Thursday, 10 November 2016

Spine Race Report 2013

    Friday night and 12 hours to  the start of the 2013 Spine Race

         Racing the whole of the Pennine Way in January Can’t hurt that much. Can it?

Here I am in the back of my van starting my final prep for the Spine.  Typically I have left everything to the last minute.  The current problem is how to pack all I might need in my drop bag.  It all comes down to what could be a crucial choice - tent or bivi bag?   I know I won’t make CP2 at a sensible time so I err on comfort rather than lightweight.  The tent it is!  The same goes for the choice of the faster cooking MSR Gas stove over super light weight’ fuel tablet’ stove. The stove choice proved particularly important 6 days later.
Back in the race HQ others are making similar decisions. We worry about the weight of our packs. How much we carry is the only thing we can change at this late stage. Few of us appreciate that it,s the small decisions we make  out on the trail  that will really make the difference.

          I ponder why I am here and feel a bit of a fraud (I have not even paid to enter for god’s sake!).  Last year I entered the Spine Challenger but had to pull out at the last minute.  I passed on my entry to fellow Totnes Runner Mark Brooks.

Mark was not at all keen to enter, as he hates cold weather.  He came up with a list of excuses: no bivi bag, no traction aids, no decent sleeping bag, no transport. To each excuse he came up with, I supplied the solution.  My parting words as he left for Edale in my van were, “ If you win the Spine Challenger you can let me have your prize of free entry to the 2013 Spine”. 

He won and so here I am.

Day One  only 268 miles to go.

As expected the majority of the pack rushed off up the hill.  Racing was not part of my plan.  As a 57 year old plodder with nothing to prove I knew I could make it to CP2 and that anything else would be a bonus.  As for finishing the Spine, if I did that I would be chuffed to bits!  For now I had only one aim, to get up to Kinder Scout without breaking into a sweat.

I stopped several times to change layers.  I have to control my body temperature .The heat I produce must match the heat lost. If I run hot or cold I am just wasting energy. On shorter runs up to say 12 hours you can get away with things but this race is different.

The Kinder Plateau gave me an early wake up call.  I slipped into race mode picking off several runners until I took a wrong turn at Kinder Downfall.  I am an orienteer and I didn’t even have my map out!  The Spine had given me my first gentle kick; a more serious beating was soon to follow.

The rest of that day can best be described as a settling in period.  A bitterly cold wind blew from the east and we runners started to form up in groups , each following a navigator.  I found myself at the front on map and compass with someone else on GPS cross checking our track.  All was well as where the path was indistinct or branching  as it forced concentration.  The Spine however could never be taken for granted.

Our group soon found ourselves following a good obvious path but we were heading SW on Castleshaw Moor.  Somehow we had all stopped navigating, missed a junction and were now 1.5km off track!  There was a recovery path marked on my OS map but it was too indistinct to follow on the ground.  This left us with a run along a Pennine bridleway and 2km of road to get back on track.  Total time lost about one hour.  That second kick hurt!

Soon it was lights on time and the group began to work better together.  Two  of us navigating and those with good night vision spotting the indistinct path among boulders dusted by snow and ice.

We arrived at the next road checkpoint.  This is was where I made my worst decision of the whole race!

I was hungry , very hungry but stupidly I decided to pass the brightly lit pub and stick with the group.
  Several more runners had joined us and we were on a fast, flat wide track.  The pace quickened with someone calling out our speed.  Subtly the group was speeding up.  Within a few km I knew I was running over pace and the hunger was turning into that old familiar slightly nauseous feeling that warns of imminent throwing up!  The pace slackened on the more technical ground for the last 5km to CP1 but the damage was already  done.

I arrived at the CP, got my feet sorted and then tried to eat and drink.  Not long after I threw up.  When I get into that state my face drains of color and my lips go purple.   This has happened to me many times before. (I usually crawl on and recover.)  This time I was immediately grabbed by the Medics , declared an emergency, told to lie down and get some tubes of dextrose, coke and porridge down me. 

You don’t argue with the Spine Medics.  I was on final warning!  I managed to do as I was told, crawling onto a bunk and eventually falling to sleep  despite the dorm door banging near my bunk.

I woke up to find my appetite had returned.  After a stiff talking to by the head Medic I was allowed to go on, having promised to up my fluid and food intake.

Day two - 45 miles done

       Setting off just before dawn a new group had formed .We quickly got back into eating up the miles.  I had learnt my lesson the previous day and resolved to run at my own pace and stuff my face all day.  If any one else wanted to tag along at my pace, that was fine but I would not wait or pass any food stops.

