Sunday, 19 July 2020

Spine Race 2020

The Spine Race, to me, was like some kind of addictive, sadistic spectator sport.  Like a real-life Hunger Games, with contestants who had been training for this their whole lives - or so the Facebook group would have you believe. “Happy Hunger Games! May the odds be ever in yo
ur favour”.  From the hunter, who became the hunted.  I was the dot watcher, turned dot.

Although I was intrigued by the event and avidly followed it every year, it wasn’t for me.  All 268 miles of the Pennine Way - famous for its man-eating bogs - in January?  It just looked like pure misery.  I was always in awe of those superhuman maniacs who completed the event , Irrespective of the time or position. 

“The Pennine Way National Trail is a 268-mile route from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm, Scotland, tracing the backbone of England. It crosses some of the finest upland landscapes in the country, from the Peak District, through the Yorkshire Dales, across the North Pennines and over World Heritage-listed Hadrian’s Wall, on to the remote Cheviot Hills and, finally, that elusive village of Kirk Yetholm”

I don’t even remember the point or the circumstances that made the switch from never to maybe to possibly, to having a conversation with my bestie that went something along the lines of: “I need you to talk me out of something.  I’m thinking of doing The Spine” to which she replied:  “Oh my God, you have to.  You’d be so good at that”  Well, that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.

I signed up quite late, around September.  ‘Through the back door’ as they say, as I’m supported by the title sponsor, Montane. It wasn’t ideal timing, because I would have liked a few months to prepare.  In hindsight preparation is futile.  It’s a learn-on-the-job kind of affair.

I did use the time I had to get out on the course as much as possible.  My previous perception of the Pennine Way is that it was a miserable bog fest. Subsequent training days changed this misconception and I would now describe the route as ‘uniquely challenging’. 

I spent five full days on the course, covering most of the sections from Hawes (100 miles) to the end in Kirk Yetholm.  My first recce early November from Dufton to Greenhead was an eye-opener.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever ‘run’ on before.  It was -4 degrees when I started, on a day that consisted of endless bogs, muddy fields, stiles, gates, cow shite and very little that actually resembled any kind of recognised ‘way’.  I’d bitten off more than I could chew with 37 miles, as I quickly learned that you don’t go anywhere fast on the Pennine Way.  Think of a number and double it.   Navigation was tricky, daylight quickly became darkness, I didn’t eat or drink anything or put on additional layers. I was shaking, hypothermic mess at the end and resigned myself to withdrawing from the race.  General opinion: The course was a howler.  I later discovered that this section is ‘unlikely to be your favourite’ paraphrasing the guide book. Subsequent training days proved the route and scenery is actually quite stunning.  The underfoot conditions, however, remained quite tasty and would require some meticulous foot management.

I didn’t change my training too much.   I had lots of miles in my legs following two key races of 100 miles.  The key thing was training with a heavier pack, which goes against the grain of a trail runner’s ethos that lighter is always best.  I spent an inordinate amount of time and money researching and purchasing kit that would be suitable for the race and pass their very extensive and specific checklist.  Sleeping bag, mat, stove, pot… right down to random things like a knife and antihistamines.  Things I didn’t even own, let alone had ever carried on a day on the hills.  But one red cross at race registration - they thoroughly check - and you don’t get a race number.  There was no room for error.  I passed.

Start to Hebden Bridge - Sunday 8am  to 7:52 pm 45 miles, 8011ft

I do get quite nervous before races.  Mainly because it means so much to me, but on this scale the fear of the unknown is crippling.  I’m highly motivated by fear though.  Guaranteed success doesn’t excite me.  The higher the drop-out rate, the more appeal it has.  Once I start, I’m fine, but I lie awake at night overplaying scenarios in my head.

At 8am on a cold January Sunday morning, I was standing in a muddy field with a few hundred, vetted nutters. We’re off and it  splits up fairly quickly, as everyone finds  their groove.  Compete, complete, pace sensibly - I’m not even sure where my head was.  Regardless of the goal, I knew I would do my best under the circumstances.  And there was to be a plethora of circumstances to contend with. 

The wind and rain started and continued through most of the morning.  It was pretty grim and visibility was fairly low.  I was trying to keep a lid on the racing endorphins, settling into a rhythm and getting used to the weight of my pack.  I never weighed it before the race as ignorance is bliss, but it far surpassed anything I’ve ever carried before.
Up Jacob’s ladder and passed Kinder Scout.  Names I was familiar with, but unfortunately the mist wasn’t going to allow me to see or take in these famous spots.  I got chatting to Trish Patterons again, after we met briefly in the hostel in the morning.  At Mill Hill we saw some runners disappear into the distance.  We stopped to check navigation as following them was wrong.  We tried to shout them back, but they were gone.

Most of the first day consisted of mist, rain, wind, wet rock and slippy slabs, but still mostly firm ground and good running.  In Pennine Way terms, anything that’s not waist deep bogs is deemed as good terrain.

I made the first mistake within the first few hours.  I let my clothes and gloves get wet and spent the best part of an hour thinking I needed to stop and change gloves, but I was enjoying the groove across the slabs.  I crossed the road at A57 after a short group hug from the Hardwicks who’d come out to cheer on the race.  I couldn’t get my rucksack off my hands were so cold and then I couldn’t get my wet hands in the dry gloves.   Across some flooded peat bogs I got some heat back in hands and had a stern word with myself for being so daft

Around Bleaklow there was another race coming in the opposite direction.  On single tracks that proved quite tricky. Then there was the first of many river crossings.  We’re not talking a trickling gentle stream, but a waist-deep raging torrent.  Along with severe caution and much deep breathing, came the rude awakening that you really were out there on your own.   Of course you could press the little red button on your GPS and the SST teams would swoop in and rescue you - but you’d have to surrender your number and call it a day.

