Tag Archives: The Spine

The Spine Challenger, Edale to Hawes, Saturday, January 11, 2020

108 Miles

Stuart Scott

“The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in”

Stuart Scott.

It was approximately 2015 when I first heard about The Montane Spine Race. This beast is a 268 mile race covering the entire Pennine Way, in January. I was intrigued but thought it was just ridiculous, who were these absolute lunatics that even contemplated taking it on? Were they completely insane? Just why would you even want to put yourself through that? The Spine Race was definitely something I would never be interested in, as it seemed a million miles away from anything I would ever be capable of.

Over the two few years I started to compete in bigger and bigger races always wanting to push the boundaries and see just how far I could go.

I was offered a last minute place in The 2018 Spine Challenger, this is the miniature version of The Spine race, known to some race veterans as the baby spine or the fun run. At 108 miles the challenger didn’t seem like much of a fun run to me, I knew I couldn’t take it on last min but it got me thinking as to weather or not I could do it with the right training? The person that offered me the place certainly thought so and the seed was planted.

At the back end of 2018 I finally had the confidence to apply for the 2019 race, the race was sold out by then so I took a waiting list spot. Even at the end of December 2018 I didn’t know for certain if I was running brass monkey or the challenger, I ran brass monkey.

Being self employed I was able to follow The Spine race closely in 2019, I spent nearly the full week cheering various runners on around the course. I got that carried away with everything I even  drove up to Kirk Yetholm to watch Jasmin Paris shatter the course before calling in to cheer another random runner on near Hadrian’s wall, in the dead of the night on my way home, I was truly inspired.

At this point in time I wanted to take on the full spine race, all 268 miles , however my good wife Susan persuaded me it might be a good idea to do the fun run first. I knew doing the challenger first was the most sensible option and with having 3 kids the full spine would also be a massive ask for my wife so the fun run it was.

As the race grew nearer my excitement started to build, I’d missed out on the Lakeland 100, due to a last min injury, and really wanted to smash the challenger to make up for that. I felt great and my coach Margarita Grigoriadi, along with many at Elvet Striders had got me into great condition to do this.

After a request on the Spine facebook page I was kindly offered a lift to the start by Phil Owen, who was on the safety team and Sue Jennings who was also running the challenger. I could not have been happier, I was buzzing and felt so alive, the following day I was not going to be a parent, a taxi driver or a husband, tomorrow I was going to be an ultra runner on one hell of an adventure doing what love.

My race started well, I’m terrible for going off to fast and really wanted to stay with Elaine, she’s a good friend and paces so well, unfortunately for me she was just pushing to hard and I had to let her go, I knew I had to get my pacing right as 108 miles is a long way and I really I didn’t want to mess up this race.

After a few miles I caught Elaine up and we ran together in appalling conditions with rain, fog and really bad visibility, due to concentrating on moving well in the horrendous conditions I neglected to fuel well and this is where my problems started.

New Strider and DFR member Max Wilkinson made a surprise visit to the course and cheered us on not far away from the first checkpoint at Hebdon Bridge, it was great to see someone we knew randomly out there in such tough conditions. When Max left a group of about 4-5 ran together, I knew I needed to take on some food but didn’t want to slow down and risk loosing the pack so I pressed on. As time went by I was getting more and more concerned I needed fuel so I eventually made the decision to eat and lost Elaine and the others.

In big ultra running events if you mess up your nutrition you are done so I knew I had to eat as much as possible at Hebdon Bridge so I tried my best to eat as much as possible and soon felt good again, I was back in the game.

As the miles passed by I was loving every second of it I was doing what I love surrounded by like minded people and knew Elaine was leading the woman’s race everything was great  and I could not be happier.

The miles continued to pass by as the rain, fog and darkness continued. There is not much daylight in January and when you have a long race to do the daylight hours are extremely precious, especially on boggy ground in the fog and rain when you have navigate yourself.

In long ultras the field often becomes very spread out and if you start finding it hard with nobody to be seen as far as the eye can see it really starts to screw with your mind. It was in the early hours of the morning I guess at about 55 miles in on Sunday when my real problems started, I just couldn’t eat. I’ve changed my diet a lot recently and after having had virtually no dairy products for the last couple of months I just couldn’t face my normal race food of Ella’s kitchen and rice pudding.