Group running on long ultras is more complex than you may think.  In a group of say four runners , the navigator will lead.  Perhaps two runners will cruise at below their sustainable pace  ,saving the energy it takes to navigate.  Any other runners are probably being pulled along at above their sustainable pace, not wanting to leave the comfort of the group. Inevitably they suffer and gradually go down hill.

I personally reckon groups of two or three work best.  I had also noticed on day one that the runners with support crews tended to stop at every road head and take advantage of their crews, leaving the rest of the group shivering while they waited.  Supported and unsupported runners don’t always work well together.

The composition of our band gradually changed and I found my self running with an Irish lad, Eamonn, and Andy, a young guy who lives only five miles from my home.  Navigation duties meshed well as Eamonn had a good GPS and Andy a booklet with detailed maps and notes on the route.  We made small detours at times to visit cafes, pubs and the Gargrave Co-op pie display. I grabbed 4 pies eating one even before I got to the till.

We were making steady progress.  Dave Lee joined us. Dave was the only competitor older than me and the only one I felt I wanted to beat.  Dave is a vastly experienced and tough  runner in his 60’s    Perhaps we both wanted to be group leader?  but there was a definite tension between us. He later told me he felt exactly the same way about me.

Dave had walked the Pennine Way twice before and knew some of it really well.  We all shared the navigation.  We got as far as Malham Cove but then  everything went pear shaped.  The trail was hidden by snow and due to the steep climbs we were trying to navigate in 3D on a 2D map.

We came to the end of a blind gorge which Dave was convinced was not on the trail, so we must be way off course. The GPS was having difficulty keeping a signal. Backtracking only made things worse but eventually a GPS grid fix confirmed we were on course.  We eventually located steps hidden in the snow leading up comb hill.  It was a real relief to arrive at the CP 1.5 tent at Malham Tarn.

Eamonn pushed on with Andy, as he was worried about the cut off for the Spine Challenger. I don’t recall if Dave camped or pushed on.

After a quick drink of tea I scuttled outside to put up my tent.  The snowy ground was covered in bodies holed up in bivi bags.  My TN laser tent took no time to erect despite the frozen ground . I was soon cooking up beef hot pot and Ovaltine.  Alarm set for four hours sleep and toasty warm, I went out like a light.

Day three - about 90 miles done

Still dark so I fired up the gas stove for porridge and Ovaltine, whilst I re packed.  I could hear others emerging from their bivi bags trying to get warm.  Thank god for my tent! I was in much better shape than the others around me .

I was running solo again, navigating well and keeping a lookout for tracks in the snow.  It’s easy to stop navigating and rely on following  others tracks but what with sheep and cows hoofs churning up the footprints, you have to keep concentrating.

I soon overhauled a group of four lead by Jenn Gaskell.  Jenn is over thirty years younger than me.  She is sponsored by Montane and, unlike me, actually wins Ultras!

Jenn was holding back as a couple of the lads in her group were struggling. On a race like The Spine you need to run at your own pace.  Staying with the lads was doing no one any favour's. 
  Jenn’s and my pace were better matched so after a quick word with the others she joined me and we pushed ahead.

Jenn, the young Racehorse, and I, the old Carthorse seemed outwardly to be a mismatched pair. We powered up and over the spectacular snow covered heights of Pen-y-ghent.  We ran on down to the café in Horton only to discover it was closed Mondays!

Climbing back up the hill we recalled the pre -race briefing:  The 2013 Spine had been shortened missing out the Horton dogleg and about 3.5km, including a big climb.  We had lost well over an hour and the other  lads had caught us up again.  Still we felt we had done the “proper Spine route”.   Re passing the lads. A freezing wind blasted us from the east but we hardly noticed as we chatted all the way to Haws.  (110 miles completed.)

We had our feet sorted and wolfed down the hot food.  Before leaving Hawes I raided the local butchers and carried of several pies and some local cheese.
Many runners only carry specialised energy foods such as jells and energy bars to save on weight.  I find I need salty foods and solid carbs. As a self confessed pig and carthorse I am not so bothered about the weight. If it’s not the sort of thing I would raid the fridge for, then it has no place in my pack . One superb “Spine Snack” I used were a large jacket potato cooked in the CP with half a stock cube inserted in it. This is foil wrapped put in a plastic bag then stowed inside my down jacket. It will stay warm for up to 6 hrs in my pack . Hot food  and warm hands , a real boost at low moments.  I also used sachets of HP sauce squeezed directly into my mouth to keep awake!( I have never trusted the Caffeine type supplements that can mess up your head)
My body is not so much ‘ A Temple ‘ as a ‘Council Waste Food Processing Plant’.

