In January 2017, I volunteered on the Montane Spine Safety Team for the Spine Challenger (108 ‘fun’ run along the Pennine Way) and the full 268 mile Spine Race. As a marathon runner of many years with a reasonable PB (3:04 London 2012) I had grown tired of worsening PBs and decided that the only way to address this situation was to start racing longer.
The idea of ‘journeying’ really appeals to me in terms of getting somewhere meaningful under my own steam. Therefore, in 2016 I signed up for the innaugural Ultra Great Britain 200 mile run along the Transpennine Trail from Southport to Hornsea organised by GB Ultras and the indefatigable RD Wayne Drinkwater, who takes a keen personal interest in all his racers achieving their objectives. I was woefully underprepared for this race but still finished in 10th position (actually next to last but who needs to know that??) in 84 hours and 55 mins. Lots of lessons learnt regarding nutrition, pacing and coping with sleep deprivation – or how to give in and sleep loads!!
I had been bitten by the very long race bug. I actually prefer over 50 mile events now. So, in 2017 I decided to see how much I had learnt and repeat the UGB200 race in August 2017 albeit over the same, fairly dull route and beat my 2016 time by 15 hours recording a finish time of 69 hours and some minutes!!! This improvement was achieved by better nutrition and a structured sleep strategy (2 x 90 mins sleeps in the race) and more steady pacing/walking especially for the 2nd 100 miles. All this was a precursor for the big one… I received a free place from the Spine Race organisers in a ballot for volunteers from 2016 race. As places for the race are not cheap (approx £800 but good value for money for a 7 day race) I decided that I should go the whole hog and enter the 268 mile race!
Navigation was a new racing concept for me having been a road runner for many years and completing many of the big city marathons as I could always follow a few thousand runners in front of me. However, obviously the Spine created a whole different challenge but I was also excited about learning a new skill.
I signed up for all the Spine courses offered by Stu Westfield from Ranger Expeditions. These courses are highly recommended for the new navigator and Stu has huge experience of teaching hill skills and navigation – highly recommended!!! Another great plus on attending these courses is the time spent with other virgin Spiners. I am thrilled to have met some great people as a result of these courses including Cass Chisholm, Barnaby Page and Malcolm Hicks who have now also become personal friends as we have continued on our Spine journey…more later of this bunch!!
I attended all three of Stu’s sessions (Beginner, Advanced and Masterclass) and felt much more prepared for time on the hills and look forward to exploring new places in future. I also attended the Official Spine Weekend at Hebden Hey where I met more Spiners and established members of the Spine family and completed the 47 mile Mary Townley Loop mainly in the company of Gordon Rowan who was to do his first ultra on that day and go on to successful completion of the Spine Challenger in January. Thanks for the company Rowan.
Also, as part of my navigation prep, I undertook the onerous but satisfying job of laminating my maps and splitting the route into stages between checkpoints. This became a labour of love and I am justifiably proud of the end product a mix between the A to Z (OS) maps and Stuart Grieg’s book on the Pennine Way annotated with Ian Bowles notes on dining/bothy experiences and opening times along the route.
Good grief…the kit!!! I recently read a blog from Ian Bowles, Spine Veteran who said that most of the finishers of the Spine already own most of the kit before entering…well I owned nothing, so I took that as a omen!! However, I learnt loads and spent even more acquiring the 30 items that make up the mandatory Spine Kit checklist
I’m not going to list all the kit that I bought and certainly not how much was spent on kit but I certainly had fun choosing and waiting for multiple deliveries from an online-store with dubious HR and Tax practices but ever-so convenient…
Once my kit was purchased and started to swamp the house it was time to see if it would all fit into a massive Mountain Equipment Resupply Bag and OMM 32 litre backpack. This challenge would see me packing and repacking and repacking again for the whole week prior to leaving for Edale. Of particular difficulty was fitting spare kit into the huge resupply bag and keeping to under 20kg but I managed to weigh in at 19.9kg with a backpack of 7.8kg without water, to give a carrying weight of just under 9kg. I was really surprised to see the tiny size of some racers packs both at registration and also whilst doing kit checks myself later in the race at CP5 (Bellingham) but also I was informed that one runner had a backpack approaching 20kg at Kitcheck!!!!
