Yes, I’ll be back to this race next year! Regardless of the tragic DNF I really felt a connection to this race. I’ve happily passed through the Centurion/Hardmoors/GB Ultras/Lakeland etc machines and they’re are all good operations but in 122 long distance races nothing has felt like this one. I’m not sure if it’s the kit list (huge), the type of competitor it attracts (modest mountain & hardy hiking types), or the terrain and weather (challenging is the mild description), but the parts combine to make it feel more like you’re entering an expedition as an intrepid explorer than a foot race. The fanboys and girls of each of the other race organisers will tell you theirs is the best. Has the best support, has the best checkpoints, has the most ‘family’ feel but now I understand why those involved in the Spine race say it truly is a family and for me far and away the best race I’ve been privileged to be a part of. You are warmly welcomed in right from the off no matter you’re running background or who you are. There are no cliques here and I adore that as it’s something that irks me with all the other set ups. What you’re about to enter is life-threatening in a very real sense and you know you have to cover each other’s backs out there. You feel bonded with all the other participants straight away because of the risk and because of how monumental the thing you are about to do is.
As always for me I rely on a busy but jumbled schedule of marathon or ultra races to form my training plan so inevitably somewhere around 4 weeks before big races like this I have a mild 5 minute panic that it isn’t enough, followed swiftly by the knowledge that it’s too late to do sod all about it anyway. I ran Tour de Helvellyn a 38 mile Lake District romp on 21st December in cold, dark, wet conditions with full Spine pack on and whilst that went without a hitch, that was my last endeavour at training. Cue Christmas and New Year and a general desire to slob. However, I tend to hold miles in my legs fairly well so I was comfortable that I had the distance in me. The bigger issue for me was kit.
The kit for the Spine is famously exhaustive. I think I counted 34 mandatory items on the list – then add your optional items on top! Then add all the stuff you need in your drop bag available at the single checkpoint at Hebden Bridge about 45 miles in. Its a hell of a lot of kit. You need to carry enough of everything to see you through sub-zero temps over 60hours over open fell miles from civilisation in harsh winter conditions. I think the Challenger kit is pretty much what the full Spine participants carry – bar some differences in food carrying requirements. I was late to checking what I did and didn’t have and this was my main concern – I would have to order some items without getting to test them. I could scrape through on most things – but of all the major things I didn’t have ready, it was shoes. Bloody hell.
Out of interest this is what I wore/carried on the day:
- Montane Trailblazer 30l
- OMM Kamleika waterproof bottoms
- Montane Via thermal tights
- Berghaus overtrousers
- Montane Fireball down jacket
- Brynje base layer
- Montane Allez Micro Hoodie
- Mountain Equipment Lhotse waterproof jacket
- Fjallraven poncho
- Isobaa base layer (spare)
- Trespass full length base layer bottoms (spare)
- An old fleece midlayer (spare)
- 1 pair of Drymax socks (spare)
- Sealskinz waterproof socks
- Bridgedale thin liner socks
- Sealskinz beanie
- Thermal skiing buff
- RAB Latok Alpine Goretex gaiters
- Montane Symphony waterproof gloves
- RAB powerstretch gloves
- Inov8 Roclite 345 GTX boots
- Foil blanket (full size)
- First aid kit containing plasters, antihistamine tablets, Loperamide tablets, antiseptic spray, personal blister care kit
- Petzl Nao headtorch + spare battery
- Kalenji chest torch
- Cicerone Pennine Way book
- Garmin GPS64
- Silva compass
- 3000kCal food (Firepot pasta x 2 + various sweets/cubed cheddar)
- SOL survival bag
- Alpkit Pipedream 400 (comfort rating 0deg)
- Inov8 2L water bladder (and started with 1L water in the bladder)
- Mobile phone
- Protective eye googles
- 3cm single blade knife
- Alpkit Kraku stove
- 100g of gas
- Alpkit Mytibowl 300
- Windproof lighter
- Alpkit Cloudbase sleeping mat
Told you it was a lot! So I spent what I could to ensure I had mandatory kit and tried to buy as light as I could afford. Thankfully Montane (race sponsors) give you a 20% discount code which saved me a fortune. Almost makes up for the £375 entry price. Still, with bag, food, water and all the gear I weighed in around 8KG on my back. Every kilo makes a huge difference to effort levels and speed. I barely survived 38 miles on Tour de Helvellyn so I had no idea really how I would fare over 108 miles.
