The “Spine Bubble” begins early. Once I arrived in Edale I wheeled my entire luggage collection straight to the Peak Centre for gear check. Getting to the hall I was soon in the presence of old friends from the “Spine Family”, chatting and joking straight away. I had been assigned the number 180, which would be handy for a darts tournament. Unfortunately for me numbers ending in 0 were automatically given a full kit check. I was giggling at this since I had only not had a full kit check once in all my Spine races. All went smoothly.
Onwards to the race briefing in the village hall. Here I met up with several old friends and acquaintances who I hadn’t seen in a while. I think at this stage I could give the briefing myself, having heard it so many times! I re-introduced myself to John Kelly and we had a nice little chat. I also met a few of the team from the Film crew who were going to be filming the race to make a documentary for Japanese TV. Hopefully I’d be seeing more of them.
A quick van journey took me up to the Hostel in Edale, which was full of racers. I met and chatted to a few more old friends here, along with making a few new ones. Self catered dinner turned out to be a great social affair, especially meeting the only other Irish full Spine race competitor Fiona Lynch. Most importantly I had a room to myself, thanks to my friend Thure, who ended up skipping the race himself. So it was relatively straightforward to get in a good night’s pre-race sleep.
Not having breakfast, and with almost no pre-race tasks to be completed I was able to sleep in to a relatively late 6:40am.I had to eject one or two bottles of fruit juice from my drop bag to get it to a reasonable weight for the logistics team. With that taken care of it was back in a van trip back to the village hall in preparation for the start. Needless to say I met a few more familiar faces here, including Eugeni, bouncing around with enthusiasm. Pavel sought me out to say hello as well. He was going to be roving the course filming for the Japanese crew.
The weather was looking 50-50 in terms of whether to start with full rain gear or not. I elected to put on my rain leggings in the end. If nothing else it was the easiest way to distribute the weight. The majority of competitors seemed to be erring in the same direction.
So with a few minutes to go we were all encouraged out of the civilisation of the bright warm village hall and over to the muddy field where the start line banner was positioned. With a surprisingly large number of spectators around we were given a countdown, and then slid off through the sloppy mud on our way.
My tactics for this race were very simple. I intended to run my own pace irrespective of what else happens (easier said than done in a close racing environment). I knew John Kelly was likely to go off pretty quickly, and that Eugeni would probably be able to match him for speed. So it was a bit of a surprise when I was still at the front of the field as we ran through Edale on our way to the turn off onto the Pennine way itself.
John duly took the lead as we hit the off-road track. Soon a few other runners passed me to stick in closely behind him. It hadn’t taken long for the leggings choice to be validated, as we were now running into wind driven rain. The multiple gate crossings ensured that the large group stayed together through this early section.
The first real split in the lead group developed as we ran along the double track towards the start of the first big climb, Jacob’s Ladder. John Kelly eased away with 3 other runners for company. I was happy to stick to my plan and stay within my comfort zone and let them go. There was a loose group of about 4 or 5 of us following on.
Tuning into myself heading up Jacobs ladder I was happy that I was able to climb at a reasonable speed whilst keeping effort levels nice and steady. John’s group grew their gap bigger and bigger to the point where they headed “out of sight, out of mind”. I was guessing that some would pay for going out too aggressively (although not John).
Heading across Kinder Scout plateau there was some more back and forths in my little grupetto, with one or two breaking away into the distance. The waterfall at Kinder Downfall was doing its “upfall” trick, with a substantial amount of water being blown back up the hill by the cross winds. The weather was properly inclement by now, and full rain gear was a necessity. The ground was well sodden, and I was guessing the rivers would all be relatively swollen.
The stone slabs taking us across towards Snake pass were nicely runnable this year, with no ice. They were however well flooded at regular intervals, making for splashy running. Wouter had popped in front of me for this section and was setting a fast steady pace. I was content to run a little behind at a similar pace.
In the early days of the race there is a relatively frequency of supporters out, and Snake Pass was the first point where we were cheered through. I wasn’t exactly sure of my position, but I reckoned it was somewhere around 6 / 7 at that point.
We formed into a relatively close group of 4 heading through the Devil’s dike, with solid ground under foot. I was setting the pace for the grupetto through here. The ground then turns much more difficult, with sodden mucky conditions through a small river valley climb. The grupetto worked together nicely to navigate our way through this section, finding the best lines we could through the sloppy conditions.
The speed picked up again as we topped out over Bleaklow and headed back downhill. As expected we soon started coming across runners heading in the opposite direction from a fell race taking place concurrently in the same general area. I’d spend much of the next hour greeting oncoming runners, trying to keep a lookout for runners I knew who were expecting to take part (including “Spine Royalty” Jasmin Paris and Carol Morgan).
Crossing the river at Torside Clough my suspicions about rivers in spate were confirmed. I took an extra few seconds to ensure to cross safely here. We were all looking out for each other here as best we could. The grupetto broke apart heading down Clough edge towards Torside Reservoir, and I found myself running solo.
I went through the mini-aid station which the mountain rescue team had set up here without stopping, and headed out across the damn having closed in on a runner ahead. By now I had run through most of the fell race field coming in the opposite direction. Despite two seperate races competing on the same trail in opposite directions it had all been lovely friendly encounters, with everyone trying to ensure not to block anyone coming the opposite way.
I kept up my running pace through the moderate uphill sections past the reservoir, and turning North on the long undulating climb towards Black Hill. I could see Huw Davies and a few others in front of me in the distance. From behind Wouter was closing up rapidly on the climbs, but I was dropping him away on the descents. I was still taking it nice and steadily on the climbs, being careful to keep my effort relatively low.
The river crossings before the final climb to Black Hill can be “interesting” in wet weather. Sure enough they proved to be so. I just went for it and waded through one of the crossings beyond knee deep, knowing that my waterproof gatored shoes weren’t going to be able to save me from that one! But the wetsuit effect soon kicked in on the slabbed climb up to Black hill, with any water in my socks warming up to body temperature. This meant I was still perfectly comfortable.
I was very happy with my shoe’s performance. They were a pair of Columbia Trans Alps with a full Outdry Extreme Waterproof Gators built in. The grip of the Trans-Alps was perfect for the mix of mucky bog and rock-slab running. It goes without saying that a gator to keep grit out of my feet in these mucky conditions was invaluable.
