We will be strong
I’m sure we have the strength to carry on
I know my right from wrong
I know you’ve lost I’ve won …
It is a cheesy rock song from my youth. One I listen to before every ultra-marathon to get me pumped up. It’s more force of habit than genuine motivation these days, but I’m listening to it all the same. It is 9.50 am on Saturday the 9th of January 2016 and a race I’ve been obsessing about for the best part of a year – dreaming about, planning for, spending extraordinary amounts of money on kit for – a race billed as the ‘most brutal’ in Britain, is 10 minutes from starting. In our warm car with my wife and eldest daughter, I know that my wife is more nervous than I am. She has to live with the insecurity over the next 7 days of not really knowing if I’m struggling or thriving; lost or ploughing on. I try to think of something reassuring to say. ‘I am one hundred per cent confident in my own abilities’, I try with as much conviction as I can put into my voice. It is true: I am one hundred per cent confident in my abilities. The bit that I don’t add is that I’m not one hundred per cent confident that my abilities are enough to get me to the end of this race. As I get out of the car and step into the cold, I am minutes away from finding out.
My reasons for entering the Spine race 2016 were simple enough. Up to 2015 I had entered and finished 9 ultra-marathons. Four of those had been at distances of around 100 miles. In my first 100 mile race – the West Highland Way 2013 – I had taken 7 ½ hours to complete the last 15 miles. By that time my legs had completely seized up and I couldn’t bend my knees. So I had gritted my teeth, and walked, straight legged at 2 miles per hour until I got to the finishing line. The thing was, I had never once come close to giving up. And no matter how difficult any of my subsequent races were – and they all get difficult at some point – I had never given serious consideration to quitting (or, in the parlance of the ultra-runner, ‘DNF’ing’ – DNF meaning Did Not Finish). And so my reasons for entering the Spine were two-fold. First, to do something a bit different as my tenth ultra. Second, to test the limits of my endurance.
With hindsight, it was naïve to enter the Spine as my tenth ‘ultra’. Having paid my entry fee it took me about 4 weeks of research, prep and reading to realise that the Spine is not really an ultra-marathon at all. It is an extreme adventure/endurance event over many days. But it is not an ultra-marathon in the normal sense of that term. Because an ultra-marathon is a running event which is longer than 26.2 miles. Sure, at 268 miles – the full length of the Pennine Way – the Spine qualifies in distance – but one thing I realised very early on was that for the likes of me, this was no running event. For one thing, even in the summer, when I began training on the Pennine Way itself, large sections of it are un-runnable. There are long, technical rocky sections and mile after mile of bog. There are steep uphill climbs. Factor in a 10 kilogram back pack and the hours of darkness and I soon realised that I was going to be doing very little running. In fact, by November 2015 I had decided that I was going to do the entire event in walking boots partly as a concession to how little of the course was runnable for me and partly to protect an Achilles tendon that had been giving me grief on and off for several weeks.
It also now seems terribly gauche to say I wanted to ‘test the limits of my endurance’ in winter on a course which could have claimed my life. But there we go. I wanted to do something a bit different for my tenth ultra-marathon and I wanted to test the limits of my endurance. And with those thoughts, I stepped out of the car, kissed Nicole and Clara goodbye for the last time and lined up as close to the back of the pack as I could. There were 68 starters. In keeping with previous years only around a third of those would finish. Twenty four, this year. I would be one of them. But my goodness, it would be close.
When the air horn sounded in Edale community field to signal the start of the race, some ran and some walked, as we all crossed the start line. The start line is cruelly, but in keeping with the race ethos, one mile before the official start of the Pennine Way, so you’ve already got an extra mile to factor into the 268 miles that represent the official length of the race. My observation, in hindsight, of the people who ran from the outset is that they could be broken down into 2 groups. The handful of people who came in the top finishing positions. And a load of people who DNF’ed over the course of the next 48 hours. Ultra-running generally is an exercise in energy conservation. It is about expending your resources at exactly the right level to get you to the end, wherever that may be. The Spine is the extreme example of that and whatever strategy others were using, I had long since realised while preparing for the race, that if I was to get to the end at all I needed to conserve as much energy as possible during the first 2 days. And so I walked. Just walked. A decent enough pace – around 20 minute miles – over muddy terrain. Keep moving and keep injury free were my mantras. I tried to engage a few different people in conversation during the opening few miles but most people seemed locked into their own thoughts, so I let them be.
The first climb in the Pennine Way is Jacob’s ladder, around 3 miles in. It rises a few hundred metres on to the Kinder plateau, ground zero for English walkers. I have decided to race wearing a tried and tested layering system. I wear a Ron Hill thermalite long sleeved base layer. It was in the goody bag for last year’s West Highland Way race and is a practical and warm next-to-skin layer. It also has a long chest zip which I find very useful for regulating my core temperature. Over that I wear a mid-weight, zipped and hooded fleece top. The sleeves have thumb loops which mean it is great for keeping wrists warm. Decathlon were selling the bright orange version of this fleece for half price (12 quid) presumably on the basis that it looks awful. Don’t care. It’s nice and warm and does the job. Over this I wear a Montane E-vent mountain jacket – my waterproof layer. These 3 layers are enough to keep me warm at all times of day and night, apart from the especially brutal last night of the race when temperatures dropped to minus 15. However, going up Jacob’s ladder I begin to sweat. Despite months of telling myself that as soon as a problem arises, I’ll stop and sort it out, I press on. That was a mistake. For the rest of daylight hours on day one I am always on the verge of being slightly too warm. The awareness of a problem can be a nagging drain on mental resolve in a race of this length. But more importantly, that sweat which is making you too warm during the day, can quickly freeze and make you too cold when the sun sets. I escaped quite lightly this time, but that first afternoon was a low spot for me.
Nicole met me at Torside Reservoir, the first road head after Snake Pass. It was still daylight and I wasn’t really enjoying the race yet. I told her I was fine, took a big drink of Lucozade and pressed on into the hills. The race has become a bit more spaced out now and while I am generally within sight of another competitor I have plenty of room to think my own thoughts and run through my mental checklists designed to see me safe to the end. The biggest bonus is that my Achilles tendon has not given me any problems at all today. As the light begins to fade on the climb up to Soldier’s Hill I stop and get my head torch out. The temperature drops a couple of degrees and the wind begins to pick up. My core temperature also drops to a more comfortable level and in the darkness I begin to enjoy the race. Anyone who has been camping may have experienced the supremely comforting feeling of being snuggled down in a warm sleeping bag while listening to the elements just inches away on the other side of a tent wall. With the right gear it is possible to recreate this experience while out walking. It has been one of my favourite parts of training for the Spine: walking in the small hours, through hostile weather, completely dry and warm in my own little bubble. I cinch up the drawstrings on my hood, pull my gloves up over the wrists of my fleece and walk on into the night. This is what I entered the Spine for.
By the time I reach the next road head, at Wessenden, I am aware of chafing on my upper back. I’ve done hours of training with exactly the same back pack set up and never had chafing between my shoulder blades. Why now? I make the sensible decision to stop and try to sort it out. There are a few supporters there with cars, replenishing water for those who needed it. I ask one of them if I can use the boot of his car to sort my back pack out and he says yes. It is pretty windy with driving rain as I balance my pack in his boot. When I open it up, I can see that the closing mechanism for my drinks bladder has folded down on the outside of the bladder, rather than the inside, meaning that it is digging into my back. My fingers are cold as I try to rearrange it and I can feel the social embarrassment of the fact that I am responsible for letting a load of rainwater into the boot of this kind stranger. I do a quick fix and try to wedge my insulated mittens behind the top of the bladder to provide extra cushioning. I thank the stranger and cross the road towards Wessenden Head Reservoir. It is clear, within a few steps that I haven’t solved the problem and the chafing will continue. It didn’t end my race, but it could have done. A lesson still not properly learnt: when a problem arises, sort it out properly there and then.
At the Brun Clough road head one of the mountain rescue teams have set up a Gazebo and chairs with a big urn of boiling water. They can’t do enough to help, clearing a space for me to sit down, making me a black tea and rehydrating a 600 calorie pouch of curry that I have in my back pack.
For the last few miles I have been aware not only of the chafing in my upper back but a wet right foot. While my tea cools to drinking temperature I decide to change my sock. Like many competitors in the race I’m wearing a combination of super-fine toe socks (‘Why have you got gloves on your feet?’, as my youngest daughter asks) and waterproof over socks. Waterproof socks are great but prone to failure. Basically, the slightest hole and they are rendered instantly useless. Spare socks are one of the (many) compulsory items of kit so I might as well use them. I have been going for between 20 and 30 miles by this point. Nearly all of it through thick deep mud. I am used to taking my boots off at the end of a walk. Just before I jump into a hot shower. I am now encountering the impossibility of getting my boot off and on again without getting my hands completely plastered in mud. It’s either that or get my gloves wet, which could have even worse long term consequences. Before the race, I told people – with a degree of pride – about the real risk of getting trench foot during this event. My own experience is that my feet stayed clean and dry throughout thanks to frequent changes of waterproof socks. However, if there is such a thing, I think I may have got trench hand. By the end of the race my hands were shrivelled and orange like those of a ninety year old woman who’d worked all her life in a kipper factory. Even after 4 baths and much scrubbing I haven’t got all the mud out from my fingernails and my skin still isn’t back to normal. Anyway, back at Brun Clough, I got my boot back on, wiped the worst of the mud from my hands onto my trousers and repacked my backpack. The dehydrated meal takes around 8 minutes to rehydrate in its pouch so I set off into the night, thanking my hosts, spooning hot rice and chicken korma into my mouth as I went.
The next road head, at Haigh Gutter, isn’t far away at all. Nicole met me there and I was feeling warm, nourished and in high spirits. She struggled to open the car door and then couldn’t hold her umbrella up in the wind. I hadn’t really realised how bad the weather was up to that point: a good sign that I was wearing the right clothes for the conditions. I told Nicole, truthfully, that I was really enjoying it now that it was dark. She said she would meet me again at the M62 crossing before saying goodnight. There are some tricky sections of the Pennine Way around this stage. Long, rocky edges linked by boggy morasses. There is one section in particular where there is no clear path, but just a series of wooden posts every 100 metres or so to signal the right direction. These are great on a clear summer’s day, but not much help at night time unless you happen to share DNA with a bat. As I said at the top of this report, I had spent the best part of a year planning and obsessing about this event. One of the really good decisions I had come to was that my head torch by itself wasn’t going to be enough. There are many, many points on the Pennine Way where it climbs you over a stile into a field; the map shows that there is a stile at some point on the other side of the field and you can’t see where it is in the dark. To address this, I had bought a compact, powerful hand torch with a beam of 120m on full power. I rigged it up to a should holster on my back pack so it was out of the way most of the time, but when needed could be used to pick out the correct path. It was very useful on this section for picking out the posts.
It always feels like a significant landmark when the Pennine Way crosses the M62. I can’t help thinking about the journeys being taken by the hundreds of drivers racing underneath my feet as I cross the single span bridge over their heads. The warm beds and hot dinners they’re going home to. Can they see my head torch up above? Do they wonder what a lone walker is doing out at 10pm on winter’s evening? I’m over the motorway and the noise gradually recedes.
The route soon passes the White House pub. It has never actually been open during any of my reconnaissance runs but we’ve been told it will be open for racers tonight. I catch up with a few racers in the lead up to the pub. I am able to point out the correct path down onto the road, as I’ve gone wrong here before on some of my training runs. The others decide they can’t resist the lure of a warm public house with the promise of hot food. I decide that I’m happy to press on by myself, knowing that the first checkpoint isn’t that far away.
The next landmark is Stoodley Pike – a huge manmade monument on the top of a hill overlooking Hebden Bridge. There is a fairly flat section, tracking more reservoirs in the run up to it, and I am maintaining good time. I begin to think about my planned strategy for the first checkpoint. It will be sometime between midnight and 1 am when I arrive. I have made myself a laminated list, pinned inside the lid of my 20 kilogram drop bag, setting out my routine for each checkpoint. I have planned a minimum of 2 hours sleep at Hebden Bridge, assuming that I can get a bed at what is the busiest of the checkpoints. Perhaps as a result of thinking too far ahead, I make my first slight navigational error and end up approaching Stoodley Pike from the wrong direction. Luckily I have realised my error and take the correct line back off the hill for the wind down to Hebden Bridge.
Not 3 weeks ago, Hedben Bridge was on the news with the main High Street 8 feet under water. Luckily, the water has abated and I cross the river and valley bottom without event. The climb up the other side of the valley is dramatically steep. It is a combination of historic cobbled paths and winding muddy tracks. I labour my way upwards and onwards, until at last I hit the road that signals the turn off for the checkpoint in a Scout centre. As I walk the kilometre down the road there are plenty of people coming the other way. Many of these will be ‘Challengers’. There is a parallel race covering the first 2 stages of the Pennine Way which started 3 hours before the Spine. Many of the Challengers self-deprecatingly refer to their event as ‘the fun run’. It is 108 miles long. It is itself a serious and technical event which attracts many top level ultra-runners. Still, whether they’re Challengers or Spiners it is difficult not to be a bit depressed by the fact that they’ve checked in, had a hot meal, repacked their bags, maybe had a sleep and got back on the road again, before I’ve even reached the checkpoint.