At the Torside, Trish and I parted company and soon I joined Jan Kriska, a Slovakian living in the USA who’d flown over just for the race.  I’m not going to lie, I was thinking what a shit holiday to have.  We swapped brief life stories and race tales before I pushed on.  He was never too far behind though as he was far better - and braver - at negotiating the river crossings than I was.

Shortly after Wesseden Moor I’d caught up with Jon Hall.  He had done the summer version of the race and the Spine Challenger the year before with his wife, so he was in my eyes a Pennine Way veteran.  We toed and froed for quite some time.

Just as the light was fading  on the rocks and boulders of Blackstone Edge, I could see Jon’s headtorch behind.  He said we were lucky to get there in daylight as he had got lost in the dark in the Challenger the year before.  I can imagine the elusive race line would be hard to find in the dark.  We stayed together until the pop up aid station at White Hill Pub.  We stopped for a hot drink and snack and  I made him hurry up to push on to Hebden Bridge.

The next section was annoyingly runnable.  On landrover tracks with tired legs and brain,  I tripped and decked it hard – twice.  I cut my hands and took the knees out of my brand new leggings. Jon was so kind and told me to walk a bit until the pain subsided.  I told him I was fine and to push on, but he stayed anyway. 

The section over the slabs and over to Stoodley Pike must be stunning in daylight.  Definitely need to visit there again, as the silhouette of the monument in the dark was quite spectacular. The long descent in the village was a welcome relief. The additional unexpected climb up and steep muddy descent down into the first checkpoint was not.

Women’s race leader, Sabrina Verjee was leaving with another couple of guys and we exchanged cheers.  Sabrina is an absolute powerhouse.  Even with my A-game I couldn’t compete with Sabrina and  I’d quite happily take bridesmaid.  I mean, if her wheels fell off I‘d  be fine to take the reins.  It’s not a coffee morning!  But I had to focus on keeping my shit together for another few days out there.

Arriving at the Hebden Bridge checkpoint, Cameron from the Japanese film crew was there. He’d messaged me before the race to see if I’d be happy to chat on camera.  I ain’t camera shy, so happily agreed.  Little did I know they’d be everywhere. 

My friend Rob Allen - who I’d spent a recce weekend on the Pennine Way with - was there and just about to head out again.  He asked  me – via a volunteer – If I wanted to join him for the next section. Going into the unknown in the dark I jumped at the opportunity for some company. I probably shouldn’t have as I rushed too much to get ready, rushed food and didn’t take in enough calories – which would come back to haunt me in a few hours

Hebden to Hawes (to Monday 7:06pm) 61 miles, 6138ft

Heading out with Rob, I was acutely aware that I felt more tired than I should do at this early stage.  A weird phenomenon, but I recall from my time on Tor des Geants and reading previous Spine reports, that the first night is always the worst.  It’s that fight against mind and body and overwriting that natural instinct to wind down for bedtime.  Trying to add fueling into the mix just causes mass nausea.

I felt flat AF and everything was just a strain. I was under-eating and overheating, after putting on way too many layers at the previous checkpoint.  Within a couple of hours I was crashing hard.  I told Rob to push on because I was holding him back, which was causing me unnecessary additional stress.

After following what seemed like a completely unnecessary road diversion, I sat on some steps in Cowling and tried to force down some snack bars.  Half-chewing, half-gagging. Eating with nausea is a truly awful situation, but I knew I had to keep on top of my energy. 

I got going again and frustratingly took a few wrong turns.  Navigating round fields in the dark with a defunct brain is quite tricky.  At a farm gate in Cowling Hill, I went for the full-frontal splat fall. I tried to convince myself it was mud, but it was definitely covered head to toe in cow shite.

The unofficial aid station at Lothersdale, which is set up by a local triathlon club, was a welcome sight.  Although I must have looked like a mess when I arrived, as  I could barely muster up the energy to lift my head to speak.  I sat in a chair trying to take in some hot soup and bread.  Black coffee with five sugars gave me a little bit of spark, but I just felt so deflated.  This was only the first night, how was I going to get through the rest.

The next few miles were an absolute riot.  Endless miles on manky fields and farmland.  My feet weighed about a stone each as mud accumulated around my ankles and feet.  This is when my shins started to ache.  I would later learn that shin tendonitis was a big problem for competitors, due to the motion and effort required for pulling feet out of mud for so long.

Just before dawn, there’s a road section around Gargrave which felt really unsafe. I was dazzled by the car headlights of commuters heading to work, while they were faced with me covered in mud and stumbling about the road, completely off my tits.

Along the riverside heading to Malham the sun was starting to rise. I expected it to be some momentous occasion but daylight and an underwhelming sunrise just crept up on me.  I was happy I was going to see the splendid Malham Cove, so that lifted my spirits.  Despite my pre-race efforts to find the route around the boulders,  I found myself clambering, crawling and sliding my way across the top of them.  So slow and treacherous, but when you’re in the midst of it, you’re kind of committed.

The route over the Malham Tarn is absolutely stunning.  I stopped in at the mid-checkpoint (Monday 8:20am) for a hot drink and water top up.  I really wished I’d packed something to heat up.  I really wanted hot food, but all I had was some fecking oat bars.

I was definitely feeling the physical effects of the distance covered so far, but Ieft in super happy with a spring in my step.  There’s a good bit of climbing up and around Fountains Fell Tarn and I felt I had a good strong marching pace going.  In Spine terms that really is the best you can hope for.  Moving with conviction.

Starting to settle in to enjoying this lonesome adventure,  I could see the beautiful Pen Y Ghent in the distance.  Up until a few weeks before the race, I thought this hill was in Wales.  I didn’t look too threatening, so I was quite looking forward to a hike up to the summit.

It was a nice sunny morning, but the wind was picking up and storm Brendan was making itself known.  At the foot of the hill I could hear a drone buzzing around and knew the ever-smiling Matt and Ellie from Summit Fever must be around.    They are always out in the most horrific conditions to get the best footage. 