Going up Black Hill I could see at least 3 runners ahead. I reckoned I was slowly pulling them in, which was encouraging me to keep my speed steady. Similarly Wouter’s presence not too far behind was keeping me on my toes. The lack of ice enabled me to run off Black hill at a much more comfortable pace than last year, all the while slowly closing on the runners ahead.
I could see the runners ahead doing a bit of a faff on the road at Wessenden head, where a safety team had a landrover positioned. I greeted the safety team and moved on through without stopping.
Leaving the road and heading down the double track towards Wessenden Moor there was more of a headwind, as we were now heading more westerly. Thankfully the rain had eased off a bit by now, so apart from slowing the speed a bit it wasn’t difficult to deal with. This was a long descent, with a few twists along the way. I reckoned I could still occasionally catch sight of about 3 runners ahead.
The trail does an effective switchback at the bottom of the descent where it drops into a small river canyon and climbs out the opposite side. Here I was able to look ahead and see more clearly the bunch of runners ahead (1 followed by a pair). I was definitely getting closer to the pair.
I still kept to my easy but steady pace on the steep climb out, and maintained a slow steady run through the mucky singletrack leading out from there to Black Moss Reservoir. Approaching the next road crossing at Standedge I finally closed the pair ahead right down, overtaking the first of them before the road crossing. There was another impromptu aid station at the road crossing, where the second runner stopped for a drink, whilst I ran straight past. It was nice to already be ticking off the over-fast starters.
It was notable to myself how little I had been drinking, but also how I wasn’t at all thirsty. I had still being peeing quite a bit, so all was good. I reckoned I was fat-burning nicely, and as a result wasn’t needing to gulp down a ton of water. I also probably had my gear perfectly regulating my temperature, with my Outdry Extreme shell jacket and pants keeping the effect of the wind and rain totally excluded, with only base layers required underneath.
I was thinking that I might be running around 3rd or 4th at this stage, having overtaken the pair. I could see one more runner in front, and knew that John and Eugeni were further in front somewhere. Indeed I caught a glimpse of a pair of runners ahead about a kilometer in the distance as we traversed across the open moorland trails on Close Moss.
Another road crossing followed, and I could see I was closing right in on the next runner ahead. Before reaching the peak of the subsequent climb out from the road I had managed to catch and overtake him (It was Simon Roberts). So another fast starter accounted for. I still wasn’t fully sure of my position, but reckoned it was 3rd.
I kept up the steady cruising down to the crossing of the M64, and the long climb out from there up along Blackstone Edge. Somewhere along the way I was told by a spectator on route that I was in 5th position. Damn… I knew it was all too good to be true. That meant I must have been just on the edge of dropping out of the top 10 not too long back. I wasn’t sure who two of the runners in front were.
Reaching the road crossing at the White House pub I did stop to get a drink of water at the safety monitoring point here, along with a small snack (I think I had half a banana). I was off again with 30 seconds or so, as I knew the overtaken runners weren’t too far behind. The next section through a collection of reservoirs is a long pretty flat double track road. Last year we had a buffeting headwind here, so things were much improved this year, with the strong wind more of a tailwind. I just “put my head down” and jogged along steadily on this flat section.
The trail then gets much more interesting as it turn past the reservoir with a nice slabby crossing turning into a steady downhill single trail towards Stoodley pike. Stoodly appears from miles away and appears closer than it is from a long way off. I made good progress drifting down the trail, and then climbing up in a slow steady run to Stoodley pike itself.
Last year I had put on my head torch shortly after passing the Pike, but I reckoned I was 5 or 10 minutes longer before needing to do so this year. Hopefully this meant I was progressing faster, despite feeling like I was putting in an easier effort. I finally put my head torch on in the forest before crossing the Rochdale Canal.
CP1 in Hebden Bridge was getting close now. This was an in-and-out diversion away from the Pennine Way itself. As it was in-and-out it was an opportunity to meet people coming in the opposite direction, both in front and behind. And so it turned out… I met John first, heading back out and away, well in front. Eugeni was next not too long afterwards. I met one more runner, but wasn’t sure who he was before finally reaching the aid station.
Jayson Cavil was in the aid station when I arrived, and we greeted each other and had a chat. I didn’t have too much to do here. I just wanted to swap maps and ensure I had enough head torch power for the night. I had two coffees, which I had planned, but also accepted the offer of a baked potato with cheese, provided it came reasonably rapidly, which it did! I packed back up and was out fairly rapidly, leaving ahead of Jayson. Wouter arrived not long before I headed out, and we also exchanged greetings.
I met a few other runners coming into the aid station as I headed up the technical muddy track out of there. But once I was on the road heading back to the Pennine way, it was all clear, and I was now running solo again. And I was enjoying the isolation, hoping that it would last a while.
I had a nice solo run for the next hour or so. As I dropped into the valley where the Pennine Way runs along the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs I could see a head torch in the distance climbing out of the valley. Whoever that was wasn’t too far into the distance, but still at least 20 minutes ahead of me. I wasn’t looking around too much to see if anyone was behind. But I knew Jayson had good speed last year, so chances were he’d be following online somewhere behind.
After reaching the climb out myself I kept up a steady speed, enjoying the solo running. I no longer had the sightlines to see far enough ahead to see the head torch of the runner ahead. Spectators had driven out to Ponden Reservoir, and I accepted an offer of a mini bounty bar there, for a nice little psychological lift.
The climb up Oakworth Moor a few kilometers later is an edge case between running and walking, particularly as a wet boggy singletrack trail following a short road section. I kept my concentration to ensure that I ran up, whilst at the same time keeping the effort levels really low. It seems to take forever to get up this smaeish climb. It eventually turns slightly right, fattening out into even boggier ground, with the occasional slabs in place to provide relatively rapid passage through the worst bog.
As I was running along a longer flatter undulating stone slab section I was woken from my running trance by the sound of Jayson popping up behind me. I had only met Jayson when he had to pull out at CP2 last year with an injury, but found him to be a nice guy. So we got chatting again. I offered to let him by if he wanted to crack on, but he was happy with the pace.
We kept up a good pace together, as the trail headed on its moderate descent back off the hill. I was remembering all the twists and turns, and which section were technical and boggy. The undulating section that followed before returning to doubletrack road showed that Jayson was climbing more strongly than me, as he opened up gaps on the climbs.
