Over the past few days I have been trying to get my thoughts together on The Spine It was a race that interested and terrified me when it was first launched over 3 years ago, but didn’t know enough about the race organisers to take the plunge and enter. Roll on 3 years and the race still terrifies me but this time I had been chatting to Scott Gilmour (one of the RD’s) and followed the 2011 and 2012 races unfold so knew that it would be well organised and as safe as any race of this sort could be. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation I signed up for the 2013 Spine Race – what the dickens had I let myself in for?
The Spine Race is a 268 mile non-stop race along the full length of the Pennine Way, which is recognised as the hardest National Trail in the UK; starting at Edale and finishing up to 7 days later at Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish Boarders, with 5 CPs along the way ranging from 33 miles to 62 miles in distance.
The compulsory kit list for the race is massive but it’s one of those races where you certainly (in my opinion) can’t skimp on anything. I opted for an INOV-8 32L pack with a front pouch which I don’t usually like but this one sits flat against your chest and doesn’t bounce around, a perfect and accessible place for GPS, maps and some food. Gathering all the kit together took me a year and luckily for me my sponsors X-Bionic were fantastic providing me with nearly all my clothes and poles (yes I used poles) and skiing sunglasses were provided by Sunwise and Likeys for everything else I required. I had read a lot of blogs and chatted to previous competitors so felt that as far as kit was concerned I had everything plus more that I should need. Now it was just a small matter of getting through the race.
My aim for The Spine had always been to treat it like an adventure rather than a race. I know I’m used to racing longer distances, but this race is over difficult terrain, in challenging and ever changing weather conditions and I felt it was more like my 6633 race in the Arctic; it’s about managing yourself properly, eating enough food (always a nightmare for me), sleeping and putting one foot in front of the other maintaining forward motion – sounds simple doesn’t it! As always I had a plan which wasn’t fixed but it gave me something to aim for and keep me focused – as it turned out I completely under estimated the race and how difficult it was.
I caught a train up to a friends house the night before the race which was lovely and relaxing and the following day I was driven to Castleton where I attended the Masterclass put on by Stu Westfield. The session consisted of tips of how to tackle the race plus a few refreshers on map reading skills which was perfect and I went away feeling a tad more confident. Our race briefing session wasn’t until 6pm so a group of us headed to the pub where we ate, sorted out more kit and chatted until it was time for us to head over to the hall which was a short stroll down the road.
It was the first time I have been to a race briefing where you could hear a pin drop, the competitors didn’t utter a sound as we sat and listened to the safety aspects of the race, signs of hypothermia and actually how potentially dangerous this race could be – GULP (it isn’t called Britain’s most Brutal race for nothing) With the briefing finished we headed back to the pub then Javed Bhatti (who had kindly let me bunk up in his room) and I walked back to the B&B, sorted out the kit again, this time I added a second additional top, then fell asleep.
Race day finally arrived, I dressed in my X-Bionic tights, baselayer,& hat,Toetoe and wigwam socks , Hokas and my RAB waterproof. After having our kit checked we were told to go outside as the hall was getting too crowded. The weather according to the RD was going to be no rain and OK until Sunday afternoon – WRONG! the rain started as we were standing outside and continued as we stood shivering on the start line ready to head off on this mega adventure. 8.21am 80 Spine racers and 41 Challengers (108 miles) set off up the road to the start of the Pennine Way.
My plan was to start slowly, run where I could and hike the rest. Within about 10 minutes the rain turned to hail THEN snow – so much for nice weather until Sunday afternoon, but it goes to show how unpredictable the weather can be. My legs were beginning to get cold so I stopped in a cow shed, along with some other runners and put on my waterproof trousers and changed my now wet gloves for my waterproof ones; all set I continued on my journey. Up and over Jacob’s ladder and on towards Kinder Scout where by this time there was lots of snow on the ground. I don’t really remember much of the scenery or exactly where I was as my head was down trying to keep the wind/snow out of my face. I passed various people who were putting on more layers to keep warm and ran and chatted to others which was lovely. I was delighted to reach Snake pass where we had to check in with the cars, plus I knew where I was on the map (always a bonus!)
On the first day I had moments of panic when I would lose sight of the runners in front of me and worried that I would get lost. I have never experienced this feeling before in a race and kept telling myself that I was quite capable of being on my own, pull yourself together girl and get on with the job in hand. Going along the slabs across the moors was an interesting experience, you had to watch your footing so you didn’t end up waist deep in a bog! I caught my right foot between two of the slabs and it felt as though my thigh was trying to join forces with my toes – OUCH and a bit of swearing but blanked it off and continued. (my knee had in fact gone the wrong way!)
