After a 4 year gap, I’m finally getting to return to one of my favourite races, the Northern Traverse, starting this Saturday. It’s a fantastic route, with a great tradition behind it. The route was laid out by Alfred Wainwright, and like many of Wainright’s walking routes, has now been turned into a great Ultrarunning challenge.
The Northern Traverse Starts at 10:30 a.m. in St Bees on the West coast of England. We have to make our way along Wainwright’s coast to coast route non-stop finishing in Robin Hood’s Bay on the East Coast.
The route traverses 3 significant upland areas. These are the Lake District, The Northern Pennines, and the North York Moors. This is a spectacular route. I particularly love the Lake District, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
This is the third edition of the race. The first two were organised by Open Events, with the wonderful James Thurlow as race director. I have the perfect race record here, having won both those events. However, its all changed this year. We have a new race director and organiser. I’m also 4 years older and well into my 50s now, so not as fast as in my youthful 40s!
There is a new race sponsor, Silva, which is good to see. They have given me a few nice bits of kit, including a really interesting head torch, to try out, so I’ll report back on those afterwards. Of course, Columbia has also provided me with a ton of gear to wear out on the course.
In the female category, Anna Troup looks to me to be the stand out favourite. She has shown what a class long-distance trail ultrarunner she is with her record-breaking run on the summer Spine race, along with setting the female Pennine Way fastest known time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her contending towards the front of the entire field. I don’t have enough knowledge of the rest of the field to pick out other contenders, but there are quite a few names I recognise.
This is definitely the most competitive male field that this race has seen, although it looks like there has been some last-minute chopping and changing. The favourite looks to be Kim Collison. He showed his speed earlier this year when leading out the Spine race alongside Damian Hall until stomach issues caused him to have to retire. He has a super endurance background with lots of adventure racing experience.
Another contender from this year’s Spinne race is James Leavesley, who was 3rd in that race, along with being 2nd in the previous summer Spine. He knows how to finish, and has plenty of speed endurance. We spent days in sight of each other in the winter Spine.
A late addition to the race is a Spine race legend, Pavel Paloncy. He should need no introduction. A hardy adventure racer and ultra runner, I’ve had the privilege of racing him on many occasions. He has won the Spine on multiple occasions, so that alone is grounds to make him a serious contender here. His addition to the race definitely makes it much more interesting.
Paul Tierney, one of the outstanding Irish long-distance ultra trail runners had been down to take part, but his name does not seem to be on the live tracking list. That’s a big loss if he is out. Given his local knowledge of the Lake District, and his fondness for big challenges he would have been another probable podium finisher.
I see the name Ben Hall listed, but I’m not sure which of the Ben Halls this is! There are multiple listed in DUV. The Australian Ben Hall is a speedy ultrarunner who would definitely be another to watch if he is the one entered. I met him at the UTMB this year, where he sped away from me after recovering from a big cramping episode. He is definitely fast!
There are two other Irish runners in the field. John Murray has been recceing the route and has a 4th place finish from this year’s Spine Challenger North race., so he looks like he is ready for a good race. It’s good to see Colm O’Cofaigh entered as well.
I’m sure there are, as usual, one or two names I’ve missed as well. The race will reveal all. There are certainly a lot of names I recognise from previous races entered in the field.
Following the Race
The race has provided a nice summary page for following the race here. That’s a nice feature. It contains the links to live tracking and leaderboards, along with an explanation of what’s going on. I’m sure if Richard has the free time he’ll make some updates on my Facebook Athlete’s page, with his usual style! Thanks in advance Richard!
Eugeni saw me arrive, and we said hello to each other. He started to stand up and offer me his seat but I urged him to sit back down and relax. There were more than enough seats here. I gladly accepted a can of Coke from Helen and started to drink it as quickly as I could manage. I declined the offer of some warm broth or any other snacks. Eugeni was not his usual cheerful talkative self and was sitting back on his chair looking very tired indeed, even though he was geared up and dressed to go.
Once I had finished off the can of Coke I said my goodbyes to Eugeni, got myself back up out of the chair and headed out the door. No hanging around! I thanked Helen for her fabulous hospitality and hoped that we’d meet yet again in similar circumstances, and set off along the Pennine Way. I was feeling like an excited 3-year old. Inside I was jumping for joy. I was actually in the lead!!! And mow I was starting to build a gap over Eugeni.
I could barely believe this. This was my best ever Spine moment. Taking the lead in a race I reckoned beforehand that I had very little chance of winning. These are the race moments that are hard to beat. I could win this thing, and was now in prime position to do so. But it wasn’t exactly all over. I had to remind myself that there was still a long way to go, and still a lot of work to be done.
So I got to work and got back into my steady running pace, now back on very familiar trails. I knew I could find my way to CP5 from here totally by memory alone, so wouldn’t need the GPS. It was a nice afternoon, in lovely benign weather. I definitely wanted to get to CP5 before dusk.
I was also thinking about the gap back to James and Dougie. Similarly to CP4, it was possible that they would slow and tire a bit as they approached CP5. I was now planning, and highly motivated, to do exactly the opposite. I was feeling in good shape physically, and couldn’t have been in any better shape mentally. So I was going to try to use all the roads and flatter sections to maximum effect and set as high a pace as possible whilst not over-pushing. Hopefully, this would also build a nice gap back to Eugeni, presuming that he would get going again soon.
After a kilometre or two of trail through farmland and a bit of moorland, I hit the road out of Lowcroft. I really concentrated on keeping a good pace here and was definitely moving faster than in my last winter Spine here. A few further kilometres down the road John Knapp met me again and ran with me for a few hundred meters while we caught up with a nice chat about the race. Plenty to talk about now!
It was then back off-road for the long approach to the big communications mast, visible from a long way back, on top of Shiitlington Crags (The name always seems to bring out the inner child in people!). I started slowing a bit as my mind wandered, thinking about winning the race, so I had to kick myself a little and concentrate on keeping the pace up.
After a nice steep grassy downhill to a pedestrian bridge over a river crossing the trail wanders about on the flat a bit before slowly ramping up to the climb through Shitlington Crags. I managed to run a lot more of this section than I anticipated. I think my motivation was definitely enabling me to run the more marginal climbs. It definitely helped that it was a bright afternoon with occasional sunshine!
I was now on the approach to CP5, so I was ensuring that I would treat it in a similar way to CP4 and arrive with a plan in my head to execute. That plan was basically a repeat of the CP4 plan, with yet another hour’s sleep. My absolute ideal would be to get out of the CP before anyone else arrived, but even getting my sleep done and dusted before my first chaser’s arrival would be enough. Even if they turned around without sleeping, I would still have the advantage of being better rested.
The last “leg” from CP5 to the finish is usually pretty long, with a big crossing of the Cheviots for the last two thirds. But this year the first third had to be modified, again due to storm damage to forestry caused by storm Arwen. However as there was no viable alternative trail route this section had to be bypassed entirely, and we would be shuttled by vehicle to the start of the Cheviots. So this leg would now be at least 5 hours shorter than usual. However it was still huge, and it was likely I’d be doing it either mostly or entirely in the dark.
Before the race, my thinking was that the shuttle diversion wouldn’t suit me, but now that I was in the lead it now very much suited me, as there was less trail for me to be caught, and less time to have some sort of disaster.
I kept my speed going nicely after Shitlington crags, and was soon starting the last descent towards CP5. There was going to be no issue with finishing this leg in daylight. There was no sign of the light starting to fade yet. So I was doing pretty well against my targets, despite this leg being longer because of the diversion before Horneystead.
Coming into the aid station itself a lot of the staff came out to watch me arriving and cheer me in. One of the film crew asked how it felt to be in the lead now, given what had happened. I answered that it was like being in Graham Norton’s chair (A fellow Corkman!), waiting for the leaver to be pulled so that I would be ejected out!
At the Aid Station there was a covid check whilst I was getting my outer layers off, where I was asked did I have any symptoms. The answer was that I probably had them all, as they correspond pretty well with the symptoms of being towards the end of the Spine race (which of course, on paper they really do), but that I was actually feeling pretty good so was probably fine.
I was delighted to finally see Kevin McCann, who was part of the race crew at this aid station. He is great company and a very astute race analyser! He was definitely responsible for one of the songs that had been in my head in the last stage, which was “My Perfect Cousin” by the undertones (A brilliant song by one of the absolute best Irish bands… the reason why Kevin is responsible for this being in my head is obvious from the first line!). I was actually asking him in the aid station did people sing this at him when he was younger (Being Irish, and similarly to me being about the right age, it was pretty much inevitable someone would have at some point).
The big race news was that I found out that Eugeni was officially withdrawn from the race. He had never made it out of Horneystead. While this definitely made my life easier I was sorry to hear that Eugeni would be a DNF. I presumed he was still at Horneystead recovering, but Kevin pointed out that he was lying on a coach a meter or two away… I hadn’t spotted him! He popped up his head and we said hello again. I commiserated with him.
Apparently, to my surprise, Eugeni had been very conscious of me chasing him, despite his big lead, and had gotten very little sleep before Horneystead. He seemed to have run himself into the ground, to the point where he was too exhausted to continue. There’s no doubting his toughness and competitiveness to push himself that far.
At this stage I had already started the process of asking for the medics and getting my feet repairs in train again. I also was getting some real food, and a glass of milk to drink (again, no sweet food, and no caffeine). After I had eaten the food (the aid station staff had mustered up a lovely cheesy baked potato for me), I then sorted out my gear for leaving. It was similar to CP4. This time though I did a full headtorch swap to my best headtorch (to have maximum lighting power in case I might get sleepy) rather than just a battery swap. I also needed to put in a bit more food. I had eaten a bit more in the previous leg, mainly as little rewards for getting through all of the sections as I went along. I was still going to be leaving with more food than I had cumulatively eaten on course up until this point of the race!
Needless to say, I was also checking to see how far back James and Dougie were. They were still in the general area of Horneystead. I had a good margin and had definitely managed to build it out on the last leg. Little did I realise at the start of the leg that that would be even more important now. We were now collectively “the podium”. I was delighted with that. They were such nice guys, and I had really enjoyed their company earlier in the race. If things stayed this way to the finish line it would be perfect!
It was definitely looking possible that I could get out before they arrived. That would be good from my point of view, as I would be literally and metaphorically out the door, out of sight. Psychologically I would be less of a target to chase. So once my feet were expertly repaired I headed into the big hall next to the kitchen area to get some sleep. No beds here. So I used my spare groundsheet (from my OMM 32 backpack… the back protector is removable and is designed to be used as a minimalist groundsheet), and found myself a spot physically as far away from the kitchen as possible to try to ensure that any disturbance would be minimal.
My sleep pattern was similar to CP4, and I was woken from a deep sleep an hour later. I could easily have stayed sleeping for a lot longer, but that was out of the question now! It had actually been another perfect sleep. It was now nighttime again. So more than likely I’d be in the dark for most of the last leg. That sleep could be crucial.
It didn’t take too long to get ready to leave, having done my preparation before sleeping. I had my standard coffee and coke to assist with waking, and to get a bit of zing! I was glad to see that James and Dougie had yet to arrive. However when I checked where they were I discovered they were getting close, so I needed to be sharp and not hang around faffing.
The huge difference at this aid station this year was that I wouldn’t be walking out. Instead, I would be getting my shuttle lift. I didn’t intend to try to use use it for any extra sleep or rest. I’d just embrace the experience of something a little different.
John Daniel was going to be the man to drive me over to the Cheviots. Starting the trip he asked how I’d like to do this… as fast as possible? I replied that I was fine with normal speeds. It turned out he was an advanced driving instructor and was more than happy to utilise his skills to help runners save a little time (we were not timed out for the car journey, which was definitely a good idea from a race logistics point of view). We had a great conversation in the car. He had been racing in the Challenger earlier but had an unfortunate spectacular DNF (Two water dunkings… the first would probably have finished me off).
At one point we must have passed through a dip in the road, as I felt like I was in a plane taking a steep dive, with my brain left up on the ceiling somewhere. It took a few seconds to get my perception of stability back. The journey was a nice social trip, and time flew by. We pulled in off the main road to the start of a minor road which was the end of the car spin and the start of the final leg. It was another bit of a diversion to avoid a section of forestry that normally starts the climb into the Cheviots.
We said our farewells, and I got myself going again. This was another unfamiliar area I had not seen before. The first few kilometres were a climb on tarmac road. There was no sign of any human activity at all. It was a relatively gentle time, so it didn’t take me too long to get my speed up to a nice controlled running pace. It was quite a nice night. Down here in the valley there was no wind. There were broken clouds in the sky, with a half-moon occasionally visible. Plenty of stars to be seen between the clouds too. The air was clear, so the views were good and long.
A marker on the road indicated a left turn off the road onto the trail to take us heading west up to the ridgeline of Houx Hill for a kilometre or so. We would normally hit this ridgeline from the opposite side. The track up goes very close to a military firing range, so it would probably not be a great idea to wander too far off-line. Unfortunately, this was another section where the GPS track didn’t quite line up with reality.
I soon lost the track on the ground but used the GPS to try to refind it. However, the GPS track was not all that useful. After a few hundred meters there was a section of forest to the left. I guessed that the track would pass close to the forest edge and erred towards it as a result. My guess was correct and I soon re-acquired the track on the ground. I followed this as far as I could.
After the track cleared the upper boundary of the forest it got a little steeper, but I reckoned the track was erring too far left, so I visually re-aligned myself to hit the ridgeline above. A few minutes of climbing later I popped out onto the ridge and found the familiar Pennine Way track. All good. A quick glance back showed no obvious sign of anyone following behind down in the valley.
This entire section to the finish is probably my favourite section of the race. At night in winter the only people up here are either racers or people involved with the race. It’s a huge area, so that is pretty awesome. It can feel like you have the entire mountain range to yourself (which is sometimes true enough). So this was definitely a potentially more enjoyable section. Being in the lead only increased that, although now I had a lot more to lose if anything went wrong.
Even though it was nighttime visibility was pretty good, as the air was quite clear. As a result, I was able to mentally start picking off features that I could recall again, and again this has the effect of making time seem to pass more quickly. And I wanted to get this race done and dusted as soon as I possibly could!
I was still in pretty good shape. I was able to keep a good running pace going (good under the circumstance of being so far into a race of this magnitude) for quite a lot of this ridgeline, barring a few steeper climbs. I was definitely having a very good experience here!
