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.
The buzz increased through registration and it was lovely to see some familiar faces. Then for a big meal at the YHA, some last-minute faffing, and to bed for an early night.
Leg 1 – Edale to Hebden – 75km / 47 miles, 2,442m ascent
Kick-off was at 8am on Sunday, from Edale, and the weather was steadily atrocious – rainy, windy, cold, sleeting higher up. I managed to lose David at the start – it turned out there were a lot of guys in red Montane jackets zipped up so you could only see their eyes. After much nervous anticipation we were finally underway for the squelchy schlep across fields. I saw some spectators up ahead and was impressed by their commitment – before realising it was my friends Steph, Archy and Nico the dog, come out to cheer us off with some very soggy hugs. (Thanks guys).
As we climbed up Jacob’s ladder the rain thickened into chaotic sleet, blown into our faces by a fierce wind. It was comically horrible, and therefore sort of great at the same time, and it felt like David and I were living our best lives out there.
Photo: Adam @wildaperture
The Downfall was lost in poor visibility. I dipped in and out of groups, with some nice relaxed running with David, then later with Richard and Fanny who I’d met on last year’s Challenger North. Friends Anna and Kit had also very sweetly come up Kinder to give us a cheer and put a spring in my step.
Coming down into Torside the clouds lifted a little and we had our first view, of bracken slopes and the reservoir below. This section all felt very easy and drama-free, as planned, and the most common comment I got from passers-by was “you look very chipper”. I gratefully accepted handfuls of Tangfastics from two amazing guys who’d filled the boot of their car with Haribo, and ran for a while with David Cummins, another Challenger North alumnus, for the section along the reservoirs and then up to Stoodley Pike. On the annoyingly long section off the Pennine Way into the Hebden checkpoint it was amazing to exchange waves and cheers with Claire, the runaway women’s winner, already heading back out. (Claire was my pre-race favourite and was looking incredibly strong – that wave was the last time in the race I’d be ANYWHERE NEAR HER). Then down the slippery slope and into the highly-organised chaos of CP1.
It was a nice surprise to be greeted by Julian, who I’d met volunteering in the summer. I got a seat by the fire, sorted my dropbag, and had a big plate of veggie cottage pie and drink and snacks (a very committed volunteer was standing vigorously stirring a giant pot of Coca cola, to flatten it for us). I passed my kit check, which was met with a celebratory cheer (“here at Hebden, we celebrate ALL the wins!”). I took this to heart, and for the next 4.5 days I gave myself a little “woo hoo” out loud every time my watch buzzed to mark a kilometre.
Leg 2 – Hebden to Hawes – 100km / 62 miles, 3,195m ascent
My main impressions of the first night are dark, wet, and squelchy. I ran for a bit with John Knapp, a retired psychogeriatrician and multiple Spine finisher – he was good company, kept a brisk pace, and was impressively navigating entirely from memory. He pointed out Top Withins to me, which I otherwise wouldn’t have registered. We split a bit later when he stopped to eat, and I continued solo across the bog. I was starting to get a couple of niggles – a painful right knee, a twingey hamstring, some plantar fasciitis, but I’d decided they were “imaginjuries” (worse in the mind that in reality) and to ignore them.
A couple of people had told me I was 4th lady, which suited me just fine. But descending into Cowling I realised that the headtorch ahead of me was Laura. We chatted for a bit about how miserable that section had been, and then I pushed on, expecting to see her soon. I soon hit the AMAZING Lothersdale triathlon club pitstop. – I didn’t sit down but they made me a coffee and a glorious Facon (fake bacon) sandwich with ketchup before I cracked on. They also told me that the amazing Elaine Bisson, who’d been struggling with an injury, was resting inside the tent and looking unlikely to continue. I wasn’t quite sure if anyone apart from Claire was up ahead, but in the space of 15 minutes I’d gone from minding my own business in 4th, to possibly being in second place in the Spine Race.