Just after Wessenden Reservoir and a steep climb I stopped at the top where there just happened to be a very convenient flat concrete construction perfect for stopping to get my head torch out and more food. It was here that I bumped into Karl Shields who had apparently given some poor German guy the fright of his life by stripping off his clothes and replacing them with dry ones! After chatting for a bit I continued on my way only to be caught up by Karl a few minutes later, the beginning of a marvellous partnership. We watched the sun setting over Black Moss Moor; this is why we do these sorts of races, to experience sights that other people will never see.
Our little two-some became a three-some when we met up with Javed. The best remote CP we stopped at we were given mince pies and a coffee – total heaven and much appreciated girls thank you. Approximately 15 hrs later we made it into the first CP at Habden Bridge. (47ish miles) After gathering our drop bags, we found a dorm, sorted our feet out, got kit ready for the next section, ate and slept for about 2 hours, then up and off for the next section of the race which was the longest approx 100km.
We set off in good spirits feeling positive that we had completed the first stage. I had no blisters and my left ankle was behaving itself so more than happy. The weather wasn’t too bad but I had added an additional layer under my RAB jacket and was still carrying two extra layers in my pack (if I get cold I go downhill very quickly).
I don’t really remember much about today, other than it was fantastic company, the terrain although still tough seemed a bit easier than the previous day. We encountered loads of hills, slabs, bogs which seemed to want to swollow you up, but some great views. Our aim was to get to Gargrave where we would have something to eat in the pub. What a sight we must have looked when we came in but the locals must be used to this so just ignored us as we sat huddled round the fire waiting for our feast to arrive. This was the first and only time I rang HWMBO to say that all was well and I was feeling good. It was lovely to hear his voice and I know he was proud of me as this race was way out of my comfort zone.
Having stuffed ourselves on delicious food, coke and coffee we popped into the Co-op to purchase a few bits before heading off towards the CP1.5 CP at Malham Tarn. This CP was a huge tent where we could get our feet sorted, food and a hot drink, perfect as it was pissing with rain outside. Javed had got there a few minutes before Karl and myself and after a coffee (thank you Debbie for the cup!) 9 of us joined forces and headed out into the night towards CP2 at Hawes.
I’m not sure I like being in such a big group of people, I worry that I’m holding people up so always let them go past me, but everyone seemed to be very happy so I relaxed. Coming down off Fountains Fell the ice on the rocks were causing my Hokas to slip and slide everywhere which meant I was being rather pathetic and taking it slowly, the wind and rain were lashing down and I managed to fall over several times. 7 of the runners including Karl were in front, they had to keep going as it would have been far too dangerous and stupid for them to wait. Javed who was bringing up the rear (making sure everyone was OK) stopped with me and we put on our spikes and continued down the rocks. This worked really well and gave me much more confidence.
Heading towards Pen-y-Ghent the wind pick up, higher and higher we got until eventually I had to clamber up the rocks to get to the top at one point the wind was so strong I literally got blown off my feet. Although the experience of summiting Pen-y-ghent was a bit frightening, I was also very pleased with myself as this was the first time I had climbed it so could now tick it off the list!! Coming off the top of Pen-y-Ghent (it was dark) we unfortunately didn’t manage to find the path leading us down so spend the next hour running around in bogs and marsh, sometimes up to my knees in water trying to find the right path. There were times when I completely lost sight of Javed as the mist had set in and I could only see about 100ft in front of me.
Javed and I arrived at CP2 Hawes a few hours later than we had expected due to getting lost, but it was lovely to arrive, sort ourselves out,eat, get our heads down, eat again before continuing our journey to CP 3 33 miles away (hurray a short distance!) We were now on the 2nd map out of 3 which always makes me feel good.
As we had arrived at CP2 later than we had wanted, this meant that we were to lose valuable daylight hours for the next section which is never good as navigating in the dark is much more of a challenge.
We made steady progress along this section. Javed was chatting away and I’m sure he thought I was being rude not replying but with two hats and my RAB jacket hood over my head I couldn’t hear a word! Coming towards Tan Hill I saw to figures coming towards us, one of which was my lovely friend Katherine Hay Diddle Diddle who had come out with the guy from the CP (she didn’t want to be seen helping me so decided it was better to go to the CP first) How lovely it was to see her, big hug and we chatted all the way to the pub where Javed and I had been dreaming of a large bowl of chips. Unfortunately the pub was closed but a lovely young man who was helping out came to the rescue and made us a cup of coffee and some risotto from a packet, I could have hugged him but decided against it as I must have smelt quite a lot!
After saying our goodbyes we discovered that the next section didn’t have a path as such but were told to stay on a bearing of NW (I think). Every so often we would see a large white post which would indicate we were on the right track. We were literally wading through moorland, knee deep in water in places and no path made progress slow but at least we were moving forward albeit slowly!
