Last year I successfully completed the Spine Flare (108 miles) with Vanessa Ford. Our strategy then was to walk virtually the whole way, a little shuffle running near the start, but we also decided not to sleep en route, going through two nights. This year I was to be accompanied by Richard Whitaker and my initial plan was to mirror this to Hardraw (The Flare finish), sleep at Hardraw, try to walk each day and sleep overnight at the checkpoints, with the intention of finishing at 6pm on the Friday.
All went reasonably well, we jogged quite a bit, most of the downhill and flat sections. It felt like we were going faster than last year, especially as we ran most of the way from Studley Pike to the A646. Then going up the other side I ‘bonked’ I totally ran out of energy and so told Richard to go on ahead to CP1 at Hebden Hey. It took me some time to get up the hill, then as I descended to the CP I slipped on a rock, didn’t fall over, but jarred my back. The pain was intense as I struggled down the rest of the rocky descent.
At the checkpoint I advised Richard & a CP marshal, I would probably be retiring. No energy, struggling to eat, my back out, there was no phone reception otherwise I would have rung Bev to come and collect me. I decided to have a shower, but couldn’t find my towel so had to dry myself on a T-Shirt. Took some painkillers, managed to get a cup of tea and some rice pudding. I slept for 2 hours and woke up feeling fully refreshed and almost painfree. I decided I would head out after all as daylight was just about to break. I was going great until going around Walshaw Dean Reservoirs where I started to fall asleep whilst running, I decided I would force myself to Top Withens, where I bivvied for an hour and a half.
Again, refreshed I set off and was able to start running again. It’s amazing how much an hour or two’s sleep can hit the reset button. Full of energy I ran all the way to Pondon Mills and was strong going up the steep climb to Ickornshaw Moor where Craven Energy Triathlon Club offered a hot breakfast. More energy for the crossing of the Moor down to Cowling, last year there was a water stop here, but not his time, so it was straight through to the Hare and Hounds at Lothersdale. Two pints of coke later and a refill of a water bottle with coke I was off again over Pinhaw then Thornton in Craven, where there was a water stop, but I was well stocked. Gargrave was the next main stop by the time I got to The Mason’s Arms I was getting low on energy again. It was lovely to see Vanessa and her husband there and I had the best Fish & Chips of my life (and another two pints of coke).
Next was the leg to Malham, things were still going well and like last year I was able to get up the Malham Cove steps in one go with out stopping. I found a better way across the limestone at the top that didn’t wreck my feet, but as I went up the steep rocky valley I bonked again. Complete lack of energy. I really struggled taking an age to get to the top, the weather started to get cold and windy and the rain started. Everything dropped, my pace, my spirit, my will and again I thought of retiring as day 2 was coming to a close. By the time I got to the CP I was all in; hardly able to move and asked if I could crash in a tent, the answer was no, but there was a bird viewing hide a quarter of a mile away I could bivvy in. I had a couple of hot drinks, rehydrated a vegetable stew went to the medics to have my feet checked, a few hotspots but no blisters. The rain had slackened off a bit, but the wind was still up and darkness had set it. I layered up and manned up and set off for the hide, and decided to go straight past it, since the food had woken me up again. So, Fountain’s Fell next, I reached the summit around midnight and the mist had come down, visibility was very poor, and the wind and rain had worsened. As I descended a vehicle pulled up and stopped in the valley. It was Mountain Rescue who told me I was not allowed to go to the top of Pen-y-Ghent, as the weather up there was too dangerous to climb the rocky crag. I was told I would not be getting a time penalty and that I had to turn left at the foot of the crag and head off to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The further up Pen-y-Ghent I got the more the weather deteriorated, visibility was the worst I have ever know the wind was fierce and nearly blew me over, the rain was so hard if felt like hail. I was glad I didn’t have to climb the top section, but more so because the descent the other side is very painful for me with my bad knee, now that they have put in those awful steps. I could hardly read the sign to Brackenbottom. As I descended, I didn’t recognise the route as was getting more and more paranoid that I was going the wrong way, I think they have done a lot of work since I last did Pen-y-Ghent. I eventually reached the bottom, but didn’t recognise where I was so went left on the road inside of right and managed to add some extra mileage.