I had a little freak-out before getting my head back in the game. It was the first night with a LONG way to go, and I’d been clear with myself that I didn’t want to be thinking about what other people were up to at this early stage (I had a self-imposed “No racing til Alston” rule.) The weather lifted. I ran with a couple of the Finnish guys for a bit, and got into Gargrave around 6am, with a dawn chorus, a morning milk float, and a broody, lightening sky. (Also – sad times – before the Co-op opened.) I was on the familiar territory of the recent family recce and had got through the first night feeling tired but alert, so celebrated with some one-woman karaoke to keep my brain ticking over.
In Malham I saw people ahead waving, and it took me a while to work out that it was my friends James and Amalie, who were holidaying in a nearby cottage and had popped out to say hello. They live in Birmingham so I momentarily thought I might be very very lost. I declined their offer of chocolate (not allowed) but gratefully accepted the hugs.
Coming up into Malham Cove the clouds were heavy with snow. The cove and Ing Scar always feel like the epic gateway to a different, wilder landscape than the rolling fields below, and the snow started swirling just as I was passing through the portal.
Photo: Jamie @jmruther4d
Big fluffy snowflakes fell in the woods around Malham Tarn, with the Field Centre (and halfway checkpoint CP1.5) nestled into the picturesque scenery. I popped in for a coffee and was shortly joined by Anthony, another Challenger North friend and Edale YHA dorm-mate, who was unfortunately retiring with injuries. The temperature was forecast to plummet, so I got myself sorted with goggles, layers and gloves before heading off up Fountain’s Fell. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take any pictures, because it was SPECTACULAR. The sky cleared, the snow was fresh on the ground, and you could see for miles. Coming over the top Pen-y-Ghent was glistening in the sunlight, with rows and rows of snowcapped Pennine peaks behind.
I started to feel sluggish on the descent off Pen-y-Ghent. My knee was hurting, my brain was struggling, and the steps were slippery and treacherous. After lots of faffing around I stopped to put ice coils on and have some paracetamol, which both helped a lot, but I still seemed to be inexplicably slow (although in hindsight actually highly explicable, as I had been moving pretty much continuously for about 30 hours). Embarrassingly I missed the route into Horton and ended up coming into the wrong end of the village, but eventually landed into the lovely MRT/Caving pitstop (THANK YOU). I faffed around, dropped things, fiddled with my watch (which wasn’t charging), spilt an entire cup of coffee on the floor, and ate cheese by the fistful. I probably stayed there a bit too long but eventually ejected myself for the last push to CP2 Hawes.
The view was extraordinary. Everything was icy and white, and the sun fell behind Ingleborough like a drop of blood. The temperature was also falling – down to minus 6 – so I stopped at the start of the Cam High Road to put on ice spikes, hat, and head torch. Shortly after I was met by the Spine film crew (who’d faced some pretty intrepid driving to get up there!) and one of the guys jogged with me while filming. He confirmed I was currently 2nd woman, which I hadn’t been sure about, and asked me how I was feeling about the competition (I ignored the bait and insisted I was running my own race). https://youtu.be/xU8SnMZFtf4?t=461
The last of the light faded, a million stars came out, and I kept ticking off the kms on the Cam High Road (“woo hoo”, I’d remind myself, every time the watch buzzed.) Coming down into Hawes I overtook a couple of the backmarkers for the Challenger South, who were desperately trying to make it down for the final cut-off – I really hope they did.
Some slippery icy slopes into CP2 Hawes and I eventually stumbled into the checkpoint. Wonderful Paula was volunteering there and it was beyond lovely to see her. Eoin Keith was sitting opposite me preparing to go out and I tried to channel his efficiency to keep calm and sort everything before bed. There was also an American guy who was shocked to discover he’d been in the checkpoint for an hour and a half – he was trying to work out if it was a problem with the timezones in his phone as he really thought it could only be 30 minutes – testament to how time can vanish in checkpoints.
I had amazing chilli and baked potato and a couple of pints of squash, got everything on to charge, and then headed up for some sleep. I set an alarm for 90 minutes and woke up just as Fanny was coming into the room. Fanny and I came 3rd and 2nd in the Challenger North last year and it seemed like a similar pattern was emerging – a front-runner miles ahead, and the two of us tracking eachother behind. Fanny is LOVELY and a seriously accomplished ultra-athlete, especially in backyard ultras, which means she’s the queen of the mental game and the powernap. I wished her sweet dreams and got myself downstairs for breakfast.