There was a diversion marked on the ground to get us past an off road section of the Pennine Way approaching Cowling. I reckoned the trail itself must have been getting too muddy, especially with the challengers having passed through beforehand. Leaving Cowling I could still catch glimpses of Jayson’s torch, as he had opened a gap of a few hundred meters ahead.
After the diversion at Cowling I was somewhat surprised that there were no subsequent diversion on the muddy section after that before Lothersdale. Leading along towards Lothersdale there were some funny posters stuck up on posts where possible, encouraging us Spiners along.
At Lothersdale the local triathlon club had set up an unofficial aid station. This was a real oasis. Jayson was sitting having a cuppa and a snack. I elected to stay standing, and have a coffee. I got a real treat when they hauled out a gluten free mince pie for me, which went down a bomb! I kept my stay relatively short and left before Jayson, saying I’d see him in a few minutes (I knew there was a long climb to follow, and that he would close me down again).
Sure enough Jayson did catch up with me about halfway up the climb. He had been having a little issue with his feet, so he was happy to take the pressure off them a bit and climb at my pace over the next hill. We really got into having a good conversation from here, whilst working together naturally keeping a good pace. This included talking about who was in front. Jayson reckoned there were two German runners in front of us, as well as John and Eugeni.
Heading downhill towards Thornton I caught sight of a runner ahead. We seemed to get closer to him as we left the road for the off-road trail. However as we headed down the descent we didn’t see too much more of him.
Coming out the other side of Thornton heading towards the Leeds and Liverpool canal we saw him again, and it looked like we were getting a lot closer. After we hit the canal we didn’t see him again though, even though we expected to catch soon. We knew there was a diversion away from the Pennine way coming up, but the start of it wasn’t marked, so wen ended up going a little too far on the original route, before correcting ourselves and coming back onto the diversion. The diversion was a long arc around the original route, but was probably a little quicker due to being road rather than mucky off-road of the original route.
My headtorch flashed its distress at running out of batteries, so I let Jayson run on whilst I stopped to swap torches. I caught back up with him just outside Gargrave, and we were back running together from there. We made good progress on the roads from there, and then headed off road back onto the mucky tracks towards Eshton Moor.
The navigation here is slightly tricky, as there are long open sections between walls (And it helps to hit the wall crossings accurately). Crossing the top of an open hill here we caught side of a runner ahead. He was running forward, then looking back at us, then running forward again in a repeating pattern. We were finally catching the German runner.
It was a lot quicker than I expected for us to catch him, as he came to a halt after a minute or two and stopped to wait for us. To my initial surprise, it turned out to be Eugeni, and not the German runner. He was lost. This was less surprising. His GPS was not working properly, apparently. So Eugeni followed along behind us.
The diversion to Airton was a nice speedy gain compared to the flooded Pennine Way. Joining back onto the Pennine Way, the track was back to being a sticky muddy slow slog. Again I was being careful not to put in too much effort. Jayson was slowly pulling away along this section as a result, with Eugeni following belong about 50 meters behind.
This pattern continued as we headed up the small pull of a hill through Hanlith and out along the original Pennine Way route into Malham village itself. After leaving the road after Malham, and heading down into the base of Malham cove I could see that Jayson had been joined by someone, who I guessed was one of the camera crew. Looking up ahead above the cove I could see two head torches. I guessed one of those at least was one of the German runners ahead.
Jayson was still pulling away, particularly as he headed up the brutal stepped climb up past Malham Cove. The Camera man waited for me (and Eugeni now right behind me), and joined us as we headed up the steps. Again, I concentrated on keeping the effort steady and not overdoing things here, irrespective of the racing situation. Eugeni stuck in behind and followed on.
The ground above the cove is nasty rocky ankle breaking terrain, with deep crevices between potentially slippery rocks. I worked my way through this and managed to find a pretty good line down to the centre of the Malham Lings valley. Once the centre of the valley it’s a nice runnable grassy trail for a while. The trail does a switchback ahead, so it was a good opportunity to see how everyone was going. We were closing on the lead runner for sure. It looked like another runner was closing fast on him a bit behind (Jayson probably). We caught up on the one other head torch ahead, who it turned out was a walker who was not part of the race.
After that there were no further sightings of torches ahead, as we made our own way up the valley, crossing a road, and finally making the trek along past the large lake which is Malham Tarn, and into CP1.5 at Malham Tarn field centre. As expected Jayson was there, along with another runner.
I had a quick coffee, and soon got ready to leave again. Jayson was having an Expedition Foods dehydrated meal. It turned out the other run here was a challenger runner trying to decide whether to get going or not. The German runner just in front of us had popped his head in the door, but carried on without stopping. So the room now had 3rd, 4th, and 5th placed runner. Jayson offered the remains of his meal to Eugeni, which he was glad to accept. I made my way to the door and headed on out.
The sun had started to rise when I was here last year, but there was no sign of that now. I guessed Eugeni would now stick to Jayson like a limpet, and that Jayson would catch me soon enough to bring us all back together. I didn’t see any sign of following head torches in the early stages of heading away from CP1.5 Things were now getting complicated by the fact that we were passing through the tail end of the challenger field. As ever, there is lots of mutual encouragement and good wishes when we’re passing the challenger runners.
Heading up the early slopes of Fountain’s Fell the cloud was low, so visibility became much reduced. There was now no chance of seeing other runners unless they were really close. Again I kept the climb nice and steady. I was happily surprised to reach the top without Jayson catching me from behind. The descent was nice and technical in the wet conditions. The grassy slopes were particularly slippery, and I had to use my poles to save myself on a few occasions.
I wondered if one of the runners I passed on the descent was the German runner (Andre Hook), but I wasn’t sure. (As it turned out Andre had gotten himself quite lost around the top of Fountains Fell for a while, so I had indeed passed him somewhere here). A good steady road run took me to the climb up the foothill of Pen-y-ghent. Unlike last year, I was able to take this initial climb at running pace.
I made sure to keep the effort level of the steep hands-and-knees climb up Pen-y-Ghent itself to a steady level, being careful not to push too hard. This was still all about pacing for the full distance. I caught a glimpse of a runner below climbing with effort. The climb went faster than I expected.
