I had been following Allan’s marathon training plan – albeit now without a marathon to train for. I have found it hugely helpful to continue to follow the plan, as it’s given me a sense of purpose and consistency in a world which at the minute is unpredictable and forever changing. The plan on the other hand is a constant in a sea of change. It tells me what to do, and I do it. It also keeps me feeling connected to Allan, and to Anna whom I had been training with for London.
Usually the plan is fairly straightforward – it gives me a number of miles to run, and Allan’s advice was to run the majority of these “by feel”. This is what I have been doing, although I am very aware that how I feel is now a lot slower than I would have been had I still been training for a marathon which was going to happen. That’s partly because of everything happening in the world, and the mental and physical exhaustion that I feel as a result. It’s also purposeful – as an NHS doctor I am a key worker, and I feel strongly the responsibility to do all I can to stay well and at work. This means not putting my body under undue stress and pressure. Too many long or hard runs may reduce immunity, and a long hard run is definitely off the cards at present.
So today’s run was a conundrum. The “special run” is one of the stalwarts of the plan. It’s a marathon pace driven 15 mile run, with some intervals thrown in just for good measure! The original plan which Anna and I had created was slightly bonkers – we’ve learned that having some bonkers plans in amongst the serious stuff keeps our running fun! We’d planned to take Friday 3rd April off work, stay over in Roker on the Thursday night, go for a nice carb loading Italian with a mutual friend, then run along the coast together following the Special Run pace plan on Friday morning, enabling me to get back to Durham in time to catch the train to Manchester to watch Rory, Nik, Karen and numerous other Striders run the Manchester Marathon on the Sunday. Given the fuss I was making about London I had also planned an indulgent weekend away with Rory, who had missed out on a Good for Age place in London by 19 seconds when they adjusted the time goals.
Clearly now none of these previous plans were going to happen, so I needed a creative solution to the “special run”, and so began the forming of a plan…… I decided I was going to run 15 miles starting at home and following a route that would be special to me. This was to run routes which reminded me of happy times – and for me this meant Striders training sessions.
I loved this run! Whilst I had to run it alone, and at stupid o’clock in the morning to make sure I was assured of observing social distancing on such a long route, running these familiar routes meant that I was accompanied by memories of friends throughout.
I ran from home along the A167 towards County Hall. This initial stretch of the A167 was part of a 7mm 10 mile route which Anna and I had offered to lead on a Wednesday Striders night– we had no other takers! It was a lovely run though just the two of us, reminiscent of our Brampton to Carlisle run in distance and pace but had felt more comfortable than B2C– a sure sign that our training was going well.
I then arrived at County Hall and did some reps of the car park with a couple of efforts up the hill (clearly I can’t stop myself from doing some pace work – the competitive Type A personality is strong!). I had Stephen in my mind, telling me to maintain my form, Jan encouraging me up the hills, I was remembering Peter pipping me to the finish on the final hill rep, and chasing Michael and Graeme up the hills (not winning that one!). I was remembering friendly hugs from Juan, and drinks and chat with Wendy and Chris afterwards.
From there I made my way down to the riverbanks, and ran the final stretch of Parkrun – again unable to resist putting in an effort and pretending it was a sprint finish! I was reminiscing on a number of previous fast finishes there, personally when pacing 25 min with Kathryn and Malcolm finishing just close by. Lovely chats with Karen and Lesley afterwards, and hearing about David and Juan battling out the finishes.
Next up was a cut through the woods towards Maiden Castle, and a run along the riverbanks, across the bridge opposite the Rose Tree, then back along the other side of the banks towards Noisy Bridge. This was a route that Anna and I had run often as a warm up prior to our early Tuesday morning track sessions with Allan. Frosty mornings had not deterred us, although today was sunny and warm by comparison. As I approached Noisy Bridge I had Allan in mind again, his spot at Parkrun provided an opportunity to think of him and to be thankful for all he gave so many of us. The track was not too far away, and that also provided a number of lovely fun memories of times spent there – the Christmas run being the most recent with inflatable Santas, Mince Pies and chocolates! I toasted the front of Maiden Castle with a Kendal Mint Cake gel – my new running food of choice. I was imagining Striders gathered outside MC doing stretches and cool downs, and the good humoured banter that goes along with that (including Lesley’s scarecrow joke which had Phil, Mark, Rory and I in stitches – for all the wrong reasons!)
Onwards to the club run route – I ran one lap this time round, remembering the first time I had done this route. Stephen came flying past towards the middle of the first lap, looking supremely comfortable. I had commented to Alex B that it was so unfair that Stephen looked so comfortable – Alex said something that would stay with me – he pointed out that the “speedies “ were trying just as hard as the rest of us, and it wasn’t easy for anyone. Too true! Running through the woods today was brilliant – quiet, peaceful, birds and squirrels galore.
After the club run route I headed up towards the science site, remembering a club run there a couple of years ago which was great fun. Michael and Fiona had organized a 3 drill run – reps of the hill, laps of the carpark, and a Parlouf style run towards South Road. I had been paired with Anna M, and we’d had great fun. I again couldn’t resist a couple of efforts on the hills and flats. Going up the hill I had Allan R in my head – “go, go, go” – how he has the energy and breath to shout encouragement whilst still going at some speedy pace himself I will never know!
I then returned to South Road and made my way to the Theatre of Dreams. This holds so many happy memories – I was a regular last year and that was when I really started to see my times improve. I thought the track was for speedies, and had avoided it in favour of 10k routes around town, but the idea of running round a car park was not so intimidating so I really took to it and the interval training it provided reaped big rewards. I had really enjoyed chasing Peter, Mark, David, Alex, Matthew C and Anna M round in circles – we were all very close in pace and had great fun lots of Wednesday evenings. I enjoyed watching Michael and Mark K go flying past, often joined by Graeme in close succession. Seeing Lisa L improve her times here, along with so many others, made it a lovely social occasion.
