The Spine race, the Spine Race…. No matter how many times I say it I still struggle to comprehend the task that I took on. Make no bones about it this race was an absolute beast & I was out of my comfort zone from the minute it started. I’m not going to say that this was a spiritual journey or any of that nonsense but I will say that on this race I had to reach down into the depths of my soul & pull out every ounce of determination I had to try & keep going.
The Spine covers the entire length of The Pennine Way from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish Borders & it is dubbed as Britain’s most Brutal race. Well, we’ve all heard this before, the hardest, toughest, most brutal, cut your knackers off etc. etc. etc. But & it’s a big BUT, this one actually does hurt & it hurts every single painful step of the way. So, just how hard can it be eh………
I travelled up to Edale the day before the race with everybody’s race mum, Nici Griffin. We certainly had a great laugh on the train ride up although due to someone dicking about on the track we ended up missing our connection to Edale & had a 2hr layover at Sheffield.
Finally getting to Edale we met up with some old friends, Sam Robson, Mimi Anderson, Javed Bhatti, Neil Bryant/Brie & Colin Fitzjohn. Nici went on her way to get involved in some paperwork & behind the scenes action where I just dropped my kit off where I was staying & went along to have my pre-race briefing. Having someone talk about what we were about to embark on really brought home the enormity of the task at hand & just how dangerous this was going to be. There was none of the usual witty comments from runners as there usually is at a brief for an Ultra, this was to put it bluntly life & death & to be honest with you, it scared me a little. This was my first mountain marathon & I was at that point just hoping it wasn’t going to be my last!
On the morning of the race & having had our kit check, I had a little panic when I couldn’t find my knife but thankfully all was sorted out ok, we were told that the weather was going to be sunny & dry at the tops. Great I though, SHORTS weather!! Just how wrong can a man be? Within 15mins after the race began it started to hail, 10mins after that it started to snow really heavily.
Sunny they said!!
Photo courtesy of Neil Brie
Deciding that I’d really like to live for another day I quickly stopped & had a full kit adjustment that ended up with me being in dead last place & with no other soul in sight. “Bloody hell, I’d best make up some time here” I thought & head down started to have some serious running for a while. I soon caught up with a few runners & eventually caught up with Sam Robson & Mark Hines, a couple of buddies of mine who were walking with an injured runner. I double checked to make sure everybody was ok & then joined them for a trudge. All three said they were fine apart from the obvious injury but unbeknown to me Mark had taken a bit of a tumble & was nursing a fractured arm, Jesus H Christ, I knew he was a tough old cookie but to not even mention it…..
Moving on, I soon found myself running with Colin Fitzjohn. We’ve ran races together before & work well as a team & sure enough we both found ourselves slipping back into a tried & tested formula where we would share the Navigation giving the other runner a chance to switch off so to speak & just concentrate on moving forward. 30mins to an hour each seemed to work well & we made steady progress towards the first CP at Hebden Bridge. All the time we were moving our race plans were being constantly adjusted, I’d like to call them “fluid” more than anything. Colin had wanted to push through straight to cp2 where I wanted to grab an hours sleep & then move on. As it happens, Colin went down with a stomach condition & we ended up getting to Hebden Bridge a lot later than we hoped & so grabbed some food & a couple of hours rest before moving on towards the 2nd CP at Hawes. Section 1 & according to Colin, the easiest section over & done with.
After a quick breakfast & bumping into a couple of other runners who we had “lost” the previous day we cracked on feeling a lot better & hoping to make the most of the daylight to tackle the longest section at 60miles to Hawes. This was going to be my biggest battle & I found the going extremely tough. It was boggy & hilly from the outset & I was quickly out of my comfort zone. This section had everything, bogs, mud, flats (Not many of them), Hills (Plenty of them) & the odd mountain thrown in for good measure. Anybody who knows me will know that I do most of my training along the River or the NDW, now although hilly the NDW does drain well so the combination of mud & hills certainly took it out of my legs & at this section I soon realised how underprepared I actually was.
Our first objective of the day to was reach Gargrave & to have a hot pasty from the Co-op there, but on the way we were both struggling a little & very hungry when we reached a hill just above a village called Lothersdale. Running down the hill we saw a chap powering up it & I said to Colin that we should ask him where the nearest chippy was. As it turned out it was Colin’s son Alex who had come over to meet us. What a sight for sore eyes he was as he ran with us into the village & treated us to a hot pie & a glass of coke from the pub.