As I started the long descent off Pen-y-Ghent down towards Horton the first hints of daylight were appearing. Getting to the bottom of a overly-long set of rock slab steps I looked back to see a runner coming after me. That must be Andre! I was expecting Jayson and Eugeni to appear as a pair of lights. That ensure that I kept up a good pace for the rest of the descent. Indeed the pace was so good that I was actually opening up a gap between Andre and myself. I was noticing that I was considerably less fatigued than I had been on this section last year, despite being ahead of myself in terms of relative timings of the dawn.
There was a short out-and-back section into a safety checkpoint just before Horton. I grabbed a coffee, and managed to get back out before anyone came into the building. On the way back out Jayson passed me first heading in the opposite direction. I was surprised to see him without Eugeni. Andre followed within a hundred meters or so.
To my surprise I was able to make it all the way up the double track out of Horton without anyone catching me. As I made the left turn to head to Old Ing I could see that Andre was not too far behind putting in an effort to close me down. (Jayson was telling me afterwards that he had been passed by Andre twice. He must have made another nav error. And that he was looking pretty angry the second time!).
Andre had been running behind me for a minute or two by the time we reached Old Ing, and Jayson was within a few meters as well. As the trail turned to flatter fire-road Andre went flying past, sprinting to open a clear gap. He was racing hard for second place it would seem. Unfortunately for him it was way too early to be racing for anything at this point. I knew he was banking up trouble and he would pay for this overly aggressive racing this early in the race.
Jayson drew level, and we settled back into our chatting. We were in full agreement that Andre was over-racing at this early stage. We kept a steady mix of running and walking as we headed over to and then headed up the Cam High Road.
Even with this relaxed approach we found ourselves slowly closing in on Andre, who seemed to have eased right off in front of us. When we caught up with him further along he said to us that he realised he needed to pace himself for the full race. I reckoned he had realised this a little too late, and that he had probably already banked a little too much effort.
It was slow steady running all the way to Hawes, with the 3 of us never too far apart at any stage. Only coming into the village itself did the grupetto split a little, with Andre surging on, and Jayson easing back. Running up the main street in the village I ran into John Kelly running outbound. We greeted each other, high-fived, and wished each other well. He was looking tired, but moving very well.
Last year I was exhausted arriving into the CP2 aid station at Hawes, and needed to sleep to recover. This year I was an hour or two faster getting here, but felt a whole lot better. It was the middle of the day, and I definitely didn’t need to sleep. I reckoned I would try to push on all the way to CP3 before sleeping, something I’d only managed once before.
I ate a little real food, had a few coffees for the caffeine, and sorted out my CP tasks (mainly battery and map swapping). With focussed attention I ended up being first out the door of the group of 3. The others were clearly going to follow as well.
Whilst I was in CP2 John had ended up doing an involuntary tour of Hawes, making two navigation errors in succession. As a result, unbeknownst to me I was exiting the the aid station a lot closer to him than I thought. I was quite slow to warm up back to any kind of speed. We were more than 24 hours into the race, and over 100 miles completed at this stage.
I was back to speed by the time the big climb up Great Shunner Fell began. The wind had really picked up by now. Thankfully it was for the most part a tail-wind. After a while I could see two people heading up the hill a few hundred meters ahead. I presumed they were walkers. I had been joined by one of the camera men from the documentary makers. He reckoned it was John being filmed by Pavel up ahead. I could see how that might be the case.
With the tail wind, and bodies ahead to concentrate on, I was able to keep a solid, but not over-fast climbing pace. After the initial steeper section on double track were marched up, I was able to switch to slow running for the single track climbing of the upper sections of the climb. I could see that I was slowly closing in on the runner(s) ahead.
Heading towards the peak the windspeeds were getting dangerously high. I was really getting pushed about a lot, and was being pushed off the path with some frequency. I had closed within about two hundred meters of the pair in front. Approaching the peak cairn itself I could see Pavel filming our approach. Even big Pavel was being pushed around by the wind.
Cresting the peak I was glad to start the descent, as we were now in a bit of wind shelter, so I was more controlled in my running. I needed to be, with a lot of slabby rocky sections where any mistakes could result in a painful bone-breaking fall. Looking ahead I couldn’t see any immediate sign of John heading down the hill. He must have belted off at high speed!
There was no way I was belting anywhere at high speed. I settled into a steady descent, mainly concentrating on staying safe. About 5 minutes into the descent John came zooming past at speed. I must have passed him on the peak without realising it. I was happy to let him go without chasing, and continue with my steady descent. I now realised I had managed to close in and catch John on the climb up Great Shunner Fell, and had been in the lead for about 5 minutes. That’s more than I would have thought possible before the race. Despite him visibly opening a gap in front I was quite happy with that!
I passed Pavel again at the bottom of the descent in Thwaite. John and myself were both without our camera crews again. John was now out of sight ahead. It was nice to have daylight for the next section around to Keld, which is a fun bit of trail running. Near Keld I got out a Millionaire’s Shortbread bar and started eating it. I felt something crunch and spat it out (there should not have been anything crunchy in that bar). I soon realised I had just spat out a tooth. Whoops. Well, it didn’t hurt, so there wasn’t much I could do but carry on.
Crossing the river Swale and heading uphill to the moorland before the Tan Hill Inn both the weather and the light were deteriorating. So I stopped, taking shelter from the walls of a farm building. I rooted through my backpack and retrieved my headtorch and my light fleece midlayer. A few minutes I was back going again.
The weather was getting worse and worse crossing the moor towards the Tan Hill Inn. The wind was screaming, and i was raining on top. Luckily i was still a tailwind. Within a kilometer or two of the Tan Hill Inn things became really bad when the rain turned to hail. I could feel it battering the side of my hood. I’d make it to the Tan Hill Inn with my current set up, but I definitely needed to put extra layers on there, as I was right on the edge of comfortable. I was definitely glad I stopped to put my mid-layer on.
I could see someone coming out from the Tan Hill Inn towards me. It turned out to be Paul Nelson, who had given me a good race in the last Northern Traverse, coming out to say hello. That was very nice of him. The weather was so bad that even with Paul’s Commando voice I could only hear him half the time.
Reaching the Tan Hill Inn I got inside as quickly as possible. I had originally intended for this to be q quick “say hello” in and out visit. But the weather had changed this. John was still here, and was preparing himself in a nearby room. He left about 10 minutes after I arrived. We had a quick conversation, agreeing that the weather was particularly vicious.
