Saturday 9th to 16th January: The Spine Race (report)

Saturday 9th to 16th January: The Spine Race (report)

Report from Sarah Fuller:

I’ve sat staring at a blank piece of paper for 2 days now not knowing how to put this story into words. I guess a good story has beginning, middle and end and by now I expect most of you know the little plot twist. The journey started a year ago as I crossed the finish line of the spine challenger race – the 110 mile ‘baby brother’ of the full race and a demanding winter 100 in its own right. As I lay prone on Hawes village hall floor unable to move or string a sentence together I watched the full ‘spiners’ come in and go again to tackle the remaining 150 miles of the Pennine way. I remember uttering something like ‘don’t ever let me do something so silly as enter that’ but deep inside I felt jealous, jealous of the adventures they had still to come. So fast forward a few months and with the blisters healed and the happy memories remaining, I submitted my application for a place on the full race. There’s quite a selection criteria to satisfy but it seemed I fit the bill and was in.

I think its safe to say the race consumed me for the rest of the year, most of my training was geared towards it. I had to do a bit of Kit shopping to upgrade various bits and pieces, not just to satisfy the enormous kit list requirements but to satisfy me that I had the right gear to survive 7 nights on the Pennine Way in winter. I did a good few training weekends with the pack – 3 days round the bob graham round, 3 days round the Lakeland 100 and 3 days on the Pennine way itself for exampe. By Christmas I felt ready both mentally and physically although right up to the last minute lots of doubts remained – could I really do this? Did I really have what it took to carry on on my own in the dark in bad weather? Could I manage myself on the trail? Did I have the right equipment? Was I mentally strong enough to keep on plodding through hours and hours of darkness? What would I find out about myself during the process? The answers to all these questions would soon be laid bare.

Finally, I was standing on the start line surrounded by 67 others, most of these were men only 6 other ladies were toeing the line. I have never felt so scared in my life, so out of my depth but I managed to hold it together and at last the race was underway. It was a relief to get going to be honest, the anticipation is sometimes a lot worse than the reality! It was a jolly atmosphere as we jogged slowly through Edale but something was missing – that’s right where was the wind and rain!? A total contrast to last year when we made our way over kinder and bleaklow in a raging storm, this year was relatively benign but the underfoot conditions more than made up for it. The whole of the first 2 days was appalling – when I wasn’t sloshing through water I was sliding around in huge bogs. It was hard work and the 46 miles to the first CP at Hebden took a bit longer than I expected at 17 hours. Still it was probably good to be conservative at this stage and we set about trying to perfect some good checkpoint discipline which ended up being a massive kit faff and not very much sleep!

I’d done most of the first section with Julie who was a similar speed to me and we had a similar outlook on life and the miles certainly seemed to go quicker in her company and good conversation. We decided to start the next leg together as well so grabbed a bit of sleep and a truck load of food and we were off for the long leg through to Hawes and CP 2. Travelling over Withins was beautiful but after that was just purgatory. I hated this part of the course last year and I hated it again. A huge boost came in the form of Tom Pomfrett and my friend kate jogging up ickornshaw moor to meet us and ply us with soup in Cowling. Sean was also there in the village so it was great to see some friendly faces. This was to be the last time I would see any support, Derek and the girls had popped up a few times the day before which was a big boost but it was now time to go it alone. Underfoot conditions got worse after cowling culminating in the delightful miles and miles of bog snorkeling through to Gargrave and onto Malham. Malham was a massive boost for me as I knew we had left the worst of the mud behind for the time being and the scenery was about to get a lot more spectacular. The main field was still very close together at Malham and there was a somewhat undignified scramble for spots in the public toilets to bivvy down! I went in the use the toilet before pushing on to malham tarn and found it full of half-naked Germans!

Getting up to Malham tarn was interesting, the cove was covered in verglass and it was impossible to stand up and this together with a dense freezing fog made progress very slow. I wish I could have filmed us crawling slowly across the cove (thankfully in the right direction!) and on into the dry valley as we must have been a right sight!. We were really confused when we got above the valley as we knew we had to cross a road before progressing on and around the tarn to the field centre. I even got my GPS out and stood there going ‘there should be a road here we are in the right place I just don’t understand’. Closer inspection revealed that we were actually standing right on it and the fog and snow was such that we just couldn’t see it! We burst out laughing and pushed on round the lake, which again due to the fog was not as easy as it should be, but eventually we arrived and could grab a hot drink and some food before grabbing some sleep. However, this was to be a real turning and nearly race ending point in the race, about half an hour after bedding down in my tent a piercing alarm went off somewhere in the field centre and proceeded to go off for the next 3 hours. This meant despite trying we got no sleep whatsoever.