The last 300 yards to the checkpoint are off road and a treacherously steep downhill section through a muddy wood. I take it very slowly, conscious of how easy it would be to injure myself in my eagerness to get indoors. Indeed, when I get to the checkpoint I hear 3 different people saying that they are DNF’ing having fallen on that last climb/slide down. After what seems like an interminable period of sliding down to the next tree, finding a branch to cling on to, sliding again, finding a rock to lodge my foot behind and generally making slow but safe progress downhill, I arrive. There are smiling faces to greet me. ‘Do you need your drop bag?’ they ask. I tell them that I do, because I’m planning a sleep. ‘Your drop bag’s just up here in this hut’ they say ‘then you need to go down to that hut there to change your boots’. ‘Okay’ I mumble, tired. ‘Just meet me down at the boot room, if that’s okay’. ‘No, you need to collect your drop bag and take it down to the boot room yourself’.
Oh yes. Just because I’ve walked 42 miles through mud and ice and am completely knackered, doesn’t mean it is suddenly someone else’s job to wait on me. My 20 kilogram drop bag is my 20 kilogram responsibility. And it is my job to lug it down those icy stone steps without falling over and breaking my leg. Welcome to the Spine.
I had built up an idea of what the checkpoints might be like. The truth is, they are all different and the atmosphere changes the further into the race you go. They become more and more like zombie hostels as the week progresses. They all stink of human sweat and menthol. Hebden Bridge was busy and chaotic. I was worried – having read all the blogs – about losing my boots in the boot room, so had brought a length of pink ribbon to tie them together. In reality, I needn’t have worried so much, as nearly everyone was in trainers and mine were one of the few pairs of walking boots. The indelible marker with which I had written my surname and number (14) inside each tongue, had turned out to be ‘delible’ when faced with 42 miles of Yorkshire bog water. The ink was gone. Having got out of my boots I found a space roughly big enough for my drop bag in the corridor. There were bags everywhere and I was pleased at my decision to put all my stuff into separately labelled bags with my name and number on it. I tried my best to operate efficiently and get things done in the right order. In truth, it isn’t easy when you’re stood in a corridor with people trying to squeeze past you, also knackered, and trying to man (or woman) handle 20 kilogram drop bags of their own. I retrieved my wash kit and ‘night wear’ (long johns, thermal top and down gilet) and headed for the showers. I had expected long queues and no hot water. However, I was straight in and the water was plenty hot enough to bring some life back to my bones. A quick scrub down with some mint shower gel to enliven me and it was into clean dry sleeping kit. Next stop was the ‘drying room’. Again, I had read a lot about these in the various blogs and, in particular, the danger of losing kit in them. I had imagined some vast, arena-sized hall with wet sports gear draped from every available edge. The drying room at Hebden Bridge was significantly smaller than my downstairs toilet. There were a couple of pipes and strings across the ceiling. Luckily, I found enough room to get my wet kit hung up. Next on my laminated ‘to do’ list was food. The choice at Hebden Bridge was chili with jacket potato. Normally this is the sort of food I crave after a long day out, but in the small hours of the morning I was finding it a little difficult to force down. Nevertheless, my research had convinced me of the importance of getting as many calories – and especially ‘hot’ calories – on board as possible, so I made myself eat every last scrap. A couple of cups full of blackcurrant squash and it was upstairs to the medical room and bunk rooms.
Having finished the race, I know now that there were a young and dedicated team of 10 qualified and trainee doctors working throughout the week. They were tireless and selfless in their efforts and their unfussy good humour stopped me feeling sorry for myself at points when I could have been low. My first introduction to the medics was a faltering hello followed by me rather sheepishly asking if the young doctor in question wouldn’t mind putting some sudocreme on a part of my back that I couldn’t quite reach. I half expected her to say that she was a qualified medic and wasn’t there to rub baby cream on me but nothing was too much trouble. Indeed, she looked at my back and told me that the chafing was quite bad and that I had lost a bit of skin on my lower back. She suggested getting it taped up to prevent further chafing and so I arranged to see her again after I’d had a sleep. And so, to bed.
My plans with respect to sleep had changed considerably as I trained and planned for the Spine. I had been through pretty much every permutation: taking a tent and doing all my sleeping away from checkpoints; then I decided that was too much weight to carry; taking a tarp and bivvy and sleeping away from the checkpoints; then having practiced this a few times I accepted that even in ideal conditions it was taking me a minimum of an hour to pack up a tarp, get some food in, and get moving again and that this was likely to take much longer in the cold, with numb fingers; taking a tarp and only using it when necessary; after further practice I realised that not only is there significant delay in setting up and taking down a tarp but a wet tarp takes up about 3 times the volume of a dry one. Also, as it got closer to the event, I began to question whether there would be anywhere on the entire course that wouldn’t have several inches of surface water and/or mud. Having gone through all these thought processes, I had settled on a strategy of using every warm dry checkpoint with a bed to sleep in. I had decided it would be mad to pass these up. I had figured on a maximum of 4 hours sleep per checkpoint. How naïve that sounds now! Still, as I went to bed in Hebden Bridge it was with a view to catching between 2 and 4 hours of z’s before heading back out onto the Pennine Way. I put my ear plugs in and pulled my eye mask down. I snuggled down into my warm sleeping bag and waited for sleep to come. And waited. And thought about how much I’d enjoyed the night time section of the race. And how different the checkpoint had been from my expectation. And fretted, slightly, that I hadn’t been able to find an available plug socket for my GPS watch. And waited for sleep to come, while beginning to wonder if it would. And thought. And wondered about the next section. And waited. And accepted that I was wide awake. It took me 50 minutes. At the end of that time I had the following, minor epiphany: ‘If I had just woken up from a sleep and felt this wide awake and this ready to go, I’d be absolutely delighted. I am extremely unlikely to fall asleep just by lying here any longer. Therefore, I should just get up and go’. Decision made. Action time.
I can’t remember which I did first: got my back taped up or ate some porridge. I know that I did both. I know that various volunteers came to look at my back as it was being taped and commented that I was already half Smurf from behind. (The tape which the medics used to hold us runners together was blue. By the end of day 3 my back was completely covered in it. It never came off and meant that the chafing I had been suffering from did not particularly trouble me). I know that I loaded my porridge with jam and wolfed it down. I had given up coffee for the 2 weeks preceding the race. I had an almighty headache for about the first 48 hours of ‘cold turkey’ and had then been alright. I’d read something in a blog about weaning yourself off of caffeine before the race and did so in the hope that it would have a more pronounced effect when I then reverted to it. I made myself 2 strong cups and added sugar which I don’t normally take. All clothes out of drying room. Batteries changed. Drop bag repacked. All items on my laminated to do list ticked off. Boots on. Ready to roll.
When I was sat in the boot room making my last minute preparations, the kind lady who seemed to be running the checkpoint came in to make sure the various runners were all okay. Another runner I’d not seen before said he was okay but didn’t really want to go out into the dark by himself. This probably should have rung an alarm bell somewhere: how could you enter and train for an event like this and be fearful of the night. Anyway, I was feeling upbeat and offered to run the first bit with him. (It occurs to me that this is as good a point as any, to deal with some terminology. As I’ve already intimated, the Spine is not – at least not for me – a running race. I would be surprised if I ran 3 miles out of 268. It is probably misleading for the organisers of the event to refer to it as a ‘running’ race when the vast majority of those completing it will walk nearly the entire way. Anyway, like everyone else, I fall into the unhelpful terminology of ‘running’. Perhaps, because ‘walking’ doesn’t seem to encapsulate the sheer bloody effort that moving forwards actually requires in this race). I offered to ‘run’ with him and he accepted. Things did not start well. We managed to get lost within 100 yards of the checkpoint and were hacking vertically up through some trees trying to find the steep path by which we’d descended. This was definitely one of those cases of 2 minds being less than the sum of their parts because we kept convincing each other that the ‘real’ path would be just up that next bank and behind that next tree. After 30 minutes we were still lost and probably no more than 200 yards from the checkpoint. I told my new buddy that I was going back to the checkpoint to sort it out properly. He seemed to be getting a bit despondent and I was beginning to question whether he was going to be good company. (I’m sure he thought exactly the same about me). We got back to the checkpoint, and I double checked with someone what the correct path was. There were 2 more runners also leaving and the 4 of us headed up the path again. Within 50 yards the 3 of them took a higher path, which I was convinced was where we had gone wrong the first time round. I shouted after them that I thought it was wrong and that I was going to try the lower path. In fact, having talked to some other competitors, it seems there were probably 2 possible paths out of the checkpoint and the first time round I had got lost between them. This time, the other 3 had found their way onto the higher path and I opted for the lower path (which was the one I had come down on so felt ‘right’ to me). Despite losing nearly an hour, I was glad that I had ended up on my own again, inside my own warm dry bubble and self-contained with my own thoughts. The muddy, icy path was actually a bit easier going up than coming down and I soon regained the road. Then it was 2/3 of a mile till the Pennine Way was re-joined, crossing Heptonstall Moor. The English folk singer, Steve Tilston, wrote an evocative song about David Hartley ‘King of the Coiners’ a local resident who subsidised his earnings as a weaver by chipping the edges off of coins and smelting them into new coins. He was eventually caught, hanged and buried at Heptonstall. In the same graveyard that Sylvia Plath would later make a site of pilgrimage for the frilly shirted. Those sound like morbid thoughts, but the song itself is a paean to working class resistance and I was belting it out as I crossed the moor. The snow was driving in from the side. It was dark but I could see; cold but I was warm. I was well fed. I was still within the first 24 hours of the Spine and I couldn’t have been happier.
A Funny Sort of Angel.
Coming down off of Heptonstall Moor the daylight broke. Everything had a fresh dusting of snow. I reached into the hip pocket of my backpack for a bag of dried fruit and nuts that I was keeping there. A handful of calories later, a voice shouts from behind me:
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes, I’m fine’.
The voice catches me up. He is an older competitor. I surreptitiously check out his back pack and see that he is also a red number (red for Spine; blue for Challenger).
‘It’s just’ the voice adds, by way of explanation ‘you were staggering all over the road a bit’.
I laugh and explain that my meanderings are not due to fatigue or disorientation but due to my inability to put the bag of fruit and nuts back into the hip pocket of my backpack properly. I consciously walk straight and true, to prove to this newcomer that I’m not struggling. We chat on past Walshaw reservoirs and begin the climb up to Top Withins. There is a bothy up there, which I proudly thought I’d discovered on one of my training runs and had identified as a site for a possible first night’s bivvy. Until I discovered the extremely long Facebook thread dedicated specifically to the bothy and the issue of whether it would be open during the Spine. I had decided that even if I got in to it, I was likely to be sharing it with half the field. At some point I mentioned to the new voice that his surname must be very close to mine alphabetically because he was race number 12 and I was 14. ‘My name’s Brown, by the way. Stephen Brown’. ‘Well I’m Bowles. Ian Bowles’. The name seems familiar. I ask him if he writes a blog. He does. He writes under the name of Dartmoor Dog Runner.
As I’ve already mentioned, I prepared pretty obsessively for this race. And that involved reading everything that I could find about it. Of all the blogs I’d read, I’d particularly enjoyed those written by the Dartmoor Dog Runner, because they took a quirky, leftfield approach to the race, but one which – the more I prepared and trained – the more I could see was a correct approach. For example, it was reading one of Ian’s blogs that I had first come to see that this was not going to be a running race for me: it was going to be about consistent walking. It was reading his blogs that convinced me lightweight kit was of limited use if it broke the first time I used it or – worse – if I didn’t know how to use it. He had completed the course 3 times previously, so it seemed to me he was entitled to a viewpoint. We chatted about race prep and I tried to convince him that I’d done a lot of my own thinking about the race. I tried to convince him that even if I wasn’t a skilled orienteer I respected that the race was in large part about efficient navigation. (Indeed, I wouldn’t even claim to be an unskilled orienteer: I’m not an orienteer at all). I told him that to compensate for my lack of skills with map and compass I had navigated significant sections of the course, at night, with my GPS. And, because I figured that someone like the Dartmoor Dog Runner, who is known for blogging, might get sick of people quoting his own blog back at him, I talked about my family and my job, and asked him about his. At some point during the course of that first morning I specifically said to him:
‘Listen, please just say if you don’t want to walk together. I’ll completely understand’.
I would have done too. I know what it’s like when you’ve been walking or running with someone for a couple of hours and you begin to feel a sense of obligation to stick with them, even though your own race plans may tell you otherwise; or even though you’d rather just spend some time in your own headspace. Ian’s response was reassuringly blunt.
‘No, I’m happy to walk with you for a bit. You’re interesting and you don’t talk bollocks’.
At least that’s how I remember it. I’ll defer to Ian if he denies ever calling me interesting.
