The Spine Race 2017, Part 1 -My (Pennine) Way

A shift of one day in travelling, from Friday to Saturday, didn’t make too much difference. It was notable though that there were far less racers than usual sharing the train to Edale… more Challenger racers than full spine racers must use the train from Manchester. As ever, the scenery get more spectacular the closer the train gets to Edale.

Arriving at the village hall in Edale where Spine registration was taking place I found a queue snaking out of the building… oh well, at least I had a book with me I’ve been trying to get read for a long time now. After the 1000 questions of official registration, it was then photo taking for pre-race portrait shots, and mug shots with our race numbers in case the emergency services might need to know what we look like! Finally gear check, where I was one of the small minority to draw a full gear check from the random lottery. Having all my travel baggage with me that went surprisingly fast.

Chris and Mark from Columbia (My main sponsors) were over to shoot footage of the race, and found me in the queue. It was good to see them both again. They joined me for the trip to the race briefing. Nothing much new at the briefing… at this stage with 2 years of experience behind me I could probably give the briefing myself!

We then headed up to Edale YHA, where I was staying. They had brought along 2 lightweight down jackets for me, as I had asked for one for the race. They both looked they hit the requirements I was looking for, so I packed both into my drop bag… easier than choosing! I went over the maps of the race route with them, showing where I reckoned the easiest intercept points were, and taking estimates (with declining confidence) of when I was likely to get to the points. The scenery and light were stunning in the lovely evening weather, but the light faded before we could get any good photos. The forecast said tomorrow morning’s weather would be starkly different for the race start. They then headed off for their own accommodation.

A relaxed pre-race evening was spent eating dinner in pleasant company of fellow racers, and finalising my race rucksack and drop bag before getting a full night’s sleep. Unfortunately the new race start time for this year was 2 hours earlier than last year at 8am, so it was a much earlier rise than usual on race morning. The drop back was left in the YHA for transportation to CP1. The pile of drop bags reminded me of the baggage scene from the film “The Fifth Element”.

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Meeting Pavel before the start

The village hall was buzzing with activity. I finally met Pavel (I had seen no trace of him on Saturday), and we greeted each other warmly. The only task to be completed here was to get my tracker attached to my bag. However James was having issues with the trackers, so this took 2 goes, and also meant that the race start was delayed for half an hour to ensure everything would work. I found a chair at the side of the hall and took the last opportunity to relax, whilst having some chats with other racers including one or two of my fellow paddies!

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3 Irish Spiners before the Start (Brian Harman, Pat Rogers, and myself)

The weather had turned more traditionally Spine-like, as forecast, which made it easy to decide to wear full waterproof gear from the off. I was unsure of how many layers I would need though, as it wasn’t cold enough to definitely sway me to 3 layers. I settled on starting with just base layers (heavyweight) and waterproofs, but no gloves (thinking it was wet enough to soak lightweight gloves and possibly make my hands colder than they would be without them.

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And they’re off… Start of the Spine 2017

At about 8:30 we all marched off to the start field and within 5 minutes we were off. Almost instantly the now traditional pattern established itself with Pavel, Eugene and myself running up through Edale at the head of the field together. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening behind us, but it soon felt like we were in a group of 4 or 5 runners at most. Conditions were somewhat nasty, with light rain and plenty of wind. I was definitely keeping my hood up. There was plenty of water on the ground, ensuring that care had to be taken not to slip-slide away on any descents.

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Pavel, Eugene and myself splashing along towards Jacob’s Ladder

Things slowed to a walk on the first major climb of the race, Jacob’s Ladder, leading us up to Kinder Scout. There was lots of the snow on the ground here, often making it more effective to climb a little off the main track rather than in the accumulated drifts. Eugene looked like he could take off and run here, but he seemed happy to follow Pavel’s lead.

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Pavel, Eugene and Myself starting up Jacob’s Ladder

Towards the top of the climb none of us were paying enough attention to exactly where we were going and our little group went too far “straight” and missed a slight turn. We had overshot a junction by a few hundred meters. No biggie, but good to be reminded to pay attention! Turning around it became apparent that it was just the 3 amigos and a cameraman from the Japanese film crew out front. Not for long though. By the time we were back on track 2 or 3 minutes later we were in a group of 8 or 10.

