Spine 2019 – 2nd time!

Well here I am again in a bit of a daze, sorting out my kit whilst continuing to track competitors who are still out on the ground, and still in the race!

Sunday 13th Jan was the start of my second attempt at completing the Winter Spine race, 268 miles up the entire length of the Pennine Way, in 7 days. I was fitter, more organised and more injury free than my previous attempt last year, but even so I was not to triumph this year. Lets take a look back at what happened…

Race briefing at Edale

My initial plan was to keep going non stop, without sleep until I got to Hawes at 110 miles. It would give me a psychological boost to know I had leapt that far forward and not wasted time on “nice to have” sleep, rather than essential. I knew I could go for approx 50 hrs without sleep so it seemed a fitting target.

The simple white board weather forecast at the Edale race registration centre foretold of wind, rain and windchill, in a somewhat understated manner. How true. It would become a brutal reality.

Off we set at 8 am on the Sunday morning with ALL of the above weather, and once on the top of Kinder Scout it was difficult to make any speed due to the wind constantly pushing us back. Crossing Kinder Downfall (a key stream crossing) I was attacked by something out of the Gods, which happened to be a heavy barrage of horizontal hail which came from nowhere and was gone in a second. It felt like a giant had been waiting there to chuck a huge handful as I crossed. A little later I came to a prominent bend in the track and shot straight down the hill instead of bearing right. You will see from the map below the error which took me right off course and then required a concentrated navigation effort to get me back onto the Pennine Way. This wasted 45 mins and energy that I would later come to need. It was a blow and I felt somewhat daft for making such a simple and avoidable mistake so early on. Once back on the track I jogged as fast as I could for the next few miles to catch up with my fellow competitors and start overtaking them one by one.

As the day progressed, there was no let up in the strength of the wind and we found ourselves being blown around constantly. After around 20 miles or so, I realised with shock I had forgotten to pack my “day/evening” rations which were my main meals to fuel me into the evening. I had simply not checked they were in my backpack before I left my car for the race start. Whilst I was carrying a bumbag full of snacks the lack of a main meal meant that very soon my body was having to fight both the cold and the physical exertion without sufficient fuel. I became quite worried that I might have to call it a day as the miles progressed and I got colder. I eked out my snacks and eventually I revived myself with mugs of tea at one of the checkpoints, and as much free grub as I could beg borrow or steal without looking like a twat… the initial navigation error, the strong winds and my slow progress due to lack of food meant I was the best part of 3hrs behind the schedule I had wanted – the pressure was really now on!

Monday morning sun rise and warmth!
Hot ration pack for lunch at Lothersdale

The rest of the night, the next morning (where the sun made a beautiful appearance), and the afternoon passed without incident, and I redeemed myself by getting to Gargrave faster than I had done so the year before. However, without any sleep, whilst progress was good, overall I still had a lot of things to get right. I left Gargrave very aware of how I had lost time the previous year on a navigation error heading up to Malham, but now my 3rd school boy error had taken place… I had left my trekking poles at the shop in Gargrave and it was a choice of whether to turn back or crack on without them. Given that I have spent most of my trail running and mountaineering days without poles, I thought I would just forgo them for the next stage as I had a spare set in my “mother-ship” drop bag at the next checkpoint (These bags get leapfrogged forward to the “next checkpoint” so they are a key aspect of your resupply planning).

I met up with Les Binns, a fellow competitor, and we had a pit stop at a pub in Malham. We huddled deep into the sofa, whilst members of the public sat at their tables around us eating and drinking normally and wondering who the sleepy tramps were.

Climbing out of Malham, we headed up onto the rocks above the village (see above pic) and I enjoyed my first pole-less challenge whilst stepping from one rock to another in the dark and praying for traction in the wet. It was definitely a case of one false move, and a broken leg, or worse, would have been very likely.

The next target was Horton In Ribblesdale where we would be poised to head up the long broad track to Hawes where we could make good headway. First we needed to get over Pen-y-ghent but before that was Fountains Fell. It was dark, misty, cold and the wind was getting stronger and stronger, and even stronger as we climbed up Fountains. Les led with his GPS and I followed trusting in his navigation. We moved as fast as was possible in order to get over the hill, which honestly was Hell! I have no recollection of reaching the top until it became evident we were heading downhill again, as we stumbled downwards towards a track and eventually a road. I can’t vouch for Les, but I felt cold despite all the layers I had on and told him I would would jog ahead as I needed to create some heat to warm up.

We turned off the road and headed up towards Pen-y-ghent unsure whether it would be “open” or a diversion put in place to avoid the summit in the terrible wind and wet. On arrival at the “go/no go” point (see below pic) we were met by 3 members of the safety team who advised us that the summit was open for business, and despite my desire to head straight down to Horton to avoid getting any colder, they convinced me it would be warmer to go over the top because the route was in the lee of the ferocious wind, which was very evident on the other side of the wall where we were standing.

Up we went with myself leading and keen to get it done. I thanked the dozen or so times I had scrambled up the rocks during my previous Three Peaks runs, and enjoyed picking my way upwards in the gloom and wet. Quite how others, who didn’t know the exact way, would get on I didn’t know and in fact quite a few competitors dropped straight down to Horton and picked up an hours time penalty. After the summit of Pen-y-ghent we took the track straight down to Horton but it really dragged on and was painful under foot. Just before the cafe we were met by a cameraman who captured us on video. I was nearing the end of my mental endurance and was so tired having had 30 mins sleep in 48hrs, so I didn’t have much to say! The video (below) made it onto the Spine daily update and shows me hobbling.