 Night fell and our route now took us up into the snow covered heights of Shunner Fell.
Conditions were atrocious.  With a howling wind, spindrift and no trace of the trail. We used  Jenn’s Garmin Oregon GPS to keep us on track.  (visibility was so bad that it was difficult to read any contours ) We waded, lurching forward through the boulders.  The snow was deep, up to waist height in places.  Behind us blowing snow immediately filled in our tracks.  Our water bottles had all frozen up and the going was getting tougher. This was survival racing, pushing onwards in our own little world.   Jenn trudged just behind me walking in my footprints. I was on autopilot mode (head down and pushing on)

I shouted back to Jenn, “are you ok?”  Her reply was instant.  “I’m having the best time of my life!”  I was shocked to realise  I felt the same.  Here we were, two  miss matched knackered runners, short on sleep, fighting our way through a snow storm up an invisible boulder strewn path in the middle of the night   This was totally nuts and utterly wonderful!

We never stopped chatting that night and I soon found my roll had changed.  Jenn wanted to be the first woman to finish the Spine Race and my new mission was to help her every way I could.  This took even more pressure off me and raised our already high morale still higher.

Team Age Gap Warming Up.
‘Team-Age-Gap’, as we called ourselves, was on a roll.  We would run until the early hours, and then make camp at the Tan Hill Pub, the highest pub in the UK.

The race organisers had been talking to the barman at the Tan Hill pub. He was keen to help the racers  and we had been given his phone number.  I phoned him at about 10 pm to let him know that we would not get there till 3am. I asked where would be the best place to put up the tent?  I was astonished when he said that if we arrived any time before 3 am we should shout outside his bedroom window and he would let us in to sleep on the pub floor! Who was this saint?

Team-Age-Gap eventually got to the pub at 2.45.  I found myself standing on snow covered table shouting up at various windows, watched by two bemused sheep.  I was trying to shout, yet  being terribly British and trying not to make too much noise at the same time.

No response.  Now what?  Jenn shone her torch through the ground floor window.  Russ, another Spiner, had been kipping on the bar floor.  He woke up and let us in.  A warm room, running water, carpet, cushions and sofas - for us, sheer bliss.  We hung our wet gear over  the stools and tables  in the lounge bar and Within minutes we were asleep.

Day four - 130 miles done

Up before dawn, and despite eating some cold leftover chips we found , starving again!  Decided to fire up my stove outside - I did not want to set off any smoke alarms.  Opening the fire door I was confronted by the two sheep who seemed intent on breaking into the pub!  I knew it was cold outside but if the local sheep were seeking shelter it must be bloody freezing!  Two hot meals and a bowl of porridge later we were ready to go.

The barman came down stairs and offered to cook us breakfast.  He was a real star.  He even apologised for not waking up!

We learned he had just returned from ‘a Cage Fighting Tour’ of the US.  Jenn now knows  all of the seven moves you are not allowed to do to your opponent in a Cage Fight so you had better not mess with her!

Just as we started Dave Lee appeared.  He looked wiped out, having not slept for forty plus hours.  I suggested he go into the pub where our new Cage Fighting Friend would make him breakfast.  Dave would have none of it.  He wanted to come on with us.

My last memory of the pub was the sight of our Cage Fighting Friend standing in the snow feeding the pubs two pet sheep.

I phoned race control to give them an update on Jenn and I and also of Dave,s condition.  Dave promptly shot off ahead but we soon came across him brewing up food.   For the next few hours Dave kept  yo-yoing around us but never at a steady pace. We found his behaviour very disconcerting.

About 10km short of the CP at Middleton, Dave vanished completely.  I phoned race control again and suggested they send someone to escort him in to the checkpoint.
 Locating the Middleton CP proved to be a real pain but eventually we arrived and Jenn’s Mother did a great job of looking after us both.  Dave soon arrived and was prescribed; ‘a good nights sleep’.  Jenn and I showered, ate and crashed in the bunks intending to sleep for four hours.  One hour later my head was still buzzing.
“ Hey Jen, you asleep?”
“ No, I don’t think I can.”
“ Me neither.  Do you want to hit the trail?”
“Yes, let’s go for it!”

We arranged with Jenn’s mother to meet us in Dufton at 8 am, where we would sleep in her car for a few hours.

The path now ran along the Tees towards Cow Green Reservoir and the falls at Cauldron Snout.  We had been given special instructions on how to pass the Falls but long before we got there we found the trail disappeared among massive boulders alongside the icy rushing water.  There were several sets of footprints leading up a near vertical slope away from the water.  We followed them up and over 2 km of horrendous energy sapping  boggy ground towards the lights of Cow Green Dam.  We never did see the Falls!   Far  ahead in the distance we thought we could see runners lights . We passed the Dam and followed a wide, gradually climbing track.