It was also a bit misty now, so there were no vistas to enjoy, and more importantly navigation needed more attention. I knew from memory to keep to the left edge of Kinder Scout. Pavel and Eugene between ensured that the pace was high as we ran towards Kinder Downfall. By the time we had to cross the river here we had re-established a gap. The other 2 were pushing strongly and were running 10 or 20 meters ahead of me most of the time. I was happy to let them do that and stick to my own comfortable pace.

The river crossing was deeper than I had remembered it from previous year, requiring wading to knee level at least. No waterproof footwear system was going to deal with that very well, and this turned out to be a nice ice-bath for both of my feet. Nobody wasted any time trying to pick a nice easy line… we just ploughed through with speed.

Pavel really pushed out from here, with Eugene in tow. Again, I was happy to trust myself to hold my own maximum comfortable pace for a 4 day race and let them slowly but surely pull away. I’d run my own race. My Way! By the time I was starting the short steep technical descent off Kinder Scout they had drifted out of sight into the mist (visibility was probably less than 50m), taking the cameraman with them. The race was on! Pavel was clearly setting out to lay down a marker early. Great… good to have the proper racing break out good and early! Fun and games.

A short climb to Mill followed, with a 90 degree right turn from there starting the long relatively flat run all the way to the road at Snake Pass. I knew all this from memory, and knew it was a few kilometers of slab running. Well it should have been… the first few hundred meters had enough snow around that it was often easier to judge footing slight off track. But soon enough it was back to slab running. Today that was far from easy with so much water on the ground. The slabs were very slippery indeed as a result, so full concentration was required to keep speed up. After a while I could see a figure in slowly emerging from the mist ahead. It was the cameraman, who I overtook soon enough.

Welcome cheers greeted me into Snake Pass, and the safety team there confirmed the other two were about 5 minutes ahead. Boy, they were motoring. I was happy that I was making a good pace, so they must really be pushing out. The racing had kicked off nice and early this year. Great! Still I would have preferred to be the one out in front, but only by doing it my way at my pace.

Conditions running up Devil’s dike were by far the worst I had encountered on the Spine, with lots of snow on the ground making for heavy going. It also made it tricky to see the ground under foot, and once or twice I ended up stepping into deep holes and having to drag myself out. This was obviously getting my feet wet, but also getting a lot of snow and grit on my hands too.

Conditions were even worse heading up Hern Clough towards the peak at Bleaklow Head. There was some nice distraction along here though, as a local fell race seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, so there was lots of greeting being exchanged. I “found” one or two more bog holes along the way here too.

I was glad to reach Bleakly head for the start of the first long (mainly) downhill section of the race. The pattern of running into the fell racers combined with finding the occasional bog hole continued for another 10 or 15 minutes. Conditions were still the worst I could remember for this section. I managed to lose the track once or twice heading for the steep descent down to Torside Reservoir, but found it again reasonably quickly. Still, I was possibly giving away easy time to the 2 ahead.

I had started the race wearing Scarpa Neutron Gaiter running shoes with a built-in Outdry waterproof gaiter, along with Vibram soles. The Vibram was proving to be a boon for grip in snow and mud, even on the wet slabs. I was gaining confidence in the shoe’s grip with each step. As a result I probably descended the steepest sections down towards the road crossing at the reservoir faster than previous races.

By this time I had managed to fall on my poles a few times. I was deliberately not using the hand loops, as falling unexpectedly with the loops can easily break thumbs or wrists. No problems with that, but I was having issues with the poles. I managed to severely bend them several times, usually by landing on them on rock slabs. Each time I used the slabs and my body weight to bend them back to near straightness. I knew this was likely to be undermining their strength a bit, and was increasing the potential to snap catastrophically. But I had no choice other than to make do and make the system work while it could.