Oh yes – shoes. I wear what I have to destruction and only then do I open the wallet for a single new pair. I run almost everything in Altra Lone Peak 4. I had binned my last pair of Inov8 Roclites after the Gatlif 50km race in late November when sinkholes opened up on the uppers of both shoes (they were very old). One pair of Altra Lone Peaks had 2inch long tears down the arches of both shoes. My other pair of Lone Peaks had no grip left as the Tour de Helvellyn route can testify. A lot of runners on the Spine facebook forum were talking about La Sportiva Mutants as well as Inov8 Roclite GTX boots. Boots seemed to have a big following – better at keeping out debris and water and more ankle support. I had done a lot of training in walking boots too and when you finish those hikes/runs with lovely dry warm feet it made total sense to emulate that using a lighter trail running version. I also had always wanted to try Scott Supertracs. I also knew that Altra Lone Peaks fitted well and could be worn for ultra distance straight out of the box. On 5th Jan, 6 days before the race I ended up ordering Roclite 345 GTX boots, Altra Lone Peak 4 Mesh, and Scott Supetrac all in a size up from normal to accommodate feet swelling and thicker waterproof socks + liners, hoping that one would work for me. Scotts had a fairly standard fit, not overly narrow but they just didn’t sit right so they went back, but the Inov8 felt great and so did the Altra. Since the Inov8 were a goretex boot they were my preferred starting option. I knew the course to Hebden Bridge is usually wetter than the stretch on to Hawes so the plan was to keep my feet as dry for as long as possible until the Hebden CP and then switch to the Altras from my drop bag. As it turns out this was working brilliantly until the storm hit over Marsden Moor throwing so much water at us at 70mph that the boots filled within minutes and it was game over in terms of dry feet.
Anyway, training was sort of sorted and kit sorted. Registration has to be done on Friday afternoon in Edale – walking into the HQ it was calm, quiet and I was straight to the table for number collection. How cool is this! Quick photo to go against my tracking profile and then ushered on to a table for kit check by Nikki Knappett who was fantastically friendly and calming. I’d read that Lindley Chambers had a system of dictating how many items you had to show depending on the last digit of your race number. 0 was a full kit check and it quickly dawned on me when i pulled number 400 that the rubber gloves might go on and i’d be in for the full works! Apart from a quick double check that my bivvy bag would pass, everything was fine and I was soon out the door having had the tracker taped on to my race pack. So slick, I was so impressed. Then a trot to the Ramblers Inn for a pint before heading to the 5pm race briefing in the village hall. That night was then a huge lasagne and half pack of garlic bread and triple checking I’d packed my drop bag correctly.
Kate and I travelled the short distance to Edale on race morning to get there comfortably for the 8am start. My number one panic is always finding a parking space. Somehow the Edale Village car park right next to HQ and the start line was desolate, amazing! It turns out this is just because so few people enter the race (I think around 135 started). The only job on the morning was to hand over the drop bag and watch the first dawn light to arrive.
Like Tour de Helvellyn I very much enjoyed the low key start. No egos, no general panic or stress from anyone at the start. No list of tasks to complete. We stayed in the car until 7.55am and then had the 30 second walk to the back of the start line. Moments before being let go I suddenly realised – no poles! Christ, I left them with Kate who I can now see is at the back of the spectator throng. I daren’t risk grabbing them off her after I passed the start line – it’s strictly no external support at any point. Can you imagine being DQ’d 3 metres over the start line!!! Better not risk that so dashed over and got them, I don’t think Kate even realised she had them until she saw me hurtling towards her.