A stop at Horton for a couple of hours essential sleep, and we were on our way again tabbing to Hawes without event. Conscious of time, I decided to refuel, change my socks, add the next stash of food to my pack and set straight off again to get up onto Great Shunner Fell before dark. Last year going over the top in a blizzard had been surreal and I had never felt confident that I knew exactly where I was, so I was determined to avoid that feeling this time. I left Hawes CP within the hour and made good progress onto the fell well before darkness. Great Shunner Fell is a deceptively long ridge line, with summits and false summits, and seems to go on forever. This year was no exception.

A group of competitors were ahead of me and gradually their torchlights faded over the next summit. I knew other competitors were behind me but were some way back. I was very much alone…I checked my GPS, I was still a way from the final summit; I took a quick bearing on my compass making sure I followed the procedure accurately and my track indicated North North East; I made sure my metal poles (my spare set I had picked up from my supply bag at Hawes) were away from my compass to avoid a false reading. My compass, aligned map and GPS all concurred and a quick glance up to a break in the clouds revealed the North star in the correct place. My final “comfort” was the fresh foot print on the stone slab beneath me with the print indicating forwards. It was moments like this that were both scary, exciting and exhilarating – nothing else existed right then, just myself balanced in a moment of doubt versus confidence.

Once over the summit, so began the long descent into Thwaite which must have included a thousand or so stone slabs to jog over. At some point I inevitably took a tumble and landed directly on my hip bone – not good, but it was fun ( not sure how or why) as I lay there on my own face down in a heap on the ground in the middle of nowhere. Onwards I went, through Thwaite and around the edge of Kisdon, which was simply horrible. There were so many sharp rocks along this part of the trail, and my sleep deprivation was reaching new heights as I hallucinated my way forward to Keld. White rocks became sheep; real sheep took on deformed shapes; people waited for me who didn’t exist and I cursed my way round this section. Les caught me up at this stage and he steadily moved ahead of me towards Tan Hill.

Once Kisdon was out of the way I could begin the relatively easy speed march upto the pub at Tan Hill. It was only on the final approach to the pub that the track seemed to get longer and longer as if the pub was on rails and moving further back as I tried to get closer. Another competitor started closing on me from behind and I said to myself, ‘no way’, and we battled it out to see who would get to the pub first. The wind and and gusts of rain now intensified and as I reached the pub I found the staff had just shut it!! We were relegated to an extension to the side where there were sofas and a roaring fire, but nothing else. A half-hearted Burco boiler provided water well below boiling, and there were a few biscuits to munch on. I found myself dozing off with a cup of tea balanced on my knee and then scavenging for extra food, even glancing into a bin to see if anything had been left discarded uneaten!!

It was time to kick myself hard and get back out onto the trail again. The wind was so strong at Tan Hill that you couldn’t open the door without two people helping to shut it. Suddenly Les appeared from behind a counter, he had been asleep hidden from view and had woken up cold. We both set off together and headed out the door and down into the “wetlands” and towards Middleton some 15 miles away. What I term the wetlands was a very boggy area than ran for 3 to 4 km north eastwards away from Tan Hill, and relied on just heading in that direction without straying off course or getting bored! Les had edged ahead again, as he was stronger, and we carried on separately until eventually crossing the A66 and onwards into Middleton where the next CP was located. The last mile or so into Middleton was painful as my feet were now beginning to give me problems; I was finding it difficult to run and place my feet correctly on uneven ground.

I arrived at CP3 bang on 1pm, 7 hours ahead of the cutoff. This was a good boost for me, and it took 3 hrs to sort myself out before heading off again. One of those 3hrs had been to get my feet sorted out by the medics. It was then I realised how many blisters I had, but more worrying, were the pressure points on my feet which seemed to be severely bruised and damaged.

I hobbled out of CP3 at 4pm and made slow and painful progress for a mile or so. It was at this point that I reviewed my situation. I could not place my left foot correctly without pain and I had around 39 miles to the next CP including the traverse of Cross Fell,all to be completed within 30hrs. Quite simply I could have continued, but at the probable cost of further and longer term damage to my feet. The pain was reminiscent of how I was at the end of the Marathon Des Sables, when I couldn’t stand properly for the week afterwards due to nerve damage. Given that I had made several time costing errors across the 3 days, and had been fighting to regain the time at the expense of proper rest and maintenance, I came to the decision that I didn’t want to remember this race as the one where I was evacuated off the course in a dire state, further on. Best to retire now – on my own terms and come back and do a better job next year.

So it was, that I retired myself late Wednesday afternoon after 150 miles (see route below), in 68hrs, and having had 4 hrs sleep.

It is easy now, several days after the event to think that I should have carried on, but I have to respect the decision I made at the time. I am beginning to feel better and am pleased with what I achieved and the fact that my knees and quads which have given me problems over the last 2 years performed well. I believe I will be set for a better attempt next year and will stop at nothing to carry out further preparations to ensure success.

My progress highlighted – 150 miles before retiring

I wish everyone who took part in this year’s race all the best and have nothing but admiration for every one of them, and thank the race organisers and volunteers who were superb and a shining example of how an extreme race can be conducted safely.