The Montane Spine Race is a 268 mile non-stop race following the Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in midwinter. It is regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance races. This year is its 10th anniversary and the starting line up is impressive.
An epic challenge, a veritable monster that scares me silly but I know it’ll be the most rewarding race I’ve ever done. If only I manage to overcome physical and mental challenges to reach that hallowed wall of The Border Hotel, Kirk Yetholm.
There are 5 checkpoints along the route, ranging from 34 – 60 miles. Here you can access drop bags (maximum 20kg, with 3x3000kcal), have food and drink, get medical support, sleep and wash. There is a maximum 8 hour stay, cut-offs allowing. Otherwise athletes are expected to be self sufficient; they can use shops, pubs and cafes as long as the support is provided to everyone. This means we all carry a considerable pack with the ability to bivvy safely. In all my bag weighs about 9-10kg with water and food.
The checkpoints are at Hebden Hey, Hawes, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Alston and Bellingham. Additionally there are 30 min stops at Malham Tarn, Dufton and Hut 2 where access to hot water and medical help is available.
Having received free entry into this event as my prize for winning the Spine Challenger in 2020, I’ve been training for it for the last 2 years. 2021 event was cancelled. I’m glad, I wasn’t ready.
Training continued after the Dragon’s Back, the only major alteration was that I tried to carry my full pack as much as possible and sought the muddiest, hilliest routes, the worst weather. I had, by now, recced the whole of the Pennine Way.
For some reason I’m not entirely focused on sorting my kit until the last few days. I’m not convinced it will go ahead. My bag isn’t actually packed until the night before. I think I’ve been planning it for so long I know what I need. I pack everything in different coloured mesh bags so I can find things easily, be kind to my future self: mid-layers, base layers, foot care, waterproofs, sleep, fuel, batteries etc. I write a checkpoint checklist which I leave on the top of the bag.
Stuart texts a lot on Thursday, he’s worried by my lack of organisation, he’s been packed for weeks. Then he messages on Friday morning, after a horrendous night sleep, he’s tested positive for Covid. This has been a joint goal for many years and I’m gutted for him that all his hard work would not be acknowledged but also for me. I love Stuart’s company and hadn’t anticipated standing on the start line without him.
I’d asked lots of previous Spine finishers for advice. I re-read all of their wonderful pearls of wisdom. My favourite was from John Knapp, to treat it as the hardest running challenge, to test myself, will you be one of those that can still run when you hit the Cheviots? And also look forward to witnessing dawn break over snow covered hills with yours the only footprints in sight. Now that’s the image I needed to hope for.
I’ve booked the same ‘Happy Feet’ cottage in Bradwell, 15 minutes from Edale. The drive down is dodgy as snow has fallen and our satnav takes us down precarious little roads. We travel down on Friday so I can relax and enjoy it. I’d forgotten about the damn village clock that rings quarter-hourly from 5am – 12pm. Oh my good god!
Registration is quick on the Saturday. Now I only have to eat some pasta, repack my bag so it doesn’t rub and tape my feet and body. As usual I’m a bundle of nerves.
Edale – Hebden Hey 46 miles, 2442m
Checking the weather I’m concerned we’ll have issues just getting to the start with heavy snowfall forecast for Edale valley in the morning. Luckily it’s a damp start and we arrive in plenty of time to get my tracker fitted. A few toilet stops and lots of family hugs then on to the muddy start line. It feels like some strange reunion. I’ve met a lot of racers through DB, FKT support or similar challenges.
It’s a damp but pretty run along the fields and lanes to Jacob’s Ladder as the sun lightens the wintry sky. Unfortunately, for the whole day, the sun seems to be in the opposite direction of travel, and we always head into the darkest clouds. It’s a day of intermittent rain and sleet, dark heavy clouds and sun struggling to lighten the sky. Kinder is cloaked in fog and light snowfall, but is beautiful nonetheless.
Over the paving slabs Michael catches me up and we spend the day passing each other until the checkpoint. The paving slabs are a threat themselves, occasionally slick with ice or when you think they’ll be safe, as they’re deep under water, you find you skid anyway.
Bleaklow is busy with walkers, I miss the river crossing by a few metres and have to backtrack. The muddy descent to Torside is fun although the tracks are busy as there is a race heading in the opposite direction.
I enjoy the run around and onto Laddow rocks. It’s an interesting landscape. There are quite a few river crossings here which are precarious, deep with moss-covered rocks. I have been known to fall straight in so I take my time to ensure no silly slips. Everything by then is sodden and the mud, thick and slippy.