Colin Fitzjohn & myself outside the Hare & Hounds in Lothersdale
Running onto Gargrave we reached the Co-op & headed in for our hot pasties. Unfortunately by the time we actually reached it, some bloody runners had already beaten us to it & scoffed the lot! The greedy monkeys, we had to make do with some cold sausage rolls & a bottle of coke each, but they were like nectar to us.
Quickly scoffing these we made our way up to the next focus on the map & CP1.5 at Malharm tarn. This was supposed to be just a water stop & also somewhere to bivvy down if the weather or the course had taken its toll on you. We only had Malham cove to climb first & what a climb it turned out to be! More steps than Boxhill & then a bizarre “moonscape” to try to cross! It was very slippy & pretty damn lethal, I’m surprised there weren’t any injuries crossing it.
Malham Cove “Moonscape”
I was quite looking forward to a sleep by now but when we got to Malham Tarn & saw just how waterlogged the area was all ideas of crashing out for a couple of hours quickly left my mind. Grabbing a couple of cups of coffee we were a little bemused to see Charlie Sharpe sitting underneath his sleeping bag drinking tea. He was having some issues with grazing on his feet but that didn’t seem to slow him down in the later stages, the man is an absolute machine! Coffee finished & on our way again towards the last big test of this section, Pen-Y-Ghent.
Approaching Pen-Y-Ghent we stopped a an impromptu CP where Joe Faulkner was based, a veteran of many mountain races & leader of the Nav4 team I think he was more or less based there just to assess the runners & make sure they were able to take on the task of climbing the hill/fell/fuckingbigmountain!!
Onwards we climbed with me giving out to Colin that I wasn’t enjoying this bit at all & as a vertigo sufferer I was really struggling at that time. Just keeping my eyes focused on a little bubble of area that surrounded me I climbed as quickly as I could & made it to the top without incident but with a shit load of swearing!
Once at the top I was grinning like a Cheshire cat having scaled my first “mountain”, no seriously, I scaled it like Spiderman. Stop taking the piss Richard, it was a mountain to me… Although the hardest part of the section was now behind us, we were both struggling & it was still a long way to Hawes & the 2nd CP.
Finally reaching Hawes, I was really feeling it & was struggling just too even keep going. I sent a text to my wife saying “Hi honey, at a CP, 110miles done. Absolute brutal race. Just want to say I love you, please don’t phone or I’ll burst into tears. Heading off in about 3hrs or so to next stop. Will text you when I get to Scotland”
Thankfully she didn’t phone, although she did text me & then my daughter sent a text & that just set me off, here’s me, a big bad ultra-runner with tears streaming down my face trying my best to cover it up with a massive yawn whilst wiping my eyes with a buff.
A couple of hours sleep & I was on my way again, unfortunately Colin had to drop at Hawes due to dehydration, double vision & well, just about everything else. Given how bad his stomach issues were the day before I was surprised he made it as far as he did. Just shows what a tough old bugger he is.
It’s a short section of only 33miles to CP3 at Middleton-in-Teesdale but in the middle you come to The Tan Hill pub, where they keep replacing the windows, Don’t know why they do that if Everest are any good then surely they’d be ok for years!? Anyway, I digress, just after Tan Hill there is a slight boggy area… When I say slight, it’s 3kms long. Being on my own now I had to rely on my own nav & just go with any decisions I had to make, no bouncing anything off anybody else. Moving through Thwaite & along Kisdon side, the terrain really took its toll on my already bashed up feet with the rocks being particularly nasty on this stage. It was quite the relief to get to a more stable area although this meant I was again in bog & swamped fields.
Making it to Tan Hill I caught up with Ann Green & prepared to move on although the marshal made us wait for a couple of minutes until he’d sorted out another runner & then he took us to the start of the bog. Setting off, & looking for the white poles, I made it a total of about 10ft before I was in up to my waist! “Holy Christ, I’ve got another 3km of this” Ann was a bit gobsmacked & she said that had happened a bit quick. Moving on, Ann quickly powered ahead whist I just wallowed from one bog pit to another finally making it through in about 2hrs. Absolutely frozen & wandering just what the hell I was doing I tried to move a bit faster to catch up some time & to try to warm up. I made it to the next CP without any further drama but my feet were by now utterly trashed & I had to then get them taped up for the very first time in my racing career.