A nice gentle downhill follows, taking the track towards the Roman Camps at Chew green. These are very noticeable on the ground, so provide a little bit of a distraction for a while whilst regaining some height on gentle runnable slopes. The climb gets a bit steeper before popping out onto a ridgeline again. The ground slopes away hugely to the left slide, where it looks like you see the lights of half of Scotland in the distance. To the right, the ground is less steep, but it’s obviously wilderness moorland for miles. It’s a spot where you really feel “out there”, alone at night with no sign of anyone else. I love that!
The ground here starts to become a lot boggier, making micro-route finding more of a mental task. In the relatively warm conditions, there is no avoiding having to get sweet feet at times though. The next significant landmark would be Hut one (A small mountain rescue shelter), which in my head starts the interesting hillier section. Looking ahead after a while I could occasionally see some torch lights climbing in the distance, and guessed that these were Challenger North runners.
After a few minutes, I noticed that one light seemed to be gradually heading in my direction. I couldn’t spend too much time watching though, as I was concentrating on not stepping into deep bog. As the light got closer I could work out it was someone running. When we met I was delighted to see it was my old friend Damon.
I’d met Damon for the first time on my first Spine race. He is a local runner and member of the local mountain rescue team. He had been making a tradition for himself of going up and meeting the lead Spine runner on the Cheviots to check up on them and run with them for a while. He was here again, continuing that tradition. He said he’d got his estimates of where he thought I would be way off, so was meeting me a bit earlier on the route than he had been planning. We had plenty to chat about of course, especially given the nature of the race this year.
Quite often runners use Hut 1 for a break of some kind. Sometimes there is a safety team there as well. I was feeling absolutely fine, so I was definitely not planning to stop though. When we reached the hut there was indeed a safety team member there. I didn’t go near the hut though. So he ran over to say hello and offer some tea or water. After thanking him I headed on. to start the climb up Lamb Hill.
In my head, this is the nice undulating middle section of the Cheviots… the highlight of the show! I ate a bit of my flapjacks as a little reward and gave some to Damon too. Lamb hill is steep enough to put a stop to any running for a while. I glanced back to check for any following torches. I thought I might have caught sight of a flash of something, but wasn’t sure. Damon checked the trackers on his phone. It turned out that I hadn’t seen torches. They were quite a few kilometres back, heading up the first ridge climb.
I knew that the gap was big enough that I was in control. But the danger of knowing that is becoming too complacent, losing too much drive, and slowing down too much. My feet were getting more sore now, which was also causing me to lose a bit of drive and pace.
A lot of the path along the ridgeline in this area is stone slabbed. The slabs were definitely still hazardous. They were slippery, with plenty of ice around. In the dark there were a lot of darker pooled water spots which I had to probe with my walking poles. Experience has taught me that there are one or two slabs missing. I have both broken poles and dunked myself as a result of not seeing these in the past, so was being super-cautious not to repeat those mistakes.
A kilometre or two later, around Mozie Law, Damon headed off down the mountain back home to get some rest and sleep. I couldn’t say I wasn’t jealous!
It had become noticeably colder on the ridgeline. It was very much exposed to the wind. I was just on the edge of comfort. At the foot of the next descent, there is a bit of shelter from the wind, so I took advantage of that to stop and put on my spare middle layer. This is a super lightweight Columbia down jacket. It’s so light you would think it would have no warmth, but it’s actually brilliantly warming. When I set off again I was nice and snug, and once I started marching up the next climb I was soon heading towards the warm side of comfortable, which is where I wanted to be.
As I headed across the very windy exposed ridge before the climb up to Windy Gyle, which was looking like it would live up to its name this year, I could definitely see head torches on top. I was gradually catching a pair of Challenger North runners. I was doing a good job of keeping my “race head” on for the steeper climbs and did a good power march up to Windy Gyle.
It’s a long run from there to get to the next big peak at Auchope. It always seems to be endless. The vast majority of it is on stone slabs, so it was back to having to concentrate on staying safe whilst keeping as high a pace as possible. I was feeling my feet a lot more though, which was putting a cap on my maximum pace. Despite this, I knew I was still in better shape than I usually would be here, especially since I was not suffering from any sleep deprivation issues. In previous years I had suffered badly on this seemingly endless section.
It was quite a few kilometres of slab running before I eventually caught up with the two Challenger runners. As I approached they stopped and stood off the slabs to let me by. We exchanged some cheerful greetings, and I checked if they needed anything, but they were all good. The ground was starting to get steeper and steeper as it headed up towards the Auchope.
As it gets really steep, the slabs disappear, and unlike in the summer, there was no chance of running this section. It was back to power marching. By now I had climbed through the cloud base. As a result, visibility had dropped right down to one or two meters maximum again. I had a little hallucination here, where I had the impression that there were lights from the window of a cottage next to me, but I knew in my head that it was just the light of the headtorch reflecting back in the thick mist , and that there was no cottage for miles!
The hill then unwinds itself, as the ground gets gradually less steep, and the stone slabs return. I could get back to slow uphill running again. The wind was picking up more with height though, as I was heading for a domed top with no shelter. The top is the highpoint of the Spine route in the Cheviots. When I reached it I knew it was downhill to the finish from here. But I also knew it wasn’t all downhill, and far from done and dusted. It’s still a good feature to mentally tick off though, and the sharp left turn here definitely feels like the turn for home.
However, it was now much more technical here than it had been in any prior Spine experience here. The wind was absolutely blasting, and the visibility was still atrocious. It was very hard to get any speed for the few hundred meters run across to Auchope Cairn. On the peak of Auchope Cairn the wind was even worse.
It is a very steep descent off here and was going to be potentially hazardous in these conditions. The only upside is that it is so steep that there are no stone slabs. There were a few small marker flags low on the ground showing the route off. I was glad to see those, even though I knew where I needed to go. Hut 2 was not too far away, so the presence of the flags probably indicated that there was someone from the safety team down there.
I made pretty poor speed heading off the peak. The wind was so strong that at one point it lifted my headtorch off my head (It was wired to a battery pack in my rucksack, so there was no danger of losing it). A few hundred meters down there is a dangerous drop off to the right, Hen hole, which I was particularly cautious of, as this was also probably the steepest part of this descent. Even at that I took a slide here but did no damage.
The good thing about the steep descent was that the rapid loss of height was leading to better shelter from the surrounding mountains and notable reductions in wind speed. Soon after this, I dropped below the cloud base again. I was able to look out to my left and see the outlines of the peaks and ridges of the ground I had covered to get here. In the distance, I reckoned I could see what I thought was a pair of head torches near Lamb hill. That was probably James and Dougie.
They were far enough behind that I knew that I could pretty much take it easy from here and probably still win the race comfortably. As a result of knowing that I lost some of my drive to keep my speed up. And, of course, the body follows the mind pretty directly. With sore feet, my speed was definitely slowing now.
I stopped for a minute or so at Hut 2 to have a brief chat with the safety person there, and finish off the last of my flapjacks. At this stage I might as well eat my snacks as carry them to the finish! I knew the Spine’s “sting in the tail” was ahead though. There was one more big hill, The Schill. I also knew it was really the last of 3 consecutive bumps to be climbed.
The ground leading out from Hut 2 and on up the first “bump” was really bad. It was a boggy mess. I could definitely notice the difference that having the Challenger North runners in front had made as well, with the trail much more obviously eroded. This was yet another factor slowing my speed down. But I knew I just had to concentrate, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and get this done.
I was also hoping to get to the finish line before dawn. That would get me there ahead of my previous marks. Iy was the last of my Dusk/Dawn timing targets. Given the car lift earlier in this stage that should be a target that should be more than possible to beat, unless I lost a ton of speed on this leg.
I knocked out the first two bumps slowly but surely and was able to make better progress up the steeper slopes of the Schil as it was less boggy. Reaching the top of the Schil was a great feeling, as I knew that the last of the big climbs was now done. This really was the start of the descent towards the finish at Kirk Yetholm.
It’s a correspondingly steep descent off the other side of the Schil, and I did take another slide about halfway down. That resulted in me slowing with caution for a while, until the slope became more easily runnable.
I knew from here I could afford to run within myself, which is exactly what I did. I kept my pace at a nice relaxed speed, and even on steeper downhill sections on easier paths where I could potentially blast out a high pace I instead stayed nice and relaxed. I was taking it all in, and trying to build up the joy and excitement of the fact that I was heading to the finish line as the leader.
Just before reaching the end of the long descent, and the start of the road to the finish, a few media crew were out to film and run with me for a while. It was nice to get back to chatting to people again and was a distraction from any of the niggling aches from my body. There is one last kicker hill climb on the road before the descent down to the finish line. I’ve run this twice in the past, but I was perfectly content to just walk it at a relaxed pace this time.
Cresting the hill I could finally see the lights of Kirk Yetholm. I had a nice walk down, before picking up to a run turning the last corner, running across the green through the finishing banners. Oh man, This was so so good. I had won! I had done it. I had actually won!!!! I was in seventh heaven.
I stopped to take it all in and enjoy the moment, and to enjoy the fact that I could finally stop! I had to be reminded to go over to touch the wall of the Border Hotel to mark the traditional finish of the Pennine Way.
I was surprised I didn’t feel the need to sit in the “John Kelly” flower pot and was able to face the cameras standing up! After answering a few questions I remembered to thank a few people, and it only seems appropriate to repeat the thanks here!…
Thanks to Helen, my wife, for being my life partner and for everything she has done over our years together. She is the most important person in my life.
Thank you to Richard Nunan for being such an incredible supporter of my running career over the years. he’s the man who keeps my Facebook page updated in such style when I’m running events. He has also supported me in so many running races, and we’re adventure racing teammates. It’s a privilege to call him a friend.
Thanks to my Mother for having the foresight to pass on such useful genetics! Needless to say, I wouldn’t be here running these races without her.
Thank you to T.J. in Columbia Ireland, and everyone in Columbia. They’ve been fantastic sponsors for a long time. It actually feels like being part of a big family! I’m lucky to have a brand that makes such fantastic top of the range innovative gear as my main sponsor.
And thank you to all the race volunteers who make the Spine race such a special experience. Everyone I met was without exception wonderful, and I know there were many more working away in the background keeping the show on the road.
(This is by no means a complete list. There are so many others to thank as well, but that was the list I remembered on the finish line. But for this blog in particular, I’d also like to thank all the photographers whose good work I’ve been using to illustrate the race report).
After that, it was into the hotel, and finally an opportunity to sit down, get my shoes and socks off, and soak my feet in a tub of warm water. Even though I could feel my eyes closing, I was on such a high that I didn’t want to sleep. I was enjoying the company and conversation of everyone around as well. I was also enjoying quite a bit of real food too.
I was still awake a few hours later when James and Dougie came in as joint second to complete the podium. I was unbelievably happy with that result. It really was a perfect podium. And of course, it was great to catch up with them in the lovely atmosphere of the hotel again.
The rest of my Spine experience continued to be pretty much perfect, from heading to Damon’s house for an amazing post-race celebratory dinner (joined by Iain, the second-place finisher of the Mountain Rescue race), and the sleep of the dead, all the way to arriving at my front door to finish off the journey and complete the circle. This was one of the best weeks of my life sure. And all the better for being so unexpected.
I arrived at CP4 and the welcome of the aid station staff. They helped me get my shoes and outer layers off, which was made a little more difficult by the fact that I had broken the zip lanyard off the gator fastening of one of my shoes. There was a little discussion about how that could be fixed… it seemed to become a bit of a mission. With my remaining non-muddy inner layers on I made my way into the main room of the aid station to set my newly formulated plans in motion.
Item number 1 on the agenda was definitely to have my feet checked out. The stepping had held up quite well, as it was a relatively un-boggy leg to here, but it still started coming off while I was taking my socks off a few minutes earlier. Since I was the only runner in the aid station I had the full attention of both of the medics, which was great.
CP4 is famous for its Lasagne, which this year apparently even had its own Twitter account. Yet again they had made sure to have a gluten-free version available for me. It was, of course delicious, and I polished off a plate of it far too easily. I could have had several more, but wanted to be careful not to over-eat. Again, I wasn’t going to have anything too sugary, or with caffeine, before heading to sleep. My target was to have everything else done before sleep though.
So I also did GPS and headtorch battery change-overs (and changed the GPS to follow the next track for the next leg. With the forecast, and after the good conditions of the previous leg I didn’t need to change much in the way of clothes either. Socks were the main thing. So that preparation was relatively straightforward. A small bit of food re-supply (replacing the flapjacks I had been using as treat food on the previous leg) was about the only other thing.
I did check if they had any rice pudding or custard for when I would be up after sleeping, but there was none. However one of the aid station staff insisted she would make some custard from scratch, and that it would be no problem to have it ready for me by then. Talk about being spoiled!
I was still yet to be joined by James and Dougie by this point. I was thinking that I must have made up additional time between Garagill and here. That probably meant that they were tiring, and were also likely to take a sleep break here as well. Ideally I would at worst lose no time to them in this CP.
The medics took great care to make sure that my feet were as ready as could be for the next stage. I had described it to them as likely to be “shit”, meaning boggy as hell, so would probably destroy their good work before reaching CP5. But it was still going to be massively beneficial to leave here in optimum condition.
Just as they finished my foot repairs, and I was in the process of getting up to head up for my sleep, James and Dougie arrived. They were their usual convivial selves, and we checked in on each other and had a quick chat. I reckoned they must have been about 40 minutes or more later than me getting here. I was very happy to have built up that gap since being almost neck and neck up at Cross Fell, It was even better knowing that I had the capability to do that at this stage of the race.
The one-hour sleeps had worked perfectly in the previous two CPs, so I went for the same again. This time there was no natural waking (nor was there any sticking to the sleeping bag, thanks to having my toes strapped before sleeping). I think James and Dougie may have headed to sleep at pretty much the same time for a similar amount of time.
After being woken I made my back downstairs for my breakfast of delicious freshly made custard, along with coffee and coke for a caffeine and sugar hit. It was still very much dark nighttime and would be for quite a while yet. James and Dougie were also up, and the lasagne was being served!
I made my way back to the entrance room to put my outer layers on. The project to fix my broken zip had worked with aplomb. The solution was probably more resilient and user-friendly than the original setup. That was excellent. And then I headed out the door, with lots of luck being wished as I went.
That was much better. A far more efficient transit through the aid station than I had managed at the previous 2. It didn’t take me long to get going again, and I was feeling pretty good. I was definitely in much better shape than I could remember feeling at this point in previous winter Spine races.
