". Something of the route that is kept a well guarded secret to what it actually is. Suffice to say there was no tea, and very little trail. And we didn't even meet Issac. Someone should set up a tea room here, with benches and sun umbrellas, they would make a fortune.

We made good progress at first, stopping briefly at Slaggyford (he he) for a quick bite, then off into the moors. My left ankle was starting to complain a bit at this point. Not a blister, just sore, but we carried on, at a fair old pace, steadily heading northwards towards Hadrian's wall - a huge mental milestone that (for me) signalled the beginning of the end (despite it still being 70 odd miles to the finish).

Hitting the ditch and mound that denoted the beginning of the traverse along "the wall" at about 01:00, we turned East and off we went. My ankle was really playing up now and I stopped a couple of times to adjust my sock to try and make things more comfortable.
We stopped at about 02:00 for some food and I dressed my ankle. I put some plasters on it, I couldn't work out what the problem was but it was really painful now, causing me to limp. No sign of blistering, it wasn't that sort of pain, more like it was being hit with something hard at each step.

Following Hadrian's wall proper now it is amazing to imagine Roman soldiers were treading these very steps 2000 odd years ago. It always sends shivers down my spine thinking about it.

We stopped on a grassy bank so Stephen could sort out a hot spot he was developing, and I made the best use of the 5 minute stop, and promptly laid on the grass for 40 winks.

Carrying on now we were really struggling to stay awake so we developed some conversation points to while away the time. One of them was "Assuming you had all the fitness/qualifications etc to be able to - which would you join and why? The SAS, The Royal Marines, or The Paras?". But to lengthen the conversation we gave as much background to each of the options as possible - pros, cons - everything we could think of - the result was a question that often lasted 5 or 10 minutes itself, before even beginning to answer. We both knew we had to make the questions and answers as long and in depth as possible - the whole point being to engage each other in conversation to prevent more "Waking up mid stumble" moments. Another set of questions involved "Which of the blue light services would you join" etc. I can't remember the others.

I stopped again, tucking myself into a sheltered corner of the wall and told Stephen to carry on while I tried to sort out my ankle. It was cold and windy and still dark, although the eastern sky was beginning to pale.
I took off my boot and sock and wrapped my whole ankle in a bandage, hoping this will stop it from being battered. Every step was now very painful. It was like a small hammer was hitting my ankle every step. Nothing was visible, just a slight reddening to the skin over the bone.

I caught Steven up before leaving the wall, and after telling him all about the Robin Hood film with Kevin Costner where they travelled from Dover to the tree on Hadrian's wall in a day, we struck north again, leaving the ghostly memories of the Romans behind us, and heading into what must have been a proper wilderness back in the day - my mind wandered into a thought of Roman maps of this area labelled "here be dragons".

We left the wall at 08:38. The target time said 09:00. We had lost gallons of time in this section, caused by a longer than anticipated food stop earlier, and multiple stops to sort out feet and ankles.

The mud at this point was frozen, making the going under foot easier (no sinking) but hard (unforgiving). And we headed into the forest. I stopped again to remove the bandage from my ankle, it just made it worse, and carried on. I discovered that if I turned my foot a bit so my toes pointed out, the side of the boot moved away from my ankle, making things a bit more comfortable, but it did mean I had a strange gait. I ran (proper ran) to catch up Stephen, flying past a group of slower moving runners as I went.

Exiting the forest we stopped for a brief bite to eat, I fiddled again with my boot, trying to ease the pain. Stephen had a 5 minute snooze. The sun was out and it was almost warm - I removed my waterproof trousers, it was that nice!

It was soon after this point where we bumped into another runner. He asked if he could tag along with us until the next checkpoint as his GPS was playing up. We said that's fine, although we weren't moving very fast due to my painful ankle. He said that's fine, he wasn't moving particularly quick either. The runner was Andy.

Andy is a very seasoned ultra runner. We chatted as we went (it was good to have someone different to talk to, it gives you different things to listen to). Andy has recently completed "The Tor des Geants", a 205 mile race in the Italian Alps. Pretty hard-core. He also mentioned (in passing) that he had completed every ultra race that he started. A pretty impressive record.

Onwards the three of us went, and soon arrived at a place called Horneystead. This is a farm where the owner has a separate outbuilding/room equipped with a kettle, snacks, drink and basically leaves it open 24x7 for Pennine way travellers to use as they wish.
I rummaged around in the box of donations that others had left, looking for something that I could use as padding. I had worked out that something under my heel would raise my ankle up and away from the area that was causing the problem, but there was nothing I could use.

Side note - During the hours of painful wanderings I had worked out that because the boot I was using was perhaps bigger than I should have gone (I chose this size to give the toe room) the whole volume was too much for my foot. A foot the correct size would have sat in the boot correctly, but as my foot was smaller it sat lower. The part of the boot in question is a reinforcing section that joins the heel with the lace point (see picture). Lacing the boot differently made no difference (believe me I tried every option there was). I am now sure that the addition of a simple heel raise/wedge would have fixed the issue, but I had nothing I could use.