When I got into Horton I was ready to bivvy again, but all the good spots were taken so I went about half a km out of Horton and found a wall and gate so crashed there for an hour and a half. As it began to get light again, I headed out on the long boring track to Hardraw. The Cam High Road is a very long and desolate slog, to be honest I walked virtually the whole way. I got to Hardraw not far of the time I did last year. Interesting as last year I had not slept during this section, this year I had had 3 sleeps of 1-2 hours. I felt good again. Whilst I arrived at Hardraw well after schedule I decided after eating having a nice shower, change of clothes, and seeing Bev for half an hour I would have a couple of hours sleep. When I awoke, it had been raining but the sun was just coming out, sunscreen and midge spray applied I set off into the unknown. I didn’t realise that the next 3 miles or so involved a continuous climb up Great Shunner Fell. I route marched up at 3-3.5mph despite the heat and started to run down the other side. Running out of energy I stopped for some Tuna with wild rice and lentils, I managed to force down half a pack. I was still struggling to eat, so far all I had managed was soup and rice pudding, so this was a step towards proper food again. I managed to carry on running down to a small village called Thwaite where, 2 ice cold cokes and a couple of packs of salt and vinegar crisps gave me all the energy I needed to take the next hill, in fact carried on running a lot of the time. Between here and Tan Hill my tracker went into a dead zone for a number of hours and marshals came out to meet me just to male sure everything was ok.
I managed to reach Tan Hill before last orders and so more coke, another rehydrated meal, there was no stopping me now and I decided to press on just after midnight. What I didn’t realise was that the next stretch was for miles across the marshes and bogs of Sleightholme Moor. In the misty pitch-black navigation was certainly a challenge as the indistinct path kept disappearing and at one point, I disappeared into a bog up to my waist. Thankfully my phone was in a waterproof pouch. Eventually I was confronted by a head torch coming in the other direction. A brief interesting conversation followed. It was another Spiner – Gerry, who asked what I was doing, I said I had just come from Tan Hill. He corrected me and said I was heading towards Tan Hill. There was an interesting impasse, heading in opposite directions we were both convinced we were going the right way. In the end Gerry got his compass out and checked our direction of travel. I was thankfully heading in the right direction. The path eventually improved in distinction but not bogginess, so I started to run, and Gerry started run behind me, the faster I ran the faster he ran. It seemed like a race, several miles later we came out to a road, I continued to run, downhill, uphill and downhill again. Eventually I needed a break, Gerry finally overtook me and continued on. After awhile I caught up with him, he had missed a turn and of course so had I, so we backtracked and then decided to properly introduce ourselves and stick together for the time being. Gerry was a NASS sufferer, the only charity that the Spine Race support. He told me his inspirational tale, like me it was a miracle that he was able to take part in the race. When we got to the A66 we went underneath and Gerry took out his stove and brewed up. Another rehydrated meal and hot drink and we were good to go. More moorland at night, we eventually arrived at Clove Lodge, where there was a sign welcoming Spiners to go inside and bunk up for the night for a donation. There was a toilet, shower and Tea and Coffee Making facilities, sadly we could not get the electricity to work, but there were mattresses and blankets! A nice two-hour sleep allowed us to refresh and continue at first light. On the way to the next CP at Middleton-in-Teeside we passed through a farm with a mini honesty shop. We refilled with coke and crisps and the owner; a ranger came out for a chat. His wife also came out and they said it was their teenage daughter’s idea to provide help and support for those on the Pennine Way. She also very kindly made us some Jam Sandwiches for our breakfast!
Onto the CP a couple of hours kip, food, repack and off again with Gerry, we were of a similar speed at this point, we stopped for each other as necessary and were working together well as a team. Such was out camaraderie that when I slipped on a rock and bent my knee right back there was genuine concern from Gerry as he rushed to my assistance. He could not have been a better ally at this stage. I took some pain killers and waited 5 minutes before moving. We took some refreshment and gingerly I continued on, miraculously there was no lasting damage and an hour or so later I was moving okay again. The section from here was along the River Tees and in parts was stunningly beautiful, especially High Force Waterfall and then Cauldron Snout was breath-taking. The path along the river to Cauldron Snout was very challenging and slow. It often involved walking over boulders. There was then another dead spot on the trackers as we went to High Cup Nick. Which I am told is stunning, but the mist was too bad to see anything (it was also exceptionally windy). We eventually dropped down into Dufton, where the weather was very mild. We made it to the CP and pub before last orders, so again Coke and crisps were the order of the day. We decided that we were still strong and set out at midnight for Cross Fell (nearly 3000ft of climb) going over Knock Old Man, Great Dun Fell and Little Dun Fell on the way. We’d layered up as the report was for a wind chill factor of 2C on the tops. After a short while I was down to just a T-Shirt as it was that mild. However, as we go higher, the mist came, the wind became gale force and navigation was almost impossible, it got very cold and the mist soaked us through. We kept going and managed to get to the summit. We had been advised to rest at Greg’s Hut, a bothy about 15-20 mins past the summit. My watch/gps had run out of battery around the summit and would not charge and my iPhone had gone from 37% to 0% in a few minutes, so it was out with the OS map. Ten minutes past and I thought I saw it off to the right, following some large stones that were marked on the OS Map. Sadly I was mistaken and in trying to avoid a sharp descent and going to the hut I managed to navigate an alternative way including a scree slope and difficult terrain, we had to climb over a fence, but I had read the contours spot on and we arrived bang on at the hut in the mist, we went in and had some food. I was almost asleep on my feet and crashed in a chair into my bivvy bag. There was absolutely no way to light a fire there – nothing to burn and when I awoke a couple of hours later, I had the aggies. I jumped back in my bivvy, but as I got out again, I clearly had the first signs of hypothermia and I believe Gerry was the same. He told me to go ahead without him as his feet/legs were playing up and he would not be able to move fast. Despite his instance I said that there was no sense whatsoever in the two of us in our condition going down separately. I put every last piece of clothing I had in my bag on and we set off ask quickly as possible to generate core body heat to overcome the hypothermia as we had regained energy.
