This year’s race was much more eventful than I had expected. Approaching the race I was assuming that the addition of 2 speedster runners to the field made it unlikely I would be able to compete for the win. I could foresee how either of them could be beaten, but reckoned it was unlikely that circumstances would align so that I could get in front of both of them… and that’s before accounting for the regular competition provided by all the other previous race winners. None of this really affected my race strategy, which basically amounted to “run your own race”.
The trip over to Edale went to plan. I have the routine down pretty well at this stage. Ryanair and the race itself both have a 20kg baggage limit, which helps in imposing a certain amount of packing discipline. For the Spine, all the high-end gear goes in, along with sufficient spares. It’s tricky to keep to the weight limit. In the end I was about 0.2kg under the limit.
It was good to meet old friends, and make some new ones, at the race check-in and briefing, before heading up to the YHA hostel in Edale to relax, have dinner, make a last call to my wife Helen, and then head to bed to get as long a sleep as my racing pre-race mind would allow!
The weather in the morning was benign by Spine standards. No precipitation, adequate visibility, and not too cold. It couldn’t last, but it’s a good way to start. Usually something causes the race start to be delayed, but this year for once nothing got in the way, and we managed to set off on time. That makes a bit of a difference for maximizing precious winter daylight.
Much to my surprise the run up through Edale took a very familiar form, with Pavel, Eugene and myself leading things out. Jim Mann was also tucked in with us. Getting onto the trail-proper, where we would single out due to the nature of the track I found myself setting the pace in the front.
The group of 4 stuck together for quite a while from there, with some minor alterations to the order along the way. As we hit the first steep climb of Jacobs ladder, there was some reconfiguring, with Jim tending to come to the fore a bit more, but we always came back together as a group quickly enough. No-one was attempting to surge away.
On the plateau of Kinder Scout I took a slightly different line at the start, and then changed my mind which left me 20 or 30 meters behind the other 3. Jim and Pavel were more prominently to the front now. However this configuration remained fairly static, and little had changed an hour or so later when we arrived to the first Mountain Rescue check at Snake Pass road.
From here though Jim seemed to push the pace out a bit and started opening a gap slowly but surely. Pavel had Eugene for company as ever, and they slight increased the gap to me at the same time, but never growing to more than about 100 meters. I was happy to keep running within myself and set my own pace, whatever the others were up to.
I did wonder what had happened to Oliviera, who was the fastest runner on the race. I heard later that he was injured, but did come over to run the race anyway. His injury had prevented him from being competitive at the front of the field however. Even at this early stage it was looking likely that this would be a 4 way race. We had built quite a gap, but everyone still seemed to be running comfortably.
Approaching Bleaklow Hill Pavel stopped briefly (so Eugene did likewise), so I caught up to them. We were back running together. Pavel was flying faster on the descents, so opened up a gap coming off bleakly. Eugene stuck behind me for a while. On the descent down to Torside Reservoir Eugene surged away to catch up with Pavel, and I descended at ease, taking a pit stop along the way, allowing them to open up a gap again.
Crossing the road here I declined all offers of tea, coffee or water and headed out over the dam at the end of the reservoir. I was still quite close to the pair in front. Indeed I know seemed to be closing in on them without actually putting in a surge to try to do so. By the next road crossing a few minutes later we were all back together (although Jim was well out of sight at this point).
Much to my surprise I found that I was running away from Pavel and Eugen on the short climb up from the busy road crossing and starting to create a small gap. I had identified that my climbing was a relative weakness after last year’s UTMB, and had put some effort into correcting this over winter. It would appear that I had succeeded in building up my climbing speed, as I wouldn’t expect to be able to create a gap on Pavel and Eugene this early in the race. Training works.. who’d have guessed!
On the steeper climb past Laddow Rocks I could see Jim ahead. He wasn’t as far ahead as I expected, probably within about 5 minutes or less. I reckoned I was matching or slightly gaining on him on the climbs. I was definitely pulling out a lead on the pair behind me though, as they were well out of audible range at this point. This section was a lot drier than last year, where at points I had been wading up to my waist in river crossings. I was actually able to able to keep my dry this year.
The broad pattern of the race continued like this from here… Jim slowly building a gap ahead, and a gap growing slowly behind me. The road crossing over A635 just before Wesseden head was the last I would see of another Spine racer for some time. I was pretty happy to be running solo, setting my own pace without distraction. I was very happy to be running in 2nd place, which was definitely ahead of schedule at this point.