Thanks to the safety staff here I drank a coffee or two, whilst re-jigging my clothing set-up. I put on my extra mid-layer legging (a first in the Spine), and add my Omni-dry down jacket as a second outer mid-layer. I also switched to my Showa waterproof gloves, as my thermal gloves had been soaked through. All that seemed to take about 20 minutes to half an hour. I wasn’t looking forward to heading back out into the storm again, but got myself together and headed out. Just as I was heading out Eugeni arrived in. I was surprised he was next to arrive. I would have expected Jayson next.
My next surprise is that it wasn’t raining or hailing when I got outside. The wind was still screaming though. I was possibly now over-dressed, but it was definitely better to err on the side of warmth. The net section through Sleightholm Moor is pretty horrible and boggy, with the barely there path more like a swimlane it is all so wet.
John was out of sight ahead again, and I didn’t think I could see anyone behind, so I was back to solo running again. The rest of this leg was mostly just a steady cruisey run in. I did occasionally catch sight of head torches behind. I reckoned they were about 20 minutes or so behind. I was surprised at how comfortably I was managing in terms of sleep deprivation. I was most definitely starting to get tired though, and knew that it wouldn’t be a problem getting to sleep.
When I arrived at CP3 in Middleton John had already disappeared off to get sleep. I got some delicious chicken curry, and a hot chocolate first, before heading off to get some sleep myself. I knew that sleep timings here would determine the order of the race into the next stage. As usual, I would stick to my own plan irrespective of what the others were going to do. Figuring out sleep time was like playing chess here for me. I was thinking multiple aid stations ahead. I was determined to avoid as much as possible running along in an overly sleep-deprived zombie state. So I was going to sleep at both CP4 and CP5. With this in mind I reckoned a 2 hour sleep would be enough to get me to CP4 in reasonable comfort.
I reckoned 2 hours would be on the long side, but it turned out that was the shortest sleep that anyone from the lead racing pack (which was now John, myself, Jayson and Eugeni) took at CP3. As a result I was first to wake up and get going again.
The next section heading towards Dufton was broadly heading west. This meant that for a change we were more likely to get a head wind rather than a tail wind. The first few kilometers of this section are a relatively god running section on a path alongside the river Tees. Being in a river valley the wind didn’t have much effect, especially as it was still dry. It was a good feeling to be out leading the race for a solid amount of time. I knew it was unlikely to last, but it would be interesting to see just how long I could hold on. No sign of John’s head torch behind.
Just after crossing the river it started raining heavily, so I added waterproof mittens as an outer layer (I was in 3 layers from the start of this leg). For a few minutes the rain / sleet was so intense that I could barely see around me, and I was mostly navigating on trail memory. Luckily, heading across the plain towards Widdy Bank farm the rain stopped, just leaving a head wind to contend with.
The next section has probably got the most technically difficult section of trail, where there are quite a few areas where steep broken rocks and boulders run all the way to the river, necessitating bouldering over the broken rocks. I was taking it very slowly and carefully, being exceptionally careful not to slip on a rock and break a bone.
Daylight was well up by the time I reached the waterfall at Cauldron Snout, and boy was it a cauldron. It was an impressively powerful sight, with a massive amount of water raging down the rocks. After climbing out through the cliffside, and following over the bridge above Cauldron Snout I was able to look down on the valley I had just come up. I reckoned I could see one runner making his way up. That was John, no doubt.
I did better than last year by keeping a running pace along the climb past the firing range (Showing red flags indicating it was active). The cloud was low, but high enough that I could still get the full view of the Maize Beck valley. I also managed to keep a running pace all the way up Maize Beck to reach perhaps the best view of the route at High Cup Nick. The cloud was just high enough that I could see the amazing view down the valley below.
After a little bit of airy running undulating along the side of the valley the long descent down to Dufton finally began. Just as I was approaching the start of the farm track near Peeping hill I felt a little bump as John once again came flying past me. We both apologised to each other for the bump, and he once again flew off down the hill at a speed I could not have matched even if I wanted. Boy was the age difference between us clear here! Again, I was happy to have managed to get in front of John, and hold onto the lead for such a long period of time. Before the race I would not have anticipated that happening.
I made my way down to Dufton at my own relatively pedestrian pace, and made my way into the safety check point there. There was only hot and cold water available here, so I topped up one bottle with cold water. We also had to do a small kit check.
Just before I left Eugeni arrived in. He had clearly been flying through the previous section. Since he was on his own I guessed that he must have sorted out whatever issues he had been having with his GPS. We checked in on each other before I headed out the door. Pavel was in the room, and was able to help him with translations for the gear check for a short while. He left with John, about 5 minutes before I headed out after them, leaving Eugeni sorting out his kit.
Next up was the Climb up and over the series of mountains which culminated in Cross Fell, the highest point in the race. The half hour limit on staying in the Dufton checkpoint had been lifted to allow people to choose a weather window to make this traverse. We seemed to be in a bit of a (forecast) weather lull in Dufton, so none of us were hanging around!
In the early part of the climb I could see John slowly building a gap in front as he climbed steadily ahead. After the steepest section of the whole climb, just after the bridge crossing Swindale Beck, Pavel let John go, and waited for his pursuers. I reached him with Eugeni having closed the gap up to me completely.
Eugeni overtook me, and after a little bit of looking back also started building a gap, although not at the same rate that John had done. As usual I was happy to stick to my own pace and let them run their own races. Pavel went along with his camera to film Eugeni.
About two thirds of the way up it started snowing. As we were going to be hitting exposed windy ridges soon I stepped off the track into a sheltered dip and stopped to put on my Outdry Extreme waterproof down mid-layer, so I was now back to a warm and double-protected 4 layers. Eugeni and Pavel were disappearing out of sight whilst I did this.
By the time I reached the first big peak of Knock Fell it was a real winter wonderland scene, with snow completely covering the ground. The footsteps of the lads in front were being filled rapidly by the still falling snow. As usual, I made my own pace, keeping my effort nice and steady. The weather was now quite dangerous, as it usually is around Cross Fell during the Spine, but I was nice and comfortable in my winter gear.
The stone slabs along the route across through Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell, and finally the big push up onto Cross Fell, were impossible to see due to the layer of snow, but could be “tapped” with my walking poles to find the most solid route.