I also packed a small pack to collect at each CP which had the map for the next section, new batteries, new contact lenses, new socks and hill food so that the previous pack could be replaced as easily as possible without forgetting essentials.
I think it is worth mentioning footwear and socks at this point – or ‘foot-systems’ as they seem to be called when you spend a small fortune. I decided that I would definitely be going for comfort rather than speed and also wanted to aim for dry feet as my friend and fellow UGB200 runner/winner, Neil Rutherford had advised me that feet problems were the main reasons for DNFs.
I decided on the following ‘foot systems’ all worn with Dexshell WP socks and sock liners:
- Salomon Speedcross 4 – to start the race in (never used actually..as wanted more support
- Hoka Hi Tor Boots (great for running and walking) – worn for Day 1 – no problems
- Salomon D4 GTX boots – worn for Day 2 – great for using in v.wet/submerged conditions
- Hoka Tor Mid Speed 2 WP boots (2 sizes too big to allow for swelling) – only able to wear after the race – see report later (spoiler alert!!)
I must take this opportunity to thank Dave Emmanuel and Bryan Lawton from Up & Running Oldham for supplying me with the Hoka Tor Mid Speed 2 WP boots and sorry that they did not get worn during this race but I am looking forward to getting them muddy very soon. I know that two time Spine finisher, Stephen Brown swears by these shoes and has completed the last 3 Spine Races wearing these Hoka shoes!!!
I order shedloads of Expedition Meals but I must admit that I can’t manage to get through a full one as they seem a far cry from ‘real food’ and as such I think I lack calorific intake in a race. Certainly the ones that are supposed to look like mush (rice pudding/porridge/granola) fare better than the more optimistic sounding veg chilli and sweet and sour chicken. I will continue to try to acclimatise to this type of nutrition as the packs I have last the next 30 years!
I also added Quakers ‘Porridge-to-Go’ bars, Haribo (Fangtatstic) and also a spicy nut/snack mix. All in all I managed to meet the 3000kcal per day requirement but it was a close call and with hindsight relied too much on the dried meals which then required stopping, boiling water and cooking rather than having food on the go that I actually looked forward to. Lesson learnt for 2019.
I had been warned/advised that the Spine race was more a mental than physical challenge and as such thought myself fairly strong being able to push through pain and improving regarding sleep deprivation.
Fiona Beddoes-Jones from Cognitive Fitness Consultancy provided a valuable session at the Spine Training Weekend at Hebden Hey (AKA CP1) looking at mental resilience and particularly interesting concepts were ‘why do you want to finish’ and also the concept of acceptance and forgiveness especially relating to navigational issues. Thanks Fiona!!
I had the opportunity to chat to Borja Martinez Gonzalez in my stint at CP5 during the race and will be really interested to hear about the results of his PhD study looking at sleep deprivation in the Spine Race. Any hints on avoiding sleep monsters especially over multi-day/night events would be welcome.
My Spine recess started, appropriately with a short excursion from Edale to Kinder Downfall and back in the company of Spine veteran Stephen Brown who was full of really useful advice and queried my preparation of 50-100 mile ultras and 24 hour races. Stephen was the first of many people to remind me that the Spine Race is so different from an ultra running event and as he had finished it twice before I guess I needed to pay attention. He also mentioned that I needed to start buying and practicing with any race kit asap.
I undertook several recces alone as I wanted to be prepared for being alone for long periods of the race. One particularly enjoyable one was a trek from Edale to my home village of Greenfield on a lovely summer’s day. Beautiful weather and too hot for much running – not ideal Spine prep.