The last stop was Low Burnhall where I had Elaine in my mind, funny warm up dances, and setting off far to quickly on the first efforts at a pace that I could not sustain throughout despite desperate attempts to do so. I’m not naturally a cross country runner, but I do enjoy trying. Memories of Nina and Jan encouraging me to try to catch Elaine, and of Barrie going flying up the hills, as well as lots and lots and lots of mud….
Back along the A167 I had meant to jog the final mile, but the legs felt good, so I decided to go for it – and ended the run to find I’d got a second place Strava trophy for the “A167 short section” segment, only behind Tracy Millmore on the leaderboard – not bad for the end of a 15 mile run! Clearly my legs are still in decent condition, and the urge to race has not left me! In fact perhaps I’d better to back out and try for that crown soon……
This was a great run – showing that although we are socially distancing, we are not socially distant. My Striders friends were with me throughout that run, in my mind and thoughts. I look forward to the time when we can be together again in person, but until then the Striders family remains a source of strength, inspiration and great memories!
After sacking off Manchester Marathon due to a slight Achilles issue in January, I was looking to revise my springtime race calendar once the ankle allowed me to run again. My first port of call is as always, the club GP fixture list, it offers such a diverse range of events I couldn’t recommend it more to any of our new members looking to do something slightly different, chances are there’s always going to be at least one other strider there. Saying that I’m fairly new to the off road stuff, other than the harrier league, I’d ran in a couple of races over the Christmas period and managed to place 8th at Captain Cook’s on New Year’s Day so I was keen to give road racing a break and have a bash at more fell races.
Bilsdale was next on the agenda, £10 entry, 15 miles and just shy of 4000ft of climb. Lovely.
I have absolutely zero knowledge of the North York Moors so when Fiona B suggested a quick trip down for a recce a few weeks before the race I jumped at it, the only problem with this was that it was the day Thornley got cancelled because of Storm Ciara. The wind was absolutely crazy, on the descents you could lean forward and the gusts would hold you up like a scene from a Michael Jackson video, at least it can’t be any worse than this on race day I thought! However, in the time between our recce and race day, the Lambton Estate HL fixture was rescheduled for the Saturday before Bilsdale. This put me in a bit of a predicament knowing how demanding Bilsdale was going to be and given that the men’s team were joint second in Division 1 and with a big turn out there was potential to top the league. I was never in any doubt that I would participle in Lambton but just how hard I would go, maybe I could take it easy for two laps and push on the final? These thoughts rattled round up until about five minute before the gun when I saw Nina just after finishing the ladies race, she was also doing Bilsdale and I think her exact words were, “it’s a different kind of race tomorrow, it’ll be fine”. Needless to say I went hard from the off…
Arriving at Chopgate village hall early on the Sunday morning for registration, everyone was a bit precautious with the handshakes and congregating in close proximity to each other due to the current climate, but everyone seemed to be grateful that this, unlike so many other events was still going ahead. Having had my kit check complete, picked up my number I had a meander round the car park eyeing up the competition; I’d already done my usual cross-check of last years’ results and this years’ participants, followed by a browse on power of 10 and Strava profiles… In the build-up I was quietly confident that if things went well, I could place quite high in the field. What I’ve learnt in my short tenure in fell racing is that things don’t always go the way you plan.
The start is at the bottom of the first climb, quarter of a mile or so on tarmac before turning off onto a trail and up to the first steepish section. I started off in the lead pack of 4, an easy pace compared to what I’m use to but I knew what lay ahead warranted the slower pace, the pack began to spread out by a few yards and I made an error by following the guy in front instead of looking up at the tracks. By going round instead of straight up a climb I lost a bit of time and two guys from Durham Uni passed me by taking the shorter route, I carried on at the easy pace regardless knowing that from CP1 there was a long stretch of downhill that I could open up my legs and try to regain some of that distance. The looped one way system at CP1 allowed a quick thumbs up to both Michael and Barrie before putting my head down and picking the pace up down towards the road crossing, thankfully the wind wasn’t too bad on this section and I started to slowly reel in the two lads in front. They were just starting the climb up the steps from the road as I was crossing it, this is where the efforts from the XC the day before began to make itself known; from the road to CP2 is a continuous climb up and my legs started to feel it big time. I looked at my watch, 5 miles, wow I was in for a long day if I’m hurting already. I plodded on, not really making time on the lads in front and no one had passed me so at least I was breaking even, passing CP2 and heading round towards The Wainstones where I made another bad call on the route.
During my recce we went straight through the stones and down but pre-race Barrie mentioned there was an easier trail that went round to the left, I did neither and found myself doing a few zigzags/parkour leaps until I found a way out and back onto the route, passing Zoe and the kids spectating. After another climb up to CP3 and the subsequent descent where again, I made another error following the guy in front by bearing left after a gate we started to climb again and when we approached a junction I knew we were in the wrong. I followed the trail on the right to get a better view and down below as expected, I could see a few runners heading towards the scout hut at CP4; I had two options here, either head back to the gate and get on the right route inevitably losing more time or as the crow flies straight down through the bushes, I decided on the latter more fun option. The climb out from CP4 towards the stone seat absolutely killed me, my legs were absolutely screaming by this point and I could have quite happily face planted and slide all the way back down. I opted not pursue with this strategy though and carried on slowly climbing, from the stone seat was pretty uneventful for me heading back down and electing for “the shoot” route towards the stream checkpoint (CP6), from here the route was flagged up to a small road section to keep us pesky runners off someone’s land. This time round the tarmac section seemed so much longer and steeper than what I remembered from our recce.