Still we gamely got up and pushed on over fountains fell still in the freezing fog and with very icy underfoot conditions. I think we got filmed decending this section, which was a bit amusing trying not to fall over right in front of the cameras! Fountains fell quickly dispatched and we were climbing Pen Y Ghent, which I was really looking forward to as we were diverted last year from going over the summit. And what a treat we were in for, just as we climbed the steep ground to the summit track we popped up above the cloud into the warm air and a magnificent cloud inversion. Many racers just stopped in their tracks looking at the view with open mouths, what a moment and what a huge morale boost. Still we had to decend back into the fog down some pretty treacherous ground and were soon motoring on towards the café for a giant veggie breakfast. Once again the café was awash with spine racers and challengers (we had been catching and passing the rear of the challenger race field since before hebden who set off 3 hours ahead of us) demolishing huge platefuls of food and pints of tea. We perhaps lingered a little long as it was hard to get going up the cam road with such a huge belly full of food! This next section was tough mentally, because of the nightmare at malham tarn I was now dangerously over tired and experienced my first hallucinations and was actually nodding off on the trail now and then. By the time we rolled down into Hawes through some atrocious bogs I was dead on my feet and was ready to quit. With only 3 hours until the checkpoint closed I just couldn’t see how I could get enough sleep, eat and sort my kit ready to tackle the next leg. I decided to go straight to bed sleep for 90 minutes then do a rush to get out again if I felt ok. Thankfully I slept straight away but woke up still feeling terrible I needed more sleep but that wasn’t an option we had to be out by 10 or be retired. I wavered terribly particularly as Julie and 2 of the other women retired right there, probably the sensible thing to do was to stop as straight out of hawes was the wild and exposed great shunner fell, did I feel up to crossing that on my own at night feeling that tired? No! But hell since when was any of this sensible, I found a small parcel of character from somewhere or other and slung my stuff in the bag and got the hell out of there.

So onwards now alone, 10pm, climbing great shunner fell in the snow and fog it was so hard to push away the self doubts swirling constantly in my mind. Several other racers left at the same time so I was comforted by the presence of Robert somewhere just behind and Alan somewhere just in front. Rob and I were going about the same pace so started to move together loosely and we were both suffering from sleep deprivation so decided to bivvy down once off the high ground to try and regroup and get back in the game. We found a spot in the corner of a field in Thwaite and put our tents up and soon passed out! Another 90 minutes sleep and I felt much better so set off alone heading for Tan hill. Dawn broke as I decended Kisdon pike and I passed more racers who had decided to bed down and eventually reached the tan hill inn for breakfast. Thankfully the pub was open and was full of spiners!

Some food and coffee did the job and I felt a lot better both physically and mentally, I proved to myself I could go it alone but was happy when I fell into pace with another racer Spencer leaving the pub, company was always good for helping the miles pass quicker! Spencer was a real character and had a support crew who were very kind to me the next day and a half I would walk with him. Unfortunately he was suffering a bit on the leg into middleton both with a knee problem bad blisters and sleep deprivation. No way was I leaving him so we slowly made our way to middleton checkpoint for another huge feed and kit faff. We had the same problem as we did at hawes being only 3 hours ahead of cut off but this time didn’t make the mistake of sleeping at the checkpoint and then only having to sleep again a few hours later so we packed up and went round the corner and kipped in a car park which meant we got a full 3 ½ hours unbroken sleep. Luxury!

The 42 mile section from Middleton to Alston can be rightly called a game of 2 halves. Firstly, a relatively flat plod along the river tees passing low and high force, somewhere in the darkness a huge rumbling presence. Then a long climb up and eventually along to high cup nick surely one of the most stunning views in England, and boy it didn’t disappoint on this occasion either. We took a few cheesy selfies with Harsharn, another racer we had seen a fair bit and whom I would see a lot more in the future. A long but easy decent to Dufton and the offer of a cuppa from a support team whilst I waited for spencer – perfect! Not so perfect was the looming presence of cross fell, even though it was shrouded in cloud I could feel its bulk, feel its grandeur, our next objective.

The approach to the climb was muddy as hell but the climb itself was ok surprisingly but we were soon above the snow line and it became apparent that conditions on top would be challenging in terms of lying and blowing snow. And so it was, a slow trudge in blizzard conditions over little and great dunn fell and on towards the big boy itself. Spencer was really struggling now in the rough deep snow but in those conditions you stick together for safety no matter how frustrating and I was relieved to see the lights of 2 other racers ahead who had stopped to wait for us and team up for the crossing. And so 2 became 4 and I was very grateful for Harsharn and Sean for waiting particularly as spencers pace was now very slow and I was getting very cold. Still we kept plodding on and despite the conditions made steady, if labored progress and eventually summited and dropped down to Gregs hut – a bothy high on the flanks of Cross fell. I’ve never been more grateful for a cup of tea in my life but truth be told I loved the battle on cross fell I felt so alive! John Bamber and Paul Shorrock, legendary figures from the mountain safety team were in gregs making brews and noodles and the stop there was a real race highlight. They even gave me a little snifter in anticipation of my birthday the next day.