The early (actually on time) start to the race, along with the benign weather and the good speed I was making, particularly climbing, had me wondering how much of the first leg (The start to CP1 at Hebden Bridge) I would manage to get done in daylight. The furthest I had made it in previous races was a little past the White House Inn. It was definitely a lot easier running past there in full daylight. The first of this year’s diversions of the normal Peninne Way route followed soon afterwards, with a long way round journey over marshy ground past Warland Reservoir. Again, this proved to be drier than expected.
It made a particularly nice change to run towards the massive obelisk of Stoodley Pike with adequate daylight. The bumps on the way seemed a lot less severe. There were also plenty of non-racers still out on the Peninne way, along with the occasional race spectator. By now I had it in my head to try to make it all the way to CP1 without using my headtorch. The daylight was a double benefit, as it was allowing me to run a little faster.
This worked out pretty well, as I just about made it to the diversion off the Peninne way for the out and back loop down to CP1 without needing my headtorch. although I was relying on streetlights on the road section from here. I was wondering how far inf front Jim had managed to get, and whether he would manage to complete the out anf back loop without our paths crossing.
The last 2 or 3 hundred meters down to CP1 are an off-road section, and I finally had to fire up my headtorch for this last approach in. I met Jim coming out of CP1 here, and we exchanged cheery greetings as we passed. My main goal in CP1, as ever, was to get in and out as fast as possible, with a minimum of distractions. As I didn’t want to take my shoes off I was diverted out of the main building (where all the aid station goodies live) and into a small building where the drop bags were being stored.
Here I did my few tasks, which really amounted to no more than changing GPS batteries and swapping maps. At this point I had yet to look at a map on the race, as I was running 99% on memory, with just quick GPS checks if I was unsure of myself at any point. Doing the whole section in daylight made this more straightforward than normal. I drank two coffees whilst completing this task, took a token handful of food, and then set off on my way again. Not a bad stop.
On the way out heading back up the steep steps up to the of road muddy track I met Pavel, and shortly afterwards Eugene heading into the transition. So it looked like the pattern was holding… small slowly growing gaps being built, probably around 10-15 minutes either side of me. But my pre-race prediction of being at least 5th into CP1 proved to be nicely wrong.
About half an hour out from CP1 I looked back to see a single headtorch in the distance on the route behind me. It looked like Pavel had managed to lose Eugene at a much earlier stage than I would have expected. I wondered if Eugene would manage to do similar to last year and fly up at speed to catch Pavel and then settle in again running alongside, but I couldn’t see a trace of him. I couldn’t see any trace of Jim in front either.
Two more small route diversions followed in the next few hours which went without incident. The new entirely unsupported nature of the race seemed to lead to notably less on course support than there had been last year.
The next planned off-PW diversion was on the approach to Gargrave. The excellent markings on the previous diversions had lulled me into relaxing and following the arrows placed at junctions. Unfortunately one of the arrows at the junction in Bank Newton was pointing the wrong way, which left me to run for a good 10 minutes or so in the wrong direction before reaching a point where I would have expected a marker, but where there was no trace of one. A quick check on the GPS indicated I was now way off track, so I had to retrace my steps back to the junction.
Having spent pretty much all of the race up until now building up a small lead I was pretty grumpy heading back. Not long after hitting the original junction again and then heading down the correct route I met a car coming in the opposite direction (this was a road section!). He stopped to ask what had happened and I explained about the sign. He let me know that Jim had made the same mistake, but that Pavel had not and was just ahead up the road. After our quick conversation he drove off in the direction of the errant sign, no doubt to correct it before the next runner arrived.
Sure enough within minutes I could see Pavel ahead on the road. At this point I was channeling my annoyance at taking the wrong route into forward motion. It took me less time than I expected to catch up and overtake Pavel to regain my “correct” position… playing mental games with myself to move me along.
The weather was, as predicted, getting worse as the night progressed. There was snow on the ground around Mahlam Cove, and the rocks above the Cove were very very slippy, so were taken at a very careful pace indeed. The wind was also noticeably cold and icy at this stage.
The intermediate checkpoint, CP1.5, at Mahlam Tarn was a welcome break. I had two quick coffees and a good chat here. By know I was running through the back-end of the Spine Challenger field. I was surprise to see that I had managed to rebuild my lead on Pavel since my little of-course diversion. Jim was also not as far in front as I expected, at a lot less than an hour. I was also informed that due to the harsh conditions we wouldn’t be going over Pen-Y-Ghent, but take the same diversion around it as the year of the “big wind”. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that. Good safety call.
