The Spine Race 2016 – 6, Control!

The checkpoint at Forest View B&B was a very welcoming place again, as expected! Priority one for me was to get an overview of the race situation. Everything else would be governed by that. I was glad to hear that Pavel had created a gap on Eugeni arriving into CP5 at Bellingham. But I was amazed to hear that they had both elected to get some sleep there. This meant that I know had a massive lead on the ground. In reality a lot of this lead was “virtual” as I now needed to bank some sleep here for myself. But with such a huge gap I could take a relatively luxuriously long sleep to ensure I could get to the finish without needing any more stops. I felt I had control of the race now. I could decide how close to let Pavel get to me, and how much sleep to get.

I let the volunteers know that I’d like to take a 2 hour sleep here. I was very kindly offered the use of a bed by the B&B owner. I had to decline it though, as the rules state that racers cannot use hotels or B&Bs for rest, which I interpreted to rule this out. I’d just use the couch in the check-point area that every other racer would have full and equal access to.

Two hours later I was woken, and my first priority again was to get an update on the race situation. There had been plenty of drama in my absence from the real world! Eugeni had yet again had a much shortened rest in Bellingham and had left with Pavel. He was now over 3 days in, running on someone else’s race strategy and presumably deeply into sleep deprivation territory. I was guessing that at this point he was probably a danger to himself as a result, and would have been even more dependant on sticking with Pavel. They were on their way, but had yet to reach the large forest before Byrness. So they were still several hours behind by my reckoning. I was still on absolute control of the race here.

Given the lead, I elected to take another half an hour of sleep to try to ensure that there would be absolutely no need to take any power naps at all once I left Byrness. Sleeping now was a much better option, as this was the most comfortable location left on the course, and I was also utilising nighttime to sleep. The only real danger here was I was loosing my discomfort levels, so it would be harder to restart and get going again.

Half an hour later I was woken again, this time with even more high drama on the race news front. Eugeni had retired from the race, apparently due to a knee injury, and the race safety team had taken him from the course and were bringing him down here to Byrness. Pavel had had to assist Eugeni, but was now free and making progress down the forest fire roads towards Byrness. He was moving quite quickly, but I would have expected this, as this was the fastest section of this stage of the race.

As anticipated, getting up and getting going was a bit of an ordeal. The generosity continued, and I indulged myself with both a hot chocolate and a lemonade (of course!), whilst slowly getting all my things together and kitting up for departure. In the middle of all this Eugeni was brought in by the race safety team. They were of course taking good care of him. Poor Eugeni was wrecked. No doubt he would have been hurting badly at having to pull out of the race as well (as any of us would). I commiserated with him, before he was brought off for a lie down on a proper bed.

After the slow uncomfortable process of getting ready was complete I finally left the checkpoint. Pavel was a few kilometers back up the road, but I knew these were slower kilometers than they looked on paper. The reality was I had total control at this point. I would be heading up the mountain and out of site, fully rested and in excellent shape,  before Pavel would have the opportunity to see me or my headtorch. All I needed to do was keep my pace controlled and steady, and to make sure to navigate well. It took one or two hundred meters to get warmed up and get running properly again, but after that I was quickly back to banging out a steady ultrarunning controlled pace.

After turning off the road out of Byrness comes one of the more sustained steep climbs of the race, with the sharp haul up to the top of Byrness hill. There was plenty of snow on the ground to make life interesting! I made good steady progress up the hill with a controlled pole-climb, taking a small bit of time to enjoy view as I topped out onto the flatter ridgeline at the top. Back to steady running for the gentle climb along the ridgeline towards Raven’s Knowe. This section had a reputation of being a man-eating bog, but with the cold and snow temperatures, along with what I presume to be relatively new paving slabbed and boardwalked sections there was very little sinking! In fact my progress was pretty steady.

However after starting the ridge under a lovely starfilled sky, I was soon moving through fog, with visibility down to only a meter or two (pretty much confined to my head torch beam). This required very careful concentration on pathfinding. This effort made the time move along a little more quickly. Descending form Ogre Hill I very briefly lost the track, before re-finding it and heading into Scotland for the first time in the race. Almost before I knew it I was at the signpost for alternate Pennine Way routes.

I opted for the familiarity of the longer “tourist” route through the roman camps near chew green, as I knew this route from last year, which was a definite plus-point in the murk, and I knew that most of it was runnable. It really is great to run through such ancient historical sights (even if my sight of them was quite limited).