Another enjoyable recce was the trek across Heptonstall Moor towards Top Withins bothy to sleep overnight and then return back in the morning. My main concern was bumping into another nutter in the bothy at 0100 when I arrived. This was my first experience of bivvying/bothying and I was surprised at how warm and cosy my new PHD Minim 300 bag and Thermarest roll mat were in these conditions. Another box ticked and I felt like it had been a useful experience.
Several night time wild-camping trips later and I was beginning to enjoy the freedom and sense of adventure that these type of trips affords. I tried to get out on long walks/wild camping as often as possible.
My Spine Training friends Cass and Malcolm had a trip up North to have a 3 day recce with B&B stops and covered Edale to Hedben and then Gargrave to Hawes. Barnaby and I were not free to join them so arrange our own recce in early Dec with me joining Barnaby for an enjoyable couple of days journeying from Hebden to Margrave in great wintry sub zero temperatures and then Malham to Malham Tarn in glorious sunshine but still very cold.
This trip was a great couple of days with one overnight at Top Withins and the Mason’s Arms in Gargrave – where we just arrived in time for food and the weekly quiz. Again lots of useful info was acquired and Baranaby realised that he didn’t have to carry his entire possessions on his bag and to minimise the amount of kit-faffing that he does en route – good grief, can that guy faff!!! Really enjoyed the short Malham to Malham Tarn section with really surreal and beautiful views over the limestone pavement.
A few more night walking experiences and a load more kit buying and I was almost Spine ready … or was I??
In the weeks, and months prior to the race on 14th January the Spine was all pervasive and Jane, my wife had to endure my droning on about Spine-this and Spine-that. The communications with the rest of my Spine mates (now known as the Green Gang – after the colour of kit rather than my surname) were a great source of fun, advice and general banter. The week prior to the race was consumed by packing and repacking and a fair deal of panicking too!!
On the 13th January 2018 at 0800, Cass set off on the 108 mile Spine Challenger event, supported at the start by Malcolm and fared excellently throughout the event finishing 2nd lady in a very impressive time of 35 hours 38 mins 20 secs – setting a very high bar for Malcolm, Barnaby and I to reach once our race set off 24 hours later
Jane and I, arrived in Edale on Sat 13th Jan at 0955 keen to get into the kit check queue to prevent long waiting times. All went smoothly, with my kit check being 3 random items and GPS check undertaken by Caroline McCann who had been so useful on the training weekends. All done! Jane and I hung around with Malcolm in the Ramblers Inn with an increasing number of Spiners including Pavel and Eugeni…but still no Barnaby who sent us a message saying that he was buying a new drop-bag as the previous one was not large enough.
We went to Stu Westfield’s Spine Masterclass but I must admit my mind was preoccupied with tomorrow’s event. I can’t remember a great deal about the rest of the day but thankfully managed a good night’s sleep before waking at 0600 on race day…but still no Barnaby!!!
Malcolm and I made our way to the start line for 0745 … still no Barnaby …. 0750 …. nope …. 0755 … up he trots, Barnaby ‘Faffmeister’ Page, as cool as a cucumber and ready to start the race after a few hiccups pre-race with the journey and last minute kit issues.
As discussed over the last few days the three of us stuck together until the foot of Jacob’s Ladder when I stopped to take my jacket off and then that was the last I saw of Malcolm and gave Barnaby a break from my incessant wittering. However, their ‘loss’ was Stephen Brown’s gain as we met for the first time since my first recce and I continue to be impressed by Stephen’s unflappable and stable demeanour. Stephen and I chatted for a while and then I decided that I would stop to wipe the sweat from my glasses when the right lens fell out. Bloody marvellous!!! I had contact lenses in my pocket but needed a mirror to fit them. Think quickly!! I guessed that the best solution would be to walk/run the next 7 miles ‘blind’ until Snake Pass and then use a vehicle wing mirror to fit the lens. The next 7 miles were pretty miserable not being able to see out of either eye and just following runners in front to make sure that I didn’t get lost. Basically, I made all the mistakes that Stu Westfield and Caroline McCann had warned us about such as not correcting problems early and following other people. Doh!! However, all improved at Bleaklow where I fitted my lenses and Barnaby and I met up once again for one of several periods in the race.
