SPINE PART ONE:
The Spine Race involves running the full 268 miles / 431km of the Pennine Way in winter. The course is sometimes gnarly, often boggy, and includes over 10,000m / 30,000 ft elevation. The weather is unpredictable (but rarely conventionally “nice”), it’s dark 16 hours a day, and you have to carry a whole lot of stuff (including a sleeping bag, mat, bivvy, 3000 calories, stove, gas, compulsory spork and – new this year thanks to some runners’ unsavoury behaviour in 2022 – a shovel to bury your poo). You have a drop-bag which is transported up the course for you to access at each of 5 magical checkpoints. It’s a non-stop race, which means that while you can choose to pause and rest in checkpoints or just by the trail, the clock never stops. There’s a 7-day cut-off and a 50% finish rate. And, since running the Challenger North (the Spine’s feisty 160-mile little sister) in winter 2022 (race report here https://www.caminoultra.com/post/spine-north-challenge-2022 ) I’d been counting down the days to the full thing from Edale.
The rest of my 2022 hadn’t been the greatest for racing – some very poorly-timed COVID-19 stopped me starting the SDW100 (lesson learned – obsessive mask-wearing in the run-up to the Spine). In November I’d run the Ultratrail Cape Town 100k, which was amazing fun but a terrible race – I set off too fast (lesson learned – don’t do that), got cramps and dehydration (lesson learned – look after self) and ended up marching in a long night feeling horrific (lesson learned – it doesn’t always get worse). So in hindsight, actually the perfect race to set me up for the Spine.
One of the best things I did in 2022 (in general, not just for Spine preparation) was volunteer at the Summer Spine. I had an amazing, inspirational few days with the fabulous team at CP3 in Middleton, awestruck by the whole spectrum of incredible athletes facing their personal challenges. I met some seriously lovely people and began to understand what people mean when they talk about the Spine “family”.
Living in Malawi my training is less bog, more hill – I’d had some great mad adventures out in the mountains, solo and with friends, including some which had pushed me WELL out of my comfort zone. And under the watchful eyes of my wonderful coach Paula, and alongside my superstar running buddies, I’d also just got my running fitness to a better place than it had ever been.
Back to the UK for Christmas, I convinced my mum and sister that they wanted to join me for a “family bonding” hiking trip between Gargrave and Horton-in-Ribblesdale – quality time plus 20-mile recce. The weather was biblically awful with relentless horizontal rain; spirits were resolutely high until an unqualifiedly miserable summit of Fountains Fell, at which point they sensibly ditched me to go to the pub in Horton while I pressed on solo up Pen-y-Ghent solo.
My annual New Years trip with friends was also conveniently in Hathersage, just down the valley from Edale, so I had some fun walking and running with pals on the right sort of terrain, including a magical trip up Kinder (it did NOT look like this on race day), as well as fitting in some cold water acclimatisation swimming.
And, back in London, David and I took our poles and bags to Primrose Hill and schlepped up and down it 23 times like the Grand Old Duke Of York’s merry men.
The taper felt great, the dropbag was packed, I’d somehow avoided the various circulating winter bugs, and suddenly it was race week.
My wonderful friends Sam and Helen had coordinated a lovely care package for me in cahoots with housemate Laura; Laura had also written me an individual card for each checkpoint, complete with potato-themed (long story) jokes to make me smile. (“Who won the potato hiding competition? The person with the highest carbo-hide-rate.” Etc.)
On the Friday I got a taxi across London to join the Camino Ultra fun bus – fellow Spine racer David, and super-coach Paula, who was driving us up in her van and then going on to volunteer in Hawes.