Minor drama (completely my own fault) when my Yaxtrax were MIA. I’d come into the CP wearing them, had taken them off with my shoes, and hadn’t checked that they’d been labelled and packed up with my poles and other wet bits. I tried not to panic as we searched the place, but they were nowhere to be found. Luckily there was a retired runner who was willing to lend me his which were a couple of sizes too big but much much better than nothing. Huge thanks to him, and to Paula and the Hawes team for helping to sort this – I’m an idiot, and extremely grateful.
Leg 3 – Hawes to Middleton – 54km / 34 miles, 1,871m ascent
It was nighttime, but I’d had some sleep and “breakfast”, brushed my teeth, and was trying to convince myself it was “Tuesday morning” as I set out on a “new day” to Middleton. The Challenger North starts with this section from Hawes to Middleton, and in 2022 I’d run it in daylight, on fresh legs, probably a bit too fast, in a tidy 7.5 hours. Obviously I knew I’d be slower in the full Spine, but I hadn’t really appreciated how much slower. In the end this section took 16 hours – over twice as long.
Sleep was a big factor. In Spine land, 1.5 hours of sleep in 36 hours seemed positively frivolous, but in the real world it is obviously not a lot. I left Hawes still knackered, and immediately had to slog up Great Shunner Fell. It was really cold and I found myself wearing almost all of my layers, which I never like to do. I was nauseous and eating badly, and then the sleep monsters came to play. I was so desperate to see something that wasn’t snowy, tussocky hillside that my Great Shunner Fell hallucinations had a dystopian, manmade flavour: some simple (gates and walls), some wishful (thatched B&Bs with a raging fire in the hearth and a “Vacancies” sign on the door), some downright creepy (an abandoned fairground full of industrial equipment and broken carousels). My pace slowed right down. I tried a couple of 5-second micro-naps leaning on my poles (limited benefit) and eventually resolved to pop into the hall at Keld for a powernap. Unfortunately I mis-remembered the turn-off to get there, and by the time I realised I was already over the river and halfway up the hill. In frustration I sat down by the side of the trail in the snow and had a 5-minute sleep. I woke up still feeling terrible, but now cold.
I gritted my teeth, put on some music, and pressed on slowly over the moors. I had stomach cramps and still wasn’t eating well, and my water valve kept freezing up making it hard to keep hydrated. I had the Spine Cough (which sounds and feels like you’re dying, but somehow in the Spine everyone accepts it’s completely normal to be hacking up the entire lining of your respiratory tract onto some godforsaken bog.) My gaiters were fraying and my shoes were covered with the Spine ice-balls which I’d always thought were a myth – little niduses of ice starting on the tips of shoelaces or the buttons of my waterproof trousers and picking up momentum like rolling snowballs until they swung painfully around my ankles. (At this point I knew there was a very specific word I wanted to use to describe my shoelaces and I couldn’t for the life of me remember it. This would irritate me for the next 3 days – I contemplated asking someone at a checkpoint, but I thought they would think I was insane. At the finish line my sister Jess immediately exclaimed “You have dingleberries on your shoelaces!”, and that is why I love her.) Having spent so much time getting the weight of my pack down, I now appeared to be carrying a kilogram of ice on each foot. In frustration I ripped my gaiters off mid-bog, then promptly had a spontaneous nosebleed. Basically I wasn’t loving life.
Eventually I saw the lights of the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub. I was trying to manage my expectations, as 7am isn’t exactly serving time – so it was a delight to be met by wonderful friendly volunteers, ushered onto a sofa by a warm fire, handed a coffee, and generally bodily assisted to be less useless. I closed my eyes for 15 minutes, and when I woke the sun was coming up. I tripped back out onto Sleightholme feeling – not exactly fresh, but less like a pile of dingleberries. (THANK YOU Tan Hill).