Leaving Horneystead we entered into a field - and another nightmare started to unfold. There were two horses in the field (I have a history with horses. I don't like them and they don't like me). One of these horses started heading my way. I carried on, moving fast, but the horse kept coming. He was now far too close for comfort and I was getting seriously worried. I had my poles in my hand and was gesturing with them trying to scare it away, banging them together and talking loudly to it, telling it to "go away!" (I may have used different words here).
He was now right with me, and I was quietly panicking. What the flip do I do now, run?, stay put?, hit the horse with my pole? I was at a loss - but luckily Stephen saw my predicament and essentially shooed the horse away, making my pathway clear - I beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the fence, and breathed a sigh of relief. Luckily we were now the right side of the barrier and could just carry on, but the horse was obviously miffed that I was out of reach. I thanked Stephen from rescuing me and we carried on.

Another side note - It turned out that I had a piece of Kendall Mint cake in my jacket pocket. Apparently mint/sugar is to horses what catnip is to cats. Well I know that now!

Wishing to put this event behind me we sped up - even with my ankle that was now really (really) painful. The going was good though and for a big chunk of the next bit the path was solid under foot.

The next bit made me giggle a bit. I think the local land owner was a bit of a character as we passed close (or over) several "dodgy" named places, such as "Brownsleazes", "Bridge Ho", and the best one "Shitlington crags".

As we continued a photographer popped up (they have a habit of just appearing from nowhere) and chased us about, snapping pictures here and there - the result was one of my favourite pictures of the whole race. My face hides the real pain I am now in.

We popped over Ealingham Rigg - the last boggy bit in this stage and then dropped down to the road that led into Bellingham - the last checkpoint.
We arrived here at about 14:00 Friday afternoon, still an hour ahead of schedule. How we had made up nearly an hour and a half in that section I will never know - maybe it was wishing to put as much distance between me and the horses that helped...

Arriving in Bellingham we agreed the usual 5 hour stop and went about sorting things out.
The first thing I did was to remove my boots and see if I could fit into the trainers that I had discarded at Alston as being a bit on the tight side (due to swollen feet). I sat outside and levered my feet into them, well they went in. So I did a quick test lap of the building, running about in the car park. They were tight, sore, but oh so much better than the boots as there was nothing anywhere near my ankle. Compared to the boots they were fluffy slippers!

I finally went inside, happy in the knowledge that I could at least carry on now with nothing bothering my ankle.

I didn't bother with a shower this time, just a warm bowl of water to clean my feet, then food, sort kit and pop off for some sleep in the communal hall. Everyone is lumped together in this checkpoint. No beds, no small dormitories, just one big hall. I set my alarm for 1 1/2 hours time and crashed out.

In Bellingham sorting out my kit.

All too soon my alarm went off and I quickly (and as quietly as possible) got my bits together and exited the sleeping room, straight over to the medics to get my feet sorted. I was aware that many people would be clamouring for medic help so got straight in line - I was still second in line and had to wait a while before they could start work on my feet.
My feet were now in a worse state than before, mainly due to adjusting my gait in response to my painful ankle. I had a large blister on the back of my heel, one on my big toe, and a couple on smaller toes. Most were on my right foot, the opposite foot to my ankle problem.

Feet suitably taped up I now had a kit check to get through - no problem I thought, but wrong I was. I couldn't find my required heatable food. I had loads of sweets, chocolate etc, but my proper food pouch was missing. We hunted all over for it - surely I wasn't going to be pulled at this late stage due to a missing dinner? Then all of a sudden someone came over and said "is this it?" It was! I think they found it in the large sleeping room, it must have fallen out of my bag in the dark/haste to get ready.

Phew - that was a relief - but oh so much time had been lost now, what with waiting for the medics, and hunting down my missing food.

We were finally ready to leave by 20:30 Friday night (well at least I was - Stephen and Andy were ready ages ago). Andy was going to stick with us the rest of the race, 3 heads are better than two - especially as we were all now running on very little sleep. Not sure how much the others had had, but since Sunday morning I had managed a mere 8 hours sleep, but we were now on the last leg. Nothing could stop us now - or could it?

Leaving Bellingham at 20:30 put us 30 minutes behind schedule, so we hurried on into the darkness. All three of us were now struggling to keep awake, and the question/answer game soon kicked in again. We had a new subject of Andy, and were soon finding out which army regiment, or which blue light service he would join etc. The time passed fairly quickly as we trudged onwards, ever north bound.

There was a diversion in place, put in by the Pennine way people to reduce erosion over Paddon hill. Basically it follows a forestry road into the woods, all the way (well almost) into Byrness, the last place of civilisation before the climb over the Cheviots.