This next leg is generally my least favourite. It looks the easiest on paper as there is no single big climb, but, being the Spine, there is no give without a massive take. It has a lot of mucky boggy trails, low-quality tricky trails, and the occasional short but very sharp steep climbs along the Hadrian’s Wall sections. It’s also a long way to the next aid station. so takes a long time to cover. This year it had an extra few kilometres added as well.
But, my good physical shape, added to the fact I was in second place and immersed in a great race, meant that I was actually enjoying the early part of this stage way more than I usually would. Weather conditions were still benign, although the ground was far from being dry. There was no snow and ice to deal with though.
The initial section to the Roman fort Whitley Castle (which you don’t really notice on the ground) seemed to fly along nicely. Again, I was remembering the trail well, and this was definitely having the effect of making time move faster as I knocked off all the features I remembered (which was probably more than 70% of the trail!). I had the occasional look back from high points to see if I could see head torches coming behind, but I couldn’t pick anything obvious out.
There are lots of flatter more open sections heading towards Slaggyford, and I was able to run those at a very nice cruisy pace. With my race head firmly engaged the concentration levels were good and the pace was faster than I would have anticipated. But I still felt absolutely comfortable and in total control of the effort level.
Hitting the few hundred meters of road running through Slaggyford I again felt that I was running closer to my summer pace than my winter pace. Unfortunately, since it was an ungodly hour of the night there was no sign of Natasha, the angel of Slaggyford! But I was in such good shape that I didn’t feel I would have needed to stop for any drinks or snacks even if they were being offered here.
I normally really don’t like the section from crossing under the old railway bridge arches at Burnstones along the old roman road all the way over Lambley common before crossing the A689 road. There are lots of poor quality trails, with a combination of sinking bogs and awkward rocky bits, with the occasional reasonably more unable bits here and there. But again I found myself more happily ticking them off chunk by chunk, noting how much better it was all flowing than in previous Spines. Quite often I’d find myself fantasising about coke or real food by now, and regretting not having more back in the aid station. But that wasn’t the case now either.
It was a repeat performance after the A689, with another section I normally dislike flowing along nicely. As I approached Hartlyburn Common, the beginning of probably the least enjoyable section of the race, I wondered would “Rastaman Ralph” be here again. I had had an interesting 5 or 10 minutes in the middle of the night here in the summer race, meeting him for the first time, where he was at the tail end of what looked like an enjoyable night’s barbeque. Much to my surprise he was here. I stopped for another quick video with him and signed his autograph book. He had been collecting all the runner’s signatures it would seem. He’d also cooked one or two sausages for me, which was very nice of him. He told me that Egeni had stopped in his caravan for a sleep a few hours previously.
Eugeni had stopped and pulled out of the race about two hundred meters short of here in the previous winter Spine. It was not obvious why he would have stopped here to lie down, relatively soon after CP4. It was likely he was feeling sleep deprivation and tiredness a lot more than me (I was totally in the clear as it happens). He had plenty of time to sleep if he wanted to. There was still no chance I would be able to chase him down. He should be at least 3 or 4 hours ahead.
After that nice it of interaction it was back off again and almost immediately out into the open moorland of Hartlyburn Common, merging into the equally damp and bleak Blenkinsop Common. I reckon if I was pushed to say which section of the Pennine way I liked the least then this would be it. It’s pretty featureless, apart from the huge swathes of bog which try to suck all enthusiasm away, as well as ensuring that your feet are guaranteed to get soaking wet, irrespective of how good your waterproof shoes might be.
There are previous sections of the route which I also generally dislike, but which I had found much more pleasant this year. That didn’t quite work here. It was still just as unpleasant as I remembered it. The only good thing was that I was wide awake with good energy levels, so I was able to squelch my way through it at a reasonably effective speed, getting it in the rearview mirror ASAP!
Thankfully things get a lot more interesting after that, as the trail makes its way past Greenhead and on over to Hadrian’s Wall, moving from featureless open moorland to 10s of kilometres of a non-stop feature! The start of Hadrian’s wall was my target location to get the next dawn. I was very slightly ahead of this, but close enough as to register it as back on target. So my overall pace was still holding up nicely.
The initial climb up to Hadrian’s Wall car park area seemed to go faster than I remembered. I took advantage of the toilet block facilities here for a quick break and treated myself to another piece of Mince flavoured flapjack, before tackling Hadrian’s Wall itself. The initial route along the wall has a few steep stone stepped climbs, which whilst not too high (maybe 100 meters or so) are steep enough to seem like a big effort each time. Thankfully there was no sign of ice on the correspondingly steep descents.
With the dawn, the skies were nicely lighting up, and there were some awesome views to be occasionally glimpsed from the heights of the wall on both sides. After a kilometre or two, the initial steep sections are left behind, and the trail is extremely runnable all the way to the next road crossing. I felt very drudgy at first running the gentle downhill but gradually worked my way to a more steady feeling run.
In my head I divide up Hadrian’s Wall into 4 sections, with (very minor) road crossings marking the divides. But that’s for the normal route. This year we had a diversion at what is normally the end of Hadrian’s Wall, so would be running along “new” sections of the wall I had not seen before. The diversion was longer than the normal route by a few kilometres overall.
Just after the start of this “section” there is another car park area with another toilet block, where I refilled one of my water bottles. There are no natural water sources from here to Horneystead Farm (Unnoffical aid station), so I wanted to be sure not to be in any danger of running short. It was definitely daylight now, so I put my headtorch away as well.
Section 2 of the wall is a long one, with lots of mini hills with steep climbs and descents. My memory of it from the summer race meant I was mentally well prepared for it though, so again it felt like I was progressing nicely and that time wasn’t dragging. I had the occasional look back to see if I could spot anyone following, but I couldn’t.
“Section 2” of the wall ends with another nice fast gentle downhill run to a road crossing before the descent to the start of the mighty “Steel Rigg”. However, that wasn’t to be. There were diversion markings on the ground which took us away from the Pennine Way track the entire Steel Rigg – Sycamore Gap section (Section 3 in my head) and instead took us parallel to it on slightly less undulating ground. It was still proper trail running after a short initial road section to the start of the trail diversion. This was about 2 kilometres or so. It was a lot more runnable than usual, so I put my head down to grind out as steady a running pace as I could muster.
Then it was back to the standard route for another climb starting section 4, where I managed to run on some of the sections. I was definitely still in good condition since I can’t always manage to do this. Section 4 is normally a sort kilometre or two over the last of Hadrian’s wall. But this year there was no turning off, and I found myself in pristine territory where I had never run before. No more navigation by memory, and no more ticking off familiar landmarks as they passed.
I tried to make sure to take in this “new” section of the wall since I probably wouldn’t see it again. Luckily it was another clear day (but lacking the blue skies and sunshine), so it was possible to look around and see for miles in any direction. Being Hadrian’s wall, there was plenty of climbing and descending. I was still moving along at a steady pace. One turn on the wall resulted in headwind running for a little while, which took a bit more effort.
Given that the entire point of this diversion was to avoid forestry sections that were deemed to be unsafe in the aftermath of storm Arwen, it was a nice surprise to find myself running through one or two short sections of native woodland. However, the last wooded section had to be bypassed (a diversion on the diversion) due to clear and obvious tree falls.
That was followed by what felt like a long long straight section of trail that was overall flat, but had plenty of little bumps on the ground. After a kilometre or so a road ran in parallel for another 4 or 5 kilometres. I knew in my head there was a left turn to come, but it was taking a long time to appear, After 4 kilometres or so there was a little dink in the trail around a farmhouse, and just before that a spectator had stopped his car on the road and was near the trail cheering on.
He thought I was running really well, which I was a little doubtful of myself! I asked him how far behind the other 2 were, and he reckoned about 6 kilometres or so. But he also told me that up ahead Eugeni had slowed down considerably, and that at the rate I was running I could catch up with him before Bellingham (CP5). I waved goodbye and ran on.
That had left me plenty to think about for the next while. I was sceptical, very sceptical, about being able to catch Eugeni before Bellingham. He would need to slow down to trudgy walking pace for that to happen, given the huge lead he had left with after CP4. I could definitely envisage him slowing, but he should have enough margin to get to CP5 in front, have a sleep there to regenerate, and still get out ahead of me (as I would also be likely to take another sleep in CP5). That’s what I would do in his position.
The 90 degree left turn came up next. I remembered from looking at maps before the race that this could be on some sort of road, so could be nice fast running. Oh no. This was the Spine. No such luck. The “road” was another cattle track, which was deep mud. The opposite to fast running. This was a slug it out section. I concentrated on finding the best line to keep up the best speed possible.
It turned out to be about 2 kilometres of a battle through mucky trail. No wonder Eugeni had slowed down! This would kill you off if you were down in energy levels or sleep-deprived. Thankfully I had absolutely no sleep issues at all, and my energy levels were as good as you could hope for this far into the race.
I was running some calculations in my head about a 6-kilometre lead. I reckoned at worst that was an hours lead (probably more, but I’ll do worst-case calculations). That wasn’t a bad cushion to have, and would definitely mean I would be able to sleep in CP5 and still get out close to them at worst, even if they didn’t sleep. It was also likely that I had gained a little time on them so far in the section (In reality I had gained quite a bit), so that was a good sign as well.
After cresting a hill there was a short solid road section of a hundred metres, followed by nice grassy runnable grassy open land for f a few hundred meters. A nice change. It all went to pot again at the bottom of that descent. There was a river crossing, with a small cliff face to descend before a bridge. However the GPS track did not line up with reality on the ground, so after some initial messing around getting down the to the river I started navigating more by sight on the climb up from there, as the GPS track didn’t correspond to anything at all on the ground. I was really glad to be doing this in daylight.
After a kilometre or so the track became more obvious and eventually led past a wood to a road section. I had a very nice surprise around here. Sabrina, along with Paul Nelson who I had become friends with a few years ago at the Northern Traverse, had driven out to watch the race and have a run on the roads here. So I finally got my much-delayed chat with Sabrina and heard all about her race. That left me even more impressed with her. Paul, as ever, was good fun.
They told me that the trackers had shown that Eugeni had stopped at Horneystead, and was still there after a few hours the last time they checked. Wow! now thanks were getting really interesting. That guy on the road earlier was not wrong. I was starting to get a little bit excited about this. Eugeni had gone from out of sight out of mind, too far ahead, to a definite target. And this wasn’t just another potential overtake here. This was big. Man, this must be interesting on the trackers! What a race!
I had been thinking about how I planned to pass through Horneystead. I reckoned that it would be worthwhile getting something to give me a boost to get me to Bellingham with a little oomph. I settled on a can of coke being ideal if one was available. It was warm enough that coffee would be overkill, and coke would be quicker to deal with. There’s always a temptation to relax there and enjoy the lovely couches, along with a few snacks. But I was now in full-on race mode, so very much intended to keep this extremely efficient.
The diversion was feeling endless, but at least it was good running on road for a few kilometres, before reverting to yet another mudfest track where it was often easier to run in the reeds at the side of the track. All along the diversion I was on the lookout for Hornystead, as I knew the diversion rejoined the Pennine Way just a kilometre or so before the farm. But all the farmhouses started looking like my memory of Hornystead!
But I soon was able to recognise that this long muddy shallow ascent was leading up to the last hill on the Pennine Way before Horneystead, and could recognise the landscape out to my left where the original Penninee way runs. I was glad to finally reach the top, where indeed there was a Pennine Way fingerpost.
However, the track down here was majorly showing the effects of having the Northern Challenger field run through beforehand. It was a minimum of 6 inches deep mud for a few hundred meters down. Luckily it was down, which made it runnable/slideable.
On the climb out from the river crossing I was greeted with the welcome sight of Helen, the owner of Horneystead, coming out to welcome me in. She is such a star! Horneystead has been the most amazing welcoming place on every Spine race I have done.
But this year things were a lot less calm than usual. She told me that Eugeni had slept, woken up, but was still sitting in the “pit-stop” (one of the farm’s outer buildings which is a walkers’ cafe/refuge on the Pennine way) not looking like he was going anywhere. The excitement was building up big-time inside me now! It actually seemed a little busy here, as there was a photographer here as well, so there were quite a few people around.
I asked Helen if she had any coke. She said that Eugeni had had 3 cans so far, but there should be one left. I knew how he was feeling! But that was good, my plan looked like it was feasible. I followed Helen into the pit-stop, and there was Eugeni sitting on one of the chairs…OMG…this really was unbelievable. I was now standing here as the joint race leader. This was just unbelievable. Something I couldn’t even have envisaged an hour beforehand. This really was some race. It really was throwing up all sorts of surprises. God only knows what it would throw next!
For the second time in succession, I woke up naturally just before I was due to be woken. That’s definitely getting into unprecedented territory. But it was definitely a good sign that I was getting a full sleep cycle in these 1-hour sleep attempts (I was allowing for 20 minutes of lying there thinking that I’d never get to sleep). Unfortunately, the tops of my toes had been sticking to the inside of my sleeping bag a bit… uh oh, foot problems!
Heading back to the main room at some stage I had a most unexpected encounter when I met Tiaan. I didn’t even realise that he was still in the CP. I presumed that he had headed out before Eugeni. In fact, he had pulled out of the race as his leg was in bad shape. And indeed it looked very reddened all the way up to his knee (I wasn’t surprised to learn afterwards that he was taken to hospital for a precautionary examination). I wished him the best after we had a short chat.
So now instead of 4th 5th and 6th, the 3 of us who entered the aid station together were one place up. A podium spot was now in contention. From my point of view, that’s well worth racing for. Even more remarkably Eugeni had now worked his way into 2nd place without having to physically overtake anyone ahead. But he still was too far in front and moving fast for us in the chasing pack to realistically be able to haul him in by chasing him down. This race was turning much more dynamic than I had anticipated.
It was back into the nice couches near the log fire to start to get ready to leave. As it turned out James and Dougie had also decided on a similar amount of sleep, so the 3 of us ended up here together again, having a good conversation. I had more curry, but with added coffee and coke to drink now that I had slept. I saw James eating creamed rice with jam, which looked delicious, so asked for some for myself as well. I didn’t need to resist the plate of gluten-free treats either. I think I may have over-eaten in this aid station 🙂
I had also asked for the medics to have a look at my feet (I was not alone in that regard. I think Dougie was having some strapping added. However James had done a stellar job, and his feet were absolutely pristine, so he was grilled for his secrets!). After an extremely thorough examination, they reckoned the best thing to do was to tape up my toes, and put some “second skin” type cover directly over the affected areas, which they began to do.