Coming off Cross Fell there was no trace of the route, so it was GPS work all the way down to find the start of the path to Greg’s Hut. It was still windy, snowing, and notably cold as I approached Greg’s Hut. I knew the legendary hospitality was waiting inside, but I elected to run straight past. It would be a lot easier than going into a warmer environment and then trying to leave again into the cold.
Apparently John and Eugeni had both stopped here, and I was informed that I was only a few minutes behind Eugeni when I passed as a result. He was out of sight, though. That left me with the long steady descent off the mountain down into Garrigill. I ran out of light just before reaching the village and stopped to put my head torch on.
The regular crew of trail angels were waiting in Garrigill handing out drinks and treats. I slowed for a brief chat, before leaving the company behind to make the last part of the journey to CP4 running along the river valley towards Alston. I was starting to feel tired, as my circadian rhythms reacted to the darkness. That was good, from the point of view of getting good sleep at CP4 in Alston.
A good enthusiastic crew greeted me into CP4 at Alston. After de-gearing my layers I had a hot chocolate and baked potato with cheese. It pained me to turn down the lasagne on offer, but I was fully intending to stay gluten free as much as possible, even under race conditions. Chatting with the crew here I was surprised to learn that John had gone straight through here without sleeping. I wondered if he realised that even though the next stage looks easy on paper, due to the lack of big climbs, it was probably the most difficult in reality due to the awful under foot conditions. Lots of bog at the best of times.
I had no intention of suffering through the latter end of the next stage with sleep deprivation, so I was definitely sleeping here. I took two and a half hours of beautifully deep sleep, only woken at one point to the sound of cheering, presumably as Jayson arrived in.
After being woken I made my way down stairs to prepare to leave. Eugeni was already there, getting his legs looking after (he was lying on the floor with his feet raised against the wall getting some kind of deep massage). I then learned that Jayson had also gone straight through without sleeping and was also gone ahead up the trail after John. Those two were definitely pushing their sleep strategies. It would be interesting to see how they went.
I made it out the door before Eugeni. He seemed to be spending more time getting his feet ready. It looked like for now it was a battle for the last spot on the podium between Eugeni and myself. Since no-one else had arrived here we probably had a solid gap to the group behind. It was interesting to hear that Wouter, Simon and Sabrina were the next grupetto behind. Sabrina had a huge lead in the female race and seemed to be powering along. Wouter and Simon were having solid races. Everyone in this top 7 were part of my pre-race “people to watch”. Looks like I did a good job with my pre-race predictions.
I knew Eugeni was going to be faster than me, so wondered how long I would stay ahead. Heading through the Roman ruins at Whitley castle I could see his head torch behind, presumably closing in. I had to stop to adjust the wiring on my head torch as we headed through the mucky farmland near Kirkchaugh Station, and I could see him coming down the hill closing in.
Not long afterwards, a kilometer or two before hitting the road at Slaggyford he caught up with me. We said our hellos, before he ran on and slowly started building up a lead ahead. He was definitely fully confident in his GPS again.
A nice surprise was awaiting in Slaggyford, where I was given a cup of coffee by another wonderful trail Angel (“The Angel of Slaggyford”). She told me that Jayson was very chipper up ahead. He was clearly doing a good job with his sleep strategy, despite not stopping at CP4.
I really don’t like the Pennine Way along these sections. It is rough undulating ground, with a lot of bog. It seems to take forever to make very little progress. Still, it’s the same track for everyone! Coming towards the dip down and up before Lambley Common I could see Eugeni climbing out the other side of the dip. There was a second head torch with him, so I guessed there were film crews around. The only good thing about this section is that it is not as bad as what follows!
Heading down to the road crossing at the A689 I could see a van parked. It turned out to belong to the Japanese documentary crew. One of them pointed out a small container of goodies left by a trail angel for spine racers. I didn’t need anything from it. They told me that Eugeni was in the van having a break. Hmmmm…. I wasn’t sure about the legality of that. It was also odd that he was having a break here, having worked hard to overtake me and build a lead. The next section is very tricky to navigate, so I wondered if he planned to follow me here.
I headed over the fence and down through the non-existant trail. Finding the trail in here in the dark takes good trail hunting instincts, even with the GPS. About 5 minutes in I felt a presence behind me, and soon enough Eugeni was running right behind me. Since he had only recently overtaken me, and shown he was the faster runner, I slowed, waved him through, and told him to go ahead. Sure that was only polite 🙂
As he went ahead I was keeping a very close eye on him to see how mentally alert he was. It looked to me like he was having trouble reading his GPS at race speed, and was taking a lot longer than he should to figure things out. When he was running along he was making occasional stumbles that looked more like fatigue stumbles than anything else. I guessed that he was hoping to have a mental break through this section by just following my lead. But I wasn’t going to let that happen. He also asked me how long it was to the next CP. I just told him it was a very long way (we were less than half way there since CP4).
We headed down a short steep downhill section through a wooded area. He was having trouble and stumbling. Reaching the bottom he stopped to figure out where to head next. I stayed about 20 meters behind and waited. I could see a footbridge ahead which was the obvious track, but I wasn’t going to lead. After about a minute he figured it out and headed on. I turned my head torch off and let him head off into the distance. I was happy to let him off to work to find his own way, even though it was slowing me down to stay behind.
After a minute or two I turned my head torch on and headed on up the track. About 5 minutes later I was back about 50 meters behind Eugeni again. He was again struggling to work out the route. I stopped and turned my head torch off again, and waited for him to work his way forward.
A few minutes later I set off again. The navigation was easier now, and Eugeni was now a few hundred meters in front, occasionally looking back. About 5 minutes later I was approaching another small road crossing. I could see a van here again. It was the documentary crew of course, and one of them was going to join me for some filming.
As we headed off away from the road I asked how far in front Eugeni was. He told me that he was behind us in the van. I explained that I reckoned that it was against the rules for Eugeni to be using the van as a rest spot like that. But whatever, I now wanted to build enough of a lead quickly here so that Eugeni wouldn’t be able to simply follow my navigation, but would have to work out his own.
We climbed the gentle climb through the open bogland of Hartleyburn Common. I was joking with the cameraman that to call this part of the Pennine Way featureless would be too much of a compliment as it had a definite feature, and that feature was it was epicly crap. I occasionally looked back to see if I could see a head torch following, but couldn’t see any.