I’m not so fond of this stretch until Malham Tarn. It’s dark now and we pass over quite bleak landscape. Passing over the M62 is always a strange feeling, you feel removed from reality. I soon join up with Nicola, Mike, Gary, John, Mark and Debbie. With John leading at a tremendous pace it’s a lovely group to be in.
Fields go on forever as does the god forsaken muddy stream tracks. Eventually we reach Hebden Hey CP. I have a quick refuel and resupply my bag before I’m on my way.
Hebden Hey – Hawes 61 miles, 3195m
I feel pretty sickly after the checkpoint, too much food, too many cups of tea. I’m not sure but I can’t stomach anything and my motivation is dropping to zero. After not long I’ve caught Gary up again and we make our way over the muddy fields and misty tracks to Lothersdale. Here we’re treated to blankets, tea and bacon sarnies. Debbie urges me on and we make a team over the next few miles. It’s again misty but dry now, although sodden under foot. There’s a fair bit of wading through the drenched fields that run alongside the river. It’s a slog in the darkness and I’m now desperate for the sky to lighten. I start to have lots of hallucinations, deer grazing… I’m really disappointed they turn into bails of hay! Dogs, lots of happy dogs. Then the sun comes up and as if by magic I no longer feel quite so exhausted.
Malham Cove is gorgeous in the pinkish morning light. There are small highland cattle up the rock-strewn path towards the tarn. I try to run to the mini-checkpoint and finally reach it to see Debbie and Mark have arrived a little ahead. I stop for a rehydrated meal and some tea. Then spend a little time messing with my layers. It’s still damp out and I know as I ascend Fountains Fell it’ll be cooler. I make my way up, it’s snowy on the top and visibility is good. I can now see Pen-y-ghent, the next climb of the day. I’m starting to wonder why I chose to put myself through this, it makes no sense.
I’m surprised to see John waiting to cheer me up the path. He plays ‘Snowman’ (by Sia, not Aled Jones!) on his phone, a song I’ve driven my kids mad with over Christmas, and I sing it to myself as I climb up. I enjoy the ascent, there’s an interesting scramble. My descent is slow, I don’t want to risk going too fast and suffering with quad soreness. It takes an age to eventually reach the compulsory checkpoint. The photographer had promised food and I’m heartbroken to find no supplies there. It’s here I’m told Sabrina has retired and I’m now 2nd. I should be happy but I’ve hit the Horton hell and I’m not a happy bunny. I also know it’s far too early to get excited about placings. I’m not sure what it is but I had the same dip on the Challenger. It takes me a while to bring myself round, urged on by the thought of catching people, although I’m confused and disheartened that the people I’m catching shouldn’t really be ahead of me (I later realise they are the last of the Challenger runners.)
Cam High Road I actually quite like, it’s got its very own climate and never fails to test. This evening is windy, icy, lots of snow and deep pools of melted ice, and to cap it all off, fog. I hold my headtorch for better visibility. Going is slow.
Hawes is finally reached and I’m glad to get some warm food.
Hawes – Middleton-in-Teesdale 34 miles, 1871m
I waste time here, too excited to sleep, the dorm is too busy for rest, 6 other people snoring and farting in the darkness, the waterpipes chug and together create a horrendous cacophony. I maybe get an hour of the 3 I’d given myself, I spend a while getting my feet taped. Then as I try to force my feet into my trainers I realise how swollen they are. I have brought 2 more shoes which are increasingly bigger sizes. I can barely fit them in the largest trainer. I eventually squish them in, they’re exceedingly painful and I make a stumbling exit out of the CP. One of the staff is concerned by my gait and walks with me for a bit. It doesn’t ease up until I’m at the top of Great Shunner Fell. The ascent is awful. Lots of swearing and screaming to try to cope with the pain. The top is still cloaked in fog and I’m very slow. I honestly don’t think I can get to the finish with my feet already in this state. I’m eventually caught by Nikki. I think the icy water covering the slabs went a long way to numb and shrink my feet and by the time she arrives I’m far better. Her company seems to distract me and I start to move faster. We keep each other company until the Tan Hill Inn where Nikki stops for a sleep by the roaring fire. I kick myself, this would have been a better place to stop, rather than at Hawes. After a quick coffee and snack I’m off on my own across Sleightholme bog.