The sunrise was stunning and Sleightholme was thankfully frozen. I avoided the mythical “shoulder-deep” hole about which we’d been issued a none-too-reassuring pre-race warning, and followed the crisp easy path.
I rewarded myself with the emergency musical theatre playlist, and listened to Matilda from start to finish. Twice. I was on my own for this whole section, apart from a few kind strangers like Peter who was meeting runners near my namesake Hannah’s Meadow – he helped me with a gate and gave me a Snickers. All morning I was trying to decide what to do in CP3 Middleton. I’d known I would likely arrive in daylight and there was a temptation to press on, maybe to CP3.5 Dufton. However rationally this was a stupid idea – overnight sleep deprivation had left me slow and impaired, like being drunk without any of the fun bits. While the daylight and power nap had perked me up a bit, I still hadn’t properly slept since, and there was no way I should be going anywhere near Cauldron Snout the equivalent of four pints deep. Plus, even with a quick turnaround I’d be doing all the hard parts of the next section in the dark anyway. So, sensible long-game brain on. I started winding down for sleep in Middleton.
Photo: Jen O’Neill
Middleton CP3 is where I volunteered in the summer, and it felt like coming home. I was greeted by a 3-person Mexican wave and ushered into the warm efficient glow, via hugs from Jen, Lyndsey and Paul (Paul brimming with paternal pride after his sons’ amazing joint 2nd in the Challenger South.) The lovely Hilary defrosted my shoelaces. I poked at my feet and then got myself settled by the fire for the best veggie curry in the Pennines. I’d been looking forward to it for six months and it did not disappoint. Fanny came in shortly after me, and I heard that she wasn’t planning to sleep, which gave me momentary second thoughts, but I was happy to stick to the plan. Jen gave me a reassuring pep talk basically reiterating the above – I wanted to be running my own race and listening to my body, to get myself to Kirk Yetholm in one piece. I got everything ready to go, and took myself for a happy couple of hours in bed.
I woke after dark. I shocked myself in the bathroom mirror – windburn and chapped lips made me look like I’d been attacked with sandpaper. But I had a coffee (thank you), some toast (thank you), and a pint of squash (most of which I poured on the floor) (sorry). I brushed my teeth, then put on my proverbial Big Girl Pants and my literal Big Girl Coat. Hugs from all and I was out on my way. All the checkpoints and all the volunteers are amazing, but Middleton is where I’ve seen it from both sides. The way Paul, Jen and the team work to give every runner what they need, year on year, is truly one of the most generous and inspirational things I’ve ever seen. Jen wrote a post “We cheered former volunteers like they were our own family, because that’s what they are… our Spine family” and – well, I’m chopping onions again. THANK YOU SO MUCH Middleton, it meant the world. I stepped out of the checkpoint feeling physically and emotionally recharged, and ready to face a dark, freezing, windy night.
Photo: Jen O’Neill
SPINE PART TWO:
Leg 4 – Middleton to Alston – 63km / 39 miles, 2,002m ascent
I stepped out of Middleton feeling recharged, straight into a dark, freezing, windy night, with one of the gnarliest legs ahead of me. I was wearing most of my layers (including two down jackets) sooner than I really wanted to be. The section up to Cauldron Snout is full of icy, sapping, ankle-twisting boulder fields, and seems to go on FOREVER. In normal circumstances the scramble up Cauldron Snout would be no big deal, but the sheet ice added some peril, and the raging torrent below adds a lot of consequence. From safely above the waterfall I saw a pair of headlights following me up the valley. They were moving so quickly I wondered if they might be SST lights (perhaps coming to divert around CS just after I’d been up it…?) but it turned out to be the very speedy and efficient James Elson and Matt Neale, who caught up with me soon after. I’d been getting a bit sleepy and dawdling so was pleasantly surprised to find I could just about match their pace. It felt much better to be moving purposefully and covering ground. I hadn’t met either before but soon realised how experienced they were and how well they knew the Pennine Way. We chatted a bit and moved. High Cup Nick passed again in the darkness (this year the visibility was a bit better so I could at least see the edge – I was a bit shocked to learn just how close the path clung to a precipitous drop). The guys pulled ahead a bit during the descent into Dufton and I joined them in the hall at the CP3.5 mini checkpoint. Fanny was there, which seemed to validate my decision to sleep in Middleton – I’d made up almost all the lost time by moving faster.