Normally daylight start to break leaving CP 1.5, but there was no sign of it this year. Between the on-time start, and the good speed I was making I was probably quite a bit of previous timings. I reckoned I was currently on record-breaking pace, with Jim firmly so! As a result it was the first time I climbed and descended Fountains Fell in darkness. There was some advantage in not seeing how far I had left to climb on the way, as the top came a little quicker than I had prepared myself for.
In contrast to last year I made comfortable steady pace from here, past PYG, through Horton (Back in daylight), and on up Cam High Road. By then I was starting to look forward to getting some proper food at CP2. My feet were starting to ache occasionally on some pressure points. It was definitely time for a change of shoes and socks as well.
On paper the diversion down to CP2 looked easier the Pennine Way route. In reality it turned out to be pretty awful, with large “baby’s head” rocks on very eroded tracks for long sections. Still it was back in full daylight, and the views were impressive.
I was in much better shape arriving into CP2 this year. I couldn’t have been any worse than last year unless I was brought in using an ambulance. I was feeling alright, quite tired, but not really sleep deprived. It was the middle of the day, so not good timing for a sleep if I didn’t need it. I learned that Jim was taking a sleep break here, and had arrived in 40 or 50 minutes ahead. I changed my kit, going for a slightly warmer set of gear, as the weather was forecast to be colder and wetter from here on. I also ate some real food, and some drinks provided by the aid station. No medical issues to report thankfully.
I left CP2 in a very unexpected position… I was leading. I knew it wouldn’t last, as Jim would no doubt come flying out after his sleep and be well able to overtake before CP3. Pavel had not arrived before I left. It looked like I had gained a bit more time on him. I expected he would go straight through CP2 as well, given his ability to suffer!
The weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse… the road between Hawes and Hardraw was completely flooded by the overflowing river. I decided that since I was in new shoes and socks I’d make an attempt to keep my feet dry, so walked along the top of the boundary wall rather than the flooded road. It cost a little time, but it worked.
Hardraw Hostel was the new finish for the Spine Challenger, and passing here loads of challengers came out and cheered, with one person offering me some coffer and/or lemonade, which was gratefully accepted! After that little bit of excitement it was back to the hard work of the long long climb up over Great Shunner Fell. I ran as many parts as I could through the climb.
About half way up I had to stop and adjust my water bottle set-up. The inner straw from one bottle, which now in my front “active” pouch had gone AWOL, so I switched around to my back-up bottle. As I was doing this Jim came running past at a superb speed. Very impressive, and no less than I was expecting from him. Although I was hoping to get further along the course. Orthodox race order was now restored, with Jim having the benefit of additional speed.
Around the river crossing near Keld I briefly took a wrong track, which had me backtracking for a few minutes uphill. That was annoying, and I wondered if Pavel was somewhere behind ready to pounce on my mistake. But crossing the open moorland towards the Tan Hill Inn I couldn’t see any racers in front or behind.
Arriving into the Tan Hill Inn I found myself in two minds about how to spin my sleep strategy. I was definitely pushing things out now, and had never previously gone beyond this point without sleeping. I learned that Pavel had stopped in CP2 for a sleep, which I was surprised to hear. It was still daylight, and it would be good to cross the tricky boggy section of Sleightholm moor which was immediately in front utilising the light to find the sometimes hard to find track (or what there was of one).
I opted to take a 15 minute power-nap to try to both stave off sleep deprivation, and try to maximise the daylight. I lay down on a coach in the lounge of the pub to try to take the nap. I don’t think I managed much more than to lie there with my eyes closed though. The checkpoint staff roused me again, I grabbed a quick drink (thanks to the Tan Hill Inn), and steeled myself to head out the door.
The disadvantage to my brief stop was having to restart. It felt much colder now, having been in a warm building, so it took me a few minutes to get going again. Everything went to plan, and I was able to head across the nasty boggy sections with enough daylight left.
The boggy section is followed by a road section. I had to get out and use my headtorch towards the end of that section to properly read the signposts, so that I could find the Pennine Way heading off-road. From here to CP3 was danger time now as far as sleep deprivation was concerned. I was now heading into my second nighttime without having slept yet on the race. This was pushing the boat out more than usual. Things turned out to be pretty straightforward in the end, and I was able to make it to CP3 at a reasonable speed without any sleep wobbles or significant navigation errors (just an occasional GPS check after Grassholm Reservoir).
