Britain’s Most Brutal Race, 10–17th January
The spine race is the whole of the Pennine Way in January. 270 miles of hills, bogs and everything the winter weather can throw at you high up on the backbone of England. It’s a continuous race as in the clock is always ticking. It’s billed as the UK’s most brutal race and although conditions differ from year to year it’s fair to say it’s always brutal. It just has several different kinds of brutal.
My spine journey started a couple of years ago when I entered the race. However when it came to the second payment in November my knee was playing up and a few other niggles weren’t great so I decided not to do it. I sent of an email saying as much but offered my time helping out if needed. Scot the RD said, he certainly will be in touch and I never heard anything more. As the race started in January I watched my friend’s progress and as Alan Rumbles approached Middleton-in-Teesdale I went off with Anna to see if I could help him in any way. Alan was his usual smiling self as we got him some food but his feet were even at that stage a real mess. (Sadly Alan had cellulitis in his feet and after another 100 miles, within reaching distance of the finish had to make the call to call it a day.)
The place was a bit chaotic so I helped where I could, served tea and coffee, washed up for them and causally remarked to Amanda Crozier (I think) that I’d offered to help but heard nothing. At that I was leapt upon and asked if I could relive the marshals at Tan hill ASAP ! (Scott had forgotten about my email which isn’t surprising as I guess he gets snowed under as the race approaches)
So off we went. We saw Sunderland stroller Neil Bennett through (who finished) and met Martin May Ottersbach who was in excellent condition but sadly had over slept and was taken out of the race. Lovely bloke though and I look forward to more journeys with him. I worked the next day they I was summed to Bellingham CP on the evening. As I pulled up and went through the doors a lad was standing in bare feet holding onto the door frame and asked if I might just help him for a minute. His feet were buggered as well. This was Charlie Sharpe, a well know and very fast runner. He was trying to get to the sleeping area which was across a court yard. I told him to wait there and backed my car to the doors, helped him in, drove the 10 yards to the sleeping area and helped him to his sleeping bag. From there I relieved the marshals at Byrness. It was some 6-7 hours later in the early hours of the morning the spinners started to come through. I had a stove in my car so I made hot drinks and fed them with goodies I’d picked up along the way. Charlie came in (he couldn’t remember me at Bellingham several hours earlier!) and slept for a while in my car before struggling to his feet, barely able to stand and they blasted the Cheviots in 6.5 hours. That’s always amazed me as the lad could barely walk. Chapeau Charlie!
So, to cut this short and to put it mildly, this race cried out to me to run it.
Well I guess like others the lead up to the race fairly did my head in. The gear was a compromise between ultra-light, meaning ultra-expensive and I couldn’t afford or what I could afford but was going to make my back pay (and slow me down) due to increased weight. I begged and borrowed and bought as wisely as I could. (More on gear later). Then there is the route. Unlike a lot of ways in the UK the Pennine way isn’t that well signposted. Yes there are plenty of signs but it’s a long way and I’d say as many junctions of crossing paths without any indication of the way as there is. That is of course if there is a path. Sometimes it’s a faint line or almost nothing. Add in some snow and you’ve got nowt !
I addressed some of this with a few days on the way in late September. Starting in Edale, where I’d never been before and heading north. I checked out the route, pubs, and places to fill bottles, possible bivvy places and found the CP North of Hebdon Bridge. I made a few mistakes, which was good as I wasn’t going to make them twice and I spent as day in Haworth and another in Marsden refreshing (well it was my holiday as well!) Surprisingly a very enjoyable & interesting few days. I should do more hill walking. I just too busy running!
So come December and I’m starting to ease off. Looking after myself a bit and constantly reading Damien Halls excellent guide book that I used on my week recce. I also decided to take this with me. If you’re lost I figured a detailed explanation would be like gold dust and worth its weight.
New Year’s Day and I very gently ran around the Captain Cooks fell race being very careful and enjoyed the social after. It was here I tempted fate. Talking to Jason & Lisa Taylor I remarked I was in very good form with no injuries and my only worry was all the people around who were dying of cold-and pretty rotten colds at that. I said if it gets me, I’d be out of the race. In fact a few had come on the FB spine page and said as much. I guess everyone was gutted for those people and also like me thinking please god, spare me till after the race please.
On the 4th January, our club Christmas handicap it hit me. I was meant to be marking the course but was swooning and coughing and couldn’t do it. I went along and took some pics and to the social as I like to support our club traditions. However on the evening I was ill as a dog. That was a Sunday, 6 days till race day. Monday was the same and Tuesday not much better four days till race day and I’m in bed ill!. By Wednesday I thought it easing a tiny bit. Thursday I had to make a decision and hoping I hadn’t been hit by what everyone else seemed to have I decided to run. I booked a hotel in Sheffield, figuring I wouldn’t be that popular coughing all night in the Youth Hostel and got a lift to the start. Did the kit check and briefing and heading to Sheffield. And I did cough all night. Train to the start with John Vernon and a good natter about the race and Hardmoors stuff.
Well it was delayed 3 hours so a lot of hanging about but at last we were let go. Apparently Marcus who one the challenge event that had started at 6:30 am (the first 100 miles) was blown clean off his feet and injured. My Aarn backpack was playing up and I was very grateful for Neil Rutherford, another Aarn user working out what was wrong. The Aarn is a wonderful bit of kit but it is complex especially if you get all the straps twisted.