The care and attention I was getting here were absolutely outstanding. I really couldn’t have asked for any more. To add to it all I was having some great conversations with everyone as well. It was the kind of spot it would be lovely to hang around for another couple of hours. However this was still very much a race, and I had to keep focussed on getting out ASAP.
I was happy to switch into my second set of shoes here. But as the weather was so benign I didn’t need to change any other clothes. I had been wearing my heaviest Columbia Omni-heat base layer since the start since the forecasts showed the worst weather on day 1 at the time. This next leg involved going over the highest point in the race at Cross Fell, which is usually freezing, so I was happy to not need to change out of that layer.
Dougie and James were ahead of me on the preparation front. I would have probably made it out first if it wasn’t for the issues my toes were causing, but now it had switched, and they headed out together whilst I was mid “surgery”. In the end, they were probably about 40 minutes ahead of me heading out. Before I left Simon arrived in, yet again demonstrating his consistency. He was definitely keeping the pressure on from behind, and I knew he would keep going relentlessly.
So now I was heading out the door in 5th place. The two ahead were out of sight, and probably gaining time, since they were both faster movers than me. I was determined to hold this position though, so knew I had to keep my solid running pace to keep the gap back to Simon. It was now daylight. I had fallen a bit behind in my dawn/dusk chasing. I’d normally be further up the path beside the River Tees.
I was a bit annoyed with myself about how I had managed to burn through so much time at CP3, on top of not doing a particularly effective job at CP2. I decided to learn from this and work out a plan for the remaining CPs so that I would manage my time more effectively and not waste so much. Effectively I had let two places slip into the distance, and was still under pressure from behind. Time to stop the rot!
It took a while to get going. I was definitely starting sluggishly. Initially, I was wondering about how much my toes hurting might impact my running speed, but it wasn’t long before I forgot to even wonder. The taping had done its job very effectively.
The oddest thing was that it was an absolutely beautiful morning. I could see blue skies. There was definite sunshine going on. And down low here in the river valleys there was no wind. That’s about as un-Spine like as it gets.
I didn’t feel like I was running very fast at all. But I made sure to at least keep running steadily. Overall this is probably one of the more enjoyable “legs”, and this section is a nice start. It’s a very gentle climb that feels nearly flat. And the passing of the big waterfalls at Low Force, followed by High Force provides a glimpse tr two of great views. I had the occasional check behind in case Simon made an unlikely high-speed exit, but there was no sign of anyone.
Again, I was finding that time was passing a little quicker than it usually seems, even though I wasn’t moving particularly quickly. Possibly it was knowing the route so well meant there was less of an endless feel. I was ticking off features I knew one by one, which definitely helps with the mental impression of making forward progress along the course. I did wonder was I halfway yet, since Dufton is often considered halfway, but the race was a little shorter this year.
After the second bridge crossing of the morning, the route heads more westerly. This resulted in facing a strong headwind heading along the river valley past Widdy Bank farm. That was making running harder work, and probably slower (it felt that way). But at least the ground is flat and non-technical. Until it becomes incredibly technical, as the cliffs around Falcon Clints push right up to the river, and the trail becomes a boulder crossing.
As usual, I was being very careful on these sections, erring on the side of caution rather than speed. Every now and then I came across a wet footprint on the rocks. They looked a little fresher than I was expecting. But then it wasn’t that warm, so maybe they were taking longer to evaporate away. At least the weather was good, and there was no obvious ice around here, so it was less technical than it could have been.
It was still a little damp for the “hands and feet” technical climb up beside the spectacular roaring waterfall of Cauldron Snout. It always seems like a relief to pop out at the top of that. Oddly, I was having audio hallucinations as I was climbing, thinking I could hear the voices of people nearby. But I didn’t actually see anyone. The views back down the valley after the climb were super, and I was glad not to be able to spot anyone following along after me.
On the undulating road run after Cauldron Snout I finally heard a real voice, passing Ian Burns walking his dog and taking photos of occasional passing racers! I was making reasonably good speed on the dirt-track roads here.
After a pedestrian bridge over Grain Beck river, the track is a long steady climb up, past warning flags for the nearby firing range. I was determined to give running the whole thing a try from the bridge, and put my head down metaphorically and did a pole powered run up the draggy hill. The views were opening up nicely, and with the good weather, they were as good as you could expect.
The route branches off the dirt track to head downhill on some lovely runnable trail for a few minutes of fun, before getting back to the business of climbing up towards High Cup Nick. Again I was going to try to run all this if possible. Apart from a big footbridge river crossing I pretty much managed to do so.
At High Cup Nick the views were spectacular. It really was ridiculously good conditions. I was thinking that Eugeni must be loving running in 2nd place with Spanish weather to accompany him! I was trying to take in the views as much as possible without it slowing me down. There are a few kicker climbs here which put a stop to the running here and there.
Eventually the very technical rocky trail topped out and I started the long descent towards Dufton. As it started to become less technical I made an effort to push myself to get some easy speed on the downhill. Quite often here my legs are so trashed that I can only really trot down. But I felt that I was in good condition, and with the good weather, I decided to try to take the downhill at the speed I had managed in the summer race.
After a few minutes I ran into John Knapp making his way up, and he joined me for some conversation on the way down. John reckoned I was descending faster than the two ahead. It was very nice to have a quick catch up with him. He is quite an inspiring runner, targeting some interesting performances as he transitions into his sixties. After 5 or 10 minutes we said our goodbyes, after which he turned to re-climb the hill, hoping to meet Simon sometime later near High Cup Nick.
I kept my high-speed mode on as the tracks hit the roads heading for Dufton. I was joined by a local runner for a while and had another good conversation all the way into the village. There is a safety check station in Dufton with a maximum stay of half an hour allowed in the hall. I actually had a preference not to stop at all. All I really needed was a quick bottle refill.
One of the aid station staff came out to run in with me, and let me know that I didn’t need to stop, as it was completely optional (there had been a gear check here on one occasion in the past). They let me know that James and Dougie were inside using up their half-hour allowance taking a good break. I just asked for a refill of my water bottle, said my thanks and farewell, and headed off back out (after a quick photo shot!)
The Pennine way leading away from Dufton is usually in an awful state, ridiculously mucky from farm animals being moved along it. In our conversation, the local runner reckoned that that was deliberate. When it was becoming too draggy to run I switched to marching, but took the opportunity to have some more of my flapjacks as a little booster now that I was at the start of the climb towards the highest point in the race.
If the aid station staff were correct I was now going to go from being in 5th place, 15 minutes behind the two runners ahead, to 3rd place, 15 minutes ahead of the two runners behind. Now I was most definitely in race mode. I had a podium position, which was way beyond my expectations heading into the race. So I definitely wanted to hold it if could. I was definitely enjoying the dynamics of the race now.
The worst bit of the trail out of Dufton is through a farmyard which can be ankle-deep in muck. Calling it mud would be way too polite. All the cows and sheep ensure it much worse than that. But thankfully it wasn’t quite as bad as it traditionally is, and I managed to work my way through relatively cleanly, before a short section of downhill to get a little momentum back.
After that, the view really opens up to the climb ahead to Knock Fell, the first of the high points on the way the highest point of the race at cross fell. It was again a full view today, in the excellent weather. The climb slowly but surely starts to kick in. The first section is marginal run/walk. I elected to power march it since this was a big climb. I’d take the running where the speed gains were less marginal.
I was back to playing my dawn/dusk timing game. The target for this dusk was to try to get to the start of the descent off Cross Fell. The low winter sun made it hard to tell how close it was to setting. But it looked spectacular whenever I looked behind to see it in the blue skies, with the lake district on the horizon. However it also made it quite hard to spot the two behind me, so I didn’t take too many glances back to check.
I made good progress on the climb and was feeling in really good shape. I was able to run some of the less steep sections, which is better than usual. It was feeling more like a summer Spine than a winter Spine.
Reaching the broad area of the domed top of Knock Fell there is a notable drop in the real feel temperature. The sun was still shining, but the whole area is more exposed. I had gone from being slightly uncomfortably warm, as usual, down in Dufton, to just on the edge of needing to layer up.
It can be very hard to find the trails heading of Knock Fell, even with good visibility. So I was glad to still have daylight here (even though it was definitely starting to fade), and such clear air. A large proportion of the run down from here is gently downward sloping stone slabs. However, there was still a lot of residual snow and ice up here. It was more than enough to make running the slabs very hazardous. So I was still using my poles as probes and stabilisers, in case of a slip. Speed was greatly reduced as a result, but I did avoid any falls, which was my primary consideration.
The next peak up to Climb is Great Dun Fell. It is probably the most distinctive peak in the race due to the huge radar station on top. The climb starts with two or three hundred meters on the road leading to the radar station before heading back off-road onto a quite indistinct trail. About one-third of the way up this climb (which I was fast walking rather than running), the route drops into a small valley. The light was fading out considerably, and this was one of the last bits of shelter from the wind I would get until after Cross Fell. So I stopped to re-gear here.
I put on my mid-layer. This was a Columbia Down Jacket, but a bomb-proof one, as it has a built-in Outdry Extreme outer layer so that it is completely water and windproof. I also switched over to my Outdry Down mittens (I call them my Himalayan mittens, as they are incredibly warm). I also got out my primary headtorch, and placed it on my head. I didn’t need to turn it on yet though. I’d keep it off until I absolutely had to use it.
I was definitely glad to have all the gear on now. I was no longer on the edge, but back to being solidly in the comfortable zone. Approaching the radar station I was able to get back running again, and after a few minutes I was descending off the Great Dun Fell. There was a magnificent view ahead of the two remaining “bumps” to be crossed.
Again, a lot of this descent is on stone slabs, and these ones were even more icy and hazardous. Where it was doable it was safer to run parallel to them rather than risk a slide/fall. All of this section is very exposed to the wind, which always seems to be present up here (It’s actually the only named wind in the UK).
The next climb is Little Dun Fell, which despite the name is only 10 or 15 meters lower than its big brother, so practically all the previous 5 or 10 minutes of descending has to be paid for! The first half is a continuation of the slabs, which makes for tricky going with the ice. It’s a bit easier to deal with when climbing though, as speeds are slower and footsteps are more determined.
Approaching the top, as the climb steepens right up, I reckoned it was time to finally turn on my headtorch. I was a little behind my dusk target, but not too far. I had definitely made up some time since dawn. I looked back before I turned my torch on, and could see two head torches starting their descent off Great Dun Fell. They were pretty close. I reckoned they must have closed up the gap on the long climb.
There’s a nice plateau on Little Dun Fell, giving a few minutes of flat cruisy running before starting the descent back off. This is like a repeat performance of the previous descent, with more icy slabs leading down, across a col, and then starting the climb up to the high point of Cross Fell. This is a bit of a longer climb though.
Once the slabs ended after about one-third of the climb the route-finding became “interesting”. The large areas of residual snow made route choice tricky. There were a few points where it was a definite advantage that I was not the first runner through, as there were footholes in the snow to make the climb less arduous and energy draining. I was still being sure to keep my effort controlled. But I would guess that the sight of my lights ahead was definitely motivating the chasing pair, as they were closing.
Eventually, the climb starts to ease off, with some huge verticle stones to indicate the direction of the route, spaced a few hundred meters apart. It was back to controlled running climbing. After 5 or 10 minutes I finally reached the broad domed peak of Cross Fell, with its big cross-shaped dry stone shelter. It’s very easy to get the nav wrong coming off this, so I had been making sure I had my GPS ready to go when I reached here. It’s a right-handed turn off the peak.
As I started to head away from the stone shelter I looked to the right to see the two head torches heading up only a few hundred meters back at most. They had definitely closed in on the climbs. My legs were in good shape, so I was definitely going to be able to push the descent a bit, and use the hill for easy effort speed. The one thing I knew I had to be sure of though was to keep a very close eye on the GPS until the next right turn onto a more obvious rocky double track trail.
The consequences of going off route around here have the potential to be very nasty, as there are a lot of old mining works in the area. Since it was a grassy descent the ice was less of a problem, and I was able to hold the trail without too much problem. I knew the lads behind would get a nice benefit of just needing to follow my line, which would be much easier.
Once I hit the double track I knew I wouldn’t need the GPS for a while. It’s more or less a double-track rocky road descent all the way off the mountain to Garrigill, the next village. It must be at least 10 kilometres of descending.
The next feature of significance was Greg’s Hut. It’s a famous unofficial aid station on the race, where John Bamber serves up chilli noodles to revive people after their trek across Cross Fell. Yet again I was feeling absolutely fine and didn’t feel the need to take on any food or drink. And I definitely didn’t want to go into a relatively warm building only to have to emerge into the cold air again afterwards if I could avoid doing so.
Within a few minutes, I was passing the well lit Greg’s Hut. Sometimes some people come out to entice us in, or take a few snaps, but not this year. Since I wasn’t stopping I ran right by. Apologies to John and the crew for not calling in to say Hello!
Even though it is part of what is the long descent off Cross Fell the next kilometre or two are slightly uphill. However, the terrain is good enough that I definitely tried to run as much as possible (It hasn’t always been like that). The ice patches were ensuring it was far from straightforward to do so, but I probably managed to run for bout 99% of it, even if not particularly fast.
After that though, the road turns a little left and more definitely downhill. The terrain becomes a lot more runnable too. Within a minute or two, my speed was increasing nicely, but by now my hands were way too warm. I was no longer on the exposed ridgeline, so without the strong winds the real feel temperature was higher. So I stopped and swapped back to my normal gloves, which had proven to be excellent all-rounders so far.
When I looked back I could see that I was opening up a gap on the two chasers, even with the glove swap. I reckoned my descending speed was better. I was still feeling good. In fact, my legs felt much better than they normally would at this point. So I decided I would use this full descent to maximum effect, and make sure to gain maximum easy speed on the down and flat sections, and try to hold it as much as possible through the short kicker climbs along the way.
Running along I had a little mantra going in my head that this was “Summer speed in Winter Time”, which I repeated to myself a few times as I nicely powered along. I was enjoying this section far more than usual. I was definitely in full race mode now, thinking that every step of this descent was increasing the gap behind, and to maximise that while I still had a descent to play with!
About 2 or 3 kilometres out from Garagill the descent gets much steeper. Sometimes it can seem like it takes forever to get to the village, but I was happy for it to take as long as possible now to maximise the pluses of this descent. I was getting pretty hot and knew I’d need to take off my mid-layer, but I also knew that there is normally some great trail angels in Garigill with offers of hot drinks and nibbles. So I would wait until Garigill before changing gear since I would be stopping to say hello if they were there.