Pen-Y-Ghent 📷 Racing Snakes 
It’s a short, but steep climb to the top of Pen-y-Ghent.  It means ‘hill of winds’ and it was certainly living up to that.  On the slabs across the top, I was leaning into the crosswinds just to stay upright.  Despite the crazy wind, the track down to Ribblesdale was stunning.  Made even better with sight of beautiful cakes at the mandatory mid checkpoint. It looked far too comfortable to sit down and enjoy the baked goods and three runners inside looked like they were settling in for afternoon tea. I gulped down a strong coffee and left with some vegan victoria sponge to eat on the hoof.   The lovely chaps manning the checkpoint stuffed my pockets with lemon drizzle cakes for later.

I was devouring cake on beautiful trails.  My two favourite things, I was in heaven.  It soon turned to hell as the torrential rain started and the wind picked up.   I huddled behind a wall to put on an extra jacket and get my headtorch ready as nightfall was only about 30 minutes away.  Daylight sure doesn’t last long in winter.

I never knew rain could hurt so much. Heading onto Cam road the wind and rain was in full force.I thought about putting on waterproof trousers and stupidly decided against it. By the time I regretted the decision it was far too late to do anything about it.  I couldn’t have stopped, even for a brief moment.  I was straight up at risk of being blown away.  It was a never-ending miles of full-on assault.  Rain, hail and storm-force winds. The only saving grace was it was mostly a cross/tail wind. The harsh reality was there was nothing I could do about it.  Nothing.  No one could save me from it. I couldn’t have sheltered from it without putting myself in danger, so I had to suck it up and focus on getting to Hawes. 


Before Hawes I knew there was a right turn off the main track on a faint path, but I just couldn't find it.  My watch kept throwing me off course.  I had the map and my phone out, but they were no use.  I was going up and down the track and round and round in circles.  I felt like eternity, but it was only about 10 minutes. By the time I got back on the route I was a freezing, hysterical mess. Even standing still for a few minutes, my temperature plummeted. I frantically tried to move quickly to heat up, but then my headtorch battery ran out.  I couldn’t get my arm around to get my spare out my side-pocket and my hands were so cold I couldn’t unclip my pack.  Thankfully I had my emergency handheld in my front pocket.  I clenched it between my teeth and used the light to guide me into Hawes. Aware that if I fell I’d knock out my teeth.  I later discovered some people just ran the road into Hawes.  That would have saved a helluva lot of dramatics, but I’m glad I stayed on the correct course. 

I was a wreck when I arrived in Hawes, shaking uncontrollably and slurring my words.  The volunteers were all over me removing wet clothes and muddy shoes and filling me with hot soup, bread and pasta.  I took off my waterproof socks and threw water everywhere.  Not wearing waterproof trousers, the water had just run down my leggings and pooled in my  socks.

My calves cramped and I could barely walk to the shower rooms to get changed.  I gritted my teeth and walked on my tiptoes trying to hold my shit together.  I was acutely aware the race medics were watching and monitoring my general well-being.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t expect me to leave and just resign myself to adding to the Hawes DNF tally. The storm and the reality of a tough 100 miles on unforgiving hostile terrain had forced a lot of runners to retire in Hawes.  A few others asked me if I was continuing.  Even then, for me, quitting wasn’t an option.  But I was keen to sit out some of the storm and went for a two hour sleep.

I woke up after 1:45 hours of broken sleep feeling like a new woman. My calves were seriously painful, but I put that down to the cold and compression of the socks.  My shins were on fire too. Thinking it was a strap on the Salomon boots, I switched to my trusty Scott Supertracs RC

Rob was downstairs - after a longer slumber - and it was so nice to see a familiar face, especially as we agreed to chum each other over Shunner Fell.

Hawes to Middleton (To Tuesday 12:55pm) 34 miles, 6138 ft

When looking at the forecast before the race started, this was the time that worried me the most.  The 80 mph winds over Shunner Fell.  I really hadn’t factored in the storm hitting in the hours before Hawes.  After that experience though, Shunner was a breeze.  Quite literally.

I left Hawes feeling good.  Mood lifted thanks to the power nap and the relief and confidence in the knowledge of what then lay ahead.

The rain had stopped but it was still fairly windy.  It’s a long gradual ascent up and over the second highest top in the course.  Runnable on fresh legs, absolutely not on Spine legs.  I was still feeling good,  but Rob was lagging a bit.  He was struggling to get his energy levels up despite taking in lots of calories.  The downside for being on the smaller side was the debilitating weight of the rucksack. The upside is that I don’t need to take in as many calories.

The was a beautiful full moon over to Thwaite - just as well as I’d stupidly put my head-torch on full beam and it ran out pretty quick.    I couldn’t be bothered to take my gloves off to get cold again so I used Rob’s lamp and the moonlight to guide the way, which was strangely cathartic.

We made the detour off course to the tearoom in Keld.  They’d left the door open for Spiners to help themselves to hot drinks and homebaking.  I used the toilets before I left and got sight myself in the mirror.  Jesus wept, I looked rough.  Plus my teeth were full of chia seeds, which is never a good look.

Rob stopped for a sleep and I pushed on to Tan Hill.  Note to future Spiners, the tearoom in Keld is the perfect place for a longer break and sleep.  Leaving the warmth of an open fire was hard.  It’s fairly undulating and easy rolling, but the ground on Stonesdale Moor was so waterlogged I kept disappearing down sink hole bogs. 

