RACE Report: Spine 2018 – So last week was Operation Spine!!! I had set myself the target of having all my kit ready by the end of November. November came and went as did December. The first week of January became a mad flurry of Amazon deliveries and “hand-me-downs” from my colleague Paul Nelson. Finally I was ready (Not) and off I skipped to a lovely hotel in Sheffield to “get into the zone” and have the “last sleep” before check-in. After Check-in on Saturday we had a further day to wait before the big kick off at 8am on Sunday and I spent the night in the back of my car watching various motivational videos on my IPad and munching on twix bars that I should have been saving for later in the week.
Finally we were off! 7 days to complete the 268 mile race; 7 days to get from South Yorkshire up the entire Pennine way and over the border into Scotland; 7 days not to fall apart.. 7 days of testing times. The first day passed well and the going was good without much in the way of mud. The cold wind made its first appearance and never left us alone thereafter. After 30 miles I was met by some weird folk with radioactive party gloves at a burger van , who else could it be other than Paul Nelson, Lucie and Andy Walsh! There are strange folk out there on the moors! The biggest burger I could buy from the van later (actually someone lent me the money) and I was off again into the gloom and over the murky M62 bridge and onwards. Some 10 miles later I approached Hebdon Bridge and the target was CheckPoint 1 the local Scout activity centre. It was here that I put my deliberate deception plan into place to confuse Paul Nelson who I knew would be scrutinizing my progress from my tracker location over the internet. 30 minutes later and once I was actually back on the CORRECT route I made it into the CheckPoint at around midnight. The centre was “rammed” with everyone else and was really chaotic so I decided to move on as quickly as I could along the route until I could find some shelter for a rest.
Rest came in the form of 2 hrs sleep in a bivibag in a wood just off the main route. Snow had continued to fall while I was asleep and had nicely dripped down the sleeping mat and into the bivi bag.. so lucky me got to carry a wet bivi for the remainder of the week! Note to self – bring a Tarp next time for a roof! Monday during the day was uneventful as we slogged it out towards Malham and after a quick stop in Gargreave I set off upto Malham and into my next Navigational detour! Once resolved (and 30 minutes of wasted time later) we carried on towards Malham and were met by a lady and her children in dressing gowns handing out cake and coffees in Costa Mugs yum yum and thank you very much! Into Malham we (now teamed up with a chap called Leslie) arrived and dived into the pub for a 1hr sleep. Awake again and then up the track to the top of the escarpment and onwards to Malham Tarn. On the far side of the Tarn was situated Check Point 1b which was a room with a heater and nothing else. We were allowed a 30 min break here and no more. People just sat down and went to sleep in seconds and started to “bungie-neck”. We didn’t bother with this fun so left within 10 mins or so.
We were now heading towards Pen’Y’Ghent and Horton and were about to take in our first big hill – Fountains Fell at 668m. At this point the “white stuff” became VERY white and the wind became very strong and very cold. It got worse the higher we went and a group of us made it over the top to descend into the next valley. The full route over the top of Pen’Y’Ghent was out of bounds due to ice but we still had to make our way up to the point where the traditional scramble starts. Left turn and we (just me at this point) simply ran down the hill towards Horton and the promise of bacon sarnies in the café. Running down was easier said than done – I was bent forward to ensure the horizontal wind and snow didn’t blow into my face but this made it difficult to see where I needed to go! I was feeling very cold and very tired. My brain started conjuring up weird shapes amongst the rocks and faces in the snow. I was so glad to get down, it felt as if I had just been in a fight and had been truly battered. Into the café for 2 hrs kip and scoff and out again ready to face the notorious boring and very long march to Hawes along the Cam road. It seemed to become a standard feature of each leg that the “last bit” was always long and seemingly never ending. This was very true of the descent into Hawes, especially after we had been hit by “mega-hell-cross-winds” (new meteorological technical term?) which did its best to blow us off our feet and unfortunately ripped away my race number – not a good omen! Inside the Hawes youth hostel we savored the relative warmth for an hour whilst we eat, dried out, re-stocked supplies from our “mother-ship” dropbags and repacked for the next stage.