And so we marched on through the second day. Around Ponden Reservoir he found the tracker for one of the Challenger racers and handed it into to the next support car we came across. At the Cowling road crossing there was another mountain rescue team set up with hot water and drinks. We both had a cold drink and pressed on for Lothersdale where we knew the landlord had coated one side of his bar in plastic and was putting on hot food for racers. This section of the race – indeed most of this day – was notable for one thing. If the seventies might be summed up by ‘flares’, or the eighties by ‘Thatcher’, then day 2 of the Spine, for me, was ‘mud’. Sloppy, thick, gloopy mud. The sort of mud that you’d need six inch nails driven through the soles of your boots to get any sort of purchase on. I lost count of the number of times I fell over going through fields. I can recall that I had one spectacular fall which gave Ian much amusement in the retelling, on the descent to Lothersdale. It involved the initial feet going from beneath and slide onto the back. Standard falling. It then gracelessly moved into a 20 foot slide down the hill on my back while spinning through 360 degrees round the focal point of my backpack. It ensured that as I entered the Hare and Hounds pub I was shedding mud everywhere. Luckily the landlord seemed more than prepared for it and didn’t bat an eyelid. His special of a meal and drink for racers was randomly and inconveniently priced at £10.50. I’m sure like everyone else on the race I had a series of notes and no change. Well, the giant Yorkshire pudding filled with lamb hotpot and accompanying pint of full fat coke hit the spot. We hit the road replenished.
It was light when we left the pub and dark by the time we hit the canal before East Marton. Ian still didn’t seem to have changed his mind about me and we passed the time of day talking about this and that. At some point I broached my plan with him, which was to get to Hawes in one go and have a long sleep there. He told me it was a stupid plan and I accepted that he probably knew what he was talking about. That may have saved my race. I had got myself so fixed on not sleeping outside of checkpoints, that my strategy was all about doing a ‘monster’ second day from Hebden Bridge to Hawes (64 miles). I hadn’t adjusted this strategy to allow for the fact that I hadn’t had any sleep at checkpoint 1 and was still set on pushing through to checkpoint 2, in one go. I asked Ian what his plan was and he told me that he had a plan to sleep around Malham Tarn. This is known as ‘checkpoint 1.5’ and, unlike other checkpoints doesn’t offer hot food, showers, or anywhere to sleep. However, racers are welcome to bivvy around the Field Centre, where the checkpoint itself is. Ian told me that he had slept out round here on previous occasions and said I was welcome to join him. The fact that someone who had successfully completed the course before (including a top ten finish) was relaxed about stopping at checkpoint 1.5 for the second night, allowed me to abandon my own race strategy without getting stressed. I think what would have happened if I’d not met Ian, was that I would have pushed on through the night, determined to get to Hawes, and I probably would have come unstuck somewhere around the tricky technical climb up Pen Y Ghent. Whether I would have had the mental or physical resolve to work my way out of that, I don’t know. Meeting Ian meant that I made a sensible adjustment to my race strategy before I got into problems.
Before we got to Malham Tarn, we met Nicole at Gargrave. The Co-op was still open and we diverted (slightly) to buy up their supplies of high calorie pastry goods. Pasties, quiches, pies. We scoffed what we could at the roadside, I said goodnight to Nicole and pushed off. That was Sunday night. Nicole was working in Derby from Monday morning till Wednesday afternoon and promised to meet me again around Alston on Wednesday evening. That didn’t work out and I didn’t see Nicole again until after the end of the race. More of that later.
On the road out of Gargrave, I discovered that Ian Bowles, the semi-legendary, maverick Spine competitor – a 59 year old who blithely drops into conversation that his heart condition means he’s not really meant to go up hills – a man who prepares to the n’th degree but also happily admits that he’s never really read the rules – I discover that this man who once safely navigated himself and several other competitors off of the Cheviots during a full blown blizzard, using map and compass, can’t really tell the difference between left and right. Makes sense. He tells me that we’re looking for the Pennine Way on the left of the road. I’ve recce’d the route. I’m sure it’s on the right. I’m not about to start contradicting my elders and betters. I fix on the left hand side of the road, looking for the signpost. It doesn’t come. Eventually, we accept that we’ve gone too far. I turn on the GPS to check where we might have gone wrong. It shows that the path is off to our right. Not left. ‘Right. That’s what I meant’ Ian says with a chuckle. I make a mental note to double check if Ian ever tells me to watch the sheer drop on my right. Or left. We correct ourselves and carry on. We make Malham town and then the long exhausting climb up Malham Cove. I know that at the top of Malham Cove the route – which isn’t really marked by a path – goes for around 300 yards East across a fissured alien landscape of smooth limestone rocks. I’ve done it in the daylight. It was tricky. That was in trainers with Vibram rubber soles on dry rock. It is icy up there tonight. And while my walking boots have been a good choice so far, they don’t have great grip on wet or icy rock. They don’t appear to have any grip at all. This next 300 yard – maybe 30 minutes – is the most terrifying part of the race for me. Ian, who has a long, loping confident stride, heads off east and his head torch is soon a distant glow. I take my walking poles out, to try to give me some balance. After about 10 steps, one of them slips into one of the multiple fissures and snaps clean in half. I am painfully aware that if my foot slips into one of the cracks – most of which are between 3 and 6 feet deep, my leg will snap just as readily. I get onto my hands and knees and crawl. I don’t want to plead with Ian to wait for me. That would be pathetic. But I really don’t want him to go on without me. I am tired and I don’t know any of the good bivvy spots that may be available around Malham Tarn. I am getting emotional and tell myself to hold it together. One hand, one knee, other hand, other knee. I inch across the terrain and eventually, panting, get to the other side. I apologise to Ian for holding him up and thank him for waiting. I consciously say little and try not to make too much of it. If he decides I’m a liability and wants to press on so be it. I came into this race to do it by myself and that must remain plan A. We press on in silence for a bit. I decide to let him resume the conversation if he wants to, rather than try any forced gaiety. I’m embarrassed by my performance, and worried about the implications: if this is how I am within the first 48 hours, what will I be like towards the end of the week?
We fall to talking about plans for the bivvy. We make checkpoint 1.5. John Bamber is there, calmly directing things from behind his beard. We press through and find a bivvy spot close by. Ian asks me something about setting an alarm. I ask him if he has one on his watch. He fiddles with his watch, or so it seems to me. There are 2 other people bivvying close by. We engage in a comedy of trying to inflate our air mattresses in sync with each other, without waking up the 2 sleepers. Ever tried blowing quietly? It takes a lot more effort than blowing a massive, sleep-disrupting raspberry. Eventually, satisfied that our mattresses our firm enough we turn in. At some point during the night, I am aware of Ian getting up to relieve himself. I lie there, furious with myself for not thinking to do so. I get into that pointless internal argument – a never won argument – that every middle aged person has had with themselves. ‘I don’t really need it that badly. If I lie still, the urge will go away. If I get up and go, I’ll just wake myself up more. I’ll fall asleep soon enough. I don’t need it that badly. God, I wish I’d had a pee before I went to bed’. Eventually, I think that we must be well past the time that Ian set his alarm for. I look round and see a flashing light. Maybe Ian’s alarm is a silent one that flashes? Do they exist? (It turns out that the flashing light is from his GPS transmitter). I whisper ‘Ian is that your alarm flashing?’ A confused mumble comes back asking what time it is. I don’t know. Ian checks. It is 2 hours after we had planned to get up. We both thought that the other had set the alarm, and neither of us had. The irony is that in the 4-5 hours that I lay down in that bivvy spot, I reckon I snoozed for 2 lots of an hour at the very most. It was not good quality sleep.
We get up as quickly as we can and head back up the trail to checkpoint 1.5 where we know there are chairs and boiling water. We make up some porridge and coffee. There are various other competitors in the checkpoint in different states of depletion. Harshan and Sean are there, in buoyant spirits. Sean is getting something done to his feet by a race medic which involves a needle. I look away and force another sporkful of porridge down. Other competitors are crashed out on the seats, pushing the boundaries of the ‘no sleeping’ in the checkpoint rule. I can’t and don’t blame them. There is some sort of burglar or fire alarm persistently ringing. Apparently it has been going on all night. Our bivvy spot was just far enough away to miss it. I take advantage of the indoor toilet – which has a ripe bouquet – to re-administer some anti-chafing cream. One of my discoveries over the last year has been that cyclists’ chamois cream is a much better (if more expensive) way of avoiding chafing than vasoline. A liberal smear around the particulars seems to last 24 hours and prevent discomfort. As darkness begins to recede we are back out on the road in good spirits.
Within minutes we make the first of 2 significant navigational errors of the day. Both of them are caused by being on an established path and failing to see an obvious turn off due to being deep in conversation, despite the fact that the turn off is clearly signposted on both occasions. We realise our mistake and retrace the 500 metres or so, to pick up the Pennine Way. We begin the frost-marked climb up Fountain’s Fell. It is a beautiful crisp morning. The conversation is good.
In deference to Ian, I’m not sure how much of our conversations to repeat. There was nothing particularly personal, although in the nature of these experiences, you can find out more about someone in 24 hours of intense activity than you might find out over the course of a year of normal friendship. I found out a bit about his boat building business and his hobbies in Devon. His previous race experience. I found out that he is in the best tradition of English eccentricity. As someone from Northern Ireland I make that racial distinction with genuine, outsider’s admiration. I learnt that he once competed in a Mountain Marathon with a disposable barbeque strapped to the outside of his pack, rattling his way through the hills, so that at the overnight camp he could fire it up and produce a couple of juicy steaks, some tomatoes and Portabello mushrooms from his pack, to the annoyance of his fellow competitors who were chomping their way through their rehydrated calories. I learnt that he was a liberal and a gentleman and good company. I asked him what Shake Holes were, since they were marked all over my map and since he seemed the sort of person who would know. He explained about the limestone rock being undermined by water and eventually collapsing to form pits. So now I know.
We climbed Pen Y Ghent in the early morning. Fortunately for me – being a less than confident scrambler the ice was mainly melted, meaning I could get better purchase on the rocks. If I had pushed through the previous night, as per my original strategy, then these rocky steps would have been coated in ice. More than enough to seriously scare me, if not actually injure me. We stopped at the top of Pen Y Ghent and looked back over the stunning cloud inversions. The snow-capped tops of the peaks on the opposite side of the valley were visible in the crystal air and, in between, a sea of cloud and mist. Ian took a few photographs and we turned to make the long meandering descent down into Horton in Ribblesdale.
When we got there, the Pen Y Ghent café was open for business as promised. The proprietor told us that he had some bowls of stew ready to go so we ordered those. While we ate our stew we had the most reassuring conversation from my point of view. Aware that I had now been with Ian for a little over 24 hours, I said that I hoped I wasn’t holding him up. He looked me in the eye and said
‘I’m absolutely delighted with this pace and if I wasn’t I’d drop you like that’.
I had no doubt that he meant it. The implication was that he was treating me like an adult and not some charity case. I was relieved. I had a bread cake loaded with some marmalade that a previous competitor had left behind. There was a box full of single walking poles for sale at £5 each, all proceeds going to local mountain rescue. I chose a solid-feeling green metal pole with a spike on the end and it became a good friend over the next 100 miles. That pole is a case in point of what Ian has written about lightweight gear. My Alpkit carbon poles were perfect at being lightweight. (And the surviving pole, was a perfectly good walking pole). But one of them snapped the first time it was subject to any significant stress. My super heavy-weight £5 pole – Greeny, as I christened him – was much more suitable for the task. It saw us up an over Cam Fell, with Ian stopping to point out a feature that I can’t now find a name for on the map. It was a point where, right next to the Pennine Way, a swollen stream simply disappeared vertically down into a hole in the ground. Apparently it resurfaces miles away but to all intents and purpose simply vanishes at the point we saw it. Magical and worth the pause to appreciate.
We were making good time on this section and overtook a few competitors while the daylight held. As it faded, and we began the drop down into Hawes, still overtaking the occasional racer, we made our second navigational error. We were discussing our plan, which was to push straight through Hawes, and maybe try to make Middleton in Teesdale in one go. Again, wrapt in conversation, we carried straight on the path we were on, somehow missing a fingerpost directing us off at a slight trajectory to the right. It was only after about 800 metres, when I decided to check my GPS, that I realised the mistake. I was mortified. I was the one with GPS on and it was my job to check. Another lesson for me. I am a poor navigator, and I know it. As a result, when I’m by myself I am ultra-cautious, checking every 100 metres or so, and every time I go past anything which could even conceivably be a junction. This makes for slow, but surprisingly efficient progress. I rarely make mistakes when I navigate alone, and when I do usually pick them up within minutes of having gone wrong. Somehow, being with someone who was clearly a better and more confident navigator had lulled me into a false sense of security. If that sounds like I’m trying to blame Ian, I’m not. Navigation is a personal responsibility, at all times, in an event like this. I couldn’t apologise enough as we retraced our steps, especially as it was all uphill. Eventually we re-established the proper Pennine Way and made the drop down into Hawes.