One thing I knew with 100% certainty as I arrived into CP3 at Middleton was that I would be sleeping there. I could see that Jim was here, as his bag was sitting in the entrance hallway. He was obviously sleeping here too. I went into the main room of the building to join the CP staff there and eat some proper food. I then headed off to get a 2 hour sleep.
As is often the case, I was a bit slower than I should have been rousing myself to get back out running again. Much to my surprise I was up ahead of Jim, who was taking a good long sleep here. His strategy seemed to be to run the race in the style of a staged race, with long breaks between speedily run stages. I reckoned that was pretty much the perfect strategy for him, given his excellent stage racing background. He definitely seemed like he was in total control of the race, with very little that Pavel or myself could do to counter his raw speed.
The forecast was for the weather to remain very cold, so there was a very high chance that conditions would be pretty brutal going up over Cross Fell. So I made sure that I overpacked my bag with plenty of spare cold weather gear. Better to have it and not need than to need it and not have it. The weight penalty was definitely worth it in my opinion.
Jim roused himself before I had left the building, and we had a little chat about the race and how it was all going. He seemed to be having a great race. I left the CP as he was still eating his “breakfast”, knowing I’d be seeing him soon enough again! It would be interesting to see if I would come across Pavel heading back out, as this CP was another one with a little “out and Back”. Given that he had slept in CP2 I didn’t expect him to sleep here.
As I was heading out on the flatish section of the Pennine way alongside the river Tees, about 10 minutes out from the CP I could see Pavel’s headtorch making its way down the descent towards Middleton. I still had a bit of a lead here. I knew of course that it was unlikely to be long before Jim would regain the lead and fly past. In reality he must have had a nice relaxed breakfast, as it was a lot longer than I was expecting before he came running past, near the large Quarry at Bleabeck Force. Jim made a small nav error not long afterwards which left him behind me again, but I made sure he could see where I was going so he could follow if he wanted. From there he was back in front and disappearing into the distance again.
Despite the cold weather, there were no diversions around Cauldron Snout, so the tricky technical sections around there all had to be tackled in full. This was my first time doing this in darkness. It actually didn’t make too much difference, apart from missing the good views around here. The ground was well covered in snow now, which made for interesting running. The course probably running pretty fast, as the ground was hard rather than boggy for the most part.
A combination of darkness and fog meant that there was no trace of the spectacular views around High Cup Nick. For the first time in the race I was starting to get a little thirsty around here. The main reason for this was that my water bottle nozzles had frozen in the cold temperatures. I grabbed some cool water from one of the bigger streams flowing off the mountains.
The views started to return about halfway down the descent from here as I dropped back below the cloud base, and not long afterwards the sky started to brighten with the first traces of dawn. By the end of the long descent , heading into Dufton village, daylight had fully returned. At the same location last year daylight was fading away, so I was setting a significantly faster pace.
The intermediate checkpoint here wasn’t fully open. A race spectator had volunteered to help out and was able to give me a cup of coffee inside the hall. Apparently the hall wasn’t even opened when Jim had passed through about half an hour earlier. I didn’t hang around for too long. Pavel was somewhere in the tracker dead zone behind me, so I wasn’t too far ahead. Certainly not enough to relax!
This year we had to reverse back out to return to the Pennine Way proper and not miss any of the nasty sections of badly churned up track near Dufton. With the daylight returning, and being kitted out for nasty weather, I was heating up a lot on these lowland sections, but I knew that wouldn’t last. I was still making reasonable pace, running quite a lot of the more gentle early uphill sections towards the race’s highest point.
Despite the snow covering on the ground, the going was pretty good, and the conditions were comfortable. All that changed approaching the first major peak, Knock Fell. Once the shelter provided by being on the side of the mountain was gone conditions became very nasty indeed. The wind was extremely strong, and was absolutely freezing. I was very glad that it was generally a cross-wind rather than a headwind. Visibility was quite variable as well, depending on cloud cover. It was definitely not blue skies and sunshine!
I had my primary cold weather gear in action now… A heavyweight omni-heat base layer, a waterproof Outdry Extreme down jacket midlayer, and a waterproof Outdry Extreme shell. Both the Down jacket and Shell hoods were being used for protection. I had my Outdry Extreme leggings over a fleece leggings on my lower body. I was using lightweight down Outdry Extreme waterproof mittens, designed for Himalayan climbing, on my hands. It was all working, thankfully. I was dressed more as a climber than a runner, which was exactly what was required.