I had been surprised when people said that they had got lost on Bleaklow but sure enough I became confused when I encountered a plethora of runners in all directions as they were running the Trigger Marsden to Edale fell race and I once again followed the wrong people until I found myself running in the opposite direction to the rest of the Spine Racers. With about 30 minutes lost I practiced the acceptance and forgiveness concept that Fiona had reinforced helped by the fact that, to his surprise, I caught Barnaby up again on the descent to Torside although I had left him behind 30 mins previously.
A steep but uneventful descent brought us to the welcome MRT checkpoint at Torside where I met Jane for the first time. She had hoped to meet me at Snake Pass but a puncture had prevented that and it was great to see her here with Barnaby arriving shortly after me. Tony Brown and his family also made an appearance here and it was great to have some support on the route. After a short stop we crossed the reservoir to make our way up towards the climb to Laddow Rocks and then Black Hill followed by an easy run walk towards the Isle of Skye Road where I knew my Dad would be waiting to offer encouragement, but obviously not support!!! The temperature was dropping significantly and it was no place to hang around especially as the light was fading.
I was aware that I wanted to make as much progress down the easy section by the side of Wessenden Reservoirs and needed to switch my head torch on for the first time crossing the clough at the bottom of the reservoir before starting the long path towards Standedge. I was alone for all this session but really pleased with my pace and effort level and felt that I could continue indefinitely at this pace of less than 20 min/mile. I was pleased to see some head torches near Brunclough Reservoir and recognised the voice of a friend Billy Hughes but fell off the path at the same time snapping one of my Black Diamond Distance Z walking poles. I was annoyed with this lack of concentration but could use the shortened pole until I reached my drop bag at CP1. I was pleased to see another mate, Paul Simpson at the car park and he told me that they had curtailed their meal at a local Indian Restaurant to come and cheer me on.
It was sub zero at this point so I was keen to keep moving and made my way over the hills above Castleshaw Reservoirs. It was whilst navigating over this area, which I know well that I met Carlos Climent who I was really happy to spend many hours with over the next day. It was great to meet him and although I do not speak any Spanish, Carlos was very patient and we managed to communicate when needed. I assisted Carlos with some of the navigation towards Windy Hill and the M62 where we got the last hamburgers at Moors Snacks – not quite the hot snack I had been looking forward to but I was not fussy at this point. I also managed to see my parents for the final time at this point.
Carlos and I made good progress over Blackstone Edge and a brief stop at The White House before making our way along the reservoirs towards Stoodley Pike. We maintained a decent pace and managed to meet up with a large group of 5 or 6 racers including established Spiners Dave Lee and Al Pepper. We continued with this group until we reached the Pike as the weather deteriorated and we were able to change into waterproof clothes to make the slippery descent through Callis Wood and the main raid. No dramas and we were ready to start the miserable climb up to CP1. Knowing this section well, I know about the cobbles, mud and nasty descent into Hebden.
We arrived at CP1 at 0030 decided on 0300 wake up to leave at 0400 – left at 0415 with Carlos. I met Barnaby as I was leaving CP1 and he had just arrived having had a tough night in worsening weather and had decided to withdraw from the race. Carlos and I were approached by Robin Kinsbergen from the Netherlands who enquired about whether we wanted to travel together. We were more than happy to have Robin’s company and made good progress across an increasingly soggy and very dark Heptonstall Moor. I was very familiar with this sections and could easily lead the navigation towards Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and Top Withens bothy.