From recollection, we arrived in Hawes checkpoint around 2 hours before the cut off point for leaving it (which would be about 8pm on Monday). Even if we’d wanted to sleep we would have had limited time. I think the food on offer here was chicken curry with white rice and a tortilla. Very nice it was too. Ian introduced me to a friend of his, Bridgid, who was volunteering and helping out at the checkpoint. She was one of those self-contained and self-assured individuals that one sometimes meets. She exuded a sense of being good at whatever it was she was doing. We fell to chatting about the race, as I scoffed my curry. She couldn’t do enough in terms of asking if I wanted things fetching. At some point, as I was discussing the race – and in an effort to appear modest – I said that I wasn’t yet sure if I had what it took to finish the Spine. She said 2 words that did a lot to carry me through the next 24 hours. She said them calmly and as if they were directed to me personally. I said:
‘I’m not sure if I have what it takes to finish this race’.
And she said:
The way she said it, was as if she knew me and knew my abilities. As if she wasn’t stood looking at a sorry, soggy excuse for a 44 year old hanging out with the big boys. If she were ever to read this, I would want her to know that the simple, confident way she said ‘You do’ acted like a magic charm for me over what was to become the darkest part of my race.
We changed our batteries, resealed our drop bags and headed into the early evening. Ian quickly realised he’d left his walking poles and went back for them. I waited and we moved on together.
The next stage of the race is the long gradual climb up to 716 metres and Great Shunner Fell. There was snow under foot but we navigated well and while others seemed to be drifting on and off the path and expending energy hacking cross country we made good time. Climbing in the dark seemed preferable to me than in the daylight. There is no false horizon and no intimidating distance to look into. Just the immediate 10 metre bubble of light created by the head torch. In good spirits, and still feeling fully charged from the curry, we made the top and began the drop down into Thwaite. I told Ian that I’d found the section round Keld difficult to navigate on my recce and had ended up walking through someone’s back garden to re-establish the path. Ian told me that he had also gone wrong on this part of the track before. We took it slowly and didn’t go wrong. The path isn’t always obvious but by working together – his intuitive reading of the terrain and my nervous scrutiny of the GPS – we managed to stick to it. There is another lesson here. For me (at least) completing this race was because of generally efficient movement over the ground. There were times when very slow movement without mistake was preferable to quick progress in a slightly wrong direction.
When I recce’d the next section of the race, up to Tan Hill Inn, it was a clear night and I seemed to see the lights of the Inn from miles away. It never seemed to arrive. During the race, it was raining and sleeting. It wasn’t a clear night. I didn’t see the lights of the Inn till we were right on it. It came much more quickly than I’d imagined, which was a huge mental boost. We went round the side to see if there were any signs of life. Surreally, there were three toilets lined up against the wall, like a communal open-air lavatory. There were lights on inside. And an open door with a sign welcoming racers in. Joy of joys! The pub was open for racers. For a contribution of £5 there were chips, sausages and mushy peas as well as tea or coffee. I had my first encounter with race legend Mark Caldwell who was dishing out food and drink in his quiet, rock-hard way. Keeping to himself whatever thoughts he may privately have entertained about middle-class wassocks like me, dabbling my toes in an environment where he is supremely at home. Ian and Mark exchanged news about the course and the weather ahead. Ian shovelled food down his throat and asked for another strong tea with 2 sugars. I sat, panting, on a settee, struggling to find the cold limp chips palatable.
Mark and the other volunteer manning the Tan Hill Inn, had a laptop set up to check runners coming in and going out. I overheard them discussing the last runner to leave and the fact that he had missed the turn off onto Sleightholme Moor.
‘I told him twice where the turn off was. He’ll have to sort himself out’ was Mark’s clipped analysis.
As the race was progressing I was beginning to appreciate this no nonsense expectation of self-sufficiency. It was typical of the race. If you get into genuine danger there is a world class team of mountain leaders, safety experts and medics to save you. Otherwise, look after yourself. We also missed the turn off onto Sleightholme Moor, but realised within yards and corrected ourselves.
Sleightholme Moor is several miles of bog. If there is a path through it, then it must be a series of slightly less boggy bits wending an unclear route to the other side. It is basically one of those bits of the course where you can expect to end up waist deep in something sometime. It is criss-crossed by ditches and rivulets, every one of which looks like a path in the beam of a head torch. We got across it slowly. On the other side, I began to come unstuck for the first time in the race. From my reconnaissance trip, when I got to the other side of the Moor, I remember the path dropping down and under the A66 pretty much straightaway. As we got to the other side of the Moor, daylight was beginning to break and we hit a farm track. It went on for what seemed like miles. I was properly tired. Flagging. I got obsessed with the idea that this was not how I remembered the course. I’d been telling Ian how, when we got across the Moor we’d be quickly crossing a natural limestone feature called God’s Bridge. But it didn’t happen. We trudged on and on, slower and slower. I could hear the hum of traffic on the A66 but couldn’t see where it was. It must come soon. We must have gone wrong. God I’m tired. It is Tuesday morning. I have had 2 hours of restless sleep since the race began on Saturday morning. My mind is going over and over the same negative thoughts. I reduce the scale on my GPS to try to get an idea of how close Middleton in Teesdale is. Depressingly, no matter how far out I pan, it doesn’t bring Middleton onto the screen. Eventually, we drop down a steep bank and over the limestone plateau which forms a natural bridge (God’s bridge) over the river. We slip and slide our way up a muddy farm track and follow 200 metres along the A66 to get to the underpass. There are a group of people out on quad bikes. Ian asks what they are doing. He seems worried. We are both flagging and entertaining the slightly paranoid thoughts that can occur at these times. I speculate that they are rounding up sheep. There are some loud bangs. I suggest that they are out hunting Spine racers. It doesn’t break the tension. We push up onto Cotherstone Moor. Mile after mile of featureless muddy terrain. I have the same thoughts going round and round in my head. My left Achilles tendon, which had been causing me grief in the weeks leading up to the race, had begun to hurt at some point. The pain was transferring round to my shin. Pain. Pain. Pain. I was tired. I hadn’t had enough sleep. My lack of sleep was going to cause me to fail. Tired. Tired. Tired. Pain. Tired. Pain. Tired. Every step. Pain. Tired. There was a voice that could speak above the mantra of ‘Pain. Tired’. It began to make up my excuse for DNF’ing. I’ve never DNF’ed a race. I am going to DNF. The reason is. Pain. Tired. My plan for the first 2 days was wrong. I didn’t sleep at checkpoint 1. I should have got up and gone to the toilet when I was bivvying at checkpoint 1.5. I was in pain and tired. I would have been stupid to carry on with my Achilles, and risk long term injury. I did this to test the limits of my endurance and I found them. I failed. I’m not ashamed. I failed. I’m failing …
Another voice. Bridgid’s calm knowledge. ‘You do’.
‘I’m not sure if I have the ability to finish this race’.
I found another voice of my own. One which could speak yet higher than the plodding mantra of ‘Pain. Tired. Pain. Tired’. One which could speak reason to the voice which had already written my apologies for failing. This voice told me that the pain could be tolerated. It told me that the tiredness might be answered by sleep. It told me that I wasn’t to make any decisions at all until I’d had at least 2 hours sleep. I clung to that voice and let its reason soothe me. It didn’t stop the pain or the tiredness but it gave me something else to focus on.
Around Grassholme Farm we found another runner in a worse state than me. He was on the verge of tears, asking how far the checkpoint was. Like me, he must have made a miscalculation about how far it was from the A66 crossing to the checkpoint and seemed to have let it get completely on top of him. He asked where the checkpoint was. I asked him if his GPS was alright. It transpired that his GPS had no base mapping on it at all, so he was just trying to follow the pink line of the GPX file. If that sounds unnecessarily technical, imagine taking a map of England covering the Pennine Way. Then imagine drawing a series of straight lines joining the major features of the Pennine Way: so the start line to the end of the first road might be one straight line, the end of the road to a farm, a mile further on, another straight line. Then when you’ve got your series of straight lines which roughly represent the Pennine Way, imagine erasing every other feature of the map: every hill, every wood, every road, every reservoir. Every feature. Then imagine trying to navigate the Pennine Way just by following the straight lines. Straight lines which no longer bear any relationship to the terrain around you. That’s what he was trying to do. No wonder he was tired and confused. It appeared that he hadn’t had his GPS long and didn’t really appreciate how it worked. Each to their own. We pointed him on the right track and he set off. Within the next few hundred metres we picked up one of his gloves and then his GPS unit, both of which he’d dropped in the path without noticing. (This runner made it surprisingly far up the course before DNF’ing. He was obviously suffering from acute sleep deprivation when we came across him and a sleep clearly sorted him out for at least the next couple of days).
I woke myself up a bit by falling off the top of a 6 foot high stile. I hit my hip and elbow (and realised after the race that I’d also cracked my Garmin watch). There didn’t appear to be any real damage so I picked myself up and carried on. When the race was over I realised that I had a sleeve of bruising either side of my elbow, right round my arm. But it didn’t cause me any pain at the time. I generally have a low pain threshold, but it is amazing what adrenaline and mild delirium can do for you.
We trudged up and down hills without Middleton every appearing to come into view. I clung to my new found idea that I wasn’t making any decisions until I’d had a 2 hour sleep. Eventually, Middleton arrived. Ian enthusiastically ushered us into a butcher’s shop that he reckoned did the best pies. He bought up most of the shop and I bought a couple of items that were left over. The apple and pork pie was utterly delicious. I can still remember it. On the way out of the shop I dropped my bag of pies. Then one of my poles. Then the bag of pies again. A local customer smilingly held the door open for me. I think she must have seen exhausted racers before.
We got to the checkpoint. I was gone. I remember that there was a round of applause when we entered the main dining/medical room. The checkpoints obviously get less crowded the further north you go which at least means there is more space for sorting out gear. I found a bit of radiator space to dry clothes on. I think I decided to eat after I’d slept. I could only focus on sleep. I did make myself have a shower, clinging to camp discipline. The thin stream of warm water was just about enough to get me clean. I dried myself and pulled on my thermal base layer and down gilet. I don’t remember making any plan to leave with Ian or that we would synchronise our sleeps. I was beyond that. I was at the point where I was either going to have a sleep or I was going to DNF. It was 9pm when I was ready to turn into bed. I figured it would take me 30 minutes to drop off. So I asked to be woken at 11.30pm. Ear plugs in; eye mask on. Snuggle down into the sleeping bag.
I awoke with what felt like an electric shock. Wide awake instantly. It was 11.29pm on my watch. I was out of my sleeping bag when the volunteer gently knocked on the door to wake me up. That 2 hour sleep was a magic restorative. I was back in control. My decision not to make any decisions until I had had a 2 hour sleep was completely vindicated. I felt refreshed. No pain. No tiredness.
[As Harsharn correctly points out in a comment below, my recollection of the timings for this checkpoint is wrong. The cut off point to be out of Middleton was 10pm and Harsharn – who I was talking to before leaving – rightly recalls Ian and me leaving at 9.30pm. Working backwards, I guess I asked to be woken up at 8.30pm (or maybe 7.30pm) and my 2 hour sleep was up to that point. Everything between then and leaving at 9.30pm will have been faffing, feeding and getting taped up].
At that point I knew that barring injury or act of God I would finish the race. There were more dark points to come but the long trudge into checkpoint 3 (Middleton in Teesdale) was the last point in the race where I gave any serious thought to DNF’ing. The die was cast and I was focussed on getting out of this checkpoint quickly and efficiently. I ate the hot meal of beans, sausage roll and cheese. It was lukewarm but calorific. A volunteer offered me some toast and I gladly loaded several slices with jam and peanut butter. Black sugary coffee. Blackcurrant squash. I asked 2 young good humoured medics to look at my Achilles and shin. They told me I’d probably give myself shin splints if I carried on. I said I knew and asked them to do their best. They put some more blue tape round my foot, up the back of my tendon, up my shin and anchored it further up my leg. They put some more tape on the remaining skin-coloured bits of my back. One of the safety team asked me if I knew about the diversion. I didn’t, so he told me. The safety team had decided that Cauldron Snout was too dangerous and so, as with last year, had diverted around it. I was glad. I’d climbed it once before, in daylight, after a good night’s rest. And it felt mighty precarious. It is a scramble up several metres of rocks right next to a huge broiling waterfall. One slip on the ice and it would be next stop, the North Sea. I carefully marked the diversion on my map and returned to my preparations.
Ian was also ready to leave and so we agreed to carry on together. We were falling into an easy rhythm together. It felt like we were becoming a team. (As previously, if he says otherwise, then I defer to him). There was a strong enough wind in our faces, blowing sleet, as we walked the relatively straightforward path towards the diversion and then to High Cup Nick. I asked Ian what questions he would ask an applicant to the Spine, to gauge whether they were likely to succeed. He suggested how much time do you spend on physical training compared to non-physical training? His premise is that too many Spine racers obsess with super long miles and strength when so much of the race is about mental preparation. I certainly agree, that the race is not primarily about physical fitness. If someone were to ask me now, what level of physical fitness is necessary for the Spine, I’d suggest this: if you are capable of run/walking 50 miles in a day and getting up the next day with no noticeable physical effects (your legs feel fine, you don’t feel unduly tired) then you probably have what it takes. Thereafter, the race is about mental fortitude and preparation. My own suggested question for applicants is this: when you applied, how much of the mandatory kit list did you already possess (and had already used)? I’m no mountain man but I did own a lot of the kit and I’d tried it out on various camping trips. For me, my preparation was largely about refining and practising my use of kit. Not always effectively, but I think I was doing something right.