Reaching this road we turned left onto it and plodded on. It was about 1am now.

This road was very long, very straight, and very boring. Our feet were now used to soft boggy ground, or tracks with surfaces which demanded care and differing strides or steps. Suddenly we were on a road which involved exactly the same step over and over again. It was monotonous, and soon our feet were feeling very sore and battered.
Then up ahead we saw a light. It wasn't getting closer, or further away, but it seemed to be bobbing up and down, and turning on and off. We got closer and closer (it seemed to take ages - remember very long, straight and boring road), but eventually we reached the fellow runner who was waiting for us.
I cant remember who it was, but his friend was not in a great way and was tucked up in a bivi bag. He had called in the safety team who were now en-route. In fact they arrived as we got to his friend. We checked if all was OK and that we were fine to leave them, and with the OK we set off into the forest.

The forestry road gets narrower and narrower the further you get in, and eventually just ends up a small path that winds about a bit and gets a bit confusing (unless that was just my tired mental state) before popping out onto another road right in the heart of Byrness.
A short walk along the road in this tiny village and we were going into the front door of the Forest View B&B. This is the last vestige of warmth and comfort before heading back into the wilderness.

Forest view is a great little place. We were immediately plied with a plate of savoury mince and mashed potatoes. OMG that was tasty and very welcome. It turned out that in the kerfuffle of the missing food in Bellingham I had left one of my bags of snacks behind. Apart from my emergency heatable food all I had was sweet stuff. Chocolate, Kendall mint cake etc, nothing savoury/salty, and I was really craving that now!

In the conservatory of Forest View B&B
I asked around if anyone wanted to swap a creme egg for something savoury. One of the safety team members who was based there had a packet of German type sausages (like tiny salamis) and had never been acquainted with creme eggs. We did a swap, and I have found out since that he is now hooked on the little sugar bombs.

Stomach now full of mince and mash, and equipped with a packet of sausages we set off on the final stretch. We left Forest view at about 05:15 Saturday morning - now 15 minutes up on our schedule. Considering we have now travelled over 230 miles, to be a mere 15 minutes off schedule isn't bad even if I do say so myself.

The route backtracks about a quarter of a mile down the road, and then turns left into the forest. Then it climbs. It climbs straight up. No zig-zagging to ease the gradient, just a straight 200 metres of ascent in one km. As we rose it started to get foggy, and as we exited the trees and onto the hill side it was proper thick fog.
The path keeps ascending along what is the start of the Cheviots, and daylight was now taking over from the darkness. After a brief foray into Scotland (the path dog-legs across the border here), we arrive at Chew Green Roman camp (back in England). In the previous years I had watched dots (other racers) go around this ancient military stronghold (built I assume to keep the wild Scottish clansmen out of good old Blighty), although why they would chose to invade at this particular point, high in the wind swept and foggy Cheviots, I have no idea.
Chew Green was now just a series of earth banks and mounds - nothing to write home about, so I didn't.

I was moving fairly slowly now, Stephen and Andy were obviously faster than me as I was suffering from the blisters I had picked up during the last stage. We continued along the ridge, small patches of snow and ice were all about, it was very cold, a bit windy, but the fog had thinned a bit and could now be described as patchy mist.

The ridge seemed to go on for ages, it wasn't very technical, fairly boring to be honest, which allowed the mind to wander. Tiredness started to kick in again even though it was daylight. Struggling to maintain focus the hallucinations started to occasionally appear. I had expected them to come much earlier in the race, so to only just start now seemed strange, but start they did. A couple that I can remember from this stage included, every one of the small patches of snow on the ground was somehow in the exact shape of a kittens face, and a small heard of armadillos walking about twenty feet away to my right.
At this stage I knew what they were, I chuckled to myself, wondering what else I may see during the last few hours.

High up in the Cheviots. That fence is the English/Scottish border.

Speed was still slow, but I was still moving forward which was the main thing, then a massive mental blow came along in the shape of 5 or 6 racers catching me up and passing, at a fair old pace. At this point I knew I couldn't be far from Hut 1, the first of 2 emergency shelters, the only form of cover from the elements for miles around, I called out to one of them if they knew how far it was, "just around the next corner" one replied, that helped.
Sure enough there it was, but mentally I was still reeling from being overtaken by this group.

So I threw my toys out of my pram...

I had planned a 30 minute stop here, but now there was no stopping me, I popped my head into the hut, called out my race number so it was recorded, and set straight off, in the hope that the group that passed me might stay here for a while and I would beat them to the finish.
Leaving Hut 1 at about 11:00, bang on schedule, I ran, (not just a slow jog) but properly ran, full pace, over the rocks, mud, following the path down at first, before climbing up Lamb hill, I was going hell for leather.

Then my knee started protesting.