I was totally by myself and gutted I’d ended up in this situation, I knew any chance I had of racing this event was over and that was a hard pill to swallow as I’d had so much confidence a top ten finish was possible, if everything went well.

I was now in a massive dilemma, I’ve always said I would never quit a race if I’m not injured and have always encouraged other runners to battle on through rough patches, I’ve read many books on ultra running and I know so much of it is about having the correct mindset, staying positive and knowing anything is possible if you just  have the belief it can be done.

The main issues I had were I was currently by myself on a boggy hill in the early hours of the morning on the Pennine way, its early January, I have already covered 55 miles with poor fuelling, I’ve been awake for nearly 24 hours, I’m pissed off I have no chance of a top ten finish and there is 53 miles of the race left. I can DNF very soon and probably be back in Durham fast asleep in a nice warm comfy bed surrounded by my family within a few hours or I can attempt to ‘see out’ another 53 miles of the Pennine way, even writing thus now it seems insane but somehow I was able to convince myself that this was the way forward.

I’d had so many messages of support from friends an family going into this event and as I’d told a few people the time I was hoping for I didn’t want to finish hours and hours behind that without an explanation so I posted on my face book page that unfortunately I was done but I would finish. This meant I now had to.

Within a very short time of posting my message an exceptional ultra runner named John Parkin, I’d met through Bob Graham recce had seen my post, it turns out he lived 5 minutes away from where I was so he got straight into his running gear and came out to say hello and make sure I was OK.  I knew John understood me more than most, as he’s run the UK’s big 3 rounds, and he helped convince me what I was attempting to ‘see out’ was a good idea.

Stuart Battles on.

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.

Mission accomplished.

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.

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Montane Spine Challenger, Edale To Hawes, Saturday, January 11, 2020

108miles, 17000ft elevation, 60 hours cut off

Elaine Bisson


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.

Joined by my daughter

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.

Weather ready

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.

Slightly Soggy!

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.

Clean, dry and smiling.

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.

A brief rest.

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.

Lets get this finished.

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.

We’ve got this.

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.

Leaving for the final push

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.

We did it!

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!

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The Spine, Saturday, January 10, 2015

268 Miles

Flip Owen

Britain’s Most Brutal Race, 10–17th January

A winter's tale. The spine race is the whole of the Pennine Way in January. 270 miles of hills, bogs and everything the winter weather can throw at you high up on the backbone of England. It’s a continuous race as in the clock is always ticking. It’s billed as the UK’s most brutal race and although conditions differ from year to year it’s fair to say it’s always brutal. It just has several different kinds of brutal.

My spine journey started a couple of years ago when I entered the race. However when it came to the second payment in November my knee was playing up and a few other niggles weren’t great so I decided not to do it. I sent of an email saying as much but offered my time helping out if needed. Scot the RD said, he certainly will be in touch and I never heard anything more. As the race started in January I watched my friend’s progress and as Alan Rumbles approached Middleton-in-Teesdale I went off with Anna to see if I could help him in any way. Alan was his usual smiling self as we got him some food but his feet were even at that stage a real mess. (Sadly Alan had cellulitis in his feet and after another 100 miles, within reaching distance of the finish had to make the call to call it a day.)

The place was a bit chaotic so I helped where I could, served tea and coffee, washed up for them and causally remarked to Amanda Crozier (I think) that I’d offered to help but heard nothing. At that I was leapt upon and asked if I could relive the marshals at Tan hill ASAP ! (Scott had forgotten about my email which isn’t surprising as I guess he gets snowed under as the race approaches)

So off we went. We saw Sunderland stroller Neil Bennett through (who finished) and met Martin May Ottersbach who was in excellent condition but sadly had over slept and was taken out of the race. Lovely bloke though and I look forward to more journeys with him. I worked the next day they I was summed to Bellingham CP on the evening. As I pulled up and went through the doors a lad was standing in bare feet holding onto the door frame and asked if I might just help him for a minute. His feet were buggered as well. This was Charlie Sharpe, a well know and very fast runner. He was trying to get to the sleeping area which was across a court yard. I told him to wait there and backed my car to the doors, helped him in, drove the 10 yards to the sleeping area and helped him to his sleeping bag. From there I relieved the marshals at Byrness. It was some 6-7 hours later in the early hours of the morning the spinners started to come through. I had a stove in my car so I made hot drinks and fed them with goodies I’d picked up along the way. Charlie came in (he couldn’t remember me at Bellingham several hours earlier!) and slept for a while in my car before struggling to his feet, barely able to stand and they blasted the Cheviots in 6.5 hours. That’s always amazed me as the lad could barely walk. Chapeau Charlie!