Photo: Lizzie, I think
Dufton was fab, and staffed by lovely volunteers Jay and Lizzie (who I didn’t immediately register was the awesome Lizzie Faithfull-Davies, preventing me from being an embarrassing fangirl – although I did start to figure it out when I asked her what time I’d arrived and she replied “o-three-hundred”). I topped up my batteries, ate some minestrone soup (Jay’s recommendation) and mince pies (Lizzie’s recommendation) and had a ten-minute nap. Fanny asked if I wanted to join for the climb up Cross Fell but I wasn’t quite ready and she was at the end of her 30-minute time limit, so I said I’d see her and the guys up there. A last bit of encouragement and coffee and it was out the door to face the highest point on the course, Cross Fell.
Cross Fell was – no other word for it – insane. I climbed steadily, and suddenly the Helm Wind hit (Cross Fell is so nuts that it has its own named wind) and it was like being in a raging furnace of ice. I don’t think there was any snow actually falling, but all the ice on the ground was being whipped up and around into a jumbo-jet hurricane of madness. The intrepid Challenger Northers and Spine frontrunners had helpfully left a path in the snow, because otherwise there was no way to discern the trail. I ducked into a tiny bit of shelter and put on all the layers I’d taken off on the climb. The temperature was minus double figures, with probably another minus ten of windchill. All I could see was a circle of monochrome icescape illuminated by my headtorch, and then a seething wasteland around me. The whole thing was unbelievably exhilarating – I was literally laughing aloud, thinking to myself “there is NO WAY I’d ever be up here at 5am on my own in an ice storm if it wasn’t for the Spine” … and then stating the obvious “because that would be a STUPID thing to do”.
Emerging onto the top of Cross Fell was like being at the North Pole. I was buzzing as I hit the summit marker just as the sun was coming up, and then began to drop down into Greg’s Hut.
I arrived to a warm welcome and found James, Matt and Fanny huddled by the fire, along with John Bamber and team. I almost didn’t stop – I was on such a high from the night that part of me wanted to press on, and I didn’t want to faff around getting my mug out. But I was convinced to first come in and say hi… and then to stay for a cup of tea… and then, oh go on then, some noodles. They were, obviously, phenomenal. It was nice to spend a bit of time with Fanny – I didn’t realise at the time that she was starting to have some knee problems, but when the guys and I were ready to go she decided to stay back and get a bit of sleep and rest.
The descent down from Greg’s Hut was breathtaking – blue skies, sun, icy landscapes. I had ice sticking to my poles and laces and gumming up the size of my shoes, but it was hard to feel anything other than fantastic.
I shuffled into Garrigill and a guy on a pushbike told me “good job – but you should pick up your feet more!”. (My jaw hit the ground and he was gone before I could respond…he was probably right though.) Garrigill is one of the locations where an incredible local resident opens her homes to muddy, smelly strangers, so I dropped in quickly on the lovely Annie for a banana and a cup of tea (Matt and James got there before me, left after me, and soon caught me up – part of a pattern where they had longer stops but moved much, much better than I did). I managed to summon up a bit of a jog to get into Alston with them.
