The Spine is billed as Britain’s most brutal race and they aren’t kidding or exaggerating! The ‘challenger’ at 112 miles is the ‘sprint’ distance version taking in the pennine way from Edale to Hawes which competitors have 60 hours to complete. This may sound generous but don’t be fooled, take into account 15 hours of darkness a day, the weather, underfoot conditions and the compulsory kit list then it starts to make sense! This race was to be my 3rd attempt at the 100 mile plus distance (after 2* DNF on the lakeland 100) was it to be my 3rd DNF ? Well I’m happy to say no, I finally did it! So if you have an aversion to pain, suffering and nasty feet then you can stop reading now, you know how it ends!
The challenger race set off at 6:30am on Saturday straight into the teeth of a ferocious storm which started at 6.29 and was to be the theme for the weekend. Before we even left the Edale valley we were getting blown off our feet and everyone stopped to put on ski goggles to cope with getting hail blasted into our faces at 70mph. I tried to block out the conditions and not let it stress me out, if I had thought about the race as a whole and what it would be like if the weather continued like that I would have retired there and then! So on up onto Kinder and thankfully the rain and hail eased off but the strong wind remained and would be our tormentor for the rest of the race. Sometimes hitting us right in the face (particularly lovely when accompanied by hail or rain!), sometimes slamming us to the ground but mostly hitting us from the left so much so I now have aches in my left leg and right shoulders from constantly steadying myself and fighting against it! Kinder downfall became Kinder upfall in spectacular style and provided a lovely cooling shower as we passed (because it was so hot and dusty this was so welcome – not!!).
On Kinder I found myself going at the same pace as a guy called Pete and we got chatting and decided the thing would be more enjoyable / safer if we teamed up and ‘ran’ together. This was the first of many pieces of good luck and we would remain together to the bitter end each pulling the other along during the many low points. Once it was fully light we started to make good progress particularly on the slabbed sections where we could get a decent run going! On over Bleaklow and then the long muddy decent to Torside reservoir where we stopped in the shelter of some woods to sort some kit and get some food in. We got stuck in and tried to push the pace to make the most of the short hours of daylight. Dusk was coming as we crossed the road at Standedge and I got a lovely surprise as Derek and the kids were waiting to give us a cheer as we came through, I even stole a cream egg off the kids, yum! After that boost we crossed standedge in a blizzard and it was now dark as we plodded on and crossed the M62 which was a bit odd seeing all those cars going their merry way. Our merry way was over black stone edge a confusing hotch potch of boulders and mud with a death defying drop somewhere off to the left in the darkness (no chance of falling off accidentally as the wind was blowing from that direction!) and on to the White House pub where the race safety team were checking numbers and our condition (yes wet wind blown but happy thanks v much). We resisted going in and pressed on towards CP1 at Hebden bridge but first some boring reservoirs and Stoodly Pike to negotiate, it was here we met Claire who would become the third member of our little team.
Checkpoint 1 is at mile 46 and not remotely in Hebden bridge, being about a mile off the pennine way down an enormous steep muddy hill through some woods (which of course we would need to go back up!), after falling over 358 times we finally reached CP 1 at about 11pm (about 16 1/2hours since leaving Edale)- happy with that given the conditions. At the checkpoint we set about demolishing large plates of chilli and sorting kit for the next leg. All thoughts of going for a particular time were thrown out of the window, I needed to plan to complete safely and that meant trying to get a bit of sleep whilst there was a bed on offer. So alarms were set for 2.30 although they weren’t needed as it was impossible to sleep: it was noisy and I was just too buzzed from the last 16 hours and thoughts of what was to come. Still it was good to get a rest and we left just after 3am back up the mud hill as the main flow of the long race runners were coming down (yes, there are some lunatics who are doing the whole pennine way 268 miles!) who started about 4 hours after us.
Still windy out and a bit of snow going over Withens where we were looking forward to having a breather in the little hut at top withins but some kind soul had locked it – bugger! Huddling outside wasn’t quite the same. It finally got light again as we climbed out from Ponder reservoir over some other interminable bogfest moorland into a hurricane, so I was pretty pleased and a little emotional to see my friend Kate jogging up the moor towards us offering soup and tea. We all piled into her van and got warm and drank loads of hot tea. This also gave me the chance to sort my feet out which had been giving me quite a bit of pain for a while. I had a few nasty toe blisters and on the balls of both feet so taped them up and hoped for the best. Unfortunately we had to leave the van and get on with the long and extremely muddy ups and downs from Cowling and through eventually to Gargrave. We got another surprise visit from my husband at East Marton which was well timed as it had been tipping it down for hours and we were getting pretty wet and cold. A quick hot chocolate and we pushed on to Gargrave and the hot pie counter at the coop. Sean had been tracking us and came out to give us a cheer into Gargrave and it was a lovely boost to see another friendly face before tackling the 6 mile bog snorkle into Malham in the fading light.