Day five

 Around 3 am Jenn dramatically started to fall apart.  I had not realised that she had just not been eating enough.  Without food she did not have the energy to generate enough speed to keep warm.  Once this cycle starts it’s difficult to reverse especially for a well trained runner with a minimum of body fat.  The early stages of hypothermia set in. Running with a partner  during high altitude cold night sections can be vital as your decision making ability can quickly goes down the pan!

Jenn was desperate to stop and camp - not, I felt, a safe option.  I argued that her mother would be waiting for her with a nice warm car in Dutton.  If we stopped on the high exposed ground she would get even colder and find re starting even more difficult. ( we needed to get down off the cold high ground as fast as we could)

I fed Jenn on shotblocks  and lent her my down jacket.  Crawling along at a snails pace  she could not warm up.  My next step was to carry her pack, take her arm and frog march her forward.  This helped but progress was difficult on the icy, rutted track whilst trying to carry two packs.  Jenn put her pack back on, as it helped keep her back warm, and I dragged and chivvied her foreword despite her pleas for us to stop.

Dawn broke as we crawled past the spectacular High Cup Nick but Jenn was past caring.  I phoned race control again to update them  of Jenn’s situation and to make sure her mother and the promised “nice warm car” would be waiting in Dufton.

The ground sloped downward and a battered Team-Age-Gap  eventually shuffled into Dufton.

We arrived in a deserted Dufton only to find no car!  I sat Jenn on a bench, draped my sleeping bag around her and brewed up hot drinks preparing to put the tent up on the snow covered village green.

Much to my relief Jenn’s mother soon arrived with hot soup and food.  Her car looked, to a 6ft 2ins bloke, very small but somehow we both folded ourselves into the back . The strange angle of the folded back seats caused my calf to cramp but soon I dozed of.

We woke after about two hours.  The Dufton pub had opened and we all trooped inside to  eat chips and plan our next move.  I half expected Jenn to quit there and then but she was determined to go on. She had to make her own decisions.

I had my doubts that Jenn could go much further so we agreed that Jenn’s mum (An experienced hill walker) would  come with us for a while to see how Jenn felt.

Jenn was okay on the level path out of Dufton but as soon as we started to climb she slowed down and burst into tears.  Jenn could see that she was still struggling and was mortified that she might be ruining any chance I had of finishing the Spine. We could all see that this was probably true. Short of carrying her there was nothing more I could do to help her.  I reluctantly agreed that I would push on alone and Jenn would join the following, hopefully slower, group.

After a tearful parting I carried on up towards Cross Fell.  Looking back ten minutes later there was no sign of Jenn or her Mum.  The snow deepened on the exposed fell side and the wind was rising again.  I was deeply troubled that Jenn might not be able to keep up with the second group and try to go it alone! I felt I terribly responsible for her safety.

A local fell runner appeared heading to Dufton.  I gave him a message for Jenn telling her of the harsh conditions on the higher ground and that on no account should she run solo.

 I was physically strong but lack of sleep meant my  emotions were on a constant knife edge. About five minutes later I got a text from Jenn’s Mum saying Jenn had realised she could not carry on and they were walking together back to Dufton.  I fell to my knees in the snow and wept, partly from relief but also from knowing how much Jenn had wanted to complete the Spine.

Jenn and I had gained so much strength from each other and now it was up to me to finish this race for both of us!  Besides which, somewhere up ahead was the German Team!

The climb up to Cross Fell seemed to go on for hours with several false summits but at least I had daylight and tracks to follow.  I climbed past the Domes on top of one of the fells and peered through the glass at a scientist working inside. It looked warm and inviting inside but like  part of a James Bond film set.

Just before the summit I came across a sight that reminded me of how dangerous the fells could be.  The trail was invisible but for a few exposed flagstones.  I came across two stones with a gap of six inches between them.  Below the gap was a drop of two feet to a stream.  Anyone following the flagstones could easily have put a foot down the gap, instantly breaking their leg and in these conditions this could be fatal!

I pushed on harder wanting to get out of the danger zone and down to Greg’s Hut before dusk.

Greg’s Hut was a welcome respite.  John Bamber and the medics seemed to fill the place with good cheer, making it difficult to leave.  I had tea and soup then said my farewell and continued down the track.  100 meters later I realized I had left my remaining walking pole back at the Hut!  Cursing I ran back up the hill then started again.

I had hoped to make good time on this track but it was coated in ice and strewn with boulders.  The track also divided in places, then re joined.  None of these junctions appeared on my map and I was losing confidence in my navigation.  Progress was frustratingly slow and by the time I got to Garrigill I was well and truly knackered.

