“The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in”Stuart Scott.
It was approximately 2015 when I first heard about The Montane Spine Race. This beast is a 268 mile race covering the entire Pennine Way, in January. I was intrigued but thought it was just ridiculous, who were these absolute lunatics that even contemplated taking it on? Were they completely insane? Just why would you even want to put yourself through that? The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in, as it seemed a million miles away from anything I would ever be capable of.
Over the two few years I started to compete in bigger and bigger races always wanting to push the boundaries and see just how far I could go.
I was offered a last minute place in The 2018 Spine Challenger, this is the miniature version of The Spine race, known to some race veterans as the baby spine or the fun run. At 108 miles the challenger didn’t seem like much of a fun run to me, I knew I couldn’t take it on last min but it got me thinking as to weather or not I could do it with the right training? The person that offered me the place certainly thought so and the seed was planted.
At the back end of 2018 I finally had the confidence to apply for the 2019 race, the race was sold out by then so I took a waiting list spot. Even at the end of December 2018 I didn’t know for certain if I was running brass monkey or the challenger, I ran brass monkey.
Being self employed I was able to follow The Spine race closely in 2019, I spent nearly the full week cheering various runners on around the course. I got that carried away with everything I even drove up to Kirk Yetholm to watch Jasmin Paris shatter the course before calling in to cheer another random runner on near Hadrian’s wall, in the dead of the night on my way home, I was truly inspired.
At this point in time I wanted to take on the full spine race, all 268 miles , however my good wife Susan persuaded me it might be a good idea to do the fun run first. I knew doing the challenger first was the most sensible option and with having 3 kids the full spine would also be a massive ask for my wife so the fun run it was.
As the race grew nearer my excitement started to build, I’d missed out on the Lakeland 100, due to a last min injury, and really wanted to smash the challenger to make up for that. I felt great and my coach Margarita Grigoriadi, along with many at Elvet Striders had got me into great condition to do this.
After a request on the Spine facebook page I was kindly offered a lift to the start by Phil Owen, who was on the safety team and Sue Jennings who was also running the challenger. I could not have been happier, I was buzzing and felt so alive, the following day I was not going to be a parent, a taxi driver or a husband, tomorrow I was going to be an ultra runner on one hell of an adventure doing what love.
My race started well, I’m terrible for going off to fast and really wanted to stay with Elaine, she’s a good friend and paces so well, unfortunately for me she was just pushing to hard and I had to let her go, I knew I had to get my pacing right as 108 miles is a long way and I really I didn’t want to mess up this race.
After a few miles I caught Elaine up and we ran together in appalling conditions with rain, fog and really bad visibility, due to concentrating on moving well in the horrendous conditions I neglected to fuel well and this is where my problems started.
New Strider and DFR member Max Wilkinson made a surprise visit to the course and cheered us on not far away from the first checkpoint at Hebdon Bridge, it was great to see someone we knew randomly out there in such tough conditions. When Max left a group of about 4-5 ran together, I knew I needed to take on some food but didn’t want to slow down and risk loosing the pack so I pressed on. As time went by I was getting more and more concerned I needed fuel so I eventually made the decision to eat and lost Elaine and the others.
In big ultra running events if you mess up your nutrition you are done so I knew I had to eat as much as possible at Hebdon Bridge so I tried my best to eat as much as possible and soon felt good again, I was back in the game.
As the miles passed by I was loving every second of it I was doing what I love surrounded by like minded people and knew Elaine was leading the woman’s race everything was great and I could not be happier.
The miles continued to pass by as the rain, fog and darkness continued. There is not much daylight in January and when you have a long race to do the daylight hours are extremely precious, especially on boggy ground in the fog and rain when you have navigate yourself.
In long ultras the field often becomes very spread out and if you start finding it hard with nobody to be seen as far as the eye can see it really starts to screw with your mind. It was in the early hours of the morning I guess at about 55 miles in on Sunday when my real problems started, I just couldn’t eat. I’ve changed my diet a lot recently and after having had virtually no dairy products for the last couple of months I just couldn’t face my normal race food of Ella’s kitchen and rice pudding.