Running through the night in the Cheviots is a very lonely experience. Nobody would be up here at this time if it wasn’t for the race. I love the isolation though. There is an immense feeling of freedom being out here, totally reliant on your own skills to make your way along in the very harsh unforgiving environment of the Scottish border hills at night in January.

The section from the rejoined path split towards Refuge hut 1 before Lamb Hill is was tricky navigation in the conditions that night. There are quite a few track splits, and not all are signposted or obvious. With low visibility it would be easy to get it wrong. I did loose the track once or twice, but was able to figure it out and correct it with minimal loss of time. In general I was pleasantly surprised that I was still running nearly of all the trial here, despite the conditions and the fact that it was an overall climb.

A flashing blue light in the distance indicated that I was approaching Hut 1. One of the good things about the isolation up here is that if there is any sign of life out here then it is almost certainly race related. I had no need at all to stop at the hut, as I was in great condition and didn’t need anything in the way of food or drink (In fact I was carrying huge surplus of both). But I knew that whoever was in the hut had made the effort to be up there to look out for us racers, so a courtesy call was the least they deserved!

So in I went, intending to just say hello and thanks, and then head off again. There were two race volunteers in there in great spirits. They asked if I wanted a hot drink. I couldn’t be bothered with tea or coffee, but when I asked what they had they said hot chocolate. Bingo! These lads knew what they were doing. So I accepted the offer and sat down and hat a good chat, whilst enjoying my favourite hot drink. They were both ex-Spiners and I recognised their names from various online sites.

After a few minutes I got going again. There is the usual danger of getting too comfortable, so I wanted to get back out into the cold night as soon as possible. It only took a minute or so to get back up to speed again. I was still making excellent progress with a very controlled paced effort which still included a bit of uphill running when the slope was gentle enough. It was particularly straightforward to keep the uphill running going when there were stone slabs on the trail (which there was more of than I remembered).

I was soon recognising parts of the trail that I had run with Damon last year. He had come up to meet the leading runners. The wind was so strong last year though that we barely managed to communicate much more than basic information to each other as it was so hard to hear. In contrast things were much calmer this year. I had now climbed above the earlier mist and fog (or it had dissipated), and now had great views out over the landscape. I wondered whether Damon would make it up this year, as he had participated in the mountain rescue race just a day or two back.

From Beefstand hill (or thereabouts) I could see some lights on the mountain ahead. Knowing that only race related people would be up here I hoped this would be Damon again. Just after Mozie Law I finally met with the pair who owned the lights, which were Damon and another member of the border’s mountain rescue team. It really was a lovely experience to meet a friend up here in the remote wilderness in the middle of the night.

spine - damon

Damon during the Mountain Rescue race

Damon offered me tea or some chicken stew. I jumped at the offer of chicken stew. Damon had slow cooked it the night before, and poured it from his flask into a mug for me. It was absolutely delicious (A definite winner of “food of the race” award!), so I even went for a second helping. We all had a nice chat. Of course I asked what the gap was to Pavel, as I hadn’t seen any trace of him behind, and I had had no update on gaps since Byrness. They said I had roughly a 5 hour lead. I would have been happy with 5 kilometers, but was surprised to hear 5 hours, so had to recheck with them. If this was anything near the case then the only way I could lose from this point would be to injure myself.

With work to do, we all headed off in our opposing directions. Unlike last year, when Damon was blown clean over a fence as we were saying goodbye, Windy Gyle didn’t live up to its name this year. From the top of Russell’s Cairn here to the upper slopes of the highest point of the Pennine Way in the cheviots it is nearly all a stone slab track which is mostly a gentle climb. Damon had warned that they had found the slabs they encountered to be quite slippy. And indeed they were. Nearly every step had to be taken carefully. I could feel little skids and slides with each foot strike. Despite this I was maintaining a very solid steady metronomic pace.

After running along several kilometers of this, and starting the ramp up to climb the main peak I had a great realisation. I was running along, mostly gently climbing, and was so controlled and so relaxed that I was actually breathing through my nose. As an indication of controlled relaxed pacing this was remarkable. To be managing to do this at the start of a race would be good. But to be doing it on the last significant climb of a multi-day trail ultra was mind-blowing. This really was one of those moments that you appreciate as being the culmination of years and years of putting in the hard hours and hard work of consistent training. This was creating a good positive motivation feedback loop now. Control! Such Control.