A small pub lifted my spirits.  I fell through the door, ordered a pint of Coke and asked if they had any food. Unfortunately they were short staffed and no longer serving food.
 Looking round I noticed several plates of half eaten food. No one appeared to be guarding them so I sloped over and eat the lot. On looking up I saw a middle aged couple staring  at me.
 “Come far? ”the man asked, nervously.
 Edale I muttered“ I am running the Pennine Way.
 They were confused and worried by my answer.
 My gaze kept drifting towards their plates.
 Luckily the man was a real fan of Ray Mears  survival programs on "Dave". This was one of those "facing death situations". At last he had a chance to  put in  practise what Ray had taught him. 
 He knew what to do : Give the Bear what it  wants , don’t make eye contact and back away slowly! The drooling animal before him with no manners and staring bloodshot eyes, certainly stank  and  acted like a Bear.
The couple abandoned their food , backed out the door . I moved in and  shamelessly cleaned their plates.
Grunting my thanks to the remaining customers I lurched back out into the night.
A minute later one of the pub locals came running after me with my pole which I had left in the pub. I stuffed it into the top of my pack and pushed on.

Garrigill to the CP at Alston is only about 7km but again progress was slow.  My brain wasn’t working properly and I kept making navigation errors.  I passed about 2km of fields covered in rock solid frozen molehills.  I have never seen so many in one place.  I don’t think I was hallucinating but I was in no position to judge myself.  Each molehill was like a mini tank trap ready to break a runner’s toes. The mole hills were followed by a narrow track with overhanging branches which kept snagging my pole but I was to tired to stow the pole properly.

At last Alston CP, food and a few hours sleep.  Rather annoyingly the hostel drying room heaters were not switched on so I had to dangle my wet garments over the radiators before retiring to bed.  Keeping my feet dry was vital to prevent Trench Foot. Jenn was somewhere in the hostel fast asleep.  I never did see her.

Day 6  - 200 miles - somebody stop me!

I planned to be off by 7am.  Russell  Swift wanted to run with me but was not ready by 7.  With three breakfasts inside me I could not wait.  The German team where about two hours ahead and I was determined to catch them!

Within the first five minutes I made a navigation error, which cost me time. As an Orienteer I must confess to being a bit of a navigational snob. I hate the idea of the GPS.  Now I needed to use all the tools at my disposal.  I reluctantly fished out my base model Garmin E Trex, determined to teach myself how to use it on a good trail in daylight.  Unlike  Jenn’s Garmin Oregon  my GPS had no base map so I had to use the waypoints supplied by the Spine Team. All was fine if I had a visible path to follow but once it was obscured by snow I frequently ended up running through a bog parallel to a good flagged path. The waypoints were set just to far apart.  Map and compass proved faster than my GPS in daylight.

It soon became apparent that I was physically and mentally changed.  I was running faster than at any time during the race.  I had plenty to eat and energy to spare.  Somehow over the last five days I had re-programmed my body, turning me into an eating running machine!

I was high as a kite whooping with joy, tracking Germans.  The only ones missing  from this rapturous scene was Jenn and my the  two dogs: Scooby and Suki, who I love to take running with me across Dartmoor .   I felt like Jim Carrey’s character in the film "The Mask" shouting out "somebody stop me!"  It’s a good thing the Spine medics were not around as they would have withdrawn me from the race for mental instability!

The ground flew by; at times I was hitting 7mph according to my GPS.  The sun came out for a time but the bogs were still frozen enough  to run over without getting the dreaded wet feet.

Next big landmark - Hadrian’s Wall.  Here the Pennine Way ran east into a biting cold wind.  The Spine team met me at one of the road crossings.

Conrad, one of the race organisers, ran with me for a while.  We chatted about how the runners felt about the race and how it could be improved for next year.

The subject of food came up and I confessed I could kill for a Camembert cheese or two. He thought for a while and replied "how about Brie?”   Yes, I said, three would be better!  Once my confusion had been sorted I learnt that Conrad lived nearby.  He had had a ‘Brie or two’ in his fridge and made a quick phone call.  One hour later, at the next road head, I was handed two Brie cheeses.

Dusk fell again and I parted with Conrad, turning north again towards a forested area.  I had been warned that there were two dangerous bogs before the forest and I must stick to the flagstones!  The snow had hardened and with no visible trail or footprints I struck out across open ground following the GPS waypoint line.  I found the bog but no flagstones.  A detour of 90 degrees left and right revealed nothing so nervously I tiptoed my way across the bog.  The same thing happened at the second bog.  I knew what was happening, I was running parallel to the trail but in these conditions unless I hit the flagstones spot on I could not find it!