There was no way I was going to be able to keep up this ridiculous pace, and worse I could damage something that would put me out of the race. This would be unthinkable. To make matters worse, poor Andy (who I think was looking forward to the rest at Hut 2) obviously felt obliged to go with me, he was keeping with me, running after me. Soon I came to my senses, and apologised to Andy for possibly putting his race in jeopardy by him feeling he needed to keep with me. I broke down in tears as I apologised, saying that I was being selfish in thinking about my own race and not his.
Of course he was fine about it, and I sheepishly continued at a much more sensible pace, Andy and Stephen now right with me.

Small hallucinations were continuing all the time now, still the white kitten faces in all the patches of snow, rocks that looked like all sorts of things. Not just vaguely, but completely like it was actually there.

The ridge continued, still windy, misty, and cold. We drifted apart, each going at our own pace, only to bunch together again as the lead person waited for a bit.

Andy had a bit of a moment with low energy, so we plonked ourselves down in the shelter of a tuft of heather and I gave him one of my pouches of food while I ate a sausage and a creme egg.

Andy in front with me tagging along behind. Somewhere high up in the Cheviots.
Carrying on again, Stephen had continued off into the distance. He was still going strong and we were holding him back - and I was even slower now, with painful blisters and a newly hurting knee from my earlier antics.

And tired - oh so tired. It was now about 14:00 on Saturday afternoon, so I had been going for about 6 1/2 days on 8 hours of sleep. Hallucinations were there all the time now. It's funny how I had not had them for the whole of the race up to now, but now they were here they were here proper.

Another photographer popped up out of the mist and started snapping away at us, he was running left, right, in front, behind, he was like a man possessed. There was me and Andy, the walking dead, and here he was like a spring chicken.  

Here are some pictures he took:

While he was about, and we carried on, we found ourselves at a crucial point. Here it was! The left turn that heralds the descent to Hut 2, and ultimately to the finish. The real "Last leg".

I silently rejoiced, and at that moment the mist started to lift and we could see the glorious view down towards the Hut - it seemed miles away. But that was it, we started the descent. Andy keeping with me, pulling ahead and waiting, as we descended the very steep rugged path. White kittens still abounded, but were joined by funny looking miniature men on tiny unicorns only about 10 inches high. I knew this couldn't be real, but it didn't stop me from going over to where it was and taking a really close look at the piece of rock.

As we descended the photographer lurked about, a large group of other runners came by (maybe the group that upset me last time, I cant remember), the photographer was a little way off the path now, snapping away with his border collie dog sitting on a mound behind him. I yelled out to him what a lovely dog he has. "Dog?" he replied, "I don't have a dog", I pointed at the sitting sheep dog and exclaimed "That one, the border collie, isn't that yours?". "What dog" he replied, looking at where I was pointing.

Oops - they look so realistic these hallucinations!

The descent to Hut 2 was so painful. My tight shoes were really aggravating my blisters, and my new knee injury was not helping, but eventually we got to the hut amidst cheers from the support people who were manning it.

We arrived at the hut at about 16:15, only about 15 minutes off schedule, not bad considering.

Andy and me at Hut 2. He caught me unawares, I wasn't that bad, honest!
I ate my last meal in the shelter of the hut as it slowly darkened outside. But eventually the time came for us to start the final descent - via the final climb over The Schil - the sting in the tail of the Pennine way, before the real final descent - only about 7 miles to go now.

Leaving the hut behind us, we disappeared into the gloom. Not completely dark, but as good as. We chatted for a bit as we walked along, no idea what about, I wasn't really thinking straight now, then Andy pulled back, and took a phone call, then afterwards he caught me up (an easy task as I was going pretty slowly again now), he said he had spoken to his wife, who said his daughter was nearby, but unless he get to the finish by a certain time he would miss her, and he hadn't seen her for ages. Do I mind If he shoots off so he could meet up with them? I replied of course not, I was as good as home now anyway, so off he went, soon disappearing into the darkness.

I was now alone. Tired, hallucinating, painful feet and knee, and on a section that I had decided not to recce before the race so I had "Something to look forward to"!

Then things started to - lets say "get interesting". I was going to say "fall apart" but that sounded a bit dramatic.

As I slowly climbed up the southern flank I started chatting to myself. Not in the way you might do while cleaning the house, or in the car on the way to work, but actually having a full blown conversation. Maybe I was imagining there was someone else with me, I don't know, but one thing I do know, is the argument (no idea what about) but culminating with the (said out loud) phrase "So who is carrying the potatoes then?".

Don't ask me why, what, or who was carrying the potatoes, that phrase is all I can remember, but it shows how the mind works when it is stretched to its limit .

And then it got worse.

Note - This last section is exactly what I was thinking at the time, some of it may have actually happened, some I am pretty certain didn't, but it is all 100%  what was happening to me and what was going through my mind during the last few miles to the finish...