Eventually the slope became steep enough that I had to switch to power walking up with the poles. The snow cover was also becoming thicker, so that the trail was getting harder to pick, but I still managed to find the line the whole way to the peak. On the peak I had a quick look around, knowing it was broadly speaking the start of the final push down towards Kirk Yetholm, and the finish!

After crossing the wall here there was no sign of the path with all the drifted snow covering the area. I had a few seconds of sloshing about in deep snow before finally figuring out where the underlying slabs were located. Having done that I was able to accurately guess from there where the slabs were from the pattern of the overlying snow. 5 minutes of flattish running followed, and then the trail nosedives into a very steep descent, taking me right past the edge of Hen Hole, and it’s cavernous looking depths.

Once I was on the descent I could see lights on the ridgeline ahead, indicating the presence of more race volunteers at Hut 2. Even with the aid of gravity it took another good 5 minutes or so of descending, followed by a short climb, before reaching the 2 people at the hut. Similarly to the first hut I didn’t need to head in, but with 2 people having gone to all the trouble of coming up here to look for me, and make sure I was safe, then the least I could do was call in for a quick chat.

This time the two lads were members of the local mountain rescue team. I was offered homemade soup, so asked what the flavour was. “Butternut squash, with a hint of pepper” was the answer. Now I like butternut squash soup at any time, but the way he phrased “with a hint of pepper” made me sure I was dealing with a real foodie here, so this soup was definitely going to be worth trying for epicurean reasons alone! To say the least, it didn’t disappoint. More great food on the Cheviots! I was also offered a little bit of christmas cake, which also went down a treat. One of them pointed out to me that if I got to the finish line before 10a.m. I’d complete the race in under 4 days. That appealed to me, so I had a new target to get me home.

Having gone into the hut in the dark of the night I emerged only 5 minutes or so later to see the nice dull blue glow of impending arrival of the dawn behind the mountains I had just descended. This was almost exactly the inverse of last year where I was loosing the last of daylight at this point on the Cheviots. Given that I had no sleep issues at this point in time it also meant that I should have no problem making it to the finish without needing a rest of any kind.

Again, restarting was awkward and it took me a minute or two to properly get my rhythm back and get running again. I could now see the ridgeline ahead of me more clearly in the early morning light. One small undulation ahead, followed by the last mountain of the race, the Schill. The Schill looks big, but really its a short enough climb. In my current state I knew I’d have no issues working my way over it at good speed. However the ground under foot for this section was mostly bad waterlogged boggy ground, with only occasional good trail. I was still able to keep up some kind of running pace over most of the route though, barring the steeper section of the Schill climb.

Once on the Schill, now under bright blue morning skies, I had the wonderful feeling of knowing it was downhill most of the way from here. Whilst there was still quite a few kilometers left I knew I would be able to take a lot of it at relatively high speed, trading off height for distance on the relatively good trails from here on. It really was a glorious morning as well. As good weather as you could possibly expect on the Spine. I must be getting some good karma here with such perfect conditions to finish.

The descent down off the mountain went as well as I hoped. Indeed I completed the descent towards the farm at Burnhead faster than I had estimated I would when I was on the peak of the Schill. Along the way one of the race photographers met me on the trail. I apologised for the lack of witty conversation, but I was putting all my focus into keeping up the steady controlled running pace. Just at Burnhead the Video crew were waiting, and we all made our way down to the road. Getting close!

spine decending towards finish

The last descent off the Cheviots (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The photographers and videographers all hopped into their car and drove ahead of me as I plodded on down the road. The road itself was quite icy, so I had to be careful. It would be tragic to fall and fracture something at this point (I’d probably have tried to crawl to the finish if I did). The one notorious sting in the tail on the road is one last hump to get over before descending into Kirk Yeltholm. I wasn’t going to run this one! I had more than enough time to get to KY before 10a.m. So I got my nordic walking style going and powered up the hill as best as I could manage.

One last 5 minute effort of careful descent on icy roads took me to the green at Kirk Yeltholm. I had to make a conscious effort to rouse myself to enjoy the moment and knock myself out of my metronomic forward movement. So with a cheer I raised my poles in the air and ran to the wall of the hotel to touch it and officially complete the Spine race. Woooohooooo!

spine - touching wall

Touching the wall… the official finish

I knew from the early days of this race that the pace was high, and that the winner would probably break the record. But my aim was simply to win, and everything else that derived from that was a bonus. I was absolutely delighted to beat the 4 day mark though, and equally delighted to learn that I’d knocked about 15 hours off Pavel’s old course record.