The weather had calmed down as we approached High Cup Nick. Ian Bowles runs with a chest pack. It has an insulated bottle on either side, and a central pocket in which he crams an apparently limitless supply of kit and food. I dubbed him the Kangaroo, he kept so much in that pouch. On the climb up to High Cup Nick, he fished about for a bit before announcing that he’d found a Burrito. He proceeded to eat it. Then he asked me if I was interested in a cheese course. He produced 2 mini Baby Bels from his pouch and unwrapped them for me. I gratefully scoffed them down. Ian cackled and told me that they’d been in his pouch since last year’s Spine. He then asked me if I wanted the real cheese course and produced an entire pack of fresh Feta cheese. The salty, fatty tang was delicious. We shared it out and ate it all. The only time I’d done High Cup Nick before was in heavy mist. I’d found it quite frightening navigating it, able to see from the map that there were sheer drops at points, but unable to make them out in the mist. When we crossed it, it was a lovely clear night with a million stars. The wind had died right down. We crossed it uneventfully and began the drop down into Dufton. I was beginning to flag again. I didn’t want to tell Ian but I was certainly beginning to question whether I could make checkpoint 4 (Alston) without a further sleep. As we got to the road into Dufton, there was a volunteer taking numbers from a parked Landrover. She mentioned something about racers being held at Dufton because of dangerous conditions on Cross Fell (the highest point of the entire course). Ian was off like a scalded whippet, explaining over his shoulder that if we were being held then this was effectively ‘free’ rest time. Any time that a racer is held, due to weather conditions, doesn’t count towards their final race time. Ian was keen to maximise any such free time at the next stopping point. We located the village hall in Dufton. Which was open and half full of racers sleeping on chairs or on the floor. It wasn’t manned by any race volunteers. I checked my phone. There was a text message warning of dangerous conditions on Cross Fell and advising waiting till daylight, but not officially holding racers. No free time. Ian quickly found the kitchen and fired the kettle up. I made myself a cup of tea and rehydrated a 1000 calorie chili con carne. I hobbled back downstairs to the hall area where racers were sleeping. I pulled 2 chairs together, sat on one and put my booted feet up on the other. I struck on a good idea. The dehydrated meals come in a re-sealable foil pouch and you have to leave them for at least 8 minutes to become edible. I made sure mine was properly sealed and then put it inside my jacket like a hot water bottle. I was soon off. Probably 30 minutes later Ian woke me up. The food was still warm and my 30 minute cat nap had brought me back to life.
We set off and I ate the chili as we went, pouring it straight from the pouch, down my throat. It was horrible. But I thought of the calories and made myself eat it down. As we left Dufton, daylight was just breaking again. Wednesday morning. We passed some well-scrubbed school boys who bid us good morning. Polite to the weird, stinking, bleary eyed racers who were intruding on their morning routine. The sun rose and it was another beautiful clear morning. There was no snow cover this low down. Just mud. But we were used to that by now. We climb up and up to Green Fell, crossing the snow line. On the way up, I make a difficult phone call to Nicole. Fortunately, it goes through to her voice mail and I ask her not to come out and see me until the race is over. I explain that I have been through some difficult times and I just need to keep my head in the race now. I need to avoid any distractions. I know that Nicole will find that a hard message but I also know that she will understand and do what she needs to do to help me.
As we climb, we rise above the cloud/mist level. We have entered another world of white and blue. Everything beneath us, white; above us, blue. As we approach the radar stations on Great Dun Fell a dog comes bounding round the corner, followed by a man on skis. We crunch on through the snow, sinking 2 feet with every other step. I am slow going downhill because it hurts my Achilles. Gradually Ian pulls away. He is beyond talking distance. Beyond shouting distance. He evaporates into the whiteness and I am alone. I move at my own speed. I find the path, slowly but without mistake. I imagine myself on the moon. Lonely but happy in my own little world. Ian promised he would drop me if I was slowing him up and he was good to his word. When I had dreamt about the race – and I’d dreamt a lot – it had involved moments like this. Moments by myself, with my own thoughts in epic nature. The whiteness is distorting. I focus on a boulder 25 metres away and head towards it. Two steps later it is under my feet. It is a small stone. There is no perspective. It begins gently snowing. I take in lungfuls of the cold mountain air and press on through the snow. Sometimes I break trail for the joy of tramping new footsteps in unbroken snow. More often I tread where other people have already trodden because it is easier to do that. I think about my reasons for doing this race: the desire to test my limits. I would push myself to any extreme that didn’t jeopardise the happiness of my friends and family. I am ecstatically happy.
As the weather closes in and visibility diminishes, I come up to Greg’s hut. It is another manned stop. I knock on the door and enter. John Bamber comes into the first room to greet me. He tells me that they’ve got a fire going next door; to kick the snow off my boots and go and warm myself up. He asks if he can take some pictures of the icicles in my eyebrows. I had no idea that I’d developed my own icicles so I enthusiastically agree, hoping that I might get to see them one day. He asks me if my name is Stephen Brown. I wonder if it is a trick question designed to weed out the delirious. I tell him that it is. He says that Ian has left my map for me and was keen that I got it back. I register the information. Goodbye then.
In the back room of Greg’s hut, the 2 volunteers and medic who have been holed up there have the pot-bellied stove toasty warm. I take a seat and I’m handed a mess tin of curry noodles. I ask for hot chocolate and someone gives it to me. I don’t have much conversation. I’m beginning to flag again. And I’m worried that I’ve done something to offend Ian. I’m happy to be alone, but want it to be for the right reasons. As I finish the noodles, 2 or 3 other runners join us in the hut. There aren’t enough seats. Some of them clearly know the volunteers and make easy banter. I decide it’s time to press on for Alston. I give my seat up and get ready to leave. In the first room, there is a fine mist of snow coming through the roof slates. Indoor snow. John Bamber comes outside and takes a couple of photographs of me before I set off on the path down. It is an easy to follow but long trail down to the village of Garrigill. I am getting more tired with each step. Yesterday’s experience on the approach to Middleton has given me an ability to put my tiredness in perspective. Pain goes. Tiredness can be managed by sleep. Pain goes. Tiredness can be managed by sleep. There is another lesson here. In my memory, Greg’s hut is the warmth of the pot-bellied stove, the good-natured camaraderie and the simple kindness of a mess tin full of noodles. I can’t remember that my shin was throbbing or any of the other pains that may have been present.
On the road down to Garrigill, a Land Rover drives purposefully towards me. It stops on the verge a 100 yards ahead of where I am. I wonder if there has been an incident. Am I in trouble? Have they pulled me out of the race? People jump out of the vehicle and approach me. One of them has a camera. They are filming me. They ask me some questions about the race and about how I’m feeling. I remember saying ‘I am punch drunk tired’. Nicole will later tell me that that phrase made the composite film for day 5. It was the day that she had been anticipating coming out to see me and I had told her not to. She was shocked when she saw me on camera. (So was I when I later saw footage of myself. I knew I was tired. I didn’t know that I was doing a good physical impersonation of Droopy the dog, with massive bags under my eyes). She had cried herself to sleep. Back on the downhill path to Garrigill, the light was fading again and I was punch drunk tired. I rolled into Garrigill.
We had been told not to follow the GPX files to the checkpoint but that there would be ‘obvious’ Spine signs taking us via an alternative route. The problem is, when you’re exhausted very little is obvious. Especially in failing light. I tracked the river for what seemed like miles and then saw a black arrow on a yellow background, diverting me away from it. The arrow seemed to point randomly across a muddy field. Even using my powerful hand torch I couldn’t see anything on the other side. I controlled my frustration. I set off in the direction the arrow was pointing. I fell in the mud. I retraced my steps to the arrow, to check the direction it was pointing in and set off again, careful not to fall again. I tried to keep a straight line. Then, hung in a tree was another arrow pointing straight up a bank. I kept following. The rain and sleet got harder. I kept my breathing calm and told myself that the checkpoint would come soon enough. I came out onto a road and an arrow pointed me to the checkpoint. A few more steps and it was there. Warm and dry.
The checkpoint itself was a little spread out with everyone having to pass by the entrance to get to either the sleeping area or the feeding area. To compensate, the volunteers, who were clearly beginning to suffer from sleep deprivation themselves were wonderful. A lovely woman (Maggie?) took me under her wing and walked me to the drying room and helped me get my stuff all hung up together. She ensured that I got some hot food. I think it might have been curry again, but I can’t remember. I showered. I found the helpful woman again and asked her if I could get a wake-up call. I was finding it hard to focus on the important things. She reassured me by walking me to the dorm, pointing me to a bottom bunk and promising that she would personally wake me up in 4 hours when I’d asked. And so I fell into my longest and best sleep of the week. I didn’t wake with the same sense of electric revival that I had after my 2 hours in Middleton, but I did feel rested. I set about getting packed up and breakfasted. As I got out of bed Ian was just leaving. I said hello to him and he checked that I’d got my map back. I said yes and wished him luck. That was it. I ate some porridge and had some toast. Drank a load of coffee. The kitchen volunteers kindly made me some jam and peanut butter sandwiches for the road. As I was leaving I was aware of a male and female contestant being brought in from Cross Fell. They’d been caught out in bad weather and decided it wasn’t worth the risk of carrying on. A difficult and wise decision. I thought about saying something but decided there was nothing I could add and headed out. I had my snow goggles (compulsory kit) on for the first time. They were instantly uncomfortable and I decided the snow wasn’t bad enough to justify them. I headed back to the checkpoint door and asked a volunteer to jam them in the mesh at the back of my backpack. I don’t know where or how, but by the next time I took my pack off they had fallen out, lost on the trail. Once I realised I began obsessively asking whether snow was forecast, desperate not to DNF just because of a missing bit of kit.
The route from Alston to Greenhead, where the Pennine Way joins Hadrian’s Wall, is unremarkable. Even in daylight, when I had recce’d it, it was full of indistinct paths across indistinct moors and fields. I kept crossing paths with other competitors, walking with some for a while then drifting away again. There was a general sense that some of those who were more able navigators were beginning to resent being tailed by those who were less able or less willing to find their own way. My problem is that I am a slow navigator and while I am double checking a route it inevitably looks to others like I am waiting for them to catch up so that I can follow them on the next bearing. In my tiredness I began to grow self-conscious of this. I should just have concentrated on my own thing and not paid attention to what others were or were not thinking. It is hard to think straight when you’ve had 8 hours sleep (maximum) in 5 days. Daylight must have broken again somewhere short of Greenhead. I briefly caught up with Ian who was now walking with a Japanese competitor around Greenhead. They had stopped at a café in Greenhead. I missed that café but at a nearby car park a couple of volunteers had set up in a converted container, which had chairs and heating. I got a rehydrated meal and some flapjack. The wife of a supported runner came in with 2 massive boxes full of snacks. She explained that for the last year her husband had been stockpiling any junk food that was on special offer and they had a lifetime’s supply. I took some bacon frazzles and some Haribo Tangfastics. I emptied the Tangfastics straight into the pocket of my jacket. By now my pockets were full of random foodstuffs – chocolate bars, loose sweets, sandwiches, some left over pie, a bottle of drink (Checkpoint blackcurrant topped up with as much sugar as I could get to dissolve in it). The drink was in there to protect against freezing. It amused me to think of the amount of time I had spent obsessing over the weight of my jacket, given that it now had about 2 kilos of food and drink crammed into it, as well as another kilo of mud caked all over it, no doubt compromising its advertised ‘breathability’. On another note, when you’re beginning to flag and need a sugar spike, a handful of Tangfastics does the trick.
The path along Hadrian’s wall had originally been diverted away from the wall to protect against erosion only to be diverted back onto it again. It was one of the few parts of the course that I hadn’t recce’d on the somewhat simplistic basis that ‘it’s a wall’. I managed to drift off the wall twice and had to climb steeply to regain the path. There a bits of the wall that are precarious under ice. Uneven, meandering stone stairways, worn smooth and covered in snow or ice. I was painfully slow up and down these, completely focussed on avoiding injury. Otherwise I made good marching time along the wall. It was a clear afternoon with far views and spectacular scenery. The Spine photographers and film crew were out, making the most of the light and stunning background. My aim was to get off the wall before the light began to fail. I didn’t quite achieve it, but still didn’t have to put my head torch on till I’d crossed the first couple of fields north of the wall.
After a few fields the Pennine Way hits the forest. This includes some notoriously boggy sections. When I’d recce’d it with my wife in the summer, we’d ended up over our knees at points. However, the snow and ice helped and I made quicker progress than I had anticipated. On the open moors, it was a different proposition. I became a little too obsessed with not losing the trail of footprints that had gone before me. I figured that so long as there were multiple prints and they were all heading in one direction, this was probably a good indication that it was a good path across the otherwise indistinct moor. The problem is that in the poor light anything can look like a foot print. Sometimes the footprints diverged and I’d spend time trying to work out where the majority had gone. As a result my progress slowed right down again. In the dark and fog, these featureless boggy moors are the sort of place you’d expect to encounter Macbeth’s crones. They are spooky and more than once I find myself quoting from my youngest daughter, Rosa’s favourite programme, Peter Rabbit: ‘Rabbits are brave, rabbits are brave’ I say to myself. It is tongue in cheek. Slightly.