There was further uncertainty among a few of us on the route to CP7 but no major issues or loss of further time, Jan was marshalling at this checkpoint and she called out I was in 11th, people ahead must have missed this checkpoint as I thought I was further down the pack. Slowly getting to the top of the climb a walker and his grandson stopped to ask me what the race was, welcoming a very quick break for my worn legs I stopped and pretty much had shout over the howling wind for him to hear me. From here it was anyone’s guess at the best route down to CP8, I carried on down the firmer track until I thought it was the best time to veer left through the heather and down to the gate; I’d overshot it by about 200m and ended up on a small track with runners heading towards me, that’s never a good sign but it didn’t look like I had lost too much time by the time I had U-turned at the checkpoint. From here on I was pretty confident of the route and there were no major hiccups in route selection, the biggest challenge now was just getting to the end, I had absolutely no power left in my legs; I’d already had a gel and even tucked into my emergency food supply.
Heading out of Scugdale (CP9) I had a brief chat with another runner who gladly pointed out this was the last climb, once at the top and heading towards CP10 I employed a run/walk strategy with the first signs of cramp in my right quad showing, I didn’t want to push too hard to have to walk the whole way back to Chopgate. The twinges in my quad became slightly more bearable so I gingerly dropped the walk element of the run/walk strategy and plodded on to Cock Howe Cairn, the final check point, I felt a slight wave of relief overcome me as I knew it was all downhill from here. My legs were too far gone by this point to even try and pick up the pace, I had to use all my energy to concentrate where I was putting my feet regardless of hearing the panting of someone behind me, I couldn’t even muster the effort to try and put in a spurt to hold him off and he went flying passed towards the finish. With about 200m to go, from behind, I heard “COME ON GEORGIE!!”, it was Fiona coming in fast and we eventually finished with about 10 seconds between us. She finished first lady, a brilliant performance. I scuttled straight round to my car and chugged a bottle of water and got some warm clothes on before heading into the village hall to have a delightful cheese pasty and piece of red velvet cake to regain some calorific goodness.
Regardless of the pain I was feeling for pretty much 66% of the race, this was a great event in a great location and as long as it doesn’t land on the same weekend as a HL fixture next year I will definitely be back – it has only contributed to my ever growing love for fell racing.
The 2019-20 cross country season saw its fair share of disruption. Lambton Estate was a new fixture this season but the first attempt was rained off and it was rescheduled to March. Druridge Bay suffered the same fate and by the time Thornley Hall Farm came around in February there wasn’t an option to postpone it and it was cancelled.
Then, with the season heading towards its close, COVID-19 has put its oar in. Lambton wasn’t cancelled but it was reaching a point where individually people were starting to question whether they should be taking part. Men’s cross country Captain Stephen put out a message to the club encouraging everyone to judge participation individually and to be sensible about how we conduct ourselves. At that stage, it was a tricky balance between avoiding unnecessary risk and wanting to contribute and support the club. In the end I judged it reasonable for me to attend. Subsequently, the Harrier League organisers had to cancel the Druridge Bay re-run, so it turned out to be the last race of the season.
We went into the fixture with the mens team 3rd in the league, tied on points with second-placed Gateshead Harriers and 3 points behind Sunderland Harriers in first place. Blaydon Harriers were breathing down our necks just one point behind. We had an outside chance to win the league and a great opportunity to finish in second; we just needed a massive performance.
The women’s team started out equal fifth on points with North Shields Poly. They seemed secure in the league but Heaton and Elswick Harriers were poised within a few points to strike.
I’d picked up new member Tom Dutton and rising XC superstar Alex Mirley to give them a lift. For once I arrived in time to see the start of the women’s race and there was a good section of the taped area taken up by Striders men cheering them on. Also for a change, I was well prepared and was quickly geared up and ready to go for a warm up, unlike my normal rush to get my number on before jogging to the start, which isn’t the best starting line experience. I got to cheer on some of the women finishing, right up until the point that the slow pack got called up to the start.
Waiting for the start is always a nervous excitement. I haven’t been a counter for our team yet but I normally try to get to the front of the pack to at least give the other clubs someone they have to get around. And I reckon that extra couple of metres, that odd second, might just come in handy later.
The gun went off and away we charged towards the first turn and the stable block before hitting the tarmac estate road and starting the steep descent towards the river. There were plenty of people in spikes opting for the grass verges but I’d decided on studs much earlier in the week and was confident in my choice. There were a couple of brilliant steep drops at the bottom of the hill which took us to the riverside and onto the main track, where I was finally able to settle into a more sensible pace.
Measuring it afterwards, the track was about 1,200m long until hitting the climb that we knew would come. I’d settled quickly into a good pace alongside Peter Telford from DCH – we get on well, but there was no chat and both of us had our game faces on. I could see Geoff Davies’ and Robin Parsons’ vests bobbing around in the pack not too far ahead and I had hopes that I might be able to at least keep them in sight.
I ran the first Lambton 10k back in 2014 and knew the hill back up would be steep and unpleasant and I wasn’t disappointed, with 30m of climb in about 300m. It never sounds as much in numbers as it feels at the time in the legs and lungs. I was pleased to reach the top, though, feeling strong and able to keep up my pace while I recovered from the climb with others gasping around me. I picked the easiest line around the field edge at the top to save my legs and we were quickly into the woods heading back to the entrance road. Once there, the tarmac / grass verge choice was only about 50 metres long before heading back into the trees and by far the wettest part of the course (apart from the river). Choosing the right line was critical to balance a longer detour against the strength-sapping mud of a direct route.
The estate had also generously included a fallen tree to add to the decision-making – drier but longer to hurdle the low part, or straight line through (reasonably) deep water? The first time around I went for the detour and was amazed that the person in front virtually stopped to clamber over the tree – I planted my foot on the trunk and launched myself past him while he faffed.
Once off that ride, the paths dried a bit to vary between flat and firm to deeply claggy, but all still eminently runnable. After a few twists and turns there was a short drop and we were passing through the gates into the castle grounds. No-one was stopping to admire the architecture from the front lawn, though, and in moments we were back onto the road and turning right into lap 2.