I was fairly content and looking forward to seeing the lights of Tan Hill, the highest pub in the UK.  There was no sign of life there, which was weird because from a distance my eyes had me believing there was a party going on in there (Tuesday 6am)

Onward to the notorious swamplands of Sleightholme Moor.  Summed up nicely in Pennine Way guidebook “Even fans of the bleakest, more barren moorland will find it difficult to warm to Sleightholme Moor”

I was worried about navigating the miles of man-eating bogs, but it all passed by without any drama.  It was of course super squelchy, but I focussed on my feet and staying on the route kept my mind off the eerie silence.

Daylight appeared as I crossed the bridge onto the Moor Road.  Turning off into Wytham Moor, I could see the underpass in the distance, but I ended up lost in the fields trying to find the ‘racing line’.  Lost in daylight with a clear trajectory is very frustrating, but I got a bit paranoid about dot watchers thinking I was cheating and taking a shorter route.

From early in the race, I was feeling the effects of some major lady chafing.  I forgot to lube up before starting the race and a full day of rain had taken its toll and my nethers were on fire.  I joked pre race about a small knife being part of the mandatory, but I used my overpriced mini Swiss army knife to chop my pants off in the A66 underpass.. Not even joking.  Snipped them off and stuffed them in my pocket and was on my merry way.

Although I nailed it on the course’s most notorious featureless bogs in the dark, I was all over the place in daylight.  Faint lines in grassy fields just all look the same  After some major topographical embarrassment, Middleton eventually appeared as I peaked over Harter Fell.  As did  the torrential rain.

I was completely soaked when I arrived at the checkpoint in Middleton.  As I got there mid-morning, my plan was to take advantage of the daylight hours and push on to Dufton.  There was a 30-minute time cap at Dufton, but there was a cafe there staying open for Spiners so I was hopeful they’d let me kip on the floor.   While faffing about with my kit I learned that the time cap had been dropped due to the storm, to allow competitors to ascend Cross Fell when they felt comfortable and safe to do so.

Although my plan was for a quick turnaround, I still managed to spend a good 90 minutes dicking around.  It was constructive dicking around though.  I got changed and dried all my waterproofs and gloves on the radiators. There was a lovely chap in there who even washed and dried my socks for me.  Ate lots of amazing food including soup, veggie stew and creamed rice.  The Japanese film crew even filmed me eating.  I don’t mean a few spoonfuls, I mean everything.  I’m sure that will make riveting viewing.

Middleton to Alston (To Wednesday 11:51) 39 miles, 6568 ft

I reluctantly left the warmth and friendly hospitality in Middleton into the torrential rain.  It was absolutely shitting it down and the trails had turned to flowing rivers.  A mile or so in, I slipped on some rocks and fell hard on my knees.  I screamed so loud in pain and anger that it must have been for quite some distance.

Where Rowten Beck meets the River Tees, the stepping stones were completely submerged in water.  I couldn’t see a way over and kept running up and down the banks.  I put my poles in the water to gauge the depth and they didn’t touch the bed.  Getting wet wasn’t a problem because I was already soaked, but the water was so fierce I was at risk of being swept away.  I eventually found a safe place to pass about 200 metres upstream.   In the panic and a stomach full of five-sugared coffee, I kinda peed myself too.

I could hear the powerful sounds of the waterfalls at Low Force and High Force long before I could see them.  Spectacular - but I certainly wasn’t hanging over the rocks to marvel in their glory .  I was trying to cover as much ground in daylight as possible.

It had started to snow quite heavily as darkness fell. I was acutely aware of the flooding and my anxiety level just thinking about the riverbank to Falcon Clints was at breaking point.   The river was so high and so fast surely the whole course would be under water.

A lovely smiley lady (Eilidh, I think) came out of her house at Saver Hill and started stuffing my pockets with snack bars.   She said the safety team were out marking a detour around Cauldron Snout.  There’s no way I wanted to head along there if competitors behind me were diverted along the road, so I waited until the headtorch from SST came along.  I ran back to explain the river and how I narrowly avoided death (dramatics) crossing a river in spate.  He was calm and told me in a matter-of-fact tone that he hadn’t received any information about route changes and therefore I had to stay on course.

Carrying on, I was a lot scared and a little raging.  What if everyone else behind me got to miss this section?  I could see footprints on the snow that were heading back on the course, but no sign of life.  At Widdy Bank Farm the sheep were going mental, half-following, half-chasing me which was a bit unsettling. It was like a weird zombie movie. 

Awkwardly clambering and sliding along large slippy boulders along the riverside, for what seemed like miles. The map has it as one kilometre, but it feels much longer,because covering distance is so slow.  It’s a relentless and awkward full body workout, but to be honest, it was totally fine. 

I was also worried about the climb up the waterfall at Cauldron Snout.  This was  another race section I built up in my head in the weeks prior to the race.  During recce it was fairly icy and one slip would have been detrimental.  Listening to the sounds of the waterfall was deafening and terrifying.  One slip and the fall would have been the least of my worries, as there’s no way anyone would survive in that water at night. In reality it was fine. Unnerving, but I found the safe line ok and kept my wits about me.  Hitting the bridge I was so relieved, happy and a little bit proud of myself.  I tried to call the SSTs to let them know the section was ok to continue on - and to apologise for my dramatics - but I had no signal .

Continuing on the land-rover track that gently ascends, I focussed on maintaining a brisk marching pace. I was following footsteps in the fresh snow.  Whoever it was had huge feet!  Like twice the size of mine.  After a while I was off the main track in some dark boggy forestry.  I was using my GPS to navigate round, which would have been fine on an identifiable line but in muddy snow was near to impossible. Searching for anything I remembered from the recce, I was so thankful to reach the bridge and cross the river.  I was on the path up to High Cup Nick.  There was so much water, I’d convinced myself I was walking up a stream.  I kept going off course and found myself going round in circles trying to get back on track.  My gloves were soaking wet and my hands were freezing.  My head-torch ran out and I couldn’t get my hands to work to change the battery. I was shaking uncontrollably and muttering to myself to ‘calm the fuck down’.  I hadn’t eaten for hours and just couldn’t hold it together.