Photo: Tanya @tanyaraab
Volunteer Julian had moved up from Hebden to Alston, and it was also a nice surprise to see Ed Dailey, who I’d met the previous year on the Challenger North – he’d unfortunately DNFd but was hanging around being his usual larger-than-life self. Again, I was in two minds about sleep. I had been feeling great and it was a beautiful day, but fatigue was starting to kick in and I was nervous about the next 66 km leg with no intermediate checkpoints. My “no racing til Alston” rule had carried me safely to Alston, but it wasn’t very helpful at telling me what to do next. I knew Claire was far enough ahead that I was unlikely to catch her unless her legs fell off. Fanny wasn’t far behind and I had a vague feeling that it might be ideal to leave before she arrived. In the end I ate 2 portions of veggie lasagne in somewhat feral fashion, and did some very disinhibited footcare in the middle of a crowded dining room (let’s just say the @alstonlasagne Instagram posted a picture of me with the hashtag #squirtyblisters), ate some more, and took myself for a 45 minute lie-down, which was probably neither here nor there. I came back downstairs feeling much the same, for “breakfast” (2 further portions of lasagne and a coffee). Fanny arrived while I was there, and I was sorry to see that she was really struggling with her knee and was going to see the medic and rest.
I contemplated changing my shoes, but my faithful inov8s were still holding together even though the ice build-up had ripped off half of the outers, so I stuck with the familiar. Kit check done and dusted, Julian gave me a pep talk on the way out the door and it was also lovely to see Paula, who had stopped off on her journey from Hawes up to Kirk Yetholm to give me a wave and sample the lasagne. Somehow I left Alston in the wrong direction AGAIN, but corrected it quicker this year, and headed off into the afternoon.
Leg 5 - Alston to Bellingham – 66km / 41 miles, 1,674m ascent
The afternoon was lovely and I was feeling OK… but man, the bit after Alston is not my favourite. Annoying farmland navigation, then some flat trudgy stuff until nightfall in Slaggyford. Over a road where some very kind souls had left a box of treats marked “for spine racers.” I then had a very surreal encounter with one of the Pennine Way’s characters, Rasta Ralph, who suddenly appeared out of the darkness, filming on his phone. I feel like his Youtube video (complete with a cameo from his horny ducks) captures the moment very well.
I’ll be honest, as a woman on my own I had momentary thoughts about whether I should be drinking a coffee given to me at night by a man I’d never met who told me he’d been tracking me on the internet and was filming me for his Youtube channel. But I’d been taking all sorts of weird stuff from strangers, plus I’d heard of Ralph before in Spine circles, and decided to accept his very kind gift on face value. Also, I really REALLY wanted a coffee. It was delicious. Thank you Rasta Ralph!
The navigation over Blenkinsopp Common was HORRIBLE, and I did some very depressing sploshing through bogs. I was passed again by Matt and James, but at least I could follow their lead over the tricky stuff. They confirmed my suspicion of a public toilet in Greenhead which was a good stopping/napping point, so I decided to shoot for that. Crossing the road I quickened my step in front of an oncoming car, and promptly hit some ice and slipped and fell. The driver stopped and got out as I was crawling out of the road and preparing my apologies, and exclaimed “Are you Hannah?” She was the lovely Cathy who had also been tracking online and had kindly come out with a flask of hot coffee which she offered to me, Matt and James. After drinking it and thanking her, I headed to the landmark that is the Walltown Public Toilets. I found Matt and James huddled in the disabled loo, chatting away with a Spine stalwart Adrian/Aidan(?sorry) who had brought us steak pie. I’m vegetarian but it looked amazing, so I decided to believe it was Quorn pie and enjoyed it gratefully.
We had a ten-minute nap, from which I awoke feeling cold and pretty rough. I asked the guys if they would mind if I tried to stick with them, making it clear that they should leave me if I couldn’t keep up. It was hard not to feel like a passenger for this bit – Matt and James both seemed to be moving efficiently and to know exactly what they were doing, whereas I was seeing faces in the snow, picking bad lines, fumbling with my poles and faffing around with my headtorch and gloves. I wanted to pull my weight with navigation, but ultimately resigned myself to making sure that if I was a passenger, at least I wasn’t cargo, by pouring 100% of my focus into keeping up and not falling over my own feet. I managed for about 4km until the next set of public toilets in Burnhead, when I told the guys I was going to get a proper chunk of sleep. (“I think”, said Matt, “that that’s a VERY good idea.”) I phoned Spine HQ to let them know I was pausing, put on all my layers, got into my sleeping bag, and curled up on the floor.