I reached the summit of The Schil. There was a fence around it so I couldn't actually reach the summit, and this really depressed me. I sat on a seat and pondered what to do now, do I carry on?, which way should I go? Left? Right? Down? I was just confusing myself. I checked my GPS, but that seemed to be pointing another way entirely. I changed the batteries and re-calibrated the built in compass (really?) but it still showed a way which I was worried didn't seem right. I checked my map, but that was no help, so I just got up and followed the GPS hoping It was correct.

I started to descend (a good thing as I was on the last summit) along a path. Still unsure if I was going in the right direction, there wasn't any sign posts. Then the path started to climb, strange I thought, shouldn't I be going down?, but then a sign appeared, both fingers of the sign said Pennine Way, but one said upper way, and the other said lower.
Thankfully at this point my addled mind remembered there is a variant of the route that stays higher until later dropping down, so I took the lower path, more secure now that at least the way was confirmed.

I continued along the path, but started to get increasingly paranoid that I wasn't heading in the right direction. The path kept going up hill, then down, I was sure it should be all down hill, so I soon became totally convinced I was not going down the right path. I kept looking for other signs but there were none.
I stumbled off the path and into some long grass, there was a ruined building to my right and I collapsed onto my knees. I started crying, my mind was asking "Where is the path? Where are the signs?", I was now convinced that this was all a dream, a nightmare, and I would wake up soon and it would all be ok, but then my other mind took over and reasoned that this was real and that I had to get myself out of this, it was NOT a dream, it was real!

I got up and carried on, somehow finding a path (the right one?) and carrying on...

Still looking about me in the dark for any sign that I was still going in the right direction, I just needed something to confirm it. My GPS was useless, it was pointing in ways that couldn't be right, do I follow it, do I ignore it, I don't know!

That's it, I am lost. What do I do now? I got my phone out and called Jo (my partner and Spine checkpoint volunteer). I burst into tears when she answered and cried that I was lost and didn't know what to do. She handed her phone to one of the safety team who was watching my progress (or lack of it). He said I was bang on track and to just keep following the path I was on, there was also another runner coming along soon which might help put my mind at rest. I hung up, more secure now, wiped my eyes and carried on along the path.

Soon enough the aforementioned runner appeared out of the dark, I nodded a greeting in true British reserve and he passed me, carrying on into the darkness, I was alone again.

My mind soon started to descend into confusion again, and before long I was convinced that this couldn't be right, I was lost and I was being tested. I had previously mentioned in a checkpoint that I wouldn't mind being on the safety team next year, and I was now slowly convincing myself that this was actually a test to see if I "had what it takes" to be a member of the safety team.

I kept looking around to see if I could see any clue as to where to go next, and then I realised that I had a clue written on my hand - it said "Large sheep", ahh this was great, I had something to go on. I started looking about for large sheep and saw a large clump of grass. It did look a little bit like a sheep, so it must be it, I headed towards it, passing a pixie who was hanging on a wire fence next to the path.
As I approached the long tufts of grass, I saw to me left a group of Tesla garages. These were tiny though, about the size of a bucket. About 5 of them, all grey, and sitting outside them were a group of fat pixie men debating something, they told me to move along.
I went up behind the Tesla garages and doubled back on myself, convinced that I had to go around again as I must have missed something.

Past the pixie hanging on the fence again (who was no help to me at all), up to the tufts of grass, around the Tesla garages, I must have done this loop at least 3 or 4 times. Then I started to despair again, still convinced this was a test set by the safety team I started shouting out that I must have done enough now to qualify? No answer, so around I went again, Pixie on fence, tuft of grass, Tesla garages, on it went, until finally I had to stop this. I shouted that unless they owned up I was just going to stay there.

I promptly laid down next to one of the garages and fell asleep.

I was soon woken by a group of men from the safety team - ahh I thought, busted!

Some of them had blue bits on their boots (I was still lying down at this stage so that was pretty much all I could see of them) so I joked that this must be a prerequisite of joining the team - blue on your boots (my shoes were red).
One of them (I have since found out to be Al Pepper) plied me with Lucozade and Mars bars (I don't think I was energy depleted, just a tad tired) and I staggered to my feet. They said they would walk with me to the finish just to make sure I was ok, so we set off.
I was still convinced this was a test to see if I was the right material for the safety team, I was moving as fast as I could to try and impress them, I could hear them laughing and joking, but not what they were saying, only to cement the conspiracy theory.
As I was trotting along the road with the guys close by, I kept feeling like there was someone to my right, I could see in my peripheral vision a tin of sweets carried by Jo. I looked round but there was no-one there.

The road (yes it was a proper road now) seemed to go on for ages, then it suddenly turned into a steep uphill, I mustered every last ounce of strength and powered up the hill, poles digging into the tarmac, feet trudging, lungs and heart pounding, and then we were up, I still expected Jo, or Scott to jump out of a hedge as we passed saying congratulations you have qualified for the safety team, but nothing - although I think Scott may have made an appearance near the finish - not sure.