I also had the comfort of knowing I had a spare lightweight fleece mid-layer, lightweight gloves, and a balaclava, in my pack if things deteriorated any more. The key thing though was to keep moving forward, and in the correct direction!
Even though it was daytime the route was still pretty tricky to follow. The snow covering was extensive. The high winds meant that in a lot of places the fresh snow was blown off leaving compacted ice on the surface. I had plenty of slips, with an occasional fall along the way across the high peaks. A particularly nasty hail shower blew across as I was crossing Little Dun Fell. Double hoods did their job here, with any exposed section of skin being quickly found and hidden. I was right on the edge of comfort at this point. Stopping was not an option. I preferred not to have to faff around getting out any of the extra layers, so ploughed on.
It seemed like slow going, but I was making consistent progress. Every now and again I would come across reasonably fresh footprints in the snow, which had to be Jim’s. After what seemed like a very long time indeed I finally reached the highpoint of the race at Cross Fell. From there, a sharp turn starts the descent, and thankfully heads to the lee-side of the mountain range. I was soon out of the screaming wind, but the temperature was still freezing.
Again, there was plenty of ice near or on the surface, so I had a few further slips and slides on what is normally an easy run off the peak. Approaching the turn on to the beginning of the track heading to Greg’s Hut I could see plenty of surface ice on the track. I picked my way carefully along the edge of the track. Sacrificing speed for safety wasn’t an issue for me here!
A few minutes later I saw someone approaching from Greg’s Hut. A race safety team bases themselves here for a few days. This year they were getting the full-on mountain isolation treatment. There was so much snow and ice around that only specialised mountain vehicles would be able to make it up here. He asked if I wanted to stop for a hot drink. My thinking was to just plough on, as I was feeling alright and didn’t need a pick-up, even though that would be a little anti-social! When I politely declined he let me know that Jim was inside having a coffee and noodles. That surprised me, as I thought he’d be much further in front. So I decided to be social and head in for a quick hot chocolate.
In Greg’s hut for a quick Cuppa
As ever, Greg’s hut was too warm and too hospitable from a racing point of view. The danger here was getting too cosy and comfortable. Hot chocolate would need to be boiled up, but coffee was available on tap, so I opted for that. Jim wasn’t looking as cheery as he had been earlier, but was happily tucking into some noodles. After a brief chat, and before getting too comfortable, I thanked everyone and headed back out again, emphatically being reminded on exiting that it was indeed still very cold. In fact it was so cold that I wasn’t able to drink from my water bottle, as the suction system had frozen!
Leaving Greg’s Hut
Even in my badly fatigued state last year I managed to make good speed and progress from here all the way down off the mountain to the village of Garrigill. Despite being a mountain road it always takes longer than expected. I mentally focused on being at least as fast and determined as I had been last year. Again I was hoping to hold Jim off for as long as possible, but expecting him to pass me within 5 or 10 minutes.
I made it most of the way down before coming across one of the regular Spine race spectators ont he way down, who called out that Jim was about 400 meters behind. That felt like it was after an hour or two of descending. I braced myself for Jim to fly past again. About 5 minutes later I came across a film crew. They put up a drone which buzzed around overhead for a few seconds. Again, to my surprise, it didn’t go back from me, but rather went ahead to film from above a little further down. I would have thought they would fly it back to Jim.
Arriving at Garrigil Jim still hadn’t caught me, surprisingly. A couple from on of the houses in the village had a table set up outside and were offering coffee and home-made oatcakes. I asked for a cup of milk (a new craving), which they gave me. The camera crew arrived on their quadbike, and said that Jim was about a kilometer behind. Something didn’t add up. I presumed it was somebody not being great at distance estimation. Spurred on, I pushed off and got running again for the last push of this leg to new CP 4 at Alston YHA.
The new CP was 2 or 3 further down the trail than the previous one, but lacked the horrible out and back hill climb. I prefered to location of the new one! Since there was still a lot of daylight left I was glad to get to cover a bit more ground. Mentally I remembered the distance to the old one, and plodded on towards that. Being back off the mountain there is a trap of relaxing and thinking things are easier, but often I have found that the reverse is true. There are more mental distraction and more obvious targets when climbing and descending.
Playing these mental games I moved reasonably steadily onwards. Again, I was expecting Jim to catch me before reaching CP4. However that didn’t happen, much to my renewed surprise. EVen though I had slept at the last CP, and it was still daylight, I intended to get more sleep here. On paper the next leg looks the easiest, due to the lack of major climbs. In reality it is probably the nastiest for several reasons, including the lack of major climbs! So I wanted to be reasonably fresh facing into it, and not be losing speed due to sleep deprivation.