I woke to my alarm 30 minutes later feeling TERRIBLE. In the aftermath of the Challenger North last year I’d had the recognised ultramarathon side-effect of thermoregulation problems, manifesting as uncontrollable shivering alternating with night sweats, alongside agonising all-over muscle spasms. Those were unpleasant when I was tucked up in a BnB in Kirk Yetholm, but were suddenly a lot more serious when the race wasn’t actually over, and in fact I was on my own on Hadrian’s Wall in the dead of night in minus 8 C, writhing on the floor of a public toilet and unable to control my body temperature. In hindsight I probably also wasn’t eating and drinking enough, but I didn’t have the capacity to figure this out and fix it. This was a really significant low point. The Spine had never felt more serious and potentially dangerous, and I felt vulnerable, foolish, out of my depth, and annoyed at myself for pushing myself into such a depleted state. I needed to warm up – and the obvious way to do it was to start moving again.
As is often the case on the Spine, at your lowest ebb someone appears to give you a boost. This came in the form of unexpected head torches attached to Lizzie and Jay from Dufton, who had moved up the course and hiked up to Hadrian’s Wall. I was so convinced by this point that I was a complete waste of space who had no business doing the Spine Race, that I assumed they’d come out because I’d looked terrible on the tracker, or because Matt and James had called in worried about me, or because HQ thought I sounded delirious on the phone – but they assured me that they were just out meeting runners along the Wall. It was very, very, very wonderful to have company for a couple of kms. MASSIVE THANKS to them both, it made SUCH a difference to my night. Shortly after they left I saw a shooting star.
This newfound wellbeing lasted as far as the diversion through the woods north of Haughton Common. The Pennine Way cuts straight through, but due to forestry works we were sent on a wide frozen track which followed a massive, S-shaped diversion. My brain was mush. I was hallucinating non-stop (mostly beds with squashy pillows and fluffy duvets), unable to keep a straight line, pinballing from the left edge of the path to the right, and periodically giving myself a jolt when I literally fell asleep while walking and almost fell over. I started shouting aloud every time my painful legs hit the floor – nothing coherent, just “AAARGGGH”, “GAUUUGGHH”, “BAHHHHHHH”, “MNNNNGGGGH” like a wounded yeti – thank goodness I was in the middle of nowhere. Progress was sloth-like. It got light which I thought might help but in fact just gave more substance to the hallucinations – witches and wizards in every tree, a giant flock of geese blocking the path. I saw a light behind me and forced myself to at least jog a few steps at a time, and FINALLY spotted a farm building with colourful lights outside, which I thought might be Horneystead. I passed the “Pitstop ahead” sign and almost cried. This is another legendary location of unspeakable generosity, where the wonderful Helen opens her doors to weary travellers. Soup, snacks, other people. Hallelujah.
There was another runner in there when I arrived (Julien, I think), and Lloyd and John (who I’d met on the first night) arrived shortly after. I had some soup and coffee, attempted conversation, and eventually curled up on that glorious bed for a ten minute “power nap”, in which I enacted my spasming shivering routine for full dramatic effect. (“How much sleep have you had?” John asked me when I got up looking borderline. “Err… maybe five hours?” “I think you need some more.”) I still felt awful but wanted to get to Bellingham for some proper rest. I checked the tracker, and saw that Claire was almost over the Cheviots – a truly astounding performance. I was surprised to see that Fanny had dropped right back (presumably due to her knee - I found out later that she’d been really struggling with injuries but still pushed through to the end like the superstar she is), and the next lady behind me was Eddie Sutton – still a way back but a bit too close for comfort. I set off hiking (in the wrong direction … leaving Horneystead is one of my navigational blindspots) and feeling extremely sorry for myself. I’d warmed up in the sun but I was remembering from last year how cold the sleeping area in Bellingham was, and dreading the prospect of lying down on that floor on a mat and trying to get some sleep while shivering and spasming and sweating and wheezing. The thought made me so miserable that I had a little cry in a field.
