It’s become a bit of a annual event (3rd time)these days as I find myself sitting on a train heading to Edale at the beginning of the year. Looking around the train it’s not difficult to spot other Spine racers with excess amounts of kit and huge drop bags. I’d found myself totally relaxed and slowly beginning to be immersed into the whole atmosphere that is the Spine race series and the journey is now routinely part of it. I reflected on my first experience back in 2015 and just how much had changed in my life and what effect this race has had on me. As many ultra racers will tell you that spending time alone for long periods of time during races clears your mind and refocuses you. I’ve made some pretty big life decisions because of this experience. I’ve changed careers, started another business, become a member of Mountain Rescue, trained as a Mountain Leader all because of my involvement with this event. And as I’m sure anyone who has had any involvement with the Spine race will tell you it gets under your skin and you become part of what is fondly known as the ‘Spine Family’.
As I exited the train and wandered along the platform towards Edale village hall it’s bizarre as I immediately started chatting to fellow racers like old friends who were again back for more. It doesn’t feel like the start to a race anymore it’s more like a big reunion with some racing thrown in. Anyway into race registration and the meeting and greeting started with a few formalities of kit checks and documentation checks to do. Then onto the Peak centre for a safety brief with more meeting and greeting of old and new friends. Once everything was done it was off to the YHA for evening meal a few glasses of wine and bed. I laid all my kit out next to my bunk in the order I would put it on or away ready for the next day. Shortly after I was graced with the pleasure of Eugine, one of the Spine race legends. He emptied his kit on the floor making it look like a grenade had gone of in his bag with kit everywhere. He spotted my Hoka boots and gaiters and was comparing his shoes with them and we chatted in a broken Spanish / English / sign language conversation for some time with him showing me his race kit and pictures of previous races. I’ve got to say he is a really nice and funny individual who comes over here and takes on this race every year with full commitment. I certainly admire him for that.
So after a bit more socialising and wine it was time for bed with the luxury of being able to have a relaxed breakfast and a lunchtime start for those of us taking on the Mountain Rescue Team Challenger Race. We were greeted by a cold and snowy start to the race but for me it was looking like the perfect start and just what I’d hoped for.
At 12 noon we were off. I’d been given some strict instructions by Liz this year and they were firmly imprinted in my mind. She had said 1 – I’m not picking you up anywhere else apart from Hawes! (ie dont DNF) 2 – If I spot you on the tracker with anyone else tagging along with you there will be trouble! (I have a habit of letting other racers tag along with me sometimes especially if I think they’re struggling with navigation, unfortunately this usually ends up with me being slower than I should be). With those two points in mind I settled into my race bubble and found a good sustainable pace. I’d spent a lot of time planning my strategy this year and had given my plan to a few of the rescue team who had agreed to come along and provide some moral support along the way. The first big climb is up onto Kinder via Jacobs ladder and is the first thigh burner just to get you warmed up. Once on the plateau the race was on. I was determined to break away from all behind me so a gentle trot was in order to put some distance into it. I knew I had to get to Snake pass under 3 hrs to meet my schedule and it was looking very doable. I really wanted to be over at Torside before darkness having got Bleaklow out of the way with it’s potential navigational difficulties.