Eventually I found the route that curves around the stunning High Cup Nick and forced myself to just keep moving briskly to try to heat up.  I would later learn another woman in the race tried to descend the valley wall in the dark and had to be rescued off a ledge.  Even now that makes me shudder just thinking how terrifying that must have been. 

On the descent, I saw a light coming towards me.  It was Paul Wilson out taking photos.  I was so destroyed, I could get my jaw to function to get words out.  So tired, cold, traumatised, hungry and the mud was so slippy I couldn’t stay on my feet.  I was ‘running’ and Paul was walking beside me.  He’s got little legs, so I knew I was making hard work of this descent. 

📷 John Bamber 
It’s a few miles downhill to Dufton (Tuesday 10:52 pm) and my brain was gone.  I kept seeing buses full of people having a party on board.   When the chap from STT came out to meet me I wasn’t sure if he was real.

Straight into the tea room, rather than go into the empty village hall,I kept apologising for dripping mud everywhere! I couldn’t get my pack off because I was shaking so much and was generally in a bit of a pickle. The lovely couple in the tea room made me lots of sweet tea and coffee and beans and toast.  It wasn’t hitting the spot, so I ordered a fried egg roll.  I can only assume they had in the same vegan eggs I was eating during Tor des Geants.

I went along to the Village Hall and lined every radiator with my wet and muddy clothes and went off to sleep on the cold hard floor.

The prospect of going up Cross Fell by myself scared the shit out of me.   I texted Marco and said I didn’t think I could go on, as I just wasn’t brave enough.  He told me to go to sleep and think about afterwards.I slept, but kept waking up every 5/10 minutes as my bones ached.  I slept for about 90 minutes all in and stirred to find Japanese runner Taro Kuchimi sparked out at the other end of the room.  He’d carefully laid out his kit - and mine was EVERYWHERE!

I started piling on the layers I’d dried on the radiators, had my kit checked by the SST and chatted with the medic assessing my general well-being. Not sure if this was mandatory or the fact I arrived like totally incoherent. He was so impressed with my feet - not one blister or hot spot.  Although they were pretty chunky looking by this point.

I took the time to eat loads of food, including one of the ‘only for emergencies’ stodge snack bars that could kill seagulls. I had to make sure I had enough energy to get over Cross Fell. With the sub zero temperatures, snow and 80mph winds up at the summit, there was no way I’d be stopping for a snack break.

I really didn’t want to go up alone and spent far too much time overthinking it.  The SST even suggested I wait on one of the guys behind.  Not in a patronising way, but to give me some ressurrance.  We checked the tracker, but the next person was hours behind.

Fours hours later, I left feeling a gazillion times better than I did when I arrived.  I was energised and more positive, but still quite anxious and edgy. I was so thankful I knew the route and knew what lay ahead.   Cross Fell is England’s highest point outside the Lake District.  It’s altitude of 2625ft, position and ‘Helm Wind’ also makes it, officially, the coldest place in England.  My previous ascent of Cross Fell was on a crisp winter’s morning.  Even on a clear day, it’s a fairly hostile place to be.

I was really lucky as the guys ahead left prints in the snow the whole way, so I didn’t really have to navigate.  Again following the prints of the person with the MASSIVE feet.   I didn’t want to get too complacent though, because if the snow came on heavy I would have had to pick my own way.

I congratulated myself on every recalled milestone: Green Fell, Knock Fell and then up the short part of the road.  Passing the weather station at Great Dun Fell, the snow was up to knee-deep, but I was still managing ok.  I went off track a few times and had some mild panics trying to find my way back on.  Over Little Dun Fell and on the final push for the summit, the wind was outrageous. By far the strongest gales I’ve ever had to contend with, as there is no way I’d ever venture up a hill in those conditions. But if I wanted to stay in the game, I’d have to suck it up. I  was leaning in 45 degrees just to stay up and using my poles to stab into the ground sideways to move forward.

Sabrina had a big lead on me now and I was fine with that. I was just focussing on forward motion and maintaining my second place position.  Having Sabrina ahead was a massive motivator.  When I was whining about being small and weak, it was great having her up front going full speed into the storm. She’s an inspirational, strong and fearless woman.

Seeing the lights of Greg’s Hut twinkling in the distance  made my spirits cartwheel.  I was fever pitch excited when I arrived.  I heard so much about legendary John Bamber who holds residence for a few days and cooks up noodles sprinkled with his own homegrown chillies - for extra warmth and a big kick. I could have stayed there forever.  It was so warm and cosy, especially after the battering I’d just experienced.  And the banter and hospitality was top notch.  But John escorted me out, took some pics and waved me on my way.
Leaving Greg's Hut 📷 John Bamber 

Happily stomping through the snow on the ominously named Corpse Road and welcoming a new dawn.  Heading down the icy track into Carrigill a lovely lady came out to give me some flapjacks and asked me if I wanted to come inside for a cup of tea.  I looked like I’d been doing roly polys in a field of shite and she was offering hospitality to a stranger.  I was so touched, but  politely declined on the basis it was daylight, I’d just spent ages at Greg’s Hut and the checkpoint at Alston was only four miles away.

Along the river Ellie from SFM appeared from behind the bushes filming as I pathetically attempted to jog with shy of 200 miles in my weary sleep-deprived body.  I chatted to them both and Matt filmed as he moved alongside.  As I write I’ve got no idea what he asked, but I’m sure my replies were total mince.

Before Alston I had a brief chat with race media who were filming me for the race social channels. Apparently this kept my Mum happy during the week, knowing I was alive and still chipper.  I was firmly in my happy place, as daylight does such amazing things for energy and spirit.  I will never take daylight for granted again.