I held my good speed nicely through the full decent all the way into Garagill. Sure enough, there were quite a few people there to greet the runners. So I “pulled in” for my little pit-stop gear change and a simultaneous nice chat. I declined the offer of hot drinks and food, but I think I did get a top-up of one of my water bottles, just to be sure I had enough to get all the way to CP4 in Alston.
Needless to say, I wanted to find out what was going on in the race, in particular, how much of a gap I had behind me. But I wasn’t expecting to hear that the real bombshell news was about what was happening in front. Damian had pulled out of the race near Alston. Oh my God! That was unbelievable.
I knew Damian was running at a hot pace and was way out in front. But I also knew that that was well within his capabilities. So it really was a surprise to hear he had pulled out. It must have been some kind of injury. I hoped I’d get to chance to meet him soon and commiserate. This was his race to win.
And of course, the implications hit me at the same time. Eugeni was now in the lead. They told me he had just left Alston (CP4). That’s a long way in front, particularly since I intended to have another sleep there. Too far ahead to chase down. The only person who was going to beat Eugeni here was Eugeni (which wouldn’t exactly be without precedent). I was happy for him that he was indeed the leader, given how he had obviously worked on his weaknesses and had had so much misfortune over the years here. But I was giggling to myself that he had managed to move from outside the podium, in 4th, all the way up to leading the race without needing to overtake anyone.
And, of course, the even bigger implication from my own point of view was that I was now in second place. That overtake back in Dufton was looking much more significant now. Now I was doubly determined to try to stay in front of my chasers. If they were running as a pair they would knock me off the podium if they finished in front of me. The race was very definitely on. The local dot-watchers reckoned the gap was 2 or 3 kilometres. Nice. That was a good gap to open on one decent. It would definitely seem I could descend faster. I was even thinking that all I needed to do is be close enough to them on the Schill (the last big hill in the race) that I could out-descend them to the finish line if necessary.
But that was a long long way away. There was still plenty of work to be done just to get to CP4 in Alston. But I was even more energised now and headed out of Garigill concentrating and keeping a high steady pace (but not overdoing things). It’s overall pretty flat from Garigill to Alston, but the Pennine Way provides a few little undulations along the way, along with a metric ton of style and wall crossings.
I kept my concentration on keeping the pace as high as possible. I remembered that James and Dougie had slowed as they approached CP3 with me (as had I, obviously), so if the same happened again approaching CP4 I had an opportunity to continue to build the gap. My running pace was very solid, but the styles and wall crossings were a real pain. I could only assume that they would be as annoying to the other two as they were to me.
The frisson of racing kept me going nicely into CP4 at Alston. As I was approaching I consolidated a plan in my head as to how to organise my entire stay here, and put into effect the lessons learned from all the needless time losses in the previous two CPs. This would be even more critical now, as I wanted to leave CP4 with as big a gap as possible on James and Dougie, ideally far enough that my lights would not be visible to them en-route.
Even the timings of how we all moved through the CP could make a big difference here. It sounds as if I was pressuring myself, but it was the opposite. I was being very calculated and process-oriented. I was actually very relaxed and looking forward to seeing how this would play out, and in particular how much of a time gap I would have between my arrival and their arrival, and whether they would sleep. All to play for! Let’s see how this goes.
Getting to sleep in the middle of a race can be tricky at the best of times. You’re going from moving as fast as you reasonably can to trying to get complete rest. This was not the best of times. It was still daylight, which was definitely not ideal, but it is what it is. Closing the curtains and using a buff as eye cover pretty much sorted that out. Builders are a bit more complicated.
Unfortunately, there were builders working either on the site of the aid station. The occasional sawing or banging was OK, The rhythmical thumping from their radio was not. After 5 or 10 minutes of trying my best to get off to sleep I realised it was never going to happen, So I got back up, headed back down the stairs to the main room and asked the aid station staff if they could convince the builders to turn the radio off. I was actually feeling a bit guilty about trying to deny people doing their jobs their entertainment, but in reality it was a safety issue for me (sleep deprivation in the hills at night). After a few minutes, someone came back and let me know that they were actually going to be stopping work soon, and would turn off the radio.
So I went back upstairs, back into my sleeping bag with the buff covering my eyes and ears, back to the rhythmic thumping from the radio. 5 minutes later I was back downstairs for a repeat performance. You could actually feel the beat of the music through the floor here. I think one of the aid station staff may have physically switched off the radio to be sure this time. (Apparently, the radio had woken at least one of them earlier in the morning) Finally some relative peace. But that was a complete waste of at least 20 minutes with nothing productive achieved.
At some point James had arrived in, and he was having some food. We had a good chat. He really is a nice guy! What I didn’t realise was that Dougie was still in the CP when I had arrived in. I had presumed he would have headed out before Eugeni, but he had actually made a nav error earlier and had taken a good break at the CP.
So off up again for the third attempt at sleep. I was allowing an hour, hoping to get an effective sleep cycle. It was the usual pattern of lying there with my mind racing, trying to relax and be calm, wondering would I manage to get to sleep… and then I woke. As it happened it was a few minutes before I was due to be woken. That was actually perfect. So I got up and headed back downstairs. Now I could have the coffee and Coke, along with some food.
James had also taken some sleep and was back up and eating. (He had gained from my noise abatement session!). So we were both in the process of getting ready to go. He was slightly ahead of me though, and left a few minutes before me, saying I’d probably catch him soon since he was going to be eating a bap heading out down the road. He had also told me about the fact that Dougie had been he earlier after we had arrived in. At this stage, Simon and Mark Clarkson had also arrived. They were probably about an hour behind or so. I reckoned they would take some sleep too, or a long break at a minimum. Simon was definitely putting in his usual solid performance though. Any mistake from me and he would be there to snap it up!
My biggest worry heading out was would I fit into my shoes. They were a fairly precise fit at the start of the race. But after over 24 hours of running and an hour lying down it was likely my feet would have swollen to some extent. Luckily, with a bit of jamming I got them in, and all felt perfectly fine once they were on. The shoes were Columbia Trans Alps, which are excellent multi-terrain shoes with a good amount of cushioning. But most importantly they had an Outdry Extreme outer waterproof lining which included built-in gators. So I wanted to maximise their use in the race. 3 “legs” was the target, which would now be achieved.
I finally got out the door, having used up the last of the daylight, and slowly got myself going again. Restarts are hard! I was definitely back behind target for this dusk. Previously I would at least be heading down towards Thwaite before needing to use my headtorch. I got some nice bits of encouragement heading through the town. On the trails and roads out of Hawes I could see the red rear light on James’ backpack a few hundred meters ahead. He must have been finishing off his bap and speeding up. heading across the fields to Hardraw I didn’t spot the light again.
(I realised after the race that those short section between Hawes and Hardraw was the only full-Spine race only section of the race, as the challenger ends in Hawes, and the new Challenger North race starts in Hardraw).
I was back into my steady running now. But I was definitely moving towards a more racing-oriented mode of thinking. I was much more conscious of holding off the looming presence of Simon steadily making his way along behind me, and not losing any more places. And James and I had been in sighting distance of each other since Malham Tarn, so it was an interesting little race developing there.
After Hardraw (and more encouragement from spectators) the trail starts the very long climb up to the peak of Great Shunner Fell. I still couldn’t see James ahead, so reckoned he was creating a gap. It was a mixture of running and marching at first. But after a while, I concentrated on running as much as possible. It’s one of those slopes that is just on the edge of that decision at this point in the race. But I was definitely in a more racy mode now and didn’t want to lose too much on James.
The nighttime seemed to have brought the low cloud base back, and once I ran through that into the fog the visibility dropped right down. In fact, I can’t remember it being worse on the Spine. It was down to about 1 meter or so. The Pennine way follows a trail that turns off the double-track road which the initial climb follows. I knew roughly when to expect this turn-off but still didn’t see. If there was a fingerpost here I definitely didn’t see it. I was actually closely tracking with my GPS anticipating this, so only ran on for about 20 seconds past the turn, before coming back and using the GPS to precisely locate it.
The visibility stayed just as bad for the entirety of the climb. For all I knew James could be just 50 meters ahead (unlikely), and I would never know. The slope is a bit more gentle from the turn-off, even though the terrain is much more technical. So I tried to run as much as possible from here (and made it to the peak with about 98% running). There was still ice around here, so particular care had to be taken on stone slabbed sections, of which there are a lot! The poor visibility meant I could only see one or two slabs ahead at most. It also made the ice harder to spot and distinguish.
One advantage of running behind James was that he had made some nice holes in the deep snow that occasionally covered the path towards the top of the climb, so I tried my best to hp my way through using his trail. The climb always feels like it goes on forever, so I was glad to reach the top.
At the top the weather was much more uncomfortable, with notably much stronger winds that were blowing light precipitation at a high enough speed to make it seem very cold and wet. Now we had Spine weather!
A very large percentage of the descent of the top is on stone slabs. These were a huge potential danger, since it was all wet, with lots of intermittent ice covering. As was now standard procedure, I took all these erring very much on the side of safety and kept my poles out for the descent to use for stabilisation in case of slippage, and dark-pool ice investigative stabbing! Having said that, the nasty weather was very much encouraging me to get the hell of the exposed mountain as fast as I could. It was likely to be much less viscous down in the sheltered valleys.
Towards the bottom third of the descent, I started breaking out below the cloud base. There are also a few more non-slabby sections, which allowed me to pick up the speed a bit. The route then turns to double tack, which seems to have been recently resurfaced, so I was able to really ramp up the speed and get down to the village of Thwaite as fast as I could. I thought I might have been able to see a headtorch near Thwaite, but with all the lights in the village, I couldn’t be sure. The weather was indeed much more benign down in the valley.
After crossing a few fields heading out of Thwaite the route takes a short but very steep climb. As I started crossing the fields I could see a headtorch getting to the wall crossing at the top of that climb, so James was now two or three hundred meters ahead. That was closer than I was expecting, so that motivated me a bit and ensured that I enjoyed the next section (At CP2 James was saying he didn’t like it, but oddly enough I enjoy its awkward technicality). The twists and turns of the route meant he wasn’t in sight for long. The sight of me coming behind probably spurred him on to run a bit faster too!
After Keld the trail breaks out of the deeper valleys with a steady climb into more open moorland. I used to really dislike this moorland section in the past because it was so hard to pick a good line through the boggy swampy trail with any decent speed. But I must be getting more used to it, as it seemed to pass quicker, and I was able to run at a reasonably steady pace most of the time.
About two-thirds of the way across this section the trail dips down to a bridge across a river, with a climb out on the other side up around to the Tan Hill Inn (The highest pub in England). That made for longer sightlines, and I could see James’ torch looking back. The gap had opened up a bit for sure. Heading up the climb towards the Tan Hill Inn I went back up into the cloud base again, so visibility was back down. Not as bad as on Great Shunner Fell though. As a result, I only saw the lights of the Tan Hill Inn emerge from the gloom one or two hundred meters out at most. Normally it seems to float tantalisingly ahead for 10 or 15 minutes.
I reckoned I didn’t need to rest or get any food or hot drink at the Tan Hill Inn, as I was feeling perfectly fine. It would be useful to refill one water bottle though, as that would be enough to get me to CP3. There was a safety check station based here, and when I let them know that they brought me into a building beside the pub which the race seemed to have use off. It had the feel of a proper full aid station. I was actually glad to be away from the temptations of the main pub building (Warm fires, warm food, warm hospitality!)
James was in there, sitting down on a break having some food. I grabbed some of my homemade mince flapjacks as a treat, since I was briefly stopped. We chatted as one of the race staff refilled my water bottle for me. Apparently, Dougie had made another Nav error getting here near Keld, and wasn’t moving at his previous lightning speed, so he wasn’t too far ahead. Eugeni was reckoned to be 10km or so ahead, which was less than I thought he should be, given that we had slept in CP2 and he had not. The race was definitely interesting!
It was temptingly cosy here, and it would have been a great spot to take a rest. I knew that and made sure not to even sit down. I did change my mind and have a hot drink. The crew very helpfully made me a rapid coffee which I drank as fast as I could manage. The main purpose there was to get another caffeine hit to help get through the dark to CP3 with minimal sleep deprivation effects. I made my exit before James, saying that I’d see him soon since he was running faster.
The next section across open boggy moorland is one of my least favourite sections of the race, both because of the bog, and the fact the trail is so indistinct as to be practically non-existent. I usually rely on the GPS to micro-navigate my way along here. But this year was different, Having all the Challenge North runners tramp through before seemed to have made a big difference. As a result, I could actually discern the route (I wouldn’t glorify or exaggerate it by calling it an actual trail) through the bog without needing to use the GPS, even in the murky night.
After 10 or 15 minutes I could see I was being illuminated from behind by headtorch and soon enough I was running with James. We had a good 10-minute conversation before James ran on ahead at his faster speed. He wasn’t pushing ahead as fast as I was expecting though, which my competitive brain was happy with.
The boggy section is followed by a good half hours hardpack road section, where the gap on the ground widened considerably, but a lot of that was due to the much higher pace we were both able to run. Once we were back off-road onto trails the gap physically closed up again but was still the same in time terms. James seemed to slow a bit climbing towards the tunnel underpass which takes us under the A66 road. Going through the tunnel I always wonder if it would be a good place to have a nap.
To my surprise, I was a lot closer behind James than I expected after exiting the tunnel back out onto open moorland trail. Within a few minutes I caught up with him. I asked was he OK, and he said he was feeling a bit sleep deprived. So I endeavoured to make sure that we would have a good conversation as we ran along together to keep his brain as awake as possible. Of course, it was a nice thing in and of itself to get to know each other better by having a good conversation, but it was definitely beneficial to keeping the sleep monsters away (and they could be lurking to strike me at any time too).
As a result the time started passing more quickly as we moved along at a nice steady pace. I thought I caught sight of a headtorch ahead as we headed down towards the footbridge over the next river… we might be catching Dougie! But if he did see us coming behind it must have spurred him on a bit, as we couldn’t see any trace of him on the draggy climb up Knotts hill from the bridge.
Coming off the hill and heading down the boggy almost non-track down on Cotherstone Moor towards Clove Lodge I caught sight of Dougie’s torch again. He seemed to be a little offline, and we were gaining. James and I naved quite well on this section, with just one or two minor blips, and we were within one or two hundred meters as we hit the short section of road past the Lodge. We caught up with him at the lodge, as he had his map out and seemed to be trying to work out the route. So we said our hellos and pushed on from there as a threesome. More new conversation!