The arrangement of the field was great with the start and finish areas close to each other, which meant we had brilliant support. I was so focused on the race that I don’t remember everyone who was yelling encouragement, but I remember Joanne and Wendy, with Jan and Nina roaming the course as well. Sorry to those I can’t remember but your shouts made a massive difference, they do every time.
The second descent was fast and uneventful but as I hit the track again I could see Geoff and Robin ahead – was I actually gaining on them? I’d also realised that in between them and me I had Paul Swinburne’s vest as a closer target to aim for. Perhaps this thought was too tempting as I overcooked the 2nd climb and went a bit too deep, taking longer than I would have liked to recover at the top. Going back into the woods, I was more adventurous at the fallen tree, going for the middle option but also spotting some of the Medium / Fast pack runners overtaking on the straight line.
Round we went again and by the third visit to the long track, I realised I had fallen away from Geoff again. I realised that I’d dropped Peter but I’m not sure where that was – perhaps the first climb, I wasn’t really paying attention, just running my own race.
I got the third climb just right, pushing as hard as I dared but able to recover normally at the top. I was gradually gaining on Paul and at the tree I took the direct (wet) line and came alongside him. My dreams of picking him off weren’t to be though, he started to lift his pace through the woods and I couldn’t match him from that far out.
There was no-one immediately behind me as I passed the castle (confirmed by a quick glance over my shoulder at the bend) and there was a good crowd in front so I knew I was aiming to pick up places in the finish rather than defend from behind. I hit the grass and put the hammer down, driven on by the encouraging shouts from the spectating Striders. I managed to pick up one place but the second was too strong and he held on.
In the end, I finished 6 seconds behind Paul Swinburne, 29 seconds down on Geoff and 35 on Robin, coming in 173 out of 325 and lowest scorer of the Striders D team. I really felt as though I’d acquitted myself well, an improvement on previous XC races. Even Jan Young said I was a cross country runner now!
We came second on the day and second overall for the season. The women’s team managed an excellent 6th and maintained their place in the top division, an even better achievement because we only had 7 runners. Fiona has already summarised some of the other great club results from the day but I wanted to add a couple of other observations. We fielded 5 male teams – 30 runners, the most of any club. Gateshead Harriers didn’t manage a full team. DCH had 7 runners and placed 9th. Our B team would have placed 5th and every member of our D team (as well as B and C) impacted on DCH’s team score. This truly is a team sport and all runners can have an impact on the result, even if you aren’t a “counter” for the A team.
It’s not that often I attend club training nights. Mainly because I finish work at 3:30 each day so can have ran, come home and have the tea cooking in the oven before the majority of people finish work. However this Wednesday gone I finished work late and opted to come to club training.
Arriving at The University Sports Centre (Formerly known as Maiden Castle) at around 6:45pm there were (as always) no spaces to be found in the main car park so into the Overflow it was. At this point I still hadn’t decided which of the sessions on offer I was going to take part in. did I just want a nice steady run out? Did I want to do some speed work? Did I want to do some Cross Country training? Well if I wanted to do the latter I was in the wrong place!
After hearing the different options available (and having read them on TeamApp) I decided I’d give Michael’s Track alternative the Theatre of Dreams (ToD) a go. My good friend Dave Toth, also making a rare Striders appearance, decided he’d give this a go too.
So announcements over with and assembled outside in our groups off we went.
The warm up for the ToD session is a nice gentle 1.3 mile hill climb up to the Howlands P&R where the main session takes place. Even walking uphill for 1.3 miles would get you successfully warmed up, this was just a nice conversation paced jog to warm the legs up.
Once at the P&R Michael explained what his session was going to be. Four repetitions of six minutes at threshold pace, thirty seconds hard followed by a minutes recovery. Michael defined threshold as Ten mile to Half Marathon pace to save any complicated mathematical calculations taking place which for me would be around 8:45 pace.
A quick blast of the whistle and we were off, first six minutes. Dave and I started this together, both running about the same pace. He couldn’t see his watch (old age!) and I knew it was faster than my threshold pace, but it was comfortable and we stayed together. The six minutes passed and Michael blew the whistle, 30 seconds hard effort. This of course started on the uphill incline for me! Puffing, panting and working hard the whistle for the minutes recovery couldn’t come quick enough! I slowed to a very slow jog to regain my composure ready for the next repetition.
Three more repetitions followed with everyone working hard at their own paces. Come the final hard thirty seconds at the end of the last repetition I had nothing left in my legs and was pleased to hear the whistle one final time for a minute recovery jog.
The cool down was a return to the University Sports Centre, fortunately this time downhill, followed by stretches.
Thank you to Michael and all the other Run Leaders for putting on these sessions each week to allow this club and its members to go from strength to strength.
Fiona Harrington Hughes is very good at talking me into doing races.
We decided to give the Gerry Kearsley winter handicap ago because it was a local race and it was free, we just had to turn up and run. Fiona picked me up at 9 am it was a freezing morning -1 . We found Bishop Middleham Community Centre very easy (easier than we found Temple Park a few weeks ago). We had discussed in the car what times we thought we would do, because I had got a PB at riverside parkrun the day before, I had also done the Brass Monkey half marathon the week before and pushed myself, also it was day 19 of RED January, taking all these into account I put 55 minutes because it was a trail race and I had managed 52.44 at Durham City in the summer. I had a 5 minutes handicap.
It was a very friendly atmosphere in the community centre, Christine from Sedgefield Harriers talked us through the route. It wasn’t a very big turn out, but a few from local clubs, it was mainly Sedgefield Harriers.
The race started at 10 am from just outside the community centre, Fiona set off at 10.03 and I was just 2 minutes after her, my plan was to catch her and stick with her for a nice chat, she had other ideas!