I took full advantage of the hot food that was available here, especially as it turned out to be a rather delicious lasagna. As I was eating word was filtering through that Jim was off-course and heading towards Alston on road. He’d have to figure that out and back-track, or so I thought. Pavel was somewhere coming down from Greg’s Hut. Probably about an hour and a half behind I reckoned.
As I prepared to get my 2 hours sleep in, word came in the Jim had retired due to injury (That’s why he was on the road) and was being driven to CP4. Poor Jim. He really was in control of the race to this point.
When I got back up after my sleep, and headed down to prepare to leave both Jim and Pavel were there. Pavel had just arrived and was getting in some lasagna. I had a quick chat with both of them, before getting final preparations done and heading out into the last of the daylight to tackle my least favourite leg of the race.
As a lot of this leg is low-lying farmland and boggy terrain the conditions under foot can be absolutely miserable, especially when going through areas which have farm animals wandering around. One major upside of the cold conditions was the ground was relatively hard, and often topped by a layer of snow. This was much better conditions than normal, as far as I was concerned. I still hate this section though! The Peninne Way does its best to find interesting features to wander through or past here, but in the end the ground conditions are just too awful for it to be enjoyable for me.
As so often happens along here, at one point it took me about 10 or 15 minutes to accurately find my way on the path at one point, all the while wishing I just head down to the road and bypass this mess. Mostly I was able to get along on memory, with some GPS back-up. After crossing the A689 road and heading into the nasty boggy terrain of Hartleyburn common memory wasn’t going to get me very far, and I just followed the GPS for quite a long time, all the way through to Bleckinsopp Common.
I was glad to get all of that finished, popping out onto the busy A69. James Thurlow (from Opentracking) was waiting here in his car, and fixed a second tracking device on my backpack. Of course I checked on where Pavel was, and he wasn’t too far behind. He had had about 2 hours sleep in CP4 as well, but had probably made much better time than me over the nasty ground. He could be as little as half an hour behind at this point, and closing. Time to pick up the speed again!
I marched up the steep climb on the approach to Hadrian’s wall with determination, before getting some water in the car park facilities. Hadrian’s wall is potentially a fun section. Perhaps far too interesting for a race! This year it was covered in snow which was drifting to be quite deep in places. The short sharp up and downs make it very demanding and energy heavy to maintain a good competitive speed. I tried to enjoy it as much as possible, whilst also pressuring myself to keep my speed up to maintain or increase the gap back to Pavel. With Jim out of contention I was now the one controlling the front of the race (And I was happy that I was indeed controlling it, since I hadn’t pushed too hard to here, and my sleep strategy was going well… I was in as good a shape as I could hope to be this far in to the race).
There wasn’t a trace of another person all through this section along Hadrian’s wall, apart from the lights from farmhouses. The isolation was enjoyable, although the conversations with myself can get interesting at times! Every now and again I checked back to see if there was any sign of Pavel closing in, but there wasn’t (there was no certainty in that though, as the peaks and troughs along Hadrian’s Wall meant that a someone behind could be out of sight for a large proportion of time).
After a long few hours I finally turned left and headed away from the wall. The lowland section towards the next forest was trickier to follow than usual due to the snow obscuring the pathways, and much less obvious terrain following by the Peninne Way itself.
A kilometer or two into the forest the track leaves fire roads and heads through very boggy ground through the forest itself. It was probably a bit easier than usual this year as the snow on the ground made for easy-going, and was actually less “sinky” than the bog would normally be. This continues all the way onwards to the open ground connecting to the next forest. Although there were times here where there was pretty much no trace whatsoever of the Peninne Way itself. Occasionally this resulting in my ending up in quite deep drifting snow.
When I finally hit fireroad again in the next forest section the competitive instinct of building a good gap kicked in again and I concentrated on making good solid speed. Unfortunately this ended up with my not paying enough attention to where I was heading. As a result I overran a junction and had to run back for 5 minutes to regain the correct route.
One of the race highlights was next to come, as I was now getting within striking range of Horneystead Farm. The lovely people who live there are fans of the race, and even when they have not been able to be physically present they have left out signs directing racers to their garage, where they leave a fantastic collection of treats for racers to enjoy, along with a dangerously seductively comfortable couch. I could see from about two kilometers away that there was someone out and about with a headtorch. Bearing in mind that this was very late at night, and freezing cold to boot, this was mightily impressive.