The ‘track’ into Malham was 6 miles of atrociously wet and muddy fields which was utterly grim and hard going, every step you ran the risk of dissapearing forever into the mire! We swam slowly northwards and close to Malham crossed a field that turned out to have some horses in which took exception to us being there. We were quickly surrounded and they tried to push us and eat our rucksacks (funny now not so much at the time) I’m sorry to say I had a bit of a sense of humour failure at this point and got a bit cross with the whole thing. Claire was mega calm as she was the whole time and Pete took charge and tried to get rid of them while we turned our torches off and made a run for it! By the time we got to the village we were very cold again so went in the pub for a cup of tea (oh the shame!) before pushing on up to Malham tarn and the small run through checkpoint at the field centre.
All went well until we got to the tarn it was just so windy and cold up there and Claire and I were freezing when we got to the checkpoint. CP1.5 is at about 85 miles ish and not a ‘full checkpoint’ like at Hebden but they had a warm room, a chair and hot tea which was all we needed. The weather was again deteriorating and so was I, we decided it wasn’t safe to push on through the night without a decent stop as the next part of the route would take us over Fountains Fell and Penyghent, which is very exposed. So we put my tent up and Claire and I squeezed in and tried to get 2.5 hours kip (hardcore Pete bivvied outside!) which wasn’t too successful as the noise of the wind and rain and the tent side being blown into my face wasn’t exactly relaxing!
We set off again about 3am, 4 hours after arriving. The weather was now truly shocking mixed in with the hurricane we had driving rain, the kind that feels like someone is hosing you down. Hitting the top of Fountains Fell we could barely stand and had to push and pull each other along, our little team truly worked together and I will be eternally grateful for their company (these two totally embodied the true spirit of the ultra running community). Dropping down again I had a complete paddy at my hood as the wind kept whipping it off my head as one of the toggles had come loose, I completely lost it (foot stamping and everything!) and Pete tried to fix it for me (bless!). We eventually hit the road and dived into a barn that Claire knew about, to sort ourselves out. Pete was very cold so we had to get some warm dry base layers on him before continuing, the barn was a godsend! Before heading up Penyghent we were met by mountain rescue guys and were told not to go over the summit as it was too dangerous, they were diverting racers down the brackenbottom track from the hole in the wall.
We reached Horton just as it was getting light and found the Penyghent cafe open (the guy had been open all night sheltering racers and providing food and hot drinks – what a hero), one of the race organisers was there and we were told we couldn’t leave until 8am as the race had been suspended temporarily due to the conditions (apparently this happened just after we left Malham tarn so had been out in it whilst others were held at checkpoints!)- people would be credited with the time back but all I cared about at that point was ordering a pint of tea and some chips for breakfast !! We spent an hour and half there gradually covering the cafe in mud and water and wet gear but the chance to dry some critical bits of kit was crucial before we tackled the final 13 miles over the exposed Cam road to Hawes.
We made good progress up to the high point and were positively motoring along at a blistering 3mph uphill – keen to get done now! But The Spine wasn’t finished with us yet, it was if the race was doing everything and throwing everything at you to break you. I wouldnt have been suprised if we had a plague of locusts next! The Cam road was freezing and the wind relentless, we were blown over several times and practically staggered and half crawled at some points it seemed like hours but finally we began to lose height and could see Hawes far below. I started to well up but held it together as we entered the town and went into the finish all together. Massive relief and an overwhelming feeling of contentment at a job done. Claire and I finished joint second lady which was a nice surprise but we didn’t really care, we had finished and thats what mattered. We were about 24th and 32 finished out of 67 starters (unofficial). My time was something over 55 hours (the times on the website don’t seem to reflect all the time credits yet not that I’m bothered!!). I’m overwhelmed by all the messages of support and that people were watching the trackers, this was a great motivator so thank you so much (come on move your butt people are watching!). The Spine race has a unique atmosphere and I feel priviledged to have been part of the family for a short time. They really look after you and the racers are definately a unique bunch too! So is The Spine Britain’s most brutal race? Hell yes! Will I be back? TBC.