When I arrived at Alston, I was greeted by a sea of smiley faces.  The volunteers were just so amazing and attentive.  The good thing about being higher up in the field - well, other than finishing quicker - is the undivided attention at aid stations.  My shoes were off, waterproofs hung up to dry and lots of delicious warm food was placed in front of me.  Amazing chickpea stew and for extra fusion cuisine, some crisp sandwiches.

The Spaniard, Eugene - one of the race favourites - was sitting in there like a fallen soldier.  I was gutted to see this as anyone who has followed the race over the years knows he goes all in and wears his heart on his sleeve. Last year, he had to be rescued and pulled from the race when he collapsed only a few miles from the finish.  His feet were in a bad way and he certainly wasn’t going anywhere on those stumps.  He was trying to tell me something via google translate, but we were both too destroyed to converse.

Although I could access all the race info on my phone, I chose not to. I couldn’t stop people giving me unwanted stats though, I just tried to block them out. It wasn’t a conscious effort, I just wasn’t that interested.  To me it was a personal adventure and I was only (just) functioning in my little Spine bubble. Simply out there, doing my best.    I was informed a few times Huw Davies was ahead.  He was certainly causing quite a stir with the ladies and there was some heavy swooning going on. I just asked if he had massive feet.

Deep faffing with Taro 📷 Ian Burns 
Again it was morning and I was trying so hard to maximise daylight, but I was exhausted.  I was spending far too long faffing with my kit.  Unlike Tor des Geant I wasn’t just sitting or staring into space, I was eating, sleeping or sorting out my bag for the next section.   I just seemed to pack my gear about 100 times!  It’s just so hard to decide what you might need for another full day and night out in the winter.  And triple check out the mandatory items were included.  

My eyes were so heavy and swollen they were starting to hurt.  I knew even a short sleep would be hugely beneficial, so I went off to one of the dorms for a nap.  One of the lovely volunteers, Debi let me use her bed.   I crawled in, checked some messages on my phone and set an alarm for 30 minutes.  I merely dozed, waking every five minutes.  When my alarm went I dribbled all over the pillow.  Sorry, Debi.  I never told you this.

Taro was downstairs and planning on pushing through.  He left before me, having opted to skip sleep. 

Alston to Bellingham (To Thursday 7:46 am) 40 miles, 5492 ft
Leaving Alston 📷 Ian Burns 

The dream was beginning to feel like a reality now.  In most cases nothing short of a limb falling off would make me stop, but the Spine is a different beast.  I always said I wouldn’t put myself in danger.  To be frank, to me that meant risking my own life.  At the end of the day, I’m someone’s mother and that means everything to me.  I skipped along, safe in the knowledge that I didn’t die in the storm, or freeze on Cross Hill.  I wasn’t swept away in a torrent on the River Tees and made it up Cauldron Snout without falling off.  I was so content even the endless miles of bogs, farmland and Blenkinsopp Common didn’t faze me.

Tara was in the distance but I was gaining on him quickly.  His plan to skip sleep was coming back to haunt him.  I passed him shortly before Kirkhaugh and we exchanged a few words.  He told me his English wasn’t great, so I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable.  I’d later discover his English is better than most British people.

Through the next village, I met Joe Faulkner serving up hot blackcurrant juice and the Angel of Slaggyford dishing out coffee and home-baking.  The most amazing part of the race is that the community along the way gets so involved.  People dot watching and coming out their houses or out on the course to see if I needed anything.  Sweets and chocolate left on roadside and stiles with ‘help yourself Spine races’ signs.  There’s no individual support allowed in the race, but as long as it’s available to all competitors, it’s fine.

I was pushing hard to try and get onto during daylight but the odds were stacked against me.  I was so thankful I’d recced this section as I knew what lay ahead.  When faced with the prospect of never ending shite-filled fields and swamp. it’s weirdly comforting having experienced it before.

Shortly after nightfall I was cutting through a farm, when a chap came out to tell me he’d been waiting for me and asked to film me for his youtube channel.  In hindsight it was a very surreal situation.  With a sane mind it might have been a little intimidating, but he seemed harmless enough. Although I was thinking he might chop me up and keep me in his freezer.  One of the guys I work with found the video, so I’ve posted a link here.  Weirdly, someone contacted me on Twitter to say she’d been talking to the farmer that day and mentioned our chat.

Onwards to the bogs of Blenkinsopp Common, which nearly ended my Spine dream the last time I was there. When I recced in November, the tops of the water had frozen and shredded my shins.  This time there was no ice but navigation was still tricky and I found myself off course and going round in circles many times.   The recess forced me to find contentment in the fact that you just don’t go anywhere fast on the Pennine Way.  Everything takes twice as long.

After what seemed like hours - mainly because it was, in fact, hours - I hit the road crossing.  This was another of the points that haunted my dreams in the lead up to the event.  Crossing the A69 in the dead of night, completely off my tits, with cars flying by at  70mph. Again it was nothing to worry about. 

Up the steps, over the field and stiles and then I got completely lost in the golf course!  Round and round, up and down I just couldn’t find my way down to the next road crossing.  Then I lost one of  my Seal Skinz mitts, which got me into a massive panic.  I needed them for the next night.  So I started backtracking on my circling, but it was so windy it would have definitely blown away.  Then Mike Halliday appeared.  He’d come out to say hi, which was so lovely.  He probably wished he hadn’t because he too became invested in the hunt de mitt.  I wrote it off and decided to push on.  Chatted to the SSTs who were trying to find me extra gloves.  I guess everyone is a bit spaced out there that far into the race, but they must have thought I was a complete bombscare. (Greenhead Wednesday 8:39pm)

At the Walltown carpark at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall, I went into the public toilets to wash my hands.  I mean I looked like I rolled in cow shit for days, but washing my hands seemed very important.  Then I decided to lie down and have a quick nap.  I wasn’t even tired, but sleeping on a cold stone toilet floor seems to be a perverted, yet traditional, part of the authentic Spine experience.