I crept up behind her at about 2.5 mile and shouted “you’re a hard lady to catch” her reply was “go and catch the girl in the pink cap” so I thought ok, I’ll give it ago not thinking that I could catch her.
It was a 2 lap course so once I passed the starting point I knew what was coming. The course was well marshalled who all gave encouragement, I could see the pink cap in the distance she was quite away ahead and I couldn’t seem to close the gap.
I slipped a few times going over the stiles due to the ice, the muddy parts of the course were rock hard due to this. We got onto the old railway lines, it was nice and flat I could still see the pink hat and she wasn’t too far away, the gap was closing but I needed to push a bit more. A Marshall shouted you’re in 2nd place, that give me a lift and I managed to pick up the pace.
The pink cap was getting closer. She was in front of me going through the last field and I got behind her. I knew the last hill was coming, I managed to overtake her going down a short hill and as I hit the bottom of the hill I made my arms go and pushed to the top (last weeks Theatre of Dreams session and hill training came in handy).
I could hear her breathing I knew she was close behind and could overtake at any second. I thought I’m not letting her past.
I had Gemma in my head saying always save a bit for the finish. The finish was just round the corner so I had to dig deep. One last push, but I didn’t know where the finish was.
I turned the corner saw a Marshall and she pointed me to the finish funnel. The girl in the pink cap hadn’t managed to get past me, she was only 2 seconds behind me.
I was 1st! However as it was a handicap I thought I hadn’t won because I knew I wasn’t the fastest. Fiona soon crossed the line followed by the other 2 striders. She was over the moon when she found out I had caught the girl in the pink hat!
I still didn’t think I had properly won, but at the presentation I got presented with a massive plaque (that I get to keep for 6 months and my name will go on), a bottle of Prosecco and a buff.
I had won!
They also did a spot prize and Fiona won a bottle of wine and a buff. We had cleaned up!
We had tea and cake after the race in the community centre. It was a nice friendly race that happens twice a year, the next one is in the summer on a Thursday evening, I would recommend this race because as I have proven you don’t have to be the fastest to WIN.
The Brass Monkey is one of my favourite races, a chance to see ‘where you’re at’ at the beginning of a new year, a new decade in this case. I’d purposely dedicated a four-week block of training to this race, and throughout December I’d managed four consecutive 100 mile weeks, an arbitrary target for the obsessive club runner in me. I’m not blessed with natural top-end speed but I am very lucky in that I’m pretty resilient when it comes to knocking out fairly high mileage without breaking. A preventative flu jab and plenty of vitamin C had got me through December without so much as a sniffle.
A two-week taper, of sorts, including a few much-needed lie-ins over Christmas and I arrived at the start line in good shape. I knew from a few key work outs and a good race at the North Easterns’ that a PB was possible. I’d decided to race, rather that run to a target pace and latched onto the second group, and I was probably only twenty seconds or less behind the leaders at 5k. The pace was quick; but felt comfortably hard. I was on the edge, but that was exactly where I needed to be to run my best.
By 10k I was in a group of 5/6 runners, taking turns to lead the pace. I was deliberately not using too much mental energy off the front, quite happy to ‘tuck in’. We passed through half way in 34:32 – I made a conscious effort to look at my watch at this marker. There was lots of surface water but it was a mild January morning, with very little wind – perfect running conditions really once the rain had subsided early on in the race. Around mile 9 there was a change in the group dynamic, two runners had caught us and began to increase the pace, three or four dropped off the back. Liam Aldridge of Bill Marsh House had finished ahead of me recently at Alnwick and I knew he was running well, I tried to hang on. Kilometre 15 was a 03:12 split, 16 minute 5k pace; I was starting to feel more ‘on the edge’ than before.
Rather than back off I adopted a ‘now or never’ approach, I decided I’d rather blow up than back off too much; not wanting to settle for second best. My experience told me the body sometimes has a little more to give. Suddenly, those early relaxed miles felt a long time ago. It occurred to me I’d had a gob of spit on my chin for a few minutes because I was too tired to wipe it off, I didn’t want anything to break my rhythm. I was still moving fairly well and despite the best efforts of the two guys in front of me they were no further ahead by mile 12, in fact I’d closed the gap a little. I knew a PB was in sight, I just wasn’t sure how big.
I instantly though of coach Allan at mile 12. Every year he made the trip to this race to support Elvet Striders. He would appear after about a mile on the way out, disappear for cake and coffee (of course) before standing at the top of the bank, just as York racecourse is in sight. I realised just how much he will be missed on days like this. “You’re running really well Stephen, just relax”. I suddenly had his voice in my head. Often, he would shout my position, never as high as it was to be this year.
The Spine Challenger – ‘A non stop 108 mile race between Edale and Hawes…This challenging and technical section of the Pennine Way is a physically and psychologically demanding route that demands concentration, good physical fitness, resolve and respect.’
Where to start? I feel shell shocked, overwhelmed and as if the last few days have all been a very strange dream verging at times on a nightmare! But then I look down at my elephant feet and I realise it was more than just a dream.
I’m standing on the start line of one of Britain’s iconic races, ‘Britain’s second most Brutal race’, absolutely petrified. Frantically trying to open my poles and spot where my family have gone. The start has caught up on me way before I feel ready….
If I take a deep breath, I know that’s not entirely true, my own training plan I have followed to the letter, despite struggling round one of the long runs, The Tour of Helvellyn, with flu…what doesn’t kill you and all that! Strength and conditioning, done. All of my kit has been weighed, checked, packed on training runs and used. Although somehow, I didn’t quite anticipate such a heavy bag, the kit list is huge including sleeping bag and stove, all in all its just shy of 10kg. My big let down is my recceing, I managed two recces, the other planned days were taken over by illness or other commitments. I’ve studied the maps. I know if I take my time, I’ll be fine. I just have to believe.