It was great to be greeted warmly again, and offered a nice cup of tea to drink for the last few hundred meters to the farm. Even though I was in race mode I was more than happy to take a quick break here to have a chat with such lovely people. I was quite tempted to have a 15 minute nap, but resisted and hauled myself back out of the couch to head off on my way again.
My headtorch was beginning its battery low power down routine, but at the same time the first traces of dawn were beginning to emerge. 10 or 15 minutes later I was on a few kilometers of road running, so was able to power along without worrying about light output. By the time I was back off-road for the last few hills before CP5 at Bellingham there was more than enough daylight so that the headtorch was no longer needed.
The return of daylight meant that I was now intending to go through CP5 without stopping for any sleep. It was turning into a nice cold but crisp clear day. Definitely time to take advantage of the conditions.
At CP5 I did my usual routines of changing batteries and maps, having some hot food and drinks, and checking on what the extent of my lead was. It looked like I had rebuilt my gap on Pavel to around 2 hours or so. That was good. I did a few small gear changes, but hummed and hawwed a lot about my biggest decision. I had packed a pair of racing snowshoes in my gear bag as a “just in case” back-up for extreme conditions. They were quite bulky, so would definitely be noticeable to carry around if they weren’t necessary. But they could potentially make a huge speed difference if conditions were bad enough to warrant their use. Decisions decisions.
In the end I decided to leave them behind, as I had managed to get this far without them. I knew there was a chance I met regret this on the Cheviots, which are quite a high set of hills, and very exposed, particularly given the Peninne Way heads along a high ridge over the range.
I was a lot more energetic leaving CP5 than I was arriving, and made a good pace through Bellingham village and climbing up towards the open land leading out from there. The first kilometer or two of open land is farm fields, where there was plenty of snow on the ground, but the going was still good. However after going through a gate and heading into more open moorland the going became noticeably harder, with much deeper snow.
By now my decision to leave the snowshoes behind was nagging at me quite loudly, but I ploughed on. I was becoming aware that I was also breaking trail for Pavel, who would find the going a little easier thanks to my fresh footprints. About 15-30 minutes later the snow became a bit deeper again, with my speed becoming slower again as a result. I made a phone call to race HQ, letting them know about the snow conditions and my thinking on retrieving my snowshoes. I chanced my arm on asking was there any chance they could be moved to the next road crossing, Unsurprisingly that wasn’t a runner. I let them know I would return to CP5 to collect them.
Given how bad the conditions were in the relative lowlands here, I knew things were likely to be significantly worse through section of the Cheviots. I had worked through all the combinations of possibilities between ploughing ahead without snowshoes, or taking the time to go back and get them, matched with whether Pavel would or would not bring snowshoes with him on this final leg of the race. If he had them, then he would catch and pass me, and I would be unable to react if I didn’t. If he hadn’t, then I reckoned I would pass me in the time it would take me to go back for them, but the shoes would allow me to catch and over take him if the conditions were going to be what I was expecting.
So that was it. I had to go back and take the risk of being passed. And that is exactly what happened. I passed Pavel heading out before getting back to Bellingham. He didn’t have snowshoes, so the gamble was on! This would be a very interesting race judgement call. It was still very frustrating to be heading backwards, burning time and increasing my required effort to finish with every step, as well as wasting good weather and daylight. It was a much shorter stop in CP5 to pick up the snowshoes, before turning around and heading back out on my 3rd trip over this section of the Peninne way this morning!
Heading back up the roads the sun was well up and it was getting a bit warmer. There was a bit less snow around than the first time I went through here a few hours previously. Going off the roads onto the farm fields this became even more clear, as there was now some grass showing through. Even reaching the gate again, and heading into the open moorlands conditions had clearly improved. Now there were 3 sets of footprints bashing a path (two of mine, along with Pavel’s), and it would seem a quadbike had bashed a track along here in the interim as well!
I put on the snowshoes at this point anyway, which was a small bit of faff, as I reckoned I had to give them a try anyway! They weren’t doing any harm, and I found t was certainly not any harder to run with them than without (The racing versions would seem to be a lot better than more classic walking versions in this regard). At about the point where I turned around the quad tracks veered away from the Peninne Way, leaving just Pavel’s tracks in the snow. It was still a case that I reckoned it would be just as effective to move without snowshoes than with though, as there had definitely been some melting during the morning.