The weather deteriorated further as we were arriving at the bothy and I suggested that we ate here but Carlos and Robin were keen to get to Ponden Cafe about 30 mins away so we pressed on as daylight broke. On arriving at Ponden Cafe we were relieved to be in a dry and warm environment and was looking forward to the promised sausage and bacon butties. I have never been so disappointed with the breakfast being stone cold having been prepared the previous night and requests to heat it up fell on deaf ears. Carlos and Robin had the sense to order hot soup but I made the mistake of skipping this and therefore my energy levels dipped later earlier than my Spine companions.
The underfoot conditions around Ponden Reservoir were OK as we walked over tarmac but they quickly deteriorated as we crossed Ickornshaw Moor into rivers, puddles, bogs and more rivers. I was really pleased that my combination of Dexshell socks, liners and Salomon D4 Goretex Boots kept my feet dry and toasty but it was still a miserable section before a fairly dull section into Cowling. By this time I could feel my energy dipping slightly and was looking forward to the promised delights of the Hare & Hounds at Lothersdale. Just before getting to Lothersdale there was an innocuous river to cross and using all my best river-crossing techniques learnt from Stu Westfield I set out to cross the fast flowing but shallow river. First stepped my right foot on an inviting stone which was slippery and fell heavily onto the right side of my chest onto my water bottle. Bugger!!Really sore at this point but only 30 mins until the pub and was sure that I was only winded and it would ease once at the pub. To add insult to injury, once we got to the pub that they could offer was flapjack and crisps. Bugger & Bugger again!!! It was tricky to get my rucksack on and off at this point but surely it would ease.
After the disappointing pub break we pressed on over various hills and dales towards Thornton in Craven where I mentioned to Carlos and Robin that I was starting to experience increased pain in my ribs and that I was going to ease off the pace. After some discussion, Carlos and Robin agreed that they would travel together and I wished them well as they wanted to get to Hawes in one go but my ambition was initially to get to PyG cafe and then revised to Malham Tarn (CP1.5) and camp there for the night. Once they had left the pain in my ribs increased and eventually at the Double Arched Bridge I stopped to try to get my painkillers but they were in my rucksack which I was struggling to get off my back without increasing the pain.
I received phone calls from Wayne Drinkwater and Cass Chisholm who were both watching the tracker and saw that I had stopped and I then said I would call my parents who were waiting to see me in Gargrave (approx 3 miles away). I phoned race HQ and they stated that there were no medics in the area and that I would need to get to Malham Tarn. I realised at this point that my race was over and dejectedly made my way to the Cross Keys Inn in East Marton to call my parents to collect me. So my race stopped with a whimper and lack of ceremony but the pain in my ribs would have prevented a reasonable performance and I was now moving so slowly that my temperature was dropping markedly leading to increased rib pain as I shivered. This really wasn’t the plan!! What a rubbish end to the race I had planned so long for and spent so much time, money and energy on! I felt numb…
So my Spine Race 2018 was over almost before it began … unlike this blog!! I discussed the next step with my parents outside the Cross Keys Inn and reluctantly pressed the SOS button to inform Race HQ of my intention to leave the race. I was anxious that I wanted to still be involved in the race and not to return home immediately as that would’ve made me a bigger failure. So after a phone call to my wife, Jane I decided to volunteer on the Race for the rest of the week to cushion the blow and allow me to exit the Spine Bubble gradually.
I spoke to Stu Westfield and he suggested that I got to Hawes, via my parents long round trip from Oldham where I could get some sleep and my resupply bag and then my role for the rest of the week would be established.
On the Tuesday morning I was assigned to Lindley Chambers’ Spine Safety Team (SST) and headed off to Middleton (CP3) with Mike from Logistics and then moved onto Alston (CP4) via a very snowy drive courtesy of Paul Reeve. I was becoming frustrated at the lack of activity on these teams as, of necessity, the SSTs have to wait for incidents to happen and it was evident that due to my rib pain that I would be unable to help on the hill. I did walk a few runners into CP4 at Alston including Tom Hollins who had obviously exerted himself on Cross Fell and entered the CP in a depleted state but soon recovered after food.