Despite my desire to stay longer we had to press on down to Alston and under normal circumstances this should have been simple but with the drifting snow the landrover track had disappeared so we had to pick our way carefully down until eventually the side of the road became discernable! That was a long 8 miles to Alston on top of the difficult crossing off cross fell I was emotionally frazzled again by the time I reached the checkpoint (up a massive hill not remotely on the bl***** pennine way!). I remember immediately bursting into tears as the staff presented me with a birthday rice pudding complete with candle in it!!

Still amazing what a small amount of sleep can do and soon we were moving off from Alston just as dawn broke. Spence was still struggling a little so I took the painful decision to split and carried on alone. The 20 miles to Greenhead looked relatively benign on the map but what it lacked in elevation gain it made up for in mud and snow so still felt tough and slow going at times. More remarkably I managed to pass a few people along here and that was a huge mental boost. I supported also gave me some soup which was really welcome. It was close to getting dark again when I was closing in on Greenhead and looking forward to meeting up with Tom Jones’ van for a brew. Tom is one of those legendary spine characters and a real gentleman and font of knowledge. Just before that point Harsharn and Sean caught me up and I picked up the pace to stay with them. Harsharn was moving well and was in high spirits but sean was seemingly struggling a little but not enough to slow the pace and we quickly reached tom and were joined by Robert who also caught us. Tom gave us some hot water and we made expedition meals and retired to the disabled toilets to get out the biting wind to eat them – lovely, what a birthday meal!

The temperature had dropped dramatically to well below zero and we layered up ready to tackle ‘the wall’. I’d never been to hadrians wall so was a little excited at all the roman ruins and turned into a bit of a tourist but the novelty soon wore off as that section just went on and on and on – climb after climb, steep drop after steep drop. It was relentless and cold, so cold. But the night was beautiful and clear and it was really magical and with the banter of the other runners we got through eventually and off into Kielder forest. It was another 10 miles through to Belingham over relatively easy ish terrain but it was already past midnight and we were all tired. Harsharn knew of a bothy in the woods and we reasoned that getting sleep now was a good idea rather than deathmarch 10 miles and then sleep. We figured that we would cover the 10 miles much quicker fresh and be in a much better place for the assault on the final leg. Had we known then how things would play out we would have done things differently but still the bothy was an adventure and that’s what we were here for after all wasn’t it?

We all over slept and woke up in a massive panic about cut off times but got some decent sleep and good food in which was well needed. The only downer was Sean announced he wasn’t continuing with us, his foot which had been bothering him the previous day was now difficult to move and he made the painful decision to let us go. And so there were three who pushed on to Belingham which we covered really quickly including a pit stop at Horneystead farm at daybreak. The lovely lady there is a vetran long distance walker and avid fan of the race and she was there to greet us and offer hot drinks and snacks. Absolutely fantastic, it was moments like this that really made the race for me what a wonderful lady.

Belingham was as a real haven, a lovely homely atmosphere and we were well looked after and fed by team Lendon (Richard has started the race 5 times and one of the front runners but had to drop out this year). We were in high spirits and felt the race was back under control even though would be likely using all the time available to us! Just as we were about to leave the CP for the push to the final stop at Byrness before the finish we are stopped and the bottom fell out of our world. I can still see Jenny’s pained expression as she delivered the news, she told us we now had but 3 hours to do the next stretch to Byrness not 9 hours – the race cut off time had been bought forward by 6 hours due to extreme cold and deep snow conditions on the cheviots. Now I know we were pretty fresh and moving well but 3 hours was impossible for the tough 15 mile section. Many other racers ahead had done it in 8 plus hours but we were hoping for 6 hours given we were well rested and pretty fresh. Jenny gave us the option to stop there but since we were allowed to continue to Byrness it became a matter of pride to continue until we were stopped and prove to ourselves that we would have made the original cut off time of 8pm.