I arrived at Torside spot on with my timings and was also joined on the way down there by Paul who a fellow team member had caught up with me. We were greeted by Pete, Lizzy, Andy, Maurice & Martyn from the team who I was pleased to see and it gave me a huge boost. I didn’t hang around for long as I wanted to really push onto Wessenden (23.5 miles). It was now getting dark and I knew that the journey up over Laddow rocks and Black Hill was not the most pleasant one especially with the current ground conditions. But it was easier than expected and again I was making good time in fact I was ahead of my times I’d set myself. The road crossing at Wessenden came up quicker than I thought and again I was met by the guys from the team. This time I was gong to take advantage of hot food and several brews. Also my good friend Colin appeared with Nin his wife and family. Again another boost for me and after speed eating a bowl of pasta it was time to press on. The weather was perfect, it was freezing cold and the moon had started to make an appearance. Saying my farewells I headed off into the darkness towards the climb up from Wessenden lodge. Once up onto Black Moss I was conscious of head torches catching me in the distance so I pushed on further to keep them behind me. The moon was now shining bright so I turned the headtorch off and trotted along in the moonlight. I was aware of a weather change so I intended to be over the M62 and at the Whitehouse pub before it changed. Again it all went to plan meeting friends along the way grabbing a quick brew and pushing on. My ETA for CP1 at Hebden Bridge (47 miles) was again looking favourable. I’d intended to be there for around 06:00hrs and stop for a maximum of 4hrs but at my current pace it’d be well before then that I would arrive. The weather had indeed changed and light rain had started to fall. This had made some parts of the route treacherous with rain on top of ice. As I made my decent off Stoodley pike down through Callis wood I came across two racers looking at maps and gps to find the route. Bearing in mind what I’d been told by Liz about navigation I said hi and pushed on. I noted that they had started to follow me so I broke out into a run in order to loose them. This was somewhat short lived and I managed to run for about half a mile before finding some of that water covered ice. Yep I was like Bambi on ice! Hitting the floor was just the start of it as I was on a steep downhill section of tarmac. With a combination of wet ice, goretex and some forward motion I began my journey on my side rapidly along the road coming to a stop when the tarmac turned into gravel some 20 or so feet further along the road. I’ve no idea why but I lay there for a few seconds laughing and swearing before picking myself up and promptly falling over again this time headfirst into the undergrowth! I jumped up and in the tone of ‘Basil Fawlty’ shouted ‘Right that’s it ‘ followed by more swearing at the nearest tree. The headtorches appeared in the distance behind me so with Liz’s threat looming I legged it yet again and didn’t stop until CP1.
I arrived at CP1 at 04:00 almost 2hrs in front of my ETA I’d set myself. My plan was in – change clothes – sleep – eat and out. 3hrs was more than enough and before I knew it I was on my way over Heptonstall Moor. The weather was again wet and conditions had become slippery. Another meeting of the guys from the team at Widdop boosted my morale yet again and I set off towards Top Withins and onto Cowling. As I passed the ruins and shelter at Top Withins I’d become aware of some chafage developing and made a conscious decision to stop in there and apply a bit of anti-friction cream. As there was absolutely nobody around (I thought)it seemed like the ideal place to lets say remove a couple of layers and deal with the said area. My plan was short lived as the door burst open and five female fell runners came in and joined me! Thankfully it’s pretty dark in there and I managed to carry out my mission without offending anyone otherwise there might be a whole different ending to this blog that would have probably involved the local constabulary. Anyway after a brief explanation of what the Spine race is to them I was off again.
A quick stop at Cowling and yet more tea set me up for the long slog across what can only be described as somewhat boggy going through the agricultural section of endless cow fields leading they way up to Gargrave and onto Malaham. Reaching Lothersdale I’d started to get mentally tired and was contemplating going into the pub for another brew when Ewan greeted me. I chatted for a few minutes before pushing on and bypassing the pub. It was now dark and tiredness was really setting in and I wasn’t really sure if I had just seen Ewan or I’d imagined it. Thankfully Lizzy & Pete had set up camp at another road crossing and had more hot tea for me. I arranged to meet them further on at Gargrave around midnight and pushed on towards Thornton – in – Craven.
I was nearly at Gargrave (74 miles) and it was only 22:00hrs and as I passed a bench that I’d stopped at during a summer reccy earlier last year I took the opportunity to have a quick break and more food. Further along the road I sent a txt to Liz just letting her know I was ok and she promptly replied with a positive message from her niece Aimee. I’ve got to say I was in bits and became an emotional wreck for a few minutes. Gargrave came and went and I’d missed Lizzy & Pete as I was almost 2hrs in front of my timings now. The fields that followed were relentless and I certainly was tired. Somewhere north of Gargrave and just before joining the river up to Airton I fell asleep on the move and was promptly woken up by walking into something. That something turned out to be a cow! I’m not sure who was the most surprised. The cow set off running across the field and I set about laughing hysterically to myself. So now fully awake again it was a big push up to Malham (80.6 miles). I got up to the steps alongside and up to the Limestone above Malham Cove and noted a headtorch coming along behind me so again it was time to move quickly up and across the cove. I know the area well and have a route that I use to cross the limestone so after a few minutes the following headtorch was much further behind me and I didn’t see them until they arrived at CP1.5 – Malham Field Centre.