The next morning we made another snowy trip to Bellingham (CP5) where I stayed until the end of the race. On arrival at CP5 news soon arrived that Eoin Keith (Race Leader) had just been back to CP to collect his snowshoes to traverse the Cheviots and Pavel Paloncy was now in the lead. Soon after this news, Eoin returned to CP5 having pulled out of the race to prevent a ‘safety concern’ on the Cheviots and I spent a pleasant afternoon chatting with Eoin about the Spine and other races having previously met him when he retired at CP4 in 2017. Bizarrely, he retired in 2017 with exactly the same injury as I had this year. The offending article for him had been his GPS unit rather than a hard water bottle but the result was the same
Later that day, the race was stopped overnight due to Tom Hollins arrived and so did Simon Gfeller and John Knapp, so we had 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed racers resting until the race started the following morning after a full kit check. Unfortunately, Tom had lost his goggles and borrowed mine albeit receiving a 3-hour time penalty in the process. The three racers agreed to travel across the Cheviots together for safety but within 60 mins Tom had withdrawn with a foot injury and was out of the race allowing Simon and John to chase down Pavel who also had a 3 hour time penalty for GPS infringement at Byrness. The race was on!!
I had the privilege of spending a great deal of time with both Tom and Eoin and enjoyed hearing their tales and also was impressed with the good grace with which they took the end of their races.
I spent the rest of the next 2 days welcoming runners to CP5 in various stages of fatigue but they all took the full kit check as a necessary part of a resposible race and I reassured racers that it was like their Mum or Dad checking that they had everything for a day at school or work. Not sure that helped in the early hours but a little humour goes a long way. The kit checking process proved very educational for me and an interesting finding was that I only checked 2 x Jetboils with all other racers going minimal and not a single tent but bivvies and e-bivvies. Some racers were skirting on the edge of regulations and I would not want to have been them if the conditions deteriorated and they had to rely on the lightweight kit
It was great to meet all the racers and volunteers at CP5 and it certainly helped me come down after my shortened Spine experience
Post Race Thoughts
Will I be back? Immediately it was a definite ‘no’ but as time passes and I reflect on my race I know that I have the determination to have another crack at the Spine. Perhaps, I need to train in the hills more and become resilient to multiday racing. 268 miles is a hell of a long way but more importantly 6-7 days is a really long time to be ‘racing’ or ‘journeying’ or whatever you want to call it.
What would I do differently?
- More food, more regularly from the start
- Make sure that any niggles (e.g. glasses) are sorted immediately the problem occurs
- Don’t fall over and keep concentrating, even when the going looks easy
- Use soft flasks rather than water bottles
- Don’t mount GPS (or anything else) over the ribs
- Concnterate on long spells in the hills rather than kit buying
- Make sure that I am organised at CPs but no need to rush
- Make a sleep plan and aim for a finish rather than any time
- Be prepared to walk, for a long time…on your own
Well done on getting this far. The blog is only my thoughts and has been cathartic to help me getting my thoughts together. Hopefully, some of it has been useful.
Before I stop waffling on I would like to make the following thanks:
- To all the Spine Family – racers, CP staff, SST and others – you did an amazing job in crazy sleep deprived conditions!! Well done
- To the Green Gang – you inspire, amuse and bewilder me in equal measure with your tenacity, craziness and good nature.
- BP – You’ll be back! Faffmeister!!
- CC – You proved that you should be doing the full Spine in 2019.
- MH – Amazing effort for a man of your age and stature!! ;-
- To Susan & Frank Green, my parents – thanks for not persuading me away from these adventures and coming to Wessenden, Gargrave and the lift to Haw
- To Anne-Marie – Glad you enjoyed the experience of the Spine and I am sure you’ll be on the start line very soon. Thanks for the lift home
- To Jane for putting up with me being a ‘missing link’ and being worried whilst I am having adventures. I love you xx