Our next big test was upon us – Great Shunner fell at 716m. This was a very long ascent which turned into a blizzard and a near “white-out” (the full whiteout would come later). It was on this feature that I ran into the dilemma of teaming up with someone who was using a GPS but was running from pillar to post and unable or unwilling to communicate his intent and with someone whose GPS battery had failed and who admitted had no knowledge of how or even why a map and compass should be used instead. Feeling obliged to help out the “flat battery” man I set a course across the tundra for Thwaite and off we went for miles of descent before arriving at the village. At some point along the way the chap I was helping decided to run-off ahead without so much as a thank you – so much for camaraderie on the hills, but it is a race of course and don’t blame him. Heading out of Thwaite and in the direction of Tan Hill I fell foul of my lack of researching the route before the race. I ended up in a sleepy snowbound hamlet that reminded me of Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter books. I seemed to become trapped here without being able to find the path heading northwards towards Tan Hill. Tired beyond belief I crashed out for an hour on the floor of a tourist information office next to a display cow. Shivering woke me up and I leapt into action determined to find the elusive path. The path finally made itself known and I headed North with the help of my compass; my GPS which I had reluctantly turned on (I am a convert now!!) and the trusty Pole star signposted from Ursa Minor. Along the way I bumped into another competitor called Dean who was heading South in the opposite direction to me declaring he was on his way to the Inn at Tan Hill. “Well you better about-turn and come with me lad” was my response and off we headed in the right direction. Clear skies suddenly disappeared and it was not long before a blizzard descended on us, then a real white-out! We were a mile from the Tan Hill inn, we couldn’t see more than a couple of metres in front of us; we stumbled, we fell, we were upto our waists in snow but somehow we battled on hoping our two GPSs’ and one trusty Silva compass would see us through. It did but it was incredibly hard work and to be honest frightening. If we had got stuck out there was no-one who could have helped us. We had the mandatory survival kit but we would have been too cold to put it into action. For the first time in my life I heard myself say… “ is this how I die?”.
We made it to the Inn and an hour or so later when dawn was breaking we set off again on the next leg to Middleton-In-Teesdale. We (Dean, Leslie and I) followed the frozen path north-eastwards until we crossed under the A66 and into County Durham. The remainder of that morning and afternoon were uneventful until we arrived finally into the activity centre at Middleton. No sooner had I arrived the race staff declared the race would be halted due to the extreme weather on the fells and that all runners would be held at their current locations. This was welcome news for me for two reasons, firstly and selfishly I needed the extra time to recuperate before heading out on the next 20 mile section and secondly I was glad that the race staff had recognized just how bad things were and that people would be at serious risk. In the end we were held for around 11 hours before being setoff again at 6am on Thursday morning. I left about 5mins after everyone else and for the next 10 hours saw no one. I was lucky in that the route through the deep snow had been broken for me and all I had to do was follow the tracks. The route took me along Teesdale to Lowforce, Highforce and eventually Cauldron Snout which was fun to scramble up. The route took me South West for the next 10km or so until I reached the village of Dufton in Cumbria having overtaken ten or so competitors in a sprint for no other reason than to prove to myself it could be done! Dufton really was a waste of time as a checkpoint so we decamped into the local café and ordered full breakfasts (at 4pm in the afternoon) and discussed who would be teaming up with who for the mandatory “stay as a group” edict which had just been declared on the grounds of safety. That café will forever be remembered as “DNF (Did Not Finish) café” for in the space of a few minutes 6 or more competitors decided not to continue and to retire. The remaining four of us were now the “back four” of the race and we knew we were seriously up against the clock and only had 12 hours to get to Alston 20 miles away but over the highest point on the route – Cross Fell. We would need to get over it in the dark. It was a tall order but we were determined not to retire ourselves – someone would have to retire us!