Hadrian’s Wall with Sharon in December was a joyful and thrilling experience.  During the race in the dark it was never-fucking-ending.  Up, down, up, down for eight long miles and my energy and tolerance levels were through the floor.    The SSTs had come out to cover some of the distance with me.  I thought they were being friendly, but they must have been concerned about my welfare. We said our goodbyes at Steel Rigg Carpark.  They gave me a can of Pepsi Max and I sauntered on, chanting lots of positive talk, counting, deep breathing. 
Pepsi Max 📷 Paul Wilson 

Shortly after Hotbank Crags, the Pennine Way cuts through the wall at Radishaw Gap down to Ridley Common.  I was so worried about the cows (I have the fear) , but they were none to be seen in the dead of night. Unsurprisingly.  I huddled behind a wall to eat something as I was struggling to stay upright.  And I had to take my pack off because my shoulders were aching so bad.  I really wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t stay still for long as my temperature plummeted quickly.

I decided to stick in my Airpods and listen to some music, singing really loudly in an attempt to wake myself up.   The distraction was helpful, but it was causing me to make stupid navigation errors.  I was desperately trying to push on to Bellingham, but I was falling asleep on my feet.

My eyelids were so heavy and I was stumbling and mumbling around.  I eventually gave in and was forced to have a short sleep at the side of the path.  In temperatures a few degrees above freezing, this wasn’t something I’d factored into my race plan.  I pulled out my emergency bivvy, which is surprisingly warm for a bit of coloured tin foil – and set an alarm for 15 minutes.