As a race things had seemed to have settled down now. It wasn’t said, but we were all getting along great so I had no doubt we work together to get to CP3 from here. Even though Eugeni was technically within touch, race-wise, he was way beyond any chance of seeing him. And we seemed to have a reasonable gap behind, with nobody in sight.
So the next hour or two passed along nicely distracted in conversation and 3-way route finding as we steadily made our way towards CP3 at Middleton. Coming over the last hill the view opens up as you start heading down hill. Again I was measuring progress by where the transition to dawn would happen. I definitely wanted to be in CP3 before then. And indeed there was no sign of any light in the sky, so I was happy with that.
We took the downhill at a relatively sedate pace. We were all feeling a bit tired and we were all planning to sleep in CP3. I was keeping an eye out for any torches, wondering would I catch sight of Eugeni heading out. However, the first headtorch we saw on the approach to the town was one of the CP staff who came out to meet us. and walk/run through the town with us.
As we were within a minute or so of reaching CP3 we met Eugeni heading in the opposite direction. As usual, he was bright and cheerful, and we all said hello with a bit of high-5ing. Eugeni had music playing on his portable speakers (and I could smell his cigarettes)… he definitely seemed to be going well and in a happy place.
Again, e aid station staff took amazingly good care of us right from the off. We were left into the lovely big main room and sat near the log fire. I was looking forward to the chicken curry here, and indeed it was delicious and went down a treat. I was saying to Dougie and James that we were 4th 5th and 6th here, and that I’d be perfectly happy with 6th as an end of the race result. They concurred. Damian was so far ahead as to be not even worth mentioning… he had the race win locked up. And we now knew Eugeni was ahead of us by however long we would be stopped here. Tiaan was probably a long way out in front of Eugeni by now. Still, the 3 of us together here must be looking interesting from a dot-watching point of view!
Similarly to the previous CP, I didn’t have anything too sugary before trying to get to sleep, despite being presented with a magnificent plate of gluten-free treats! I was first to head to the bunk beds to try to grab some sleep. I asked to be woken after an hour. I had no idea what the other two lads would do but again would likely have a big impact on how the race would develop from here. Little did I realise that more race drama than that would happen before I even exited CP3.
As ever, there was a very friendly cheery welcome into the CP. I sat down in the front porch area and knew I wouldn’t be going any further inside for anything. One other runner was here and seemed to be settling in for a bit of a longer break. I asked for a coffee (A little bit of a kick since it was now nighttime), and some of the rumoured Bananas and Custard, both of which arrived lovely and quickly. The Bananas and custard did indeed go down nicely!
I wasn’t going to need to change anything or get anything from my drop bag. The GPS hadn’t been used up to now, and it was still early days for my current headtorch battery (and I had a backup headtorch if I misjudged). All my gear was working perfectly, and I hadn’t touched any of the food I had carried from the start. If anything I could have unloaded some of that food here.
So all that was left to do was the mandatory gear check which was being implemented at every aid station. I’d guess I was no more than 10 or 15 minutes here, which was pretty quick. I was definitely making one overtake since the other runner had his shoes and socks off as I was getting my rucksack and gloves back on. Then up and out… that was good!
With great encouragement from the aid station crew I headed off up the steep steps and muddy tracks reversing the route in. On the muddy section, I was passed in the opposite direction by 4 or 5 runners, including the leading female, the ever-awesome Sabrina Verjee, who was clearly “flying”, as I said to her. Lot’s of hellos and good wishes all-round.
I hadn’t realised it at the time, but I had passed at least one other runner in the aid station (Simon) with my quick turnaround. Tiaan was the next runner ahead, and he was well out of sight. As I ran up the in-out road back the Pennine way proper a few other runners passed by heading into CP1. They were looking a bit more tired than I was currently feeling. I was quite happily running up the road getting going again.
I reckoned I was now in about 6th place, maybe 7th (In reality it was 6th). I was definitely enjoying the race more now and had settled into a nice comfort zone, in Spine terms! I enjoyed the next section, running the gently undulating section across the open ground of Clough head hill for a kilometre or two. That’s followed by a right turn down to a river crossing, followed by the inevitable climb back up. I had a few very quick looks back but didn’t see any sign of head torches immediately following.
The route pops out onto a very minor road which takes us towards Walshaw Dean reservoirs for a kilometre or two. I was able to switch the headtorch to minimum power for this section (I had managed it with the headtorch completely off in the summer). At its highest point, there is an opportunity to see the route behind for quite a few kilometres, and now I could see a trail of head torches heading across Clough head Hill behind me.
The trip through the valley and along past the reservoirs felt like I was making a nice steady pace with very low effort levels being expended. I was particularly happy that I was running all the little kicker climbs without feeling any muscular effort. Climbing out from the valley I again could look back quite a distance down the trail, and again saw a few torches in the distance following along. I wasn’t catching any sight of anyone ahead though. I was writing them off as out of sight – out of mind. I had no intention of upping my pace to attempt to chase them down, or indeed to try to grow the gap behind.
The couple of kilometres run to Ponden reservoir again seemed to pass quicker mentally than in previous years. I knew I was running slower if anything, but I had the route so mentally clear in my head that it seemed to be making everything a little bit quicker and more straightforward. I was feeling nicely alone at this point, with no sign of any people around, even when passing houses. Just the sound and sight of cars on roads in the valleys.
And that’s how things passed through most of the night. Good steady forward progress, with a great memory of the route, and no sign of any torches either in front or behind (I only occasionally checked behind though). There were several small diversions on this stage, but they were all diversions I had taken before and remembered all of those pretty much in their entirety as well.
The first interruption to that steady routine was arriving into Lothersdale. The local triathlon club had their traditional unofficial aid station set up here. It’s a very welcome sight! Even though I didn’t need to, I did stop for a quick social cup of coffee and took one or two sweets offered heading off a few minutes later. When I looked back at the hill down into Lothersdale I could see the head torches of two following runners. These 2 were getting very close and were obviously making good speed. They had broken away from the stream of runners that I had seen back after leaving CP1.
That woke me up a bit to concentrate on not letting my pace get too slack, but to keep it nice and steady heading up the hill, running the gentler sections where I could. That was the last I saw of the torches for a while, but now I knew that there were two runners not too far behind.
The diversion through Airton was slightly different to the Airton diversion used previously, so I did do a GPS check here to make sure I was following the correct route. It was quite remarkable how benign the weather had become. I had had no need to put on any extra layers overnight. In fact, I hadn’t changed a thing since the start. The rain was gone, and it was a nice clear night. It helped that none of the hills was too high, so mostly I was below the cloud base. Occasionally on the higher sections I did climb into the cloud, and when that happened the visibility was appalling. Down to a meter or two. So it was quite a contrast.
Unfortunately, Malham Cove was one of those spots where visibility was not great. It’s a spectacular landscape feature, but I could only see about 20 meters ahead as I crossed under its base. The stone stepped climb up from there is always a real character test though. Speed seems to go through the floor as effort goes through the roof. I could only presume that this would be the same for most of the other runners. It seemed likes a good ten minutes of solid non-stop steep step climbing, maximising the use of my poles to get power from everywhere I could.
Topping out of the climb I reached the amazing limestone pavement at the top of the cove. This is always tricky to find the past path through, as large parts of the rock formation have deep fissures running through in multiple directions. One misstep could easily result in a nasty injury. To add to the fun the rock itself was wet, so was quite slippy. Of course, it was still dark, with much-reduced visibility in the low cloud.
I worked my through it quite well, erring towards the higher side well away from the serious danger of the cliff edge. It was a relief to hit the centre of Ing Scar (valley) for one of my favourite sections to run. Soon the tough climbing returned with another steep rocky stepped climb, before another flat section taking me to the road just before Malham Tarn (Lake).
Just like the previous sunset, I was judging my performance against previous years on where I would start to get the sunrise. I reckoned I was an hour or so behind with the sunset. My target here was to get out of CP 1.5 checkpoint at Malham Tarn before dawn, It was still fully dark at this point, so I was happy with that. Visibility was back to being absolutely appalling though. I could only see a few meters ahead at most. This meant I was making occasional GPS checks here, just to be sure, where I normally wouldn’t bother.
The trail from the road, past the lake, to the gravel into CP1.5 can be a little hard to find at the best of times but required particularly high levels of concentration to follow in this visibility. But I did well and managed to hold the track all the way to the obvious gravel road. I couldn#t even see the lake, even though I could hear the water splashing.
It was still dark getting into CP1.5, so I was happy to have hit my timing targets. I must have overall made up some time since the previous evening’s dusk, despite the fact that I hadn’t been pushing hard to do so, but was still running comfortably.
As ever, the checkpoint crew were extremely welcoming and helpful. I had a mug of coffee here but had the decline the offer of mince pies since they weren’t gluten-free (damn it!). I had some of my own homemade mince flavoured flapjacks instead. I also took a refill of one of my water bottles (The second one, three-quarter filled with pineapple juice, had hardly been touched since the start of the race). So far I had only eaten one millionaire’s shortbread bar whilst running, so most of my food supplies were untouched. Even that I only ate for a psychological boost after the long flat road run to Gargrave. I still had not felt hungry or thirsty at any point.
I also got an update as to what was going on in the race. As expected Damian and Kim were miles ahead, practically in a different race. Tiaan had worked his way through up to Dougie. Eugenie wasn’t as far ahead as I expected, making his way up Fountain’s Fell. The two head torches I had seen behind me belonged to James Leavesley and Sabrina, who were not far away from arriving at CP1.5 themselves. Sabrina was definitely flying along, and clearly dominating the female race. I asked howAnna Troupe was doing, as expected her to be right up there as well, but it turned out she had had to pull out early in the race with an injury. I should have had James in my pre-race blog as a race contender, as he had been 2nd male in the summer Spine, but I hadn’t twigged that from looking at the start list.
James duly arrived in as I was just getting set to leave. We had a quick chat and said I’d see him soon as I headed out the door (He was moving faster than me since he had clearly made up ground since I had left CP1).
It was still dark leaving CP1, so I was definitely happy that I had hit my broad timing target to get to this point. Within a few minutes, the sky was noticeably beginning to lighten, and within about 20 minutes I no longer needed the light from my headtorch. I was happy to see that the torch battery had lasted a full January night without issue.
On the early stages of the climb up fountains fell I found I was able to run the sections that I often find borderline run/walk. About halfway up I came upon a pair of Challenger runners, the first ones I had met. We all wished each other well as I passed. That was a little later than usual for meeting a challenger runner, so they must have been doing quite well. Nearing the top of the climb I glanced back and could see a solo runner a few hundred meters behind. James was closing in on the climb for sure.
The descent off fountains fell is long and technical. Quite a fun descent in lots of ways. But there were still patches of snow and ice around on the higher sections, so I was very much erring on the side of caution. Towards the bottom, it was more wet and muddy, so I was still cautious here. I made it to the road at the end of the descent without falling, which was definitely a good thing under the circumstances.
The Kilometer or two of road running here always seems longer than reality. Pen-y-Ghent loomed above and was clearing slowly from the low cloud cover. I reckoned I could see a few people making their way up the steep track on its flanks.
I passed two more Challenger runners just after the turnoff from the road. They were settled down by the side of the trail having a brew. I was a little envious of their more relaxed touring approach, as I ploughed on, beginning the ascent towards and up Pen-y-Ghent. Again I found I was able to run the borderline run/walk sections here, but made sure to switch to pole powered marching for the steeper bits.
And soon enough the steeper bits took me to the base of the really really steep bits… the climb up Pen-Y-Ghent itself. There was a lot of thawing compacted snow covering the early path, so kept just off the edge of that. It’s a very “airy” climb from here, and not somewhere where you want to lose control, as you could easily fall hundreds of metres down fairly steep rocky ground. So I wasn’t going to take any chances if there were icy patches.
Thankfully there wasn’t any noticeable problem with slippy ice, and certainly no verglass, which is what I was most dreading encountering. The biggest issue here was the standard one… it was a very steep slope which required lots of effort, and sometimes the use of all four limbs to get up. A look back down showed that James seemed to getting closer again now that we were on a big climb.
After the super steep climb it’s not all over! It’s followed by walk/run drag up big stone slabs, which were still a little slippy. I finally crossed the wall at the peak, passing another Challenger runner who was having a conversation with someone on his phone (at least I hope there was someone else on the conversation!). Now for the long descent, a complete switch of mindset and muscles.
The first part of the descent is very steep and is now a constructed stone stepped path. As is now standard, I took things very controlled with the emphasis on safety rather than speed. As it flattened out a bit I allowed the slope to pull me down at a faster speed, but still nowhere near all-out speed. It would be easy to run this entire descent fast and hard, but that could easily result in thrashed leg muscles over the longer term which I would pay for later in the race.
The descent does a big near 180-degree turn at one point, so I looked back up the trail to see another runner not too far behind. I was guessing that was more than likely James, rater than the Challenger runner. A few more minutes later the descent slope eases down enough that it becomes possible to optimise for speed rather than controlling the descent, so I allowed myself to run at a fast “drift” pace. A glance back showed a second runner coming off the mountain,. They looked small (as opposed to far away) so I was thinking that it was probably Sabrina. The two behind were definitely closing. It was only a matter of how long before they would both overhaul me.
There were some spectators along the trail just after the left turn towards Horton, where greetings were exchanged, along with the bonus of encouragement in Irish (But my brain lacked the power to respond in kind)! The path remains a good unable slope on relatively good ground all the way down towards Horton, so I kept up the speed as best I could.
Before Horton we had an in-an-out visit to a safety check location, which takes a few minutes to run. At the safety check, I let them know all was good and took up the offer of a water bottle refill (which I reckoned would take me all the way to CP2 without issue). I think it was here that I learned that Kim Collison had dropped from the race up ahead. That was a bit of a surprise. I guessed it must have been an injury of some kind. Whatever it was he hadn’t made it past CP2. So now Damian must be way way out in front on his own, comfortably winning the race, with the rest of us all up one position.
As I headed out I was immediately passed by James heading in… he was only just behind. He was his usual happy cheerful self, and I again told him I would see him soon! Not long afterwards I crossed paths with Sabrina as she was heading down the in-out leg towards the safety check. She also seemed to be in great form, and I again told her she was flying. We agreed we would have a nice chat soon enough.