This is another section that seems to take forever with a big effort to make very little progress. I was doing a good job of finding what little track did exist though. I left my Cameraman companion behind at the A69 crossing, thankfully having put the worst of the featureless bog behind me, with still no trace of a following head torch. One last crossing of open land, followed by a run along the side of a golf course took me to the road crossing near Greenhead just before the start of the climb to Hadrian’s Wall.
There was a one-man checkpoint here. He let me know that Eugeni had pulled out of the race behind me. There was now a big gap ahead to Jayson and John (they had both been pulling away from me), and another big gap to the group behind. I reckoned I would be able to secure a podium result from here by just running my own race comfortably. With the two ahead running aggressive sleep strategies there was still a lot left to play out.
I tend to divide Hadrian’s wall into 3 sections in my head, divided by road crossings. It’s hard work to run/walk the steep ups and downs of the natural fortifications. The first section was done in darkness, with the light starting to come up through the second section. I was starting to feel sleep deprived running this middle section, and wondered if the two ahead were suffering even more due to their lack of CP4 sleep.
The section along past Steel Rigg was in daylight, so I got to enjoy the superb classic views along here. It took until the end of the wall before the daylight scrubbed away the effects of sleep deprivation. However I was still feeling tired, especially my feet, so felt like I was making relatively slow progress. Progress was particularly slow through the waterlogged boggy trails around Haughton Common, both in the open ground and through the forest.
The slog was very nicely broken up by one or two trail angels along the way. As ever Horneystead farm was a huge highlight. I took a good 15 minutes or more here for a lovely chat with the Spine race’s original and best supporter. From there the trip to the next CP at Bellingham seems shorter. I just had to slog it out and get there.
With tired feet and a somewhat tired mind I arrived into CP5 at Bellingham. As usual I had my own race plan here, which was to take a relatively long sleep in preparation for the big push over the Cheviots to the finish, which I knew would take a full overnight stretch. I was thinking of a full 3 hours here, depending on the gaps.
I learned that John had not stayed too long here. And following him Jayson had taken even less time, hardly stopping at all. They were both way off down the trail heading for Byrness. Jayson was really pushing out his non-sleeping strategy. According the CP crew he was actually looking very chipper and in good shape. And looking at the current state of the trackers he was actually closing in on John, with plenty of time left to fully catch him. It was turning into some battle up front.
John and Jayson were both so far ahead of me that I had very little chance of catching them by outrunning them. The only way I was likely to catch one of them would be if they took themselves out of the race. Since they seemed to be pushing limits, this wasn’t just a small possibility, even at this late stage of the race. So from my point of view I didn’t have to factor racing them into my calculations.
I also had about a 4 hour gap to the group behind. They had now broken up and were not running together. Simon was leading the charge, with Wouter a kilometer or two behind. There was a slightly bigger gap to Sabrina after that. So given that I reckoned a 3 hour sleep was good to go, which would hopefully give me enough time to get out before Simon arrived in.
Eugeni was in the hall recovering and being treated for his various injuries. He was back to being his usual happy friendly self, and we communicated as best we could. He was indicating that his feet were what caused him to have to pull out of the race.
I had my usual hot chocolate and baked potato with cheese before pulling on my super-warm waterproof down jacket and settling in for a sleep on one of the couches in the designated sleeping hall. Just before heading into the hall news came through that Jayson had retired from the race due to picking up an injury. I was gutted for him not making the finish. But I knew he had pushed himself to aim for the win, and I admired and agreed with his call to give it a go. He would be back, and he will win this race in the future for sure.
It was a pretty solid sleep, thankfully. After being woken I changed into new gear for the final stage. The forecast was for dry but cold weather, so I would bring along all my warmest gear. As I was preparing Jayson arrived into the hall, and we had a bit of a chat. He seemed to be in pretty good spirits under the circumstances. I was glad to get the opportunity to commiserate with him in person.
I was literally up and walking towards the door as Simon arrived through the door right in front of me. We said our hellos, and I asked did he know he was now in 3rd place. After our brief chat I carried on out the door and on to the last leg of the race. It was dark again now, so it was head torch on from the get-go.
I could do the first few kilometers with my eyes closed, knowing it so well after the snow shoes “episode” from a few years ago. I wanted to keep a good pace up, as there was a good chance that either Simon or Wouter would take a much shorter break than me at CP5, and would close up considerably as a result. So I didn’t relax and kept the pace nice and steady, running where I could, allowing for terrain and slope.
The Pennine way route through Paddon Hill was reinstated this year. There had been a diversion around Paddon Hill for the last few years due to forest felling and path construction. I remembered getting “Land Down Under” stuck in my head as an earworm here the last time I ran on the Paddon Hill track, and as a result I had it back as an earworm again!
The old track after Paddon hill leading into the forest road through Redesdale Forest was one of the most awful boggy sections of the Pennine Way. Before this year’s race Al Pepper had been telling me about taking his dog with him on a recce here, and having to carry his dog on his shoulder almost the whole way as a result of the bog being so awful that the dog was stuck and unable to move. Thankfully this was the section where a new track had been built, so it was at least solid ground all the way this time.
Even though I was relatively well slept it was still nighttime, and the run along the forest road is a bit hypnotic and sleep inducing. I ended up doing a bit of singing to myself to try to keep myself more awake, with a few tunes from Chariots of Fire running through my head (and out into the forest). Spotting the moon rising to my right this then changed to singing “full moon rising”, even though it was only a half moon!
Pavel had been filming the two ahead earlier, and was waiting for me a few kilometers from Byrness, and joined me for some filming on the run into to the safety check in Byrness. No more singing! Byrness was the last oasis of civilisation before the big push over the Cheviots to the finish. There is a half an hour time limit on stopping here. That’s enough for some delicious “neeps and tatties” and a few cups of coffee for a caffeine hit. From the trackers I learned that my first pursuer had only just left CP5, so I had maintained a big lead to here. I wouldn’t be caught as long as I could just keep making forward progress. In front John was nearly at hut 2, so was practically home and hosed.
So I left Byrness with very little race pressure, and knowing I could keep the pace comfortable. I still wanted to get this finished up as soon as possible, so didn’t want to relax too much. Pavel was filming for the first half of the initial steep climb up onto the Cheviots ridgeline, but soon left to head back for the comfort of Byrness. So now I would have the Cheviots pretty much to myself for the rest of the race.