“Cross-Fell” apparently means “Angry Mountain” and is said to be haunted by evil spirits. I found this out afterwards! The four of us set off and we quickly split into 2 teams of two. Leslie and I went ahead and started to ascend the first main fell on the line of fells that eventually bring you to Cross Fell. Having determined to focus on compass bearings to get us through we overshot the first summit (so much for pacing!! ) and wasted time in waist high snow bringing ourselves back round on track. It was here that we spotted the “GPS express” ie the 2 guys that we had left earlier. We joined forces and made our way up and up and up and up into the snowy gloom and the cross-wind of Hell that I will never forget. Once at the top we simply had to get down over the over side as quickly as we could. To lose a person here to hypothermia would have been fatal in my view. It would not be unrealistic to state it was between -15 and -20 degrees with the windchill here. It was just too cold to build an emergency shelter if needed. We cracked on and now headed North East for 600m until we arrived at the oasis of Greg’ hut bothy at circa 750m. We were entertained with chili noodles and meatballs courtesy of the Spine race’s big character John Bamber and his elf helpers. Washed down with a tin of cold Vimto (why??) we set off to jog down the “clear and easy” track to Alston. We had about 3 ½ hours to get to Alston or get timed out! The “clear and easy” track turned out to be a “long and winding, boring, painful, freezing, stumbling, falling asleep on the move” track that never ended. Eventually it did end and by this time I was on my own again. Here I was met by a random lady in her dressing gown and slippers outside her house who plied me with the best mug of coffee I have ever drunk and some suspect mind-altering flapjacks which revived my body and brain for the final push into Alston. The final navigation challenge was just about to begin.. not 1, not 2 but 3 different footpath signs all in close proximity and all pointing the same way! Eny, Meeny, Miny, Moe which one should I choose? I know – all three! Two wasted efforts later I took the third final and correct track to Alston. At 06:30hrs Friday morning and after circa 194 miles of the route covered I was timed out. Meanwhile the GPS Express lads knowing they wouldn’t make the cut-off had stopped at the random lady’s
house for an offered full English breakfast and she then gave them a lift to the checkpoint!
My initial determination to carry on soon gave way to the fact that I had arrived (albeit late) unscathed, without injury and with the mental determination to carry on if I had been allowed. I felt positive and proud of what I had achieved in the 5 days. It was tough, it was scary, it had been fun and I had met some great people and new friendships had been forged. Within minutes I resolved to enter the event next year and return to the scene of the crime and triumph. This year had in the end turned out to be my detailed recce! There are many lessons to be learnt here for me but the biggest one I feel is the avoidance of wasting race time. The clock does not stop, it keeps ticking. All wasted minutes add-up. I have reflected on the at least 2-3 hours worth of navigational errors which can be avoided next year and sleeping early within the first 24hrs when I should have pushed on further perhaps for 48hrs before sleeping. It should be my goal next time to get ahead of the curve and to know the route so well (and/or follow GPS tracks) in order to avoid having to get my map out and orientate myself (it only takes circa 60 seconds to do this but if eg I checked my map 100 times in the week that is another 2hrs or so wasted time when I could have been moving). I am really excited at the prospect of going back next year for a second attempt and putting these lessons into action!
The event was simply awesome. It was more than just a race, it was a full blown adventure and despite the so called brutality of the Spine I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who wants to be thoroughly tested on a non-stop multi-day self-sufficient Ultra. 52 competitors successfully completed the race and 65 competitors retired. The memories will be many and varied but I would like to take this opportunity to thank Paul Nelson for his pre/during and post race advice and to Lucie Barnes and Andrew Walsh. I would also like to thank everyone for their messages of support both during and after the event. Receiving an Instant Message via social media out in the middle of nowhere whilst freezing really does have a great effect on morale and keeps the legs going ……Left Foot, Right Foot…
More Pictures here