The bogs had slowed me down but worse was to follow.  On entering the forest the main track was often joined by wide forest rides.  In the dark the rides were indistinguishable from the Pennine Way itself. The GPS waypoints did not take into account the winding of the trail so several times I found myself running up dead ends.  Not all the rides were shown on the OS map so I found myself frequently back tracking!

My worst moment came when I ran 500 meters up a blind ride.  I figured out from a GPS fix that the main trail was about 30 meters to the east.  The branches on the trees were so low that I was forced to take my pack off and crawl on my belly, dragging my pack behind me.  Once back on the path I was back up to speed again. A few minutes later I noticed I had lost my waterproof thermal cap.  There was no chance of finding it if I had lost it while crawling through the trees. It was a bitter blow.

The rest of that night was spent in much the same frustrating way. In low visibility missing the trail by  just 3 meters can be enough  to stop you dead.  My curses could have been heard for miles. Often I had to climb barbed wire topped walls as I could not make out  which way the gates were located.

At one point I came to a fairly wide river.  The map indicated a footbridge but none was apparent despite searching the bank up and down stream.  Eventually, muttering curses, I entered the foot deep ice cold  water avoiding the rafts of snow floating down stream. 200 meters later I came upon an obstacle that made me laugh out loud.  Before me was a farmyard with a 20 foot high pile of steaming cow dung and according to my GPS, the waypoint was smack bang in its centre!  Someone back at Spine HQ had a sense of humour.

It was with some relief that I eventually arrived at the Bellingham CP.  All the extra speed on that leg had been for nothing as the night navigation errors had wiped out all the time gained.

CP 5 was where my race was changed yet again.  We were due for 65 mph winds, -8oC and a blizzard!  With the forecast that bad I feared my race was over.

The Spine team called a conference.  It was decided that the only safe way the race could go on was if the remaining runners formed up in two teams.   I was to join Michael, Jin, Thomas, Anna and Brian and we would set off in three hours, at 5 am.  The second team of Dave, Annie and Russell (who arrived at CP5 a little later) would follow at 6 am. 

None of us fully appreciated it at that time but The Spine Race was about to get a lot more serious!

Day 7 - 222 miles done - 45 miles to go!

Russ Ladkins was carried  in to the Bellingham CP  by the medics.  Russ had been ahead of us but had to quit when his digestive system shut down and he became crippled by cramps .  Russ was put on a plasma drip with  two of the medics  watching  over him while he tried to get some sleep.  All this activity was happening  in the bed next to me. I got next to no sleep.
 I was also worried about the next leg and my lost hat problem. I was considering cutting up my towel and wrapping  it around my head for extra insulation.
 Much to my relief I was reunited with my thermal cap which the second team had found on Hadrians Wall. I knew I would need all my extra  kit to stay warm and safe over the coming leg. Preparing my pack I estimated I would be carrying over 10Kg. 

Five am arrived and we were briefed on what was to come.  Anna was given a GPS tracker that would continually transmit our position on a Google Earth  to race control.  The tracker could be used to signal race control of problems (amber light) or too  transmit an emergency signal.  For now it would be on plain tracker.  The group had to stick together and look after each other.

We set off into the dark.  Michael was leading the way with his state of the art GPS.  He had every single path on Google Earth and OS maps programmed into his machine and so never strayed more than 2 meters off the path.  This explained why I could not catch them the previous day.

Progress was fairly fast but Michael’s pace was very inconsistent.  After about one hour we reached a road and Michael announced he was dropping out of The Spine.  We were all rather shocked and surprised.  He explained that for the last hour he had lost proper control of his body temperature.  He felt he would not be able to cope with the conditions forecasted for the latter stages of our last leg.  We managed to flag down a car and Michael got a lift back to Bellingham. It must have taken immense courage to take that decision this close to the finish line.

Thomas took over leading with his GPS.  The pace quickened, as we knew we had to get as far as possible before the blizzard set in.

Back at Spine HQ  unknown to us , our team had been named - The Trans European Freight Train or TEFT for short.  However on the ground our group was not yet a team.  Thomas and Jin had been together from the start and moved as one unit.  Anna and Brian had paired up several days before and behaved as if they had been married for years.  And then there was me, ‘Billy No Mates’, tagging along.  The group as yet had no real team spirit.

Things were not helped by cultural differences.  If the Germans stopped to eat or change layers we all stopped.  If the Brits did the same the Germans would continue marching off into the distance and the Brits would have to play catch up. Thomas marched at a totally uniform speed both up and down hill. I preferred to avoid sweating by moving slower on the up’s then speeding up on the flat’s and downs . Our dysfunctional group was stretched up to 200meters apart at times!