Off we went into a so-far dry day up the road to the official start of the Pennine Way. There’s a gate within the first 100m of the PW that I thought could be carnage, especially being back of pack – but no queue at all. Incredibly as you head west across fields to Barber Booth the pack is already spread out – this is within say half a mile of the start. I couldn’t believe it. Plan was to walk/skip the first 3 miles to Jacobs Ladder and force myself to take it easy to avoid overheating and tiring early and I managed to do this. I even remembered to inch up Jacobs Ladder and take a proper break half way up to check phone and take some photos.
By the time I hit the top of Jacobs Ladder the wind was fierce. The race briefing had told us to expect winds to top over 70mph on Kinder and also on Bleaklow. I would love to have a Garmin device to measure windspeed just for these moments. On the way past Edale Rocks and around Kinder Downfall I was running at what felt like a 70deg angle and every footstep I was finding that my foot wasn’t landing where my brain expected it too. The winds were so strong I was literally being blown off my feet – I couldn’t control my legs or feet even moving them just centimetres off the ground and I lost count of how many times my rain cover was blown off the pack. Kinder Downfall was an Upfall by a long way and I stopped momentarily to take some video.
All things considered I was moving pretty well, hitting Mill Hill and turning NE along slabs for the 2 miles to Snake Pass where the first unofficial ‘aid station’ would be (MRT with some water). That stretch had flown by and was about 9/10 miles which i’d done without eating so I briefly had the pack off and got food out to munch on the next leg. The slow climb up to Bleaklow Head cairn passed without mention, and the slow drop down to Torside also was pretty uneventful – stretches of narrow heather-lined peat track with a sharp drop to the right hand side. The winds were strong but the weather was otherwise holding. Pack felt comfy, feet were dry and legs felt good. I knew Torside Reservoir had a proper but still unofficial aid station and this would mark about 16 miles down. I stopped for a water refill, dump rubbish, leg stretch, bit of food and take food out of the bag prepped to eat over the next section.
I knew the next section through Crowden up past Laddow Rocks and Black Hill would be tough from the recce Kate and I did only a couple of weeks prior. It’s a tough climb with a full pack on, one of the biggest ascents in the race alongside Jacobs Ladder and Pen Y Ghent. Just as I turned north away from Torside Reservoir I saw Kate on the track which was a huge boost right before the big climb. We exchanged a few words about how I was coping and what she’d been up to (having breakfast in the warm and dry and a fun jaunt around the hills hmpff!), as all that the race allows, and I marched on. The mile approach to Black Hill is particularly wet, and then the gale force winds started up again. Fighting the strong winds coupled with an exhausting 5mile climb sapped me of all energy I must admit. Luckily from the trig point it’s 4 miles downhill to Wessenden road crossing and I quickly got running. I could see in the distance cars parked up in the layby – perhaps a mile away – and this is when the first sign of heavy rain came in. I came up on to the road crossing hoping Kate would be waiting. I couldn’t keep taking the mobile out so it was difficult to coordinate seeing each other, there was no sign of her until I turned off the main road and spied her car. It was properly pissing down and the wind was howling so we only waved to each other and I gave an ok hand signal. Should’ve been a two finger salute in hindsight for sitting in a warm car! This marked the end of the route that I had recce’d, everything from here on in was new ground. 2 miles of downhill stony track and then a very steep up onto Marsden Moor and this is where the nightmare starts
I had a sit down at the top of the steep climb on to the moor – sky looked ok, it wasn’t raining, just a few miles into the next roadside stop at Stanedge Tunnel. All seemed fine. Then out of nowhere within seconds I was in the middle of 70mph winds again but this time being lashed by freezing and heavy horizontal rain and god was it exposed up there. Couple of lads dived into grasses to stick waterproofs on. I endeavoured to get the poncho over my waterproof but it was impossible. It was acting as a sail and there was nowhere to shelter to sort myself out. Visibility dropped to metres with the rain. I was on the top of a moor in very high winds, unable to see anything and no clear knowledge of where i’m heading (without checking map/GPS) and getting trashed by the rain and the mind