Then I turned the corner, and there was the village green, with the Border hotel the other side. To be completely honest I couldn't actually see it, but the guys around me said it was there. They left me to do this last bit on my own, and I trotted/staggered onto the village green.
I aimed at what looked like a hotel, but heard screams and shouts to go right - this cant be right I thought and just carried on. The shouts became louder as I got closer, but apparently I was still heading in the wrong direction, then I saw Jo come out of the darkness, she pointed over to the right and then I saw it, the finish arch, and behind it the fabled Border Hotel wall that I had watched so many other Spine racers touch, hug, kiss, as they completed their race.

Through the arch and still running (of sorts)

Through the arch I went, and headed for the wall. Barely stopping I hit the wall, head-butting it with my head-torch - that was it, the finish, the end. I had actually done it!

I just stood there, in a daze. Scott come over to me, congratulated me and handed me a medal. He said I couldn't keep this one though as they had run out and that I would be sent one in the post later.

I stood there, still dazed, then I saw Jo - and that was it, the flood gates opened and I burst into tears, she came over and we hugged, I was a wreck, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but above all I was now a Spine Race finisher, and that will be with me for the rest of my life.

That's it - I am now going to dry my eyes after writing that - and post another (smaller) blog about the aftermath.

Thanks for reading xx

Finished, feet up, and an ice cold - lemonade in my hand.

The final numbers:

Total distance: 268 miles
Time taken: 159 hours
Feet of ascent: 35031
Approximate steps: 536,000
Hours sleep: 8

Friday, 4 January 2019

Into the darkness - Spine 2018 race report.

Erm - a very belated post due to losing my mojo a bit - sorry about that - finally finished it just in time for the next one in a week's time......

Right here goes... After over a year of planning, training, posting on Facebook, and generally boring people with talking about my next race, race weekend had finally arrived. Jeff picked my up and all my kit and we headed north.

All packed up.
We arrived in Edale after a quite journey. I unloaded my kit into the registration hall and queued up for registration.
Now for a little explanation. In previous runnings of The Spine race, the tracker page had little pictures of each runner so when you click on their dot a picture of them appears. Last year I had this in mind when I took off my jacket to reveal a full DJ, white shirt, and bow tie, only to discover that that year they chose not to use the pictures. Gutted. Not put off by this, I had decided to go a little different this year, and chose to wear a tropical Hawaiian shirt and sun hat. Standing there in that attire I hoped that this year the pictures would be used. And as luck would have it they were! Only one slight problem - they need a new photographer!

The picture you got when clicking my dot!
No evidence of sun hat - and not even my head. 

So, picture taken, I headed over to the kit check area. This was a lottery and you either get drawn a "show 3 random things from the list" or you got "show the whole damn lot". Guess what I got? Yes the whole lot. Not to worry, I knew I had everything, and that it was well within the minimum spec of what was required, it just meant spilling out all my kit over the floor and table.
Registration and kit check done, I headed off to the briefing, my massive kit bag in tow, and then onto the B&B where at last I could dump my stuff and travel a bit lighter.
A quick bite to eat (vegetable lasagna) and back to my room for kit sorting and an early night.

Race day arrived, and finally packed I lugged my gear back down the hill to the start, at last dumping my bag with the baggage team before begging the tracker man to re-take my photo - which he did, just to humor me it seems as the photo was never changed. 
I sat there, quietly contemplating how the other runners got all their required kit into such small bags, and just generally relaxing, waiting for the off.

Which came along eventually - we were ushered out into the cold morning air - it was a lovely morning, cold, crisp, not snowy, and dry!

And we were off...

I had put together a list of loose times, just to judge how I was doing compared to last year, and also took times from one of last years racers, again to judge the later areas. First target was Snake pass, and I arrived there with a 30 minute cushion. Now I know I wasn't going off too fast, last year was very icy and slippery so it wasn't surprising that I had already made time up in the first 10 miles.

Approaching Snake Pass (I think)
Bleaklow passed without event, and I was soon down at Torside and the first monitoring point. 15 miles and a 50 minute cushion now. A quick top up with the water bottles and off I toddled towards Black hill and Wassenden.

Another uneventful section and I arrived at Wessenden 1:20 up. At 23 miles Wessenden is almost the gateway to the darkness ahead, so shortly after I added a layer or 2, and changed to warmer gloves ready for the hours of darkness. I was also caught up with fellow 2017 Challenger runner Michelle Payne who was on for the full race this year. We ran and chatted for a bit, Michelle listing all the amazing races she had done, many of them were on my dream list, and me silently contemplating how inexperienced I was in comparison (this was to be only my 5th Ultra) where as Michelle had, by the sound of it done that many in just the last year. I felt very inadequate.

Reaching the next monitoring station at Standedge (28 miles), I was 1:50 up on last years time, a quick top up with water and off I went into the night.