I hadn’t looked forward to it, I HATE bogs, it isn’t quite as bad as I’d remembered. Very wet under foot but not much sinkage. I can see a man’s headtorch in front and make it my goal to catch him on this stretch. I like games and this cheers me up. I’m filled again with a positivity. I’ve recced this next section pretty much to the end, apart from diversions. I know it, I’ve supported on numerous FKTs. If I can safely traverse Cross Fell, that godforsaken hill, the highest on the route, so pleasant it has its own special wind, I’ll be fine. And with that the sun rises and my spirits are heightened. I don’t feel sickly and now time my fuelling far better than the first few days. I feel like I’m on home turf, closing in on County Durham. There’s a warm, fuzzy, safe feeling. I don’t need to look at my GPS or touch my map at all. I’m sure I wasn’t skipping but I certainly felt like it. I catch Merijn up and although we don’t really talk, his company is welcomed. He shoots off on the descents and I pass on the ascents.
To make it even better, Geoff and Susan are waiting at the hill overlooking Middleton to give me a quick cheer, then John appears, although he’s a bit annoying as he runs towards me to say ‘Hi!’ then quickly turns and speeds away back down my favourite grassy descent into Middleton. The checkpoint staff are wonderful, I’m greeted with cheers and the biggest smile ever. I have a gorgeous chicken korma and I am soon packed up ready to go. Only time to squeeze my feet into my shoes again…not too bad as I’ve not stopped for long and I’ve sat with them raised for the duration.
On the wall is the quote by TS Elliot ‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ Very fitting under the circumstances, and I hold onto this for the rest of my journey.
Sun streaming through the windows promises a great afternoon following the Tees up to Cauldron Snout. I’m looking forward to getting it done before darkness falls.
Middleton-in-Teesdale – Alston 39 miles, 2002m
It’s one of my favourite sections of the whole of the Pennine Way as it dances beside the River Tees. Crossing fields, rivers – where the usual stepping stones are submerged. Passing Low and High Force, both thundering with the huge volume of water. I’ve never seen them so full. It becomes increasingly isolated as you head up the valley and follow it round to clamber over the rocks on the way to Cauldron Snout. I see someone waving above the falls and think it’s one of the safety team. I enjoy the scramble up to reach the track. There Geoff and Susan are waiting to wish me well into the night.
It’s not long until Mark catches me up again and we keep each other company until Dufton. I’m suffering now. The sleep monsters have me in their grasp. Absolutely exhausted, I’m falling asleep on my feet. I have a gel to see if that helps but I’m just in desperate need of sleep. I’m allowed to catnap for 20mins on chairs. But I have to leave in 30mins. I go up Knock Fell with a flask full of hot sweet coffee not at all feeling my best and really not relishing the thought of Cross Fell in the state I’m in.
The paths are disgusting. Has the farmer made a special visit to churn all these lanes up? Eventually, I cross the footbridge and I am on the main climb towards Knock. I reach the top relatively quickly then things start to go wrong. Fog descends, visibility is awful, my head torch starts playing up.
It’s a long slow traverse across. I mess around on Little Dun Fell trying to remember how to avoid the massive, icy boulders, remembering eventually the slabs to the left. The stretch over Cross Fell seems like it takes forever. Occasionally I spot recent prints which I find comforting. It’s icy with banks of snow. Some of the slabs are covered and hidden in thick ice. I can hardly distinguish the deep bog areas to those protected by slabs. I step through ice and have a searing pain round my ankle…later finding that I have ice burn from this accident as the skin blisters.
Absolute relief when I finally reach Cross Fell shelter, I could have danced. I yell ‘fuck!’ multiple times into the foggy night. Coming off the side I think I remember the way, I head in the right direction but simultaneously my watch and head torch fail. I’m quite cold and losing the plot, I get my head torch sorted and get my GPS out. I head down towards the Pennine Way path but end up going into Cross Fell Well. I’m up to my knees wading through boggy shit. There are sink holes. Occasionally I see a light or headtorch and know I’m not far off and Greg’s Hut is just metres away and with great relief I finally get onto the proper track.
John Bamber and his amazing team are waiting. They pile hot water bottles on me, give me hot chocolate and the famous chilli wak noodles. I’m shivering and coughing badly, I decide to stay to try to sleep and get myself properly sorted. It’s still a long way to Alston Checkpoint. I climb into a sleeping bag with multiple foil blankets hot water bottles etc, the shivering finally settles and I fall into a deep, deep sleep. Honestly I could have happily stayed cocooned in the warmth as the wind howled round the building.