I used to think the run out of Horton was quite tortuous. But I’ve gotten much more familiar with it over the years, so know what to expect. I was also feeling in relatively good condition this year and was completely comfortable in terms of temperature, thirst and hunger. Just the minor matter of having been running for over 24 hours making me a little tired, but definitely no worse than usual. So I wasn’t able to run with the speed I did in the summer but was still making OK progress. I thought that I was slow enough that James and Sabrina would catch up with me any minute.
The weather by now was notably benign. Not at all “Spiney”. It wasn’t exactly tropical, but whatever wind that was around was light to moderate at worst, it wasn’t raining, and the cloud base had lifted so that the air was clear all around. Basically, there was nothing to notice, which was a very unusual situation in this race. It was easy to run along comfortably without needing to get any additional gear out from my backpack.
I passed a few more Challenger runners along this section, but to my surprise, I was still not seeing either James or Sabrina, despite my distinctly average at best pacing. The route takes a 90-degree turn near “snake holes”, where I could look back and see James was still running behind in the distance. He had closed the gap a little, but it was still roughly the same as when we were near the safety check.
After the river crossing at Ling Gill Bridge, the route kicks up to the climb up towards Cam High Road. This is a rocky double track road. After marching the initial climb I lurched myself forward into a slow run up the hill. I surprised myself by being able to maintain the run through most of the little steeper kicks.
The route then turns onto Cam High Road itself. Whilst it is a long draggy climb, in reality it is not too steep, being more road than trail. Again I found I was able to run nearly all of this, which is much better than what I was expecting. There was definitely a slight tailwind to help, but I’ve known it to be a lot stronger in the past. If anything I seemed to be opening the gap on James here. I could see no sign of Sabrina, which was odd.
More Challenger runners were passed as the loose rocky surface changed to smooth tarmac for a while, making running a little easier. However, there was snow and icy compacted snow scattered here and there along the climb, just to keep things interesting.
After the left turn onto West Cam Road it was back to dirt track running, but with much more snow to contend with. Some 4WD vehicles seem to have been through recently though, as they had ploughed in two trenches through the snow that was easier to run in. The views were excellent along here and I could see the full vista of the route ahead, and the huge valley dropping away to my left. My motivation now was to try to hold the gap behind to James all the way to CP2, which was getting ever closer. That motivation kept me running at a nice steady pace.
Eventually, I reached the turn-off to the trail which was essentially the start of the descent towards CP2 in Hawes. The gap appeared to be holding up. There was much less snow now, and as the trail started to descend it was back to being wet and mucky. There’s always something to keep you on your toes in this race. It was now quite a bright afternoon, so I was enjoying the descending (if not exactly flying it), and taking the occasional look around to take in all the views, and look towards the big climb ahead which lay in wait after CP2.
The descent went nice and smoothly, with no falls and a good controlled pace. I was definitely tiring as I was approaching Hawes. I had a dilemma in my mind though. I was thinking that if I got to Hawes before 2pm I would definitely leave without sleeping and try to make it to CP3. If it was after 4 then I would definitely grab an hour’s nap here, as I could feel some sleep tiredness, and didn’t want to end up suffering from bad sleep deprivation heading for CP3.
In the early stages of running through Hawes one of the race volunteers came out to meet me at the end of her own training run. I asked her the time, and, of course, I was in the middle of the ambiguous zone of my own decision-making process. hmmmm… I was going to have to work this out on feel. Given how close the race situation was it could have a big impact either way (right or wrong decision).
There was lots of encouragement from spectators and Challenger finishers running through Hawes main street, but I would say my pace was tieing up as my mind was already in the aid station! With one last haul up a small hill, my body finally got there as well. As usual, there was a great greeting from the aid station staff, and they checked what they could get for me. I let them know I was thinking of keeping my gear on, so would stay in the porch as I had some food and drink.
I got an update on the race situation. Eugeni was the next runner ahead, and he had already left, but not too long ago. I didn’t need to be told, but it was clear that no one ahead had stopped for sleep here. James wasn’t too far behind, and there was a reasonable gap to two runners further behind (maybe an hour or so), including the ever consistent Simon. The big surprise news was that Sabrina had pulled out. That was a big surprise as she was looking so strong when I saw her only a few hours ago. I again guessed that it must be some kind of injury. Debbie Martin Consani had now become the leading female as a result. It was disappointing that we were not going to have our mid-race chat.
As I sat down in the porch I tried to conduct a little self-examination of my tiredness by closing my eyes for a bit to see how I felt. I was still not 100% definitive on the correct decision. But eventually, I decided that I would err on the side of comfort over out and out racing and take a one hour sleep. I apologised to the aid station staff as I cancelled my request for coffee and coke as a result. This was my first big decision of the race. I’d soon see how it would play out.
Everything had managed to go so well up to the point of simply lying in the bed trying to get to sleep. It was a classic pre-race attempt at sleep. I just couldn’t seem to get myself to go to sleep. It felt like hours were passing by with just useless thoughts drifting by. But eventually I was woken by others stirring around the hostel, before finally getting up to silence my own alarm.
It seemed I had got the preparations the night before correct, so it didn’t take long to get everything ready and head out the door, dragging my gear bag to be deposited with the Spine team as my re-supply bag. A fully Spine-runner loaded hostel mini-bus took us on the short (by bus) trip to the village hall in Edale, with plenty of people milling around outside. Inside to a very efficient process of having the race tracker attached to our rucksacks, along with another nice, but quick, chat with the busy James Thurlow, lord and master of OpenTracking.
All that went far too efficiently, as there were nearly three-quarters of an hour left to the race start, all tasks were complete, and there was no hanging around a crowded indoor hall in these covid times. So I joined the other runners outside and had a few pre-race chats. The last decision to be made was whether to don waterproof leggings from the start or not. The weather made it a 50/50 call. But a brief light shower pushed me into the decision to put them on.
With 10 minutes to go, we were all encouraged to make our way to the actual start line in the next-door field. Walking there I finally met Damian Hall and we chatted away walking to the field. At the start line Eugeni soon arrived and we all greeted each other with smiles all-round. We had a brief speech from the race starter, and then the countdown.. and we’re off!
This seemed like a very speedy start indeed. I got up to a pace I was happy with but was not going to exceed. I was getting overtaken by quite a number of people. Jaysus, old age must really be kicking in here. Every other previous Spine I would have been at the front or just off it. Now there seemed to be 30 or 40 people in front of me already. No doubt some of them are going out way too fast, but still!
A mile or so up the road we turn off onto the trail which is the start of the Pennine way proper. By now my position has stabilised (maybe one or two positions taken back). I happily just sit in and let the group get us through the first few gates on the trail. There is enough moisture in the air to make me glad that I have full waterproof cover on.
I start picking off people here and there as the ground undulates. I seem to pass quite a few on the descents. But any of the hot-shot speedy runners I would know seem to be already out of sight. Running along the broadly flat double-track trail towards the first big climb, Jacob’s Ladder, I seemed to have settled into a small group of runners.
Jacob’s ladder arrives with a bang! In an instant, the pace drops from steady running to a determined pole-powered march up the steep stone steps. The group was pretty much holding together. It was feeling properly winterishly spiny now for sure. I deliberately didn’t try to run any of the steep sections (which is most of Jacob’s ladder) but kept myself to a “power march” using my walking poles to maximum effect. That was enough for me to keep myself at the front of the mini-group most of the time.
About halfway up I had a look up to see if any of the leading runners were still in sight. I could see one runner at the top of the visible track under the cloud base running along at a good clip. I had definitely lost count of my position but knew there were at least 5 or 6 runners who had sped away out of sight.
Approaching the plateau of Kinder Scout the steepness eases off, so I was able to get running again. The ground conditions were interesting, with occasional patches of snow and ice. With plenty of rock around, I knew I couldn’t be too reckless with my running speed. One slip on an icy rock could easily be race ending. I was happy to tuck in behind another runner for the long run along the edge of the plateau to the Kinder Downfall stream crossing.
The crossing is often an indicator of how bad conditions were. I can clearly remember the amazing site of the “upfall” on my fist spine when the waterfall was being blown back upwards by the strength of the wind. But it proved to be a surprisingly easy crossing this time. The water level seemed normal, and it was easy to cross without totally dunking my feet in (waterproof shoes were enough to keep comfy).
I was a bit slow climbing out from the crossing, and as a result 5 or 6 runners went streaming past. This was quite a group! I had seen that Jim Mann had made a big navigational error here the day before when he was leading out the Challenger race, so I was paying particular attention not to make a similar mistake (there is no hiding your mistakes with the merciless watch of the trackers!). A walker heading in the opposite direction called out my position as being 15th at this point. That sounded about right.
But man, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been this far back at this point in the race. Old age is definitely kicking in here. I knew that some runners here were definitely heading out too fast for their own good, but 15th is a long way back. The first thing I’m going to have to aim for is to get a top 10 finish, it would seem. I was still going to stick to my steady pace though. There’s far more to lose than gain by going too fast at this point in the race.
I very very carefully picked my way down the short steep rocky descent off the plateau and made up one or two places on the “one last hill” climb to Mill Hill. From there it is a long broadly flat run for a few kilometres to Snake Pass, all on stone slabs. The slabs were potentially treacherous, It was wet, which makes the slabs slippy at the best of times, but there were also ice pockets here and there on the slabs. As a result, I took a small bit of time to ensure that I could run at a comfortable pace without too much risk.
Everyone was pretty much holding position on this section, with just one runner running a little faster, but then stopping to take the occasional photo with his phone before rejoining the track. I did slowly pull away from the runners behind me, but within the last kilometre before reaching the road at Snake Pass I was finally undermined by ice on a slab and went flying to the ground. I took a couple of seconds to get myself back up and get back to my steady running pace. It was a little reminder of the hazards on the route.
There were a few more back and forths on the good unable section of trail (Devil’s Dyke) after Snake Pass as the first round of nature breaks kicked in! The trail soon deteriorated to mud and river, but at least we mostly had shelter from the wind as we headed up to Bleaklow. We were definitely working together through this section, as even micro-navigation is interesting here with the waterlogged ground giving plenty of opportunities to take a miss-step into deep water or bog. And indeed I did manage to go up to my knees in muddy bog at one point.
Heading off Bleaklow is the start of the first long descent (with a few kicker climbs along the way). Almost immediately I had overtaken all bar one runner who I could see in front of me (there were still plenty far out of sight). Visibility wasn’t great here, as the cloud base was quite low, so I could probably only see about 50 meters in front. I knew where the good lines were here, and overall was moving at least as fast as anyone else around.
We started to see one or two runners in much skimpier gear coming in the opposite direction. These were runners in the Tigger race. For the rest of the descent, we were meeting them here and there. Almost everyone in both races was being polite and friendly, making sure to give enough space not to run into each other.
Again, I was keeping things steady and making sure not to go thundering down any descents, which I knew could result in long thrashed muscles later in the race. And again I was very carefully picking my way through any steep sections so as to minimise the chances of a catastrophic fall. By now we were below the cloud base again, and the views had opened up. I wasn’t noticing the weather, so it can’t have been too wet, but it definitely wasn’t dry either!
Two runners ahead had picked up a cup of tea from the mountain rescue crew stationed at Torside reservoir, and as a result, they lost momentum so I had passed them by the end of the damn crossing. From there it was back to climbing again. The traffic worked in my favour crossing the busy road not long afterwards, which created a small gap on the bunch behind. I couldn’t see any runners ahead, so the was definitely a big enough gap in front.
I kept things nice and cruisy for the undulating gentle climb that followed before we head the relatively sharp climb head to Laddow Rocks. It was back to pole powered determined marching up this relatively steep section. I could see 2 runners ahead near the top of the climb as I was starting my ascent. I was able to convert the march to a gentle run as the ground levelled out. The small gentle descent that followed was pretty technical as it was all so wet and muddy, but I found by sticking to what was now a river channel I could get a more reliable grip, so made what I considered reasonable speed. When I looked back after a bit of an acute turn after a small river crossing I could see that there were about 6 or 7 runners following right behind me,
It’s a climb to Black Hill from here, with quite a lot of it on slabs. However there are 3 river crossings to be negotiated first, and the water was most definitely “up”. When I came to the first one it looked like that whatever stepping stones that were there were about a foot underwater. After a very quick check that there was no obvious alternative I just went for it and waded straight across, with a similar process a minute later for the next crossing. I knew that the final crossing in this set was the deepest, but I also knew that a few feet upriver it was narrow enough to jump, which was definitely the option I took!
A steady slow running pace took me to the top of Black Hill, where the weather felt notably more exposed, being back into the mist above the cloud base again. Coming off Black Hill and heading for the A635 road crossing there are two more stream crossings. The Dean Clough crossing can get very tricky in flood, and there had been a marked diversion around it the day before for the Challenger race, which a lot of racers had missed. I kept a keen eye out at the diversion start point, but it was not marked.
So Dean Clough it is! It’s a long fairly straight slowly climbing slabbed run towards the road. One runner passed me as we started the descent down to the Den Clough crossing and sped on. As expected the crossing was interesting, with plenty of water running in the river. Again I just went for it shot across, using the poles carefully for added support.
As usual, there was another rescue team at the road crossing. I didn’t need to stop for anything so carried on after saying hello. Some of the runners behind seemed to drop off a bit around here. It was definitely possible that some runners were feeling the effect of the enthusiastic start.
Another nature break just after the start of the long descent past the Wessenden reservoirs let 3 or 4 runners back past me again. Things really were quite clustered. But once I got going again I found I was descending a little faster than them and was able to close the gaps right up. All this back and forth was keeping me in a race-focused mode, and giving me the motivation to keep slogging on to hold or gain positions.
The climb up after that towards Black moss resulted in a little more back and forth, but the net effect was I was running gentler uphill sections where the others nearby were walking them, so every now and again I would make an overtake.
At the crossing of the A62 road there was another (traditional) mountain rescue point where they had a mini aid station. Again I didn’t need to stop, so said hello and carried on. I was definitely taking less liquids on board than usual, as I hadn’t stopped for any so far, and my bottles were pretty much untouched since the start. This was definitely more lean running than usual. But I wasn’t in the least bit thirsty or uncomfortable. I hadn’t had a bit to eat either, but that was a lot more expected.
From there it was on the much more open exposed track along Standedge. I usually don’t really like this section, but I was much more relaxed about it this year. The journey seemed to be passing along quicker. In the past, it has sometimes seemed very draggy and neverending, but this time I was happy that I was flowing along and steadily making ground. It’s nice undulating territory with nothing too steep, so I was pretty much running everything at a steady relaxed pace.