At some point on one of these moors another competitor caught me up. He asked if I was lost – which I was at the moment he asked me. He confidently told me the right way to go. I fell into conversation with him and got lulled into letting him navigate. That probably sounds ungrateful or cagey. At the time I was happy for the company and happy, in my tired state, to let someone else take responsibility for leading the way. However, I realised that while we were now making great progress in the right direction, we were making some small navigational errors and missing the path at points. My fault. I should have said something if I was that bothered about it. He was good company and it passed the time of night to have someone to talk to after spending most of the last 30 hours alone. We went about half a kilometre wrong around the Ealingham Rigg relay point and had to retrace our steps before scrambling up the rocks and re finding the route. That was our last error and we walked into the checkpoint at Bellingham around 10.30pm.
The 5th checkpoint is, in some ways, the least fit for purpose. Though whether it matters by that point, who knows. Unlike the other checkpoints it is spread over several buildings. So the sleeping area, the shower area, the dining room and the drying room are all in separate buildings and a journey between any two involves going outside across a freezing cold and icy car park. Also, unlike any of the other Checkpoints, there are no beds. It took me a little while to come to terms with the fact that my last sleep was going to be on a hard floor in a fully lit hall with medics working on other competitors, metres away from where I was trying to get some rest. I was running on memory. I got to the drying room and tried to find places for my various wet clothes and boots. I tried not to spread them out too much, so that I was less likely to forget them. Javed Bhatti, a Spine legend was in the drying room getting ready to head back out on the course. We introduced ourselves. I told him that I was enjoying the race but wasn’t sure that I’d ever want to put my mind or body through it again.
‘That’s what I love about it’ he said ‘that’s why I think it’s the most important race in Britain’.
I didn’t know then that he was planning to reach the end of the Pennine Way, turn round and walk back again. I wished him luck for the rest of the race and headed to the kitchen.
It was jacket potato with cheese and beans which I ate up. The Japanese runner that Ian had been with earlier was struggling to stay awake, sat at the table. I finished my food and headed back to the well-lit sleeping hall. Up to this point I had maintained camp discipline, having a shower before each sleep and getting into clean dry clothes for sleeping in. As I shuffled out of the cold and into the sleeping hall, I quickly decided that there was no way I was going back out into the cold to get a shower. It had also been one of my grand plans to have a completely clean set of running kit to do the last section in: clean leggings; new waterproof socks; clean base layer; clean fleece. When it came to the point, I realised that it would be far less effort to climb into my sleeping bag wearing my stinking old kit then just get straight up and back out on the trail. I got my bedding out and blew up an inflatable pillow. Two hours or four? It was a massive question. Bigger than I could have realised, as it turned out. Should I have two hours sleep and give myself an extra two hours to finish the race in? Or four hours – a proper sleep – and do the last section with my batteries as fully recharged as they could be. My every instinct was telling me to go for four hours. In the end, I think what decided it was that, of the few sleeps I had had during the week, the most memorable had been the 2 hours at Middleton. Perhaps 2 was the magic number. The volunteers seemed as exhausted as the runners so I decided not to trust them this time with a wake up call. I set the alarm on my phone for 2 hours and 15 minutes, to allow me a little time to nod off and laid down. A Spanish competitor next to me was having a conversation with his son who had supported him through the race. I shushed them, ineffectively. I shushed them again and it seemed to work. Then the alarm was going off and it was time to get up for the last day of the race. I didn’t feel magically rested. I didn’t feel renewed. I just felt ready to get up and give it one last push.
I went out into the cold and across to the drying room to retrieve my stuff. I later realised that I’d taken someone else’s waterproof trousers. Not a good start, but at least I realised before I set off. I went to the dining room and asked for porridge and toast. Somewhere along the way I’d misplaced my drinking bottle. I asked the checkpoint manager if she might be able to find me an empty 500 ml bottle. She uncomplainingly went out and returned 5 minutes later with an empty Lucozade bottle. Brilliant. As I forced jam-heavy toast down my throat, dunking it in my coffee to moisten it, I filled the Lucozade bottle with blackcurrant and spoonful after spoonful of sugar. Ian joined me in the kitchen and started eating toast with sweet tea. He asked me what time I was heading out. I told him I was hoping to be back on the road in 30 minutes. He asked me if I’d like to do team up with him again. I said yes and that was that. I refocussed on my own preparations. I headed back to the main hall. I changed my batteries one last time and put all remaining spares in my backpack. I poured all my remaining packets of sweets straight into my jacket pocket, stowed my drink inside the jacket and found space for another sandwich that the kitchen staff had made for me. I crammed all of my stuff into the drop bag, no longer bothered about it being well ordered or tidy. Next time I opened it I would have finished or failed. It wouldn’t matter.
At 2.30 am on Friday 15th January I was ready to leave Bellingham checkpoint. Ian Bowles, red 12, was ready too. We set off together. We have 31 ½ hours to cover the last 45 miles. It should be comfortable. It wasn’t.
The first bit of the Pennine Way is just a matter of finding the right road out of Bellingham. We agree that I’ll have my GPS on for this bit and the navigation is uneventful. Soon we leave the road and head down an icy farm track. We excite some dogs who yap away at us from behind a barn door. I bet the farmer is fed up of that happening every half hour as racers stumble their way towards the Scottish border. After the farm it is yet another climb over yet another indistinct moor. There is at least 12 inches of snow cover and more where it has settled between grass tussocks. We soon manage to lose the trail of footprints. In any event, the further north we get, the higher the drop-out rate and the fewer footprints there would be to follow. We end up yomping cross country for a mile trying to rediscover the path. We hit a fenced plantation which doesn’t appear on the GPS and have to track round it, trying to guess which way the path will be. It is slow progress stamping our own path through the unbroken snow. Two footsteps will find purchase on the top of tussocks and the third will sink up to knee level. Every 20 steps or so one of us might fall over and expend precious energy pulling ourselves back up again. My left foot and shin are very sore. The last time I looked my shin was livid red and swollen under the blue tape. Every time it gets stuck in the snow I have to grit my teeth and wince to pull it out again. The snow pulls down on my toes, forcing the foot away from my leg. That really hurts. It is gruelling progress. Eventually we rediscover the natural path, just before a bridge crossing a small stream. I tell Ian that I’d rather go really slowly than risk missing the path again. He doesn’t disagree. We cross a road onto something that is simply marked as ‘Great Moor’ on the map. It is a clear night and we have gained a little height. Everything glows a frosty neon colour in the light of our head torches. It is an unearthly still landscape. We are not talking much, silenced by effort and beauty. I feel small as I make my slow way north.
Gradually the path bends to the north west and a feature called Whitley Pike appears on my GPS. We have been told of a diversion back at Bellingham. The climb up to Redesdale forest is under chest deep snow. Apparently anyone is free to break a trail through that if they want to. Otherwise there is a diversion along a forest road, re-joining the Pennine Way in the forest itself. Apparently no one has taken the option of breaking a trail yet. At the checkpoint they had told us that we needed to turn left along the first road we came to after Whitley Pike. Ian had mumbled something about the fact that he would never remember that. I use memory techniques in my everyday job – mental hooks that help me recall important details. As soon as Ian had said he wouldn’t remember where the diversion was, I’d yelled out ‘Don’t tell ‘em Pike’, no doubt to the annoyance of those still sleeping. He had got the Dad’s Army reference. Not inappropriate as the 2 of us increasingly resembled Private Godfrey shambling cross-country. As soon as I saw the words ‘Whitley Pike’ I yelled out ‘Don’t tell ‘em Pike’ again and we knew we were on the right track for the diversion. Soon we hit the road and tracked it to the west, as instructed. Daylight was beginning to break and I was beginning to feel the first waves of exhaustion after my last 2 hour sleep. In the growing light my mind began to play tricks on me. Trees looked like fortifications. There was no sense of scale. I could see – quite clearly – a mediaeval French town to my right. I could make out individual buildings and balconies. I could see the wooden beams supporting the upper stories of the houses. I decided not to mention it to Ian, just in case it was an hallucination. I was, however, convinced that it was real. Must have been a left over film set. To my left was some sort of village. That seemed less improbable. I kept checking on the mediaeval town. Still there. I fancied I could make out the grain on the wooden beams as we got closer. There was a coat of arms hanging from a pole. I wonder what film it was. We trudge on. It is all on road this bit, so easy to follow. We approach the village to our left. It is a clump of trees. We pass the mediaeval French town. Clump of trees with a game keeper’s cottage in the middle. Someone has taken the coat of arms down. The forest road bends north again. It is daylight now. I’m too tired to take my head torch off. The ground rises to our right. The tussocks turn into rabbits, then small elephants, all facing the same direction. Then some of the bigger tussocks turn into lions, looking down ready to pounce on the little elephants. I am well aware that this is an hallucination. Northumberland is not noted for its herds of dwarf elephants. You may say that, similarly, Northumberland is not noted for its mediaeval French towns. But I’d dreamt up a plausible explanation for that. There was no plausible explanation for the rabbits, elephants and lions other than that I was suffering from full-blown exhaustion-induced hallucinations. I filed it away under ‘interesting’ and crammed a handful of Tangfastics into my mouth. We come to a gate in the road, at a place called Gibshiel. The names are beginning to sound Scottish. Ian and I are still doggedly observing the country code and shutting every gate that we come to. We are soon among the trees.
Ian begins to talk about benches. He’d just like somewhere to sit down. I push on in the lead in a pattern which will develop throughout the day. When one of us gets tired, the other will take the lead and try to keep the pace up. I rummage in my jacket pocket and find a small bag of ready salted crisps. I had picked them up at the last checkpoint and squirrelled them away. They taste delicious. Their basic salty savouriness is a throwback to the school playground. I can’t think of anything I’d rather eat right now. Heston Blumehthal makes a handsome living from serving up taste memories from childhood. I’ve got a tip for him: if he deprived his customers of sleep for a week, he could get away with serving Angel Delight and Orange Club biscuits. In keeping with the school playground theme, my bag of crisps is the 25g size. Who knew they still made those? If ever a man could justify a family bag of potato crisps, it is now. I decide to save half of the crisps for Ian, in the hope of picking him up. This isn’t a completely selfless act. I appreciate how dangerous the Cheviots can be. We will be navigating them in the dark and he has done it 3 times before. I need to keep his energy and spirits as high as possible.
When the forest road re-joins the Pennine Way we decide to take a 5 minute breather. Ian finds a sawn tree stump to sit on. I lean on my walking poles. I produce the half bag of ready salted crisps and tell him to get them down him. He shares my opinion of how delicious they are. A fat and lividly coloured robin red breast hops onto the cross bar of a gate just behind Ian’s back, eyeing the crisp crumbs that he is dropping on the snow. I tell him not to make any sudden moves. The robin is tilting its head from side to side as it assesses the two steaming strangers disturbing the peace of the forest. Eventually it concludes that neither of us is capable of moving at speeds that would pose it any danger. It hops down between our feet and picks at the crumbs before flitting nervously back to its spot on the gate. I take a few swigs of the drink lodged in my jacket pocket. My spare bottle of water, stashed in a mesh side pocket of my backpack is frozen solid. We press on, back on the Pennine Way.
The forest road through Redesdale Forest is straightforward. It is a gravel road, designed for forestry vehicles and unmissable even under snow. There are 2 points where the Pennine Way diverts away from the forest road before re-joining it but we have been told that these sections are so overgrown and unmanaged that we don’t have to take them; we can stick to the road. I recce’d this section on New Year’s Day and it is a relief to me that we can follow the easier path. The snow continues to play tricks with my sense of perspective. An approaching uphill section looks formidably steep, but when we reach it, it is a gentle slope. Ian asks if we can stop at the top. He gets his camera out and takes some photographs. I have another mouthful of sweets and push us on. Soon we head downhill to some public toilets (closed for the winter). We cross a river and then track alongside the river for a mile or two. The forest has a very different character at this point. Previously, it was neat rows of cultivated conifers well set back from the bath. Managed nature. On this side of the river, the forest has a more primordial feel. There is a variety of trees, growing where they can. They close in round the path. There is a magical, Christmas card feel to it. At 2 points there are trees that have come down across the path. There is a path signposted by the race organisers around the first. The second tree trunk is held about 4 feet off the path by side branches. Two of these form a natural – if small – arch under the tree trunk. We are forced onto our hands and knees to crawl through. I go first. On the other side it takes me an age, using my poles for leverage, to get back onto my feet. I am a little relieved to see it also takes Ian a long time to get back onto his feet: at least I’m not holding him up. The path leaves the close tree cover and continues alongside the clear-flowing river. Matt from Racing Snakes, who are doing race photography, meets us and takes a load of pictures. In the few which survived the cut, the massive bags under my eyes are visible and obvious. But I’m smiling. I am achieving a strange state of one-ness with the race: dissolving into the breath taking scenery. Breaking down in the face of nature.