Then came the burger van at the M62 crossing (32 miles). I arrived there with the same 1:50 cushion as the darkness had slowed me down a bit, and I decided on a bit of a re-fuel. I ordered a hot chocolate - yum - the same as last year, but added a fried egg bap. This didn't go down well and I binned half of it and set off over the motorway.

Next target was The White House pub (35 miles). Banned to Spine racers inside, but a good monitoring point outside with hot drinks and flapjack. I was now 2 hours up.

I think it was raining by now, 8pm, 12 hours into the race, and this last long stretch would take me into Hebden bridge, and then finally up to the first checkpoint at Hebden hay.

I arrived at the first checkpoint at 00:33 early Monday morning after 45 miles on the go. By this time I had a 2:45 cushion on my time last year, and and still 2 hours on my target time. Happy with this, and no plans to sleep yet, I had a quick plate of pasta, sorted my (still perfect) feet, and set out into the rain/darkness.

Sorry this is all sounding a bit mundane at the moment - it does get more exciting eventually...

Anyway - by now the rain was coming down proper, the mud of the Pennine way was well and truly churned up, and slips/slides were plentiful. Even the trail running shoes I was wearing were sliding all over the place, and they have a grip pretty much as "aggressive" as you can get in a trail shoe.
My current shoes - the Inov8 X-Claw

I did end up going down in the mud several times, but knew that others were probably experiencing things just as bad (or worse if they didn't have the grip I had).

The route winds round a couple of reservoirs before heading back up into the moors - I avoided the turn I took in error last year, and carried on upwards towards Bronte country. No ice to contend with this year, I was really motoring, making good time as I descended towards Ponden reservoir,now over 3 hours up on last year.

Daylight came and the next section was uneventful, apart from the rain and a few stumbles, and I arrived in Gargrave 3:20 up on last year. A healthy cushion was developing. Not wanting or needing to stop for food in the Co-op I pressed on.

And then I went wrong...

Happily bumbling across muddy fields I completely missed the path and ended up crossing soggy crop fields and climbing over walls to get back on track. I recon I lost about 30 minutes on this detour (it was in daylight also, so absolutely no excuses)

My "detour" in purple

Back on route things were back to normal. Rain was still coming down, mud was still slippery and it was dark again, as we arrived in Malham village.

Time for a sleep... So I headed for the public loos, a favourite spot for fellow Spine racers. Two others followed me in and we called HQ with our intentions to prevent possible inadvertent rescues due to stationary GPS dots.
I got my bag out and laid out under the window, and the other two by the sinks, and set the alarm for 2 hours....zzzz

Up and off we went after a short sleep - which included getting up to have a wee in the urinal just above my feet :-)

The climb up the side of Malham cove and subsequent ascent up to Malham tarn all went well, and after a quick hot drink at the "mini checkpoint" I was on my way again, running into the night in anticipation of the next two big climbs, Fountains fell, and Pen-y-Ghent, the later of which had a detour in place to avoid the iced up climb.
As I got higher the rain turned to snow and the ground took on a pretty white covering. The wind was also getting stronger now, blowing the snow across the path.

Descending Fountains fell the snow went slushy again but the wind remained strong, then ascending Pen-y-Ghent the wind was howling over the wall I was hid behind, trouble was the route - now diverted - involved going through a gate in the wall and heading straight into the wind.
Battling in the headwind, I gradually descended the treacherously slippery steps, and grass banks, and eventually made it down to the warm sanctuary of the Pen-y-Ghent cafe in Horton.

I had a coffee, a can of lemonade, and a vegetarian bean casserole, and then set off into the darkness with Carlos Climent for company.

We ascended up the path onto the Cam high road with the weather really hitting hard now. Strong side winds and blown snow meant full face covering including wind/snow goggles.

On the Cam high road

Eventually descending into Hawes and the waiting checkpoint, we stumbled in from the cold - snow now settling everywhere - and set about sorting ourselves out.
I had a plate of pasta while sorting kit for the next stage and then went upstairs for a kip. I think I managed a couple of hours, before heading back down - a bowl of rice pudding (with jam) before heading out into the dying daylight. Immediately I discovered that I couldn't run unless I used my poles. It seemed that my core muscles were now out of balance, my front being stronger than my back, and unless I supported my upper body by using poles I was stooping forward quite alarmingly. Oh well, running with poles it was then...

It very quickly became apparent that this stage was going to be hard! Strong winds and thick snow soon meant the path was invisible, and footprints from fellow racers lasted less than a few minutes before completely disappearing. It was now dark, and the strong wind-blown snow meant visibility was down to 10 meters or less. Now fully relying on GPS to show me the path, as the path itself was obliterated. Stumbling between the hard path under inches of snow, to suddenly being knee deep as you trod into a hidden hole, the pace slowed to a crawl. The path could be under me, 1 meter to the left, 1 meter to the right, you just couldn't tell, often now in thigh deep drifts of snow, this was energy sapping, having to step high every time I tried to make forward progress. On the path, off the path, falling down, running a few meters, it was a long slow progress...

