As usual, the wakeup call felt like I was being dragged away from the briefest of brief moments in nirvana and slapped back into harsh reality to a world of darkness and pain (that bit is close to the truth!). I had to get into action quickly now. After spending a day building a one hour lead it would the easiest thing in the world to throw it all away with a lethargic approach to exiting this aid station. The first job was to get on new shoes and socks, and make sure I was happy that the rest of my gear was good to go. I also had to make sure the usual task of map and battery changes were completed.
When I wandered down the stairs to the main hallway I was surprised to see Pavel and Eugeni there in their race gear. Apparently they had only recently arrived in. It must have taken them more time than me to cover the ground of the last few kilometers since I checked their progress before sleeping. Possibly they might have pushed too hard chasing earlier in the day and paid the price later on. Who knows! I said hello, but concentrated on getting my own jobs done. I asked for more hot chocolate, but was also offered porridge which I was happy to accept! knowing that my lead into the CP was bigger than I expected I was happy that I could now afford to burn a little more time on extra comfort items.
I heard on the grapevine that the lads had decided to go for a one hour fifty minute sleep. So they were slightly undercutting me. Given that I had slept a bit more at Tan Hill Inn, I was happy enough to head out with a reduced lead, or indeed any lead at all, knowing that I had more sleep banked overall. It all adds to the control!
Phlip was being extremely helpful as I sorted out my maps and batteries, and finally geared up to leave the hall. Restarts are one of the more difficult parts of the race, particular leaving such a comfortable environment. The outdoors which I was so confident moving about coming into the CP would be a harsh reality check on leaving. But leave I must!
I managed to confuse myself on the road down from the CP back to the Pennine Way itself, but figured it all out eventually. The Pennine way from here is wanders and weaves through fields and walls for a while, before eventually turning into a nice flat trail into the village of Alston itself. After passing through Alston the Pennine Way heads downhill in a big way. Unfortunately that’s in a figurative rather than literal sense! I really disliked this section last year, and that was in daylight. It was probably going to be in even more of a challenge in the dark. At least I knew to expect it.
For some reason, even though I had recently left a well supplied CP, I was beginning to fantasise about various drinks I might like (which of course I had no chance of getting), eventually settling on lemonade as being my ultimate fantasy drink at that point in time. So I was now also self-torturing myself mentally on top of dealing with probably the worst section of the Pennine way.
The route wanders either side of the A689 road, mostly passing through farmland or scrubland, avery high proportion of which had been churned up by farm animals to become a muddy mess. It really was awful, no doubt made all the worse by all the heavy rains over christmas leaving a lot of waterlogged areas behind. It was pretty slow going working through all this.
Quite a few dreary kilometers later I eventually got my wish and the Pennine way ran along the A689 for a little while into the village of Slaggyford. After that it was back onto better trail for a while before passing under an arch of railway viaduct to uphill for a short climb. I had being starting to get some feelings of sleep deprivation in the previous 20 minutes or so, and it was still a long way to go before the natural waking effect of dawn would arrive. So passing under the arch I made a snap decision to have a 10 minute power nap to try to neutralise the sleepiness.
So I just lay down on the ground, grabbed my GPS, found the alarm setting on it and set it for 10 minutes after the decision to nap. There was a probably another few minutes of just lying there with my mind racing, but eventually I did nod off. Thankfully the alarm did wake me, so it was up and off again, beginning with a few seconds of staggering about before properly getting go. I made a conscience effort to dig in here and do a good strong climb up the hill to try to push myself into a fully woken state.
After what feels like a short trip through a few people’s front gardens the Pennine way descends through a few fields again back to near the road. At the bottom of this hill last year I had slipped on a flagstone and landed so hard on my nose and knee that I was surprised not to break one of them. So I beside the flagstones this year, and then crossed over a style. On crossing the style I glanced back up to hill to see two headtorches heading down the hill towards me. That was a big surprise. I was not expecting that at all.
(I have since heard that Pavel did not take the 1:50 sleep he had said he would, but instead got up after an hour to get going again and put a gap between himself and Eugeni. Eugeni then heard him and got up himself to do whatever was necessary to stick with Pavel)
I headed off with a bit of a start and soon came to the climb up the next hill . Near the top of the hill I looked back to see the two lads just starting the climb themselves, maybe 300 meters behind me. Murphy’s law kicked in and I made a minor navigation error to lose another 20 or 30 seconds before kicking on and heading cross country, and then on to another short climb beside a wall. Looking back near the top of that climb the gap had closed again I reckoned it was closer to 200 meters now.
I had quick think. Should I just relax completely, let them put in the work to close the gap, and then work with them through the navigationally tricky flatish section that was coming up next. Or should I switch from running at a relaxed pace to pushing on to a faster, but still cruisy pace (I still had no intention of pushing hard here. I still needed to exercise control and ensure that I would still be able to run all the way through). I opted for option 2! At worst they’d have to work harder for longer to catch me, and given I had more sleep banked that would theoretically leave me level pegging, but better rested heading into the business end of the race.