I wake feeling stupid. I’ve no idea how to get myself out of the bag or how long I’ve been there. But I feel a million times better. My so-called ‘Spine Cough’ means I have to do a lateral flow test in Greg’s Hut. I sort my pack, spend a few minutes with my feet in the air so I don’t have to force them back into my trainers. John reassures me that the wind will be on my back for the descent to Garrigill.
It’s a long 6m but not as bad or rocky underfoot as I’d remembered. Out of the fog the moon has decided to make an appearance and it’s a pleasant run down. Then a pretty route along the Tyne Trail to Alston. It criss-crosses the river and passes over fields. The sky starts to lighten again. It takes forever though. Finally I reach Alston, Fiona is waiting with a hug. I thought I’d chatted but Fiona is later to tell me sleepy Elaine makes little sense.
Alston – Bellingham 40 miles, 1674m
I finally leave at 1 pm, kicking myself for loss of light but I really needed sleep. I shed more tears coming out of Alston, my feet are again in agony having squeezed them back into my trainers. The last few legs have shown it eases after a mile or so. It does and I again pick up my pace and my mood improves. It’s a beautiful afternoon, sunny skies with few clouds, great visibility, the ground isn’t as muddy as it has been.
The Angel of Slaggyford is out with coffee and cake, she’s in a north-east running club so is making a special effort to help me along! I stop to chat and drink the coffee and cake on offer before I turn up the lane and across the fields.
Richard who is volunteering on the medical team is there to greet me too as I pass under the railway bridge. Just as he was on his dad’s Pennine Journey FKT he’s lovely and encouraging.
There are lots of groups of ramblers out who don’t understand my rush.
All of the stiles, so many stiles. Honestly, which dickhead invented the fucking stile?
Someone has left two large boxes filled with goodies and painkillers for Spiners. I take a couple of sweets and head into the darkness.
There’s a bog I’ve not been looking forward to, I think I mentioned, I HATE bogs. Blenkinsopp Common, I renamed it Blenkinshit bog. Before this I know there’s a creepy farm I wasn’t too fond to pass through in daylight never mind in darkness. As I reach the entrance a man is waiting with a video camera in hand and pointed towards me, he wants to interview me… which consists of ‘you’re Elaine Bisson’ then he asks me to autograph his book. I stop briefly to sign and speedily make a sharp exit… now glad to be on the stinking moor. Again it’s not as bad as the previous time and I make easy progress and I am soon welcomed by distant lights from houses and cars travelling on the A69. It’s a nice downhill then a traverse along a track toward the road crossing into Greenhead. I’ve run this section many times now.
I stop at Greenhead toilets to make a hot chocolate. Dawn has come out to wish me well. I leave, buzzing, but soon the warm buzz wears off. How did the wall get so long? Bloody Romans! The diversion has extended the torture even more and in addition we’re redirected along the muddiest god awful tracks. My GPX track doesn’t quite match up to the ground. Its frustrating and I can feel the chasing hounds closing in on me.
Again my headtorch packs in in the middle of the boggy field. It used to kindly flash a warning well in advance, now it flashes once then konks out. FFS! At the end of a field heading onto the road I’m creeped out by two car headlights. It’s fine, of course it is, there can’t be anyone stranger than me out in the middle of the night surely?! It’s just someone from HQ checking how I’m doing, he knows I’ve had a long day on my own.
There’s a long section of road until finally a few incredibly muddy paths before Horneystead Farm. I stop there to try to warm up again, my pace has dropped in the mud. I make myself a hot drink and refill my bottle with sweet coffee. I’d considered sleep but I’m concerned I’ll be caught. The race has begun…
Onto the next bit, John Knapp is on the road to cheer me on. I start worrying that my slowing pace over the diversion and through all of the mud has meant people will catch me. I climb up Shitlington Crags expecting headtorches to be closing in, there’s nothing in sight. Finally I hit Bellingham. Something seems to have changed in my brain now. It’s as if I’m no longer just in survival mode, I’m fighting to maintain my position. I want to hold onto that second female place, I want a top 10. I’m on the home straight……… 25 miles long and not very straight!