games start – fuck this, what am I doing up here suffering this? I know I can endure bad weather and cold but these conditions were breath-taking. I hate the overused word brutal. The weather was raw and powerful and humbling. So as I usually do I keep telling myself every step moves me closer away from what I’m going through and it will improve. Obviously the pace now drops and the 3 miles down to the road take me about 1hr15minutes and instead of reaching the M62 by dark I come down to CP in the dark about 3 miles/1hour short of that target. The conditions don’t improve, they actually get worse as the rain intensifies and I remember laughing to myself in disbelieve. Check point is someone’s van with the side door open and a canvas awning that’s been possessed and is wildly flapping around our heads. There are about 8 other runners huddled and you can tell no one wants to go back out into this. No one is talking. Heads are down and there’s a black metaphorical cloud over us all. Headtorch on, poncho on, water refill. Lets nail this next bit, take it road section to road section. I tag onto a group of 3 others who are leaving at the same time – always easier if someone knows the nav in the dark! Only I’ve only forgotten to pick the poles up again. A dash back to CP and then a race to catch the disappearing headtorches. On Marsden Moor we’d had slabs and track underfoot and some light from the sky. Now we had nothing but bog and newly formed rivers in the pitch black, only you couldn’t see from step to step to assess the best route through it all since the headtorch light was bouncing off the thick rain in front of your nose. And the wind had strengthened. It only took 2 miles in those conditions to finish me! Strangely and unknown to me I was walking through it on 18min/mi pace – ahead of what I’d aimed for as an average in clear conditions! I think a combination of a few things hit me quickly. The decision to stop in my mind was arrived at within minutes and was unquestionable. What was going through my head that led to that decision?
- When i got down to the next road section at the M62 crossing i knew i had about 11 miles into Hebden and the forecast was for these conditions to continue. I knew this would mean 3-4 hours and the last 2 hours alone had given me a thorough beating
- My mental trick of telling myself every step counts and things will improve doesn’t last long if things actually get worse!
- Irritation that my poncho was obstructing my view and since the winds had ripped all of the poppers apart it was severely hampering movement and use of poles but i couldn’t afford to stop and remove. Sounds small, but was the primary irritant and really really pissed me off!
- The waterproof shoes and socks were now working against me and holding all the water in. Might as well be wearing water balloons on my feet.
- I didn’t know the route on this stretch and in zero visibility I was increasing risk levels by being out on the moors (despite being good at nav and having maps, compass and GPS unit)
- Lack of shelter around the M62 meant I couldn’t easily take stock of the situation – remove poncho, have 5 minutes to regroup out of the conditions, check map to memorise the next section
- I’m soaked to the bone and cold under full waterproofs and poncho. I’m likely to only get colder if I proceed
Some of the above reasons sound like sensible reasons to stop – poor route knowledge when alone in bad night conditions on open moorland, and cold and wet. I told myself when I officially pulled that I don’t regret the decision and it was the right one so I’ll trust my judgement in the moment, as of course with hindsight I think I was being a fanny and should’ve just had a minute to put another layer on, get the GPS out, ditch the poncho and get moving. Certainly for next year I will put my layers on regardless of being in a storm instead of suffering for the sake of trying to keep dry stuff dry; have recce’d the full route; not bother with a poncho at all; have a chest torch already on me to avoid digging anything out of the bag when moving on the trail. I think with those small corrections I would’ve plodded on into Hebden CP. I always knew if I got to Hebden I could dry, eat, shower, put fresh warm clothes on, sleep – and finish the race. It’s just an arse getting there to start with. Strangely something else I hadn’t figured was that the elevation is heavily weighted to the front half. I did 8’600ft in 33miles – over 50% of the overall climb in 30% of the distance. Knowing this I think would’ve helped me mentally continue too.
Oh well. it was a fantastic experience. I now have the kit and I know what the Pennine Way will throw at me and a little more of what’s needed to finish this race. Sign me up Scottie!