We were met by the safety team at Garrigill, who told us that we could get a hot drink at the Post Office. We had a brief stop for breakfast at a bench outside the post office and the lady their kindly bought our drinks to us! Setting off Gerry absolutely insisted that I went ahead of him to the next CP at Alston. On the way we both separately made the same navigational error and I think we were not the only ones to do so. In an attempt to correct myself I went up hill through some woods and managed to get hit in the eye by a tree branch. Thankfully no damage was done and I was able to run from there into the checkpoint, sprinting in an up some steps at the end – why? I don’t know! Perhaps to prove to myself that I was getting stronger. Alston was a great checkpoint, an awesome shower a great bunk bed and a couple hours sleep. The CP team couldn’t do enough to help and get me on my way again. Gerry was not quite ready but told me set off and he would catch me up. Given that he had started to slow up I think we both felt this was sensible since I had now been told I had a 99 minute time penalty for not going over Pen-y-Ghent, (whilst fair enough, it was not my fault so I don’t think penalty is the right word), this meant I had to finish by 6am Saturday not 8am like Gerry so there was a danger he might make it and I wouldn’t.
Next was Greenhead and the start of Hadrians Wall. On the way just before the A69 I managed to make another small nav error. I continued on a road through a worksite. I missed a gate off to the right and went past a security van with two guards in it. They followed me to the gate and when I got there I turned and asked them if they knew where the Pennine Way was. They were not sure, but offered to open the gate and last me out! When I approached Greenhead I couldn’t find the water stop so rang HQ. I think it might have been moved at night as it is not where it says on the map. I got there and decided o bivvy behind the disabled portaloo in the carpark. I woke up again with the aggies so took on a hot drink at the CP and set off again. At Cawfields Karl Shields provided anther coffee stop. Warmed up but with a GPS that had not fully charged I waited there until I had got enough charge into it before setting off again. The journey over Hadrian’s Wall was beautiful and reminded me of the first time I ran Hadrian’s Wall before I had heard of Ultramarathons some 15 years ago. As I came to the end of the Wall section and it was time to head North again, I stopped for breakfast, the location was stunning. The heat was intense though, more sunscreen and a difficult journey, became a boring a tedious one through the boggy Wark Forest and Horsefly ridden Haughton Common. A very uninspiring section of the Pennine Way. I was met by the safety team again near willowbog and managed to surprise them as I was still running strong. I then ran up Ladyhill still full of energy, which ran out a few hours later due to the intense heat. I found a shaded area near The Ash where the grass was still wet, so had a power nap face down in the wet grass to cool me off. Then a rather ugly section to Bellingham for several miles I was looking at Shitlington Crags, to be honest the name says it all.
Next was Greenhead and the start of Hadrians Wall. On the way just before the A69 I managed to make another small nav error. I continued on a road through a worksite. I missed a gate off to the right and went past a security van with two gaurds in it. They followed me to the gate and when I got there I turned and asked them if they knew where the Pennine Way was. They were not sure, but offered to open the gate and last me out! When I approached Greenhead I couldn’t find the water stop so rang HQ. I think it might have been moved at night as it is not where it says on the map. I got there and decided o bivvy behind the disabled portaloo in the carpark. I woke up again with the aggies so took on a hot drink at the CP and set off again. At Cawfields Karl Shields provided anther coffee stop. Warmed up but with a GPS that had not fully charged I waited there until I had got enough charge into it before setting off again. The journey over Hadrian’s Wall was beautiful and reminded me of the first time I ran Hadrian’s Wall before I had heard of Ultramarathons some 15 years ago. As I came to the end of the Wall section and it was time to head North again, I stopped for breakfast, the location was stunning. The heat was intense though, more sunscreen and a difficult journey, became a boring a tedious one through the boggy Wark Forest and Horsefly ridden Haughton Common. A very uninspiring section of the Pennine Way. I was met by the safety team again near willowbog and managed to surprise them as I was still running strong. I then ran up Ladyhill still full of energy, which ran out a few hours later due to the intense heat. I found a shaded area near The Ash where the grass was still wet, so had a power nap face down in the wet grass to cool me off. Then a rather ugly section to Bellingham for several miles I was looking at Shitlington Crags, to be honest the name says it all.