We (not sure who it was, but the last mile or so was spent with another fellow racer) eventually reached the summit of Great Shunner fell, no stopping there - just onward and down the other side. More of the same ensued, we became separated and again, the trail disappeared in the maelstrom of windblown snow making the descent long and arduous, spending many minutes slogging through thigh deep snow, unsure if it was the path or not, and eventually - several hours later - breaking out onto the track and down to civilisation.

From Thwaite, the path wasn't too bad as it was relatively sheltered, but all too soon the path headed upwards into Stonesdale moor and the high winds, snow, and general uncertainty of where the path was continued. This stretch was particularly exposed, and the drifts were even more leg sapping. I stopped to don another layer as the cold wind was really biting, so on with my primaloft jacket, under my waterproof - much better once everything was done up again. By this time a small group had caught me up, so we carried on together, falling into snow holes, stumbling about, praying for the lights of the Tan Hill Inn to appear. Which it did eventually, 11 hours after leaving Hawes (16 miles back). That leg was slooooow.

I thawed out in front of a roaring fire and had a bite to eat. One of our party was pulled out by a medic with suspected hypothermia and others wanted a rest/sleep - but I was very conscious of how long that leg had taken, so after donning all my layers I ventured out into the snow.

My "view"
Quickly losing the obliterated path in the dark/wind/snow I was resigned to wallowing about on Sleightholme moor, sometimes sinking fully thigh deep in the snow, this stretch is bad enough in daylight with good visibility, so to navigate across it with the above visibility was rather tricky. It took me 2 full hours to cover 2.5 miles on this section.

The next 16 miles was not much better than the last 16 miles, although we had some daylight and less wind, so technically it was a bit easier, but the efforts from last night had really taken their toll and I was like a walking zombie.

I staggered into Middleton and checkpoint 3 on my last legs. 24 hours since leaving Hawes. As far as I was concerned my race was over. I could not move fast enough and the cut off for leaving this checkpoint was looming. I cannot remember if I had anything to eat before crashing out on a bunk, quickly falling asleep.

As I slept all sorts of things were happening - mainly weather related, and as a result the race was paused. All racers were recalled (where possible) and we were not allowed to continue until the morning. The later cut off times were not adjusted however, so unless I sped up to more than double the speed I was managing then it was impossible to reach the next cut off. However I will give it my best shot.
We were woken in the morning to tell us that the race will restart in an hour, so I went to get some food. 5 breakfasts later and I was ready to get going. Then the bombshell hit - the checkpoint manager said the cut off to leave this checkpoint was in 15 minutes time! I was completely unready to go - nothing was sorted, I wasn't even dressed properly, so I grabbed all my stuff, did what I needed to do before leaving, and then stood outside in the snow having officially "left" the checkpoint, so I could continue to get ready properly.

Getting ready having "left" the checkpoint.

Obviously being the last to leave, and thus last in the race, I set off along the river. It was a lovely morning, crisp, cold, not very windy, and a lovely snowscape all around. It was still very cold and icy, but at least the going was easier. I was still unable to run properly and knew that unless I sped right up I was probably going to be timed out at the next checkpoint, but onwards I went, buoyed by the decent sleep and multiple breakfasts I had consumed.

I followed the river round, and then came to a known tricky part not far from Cauldren snout. Here there is a section of rocks/boulders that cover the path and take to right next to the icy river./ The path just goes over these rocks and it is a balancing act to stay upright and out of the river. Many rocks were covered in an icy layer, and in my tired state the inevitable happened and down I went. I nearly face planted a boulder, but saved myself (no idea how) but in doing so I felt my right quad ping. Ouch!

That was it. I was moving even slower now, not faster like I needed. The climb up the side of the waterfall was very tricky with one leg not doing as it should. Eventually reaching the top I had a decision to make. I was on a road which if I turned left to carry on in the race, would lead me up and out into the wilderness for another 12 miles before reaching Dufton and certain DNF.
Turning right would lead me towards a larger road and safety - with easy access by the spine team to bring me in from the cold.

I turned right.

I phoned HQ and informed them of my decision and carried on along the road (which was mostly hidden under 10 inches of snow at this point). It was now dark again and the wind was blowing hard. I needed to get out of the wind and snow while I waited for the safety team to find me. I had everything I needed to stay the night if needed, but it would be better to be out of the wind - and then I saw on the map a handy building a few hundred metres away.

And there it was, a lovely little shelter, I set up my light outside so they could find me easier and lit my stove for a brew - and waited.

A huge thanks for everyone involved in The Spine race. All the checkpoint people, the safety team, the organisers - everyone. And of course to Stuart Smith who drew the short straw and had to brave the weather to come and fetch me.

Thanks - and see you in January for another attempt.