A few minutes later the snow did begin to get much deeper though, and the path became substantially harder to follow. Now the snowshoes were making a difference. In fact the snow was so soft that I was still sinking quite a bit even though I was wearing them. Again, this was relative low altitude, so I reckoned things could be very interesting indeed on the Cheviots ahead. A few minutes later the snow was back to its less deep state, and I had to cross a farm road and a few fences to progress along the Peninne Way. At this point I decided to take the snowshoes back off again, as I could damage them over these obstacles.
The next 5 or 10 minutes were along a wide good fast gently descending track with only intermittent snow. This popped me onto a road crossing. This would be the last road crossing of note for quite a while. My mind had been running race scenarios for the last half an hour or so and I stopped here to gather my thoughts.
I knew that under the race rules we were only allowed to stop at the safety checkpoint in Byrneness (CP 5.5) for a maximum of half an hour. The next safe place (given the extremely cold conditions with the probability of snow cover pretty much everywhere) to get a proper sleep if it was needed was Hut 1, well into the traverse of the Cheviots. This was rasing a big saftey concern in my mind. The very last thing I wanted was to become a saftey issue for the race organisation. Projecting forward it would be well into the evening darkness leaving CP 1.5, and I’d probably be getting a bit sleep deprived on the climb up into the Cheviots. If the snow was deep that climb could potentially take a lot longer than normal, even with snowshoes.
I pulled out my mobile phone to attempt to ring race HQ again, simply to talk through my safety concerns. However there was no mobile signal available. So I continued to humm and haww at this spot, running through options in my mind, slowly cooling down as I did so. In the end my saftey concerns about potentially finding myself climbing deep snowdrifts whilst sleep deprived to reach saftey outweighed my competitive drive at this point in time, and I decided to take the road back to CP5.
The road walk wasn’t very pleasant, particularly as it was a bit of a walk of shame. As luck would have the race media crew happened to be travelling along this road 5 minutes later, and recognised the somewhat sullen walker. So they stopped to find out what was happening, and of course offered to give me a lift back to CP5. I was very glad of that lift. Once the mind has exited competitive mode the body follows extremely rapidly. It would have been a long walk indeed!
Some time after I had returned to CP5 word came in that racers were to be held at checkpoints due to the race organisation’s safety concerns with the weather, including Pavel being held whenever he reached CP5.5. This was both good and bad from my point of view (and with the benefit of hindsight). The good was that it wasn’t just me seeing the safety issues, and I could justify to myself that I wasn’t being wimpish, more wise. The bad was that if I had kept going for a few more hours then everything would have worked out to my satisfaction, and the enforced stop at CP5.5 would have ensured a safe rest before tackling the Cheviots.
Frustrating piled up even more when word came back that Pavel had taken a very long time indeed to reach CP 5.5, and had been struggling with very deep snow drifts (Given Pavel’s mountaineering craft, his size, and his strength, that really illustrates how severe conditions must have been). This was before the high ground of the Cheviots. I reckoned that with the aid of the snowshoes I would have probably caught up with Pavel at CP5.5, which would have made for an interesting race from there (And I would have expected to gain the full advantage of having snowshoes). But instead I spent a very frustrating night knowing all this, but having taken myself out of contention. It took quite a while for the frustration to dissipate and for my mind to drop fully out of race mode.
I had an enjoyable day or two afterwards, hanging around with the CP crews at CP5, taking a trip with the logistics van to finish, and hanging around with the race crew at the Finish. I did a short walk back up the Peninne way to enjoy the views and burn off some frustration. It was also great to be given the opportunity to present Pavel with his medal for his unprecedented 3rd time winning the Spine, with a huge margin to spare.
Even at this stage I was already well and truly distracted by me next significant race which was coming up in 2 or 3 months. It’s not often that you “finish” an event as long and as tough as the Spine Race but think “Well, that was a good training week for what’s coming”, but this is one of the few races that justified that thought!
I’d like to thank everyone who helped me undertake the Spine and give the race a good shot. As ever, the support at home from my wife Helen is immense. It’s great having a sponsor as good as Columbia, who supply me with outstanding gear that gets fully utilised in a race like this. Thanks also to The Great Outdoors shop in Dublin who help me with other pieces of gear.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this race to my father in law Pat Dixon who passed away not very long after I had run the Spine. He was a man who had lived a long and adventurous life, a lifelong soldier who rose to a very high rank in the Irish Army. He always had a keen interest in whatever madness I was undertaking. He’ll be very much missed by all who knew him. Slan abhaile Pat.