I travelled down on Friday to get my kit checked and register, a pretty stressful event in itself. The race briefing is the scariest one I’ve ever been to. We are warned about the weather…’gusts that WILL blow you off your feet. Constant rain’. We’ve been told to wear our goggles, too many last year fell victim to wind blindness and had to retire…wind blindness, really????
Registration done, we drive 10 minutes to the cottage I have for one night, my family for the weekend. Aptly called Happy Feet, it’s beautiful and I wish I hadn’t found such a gorgeous one, to make it easier to leave.
Back to the start line, Stuart nudges me, pointing at Jen Scotney, he believes she is my only worry. Standing there, my only worry is whether I’ll make it to the other side!
The valley is gorgeous with the rolling grassy fells flanking its sides, the sun has only just decided to rise, the wind is already making itself known. We wind our way up towards Jacobs Ladder, I know this is where I’ll potentially see my rivals…I’m always good at climbing, even when my legs are shot. I reach the top in first lady position and am briefly interviewed whilst on the run. I tell them I’m looking forward to the adventure…
The landscape becomes increasingly wild and absolutely stunning. Huge boulders everywhere, the sky glowing pink, the wind blowing a hoolie and trying its best to knock me over…which it does, quite a few times. I feel alive! We traverse Kinder Scout, the tiny lights of Glossop still twinkling as the dawn breaks. We make our way to what is surprisingly called Kinder Downfall. It certainly wasn’t falling down today as spray curls upwards soaking everything nearby, myself included. Crossing on to Mill Hill, I’m getting increasingly more confident, absorbed in the moment and the landscape.
Despite a little line of runners leading the way, the man in front has already managed to take 3 wrong turns…whilst on a pretty big trail or flagstone path. I quietly giggle to myself.
On to Bleaklow, the path is quite sheltered, being cut away and almost sunken in the landscape. This does mean I can’t see any other runners, but I’ve got my map. I’m attentive to any other turns, of which there aren’t any, and continue on. Soon enough I’m out of the dip and views stretch across to Torside Reservoir. We circuit the steep side of Torside Clough and descend onto a large track to the first mini Mountain Rescue checkpoint. I spot my family in the car, just arriving on the road, they all stick their heads out and shout ‘we love you, well done!’ It always amazes me how such a brief meeting can cheer you up for miles.
I’m pleased to be offered tea and biscuits which I stop to enjoy, dunking custard creams into my tea. Stuart catches me up, then the second lady. She’s polite but I sense the competitiveness as she refuses any nourishment and quickly disappears along the track. Not long after, I catch and pass her on the way up to Blackchew Head. I feel happier as I manage to increase the lead by gaining more ground on the climbs.
The side of the ridge of Laddow Rocks drops precipitously to my right. I’m concerned as with the height we’ve gained the wind has picked up and is again trying its best to push me over the side. I use my sticks to fix me to the ground and feel relief when we finally drop down onto stone slabs. I’m still with Stuart and we chat away, its quite a bleak run towards Wessenden head MR point. Here, we’re told in no uncertain terms to put on our goggles or risk missing the race. I stop briefly to locate them and then I’m off on a wide track to Wessenden. It’s a pleasant downhill run around the reservoirs, then off up a steep muddy trail and across Wessenden Moor. The wind is ferocious now. We are reduced to a walk as we fight to gain ground. It’s blowing big waves across the tiny reservoir. At the A62 junction my family, to my surprise, have stopped again and my daughter has run to meet us. She tells me how cold she is in the wind, as if I don’t know! I get a few brief cuddles, shouts of ‘we love you mum’ and I’m gone. Leaving Stuart behind as he tops up fluids.
It’s strange passing over the M62, all of those people in warm cars, speeding along, miles passing in minutes. While I’m up on the footbridge, being buffeted and threatened by everything mother nature can hurl at me. I’m soon aware that I’ll have to stop as the rain and darkness threatens to fall. When the man in front sees his opportunity, I too stop and get my waterproof trousers and mitts on. I stuff my headtorch into my pocket. Stuart passes, already fully waterproofed and I work hard to catch him up again.
Just before Chelbourn Moor, we drop down to another MR point. Someone is holding the gate open and shouting my name. To my delight I realise it’s Kerry and her daughter, who I’d met at the coaching course. I stop again briefly, hiding in the MR van and have another tea with numerous biscuits until I brace myself and exit, back into the wild. Darkness has engulfed everything and the weather is horrific. I’ve not witnessed anything so scary and I’ve been out in all sorts. Soon we’re submerged into hell. The light from our headtorches bouncing back off the mixture of fog and horizontal rain as it lashes us this way and that. The wind howls and gusts. We can barely stay upright nor see our feet, never mind discern the track we’re supposed to be following. Thankfully we are a party of three and we stick together, one clutching his GPS like his life depends upon it. I keep telling Stuart how scared I am. Stuart then suggests one of us keep our headtorch on and follows the others without their headtorches switched on, allowing the others to see better. It works a treat and we take turns until it improves.
Soon enough it lifts and we’re onto Warland Drain and briefly on water laden flags until the boggy bits before Stoodley Pike. I’m quite excited to be there. I’ve seen it from the valleys but have never run up to it. It’s a welcome sight, even in the rain and gloom.
There’s a light up here and I think its attached to a building until I see it move and realise it’s Max. I cheer up no end. To have ventured out to greet us on a dark, extremely windy and rainy night, means a lot. He’s careful to run behind us so that we can’t be accused of cheating. Soon he turns off back to his car and we head down a good track to Hebden Bridge. By now I’m starting to feel the cold. The bogs have slowed my progress and the wind is strong. I pick up speed on the descent, eager to get warm again. Somewhere along the road, Stuart drops back and I don’t see him again until the checkpoint.
I’ve picked up another runner. We work our way to Hebden Hey, me spotting signs and him check, check, checking against his GPS and map. We make our way up a tiny little lane, rising steeply from Hebden Bridge and wade through the quagmire.