The CP at Bellingham was outside in the intense heat but under a gazebo. A few hours kip and it was time to head off again, it felt like I was planning for the summit bid of a mountain. I stopped at the Co-Op in Bellingham and got a litre of chocolate milkshake a couple of cheese and onion pasties and a bag of 5 jam doughnuts that were reduced to 16p! I climbed to the top of the hill out of Bellingham and had a pasty the chocolate and a doughnut. Full of energy I carried on across the moor. I happened to check my tracker only to discover it was showing that I was still asleep in Bellingham. Double checking, I was not dreaming I rang HQ. Yes, there was a problem. I stopped and inspected the new battery that had been installed at Bellingham, only to discover bare wires and a USB cable that had disintegrated. So, the safety team arranged to meet up with me at the next road. Tracker sorted Byrness next. The track that led into Redesdale Forest was a killer, one section was a steep rocky section with fallen trees. Then the path was a foot-shredding stony path, before the final insult of a crush and run path with sharp, non-compacted stones that moved when you put your feet on them. The forest track then improved but went on for miles and miles. I eventually reached the CP about 1.30am absolutely shattered, one hot drink and I was ready to bivvy. The only location was the ladies toilets! There was already one runner in there and after I fell asleep another one joined me.
I recall around 4am hearing noises outside and convinced myself that we should not be in there and I would be in trouble if found out and could be disqualified. I felt freezing and again a thought entered my head that if the safety team knew this I would be pulled from the race. I had come too far to be stopped now. I was packed and out of those toilets in under 10 minutes, grabbing a quick slurp of coffee that had been put in front of me I headed off. Eating my other Cheese and Onion pasty and a doughnut for breakfast as I went. I then saw a beautiful sight as a Fallow Deer and its baby emerged from the undergrowth next to me. A sharp climb up through the forest to the Cheviots was next, it was warm work, but when I got to the top the mist was back and virtually all the way to Hut 1 visibility was very poor, it was very cold and windy. I stopped for a 40 minute kip at Hut 1, refuelled, changed my socks and insoles meaning I had clean dry feet for the rest of the day. As I left Hut 1 the sun came out, and the temperature soared into the 20s, although in parts the wind was very strong. It was a game between wearing a T shirt when there was no wind and wearing a windproof jacket when the wind gusted. I was running most of the time now. (When I say running, I mean shuffle running).
All was going great until I was approaching Hut 2. The Cheviots are very remote and nice an undulating, but the climb up to near the top of The Cheviot itself was for me a killer. I had to stop several times for power naps, I was out of energy, coming down the other side was tricky and rocky too. Then a figure came down from Hut 2 to meet me – it was Dave Parker, who had already finished in 7th place. I was blown away that he had walked up to meet me and cheer me on, that was the boost I needed to get me up the hill to Hut 2. I decided to have another nap there. After 40 minutes the marshals asked me how long I wanted to stay. I shot up and out of the door. As I left they asked me if I would take the race mascot a cat called ‘Ginger P’ to the finish – of course I would. I was refreshed and full of energy and power walked up the next two hills. I then started to run, and run and run. The last 5km proved to be my fastest. Much of it was downhill, my knee had stopped hurting, but I was determined to get there and beat my 6pm target. The TV crew came out to meet me and that only spurred me on to run faster. The last quarter of a mile is all on tape. As I sprinted across the finish line, I hit 10 mph, not bad with a 10kg rucksack. I was so fired up. The adrenaline flowing.
What an adventure, thanks to everyone who made it possible, including Matt Gibson for lending me an awesome Raidlight pack the day before. Sarah Fuller and Carol Morgan friends, who have completed the winter spine and gave me plenty of hints tips and encouragements. The Wayfarer and adventure foods recommended by Sarah were absolutely spot on to give me good and proper nutrition whilst out in the remote areas. Montane for recommending their Goretex Active Fleet Jacket which was the perfect jacket, totally wind and waterproof throughout.
Some final thoughts. When taking part in an ultra I normally struggle to eat after a while as my stomach closes down. After 120 miles it started up again and I was able to eat normally, this was the moment, that I knew I was going to be able to finish. I lost 10lbs, gained lots of new friends and completed one of the hardest endurance challenges in the UK, without sustaining any blisters, sore muscles, body aches or pains whatsoever. Finally, my poor right knee without any cartilage seems to have come out of the best. This extreme exercise has freed up the joint so I have greater movement in it and less pain!