So on we went making really good time for most of the section, just a couple of long stretches of deep snow which were slow going. Soon we were motoring along the forest tracks that would take us to Byrness and our finish. Its funny how much control the mind has over what the body can do, once my mind was done my body started to follow suite pretty quickly and unfortunately my mind was done a couple of miles out of Byrness! The goal had gone, dreams of crossing the finish line kept me going over the previous 6 ½ days were now taken away and my mind accepted its fate. I stopped and stopped hard, the last couple of miles were a real struggle and it was sheer stubbornness to see out plan B to prove our ability to meet original timings that kept me on my feet. Once the checkpoint came into view that last 200 yards felt like 20 miles, it was an emotional moment – elation at getting as far as we did mixed heavily with the sting of defeat. So close yet so far. I fell through the door of the forest view B&B who were hosting the checkpoint and collapsed onto a handy sofa. My mind no longer saw the need to do anything further so I prompty shut down and became a helpless shivering heap. The helpers were wonderful feeding us hot soup and sweeping up shattered emotions. It turns out there were about 7 runners impacted at Byrness by the revised cut off and a further 3 behind stopped at Belingham.

In truth I came to terms with what happened pretty quickly, I hold my head up high that the race never broke me (although if you saw me right now you may argue otherwise), I never quit and once out of Hawes never again thought I would. I met the original cut off time by nearly 3 hours and was ready for a battle with the Cheviot but circumtances dictated otherwise, in a normal year I know I would have finished and feel no need to go back and prove this to myself. I need no medal or finishers T shirt to validate the journey I undertook. I found out a huge amount about myself on the trail and met some wonderful people both racers and volunteers alike. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done and at times I was pretty close to the edge but I have never felt more alive. On reflection choosing to do this event was about more than just the finish and medal it was about the journey, about adventure and the people I shared it with. I got what I came for, I am content.

68 people started this years race, 24 finished including 2 ladies (go girls sorry I couldn’t make it 3!).

13 thoughts on “Saturday 9th to 16th January: The Spine Race (report)

  1. Wow! What a fantastic report-can only imagine what it would’ve been like dragging a weary body on that journey! You have a massive amount of courage and determination, you should be proud of yourself!

  2. Well done Sarah! I was another avid dot watcher, really interesting report, I’m sure you could have written many more paragraphs about it. It’s nice to read your version of it and compare it to the dot tracking/facebook updates, I really noticed how quickly you went on after Alston to Greenhead, it almost looked like sprinting in dot terms! Somewhere in the back of my mind I am inspired to maybe have a go at the challenge event….possibly….in a couple of years time.

  3. Amazing effort Sarah, and your report really brought it to life, especially the Cross Fell bit. I was watching your progress on the map at this point and knew the conditions would be bad, so was a bit worried. Good to picture you in the bothy keeping warm and ‘loving life’ :o)
    I can safely say I’m not tempted at this challenge, but definitely inspired to get out in the wilds for some adventures of my own.

  4. Wow, what a great emotional read !!
    Thank you for sharing your experience with us in terms of dot watching, people giving updates on the website and social media and now reading this great report.
    I was happy to meet up with you in Cowling and offer you a friendly face, sorry i could not repeat this further up the route.
    You are an awesome lady !! a great role model for your daughters and any youngster out there and a inspiration to us all.
    Your earlier adventures inspired me to do my first 30 mile race back in 2014 and this adventure now gives me the dive and desire for my 60 miler in November.
    Enjoy your downtime, recover and refocus for the LakeLand 100.

  5. That’s one of the best reports I’ve read and a fine tribute/record of your trip out. Bet you suffered more than you let on!

    Fellsman? Ha ha

  6. I agree in full with all the great comments about your unique hard adventure Sarah , fantastic story about your 7 days of not stop of the 200 miles and something in the wilderness and darkness of the winter over the roughness of the moors , and I agree with you in full when you say that there is no need for you to go back to prove it to yourself because you were ready to go until the end of the race to the finish line and I know you do not want any medal , but to be honest you deserve one indeed , I am still impressed by your huge achievement . Well done Sarah Fuller.

  7. So chuffed for you Sarah, half my office was watching your dot with me and it was funny seeing how disappointed they were when the cutoff was brought forward seeing as they’ve never even met you!

    Definitely an inspiration, thanks for letting us all share the adventure in some little way 🙂

  8. Thank you for all the kind words and messages of support I’m massively touched by the level of interest in my little adventure !! Might be a while before I’m back running regularly but hope to see you all back on the trails soon up the black and whites !! Oh and Matt — Fellsman – maybe – depends on how quickly I recover !

  9. Finally found some time to read your report. WOW! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you bloody rock!

  10. Awesome in every sense of the word. Great report. Let’s all go and run the last section over the Cheviots.

  11. Wow! An amazing report of an amazing race by an amazing lady! Well done Sarah, and thank you so much for a great read.

  12. Sarah, the report you have given, is truly awe inspiring, the courage, grit and determination, you have shown on your epic journey leaves me spell bound , what a journey it has been for you and your comrades on one of the epic races of the year, have a good rest, recover, dont be downhearted, you are a true “Black and White ” warrior, well done!!!!!

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