I was totally by myself and gutted I’d ended up in this situation, I knew any chance I had of racing this event was over and that was a hard pill to swallow as I’d had so much confidence a top ten finish was possible, if everything went well.
I was now in a massive dilemma, I’ve always said I would never quit a race if I’m not injured and have always encouraged other runners to battle on through rough patches, I’ve read many books on ultra running and I know so much of it is about having the correct mindset, staying positive and knowing anything is possible if you just have the belief it can be done.
The main issues I had were I was currently by myself on a boggy hill in the early hours of the morning on the Pennine way, its early January, I have already covered 55 miles with poor fuelling, I’ve been awake for nearly 24 hours, I’m pissed off I have no chance of a top ten finish and there is 53 miles of the race left. I can DNF very soon and probably be back in Durham fast asleep in a nice warm comfy bed surrounded by my family within a few hours or I can attempt to ‘see out’ another 53 miles of the Pennine way, even writing thus now it seems insane but somehow I was able to convince myself that this was the way forward.
I’d had so many messages of support from friends an family going into this event and as I’d told a few people the time I was hoping for I didn’t want to finish hours and hours behind that without an explanation so I posted on my face book page that unfortunately I was done but I would finish. This meant I now had to.
Within a very short time of posting my message an exceptional ultra runner named John Parkin, I’d met through Bob Graham recce had seen my post, it turns out he lived 5 minutes away from where I was so he got straight into his running gear and came out to say hello and make sure I was OK. I knew John understood me more than most, as he’s run the UK’s big 3 rounds, and he helped convince me what I was attempting to ‘see out’ was a good idea.
The next 10 miles took me about 4 and a half hours, I was so frustrated, I kept thinking I’ve run that in just over an hour before this is ridiculous it also dawned on me I would be heading into a second night in yet more fog, wind, bogs, rain and poor visibility. I was also getting a little cold, not really bad or anything but if I’d had extra clothing that wasn’t already soaked through I would definitely have put it on.
I’m not going to lie in saying the next few hours weren’t hell on earth I was just walking along completely and utterly spent, I kept shouting at myself to get a grip, I was seeing things and kept randomly busting into tears I had so long to go but quitting was just not an option for me , I could not believe I actually paid a lot of money to put myself through this living hell.
I would walk for what seemed like at 2-3 miles to see on my gps it was about half a mile I had a long way to go but also knew I could just pull the plug at any time like the 70 plus other runners that did not finish the race.
Every time I came across a supporter, someone from the safety team or mountain rescue I would sort myself out and tell them all was good but mentally I was battered.
The miles slowly very slowly passed by I gained a massive boost when I came across a shop and was able to get some warm food and a coffee. The boost from the warm food and drink got me to a cafe at Malham which left only 34 miles, its funny when you start to think of a marathon a 10k and a bit of a parkrun as the home straight!
Not long after I felt Malham I was intercepted by the Spine media team, I enquired if anyone had won the woman’s race yet and when they said no I continued on my way until I had a sudden thought. I knew Elaine had the potential to win and last I’d heard she had a good lead so I turned back and asked if I could film a message for the winner as I knew it was definitely going to be Elaine, they laughed and made the clip which later made two episodes of the official spine race summary videos.
As the food from Malham went to work I managed to keep moving forward however I was being extremely lazy using only my gps for navigation and not even bothering to look at my map (I can feel Geoff shacking his head as I write this) in my tired state I started following a blue line instead of the purple one and soon found myself off course. Thankfully this was only minor detour and I did get back on track pretty soon, after having lost a walking pole.
Why couldn’t there just be one big hill instead of ten smaller ones, and fog what’s the point in that?
As the darkness fell for the second night the temperature also started to drop, I must have fallen a dozen times in the next couple of hours, shouting, swearing and cursing at the top of my voice I couldn’t wait for this prolonged torture to come to an end I was definitely going to take up track running as soon as I was finished this God forsaken race.