So, to cut this short and to put it mildly, this race cried out to me to run it.

2015 Race

Well I guess like others the lead up to the race fairly did my head in. The gear was a compromise between ultra-light, meaning ultra-expensive and I couldn’t afford or what I could afford but was going to make my back pay (and slow me down) due to increased weight. I begged and borrowed and bought as wisely as I could. (More on gear later). Then there is the route. Unlike a lot of ways in the UK the Pennine way isn’t that well signposted. Yes there are plenty of signs but it’s a long way and I’d say as many junctions of crossing paths without any indication of the way as there is. That is of course if there is a path. Sometimes it’s a faint line or almost nothing. Add in some snow and you’ve got nowt !

I addressed some of this with a few days on the way in late September. Starting in Edale, where I’d never been before and heading north. I checked out the route, pubs, and places to fill bottles, possible bivvy places and found the CP North of Hebdon Bridge. I made a few mistakes, which was good as I wasn’t going to make them twice and I spent as day in Haworth and another in Marsden refreshing (well it was my holiday as well!) Surprisingly a very enjoyable & interesting few days. I should do more hill walking. I just too busy running!

So come December and I’m starting to ease off. Looking after myself a bit and constantly reading Damien Halls excellent guide book that I used on my week recce. I also decided to take this with me. If you’re lost I figured a detailed explanation would be like gold dust and worth its weight.

New Year’s Day and I very gently ran around the Captain Cooks fell race being very careful and enjoyed the social after. It was here I tempted fate. Talking to Jason & Lisa Taylor I remarked I was in very good form with no injuries and my only worry was all the people around who were dying of cold-and pretty rotten colds at that. I said if it gets me, I’d be out of the race. In fact a few had come on the FB spine page and said as much. I guess everyone was gutted for those people and also like me thinking please god, spare me till after the race please.

On the 4th January, our club Christmas handicap it hit me. I was meant to be marking the course but was swooning and coughing and couldn’t do it. I went along and took some pics and to the social as I like to support our club traditions. However on the evening I was ill as a dog. That was a Sunday, 6 days till race day. Monday was the same and Tuesday not much better four days till race day and I’m in bed ill!. By Wednesday I thought it easing a tiny bit. Thursday I had to make a decision and hoping I hadn’t been hit by what everyone else seemed to have I decided to run. I booked a hotel in Sheffield, figuring I wouldn’t be that popular coughing all night in the Youth Hostel and got a lift to the start. Did the kit check and briefing and heading to Sheffield. And I did cough all night. Train to the start with John Vernon and a good natter about the race and Hardmoors stuff.

Start

Well it was delayed 3 hours so a lot of hanging about but at last we were let go. Apparently Marcus who one the challenge event that had started at 6:30 am (the first 100 miles) was blown clean off his feet and injured. My Aarn backpack was playing up and I was very grateful for Neil Rutherford, another Aarn user working out what was wrong. The Aarn is a wonderful bit of kit but it is complex especially if you get all the straps twisted.

Kinder downfall. Just before the snow & hail hit.

The weather just then wasn’t crazy bad, although the wind was howling. It wasn’t really till we got to the top of kinder when the full force of the winds really hit us. It was quite difficult to stay on your feet. Kinder downfall was our first soaking as it was blown back onto us but to a person we all had our water proofs on. This was something I’d notice the previous year. Not one person didn’t have their entire water proof kit on. This brief spell of ‘good’ weather was all to brief. The gale force winds hit us and the horizontal, hail and snow battered us. This was the story for the rest of my brief race. The weather has been described as biblical. I’ll go with that. However I was quite please.Pleased because after all that worry I think I got the gear right. I was pretty snug and although it was hard going, especially vision wise I was happy enough. Except that was for the coughing. It took its time to start but heck coughing is exhausting at any time never mind I in the UK’s most brutal race. I must say i found the weather exhilarating. I always do. I’m sure i wouldn’t have said that at the end but weather like that make you feel alive.