We pass up a little lane by a house and I’m pleased I have company. The lane is lined with odd gnomes, one of which is a clown and surely would feature in a horror movie. It’s still raining, although not so heavily. Soon we’re on the main road of Slack and drop down steps, ankle deep in mud and debris with a newly formed stream gushing over everything. This is where I’ll have to retrace my steps after the checkpoint. Those new dry socks I’d been so looking forward to will immediately be soaked and covered in mud.
I get a lovely welcome from the volunteers who cheer and clap and quickly and efficiently lead me through. I take my trainers off and they’re labelled and put near a radiator, not that it’ll do much good. My bag is already on a table. It seems surprisingly quiet, there are only a handful or so runners there already. They tell me food is available in a different room. I ask to see a medic. I’ve been religiously applying Vaseline to my back, where I know my pack rubs, but it’s beginning to feel sore. I change into a full set of clean dry clothes. It’s heaven.
I hang my coat near the fire hoping it’ll dry while I’m eating food. In another room, I’m welcomed by the giddy staff cheering me in as first woman. I am offered four different meal options. I opt for a vegetarian pasta then a lovely rice pudding with a heap of strawberry jam. I have two cups of tea then go through to see the medic. She quickly and expertly puts pads and then Ktape across my lower back. She says I’ve probably caught it in time.
Then I’m back to sort my supplies. I’ve given myself 30 minutes grace and want to use it efficiently. I left myself a checklist on top of my bag so that I wouldn’t forget anything. It’s another 62 miles to the finish, with very little support on route. I happily go through everything and only faff a bit choosing extra layers. I’m told the rain that had been forecast to stop at 2am is now set to stay. I opt for lots of layers, putting on my baselayer, primaloft top, primaloft jacket and Paramo jacket. I stuff another fleece into my bag and get my spare gloves, hat and buff on. I’m ready, sort of. On my way out, feeling refreshed, I pass the second and third women. This gives me a boost, they certainly do not look fresh!
When I go to leave, the interviewer asks who I’m buddying up with for the night. I shrug. He tells me the man I came in with, has only just left. He’s on the Mountain Rescue Team race and would be great for nav and pacing. I try my best to catch up with him. We stay together over Heptonstall Moor. Everything by now is waterlogged. The paving slabs all sit below inches of water. My headtorch creates these amazing waves across the long grass in the bogs, it seems to dart lazers along the stems. It’s quite beautiful.
We weave our way round the Walshaw reservoirs. I’m enjoying his company. We don’t talk too much, but keep each other going at a good pace and on the right track. On toward Withins Height. It’s with huge disappointment that I realise his pace is dropping. He soon tells me he’s struggling with shin splints and urges me to push on. The trail across the moor is reasonable but I soon see a light ahead and try harder to speed up. Just above Ponden I catch up with Gary Chapman. He’s a Spine and Spine Challenger veteran, in fact he’s local, living near Ponden. My luck is in! He knows all of the direct lines across what are now swamp fields and he chats incessantly. It’s lovely company and reassuring that I won’t lose time or waste energy covering any extra miles by getting lost! The rain has by now subsided and I start to think daylight is nearing, only to realise the full moon is lighting up the tracks.
We stop briefly at Lothersdale MR point. Gary’s club has put on a non-official checkpoint for the last few years, offering food, drink and shelter. His friends are all marshalling and they run up the track taking orders via a walkie talkie, so hot drinks and soup are all ready when we arrive. It’s a first class service and much needed escape from the elements as we’re wrapped in warm blankets and fussed over. Chris soon arrives, although I haven’t met him yet…
Gary had planned a longer stop, but his friends tell us we are unbelievably in 6th and 7th position. I easily persuade him to reduce it significantly. He’s never been so high up or so quick with his splits. Happily, he accompanies me out of the door and up onto mud sucking fields. Each and every field tries it’s best to pull our trainers off whilst simultaneously draining our legs of all energy. I don’t enjoy the next few miles. It’s flat and on a good dry day you could skip over these fields but today every step is a huge effort, pulling against the mud and wading through sodden fields. By now Chris has caught us up.
At Gargrave, a lovely lady who has driven to Mcdonalds at some silly time in the morning, waits at the roadside with 3 teas for us to enjoy! She’s been busy tracking us through the night and has arrived in perfect time. We happily accept her kind offer and shelter briefly in a bus stop.
I start to feel incredibly tired, its been nearly 16 hours of darkness and it’s starting to take it’s toll. I’m relieved when the sky lightens around Airton. There are a few diversions in place to avoid the worst of the waterlogged fields.
I enjoy the track toward Malham Cove. Leaving the monotonous water drenched fields behind, is a relief. The landscape at last opens up in front of us and is stunning. I do wonder whether someone has been up painting images of sheep onto the face of Malham cove, but keep quiet, quite sure it’s just my sleep fogged brain playing tricks on me. On the steps up to Malham Cove, we leave Gary behind, he’s eager now that we push on. I stay with Chris and follow his lead as he goes across the limestone. Moss and huge cracks, threaten to twist or break our ankles. He slips and falls breaking one of his poles. With our daft route choice, we’ve lost time and arrive back on the Pennine Way only to realise Gary has pushed quite far ahead by taking a higher, easier path.
I start to feel quite cold, my pace has dropped off with the awkward, rock strewn path. I’m getting quite low in spirits (I really wish I’d brought more gin). Thankfully, just before Malham Tarn, Max appears again with his cheery smile despite the inclement weather and my moody face. By the checkpoint I’m really cold and quite concerned. I’m wearing almost everything and look like a Michelin woman. I warm up with a lovely hot chocolate and somehow manage to persuade Chris to join me back on the trail. ‘Let’s get this finished’, I urge. By now he’s 3rd male and desperately wants to cling on to it and I’m still maintaining first lady position. He’s also feeling the cold and getting increasingly fed up. We start to run to warm up on the easier tracks and continue towards the end, run/walking and encouraging each other on. He’s perfect company.