We marched through Redesdale Forest. A storm was approaching and we heard the sinister sounds of Bombs and Artillery from the military ranges to our East. I felt like a Hobbit approaching the dark realm of Mordor.   Often we had to step back from the dirt road as vast logging trucks sped past taking runs at the ice covered switch back hills. This was real ‘Red Neck country’.

We met the Spine team again at the road through Byrness.  There we topped up our water knowing that for the next 35km we would be on our own in what was essentially a wilderness. Our only hope of shelter were two Mountain Refuge Huts high up in the Cheviots.

Climbing out of Byrness I paused to put on more layers.  When I looked up everyone else had disappeared over the skyline.  I hauled myself up the slope to see Brian and Anna 50 meters ahead with Jin and Thomas 200meters ahead of them .   Neither Thomas nor Jin ever looked back.  This was no longer a joke - we were not acting as a team.

I ran to catch up with Thomas telling him he had to slow down so we could keep together.  Thomas stopped still.  He appeared to have only two speeds, fast relentless march  and; “please hurry up, I am getting cold waiting”!   Fortunately, as we climbed the snow was getting deeper so Thomas, who was breaking the trail, was naturally slowing down.  The group closed up and moved ahead.

At around dusk we reached the First Mountain Refuge Hut.  The wind speed increased and the snow fell more heavily.  Thomas, with his sheer strength, did the bulk of the trail breaking helping the rest of the team following in his tracks.  We started rotating the front runner as with conditions deteriorating no one person could ‘ trail break’ for long. The following team members tramped along head down following the leaders trench.
 We seamlessly slipped from being three teams into one powerful team.  The TEFT was now acting as a well-oiled machine.   I totally forgave Thomas for everything that had annoyed me earlier.

With wind and freezing snow blasting us from our right hand side we clawed our way forward along the Cheviots.  All liquid water in our bottles had frozen solid . The snow got deeper but under the drifts the bogs were not frozen.  Our feet kept being soaked then re frozen. This lead to a build up of compacted snow much as you would roll balls of snow to make a snow man.

For some reason Brian had the worst problems.  Great balls of snow and ice had formed around his lower legs.  As the balls grew, the zips on his leggings were gradually forced up his leg exposing more places for ice to form.  He must have had over 1.5 kg of ice stuck to each leg.  His tracks looked like those of a two-legged elephant! Balls of ice the size of tennis balls formed on the ends of our running poles 

Whenever we passed a solid fence post we kicked out to dislodge some of the ice on our legs.    The navigation was getting more difficult.  GPS batteries were failing in the cold and I was struggling to wipe snow of  my map, let alone read and  re fold it in the wind.  We knew we had to keep close to the fence but the snow drifts and bogs were deeper there so we were forced away only catching glimpses of our ‘hand rail’ .  We kept counting  head torches  checking we were all still there.  If we stopped for a moment  our bodies started to freeze!  The situation was getting gradually worse and we all knew it. We just had each other, no help from outside was possible.
I think we all  had thought of pressing the amber alert button on the tracker but knew that the outside world could do nothing to help us
With the howling wind blasting snow and ice we could only communicate by yelling at each other with heads  touching

Just before The Cheviot at 700 meters the trail swung NW.  Now we had the wind at our backs.  We knew there was a Mountain Refuge Hut about 2km ahead but that would take us at least two hours at the rate we were moving.  To make matters worse our slow lurching pace made the GPS pointer swing randomly through 180 degrees! We needed the compass to stay on line.  

Auchope Cairn appeared just as the GPS batteries failed yet again.  We huddled together and dug out more spare batteries.  Changing batteries was a nightmare.  Thomas had to take his gloves off while trying to keep snow out of the innards of the GPS.  Frostbite was a real danger and we were all chilled when we stood up.

With new batteries installed Thomas promptly started marching back the way we had come. As the GPS had failed before our last waypoint it was indicating that we had to go back up the trail! (to the missed waypoint)   I shouted to Thomas we had to go west and waved my map at him.

Thomas was convinced we had to’ follow the GPS’.  Dramatically he threw back his head and screamed into the night, “ScHIZZEEERRRRR!!!!!”

If Thomas, who I had come to regard as a cross between Robocop and The Terminator, was shaken we really were in trouble!
By now we could hardly see our feet or the person in front so  checking  the glow of head torches behind us  each time the leader was changed became more vital.

My OS map was trashed and did not show the exact location of the hut so I checked with Anna’s  map.(  It was marked but with no grid ref) West it was to relocate the fence. We hoped to god we find the hut soon! (and not miss it in the swirling gloom)

At last a square shape emerged out of the blizzard.  We fell through the door dehydrated, exhausted and incredibly relieved. It had taken us 7 hours to cover the last 10 miles!
 Thomas had some time earlier cut his leg quite badly and keeled over as he went into shock as soon as he sat down!  Brian switched into doctor mode, covering Thomas up in a foil blanket and tending his wound. Anna went outside to collect snow and I got stuck in to melting snow and cooking   Jin just sat still looking stunned. We all knew how close we had come very close  to disaster.