After a couple of hours rest I was on the way again, feet taped up & feeling good, I was again travelling with Gary Dalton & a couple of others & we were making good time. Onwards along the River Tees & Cauldron Snout. I was blissfully unaware of what I was going to eventually stumble upon & the river bank was just a mire of rocks & ankle breaking boulders so by the time I raised my head & saw what I had to scale I was just too tired to even complain. Two firsts for me on this race, climb a mountain & then climb a waterfall. Cauldron Snout was one scary looking mofo & none of us actually believed we had to climb it, but seeing no obvious path, up we bloody well went like a herd of Billy Goats, only pausing when we reached the top to look back at what we had just done. Bloody hell fire, that WAS scary!
Cauldron Snout Waterfall.
After we scaled what seemed like fricking Niagra falls we moved on as fast as we could towards Dufton but hit a blizzard at High Cup Nick, visibility was down to just a few yards & this is where I stupidly tried to make the first use of my poles. Not a great idea & they were quickly packed away but I ended up losing valuable time & actually becoming isolated. Not really much of a problem & the map & GPS came into their own, well the GPS did. Couldn’t see a bloody thing & so couldn’t really take a good bearing so I just followed the GPS as best as I could. I soon bumped into Gary again & we carried on our way towards Dufton.
Again tiredness was becoming a huge issue for me. I decided to keep moving as long as possible but to then bivvy out for an hour or so at about 5am so I could make the most of that time of the day when I wouldn’t be making much if any progress at all. This point was hammered home when I fell over about 10times in the space of a minute, I saw a field, jumped the wall & bivvied down for a couple of hours under some trees about 1km short of Dufton. I knew I was tired as when you do bivvy out you’re supposed to ring the Race HQ & when I woke up my phone was on my face from where I was dialling the number & then just passed out. Grabbing my stuff together I headed on down & through Dufton where a marshall chased me down & called me back to the village. He informed me that Cross fell had taken a hammering with the snow & that they weren’t letting any single runners go on their own. I was then waiting for a team to join up with, I didn’t have to wait long as Gary Dalton & 2 others were in a motorhome & were preparing to leave. I joined in with them & then we made our assault on Cross Fell. Flipping heck, there was weather up there! We took shelter in the lee of the weather station on Great Dunn Fell & added extra layers in preparation of what was to come. Well, Cross fell didn’t disappoint & we were savagely beaten by the wind, the backpacks were acting like sails & were dragging us across the ground so we ended up zig-zagging like drunken sailors. Thankfully after a couple of hours we made it to the safety of Gregs Hut. Thank god for Bothys! Piling in, we drank our fill with coffee & ate noodles supplied by the wonderful Proprietors of Gregs Hut Noodle Bar…… Many thanks to John Bamber, Paul Shurrock & the wonderful Dr Katherine Donovan for the scrummy noodles, coffee & Kendal Mint cake.
Leaving Gregs Hut. Photo courtesy of John Bamber
In great spirits we left Gregs Hut & marched on towards CP4 as best as we could, after Cross fell, the weather wouldn’t be a problem for us & quite frankly we felt pretty damn invincible at this point. Well I did anyway. Tramping on towards the next cp we covered the ground without any issues apart from near the end when tiredness got to me again & I was sure that the CP was in the wrong place. It got to the point where I was just going to bivvy at the bottom of the hill & phone HQ to tell them to bring my dinner down to me. Exhaustion was never far away in this race & it was certainly knocking on my door all the time.
Making it into the CP, I had some food, a quick shower & then grabbed a couple of hours sleep again. Waking up I had my feet taped again & I was once more on my way. This time I was running with Colin Searle, a Spartathlon veteran & we chatted a lot about that race, more than likely just trying to stay warm just by chatting about how warm it was out in Athens.
The section between CP4 & CP5 was by far the worst & this was where my race more or less fell apart. The continuous bog & mud had really taken its toll on me & moving was a struggle to say the least. But, at least running in reasonable conditions & chatting with Colin had lifted my spirits & I was moving, not as fast as I would have liked but at least I was moving. Making Hadrians Wall in a reasonable time we pushed on but the weather was turning against us.
Colin & Myself somewhere on Hadrians Wall. Photo courtesy of Stu Smith.