I was soon presented with my finisher’s medal, and more importantly to me my hard-won winners trophy. This trophy would stand proud in the (virtual) trophy cabinet. It was won the hard way in a good race against quality opposition. After some questions from the camera crew I was offered a seat, which I was very glad to accept!

spine - holding winning trophy

With the winner’s trophy… not letting go!

About 10 minutes later Damon arrived and whisked me away back to his house. This was perhaps the greatest reward for finishing the race! Most of the rest of the race crew followed on to the house. Despite being finished, suitably wrecked and sleep deprived, I didn’t want to crash to sleep. We had a most wonderful breakfast in Damon’s house, with lots of lively banter around the breakfast table. It’s these little things that make for special memories.

spine - breakfast at Damons

Breakfast at Damon’s, with some of the race Crew (Photo by Andrea Anogova)

Iwa surprised myself at how good a state I was in. The controlled way I had paced the entire race has meant that I hadn’t really hammered my muscles at any point. As a result the main issues I had at the end of the race were simply cuts and abrasions on my hands and feet from grit. I didn’t really have any blisters of note either. The cuts on the back of my heals did make walking awkward for a few days though.

Later in the day Pavel finished (with a gap of about 5 hours), and he was also brought back to Damon’s house where he was able to shower and freshen up. Damon and his family treated is all to a lovely dinner, with much good conversation and post-race discussion. Pavel had to leave that evening to get an early flight the following morning, but I had the pleasure of another day’s R&R in Damon’s house before making the journey back to Ireland.

And so it was that only a few days later I found I was able to go for a 2 hour+ training run on the roads through the hill of south Dublin, under the unexpectedly clear night sky. It really was remarkable how fast I recovered, even by my own standards. It just showed how well I had stuck to my overwhelming race mantra… Control!

(I’m hoping to write up one or two more articles on the Spine, one being a gear review, another being thoughts on nutrition, safety and other aspects of racing the Spine)

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10 Responses to The Spine Race 2016 – 6, Control!

  1. Brendan OConnor says:

    Thanks Eoin. Enjoyed that. Well done. Boc.

  2. Helen C says:

    Well done Eoin! A really great achievement. Don’t you love it when a plan comes together..

  3. Eddie Brennan says:

    Well done Eoin, really enjoyed the great detail through the reports!

  4. Sinead Keogh says:

    What a great read Eoin, thank you for taking us on the Spine race with you. Massive congratulations once again on a very well planned and executed race. I’m in awe of your determination and ability. I listened to your interview with Randy Ericksen earlier, you sounds like the winner that you are, great interview. Looking forward to your thoughts on nutrition and gear.

  5. A real pleasure to have you to stay again, Eoin, and a real treat pleasure to meet you up on the hill in the middle of the night. Something magical about those nocturnal wilderness rendezvous! Looking forward to next year already. Determined to finish the Challenger 2017, after this year’s withdrawal, but I’ll leave just a wee bit in the tank to ensure I can bring you another gastronomic surprise on Windy Gyle and bolster the Cheviot’s reputation as the epicurean highlight of the route!! (The lads in Hut 2 were Bob – the soup-meister – and Duncan, who finished 3rd in the MR Challenger)

  6. Noel says:

    Great insight into the race and how you approached it. Thanks.

  7. George Livanos says:

    …Grand Job Mr.Keith… and I have to say it…. Wow!! A centre podium finish with body, mind and spirit well and truly intact. The race report itself was as much a documentary as a foodies guide to the Spine and I have admit to physically craving Lemonade, Hot Chocolate and Chicken Stew just reading about the adventure. – I’ll be shamelessly sending this link to friends and for a while to come. A huge Congratulations from Ruthann and myself.

  8. ThomasBubendorfer says:

    A truly epic performance. You made it sound almost easy but this is one of the most brutal races in the world and you completely dominated it – a masterclass! Congratulations!

  9. jurarunner says:

    Great read and brilliant insights. As someone who was just happy to finish, I was constantly in awe of how far ahead you were, crazy impressive.

  10. Martin Scott says:

    Great race reports, giving an insight on The Spine, pacing, navigation and sleep.

    Would be interested to read reports on gear and nutrition.

    And we’ll done again on an excellent race.

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