Coming up towards the Grassholme Reservoir we got completely lost along with another runner, but after managing to get back onto the Pennine Way we seemed to lose sight of the other runner so continued without him – getting even more lost. By now it was dark, the fog had come down again but continued to move forward (or sideways as it turned out!). The GPS was saying we were going the right way and even the map and compass seemed to be telling us we were right, but the more we tried the more lost we became until eventually I spotted a headlight in the distance and shouted very loudly waving my arms about (not quite sure why as he wouldn’t have seen them!) Thankfully the said person heard me and headed towards us. I asked if he was a Spine runner and said we were rather lost. It turned out to be Mark Caldwell who very kindly said he would lead us off the hill.
Both Javed and I struggled to keep up with his fast pace and in hindsight I should have just let him go as I was going way too fast which was making me fall over and I kept landing on my ankle oddly, but I needed to get off this hill so I did my best to keep up. Eventually Mark got us back on track and he continued on his way. (thank you)
Coming towards Middleton-in-Teesdale we headed up towards the CP too early, ending up slightly further up on the road than we should have done, but in the right area which was good news. Javed was getting very cold at this stage as we had to keep stopping to check maps and GPS and muggins here took us down the right road but too far which really wasn’t helping matters. I turned us around and spotted two runners coming up the field, one of whom was David Dixon (sorry my mind has gone blank on the other person). They got Javed jogging to warm him up which was fantastic and we all hiked into CP3 together.
Just as we arrived Karl and Debbie were leaving. It was lovely to see them both and to know they were doing so well, brilliant going by both of them.
I sorted my feet, kit for the next day, had something to eat and asked Nici if she would please wake me up which she kindly did but I promptly burst into tears; no idea why it just happened! After a shower, change of clothes, finished sorting kit, something to eat myself, Javed and David headed out of the CP together. Javed went on ahead of us, I think understandably he needed his own space. David and I continued together thinking that we would find Javed just round the next corner and the next …….
The first section was fairly straight forward along the river. I remember looking at the fast flowing water and thinking how HWMBO would love to fish here. Onwards we went keeping the river on our right, we then crossed over the river and continued the other side. It didn’t feel right so I double checked my GPS and noticed that we should have gone left rather than straight on. Thankfully we hadn’t gone too far and managed to get ourselves back on track quite quickly.
Up Sayers hill, then back towards the river heading towards Cauldon Snout. The river bank turned into a mass of boulders, it looked as though a giant had stood above the path and emptied a huge bag of boulders. I didn’t enjoy this section, my right (dodgy) ankle was holding up fine, but my left one was painful each time it went on uneven ground. Eventually I misplaced my foot and could feel the tendon stretch, oh that was sore, but I had to keep my mind positive so with a scrunched up face carried on. I was going very slowly at this point and David kept checking I was still following – all I could see was his headtorch beaming at me. Then my ankle went again and I heard a loud POP which gave me rather a fright and the pain increased. I knew it was game over. There was an access road at the top of Cauldon Snout and we managed to get the attention of Matt and Ellie (Summit Fever Media). Cauldon Snout is a waterfall, so although dark it was quite something to be climbing out of a waterfall!
I was extremely disappointed having got so far (approx 150 miles) but I felt that it would have been stupid and dangerous for me to have continued, especially with Cross fell coming up later along the route and probably in the dark.
Would I do the race again – yes definitely. It was way out of my comfort zone as I’m not the worlds most gifted technical trail runner (I am in fact rubbish!) and I did have moments of panic at the thought of being completely along. When I was with other people I didn’t keep an eye on the map as much as I would have done on my own and for me the GPS was a big asset, although not to be relied on completely. It was good for getting grid references and checking you’re going the right way, but to be honest you can’t beat the good old map and compass. When I had to pull out of the race I was feeling mentally and physically strong (part from my right ankle and knee) and only had two small blisters which hadn’t caused any issues.
My kit was perfect and my Hokas were excellent except for the ice which they just skated over. Would I take anything different if I was to do it again? Yes, two things. Some Yaktrax as they are better on slabs/rocks than spikes but still keep my spikes and the second thing I would add would be a Bothy bag in case I needed to sort myself out in the middle of nowhere.
The race was well organised, the tracking system worked really well, not only from the Race Organisers point of view but for friends and family following the race. The support crew were absolutely marvellous, I have nothing but praise for everyone who helped; they always had a smile on their faces, nothing was too much for them and I love you all! A big hug to Javed who was simply marvellous, thank you.
Finally congratulations to everyone who stood on the start line of this incredibly brutal race, I think that alone needs a medal – next time!