Fountains Fell seems a never-ending climb. It’s pleasant and easy enough but the higher we climb the more cold, windy and foggy it gets. I’m trying to orientate myself and chivvy myself on. Desperately searching the skyline for glimpses of Pen-y-ghent, our next big climb. Its hidden in cloud. Dropping down to the road Chris pushes ahead. My knee is beginning to hurt on the descents.
On the road I’m stopped twice. Firstly, offered a tray of cookies and when I decline, saying they look gorgeous but I would struggle to swallow them, the man races back to his car and brings out a handful of gels! A few hundred metres further on, an old man jogs up and asks for a drink order, he then races back to his car and presents me with a lovely sweet coffee. It’s part of The Spine magic, I’m not sure if they realise just how touching these wonderful gestures are. They even know my name as they have been tracking me.
Heading up to Pen-y-ghent, Chris has waited to make the climb together. I struggle with tired legs and the wind that is trying to detach us as we scramble/crawl up the rocks with our huge packs. There are a few moments when I fear I’ll be blown off. The other side is even worse, descending on the God-awful slab steps. Chris, again, pulls away.
Surprisingly, Max is again waiting up the lane and he chats briefly trying his best to reassure me that the second lady is not gaining, despite my slower pace. Problem is, I think he’s just being kind. Panic rises as I start to think that after 90 miles of being first, I’m going to drop my position. Arriving at the MR checkpoint, I’ve just about had enough despite the kindness of the staff, who bring me soup and bread. I’m entering into quite a dark place. I sit with Chris, who looks equally crestfallen. Two rather sprightly men pass through and we both think our places are dropping. I urge him to get up and head on out before him.
I spend a while faffing on the road in Horton, my brain is muddled and I can’t make head nor tail of the simple map. The more I look the more I get in a pickle. It is ridiculous, its daylight, the sun has even decided to make a brief appearance, I’m on a large road in Horton. It’s quite obvious where I am and I can’t remember the way nor see it on the map! Thankfully, Chris catches me up, calms me down and I’m back on it. Map in hand, I’m determined not to lose any places by getting lost on this final stretch. I know the route, I’ve covered the ground numerous times before, my confidence is increasing again.
By now, my quads are in agony, my legs work but I have to ignore the pain. I tell myself over and over ‘pain is temporary, victory lasts forever’…something on a motivational video Stuart has filled my head with, although I later realise the ending is somewhat different. I like mine better! It works and I continue to walk the hills and sort of run the flats and downs. Chris is lagging behind until we pass a photographer. He tells Chris he is in fact third male, the other two who had passed were MRT challenger racers. We work together pushing onwards to Cam End. By Cam Road he’s had enough of the panic that has risen in him. He stops to check his tracker. Catching me up he reassures me the second lady is way behind, maybe 4-5 miles. However, he says the next male is about 2 miles away. He calculates and recalculates our pace and time. We move as fast as we can. Unfortunately, I struggle to keep up and its disappointing to see his red jacket pull further away into the increasing darkness. By West Cam Road, I really need to put my headtorch on, but I know if someone is not far behind it might just be the thing they need to give them a spurt of energy. I still don’t believe anyone about my lead over the second woman! I keep it off until a high wall when I’m out of sight. I have to stop again to get my goggles out. The wind has picked up, a few times I’m blown and stumble to the side and my eyes are stinging with its ferocity.
I search and search for the signpost onto the last boggy section to drop across the fields into Hawes. Aaron had warned me before my recce that it was easy to miss, so I’m on high alert not to miss it today. Finding it, I start to panic as there are two tracks and for a minute I can’t remember which one is correct. Taking stock, I calm myself down and choose the right track but take my GPS out just to make sure. I’m too close to risk it now. Soon I see the familiar red jacket again, Chris has waited to run into Hawes with me. He said he’d tried to wait on Cam Road but the wind had been horrendous, so he’d pushed on.
It’s a wonderful feeling being a team again and seeing those longed-for lights of Hawes. It’s just a shame it seems to take an age to make them any bigger! Chris is still on high alert, he keeps checking behind to see if a light is catching us. We slowly make our way down into Hawes, taking another diversion that has been put in place to avoid the worst of the muddy fields. We gladly follow the road and soon we’re passing through the houses, along the tiny lanes, through a gate and we’re again being interviewed as we make the final push to the finish. I hear cowbells and my daughter appears, mad as a hatter. Chris’ pace increases and increases, somehow I keep up and it’s with relief and extreme happiness that we pass through the finish line together. Unbelievably, I am joint 3rd overall and 1st lady.
Afterwards, I sit with my family, Fiona and Max who have come to cheer me in. I eat soup and drink tea, I’m transported to the YHA to shower and clean up (the best shower ever!)I have my photo taken with a trophy, mine will be engraved and sent on. I’m awkwardly interviewed. Then going out of the door I’m told my ‘prize’ is free entry into next year’s Spine Challenger. ‘Oh hell!’, I think.
Over the next few days I eat everything in sight and I’m still hungry. I stumble around, my feet belong to an elephant and I have no shoes that fit. I have managed to survive relatively unscathed, minimal blisters, a few toenails due to fall off, but pretty well considering. I’m totally overwhelmed with the messages I’ve received. I never imagined that while out in the wilderness, at times feeling very alone and scared, that so many people would be watching my tiny dot progress.
Strangely, it doesn’t take me long to start thinking about how I can improve for next year…Britain’s most Brutal certainly is an apt tag line. It has been the biggest adventure and challenge of my running life and yet I did it. I vowed never again…but perhaps ‘never’ is a word I shouldn’t utter!
“The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in”
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.