We hit the A68 road. Checkpoint 5.5 is a cruel ½ a mile diversion along the road to the village of Byrness. We cross paths with 7 or 8 competitors coming the other way, having just left the checkpoint.
‘Have you heard about the cut off points?’ one of them asks.
We haven’t. The cut off point for leaving checkpoint 5.5 – as published in the rules – is 8pm tonight. That would leave 14 hours to do the last 25 miles or so. The news is that they’ve moved the cut-off point to 2pm on the basis that conditions are so hard going that competitors will need 20 hours to cover that distance. When we receive this news it is around 12 noon. We will have less than 2 hours to turn ourselves around at this checkpoint. We shuffle on up the road.
Checkpoint 5.5 is at Byrness Forest View Bed and Breakfast. The owners kindly give over the conservatory of their B and B as well as a toilet and a separate room for the medics and safety teams. They also provide what is – by far – the best hot food on the course. It is proper home cooked deliciousness. I’m offered a choice of leek and potato soup or mince hotpot. I ask for both and I’m accommodated. The soup is thick and filling. The hotpot has the deep savoury flavours that I’ve been missing all week. The mashed potato tastes like real potatoes. There is a compulsory medical foot check at this stop. It is probably good for me to get some air to my feet anyway. It takes an age to get my boots off. The tongues and lace ends have spawned huge, heavy balls of ice that I’ve been dragging with me for miles. The rest of the laces are frozen solid anyway. Eventually I get the boots off. My waterproof socks are soaking wet on the outside but my liner socks are reassuringly dry. I pull them off and let the medic look at my feet. She asks about my left big toe. It is badly infected. By the end of day 2 it was bright red and throbbing – looking like it had taken a direct hit from a lump hammer. Now it was a deathly white colour and the nail was floating away from its bed. I hadn’t mentioned it to any of the medics earlier in the week on the premise that I was pretty sure there was nothing they could do for it. It was just another pain to ignore and manage. The medic told me that the toe is infected and needs to be lanced. I tell her that I know this and ask if the lancing can wait till the end of the race. I tell her that at the minute it is causing me manageable pain and I’m happy to keep it like that. She agrees but tells me I must get it lanced when I finish. I promise.
The safety director asks if I know about the new cut off time and I confirm with him my understanding that it is now 2 pm. I explain to him my last minute decision to grab 2 hours sleep rather than 4 last night. It is now clear that that decision has saved my race. The safety director tells me that a lot of people back at Bellingham are angry with the decision and some of them have set off for checkpoint 5.5 anyway, refusing to recognise the new cut off point. He says that the race directors aren’t too concerned because they don’t think they’ll make the B and B by 8pm (the old cut off time) anyway. As it turned out, Ian and I were the last 2 people out of Bellingham to complete this year’s Spine.
[Sarah Fuller is one of the group who pushed on to checkpoint 5.5. Since I published this blog, she has contacted me to point out that the group who made this move were not refusing to recognise the new cut off time; they simply wanted to get as far as they could within the available limits. I absolutely defer to her on that. If I misheard or misunderstood what I was told at checkpoint 5.5 – entirely possible given that I’d been watching dwarf elephants stalked by giant lions not long before – then I apologise. I should also make this clear. The competitors who pushed on to checkpoint 5.5, knowing that they would be timed out, acted, in my view, with dignity and poise in the face of a massive set back. I would have been crying in a corner, overwhelmed by frustration. I have nothing but respect for what they did].
Ian, who had nodded off, is protesting about the compulsory foot check. The medic patiently explains why it is compulsory and he relents. I decide to get some shut-eye. Two volunteers quickly help me rearrange my chair and put my feet up on the arm of another chair so I am comfortable. It is a feature of the race that the further north you get the kinder the volunteers get. I suppose there are fewer competitors left in the race and the volunteer’s appreciation of their exhaustion levels increases.
On the Spine Race film for day 7 there is a brief interview with the safety director from the Forest View B and B, explaining about the new cut off time. My blue-taped feet appear in shot followed by my sleeping face. I look like a sad bag of bones but the sleep was good. At 1.40pm the race team woke us up and told us that we had 20 minutes to clear the check point. I read somewhere that during Scott’s trip to the Antarctic it took them an hour every morning just to get their boots on. I can believe it. I chipped a bit more of the ice from the tongues and cinched the laces up as tightly as I could. This was it – the last push. We’d both got another 30 minutes sleep in the bank. With 5 minutes to spare we checked out.
I had my GPS on all the time now, even for the bits where the navigation seemed easy. The race organisers had decided that, given conditions underfoot, it was going to take a minimum of 20 hours to do the last leg of the race. We had a 5 minute cushion. The last thing we needed was a navigational error. Given my earlier experiences with the dwarf elephants, I wouldn’t have bet against me imagining a great big sign post pointing me the wrong way, so just as well to double check everything with the tireless GPS.
The Pennine Way crosses the A68 and climbs 200 metres in height in less than a kilometre. In lay terms, that’s ‘steep’. It is muddy root-gnarled track that even on a good day will have you sliding one step back for every two forward. The frozen ground made it slightly surer underfoot and we maintained good speed going up. One of the commentators watching our trackers on this part of the course described our pace as ‘metronomic’. That was certainly how it felt on the ground. We kept up a relentless ‘step-step-step’, working our way above the tree-line. After the initial steep climb, the Pennine Way continues north, leaving the trees behind and climbing – much more gradually for a few miles before dropping down a little to the barely detectable remains of a Roman camp at Chew Green. The light was beginning to fade and we faced up to the trickiest part of the course in the dark at the end of a nearly sleepless week. The temperature began to drop and I zipped my fleece and hard shell jacket up tight round my chin. Head torch back on.
When I recce’d this part of the course it was very boggy and every time I’d lost the indistinct path I’d ended up over my knees in water. This time it was mainly frozen, but the path had completely vanished under the snow. We followed the GPS, generally north, generally up and tried to keep up a good pace. A good pace in these conditions was 40 minutes a mile (or a mile and a half an hour). On and up. The tiredness was returning with a vengeance. The closer to the end I got, the less effective the catnaps became at staving off the tiredness. But there was no choice. We took it in turns to lead the way and break the trail. My caution increased, and I found myself checking the GPS every 100m or so, to double check that we hadn’t strayed too far from the nominal route of the Pennine Way. Ian began saying that the first mountain hut (there are two on this part of the course) had to be soon. We knew it promised a seat and respite from the gathering wind. By my calculation we still had another 2 kilometres to go, but I didn’t want to break Ian’s heart. We kept on. I was reduced to counting off my steps 10 at a time. In normal conditions, 10 paces would be 10 metres. Here I figured it was probably closer to 4 metres. Still I counted just to give me something to focus on other than the tiredness. About an hour after Ian started to talk about the mountain hut, its squat blunt silhouette came into my peripheral vision just off the path. It is basically a windowless wooden hut bolted to a concrete plinth with benches running round 3 walls of the inside. The heavy wooden door has a 2 foot high lintel to climb over, presumably to stop animals getting in.
There were 3 bodies already in the hut. Mark Caldwell and one other hardy volunteer plus one other competitor just finishing off a sleep and getting ready to ship out. We entered and shut the door. The floor was wet with the melted snow and ice from previous competitors’ kit. Ian made easy banter with the volunteers who he knew. I mumbled to myself. I was offered a hot chocolate which I accepted. Mark kept asking me if I had a cup. I did – the cooking pot of my Jetboil doubles up as a cup. I was too tired to explain this and too tired to unpack the contents of the Jetboil to free up the cup. He asked me again if I had a cup and I failed to respond properly again. He handed me some hot chocolate in the cut off end of a plastic water bottle. I include this anecdote for 2 reasons. First, I know the 2 volunteers at this hut were put out by the number of competitors who didn’t have cups with them. A degree of self-sufficiency is expected. I include myself in the category of competitors without a cup, because the truth is I didn’t have something which could be readily and easily accessed for drinking from. I might as well have lugged a first edition of Proust up the mountain, for all the use my Jetboil was to me. The second reason I include the anecdote is to try to convey the extent to which I was beginning to fail by this point of the race. I was too tired to answer a basic question about whether or not I had a cup. The hot chocolate was lovely. Mark offered Ian and me a mess tin of curried noodles. He asked if we wanted brown sauce on them. I couldn’t think through the implications of having brown sauce on noodles. I said ‘yes’. As soon as I tasted them, I regretted it. I forced 5 or 6 sporkfuls down and handed them to Ian. He was beginning to drop off. I moved onto the bench opposite. For the first time in the race I had taken my insulated jacket out. Temperatures were properly plummeting outside and it was my intention to wear it for the rest of the way. As I sat nursing my hot chocolate Mark pulled the jacket from under my legs, where I’d been sitting on it, and put it round my shoulders. He muttered something about not being able to bear seeing all that insulation go to waste. I know that proper mountain men like him have instinctive routines for when they stop moving – get their layers on, get warm food in, sort out personal admin. I can only imagine how frustrating they must find it to watch amateurs like me making repeated basic errors. It’s one thing to tie your laces badly in a 50 mile ultra-marathon. In this race, in these conditions, basic errors could cost lives. More to the point, as far as Mark was concerned, my basic errors could put his life at risk, when he is the person called on by the safety team to rescue me in 3 hours’ time. The jacket felt good on my shoulders. I snuggled into it, finished my chocolate and fell asleep.
Thirty minutes later we were being woken up again and told that we needed to move out. I took a few more mouthfuls of the now cold noodles. Brown sauce still wasn’t a good idea. I cut up the lanyard that my hand torch was on to make a wrist strap for it. I’d read enough about dropped gear – indeed I’d picked up another racer’s GPS on day 3 – to know about the dangers of dropping key kit when tired. It was annoying me detaching and re-attaching the torch to its Velcro holster on my shoulder and so I decided to keep it on my wrist. I cut myself making the wrist strap from para cord. It was a small cut which seemed to produce a lot of blood. Without asking what I was doing, Mark produced some white medical tape and sealed the wound. (Still, I can probably claim to be one of the few competitors to actually use the knife which forms part of the compulsory kit).
I put my insulating jacket on properly, underneath my waterproof and fastened them both up. Mark gave me a withering look and came and fastened the chin guard on my jacket properly ‘to stop it smacking you in the face’. If my comments make it sound like I resented his help in any way: I didn’t. I was hyper aware of how clumsy I must look to someone who moves intuitively in this world. Later, at the end of the race, he gave me a warm and genuine handshake and a firm ‘Well done’. It meant the more to me, given that he’d witnessed my inefficiencies the night before.
We left the hut. I was instantly glad of the extra insulation. The temperature continued to drop through the night and I know it was measured as low as -15 degrees before the night was through. Again, with the benefit of a 30 minute cat nap we made good initial progress. I go first, using the hand torch to pick out footprints or other indicators of the path. Ian follows, double-checking on his GPS that we are on the right line. The path follows a fence line most of the way from hut 1 to hut 2. Fortunately, the snow hadn’t completely covered the fence: the top 18 inches were still visible. The path climbs steadily higher into colder air and onto more exposed ground. I found a map and compass, sealed in a waterproof map case, clearly dropped by another competitor. I stowed them in the mesh at the back of Ian’s pack and we continued our climb. Largely, we were following previous footsteps and the fence line. The going got heavier and heavier. It began to sap my spirit, sinking 2 feet down into the snow and dragging my foot back out again. Some of the previous footsteps, where the path had been broken, were themselves, 2 feet deep and when I added my weight they sunk further still. Every so often the ground would appear solid and I would take 2 or 3 tentative paces on the crust before sinking again above my knees. The hope of solid ground was killing me. I was pleading for 10 steps with sure footing. They never came.
At some point, my phone rang. I fumbled to get it out. It had stopped ringing by the time I got my mittens off, undid my coat zip (the right hand pocket: contents – Tangfastics and phone) and pulled it out. Ian’s phone began ringing. He started the process of getting his phone out. It rang off. Mine rang again. I answered it and it went dead. As in the battery died. I was sure when I’d checked it the previous day the battery was on 2/3 charge. Now it was completely flat. That was a nice way to make a dangerous situation worse. Ian’s phone started ringing again. I answered it because he still had his mittens on. It was the race director. I gave him my name and race number. He told me that there was another competitor lost about 500 metres due south of us. He had wondered off the trail.
‘We’d like you to tab due south and hopefully you’ll see his head torch and you can bring him back to the proper path. He’s wondering about a bit, near an edge and we want to make sure he’s safe’.
Five hundred extra metres, cross-country. There and back. I know that the race directors will credit me any lost time. I don’t know if they’ll be able to credit me the extra effort. The lost energy. I won’t complain because I understand it is absolutely one of the expectations of a race like this that competitors look after each other. If someone else is in trouble, then everything else ceases to matter until they are safe. I ask the race director if there is anything posing a danger to me between my position and 500 metres due south. He tells me that it is relatively flat terrain with no obstacles. I set my GPS to point me due south. Ian stays on our current spot with his head torch pointing due south. I set off.