CP1.5 and I was greeted by John & Paul who were running the CP. I’d allowed myself an hour here so I didn’t waste time, re-taped my feet and had more tea and as much food as I could eat. I desperately needed some sleep but didn’t fancy having to bivvy outside…I had a plan! So I checked out of the CP and found one of the bird watching hides just away from the field centre. Now some of the more seasoned Spine racers know these hides well and are a saviour if you fancy a sleep. So I donned all of my layers, lay on the floor, set the timer on my phone for 25 mins and drifted off into a deep sleep. I awoke to the sound of ‘Johnny Cash & Ring of Fire’ playing (that’s another story).
It was almost starting to become daylight when I set off again and as I started to ascend Fountains Fell I could see two headtorches in the distance behind me. With Liz’s words firmly at the forefront of my mind I set off at a faster pace uphill and started to have a very slow jog in places that I could. Try as I might these headtorches were gaining on me and there was nothing I could do to try and put some distance on them. This went on for quite some time before they were upon me. I recognised the voices as they caught me, both said hello and then passed me. It was Pav & Eugene, the race leaders of the full Spine Race! It wasn’t surprising that I couldn’t keep in front of them.
My next target and I’d now started dreaming of it was a pint of tea and a bowl of chips at the Pen-y-Gehnt cafe. But between me and it was PYG to climb with almost 90 odd miles in my legs….it was a slow process but worth the effort for those chips! Again I bumped into a few friends in the cafe and spent around 30mins in there before realising I was almost at the end of my race.
It was now the long road to Hawes. I left the cafe at a somewhat slower pace as I’d started to stiffen up and my feet had become sore. I hadn’t used any pain relief all race but now was the time so I used some Tramadol to help me on my way. It feels relentlessly long from Horton to reach the even longer road known as the Cam High road and I was starting to become tired again. Yet again I fell asleep whilst on the move but his time there was no cows in the way and I seemed to have managed not to walk into anything. However, on the horizon I could see someone standing prominently on top of one of the hills with what looked like a huge dog. Again a combination of tiredness and probably the Tramadol I was imagining this person and as I got closer he got bigger to the point I was convinced it was a giant with a huge dog! It was in fact a tree and I can say I was relieved about that. One last hurdle was the boggy section off Rottenstone Hill to join Gaudy Lane. It’s not my favourite bit but it is in my case the last section before the finish. As I dropped down to the final few fields before reaching Hawes I was greeted by someone who I believe is a former Spine Racer offering me a cup of coffee from his flask. I accepted his offer and was thankful for the brew. He wished me well and I made the final short distance into Hawes. Along the path behind the church I started to become overwhelmed by the fact I was nearly there. I’ve said it before but there always seems to be dust blowing around towards the end of a race and it always gets in your eyes.
That was it! I could see Liz in the distance at the entrance to the market hall. I’d made it for the second time. To a round of applause I walked into the hall and was greeted by some more of the rescue team members (Chontelle, Steve, Andy). I was relieved it was job done but was in desperate need of more tea.
Another Spine Challenger over. Did I head home put my feet up for the rest of the week? Nope, as soon as I got home it was all my kit in the washing machine, repack and head off up to Bellingham for the rest of the week as part of the Spine Safety Team. Yes myself and Don carried our worldly belongings up onto Lamb Hill (Hut 1) on the Cheviots to keep a watchful eye on the racers in the full Spine race. I just cant get enough of this Spine Family.
Finally, a huge thanks to all of you that supported me by either dot watching my tracker online or being there in person. It means the world to me that you all take time to be involved in my sport and it really does help me along. And a extra big thanks to my lovely wife Liz for her support and putting up with my crazy world.