I met more Camera crews crossing the damn here, who confirmed that the pair ahead had gained more time and were at least 10 minutes ahead. I was still perfectly happy with my own pacing. A few minutes later I was leaving the easy terrain behind again and heading off-road into the long approach to Black Hill. Chris was waiting here and ran behind doing some filming before letting me away. Shortly afterwards Damian Hall was waiting and similar ran along for a while doping some filming. Damian had checked with me several times before the race to whether I would get annoyed at being pestered and filmed… far from it! He’s always good company.

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Passing Damian… note the new pole “feature”!

Despite the poor conditions I still felt I was making reasonable progress on the climbs. Time seemed to be moving faster than in previous years. There are a few points high in the valley in this section where a river has to be crossed back and forth. Normally this is easy,and can be done without getting water into my shoe. This year was different. The river was most definitely up. I could feel the strength of the water as I had to wade one or two crossing to just below knee level.

I can normally use my poles to vault the last crossing (the deepest, but most still). This year was different and there was little option but to just wade in. The water was well up to my thighs…. this would be “interesting” for shorter runners! I made a definite effort to run strongly away to generate body heat after getting my legs immersed in freezing water.

By now I was really noticing how badly the skin on the insides of my thumbs had worn. They had blistered and then popped, so now there were large exposed areas. This was probably from using the poles after all the prior falls into gritty boggy ground. But despite looking pretty awful they didn’t actually hurt at all (Or if it did, I had pushed it so far to the background that it wasn’t noticeable). Steady Climbing up stone slabs took me nearly to the peak off Black hill, where a race supporter walking in the opposite direction offered Jelly Babies… sure why not!

The slabs run out near the peak, and the ground here was so bad that a route through the boggy mess had been set out with small flags on the ground. The descent towards the road crossing near Wessenden Head is usually a nice little run. With the snow and water I had to take a lot of care not to go flying off the stone slabs though. Towards the lowest point of this descent there was a small river crossing which was bridged by a some wooden plans. Those planks were underwater this year though, and I couldn’t see exactly where I was placing my feet. I slightly misjudged one footstep here and went diving down as a result. Luckily I just about managed to land on the wooden planks, but was very close to taking a full on submarine dive into quite deep river. So close that My hair was wet from the splashdown onto the planks.

I also noticed around here that my hands were wet, but this wasn’t water. It was blood flowing from thumb blisters. This was now turning into a practical issue. This could cause the poles to become so slippery as to be worthless. I needed to do something about this. There was usual some kind of safety team positioned on the road crossing ahead, so I reckoned I might get some help there.

The next river crossing (Dean Clough) was flowing so strongly that race staff were positioned there to direct us downriver about 50 meters where we could jump across a narrow section onto a solid rock, rather than trying to wade it. When I made back up to the marshalls they told me that one of the two ahead had nearly lost here!

Sure enough there were plenty of people around at the road crossing, including some marshalls. I asked if there was a first aider, and one of them volunteered to help (thanks guys!) I think they were quite horrified at the size of my thumb blisters, and found it hard to believe that I wasn’t feeling any pain. I was happy for them to take 5 or 10 minutes (easy gain for the lads ahead, but a necessary sacrifice over the long-term) to apply some compeed and plaster to protect them. I put my gloves on once they had done this, and was pretty sure they would stay on for the rest of the race.

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Thumb Blisters (After being cleaned post-race)

Chris and Mark got some footage of me heading off down the road, and then descending down towards the Wessenden reservoirs. Unfortunately there was so much mist that the normally spectacular views were hidden. The run down was enjoyable, before hitting the slog back up over black moss. I was happy I was making good speed here though, and my location memory for this section was perfect. I had yet to consult the map.

The next few kilometers can feel quite draggy and endless in the dark, but this year’s earlier start meant there was plenty of light still around and it mentally flowed a little better. It’s a real high moors section. After a few kilometers I start to pick up on a rising background traffic noise, which means that the motorway crossing is getting closer.