One hundred and 50 metres in and I fall into a gully. It isn’t much of a drop – a couple of feet – but I land up to my chest in snow. It is inside my mittens. I’m lying half on my side. It is an effort to right myself and get my feet back on to semi-solid ground. Ian is shouting something at me. Over the noise of the wind I am sure he is shouting ‘He’s withdrawn’. Maybe the race director has called Ian back to tell him that our lost compatriot has withdrawn from the race. With hindsight, that wouldn’t have made him any less in need of rescuing. Ian seems to be beckoning me back. I get on to higher ground and make my way back to Ian’s spot. At some point I see a second head torch light. It is the other racer. When the 3 of us meet up, it turns out that the other racer had realised he was lost, had retraced his steps and seen our head torches. Problem solved. We call race HQ and let them know that we are together. I fess up to the fact that my phone has died but let them know that Ian and I are together and his phone is working. The 3 of us fall into a line: me, Ian and the 3rd racer. We continue marching. The fall into the gully has further drained my dwindling energy. I can literally think of nothing other than how difficult this is.
‘Take this path son. You can do it’. I find myself repeating those 8 words over and over to myself with each 8 steps. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t know whether the ‘son’ is some desperate attempt to invoke a Higher power or maybe me trying to convince myself that my own dad is there helping me. It doesn’t matter. The rhythm of the words offers some comfort. Some structure to the meaningless, repetitive, tedious steps. ‘Take this path son. You can do it’. I am near tears. I can’t see any end to the path. We are marching towards an obvious dog-leg in the path, where it starts descending to the second mountain hut. Until that point it is all up hill. Ian takes over the lead and I go second. He pulls away and I struggle to keep up. Every step is harder and harder. The snow begins to turn into a sickening yellow mushy colour in the beam of my torch. I’m beyond hallucinating now. My eyesight is beginning to fail altogether. I can’t focus or make out shapes. I stop to lean my forehead on my poles and pitch forward into the snow, asleep. The cold snow on my face brings me to. I have just enough sense left to realise that was dangerous. It is bitingly cold and the wind is blowing. If I fall asleep now, I could be dead before anyone finds me. I make an effort to catch Ian up, counting off the steps 8 at a time to the rhythm of ‘Take this path son, you can do it’. I want my dad. Or a God. I want anything to make this stop and rescue me from the suffering.
There is nothing to rescue you.
You are on your own.
If you stop, you will die.
If you give up, you’ll still have to walk off the mountain. Or die.
You’ll still have to walk off. Or die.
The last thought hit home. It was a clear truth in a jumble of pain. A higher truth. Stark as it was, it gave me just enough impetus to focus on the next step. And the next. I accepted, that it was absolutely no one’s responsibility to get me out of this situation, but my own. If mountain rescue came – if I was still alive – they weren’t going to put me in a Sedan chair and carry me. They weren’t going to turn off the wind and the cold. At best they’d guide me off the mountain, the way that I was going to have to go anyway.
People talk about ‘digging deep’ in events like this. It is a metaphor I understand. For me, getting through this experience became a process of reaching higher more than digging deep. Not for a God or any sort of spiritual help. Rather, ‘higher’ in the sense of a metaphysical level of reason which could speak above the pain, above the tiredness and above the mental torment. A truth which transcended that. My truth was that I didn’t want to die and the only way to avoid that was to keep on going.
We crossed and re-crossed the fence line. Every time we did, my eyes played tricks on me – I couldn’t work out which way the wire was running and would spend confused minutes staring at it trying to work out if it was running away from me or across my path. Eventually I’d try to walk alongside it and end up tripping over it, having guessed wrong. Still the dog-leg we were waiting for didn’t seem to come. For hours Ian had been saying it’ll be soon. For hours, when I panned out on my GPS, it was still several kilometres away. My GPS watch told me that we were down to a mile an hour. We were touch and go as to whether we’d finish the race in time.
‘Please let this end. Please let this end’. My mantra had changed. All I could now think about was sleep. I knew for a certainty that I was going to have to sleep at the next mountain hut. Even if it meant DNF’ing there was absolutely no way I could carry on without some sort of sleep. But the mountain hut was nowhere to be found. The hill got steeper. My steps got shorter, my breathing more laboured, and I was more and more desperate for some sort of respite.
I cannot adequately convey the personal level of difficulty for me of getting from mountain hut 1 to the dog leg turn. I’m certain of this: if it had been one per cent more difficult, I wouldn’t have made it. I used up every last resource of physical, mental and emotional energy. And got there. Just.
A finger post loomed above us. I tried not to get too excited in case it was the hallucinations returning. Ian had stopped by it. I staggered the last few steps until I reached it. I touched it. I scraped the frost covering the letters and saw that it signposted The Cheviot one way and the Pennine Way the other. It was the turn of the dog leg we had been waiting for. There were lights and voices on the hill below us. ‘Hello. How are we doing?’ someone shouted from below. It was two volunteers from the safety team come to walk us down to hut 2. Relief.
In my exhaustion I forgot that it was actually another mile and a half to hut 2. I imagined that the 2 volunteers must have just popped out of the hut and come to greet us. In fact, there was still a long way to go. One of them took the lead with Ian and they sped down the hill. The other walked with me and the 3rd runner that we’d picked up a couple of hours ago. Gradually, I pulled away till I was walking by myself. I fell and quickly picked myself up. ‘Okay there?’ a voice inquired. ‘Fine’ I said, desperate to prove that I wasn’t suffering from exhaustion or any other condition which might get me pulled out of the race. I fell again and pulled myself up again. I concentrated hard on staying awake and not falling. The truth was, I felt like I was falling the entire way down the hill, walking with a stumbling gait, wildly swinging each leg in front of me to break the fall. On and on we went. Every rock assumed the shape of the mountain hut. But still it didn’t come. Every slight kink in the fence promised its arrival. But it didn’t come. On and on. After perhaps another 45 minutes of exhausted walking we got there. Five of us entered the hut. It was already full.
The last group of runners, including the 2 leading ladies, were there still sleeping. There was a medic and a hill walker who had been rescued from the hill. Javed Bhatti was there and at least one other competitor. At least 11 bodies in total. Half of them asleep or semi-conscious. I was desperate for some kind of sleep, but could barely find space to sit down. One of the volunteers was asking for gas, so I got mine out of my Jetboil and offered it to him. Then he changed his mind and wanted water. I had kit spilling onto the floor of the crowded hut. He offered me hot chocolate so I took it and gulped it down. He offered more. No one seemed to want it, so I had a second cup. The medic asked me where we were. I told her we were at hut 2 on the Cheviot section of the Pennine Way. God knows how I actually came across, but I remember thinking to myself – she’s asking me questions to test for signs of disorientation, so make sure you get them right. She asked me what the race was called and what day it was. She asked another runner who the President of the United States was and he thought for 30 seconds before getting it right. The rescued hill walker, sat in a foil bivvy bag, mumbled something about getting back outside and the medic patiently explained to him that his evening was over and he couldn’t go back out again. One of the other volunteers announced that there was 5 hours to the end of the race and that anyone who wanted to finish before the cut-off point of 10 am needed to leave now. He would be following the next group down. He asked me if I wanted to go with them. I explained that I absolutely had to have a sleep otherwise I would have to DNF. He pulled a face and said that 5 hours was the minimum they were reckoning to do the last 6 miles. I repeated that I needed a sleep. The group who were supposedly leaving were taking an age to get ready. I was eying the bits of bench on which they were sprawled enviously, desperate to lie down myself. Still they yawned and stretched and acted with the soporific inefficiency that we all do when that tired. Eventually one of the lead women stood up and began to get her pack ready. I moved over to the corner where she’d been sat, and half sat, half lay on the bench. My head was down. I asked to be woken up in 30 minutes and passed out.
Thirty unconscious minutes later a hand was rocking my shoulder. ‘You’ve got 4 hours and 15 minutes till the cut off. You’ve got to go. Even the leaders were taking 4 hours to do this section’. (It is inaccurate information as it turns out, but serves its purpose to get me moving). I am straight up and shouldering my pack. I shake Ian awake and tell him we’ve got to leave. Javed Bhatti is still in the hut for some reason. I ask him if he is okay. When I’d seen him at Bellingham he’d been anticipating finishing the race at some point last night. He says he’s fine but was involved in ‘a mountain rescue incident last night’ which held him up. Typical of the ethos of the race, he is too modest to give me any details of what he was called upon to do the previous evening. Ian gets up and readies himself. We are back out into the cold night air. I feel ready for the final push. There is one last significant, steep climb, then it is downhill to the finish line. I know that we have to keep up a pace of 1.5 miles an hour to do it. In normal circumstances, I’d struggle to walk that slowly. But this terrain, with this snow cover, this tired … this is not normal.
At least one of the volunteers says he is going to follow us down. I am vaguely aware of Javed leaving. The 3rd runner that we picked up last night. Then me and Ian. We set off at a good pace. Soon we hit the steep uphill section. I don’t break stride, completely focussed now on maintaining a speed of 1.5 miles an hour. Ian is close behind me. Half way up the hill we overtake Javed. I hear the word ‘Blimey’. Ian later tells me that Javed had commented to him that he couldn’t believe how fast we were going. I feel like I’ve found an extra gear from somewhere. I press on hard and sooner than I could have dreamed, I’m at the top of the hill. ‘That’s it – we’ve topped it’ Ian says. Then adds ‘I don’t think I can keep that pace up’. I’m torn. When we were at hut 1 they’d told us it was 9 miles to hut 2. The actual distance felt way longer than that. Now I’d been told it was 6 miles from hut 2 to the end. If that was right, then by my calculations we should be able to cover the ground comfortably, even if we slowed down. But if it was wrong … if it was longer than 6 miles … then, slowing down might mean we don’t reach the finish line by 10 am. I’d done so much of the race with Ian. Would I really leave him now, just to beat the cut-off? I made my decision. I’d rather DNF than leave a mate at this point of the race. I slowed down and told Ian to let me know if he wanted to slow down further still. I carried on towards the finish line relaxed with my decision. I’d come into this race to test the limits of my endurance. I’d found them. I could push myself through any pain barrier but I wasn’t going to act like a dick just to beat some artificial deadline. I found a walking pole lying across the path. Ian had broken one of his on the mad push to the dog leg turn, earlier that night. I picked it up and presented it to him. We walked side by side. Ian suggested that we might want to put our Yaxtrax on – another compulsory bit of kit. I agreed, so we stopped and fitted them over our boots. They are coils of wire that act like snow chains under your feet. Give a bit more traction on the ice. The light began to break and we carried on. As we descended and the light rose, we could see the misty valley of Kirk Yetholm beneath us. We hit a farm track and the Yaxtrax really came into their own. A mountain rescue Landrover sped past us. Then a Spine safety Landrover, containing one of the race directors. He stopped to congratulate us. ‘Do you think we can finish by 10 I asked’ desperate for confirmation. ‘You’ve got bags of time’ he smiled and they sped on. A little while later a mountain ambulance raced past and a chopper went overhead. It was clear some sort of incident was going on up the hill. (We later found out they were evacuating an injured walker – not a racer – just someone who the Spine safety team had helped recover from the hills. It may have been the guy in the foil bivvy bag in hut 2, but I don’t know. It was good for the race that even in the crucial stages of a tough event, the safety team were able to divert and save the life of another).
The track turned a corner and climbed another hill. Two hundred yards. There were telegraph poles to the left and I counted them off as we neared the top. Then down and a turn. Then there was a grassy area and some buildings. Ian touched my shoulder and said ‘That’s the end’ indicating a building to our right. ‘Do you want to run?’ I began to cry. We jogged across the grass. I tried to keep the tears in check. I was about as effective at that as I’d been at most other things over the last 30 hours. There were a group of people stood round the pub. They cheered and clapped as we neared the famous pub wall. And we were there. There were shouts of well done. Ian and I stood by the wall, looked at each other, and touched it together. Joint 21st finishers out of 24 finishers in the Spine Race for 2016. It is the hardest thing I have every done. I used up every last ounce of physical, mental and emotional resolve getting to the end. We went into the pub and sat on a settee. A member of the safety team cuts the laces off my boots and takes them off for me. I am moved to tears again by his kindness. I fall fast asleep. Sometime later I am woken up by a man who shakes my hand and says well done. It is Nicole’s uncle who has come to drive me home. I have known him for 20 years. I don’t recognise him. I fall back to sleep.
A final note.
There is a cliché used about 100 mile ultramarathon races. It says that the first 50 miles are in your legs and the second 50 in your head. With the benefit of one finish (and only one) I would tentatively venture this about the Spine. The first 134 miles are in your head and the second 134 miles are in a different part of your head. My view, now, is that the first 3 checkpoints (up to Middleton) are about how you plan and strategise that section. And the rest of the race is about your mental determination. One thing I can say with certainty is that my planning for the first half of the race was naïve and poor. If I had not been lucky enough to meet Ian Bowles on day 2 I would not have finished that first part of the race. It was his advice which caused me to re-plan and his advice which saw me get to Middleton (just about) in one piece. For that, I owe the race to him.