The light was starting to fade a bit, so I began making calculations with myself about where I would run out of light. I would use the point at which I needed to break out the headtorch as a gauge as to how I was doing compared to previous races, although mentally trying to work which previous dusk around here was the summer Spine was making it a more taxing calculation than it should have been. But it did appear that I was likely to come up short of Stoodley Pike, which is where I reckoned it would have been in the past.
I passed by Nicky’s Bar (a food van) without dropping pace, and carried on over the pedestrian bridge crossing the most urban part of the race… the M62 motorway. The lights on the cars were on and looking brights, so daylight was definitely fading. A nice spectator was on the far side of the bridge and was offering runners a piece of chocolate orange. That sounded nice, so I took a piece just for the taste. Soon after I passed another runner who had slowed right down. I could see one more runner climbing a few hundred meters ahead. I think it was Simon Gfeller in front, and Lloyd Biddell just behind me now, with nobody else in sight.
Lloyd caught up as we made our way to the White House pub, where another mountain rescue station was positioned. He stopped there for water, and I carried on with the runner ahead within sight. The next section is a long flat run past Walrland reservoir, which makes for relatively fast running, but on relatively dull easy ground. It also made for long sightlines. About halfway along here I finally needed to whip out my headtorch for visibility… it seemed a bit early, but it was definitely time. I could see the rear red light and headtorch beam of a runner a few hundred meters in front, and could see the headtorch of the runner chasing behind.
By the time we reached Stoodley Pike Lloyd was back running with me. And we were working together a bit, with the occasional bit of conversation. We had a definite conversation going as we climbed out from the crossing of the Hebden Bridge road. Again I was happy to be climbing steadily at a nice relaxed pace, whereas Lloyd reckoned he was a lot more stretched. This point feels very much like the beginning of the end of “leg 1” as CP1, the first aid station was getting close.
I was very careful not to take a slide on the grassy descent down towards the last river crossing on this leg. I caught the occasional sight of one head torch ahead. Lloyd was happy with the cautious approach as well.
When we climbed out and reached the road where we would turn to take an “out and back” trip off the Pennine Way down to CP1 there were a pair of local runners on the road who joined us. They were able to update me on what was going on in the race. It was no surprise to learn that Damian was way out in front. However, he had Kim with him. No surprise either that Dougie was also ahead, as was Eugenie. I was surprised to hear that I had just missed seeing Eugenie heading back out. So he wasn’t too far in front of me. I was delighted to hear that I was in about 7th or 8th position, so I had managed to work my way into the top 10 at this point. Now I would have to hold it!
Lloyd dropped off during all of this, and I wouldn’t see him again. One other runner passed me heading outwards just I was on the tricky mucky final descent into CP1. That must have been Tiaan Erwee. He was a runner I hadn’t noticed in the race roster, but looking back in retrospect he was one to watch, with a 4th place finish from the Tour De Geant under his belt.
I had a simple plan for this aid station… get in and out with minimum fuss and time. Although the local runners had told me that they were serving bananas and custard here, which sounded ideal and delicious! But I was definitely switched to race mode for the aid station, especially now that I was in the top 10 with other runners in close proximity.
The start of 20222 feels very like the start of 2021 in our Covid world. There is one significant difference in my little corner of the world though. This year the winter edition of the Spine Race is going ahead, having had to be postponed last year. I have the funny mixture of excitement and trepidation heading for this one.
As ever, the Spine seems to be attracting inclement weather. After the mildest new year’s day on record in the UK, temperatures have plunged, and it is currently snowing in the start village of Edale as I write this. So this has the look of being a proper winter Spine race that should live up to its justified reputation of being the most Brutal race in the UK, and probably one of the tougher ones in the world. Luckily my sponsors Columbia ensure that I have the best gear to cope with the conditions (One of my little secrets is that I’m a blue skies and sunshine person… without the great gear I’d really suffer in the Spine)
As usual, the course generally follows the length of the Pennine away, from Edale in the Peak district of England up to Kirk Yetholm over the Scottish border, covering over 400km of non-stop racing. There are a few minor diversions in place this year, along with 2 major ones due to extensive damage to forestry caused by this winter’s Storm Arwen. One of the diversion necessities a bus transfer between CP 5 in Bellingham and the start of the Cheviot Hills. So overall the course is slightly shorter than usual.
The field entered this year looks like it is the strongest ever, although it’s hard to nail down exactly who is entered given a long series of changes thanks to Covid and the various restrictions imposed as a result.
In the Female race, it looks like Clare Bannworth, the recent winner of the 360 Challenge in La Gomera, has not been able to make it to the race due to French travel restrictions. However, the two fastest female Pennine way runners are very much still on the list. These are Sabrina Verjee and Anna Troup. Both of those are well capable of winning, and I couldn’t hazard a guess which one is likely to win. Both have held the summer Spine record and think both have held the overall Pennine Way record. They are both well able for winter conditions as well. GB international 24 hour runner Debbie Martin-Consani is another obvious top-class runner in the field.
The Male field also brings a collection of record holders and past winners. For me, the stand-out favourite is Damian Hall. I rank him as the top UK ultrarunner, given his range of results in competitive international races, along with a great collection of FKTs, including the record for running the Pennine Way. The last time Damian raced the Spine I actually managed to get the edge over him, but he is considerably faster now (and I’m older and slower!).
The nest two names that stand out are Kim Collison and Douglas Zinas. They have both proven their speed at shorter distances, including wins at the Cheviot Goat and the Lakes in a Day for Kim, and a Spine Challenger win for Douggie. I think this will be new distance territory for both of them, but I expect them to do well.
Eugeni is also returning, having received a late entry, fresh from his speedy run around the La Gomera 360. He was a lot faster than me there and overtook me several times (Of course the fact that he overtook me several times also indicates the vagaries of multi-day ultrarunning). There are many other familiar past competitors entered, including Tom Hollins, a previous winner of the race, and Simon Gfeller who is always close to the front of the field I would not be at all surprised if all of those runners make it to Kirk Yetholm before I do.
There are one or two other Irish runners entered as well this year. I can see Noel O’Leary’s name on the list. If that is my old adventure racing pal then he should be well up the field. The winter conditions in the Spine will suit him nicely, and he doesn’t lack speed endurance. Liam Vines is also entered for the first time. Another man who should see the Spine as T-shirt weather! I’d also expect to see Liam finish well.
No doubt there are people entered who will be competitive that I am not familiar with, or possibly who are notion any of the multiple contradictory lists of race rosters.
My own form coming into the race is only so-so. I had a great year overall last year, the highlight of which was my record win in the Summer Spine. I’m trying not to think about the Summer Spine conditions at the moment! But I had slowed by the end of the year and had to take a break after my outing in the La Gomera 360 Challenge. So I’ve recently returned to fullish training. I’m also noting that I seem to be running slower times for my standard effort levels in training. The ageing process seems to be having its inevitable effect.
However, it is the Spine race, and anything can happen! I’ll be heading out to be as competitive as my form and fitness allows, and to enjoy being immersed in the race. I’d be following avidly anyway, so I might as well be there! It’s always interesting. The Spine also has a great atmosphere. I’ll be looking forward to renewing old acquaintances amongst racers, staff, helpers and followers!
As usual, the best thing about the Spine is the great live tracking which can be followed at https://live.opentracking.co.uk/spinerace22/. Hopefully Richard will get some time to provide a bit of commentary on my Facebook page. The race usually posts some daily race videos which give a good flavour of reality on the ground.
Twice before I have entered the Trans Gran Canaria 360 and not made it to the start line. An entry to the Barkley marathons kicked it out the first time, and the in-and-out covid induced travel restrictions made it impossible to get to earlier this year. This year the race has been renamed to reflect the fact that it is now standalone, independently timed from the main Trans Gran Canaria race, and can be located anywhere in the Canary Islands.
This winter’s event is happening on the island of La Gomera, off Tenerife. I’ve seen the island on many occasions, have heard it’s a super walking/running destination, but have never been there. So with a multi-day nonstop race being organised there right in an empty section of the race calendar (since the demise of the UTMB Oman) I jumped at the chance to get a little winter sunrun.
The race starts on the morning of Wednesday 24th November. It is said to be about 214 kilometers in length, but with a pretty big height gain and loss of more than 12,000 meters. The course is a big loops of the island, diving up and down through multiple big valleys along the way.
I’m racing mainly to enjoy myself and see the best of La Gomera. I really like the Canary Islands, and have found that they tend to make for fantastic locations for trail running (and mountain biking, and road biking), particularly the more mountainous ones. La Gomera looks like it is one big main lump of a mountain (A volcano of course, this being the Canaries), with lots of deep valleys cut into it. I reckon it is likely to be a very technical race.
There are 4 big aid stations, where we can have drop bags placed (seperate drop bags for each one), along with the opportunity to pick up race supplied food and drink, have a sleep, or even a shower. Apart from that we’re on our own for the event, although we can use any shops we come across (I doubt that will happen too much). Given the winter sun temperatures that could make hydration a critical factor to get right.
There isn’t a huge number of entrants. It’s closer to the spine race rather than the likes of the UTMB in that regard. However it appears to be quite a top heavy field. There are at least 2 past winners of the race entered, including multiple winner Papi Luca. My old spine race rival Eugeni is entered. This is more his territory though, and his better natural speed should give him a big advantage. He was 3rd last year. Also entered is the best over 50 trail runner in the world in my opinion, Patrick Bohard. He is still freakishly fast for his age, and well capable of winning the race outright. He’s a past winner of the TDS and TDG. No weaknesses there! And those are just the obvious names I recognised. So I don’t think I’ll be contending for the podium here.
That’s actually quite nice in a way, as I feel absolutely no pressure to run hard from the off, so I’ll spend the race running at my own pace, and see what happens from there. With Patrick Bohard entered I have very little chance of an age category win either.
That’s probably also a good thing, since I can definitely feel the year’s racing efforts. Recovery was never a problem for me, but as I get older I’m noticing that races are taking more out of me. The UTMB in particular gave me a good physical beating! So I haven’t been training too hard in the lead up to this. Quite the opposite really. I’ve eased my training volume right back and my runs are mostly much slower. I have introduced more speedwork though, in an attempt to train my biggest weakness, especially as the years go by with the obvious aging affects kicking in.
The really good news about this race is it does have live tracking. All the racers will be issued trackers in addition to having our own GPS devices as part of the mandatory kit.
The mandatory kit list doesn’t look too odious and mostly covers off the basics for self-navigated multi-day racing in relatively benign weather. The northern side of the island is potentially cooler and wetter, so I won’t be skimping on the mandatory waterproof layers. I’ve got some very nice new Columbia trail running shoes which will hopefully protect my feet from getting too beaten up. They’ve had one outing in the 80km Wicklow eco Trail race, where they felt fantastic. I also have a Raidlight 30 litre racing rucksack making its race debut for me. I’ve always liked the look of those, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.
As well as the GPS we’ll also be issued with race maps and a race guidebook. So we should definitely have enough that getting lost will be entirely down to the racers. As an unmarked race, on what I’m guessing will be not particularly well travelled trails, the potential is definitely still there for fun and games though. And with Eugeni in the race that potential is only increased (last year he followed Papa luca, a multiple winner of the race, for most of the event, before out sprinting him near the finish).
The race website is here. There are links to the entrants list, and to the race regulations, which includes the mandatory gear list. Hopefully the link to the live tracking will pop there before the race starts!
I’m currently in Chamonix preparing for the most competitive ultra trail race in the world… the UTMB. If my ageing brain has got it right, this will be my 8th time to give this race a go. The record so far is 3 finishes, 3 DNFs, followed by a return to finishing, in that unusual sequence.
The UTMB is now a massive festival of trail running organised around the original 170km race. Helen, my wife, took part in, and successfully completed the OCC 58km race yesterday. Multiple friends of min were caught up in the TDS, the gnarly 140km race, where unfortunately an experienced Czech runner fell to his death. This was the first fatality in the history of the UTMB races.
The UTMB itself is looking like it will be another phenomenal race this year, with the deepest elite field assembled this year. In the men’s race the list of elite runners spans multiple pages. At the top of the pile is the very interesting showdown between Jim Walmsley, who is probably the fastest runner in the race, having won the western states this year, and come with a sliver of breaking the 100lm world record, versus Francois D’Haene who is probably the best mountain ultrarunner in the race, having won Hardrock this year. There are many other runners with the potential to win as well, including a few past winners.
If anything the female race is even more interesting. Again the duel between the top two ranked runners is a fantastic prospect. Courtney Dauwater is one of the best known and most popular ultra runners on the planet. She is a phenomenally talented runner across multiple sub-genres of ultrarunning, and is the defending champion. Beth Pascal is running at her best ever at the moment. She had a dominant victory in the western states to truly announce herself onto the world stage. But her breaking of the Bob Graham round record had already shown just how good a runner she has become. I was lucky enough to witness one of Beth’s early career victories back in my first Spine race, where she literally stormed to the win by miles. Beth is currently taking a career break from being a practising doctor to concentrate on trail running. Again, this has the potential to be a great duel. My heart is backing Beth here, and so is my head!
I won’t be anywhere near threatening the head of the race. My first target is to add to my finish list rather than DNF list. My PB here is 24:44, but that was quite a few years ago and now that I’m in the over 50s category (V2 in UTMB terms) I probably lack my former speed to do that sort of time. I did manage around 27 hours two years ago, so I’m hoping to replicate something in that ballpark. Of course, weather and ground conditions will also influence timings.
I’ll be targeting to do as well as I can in my V2 category. According to the ITRA rankings I’m ranked number 5 in this race, which gives me a good shot at getting near the V2 podium. Last year’s winner (by miles) is back, and he is only ranked number 2. The number one ranked runner is a very impressive multiple winner of the fabulous Tour De Geant race. So no lack of depth of talent in this category either.
There is also good depth to the Irish contingent in the UTMB. This will be the first go at the UTMB for some great upcoming Irish runners, including my fellow Columbia athletes Gavin Byrne and Brian Buckley (who is also a fellow Corkonian). They’re both superb runners and should be in front of me if they have good days. Kerryman Joe O’leary has been putting in some interesting mountain running FKTs in the last year. Fellow Corkonian Brian Hutchinson has been on an impressive improvement curve and could do very well indeed this year if he has a good day out. I’ll be aiming to focus on my own race (and V2 race), and let the internal Irish race fall however it does.