So I concentrated on pushing up to a controlled fast cruise pace over the next flatish section of trail, and then working with gravity to keep the pace up on the descent down to final crossing of the A689. When I looked back up from the road I couldn’t see any headtorches, so I must have started opening up the gap a little again.
The next section is probably the most navigationally challenging of the race. The first section is straightforward enough, running a little downhill parallel to a wall. On this section last year Tim Laney got distracted in the dark as he ran past a large dark cow, only to run slap bang into the middle of another cow (which apparently was unperturbed by this). Any large bovine obstacles were a little further away from the trail this year. The track then meanders around a boggy flat section, where I lost the trail briefly before finding slabs and boardwalk again. Looking back I could see the other 2 leaving the road. The gap had increased to maybe 400 meters now.
I pushed on, down an unnatural feeling trail which dives down to a river crossing, before turning sharply and heading back up the opposing banks. At this point all traces of a trail disappear, and don’t re-appear for several kilometers. I kept the concentration on solid forward motion with occasional GPS checks to keep me on line. Eventually we cross a large boggy area with a long shallow climb and descent. There was a bit of a trail here, but it was incredibly waterlogged. Another look back seemed to indicate that I was consistently growing the gap.
Last year Pavel and myself had worked together on this section and we diverted into the village of Greenhead to get some refreshments at the hotel there (including a pint of that fantasy lemonade in my case!). The timing is wrong for a repeat of that this year for multiple reasons. So I stuck to the Pennine way and made my way towards Hadrian’s Wall. I had been looking forward to the Hadrian’s wall section last year, but sleep deprivation made the whole experience more of a survival challenge. I’d cleared out my earlier sleep deprivation with my power nap, so I was determined to enjoy it a bit more this year.
Approaching the carpark at the main entrance to the wall there was a car parked on the road with its lights on. Given the time of night it could only be race staff. Sure enough it turned out to be Phlip, who had been tasked to remind us here that we were to follow the original Pennine way route along the wall and not the (much easier and faster) diversion route. He asked if I’d like a coffee, but I asked if he had any lemonade! He did have coke, and I gratefully drank a good amount of it. Knowing the other two were still chasing I moved off quickly.
The first Hadrian’s wall section went a lot better than last year, and with my concentration on keeping up a controlled running pace I felt I was making very good progress. At a farmhouse near the end of the first section of the wall (I let the 3 road crossings divide up the journey along the wall into 4 parts) two people were waiting on the track. These turned out to be part of the race safety crew. They were there to meet us and do an assessment of our mental state (presumably physical too, but since all 3 of us out here were running there clearly was no issues there).
I slowed to a walk and they walked with me, explaining what they were doing, which was to ask me a series of questions. Unfortunately their first question was “what year was September 11th”. I was 100% mentally alert at this time. Too alert maybe, as I couldn’t contain my inner smart-alek with the answer that “every year has September 11th. That’s the way it works”, even though I knew exactly what they were trying to ask. I did manage to hold myself back when they asked what day of the week it was (real answer : “I couldn’t care less, I’m in a race bubble and that has no relevance at this point”), and gave them my best guess. But then I had no idea what time of night it was… all I was paying attention to was sunrise and sunset, so I hadn’t allowed for the fact it was after midnight.
After the brief interrogation they let me off again, and I made my way down to the road. When I looked back I could see 2 head torches again, but of course that was just the safety team watching me head away. In fact that was the last time I was to see any trace of anyone behind me. I had done a good job on building the gap again. I was confident now that I could continue to slowly build this, or at worst hold it, all the way to CP5 at Bellingham.
The rest of the trip along hadrian’s wall went smoothly. A bit beyond halfway the light of the dawn started lighting the landscape up nicely, and I was treated to views that I didn’t get to witness last year. I maintained my concentration on keeping a good steady pace, whether marching up the steep steps of the multiple “bumps” the wall traverses, or running across the tops of the hills.
Finally the trail junction and left turn that signifies the end of the the Pennine Way’s traversal of Hadrian wall. It was nice to see this section of the route in daylight this year… a completely different and much improved experience. At the road crossing near Ladyhill two different carloads of supporters were waiting. I gratefully accepted the offer of a little soup from the first group, as the forest around Haughton Common had yet again proved itself to be a few degrees lower in temperature than Hadrian’s Wall. I asked the second group if they had any lemonade or coke, but no luck there!
A few Kilometers later I approached the farm buildings at Horneystead. Last year the couple who farm there had greeted Pavel and myself at about 3am, and led us into one of their farm buildings where they had set up couches and chairs, and plied us with all sorts of refreshments. We stayed chatting with them for a lovely 20 or 30 minutes. This year they were not out to meet me, even with the more sociable hour, but there were several signs directing Spine racers into the same building to help themselves to refreshments.
On arriving in I found a similar set-up to last year, along with a not to help ourselves, and a note apologising to Pavel and myself that they couldn’t be there to meet us in person this year, but wishing us well. What absolutely lovely people! I had a quick peek in the fridge and lo-and-behold what did I find but some cans of lemonade. Oh these people are the greatest. After hours and hours,and whilst still out on the course between CPs I got to indulge in my fantasy drink!