The weather just then wasn’t crazy bad, although the wind was howling. It wasn’t really till we got to the top of kinder when the full force of the winds really hit us. It was quite difficult to stay on your feet. Kinder downfall was our first soaking as it was blown back onto us but to a person we all had our water proofs on. This was something I’d notice the previous year. Not one person didn’t have their entire water proof kit on. This brief spell of ‘good’ weather was all to brief. The gale force winds hit us and the horizontal, hail and snow battered us. This was the story for the rest of my brief race. The weather has been described as biblical. I’ll go with that. However I was quite please.Pleased because after all that worry I think I got the gear right. I was pretty snug and although it was hard going, especially vision wise I was happy enough. Except that was for the coughing. It took its time to start but heck coughing is exhausting at any time never mind I in the UK’s most brutal race. I must say i found the weather exhilarating. I always do. I’m sure i wouldn’t have said that at the end but weather like that make you feel alive.
Still I was optimistic that the coughing would sort itself out. I came across John Vernon approaching Black hill. John’s an expert navigator but my recce was invaluable (and John said as much later). Every turn or junction came back to me as we came to it and I was particularly pleased just after the A62. The good path here becomes a peat bog track, cut up by mountain bikes and in parts 20ft wide. On my recce I went straight past a tiny white post on the right hand of this track that takes you almost ninety degrees right along a faint track. I purposely stayed right knowing that the post would be easy to miss. Just as I was telling John to stay right we came across in covered in snow. Unfortunately just as we did I saw another group heading over the hill making my recce mistake. I shouted and shouted but the wind took it away and they were out of sight.
At the A672 a van waited and we topped up with water. Not much mind as they were running low. I filled up at the next stream having already used my 2 litres. (I carried a small collapsible plastic bottle for this purpose). The goal was to make the white horse pub and refuel but with the start delay we missed it. With hindsight we were never going make it and we should have detoured on the Marsden road crossing to the great western pub. At the closed white horse pub John said he needed to eat so quickly cooked something up. I brewed a coffee and which went cold instantly. It was snowing, the wind was hellish and then realised it was bitterly cold. Some guy pulled out here, bivved down and went to sleep. I was a tad worried about him in the conditions.
I whipped off my water proof and put on my Hanger 18 down jacket. Put the waterproof back on and was Ok again. That down jacket was a late acquisition for me but heck it was brilliant. From here it was straight forward.
My recce meant we weren’t glued to maps (which was tough to read in the wind and snow). John knew the way down form Stoodley Pike (which I missed on the recce as I dropped down to mankinholes YH (which was group booked). Just as well as that can be tricky.
We crossed the canal and used the light for the road lights to changes our head torch batteries and slowly made our way to the cp. All the time I was coughing more and more. I put a balaclava on and was trying to breathe through it as that seemed to help with the coughing (possibly by warming the air). Into the cp and had a some food. This had taken us 16 hours for the 42 miles. I know it’s completely different but to put it into perspective this is the distance of the Devil of the Highlands race. I’ve done that in 8:45 before. We agree to rest up 3 hours.
No rest for me though as I started is hacking up continually. I left the dorm as I was keeping others awake. I knew it was useless and I just wasn’t well but it’s a very tough decision to make. I pulled out after speaking to John. Gutted. (John also finished something that pleased me immensely)
The rest of the time I got cleaned up and helped out a bit. Lass (i now know as Alzbeta Benn) had lost her water proof gloves and was heading out without them so I found mine for her and then as everyone left and the cleaning started I found myself cleaning the men’s bogs while coughing my guts up. Now, really lads, what was going on here? Mud up the walls and everywhere. As the boots come off at the door I don’t understand just how the mud was splatted in and around the sinks and also up the wall. Cleaning boots? The floors took 6 buckets to mop out. Not sure how this was possible.
A hard working spine worker lass gave me a lift to Hawes then to Middleton. After helping get all the food in I was picked up for home.
By the time I got there I was pretty ill and spent the next few days in bed hacking up. I watched the tracker on my phone cursing my luck but willing my friends on. It’s taken another two weeks to get clear of the virus.
Despite the biblical weather or is suppose because of it. The race had a bumper finish this year no doubt partly due to the divisions and the race being held up five times giving ‘free’ recovery time (if the race hold you up you get your clock stopped and the time back). I doubt that will happen again.
So, will I be there again?. If money was not an issue then there would be no question at all. It’s a must do race for me. The spine IS good value for money as the setup is immense with crazy logistics. However it still costs 5 times the cost of say a West Highland Way Race, Hardmoors110/160 or Lakeland 100 (The Three classic northern 100 mile hill races ) and for me that’s a lot of money. The race coming so soon after Christmas doesn’t help as being self-employed no one pays me when I’m on holiday (yes this was my holiday).
It’s also a lot of money to risk that can be lost to a cold or an injury. However it won’t be left at that. I will take the risk of colds or injury & be on the start line again, I just don’t know if it will be next year.
So a bitter disappointment and huge waste of money but it was an experience and all experiences have positives no matter how frustrating or hard to bear. The trick is to take the positives and put them to good use. Once my pet lip is put away I’ll do that.