This was now just a battle of wills & keeping my head down I forced myself to keep going, all the while just dropping a little further behind Colin who in the end, stopped & waited for me to catch up. Somewhere around here Stuart Smith popped up & shouted for number 67. Colin said yep, that’s me & Stu then gave him a massive hug & said that was from his Mrs, I was quite jealous & asked him where mine was. He gave me a little hug 😉
Leaving the Wall, we made our way into the woods & Colin moved ahead as I was just slowing him down now. It’s a tough race & I knew that I was ok, I was just moving a lot slower than him & eventually you do have to be a little selfish to get to your own aims. Saying cheerio & telling him to get the kettle on for me, I felt a little burden lifted as I could now move without feeling guilty about slowing him down. I started to run & to run faster & stronger than I had for hours, following my map & GPS, I knew exactly where I was & could see that I would make the CP at Bellingham in hopefully 3-4hours. That was before I came across the MUD ROAD!
The MUD Road!
Holy cow, this probably 3/4mile stretch took me nearly an hour to do & I don’t think I stayed on my feet for more than a minute at a time. I swore the entire length of the road & unfortunately have used up my allowance of the phrase “Motherfucker” for the next 27years. Having gotten to the end of the road with minor injuries (I fell & grazed my eye on some pine needles) I had a childish schoolboy moment when I refused to shut the gate! That’ll learn it……
Staggering on & totally exhausted I then had my finest moment when following the trail I came to a farmhouse, I knew I had to go through the gate & on towards the track but I just couldn’t see it. I was standing literally 6inches away from the damn thing & thought it was a fence, totally disoriented I wandered off looking for said gate & then found myself by a river. I nearly called it a day then & was going to bivvy down & ring through to DNF as I was totally lost & couldn’t make any sense of my map or GPS. Thankfully, I couldn’t see a dry p[lace to bivvy down & so sat on the riverbank & had 30mins kip. Waking up & feeling refreshed I set off again & soon bumped into 2 other runners, who I quickly joined up with. Feeling too tired to help with the Nav I let them get on with it & they were working excellently as a team. Any input from me would have just been babble anyway.
I made it into Bellingham about 6hrs late & in total agony with my feet. Deep down I knew my race was teetering on a knife edge. Rest & elevation to try & sort them was the order now.
A couple of hours of sleep & a wash down & I was ready to have my feet taped yet again. I only had 39miles to go to the finish & although I was ruined I was going to have a bloody good go. Throwing away my trainers as they were totally trashed I opened the laces all the way on my new ones to help fit my swollen feet into them. I sent a text to my wife saying that I was going to go for it & left the building. On through the hills & my feet were agony, I went through some freezing water & this seemed to aid my swelling & my trainer suddenly became very loose. I stopped to tighten the laces & than carried on. Unfortunately my foot began to swell again & within a mile I had to stop & retie the laces. Every step was now agony & I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to finish this. At least I could get to a roadhead or possible easy place of evacuation. Studying my map I saw the perfect place about a mile further up the trail & headed there. Walking into a deserted barn I took my pack off & after racing for 234miles I went to make the call. Five minutes later my Spine race was over. Sitting down & waiting to be picked up I put my kettle on & had a brew up.
I had no qualms about this DNF, I knew I could do no more & this race was an absolute beast. No-body had an easy time on this course & you could see it in their eyes at the end of each day when they just sat down at the CPs. Hammered, battered & weather worn each racer knew that they had been in a battle that day & also knew that a harder day waited for them on the next section. You looked at them as they sat there & suddenly you could see a click as their resolve tightened & they knew that they would be heading out the next day to once more tackle The Pennine Way & The Spine Race.
I’m already making plans for next year!
Sitting in the pub at Kirk Yetholm. Next time I’ll get all the way there under my own steam.
A visit to the local “walk” in centre when I got back to London confirmed my worst fears that I was suffering from Cellulitis in both feet & my legs & that’s what was causing me so much pain & swelling. On a double course of Antibiotics & pain killers to help ease myself back to walking normally. Still cant though & it’s now 7 days since the race. Would I change a thing?? Nah, don’t be daft….
All photos have been kindly reproduced courtesy of John Bamber, Nici Griffin, Stuart Smith, Neil Bryant, Charlie Sharpe, Colin Fitzjohn & myself.
A donation for the use of the photos has been sent to the Borders Search & Rescue Unit . Please take a moment to look at the sterling work that they do & maybe make a donation yourself. They are entirely self-funding & rely heavily on our contributions.
Border Search and Rescue Unit (BSARU) is registered as a Scottish charity, No SC023