On the road just after that the second group of supporters from the earlier road crossing met me again, this time offering me a bottle of coke and some chocolate. Wow, people are so good!
The rest of the journey to CP5 went nice and smoothly. I was thinking to myself that the long road sections were likely to fry the legs of anyone who had run too hard earlier, and as usual I was exercising my standard mantra of control, and just running a steady metronomic ultra pace. I was trying to calculate the time of day I would arrive at the Bellingham CP, eventually thinking that 3pm was the worst case scenario. Even that time left plenty of daylight to be exploited, so my plan was to go through CP5 in the minimum amount of time, and utilise the daylight to get to Byrness at a good speed.
There was plenty of race signposting near the CP in Bellingham to bring us in on the proper Pennine Way and avoid the road, as the official signposting is pretty poor here. I was a bit ahead of my worst case predictions arriving into the CP.
Phlip had clearly been tasked with moving the bags of the front 3, as he was here again being his usual extremely helpful self, along with a few others manning the CP. As I simply wanted to make a few changes (the usual maps and batteries, along with socks and possibly a base layer) I was declining any offers of anything that would slow down my exit, including a shepherd’s pie.
There was a bit of discussion about the need to carry 800 calories of food with me leaving the CP, and I wondered who was making up this rubbish on the fly. I pointed out that I had eaten a grand total of about 3 chocolate snacks outside CPs in total over the course of the race so far, and I had the same amount again with me now. I did get a bag of jelly babies and added it to my food store to be transported to the finish line to placate them a bit. I did drink two more mugs of hot chocolate (Phlip knew exactly where to find it now!), and after asking was there any real fruit juice, I was also given some orange juice, which was great.
Of course I was also asking about my lead, and what was happening behind me. Apparently I had at least an hours lead built up by now. Also, interestingly, Pavel had managed to create a gap to Eugeni. I was glad to hear that. I wouldn’t like to see Pavel do all the navigation only to be beaten to the finish line. An hour was a useful lead, and all the better considering I was feeling in great shape, and fully motivated to head out and make good time to Byrness. An enquiry with the CP staff about passing shops revealed that I would pass right by a co-op and a cake shop heading through Bellingham. I’d definitely allow myself a stop in the co-op to get something different to drink.
It took me a little bit of time to get going properly again, but after about a 20 minute stop I was off and running down the road towards Bellingham village itself. I was most definitely on the home straight now, with no more full CPs left, and race-wise I was in an excellent position, in the lead and apparently faster than the chasers.
In Bellingham the cake shop came before the co-op, and after a brief look in the window I couldn’t resist going in and getting two nice cakes. I then picked up a litre of fruit juice and a bottle of strawberry flavoured milk in the co-op. A nice new variety for the palette. I threw the water from my “active” bottle and replaced it with fruit juice, keeping the weight gain to my pack from this stop to a minimum.
After walking up the steeper hills out of Bellingham I concentrated on running as much as possible for the next sections. It would be easy to relax too much into a lazy style at the point. I was very happy that I was still setting a nice running pace, even on the waterlogged gentle climbs. To be running at all on any climbs at this point in the race was a good sign that I was pacing well. I had also learned from a few minor navigation slips on this section last year, and didn’t make any deviations from the route this year.
Progress to and from the B6320 road crossing and onwards across the hills of Troughend Common was an excellent controlled ultra pace. Even the sharp climb up by the forest edge after Padon hill felt like it was at least as fast as last year. Light was rapidly running out at this point, and I was back to running by headtorch light. I was glad to have made it to within a few kilometers of the long forest fireroad section in the daylight.
The next two or 3 kilometers are an extremely slow very waterlogged marshy section that seems to take forever, before finally emerging onto the fire roads of Redesdale forest. I upped the pace to a nice controlled fast cruise for the long long descent on the fire roads, which relatively rapidly closes the distance to Byrness. On the uphill intervals here I managed to get a powerful nordic walk going with the poles, so that I was maintaining a good pace all the way.
Getting to the bottom of the fireroad descent feels like the end of the journey to get to the checkpoint at Byrness, but there are another 3 kilometers or more of flat running remaining that have to be bludgeoned through. This section had a few fallen trees to be negotiated, which disrupted my running rhythm briefly, but after what seemed like an age I eventually got to the race signs directing us on to the out-and-back trip to the checkpoint at the forest view B&B in Byrness.
As it had been dark for a while now I was starting to feel the early symptoms of sleep deprivation again. At minimum I would take a half-hour nap here in preparation for the big-push over the Cheviot hills to the finish. But I would see what the race situation was before making a final decision on what to do. Hopefully the race volunteers would have a full picture of what was going on from the tracking. My decision on what I would do here would most likely be my last big call of the race. I knew I had controlled my own pace so well to this point that I more than likely had full control over the race at this point, but I still had to be careful not to get this wrong and give Pavel a sniff of an opportunity. How to balance the timing of this last sleep could be pivotal.