I don’t want to stop for long, I’m exhausted but I don’t want to waste daylight. I also know if someone turns up looking fresher than me, my confidence will slip. So I’m all guns blazing to finish. I refuse to take my trainers off. I don’t want the pain and wasted miles plodding until the pain subsides. I ask if I can bag my feet up. They kindly find some aprons and tape. It feels like a very organised pit stop. I give myself long enough to recharge my headtorches and my watch. I restock my bag, get out my big coat and close my eyes… I ask for a maximum of 10 minutes, then I’m on my way whisked off to the final leg of my adventure, nodding off in the warm car. I wake to “Elaine are you awake, we’re nearly there”. It takes me a minute or two to get with it again. It feels odd to be bundled off with my bags and dropped half asleep in the middle of nowhere, near a forest track. Like some sick and surreal game.
Byrness – Kirk Yetholm 25 miles, 1525m
You can see the devastation that Storm Arwen wreaked through the county here, enormous trees are uprooted, some snapped mid-trunk.
The day is promising to be glorious. There’s a warmth in my heart, I’m determined to enjoy it, to look up at the views and take it all in. The sun’s rays peeping through the clouds. The gorgeous colours, brown, orange, and purple hues of the rolling hills.
I promise myself I’ll move quickly to put as much distance between me and the others. I promise myself to run all the flat, minor hills and downs and do my very best uphill stomp. I start to enjoy the game. I’ve been on the slabs so much, I know the rolls. It’s home, and my final push towards hugs, a shower, clean clothes, hot food, tea, gin, and my very own bed…
I’m amazed by all of the herds of goats I come across, I’ve been here a lot and only once have I fleetingly seen the elusive Cheviot goats. Today they seem to be everywhere. There’s a herd on the path who are quite frisky, some of the females are charging at each other. I have to clap and whistle to move them away, I think wouldn’t it be awful to make it this far then be trampled by a herd of mini-Cheviot goats!
It’s just stunning, my best day. There’s a sense of solitude but a comfort knowing that I’m closing in on home. There’s a peace that you can’t find anywhere else but on the fells. It doesn’t matter that it’s minus 6 windchill, I’ve got my big coat, my buffalo smock and I’m wearing my goggles… nothing can stop me now.
Then I hit the STUPID wooden boards taking us through the bogs. Which idiot thought they’d be a good idea? How many other people have lost their footing and landed smack on their backs? I’ve slowed, as I know my trainers skid but despite all of my efforts I skid anyway. I’m falling in slow motion, I have time to think how can I get out of this and land safely then it’s too late. Smack! right onto my back and hip. Thankfully I have a big pack protecting most of my back but my hip takes the full force. I lie for a few seconds until I know I’m ok and drag myself up cursing the bloody idiot and the fucking slippy boards.
On my way up to the turning to The Schil a runner stops to chat. He tells me I have a good lead over the next runner, that I don’t need to panic, keep going, protect the finish.
Hut 2 is finally reached and it’s starting to get very cold and blustery with considerable windchill. I have to stop to get my headtorch out and wrap up better. I wonder if I should treat myself to a full beam head light but then think of the panic I’ll be in if I have to start messing with battery changes so opt for the lower light.
It takes an age to get off the hill on to the road. The last time I was here was for John Kelly’s FKT, he was surrounded with an excitable group urging him to the finish. This time for me is even more momentous but it’s strange as it’s just me. No group huddled together urging me home. I start to hallucinate again. They make me smile, all of the bushes and grass that turn into dogs and cats, the fields covered in cotton candy sticks and lollipops, the people I think are waiting to run with me…
I keep nodding off on the road and nearly walk into a tree. It’s disheartening now after moving so well across the Cheviots that my pace is slowed and I realise my slow plod is far faster than my attempt at a run. The sleep monsters have got their hold on me.
I finally see lights.
The gorgeous pinky-orange hoops of the finish.
I’m not sure how I thought I’d feel on reaching the finish after 107 gruelling hours. Elation? Overwhelming happiness? In my heart I do feel those, but instead of smiling from ear to ear, my eyes fill with tears. The huge wave of relief. The sense of achievement that I’d done what I’d been most scared of. The absolute joy. All of these emotions roll into one. With brain battered and body spent, all I can do is stumble to the wall and cry.
The next few days are tough. I can’t sleep, my feet are swollen and incredibly painful, my knees hurt. I struggle to sleep and when I do fall asleep I keep waking disorientated in a panic that I’m in a field and can’t find my headtorch, I need to keep moving, I haven’t reached Kirk Yetholm yet…
Despite all of this, I’m already wondering how can I improve? What can I do better? I can’t help myself thinking about doing it all again…
Jamie Rutherford Photography, Racing Snakes, Will Roberts, Tallis Sasz, John Bisson