I slept on and off for a few minutes.  Checked a few messages and an audio whatsapp from Dan Lawson singing “I love your smile” down the phone.  Which of course made me smile.  I didn’t feel revitalised, but I at least had enough to keep going. Although I then got lost for a good half hour in bogs on Haughton Common.  Frustratingly, I just couldn’t find the right line.
The miles to Bellingham seemed to take forever, but I was content with that. I was just dreaming about the soup at Horneystead Farm that I’d read about in the Facebook group. I nearly panicked when I couldn’t see any lights or signs of life. The sign welcoming Spiners in would have been so easy to miss in the dark if I hadn’t been so desperate to find it. Eating warm soup on a comfortable sofa was like heaven.
Pushing on to Bellingham, my shins were on fire.  And I realised I’d lost an Airpod - joy. Although I tried to jog bits, I would have been way better off walking. I was just conscious of not getting into the habit of walking everything, because it’s difficult to break and start again. The sun was coming up as I trotted along the road to the checkpoint.  Again more wasted daylight.
I could see the lovely Lucy Colquhoun frantically waving in the distance as she ran towards me.  Lucy normally acts like she’s been plugged into the mains, but this was fever pitch.  It was so great to see a familiar face.  She got me lots of food and sweet coffee as I got dressed into dry, clean clothes for the final section. 
My Japanese film crew friends asked if they could film me getting my kit ready.  I was a complete state, so I asked him to “give me a minute”.  In Scots’ that means feck off and gimme peace.  He waited exactly one minute and then started filming.  I couldn’t stop laughing. 
The hall inside the checkpoint was set up like a camping site, with individual tents.  It was like walking into Decathlon.  Lucy had ‘saved me the best tent’ so I slumped off for a short sleep.
After an hour of broken sleep, Lucy came in to get me up.  She literally had to help me up to my feet as my calves and shins were ruined!  I couldn’t stand or walk.  Everything from knees down had seized and swollen.  The waterproof socks are great for foot care, but the compression causes other issues.
Again, Taro and I were just sitting there like lost and broken souls.  I had to force myself to get moving, way after my self-imposed allocated time.  When you’ve been outside and alone for so long, the indoors and the comfort of human interaction is hard to leave behind.
Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm (To Friday 6:36am) 42 miles, 7040ft
It was a beautiful sunny morning when I left Brown Rigg Lodges - and then managed to get myself lost in Bellingham.  I’m not even sure how that is possible. Once back on the course I was in good spirits, forcing myself to stay calm and reminding myself to embrace the experience.  It’s too easy to become erratic and frustrated in the latter stages of the race. 
📷 Jimmy Hyland 
I got myself into a good stomping rhythm over the hills.  I was feeling so (unsurprisingly) good I packed my poles away and worked up to a good jogging pace.  Up and over Whitley Pike, feeling spritely.  But also massively hamming it up for Jimmy Hyland’s camera.
In the distance I could see my film crew friends at the road crossing.  As I approached and passed I waved over and headed up Pardon Hill.  About 15 minutes later, my stomach was in a bit of a mess.  With my circadian rhythm and eating all out of sync, I felt swollen and bloated.  I let out a huge fart to clear some gas.  Then I heard the shocked gasp behind me.  My film crew pal had followed me all the way up the hill and I didn’t know.  Bearing in mind I don’t fart in front of my husband of 13 years, letting one off in front of a video camera was quite a big deal.  Praying that footage didn’t make the cut, we both laughed solidly for about 20 minutes.
The section to Byrness is fairly sold underfoot through forestry tracks.  There’s a long downhill part, which could have been easy miles, but my shins were on fire and I didn’t have the range to straighten my foot for descents. 
A few miles before the checkpoint Matt and Ellie from SFM were out filming (no gas this time!) and it was so lovely to see them.  They chatted alongside me for a while before leaving to go find Trish Patterson, who was holding third position.  As always, huge respect to Summit Fever Media.  There was the best part of 20 hours between the top three and they were going well out of their way to ensure equal coverage of the women’s race. 
The torrential rain started just before I got into Byrness.  The race uses the local Forest View B&B - which I’m led to believe is a bit of an institution with Pennine Way hikers -  as their checkpoint.  Manky Spiners are relegated to the conservatory and only allowed a 30 minute stop, which is vigorously timed. I think there’s also a camera on the door that Spine HQ can monitor in and out time, but I think they made that up as a scare tactic to ensure I didn’t overstay my welcome.
In the conservatory the rain was bouncing off the glass roof, which made it sound a million times worse.  The thought of the Cheviots in another storm was not appealing.  All eyes were on me as I pathetically tried to eat soup and a Pot Noodle, which I carried around for the best part of a day.  There were frequent reminders that I ‘only had a marathon go’ and how many minutes I had left on my countdown clock. 
When my 30 minutes were up I had no option but to go. ‘Only’ a marathon to go.  Only 26 miles across desolate landscape in some pretty harsh conditions.  When I recced this section, I was surprised there was nothing there.  No signs of life apart from a fence.  There are two mountain huts on the way, so my focus was just to get to them. 
Strangely, it was warmer than I expected it to be and after a mile I had to take off the excessive layers.  I did question whether it was just the early signs of hypothermia, but I think it was the exertion of dragging my ass up the mudslide that is Byrness Hill.
Up and over Houx Hill, with a good swift pace going.  Somewhere around Ravens Knowe I managed to face-plant is a swamp. Twice.  On the second one, I got up and couldn’t steady myself so I fell backwards into the water. I was completely drenched and raging!.  The water had soaked my gloves and gone up my sleeves through my clothes under my waterproofs. I just screamed in total frustration.
The ground was mostly saturated and tough going.  I know we didn’t have sub zero temperatures that previous year’s events have been faced with, but the underfoot conditions were horrendous.  Some permafrost would have been so welcome, because sinking across bogs for days was hard work. Feet were constantly dipped in cold water and pulling legs out of mud caused havoc with my shins and hip flexors. 
I was so cold and so miserable, but I had to keep pushing on.  Once you’re out there, you’re committed.  It’s hard to believe that people drop out in the final stages of the Spine Race, so close to the end, but the Cheviots will wring out everything that’s left of your soul.
My eyes were playing tricks on me and I had some lengthy in-depth conversations with my dead Gran for quite some time.  When SST Colin Green (Who’d helped me on Hadrian’s Wall) came out of the mountain hut to find me, I wasn’t sure he was real.
Inside the hut was amazing and warm with lots of good banter from Colin and James.  I stayed way too long and when I got going I just couldn’t heat up.  I was shivering so much I gave myself a headache.
Struggling to move forward, I decided to stop for another sleep at the side of the path.  In the Cheviots, in January, in hindsight was a truly ridiculous idea. I don’t think I slept for long, but I woke startled when I realised my feet were in a puddle of water and were now frozen solid. 
Feeling slightly better from the short rest, I pushed on to see a head-torch ahead of me.  Taro had either passed by the hut or stepped over me on the path.  I made it a target to catch him again, which gave me a good focus and new energy.
Up and over Windy Gyle I was gaining, but I was also acutely aware I could be chasing something that wasn’t actually there.  I caught him before the climb up to Cheviot.  He was so lovely and gracious and we stayed pretty close for the next miles.
Cameron from Taro’s film crew came out before hut 2 asking me loads of questions.  I knew he was assessing my wellbeing to re-lay it back to Taro.
I skipped the option of warm food in Hut 2 in favour of pushing on to the end – mainly because Taro didn’t stop either and we had a little micro competition going on.   Cameron and Taro ran off together.  I was pretty annoyed that he then had a pacer, but only because he was in front of me.
Up and over The Schil and I physically couldn’t get down the hill.  The pain in my shins was excruciating.   Any slip in the mud caused a jarring pain and I winced and yelped all the way down.
The focus was just getting to the stile.  The most significant stile I’ve ever had the pleasure of clambering over.  Once over, I was back in Scotland.  I can’t put into words how amazing that felt.  But I still had the five mile stumble to the end to deal with. 
My brain was completely gone and I was hallucinating so badly - seeing animals everywhere.  I couldn’t run because of my shins, but I’d also lost the cognitive and motor skills to deal with the motion of running.   Off the track and on the road in Kirk Yetholm, the enormity of the challenge, the sleep deprivation and calorie deficit hit me like a truck.  I have never operated that far on the edge in my life. 
My brain was functioning on another level and  I’d managed to convince myself I wasn’t even in the race and people would  think I’d just cheated when I got to the end.  I had to mentally go through all the major sections in my head to convince myself I had covered the distance.
People were appearing before me (they weren’t real) way before I got to Kirk Yetholm.  So when I saw actual people, I wasn’t sure they were real.  Then I was crossed through Kirk Yetholm  to kiss the wall of the Borders Hotel.  A small tradition to mark the end of the most amazing experience. 118 hours, 36 minutes and 23 seconds after.  2nd woman and 8th overall. 
I had so many lows and gone to depths I’ve never been before, but the highs outweighed the lows.  I only have positive thoughts about the event.  Britain’s most brutal – it is indeed.  But to test, challenge and push your limits, it’s the best too. Nothing will come close to this. 

Huge thank you to everyone who helped make this happen.  So much admiration and respect for the organisers and volunteers.  Thank you to Montane who let me do stupid things that freak out my Mum.  I’ve said never again, because I don’t think I’d pull myself out of those depths knowing I have a finish in the bag.  But my memory is rubbish.  Until the next time. Maybe. 
I had 118 hours to think of something inspired, and this is what I come out with 


3 comments:

Amanda said...

Oh dear god I just cannot imagine any of this! Bloody well done, what an inspiration you are!! X

Unknown said...

What a great read , witty , humorous and real all in one .
Some great tips along the way too . Legend !

Maud said...

Hi Debs, I have not seen you in years but follow your adventures with much interest and much more admiration. I was a self confessed "dot watcher" and am in awe of what you achieved on the Spine. I can't wait to see what you do next.
All the best to you, Marco and Cairn. With love, Mandy (Judd)