I called Susan at this point to tell her it was pretty hard and she didn’t sound to surprised. I asked if Elaine had won, she had but my initial happiness for Elaine soon turned to anger as I realised how far I still had to go an how long this was going to take me. I’d planned to run with Elaine for as long and was hoping to finish within a couple of hours of her but see was already finished and I still had a bloody marathon to go how was this even possible??? Susan assured me I was still doing great but I felt like a total failure.
As I plodded on I noticed another head torch coming towards me this was a welcome site and a decided I was going to give it my all to keep up with them. We were heading for Pen-y-Ghent and the other runner was telling me to prepare for the climb but assured me it was fine once we got off the other side. I gave it my absolute all and managed to tail this other runner all the way to the summit, it was such a great feeling to get this section out the way. My legs had managed the uphill fine but I really struggled on the downhill and was soon on my own again.
I was surrounded by thick fog on Pen-y-Ghent and the decent seemed to be taking forever, I was getting frustrated that there were so many hills, what was the point in them? Why couldn’t there just be one big hill instead of ten smaller ones, and fog what’s the point in that? Its just stupid, such a waste of time and so annoying! I prayed as soon as I got a bit lower the visibility would improve and thankful it did, as the lights of Horton in Ribblesdale came into view I was a very happy man.
There was a checkpoint in Horton and I was greeted outside by a member of the Spine team who offered tea, soup and other warm food it was amazing. I’d been awake for about 35 hours at this point and had covered just over 100 miles, it didn’t take much persuasion to take a power nap. The checkpoint team asked how long I would like to sleep for so I decided on two hours as this would give enough time for my phone and head torch to fully charge and wouldn’t drag the race on for to much longer before I took on the final push.
The two hours flew over and I was slightly confused as I was woken up by my friend Chris Everett, he had driven all the way down just to offer me a bit of moral support. Chris shoved a tea in my hand and more or less told me to get my arse into gear, stop messing about and get on with it, this is exactly what I needed.
I was dressed and raring to go in no time, it really is amazing what two hours sleep can do for you. I put my favourite fearless motivation album onto repeat and had it blasting out from my fully charged phone as I left Chris and the checkpoint I felt determind and very happy to finally be on the home straight, until another 5 miles down the trail when I started shouting and swearing again.
Where is the stupid bloody left hand turn? Why on Gods earth are they spaced out so much? Whats the point in spacing them out so much surly it would be better for everyone if the turns were closer together? All these questions went round and round in my Head as I got more and more frustrated. I’d had my map in my hand continuously since Hordon but as my watches were both dead I had no idea of distance or time covered and every way-mark I had identified seemed to take so long to get to.
I was moving along constantly staring at the ground, the fog was thick I could have been warmer, I was determind not to miss my turn, you could not believe how long a 2 mile journey can seem when never take your gaze off the ground and with every single step you are hoping the turn is going to be there, would this torture ever end?
Eventually the turns got ticked off one at a time and the end really was in sight. I called Susan to let her know I was nearly finished and I can remember being so, so happy the pain of everything I had been through immediately started to fade.
I could see a headlight in front of me as I came down off the fell, It turned out to be Chris again as he had decided to hang about at the end to see me finish and transport me home, I was so happy to see him.
I didn’t know how I was going to react at the end and half expected to make a fool of myself by crying again but I didn’t, I was just happy, very content and extremely proud of myself for seeing it through. Despite the convincing myself I’d had the worst race ever I was surprised to learn I’d actually finished as 12th male and 16th overall.
Mentally the Spine challenger is by far the hardest running event I have ever completed, as far as racing is concerned it was probably one of my worst ever performances, however as an overall experience I absolutely loved it and will remember this race till the day I die. I am 100% confident I am going to move on from this experience stronger and even more determind than ever before.
I have learnt so much from this race and despite everything I went through I can not wait until the day I kiss the wall at Kirk Yetholm after having completed the Full Spine race, I know this day will come because I know how much I want it and I’m prepared to put in the work to get there. I’ve always believed you should never except limits or listen to other peoples beliefs of what they think you are capable of, you are the only one that truly knows what you are capable of and if you put in the work and believe something is possible it quite often is.