Still I was optimistic that the coughing would sort itself out. I came across John Vernon approaching Black hill. John’s an expert navigator but my recce was invaluable (and John said as much later). Every turn or junction came back to me as we came to it and I was particularly pleased just after the A62. The good path here becomes a peat bog track, cut up by mountain bikes and in parts 20ft wide. On my recce I went straight past a tiny white post on the right hand of this track that takes you almost ninety degrees right along a faint track. I purposely stayed right knowing that the post would be easy to miss. Just as I was telling John to stay right we came across in covered in snow. Unfortunately just as we did I saw another group heading over the hill making my recce mistake. I shouted and shouted but the wind took it away and they were out of sight.

At the A672 a van waited and we topped up with water. Not much mind as they were running low. I filled up at the next stream having already used my 2 litres. (I carried a small collapsible plastic bottle for this purpose). The goal was to make the white horse pub and refuel but with the start delay we missed it. With hindsight we were never going make it and we should have detoured on the Marsden road crossing to the great western pub. At the closed white horse pub John said he needed to eat so quickly cooked something up. I brewed a coffee and which went cold instantly. It was snowing, the wind was hellish and then realised it was bitterly cold. Some guy pulled out here, bivved down and went to sleep. I was a tad worried about him in the conditions.

Paving stones. Your best friend/worst enemy.

I whipped off my water proof and put on my Hanger 18 down jacket. Put the waterproof back on and was Ok again. That down jacket was a late acquisition for me but heck it was brilliant. From here it was straight forward.

My recce meant we weren’t glued to maps (which was tough to read in the wind and snow). John knew the way down form Stoodley Pike (which I missed on the recce as I dropped down to mankinholes YH (which was group booked). Just as well as that can be tricky.

We crossed the canal and used the light for the road lights to changes our head torch batteries and slowly made our way to the cp. All the time I was coughing more and more. I put a balaclava on and was trying to breathe through it as that seemed to help with the coughing (possibly by warming the air). Into the cp and had a some food. This had taken us 16 hours for the 42 miles. I know it’s completely different but to put it into perspective this is the distance of the Devil of the Highlands race. I’ve done that in 8:45 before. We agree to rest up 3 hours.

No rest for me though as I started is hacking up continually. I left the dorm as I was keeping others awake. I knew it was useless and I just wasn’t well but it’s a very tough decision to make. I pulled out after speaking to John. Gutted. (John also finished something that pleased me immensely)

Hardmoors family John & Ernie at the finish.

The rest of the time I got cleaned up and helped out a bit. Lass (i now know as Alzbeta Benn) had lost her water proof gloves and was heading out without them so I found mine for her and then as everyone left and the cleaning started I found myself cleaning the men’s bogs while coughing my guts up. Now, really lads, what was going on here? Mud up the walls and everywhere. As the boots come off at the door I don’t understand just how the mud was splatted in and around the sinks and also up the wall. Cleaning boots? The floors took 6 buckets to mop out. Not sure how this was possible.

A hard working spine worker lass gave me a lift to Hawes then to Middleton. After helping get all the food in I was picked up for home.

By the time I got there I was pretty ill and spent the next few days in bed hacking up. I watched the tracker on my phone cursing my luck but willing my friends on. It’s taken another two weeks to get clear of the virus.

Despite the biblical weather or is suppose because of it. The race had a bumper finish this year no doubt partly due to the divisions and the race being held up five times giving ‘free’ recovery time (if the race hold you up you get your clock stopped and the time back). I doubt that will happen again.

So, will I be there again?. If money was not an issue then there would be no question at all. It’s a must do race for me.  The spine IS good value for money as the setup is immense with crazy logistics. However it still costs 5 times the cost of say a West Highland Way Race, Hardmoors110/160 or Lakeland 100 (The Three classic northern 100 mile hill races ) and for me that’s a lot of money. The race coming so soon after Christmas doesn’t help as being self-employed no one pays me when I’m on holiday (yes this was my holiday).

It’s also a lot of money to risk that can be lost to a cold or an injury. However it won’t be left at that. I will take the risk of colds or injury & be on the start line again, I just don’t know if it will be next year.

So a bitter disappointment and huge waste of money but it was an experience and all experiences have positives no matter how frustrating or hard to bear. The trick is to take the positives and put them to good use. Once my pet lip is put away I’ll do that.

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