I enjoy the feeling of isolation up on the Cheviots. They are a very interesting and enjoyable range of hills. The weather was relatively benign. The wind was still pretty strong, but it was generally a tail wind. Thankfully there was no rain or snow. So it was relatively easy to keep a comfortable temperature despite the cold.
I made good progress along the initial ridges. Heading towards the old Roman camps at Chew Green I started to feel some sleep deprivation again. I tried to use this to focus on making steady forward progress towards Hut 1 at the base of Lamb Hill. Because of sleep deprivation time seemed to move a bit slower though. I was still running, and the boggy ground conditions meant I had plenty to concentrate on even when talking nonsense to myself.
When I finally reached hut 1 I decided I would reward myself by attempting to have a power nap there. I got out my phone and turned it on, and set an alarm for about 30 minutes time. I also put on my extra Outdry Extreme waterproof down jacket, lay down on the bench. Surprisingly I did get a nap here. Upon waking I decided to try something new. I had brought some earphones with me, so for the first time in a race I put them on, set the phone to airplane mode and started playing some music. I also treated myself to some gluten free christmas cake that my mother in law had made for me. Quite a treat up here in the middle of the Cheviots.
With that, I powered out of hut 1 and on up Lamb Hill. Something was working, as I was much more energised now. I started really enjoying the journey across the hills. The music was gelling in nicely. I was keeping an eye out for “the hole” which I had managed to fall into twice before, and which John had described falling into on his “Cheviot Goat” race report. With that much alertness I did poke it out with my poles and went around it for a change rather than soaking myself by plunging waist deep into it.
This year the windy Gyle lived up to its name, with a very strong cross wind building up on approach and peaking as I ran through the col. Last year I was having big sleep deprivation issues on the section from here. I had the Kate Bush song “Army Dreamers” stuck in my head, even though I hadn’t heard it in about 10 years, and had about 3 alter egos having a discussion in my head about how best to progress from here. Luckily this year nothing like this was happening. Instead I was singing along, and occasionally dancing to the music playing through my earphones, with no rowing alter-egos. The light started to come up here too, which also helped, both by moving my circadian rhythms onto a more awakened state, and also enabling me to see exactly what lay ahead.
The long draggy climb up from there went pretty smoothly as a result. The cloud height was low enough that I climbed into mist for a while, losing the great views. A sharp left turn at the peak of that climb starts what is in my head the final section, the descent towards Kirk Yetholm. After an initial flat section it soon dives into a very steep descent. The mist cleared to reveal spectacular views ahead, and the sight of Hut 2 far below. I could see that there were one or two people there. Pavel had said that he was scheduled to be there for filming.
With the music blasting into my ears, being fairly awake, and descending towards the finish I was in a fairly joyous mood. I warmly greeted Pavel and co when I descended down to them. A few minutes later I had run up to Hut 2, where there was an offer of a hot drink. But I was flying now and didn’t want to stop at all, so declined the kind offer and carried on.
There is a sting in the tail here, with a little bump ahead, followed by a haul up the last major climb to the Schil. But in my energetic state I made relatively light work of it with a combination of running and fast marching. Pavel left to return to Hut 2 before the start of the Schil climb. After cresting the Schil it was pretty much all downhill from there. I took it all at a steady pace. There were a few people out getting in some morning exercise, and warm hellos were exchanged with them all.
When I reached the road in the valley I was starting to feel tiredness in my feet, so even though I was still running I wasn’t actually moving very fast. Coming down the hill I had realised there was a chance of finishing in under 100 hours, but I soon decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to push for that, so I was now simply ambling in as best I could. Before the last little stinger of a hill climb my old friend Damon joined me to welcome me to the finish. He was keeping his tradition of meeting the leaders on the Cheviots. Unlike last year I decided it wasn’t worth even trying to run the last hill, so simply walked up and over, to see the very welcome sight of Kirk Yetholm.
I got myself back running again for the approach to the finish line. I did a little leap before finally tapping the wall to finish the Spine race. And boy was I happy. Second place was a great result from my point of view. I had always known that an athlete of John Kelly’s calibre was the red hot favourite to win. I was happy to have made him have to work for it here and there! It was great to see that John was there to see me finish, and it was a true honour that he was the one to present me with my race finisher’s medal. We had a nice enjoyable chat on the finish line.
I was on a high for the rest of the day, and enjoyed being part of the Spine family, and staying in “the bubble” for as long as possible.
My pre-race predictions turned out to be very on-point, with Simon and Wouter arriving in later in the day having agreed to finish together as joint 3rd. Later that night Sabrina arrived in with a huge win in the female race, as well as great overall time. For the second year in a row the first British runner to finish was female. Jayson and Eugeni were also in the mix right at the front of the field of course. But injuries took them out of the race. In the Spine taking care of yourself and making it the finish line is all part of the race game. Finding the balance between maximising your potential performance and pushing it that little bit too far is another skill which the Spine will test to its limits.
Another big source of satisfaction from my performance this year was competing with athletes who are a lot younger than I am. There is a huge gap between myself and athletes like John and Jayson. I seem to be mentioning this factor more and more in my race reports. But that is because I am noticing myself how I am losing speed as well beyond my 50th birthday. I do get the benefits of experience and a certain amount of wisdom though, which is some compensation.
Thanks to Columbia for providing me with such great gear which was perfectly suited to the running environment of this race. The Outdry Extreme shells were with me all the way, and were key to being comfortable throughout the race. It adds hugely to my confidence knowing that I have the right gear to take on whatever extreme the weather throws my way.
Thanks also to Richard Donovan from Global Running Adventures for everything he does for me, and for the ultra running community in general. Thanks also to the Great Outdoors shop in Dublin for helping me with other key pieces of gear like my Leki walking poles. They took quite a battering in the race, but survived intact and fully functional.
Thanks to Helen for sanity checking all the Spine preparation. Thanks to everyone in the Spine Family, from CP crews to Saftey teams, to HQ for making such an amazing experience for the athletes. Thanks also to all the trail Angels adding unexpected treats along the way. Special thanks to Damon and family for being the origal end of race trail Angels, and for looking after me when I’m at my most battered. Thanks to anyone who helped along the way, and thanks to everyone who ws following online. All messages of support are always read and appreciated.