Approaching the A672 road crossing on a a nice gentle downhill trot I came across someone who cheered me on. He reckoned the pair ahead were less than 10 minutes in front… interesting! Without putting in a big push it seems like I was closing up on them. There were plenty of cars and people at the road crossing, and it appeared that the mobile cafe that was promised was present and open for business. Not that I was stopping. I made my way through the parked cars and headed for the trail towards the motorway.

I had a comedy dunking right here, where I stepped into what I thought would be a shallow water filled dip in the track, but ended up beyond my knees in wet muck. Oh well, nothing new today! I dragged myself out, eventually, and ran  on.

Climbing out from the motorway crossing up to Blackstone edge felt quite draggy, even though the ground under foot was mostly good. I was now far enough into the race that even moderate uphills were not quite so effortless as in the first few hours. There was still just enough light left to make it all the way to the White House Inn without needing to get out my headtorch.

A race safety team (I think) was here, and I gladly accepted the offer of a quick coffee from them as I faced into the first night. The latest estimate was tha tI was about 10 minutes behind… a little time lost again, maybe. I knew people were only taking guesses at the gaps, so they were best treated as ballpark figures. Chris and Mark were also here, and filmed for a bit as I ran out from here on the flat section past 2 or 3 reservoirs, now with my headtorch on.

Heading away from the solid tracks through the reservoirs and onto the stone slabs on the ridge towards Stoodley Pike a very thick mist enveloped the trail. In the night, and with a headtorch, visibility was hugely reduced to only a meter or two. I could just about make where I should take the next step or two to stay on trail. This took good concentration, but at least was keeping me occupied. This lack of visibility lasted all the way to Stoodley Pike and some of the way down the descent from there.

Mentally I was now approaching CP1. It was going to be very interesting to see how the racing strategies would play out here. It would also give a clear indication of the gaps. But first, still some more running to be done…

The trail eventually hits a farm road which leads all the way down to the road crossing of the A646 near Hebden Bridge. Heading down the farm road I picked up a cameraman from the Japanese TV film crew for company. He was a pretty fit camera man, and he stuck with me most of the way to CP1. On the very steep climb up from the road crossing (where I was surprised that he kept up carrying the camera) we got into a good conversation. It turned out that he was a Canadian Adventure Racer and we had raced each other before in adventure races. We shared reminiscences about ARs we had both taken part in, and discussed future ultra running endeavours.

That passed the time nicely until I reached the road where I had to turn off the Pennine way proper and head down for the in-and-out diversion to CP1 (leaving my new-found friend behind). I was hoping not to meet the other 2 coming against me, and that I would find them still in CP1.

I made it all the way down the road, and then on to the off-road track without encountering anyone running against me. The last two or 3 hundred meters into the CP are very technical, firstly as an extremely muddy overhung track, and then steep slippy rocky steps. On the muddy track I could see the lights below, and soon could see the camera lights of the collection of media crew, including Chris and Mark.

Near the bottom of the steps I passed a runner heading out in the opposite direction. Because of all the camera lights, and the headtorches we were both wearing, I couldn’t see who it was, but we of course said hello to each other as we passed. Once in the CP I checked out what the gaps were. Pavel was out the door over 10 minutes (must have just missed crossing over), so it was Eugene who I had just passed. They were obviously both executing extremely fast CP1 transitions with no hanging about. I was fully intending to do likewise.

I kept my tasks here to a minimum, just swapping out maps and changing batteries in the GPS (I reckoned since I was carrying a full spare headtorch I should be OK without swapping batteries on my active headtorch. The aid station staff brough time out 2 cups of coffee, and offered a multitude of goodies. But I kept it reasonably quick, and was out again in a pretty good time. Since the other 2 had been efficient here too, it looked like I wouldn’t gain time here like I did last year. The whole CP was running very efficiently this year, since there were no challenger racers around, so it was much less hectic.

Things were still close. The race was very much still on. Early days, and 10 or 15 minutes was a minuscule gap in such a big race, especially with the way it was varying (or seemed to be from reported gaps). The race is most definitely “on”!

 

 

 

 

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One Response to The Spine Race 2017, Part 1 -My (Pennine) Way

  1. JamesH says:

    Great first part! Can’t wait for the next one…. thank you.

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