We stripped off our wet clothes, blew up sleeping mats and got out our sleeping bags.  I fished out the Brie cheese from my pack and a body warm jacket potato I had been saving.  We shared them around while the snow melted then made hot drinks and Couscous . We were  shaken ,dehydrated,  but alive and unbeaten.

Water production was tricky.  We had to keep going back outside into the storm to collect more snow to melt.  Another problem was sheer cold.  To get a decent cooker flame even the winter mix gas canisters had to be warmed up by holding a lit candle under them!  I think we made some re-hydrated meals but I don’t really remember. A solid fuel stove would have been useless. (As it was we used 4 whole gas cylinders)!

There was just enough room on the wooden benches for four.  I elected to sleep on the floor as I had the thickest sleeping mat together with a down bag plus liner and my down jacket. We contacted Race HQ saying we would re-assess our situation in the morning.  I also gave my opinion that there was no way Dave’s team could make it to the second hut. (I later learned they had stopped at the first hut).

We woke up as dawn broke. We were going to finish this race!  Out came the gas fire again for breakfast and making water for our bottles. The sun appeared briefly but was soon replaced by wind and blowing snow.  To get going we had to remove the blocks of ice from our shoes and gaiters. They were all so stiff that it was impossible to get them on.  We did this by bashing them with a snow shovel found in the corner of the hut. The shoes and   Laces had then to be thawed out over the gas burner as they were just lumps of crumbling  ice.( My shoes were only 7 days old and I wondered if bashing them with a shovel and cooking them would nullify their guarantee .) Putting ice filled shoes back on was horrible but at least the spare wool socks helped. I silently thanked the Spine Planners for insisting on a compulsory kit list.
 I had used every item on the list including all my spare fuel and emergency foil blanket. I don,t know how cold it had been during the night but my -15c bag /liner combination plus down jacket and full set of dry base/mid  layers had only just been warm enough whilst I slept.
           We thought the last few miles would be easier but the Spine would not let us off that easily.  We had another steep hill to climb.  Although the blizzard had abated, the ground was now covered in deep snow.  We fell back into the ‘rotating the trail breaker routine.’  The depth of snow could be gauged by the number of wisps of grass protruding from the snows surface.  Snow covered heather seemed to be easier to walk on. We weaved forwards continually used our poles for balance and probing the snow.

  1. In the hollows the deeper snow was an unbroken white sheet.  We had to make detours around the deep snow.   Where a detour was not possible , forward progress on our feet was impossible. We fell to our bellies on the snow, supporting our upper bodies by holding maps and poles flat to the snow surface and crawling forward!  Thomas found the deep snow particularly difficult; he was so large he kept sinking through the surface. There had been jokes on facebook before the race about crawling to the finish line. What had been a joke was now reality. We pushed on down the hill and the going gradually eased. 

  1. The TEFT 2Km from the finish line.

Not long afterwards we spotted two figures in the distance.  The local Mountain Rescue team had been sent up to check if we were okay.  We accompanied them back to their 4WD then headed on towards the finish line.

More figures appeared.  Most of the Spine Team and the medics had come to welcome us and escort us to the finish line.

My first words to Scott, the chief organiser, were, “Scott --------------- you Bastard!”  I did not know weather to laugh or cry as I hugged him.

We were all in tears when we finally reached out and touched the finishing line of the pub wall. I did not even care that the Pennine Way finishing bell had been removed for some unknown reason.

I had just spent the most emotional fantastic and wonderful weak of my life competing in The Spine Race and I would never forget it.

              How do I feel about The Spine Race Looking Back?

       For me, The Spine Race is female.  She will enchant you, frustrate you, and test you to your limits, lifting you up, then smash you down.  You will love her for her beauty and be reduced to tears by her cruelty.  You must never take her for granted and in return she will reward you with all she has to offer.

                                    What state was I in when I finished?
          45 mile Ultra the next day after a little sleep would have been no problem.
          Strangely, the worst damage to my body was a horrendous case of Athlete’s Foot , probably  not helped by my over stressed Immune System. My feet were swollen from insufficient time sleeping horizontally  but  my legs were fine. I did a 14 mile recovery run 4 days later.
           It did however take some time to re-set my apatite to its normal level.
                          The Spine Race In One Word

            My head had got me to the finish line. My body just tagged along.

                                        One thing I know for certain

                          Completing The Spine Race will change you forever!

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