Photo: Jamie @jmruther4d (sorry about the crying)
With impeccable timing, Jamie, one of the photographers, popped up. “Sorry, I’m just having a bit of a moment”, I said, attempting cheeriness through feeble tears. He looked a bit horrified so I tried to explain about being cold last night, and cold in Horneystead, and how cold Bellingham had been last year. “Don’t worry”, he said. “My dad’s volunteering in Bellingham. I’ll make sure they sort you out.” It later transpired that my incoherent mumblings had been lost in translation, and Jamie had very sweetly phoned ahead to the checkpoint to tell them I was a hypothermic mess (as opposed to a hot mess, which I was.) When I arrived into Bellingham I was taken to the main check-in, and then all the CP volunteers said “Oh no, Hannah’s going across to the Cheviot.” I assumed that this was an overflow area because the checkpoint was full, but it turned out to be a magical, warm cabin on the other side of the carpark, where I was met by the medic with a hot water bottle, and lovely volunteer Janet with a hot chocolate and an enormous duvet. Once I realised what was happening I was mortified. “I’m fine!” I insisted. “You seem fine”, the medic agreed. I felt like I was cheating. “I can definitely go back to the main bit, I was just being a drama queen.” But by then my shoes were off, my drop bag had been brought over, and I was told to stay put. I messaged my family to explain (“I’M FINE!”), in case anything went out on social media to make them worry. The lovely Janet brought me a heap of pasta and veggie casserole, and, sweetly, a pint of undiluted squash, which I swigged before realising. (Janet is Canadian and unfamiliar with our weird British cordials.) And then, feeling like a malingerer, I got to guiltily curl up on that sofa under a big duvet, for two hours of non-spasmy sleep.
Leg 6 - Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm – 68km / 42 miles, 2,146m ascent
I woke two hours later to an alarming blizzard outside. I sorted my feet out and Sam from the media team came to chat about my dramatics (“I’M FINE!” I reiterated - “Just a routine cry in a field”.) And then layers on, the weather had settled, and I was out the door. Adam, one of the fab photographers, walked me out chatting. “You’re going to have some drama on the last leg,” he told me cheerfully. “Eddie’s getting ready to leave.” “Noooooooooooooooooo, she’s not!” I replied, horrified. “Really?? Noooo. Oh FFS. Whyyyyy??!”. I’d known she was at least a couple of hours behind me coming into Bellingham and I’d known I badly needed sleep, so I hadn’t even considered doing anything differently. But the prospect of trying to dig a race out of my legs for the last stage was a daunting one.
I have mixed feelings about this because I know that Eddie ended up having a rough time on the Cheviots. But firstly I have SO MUCH respect to her for turning it around quickly in Bellingham and giving chase. That’s a really serious competitor. I’m not sure I would (or could) have done the same in her position. And secondly, I’m so SO glad she did. It made me fight for something I cared about, pushed me and made me dig out levels I didn’t know I had. It was good to have some drama in the women’s race (Claire had already finished long ago and was presumably already jogging back to France for her cool-down, so the race for first place had been non-existent). And that last night racing over the Cheviots ended up being one of the most mad, fun, exhilarating things I’ve ever done.
Photo: Adam @wildaperture
I reckoned I still had a decent head start, as “getting ready to leave” can still be a long way from actually leaving. So I put on my Serious Racing Playlist (Spotify’s “Disney Classics Everyone Knows”) and set out to romp out of town up onto the frozen hill to Byrness. I was power-hiking through the uphill kilometres (“woo hoo!”) at a decent rate. It soon got dark, and that added to the 39-Steps-esque drama of fleeing across the moor from unseen pursuers. I kept looking over my shoulder to try to work out if I was seeing a light from a farm, or a passing car, or the dreaded following head torch. I got very paranoid about my own flashing red light being visible for miles behind. From the top of the hill I hit some forestry tracks and road, and suddenly I was going downhill and I could actually RUN. It was so amazing and unexpected to be stringing together single-figure-minute kilometers – one even started with an unprecedented “6”. I felt like the thing that had been slowing me down all this time was my head, not my legs, and suddenly I had a glorious window of mental clarity and I could MOVE.
I got into Byrness feeling good, fully intending to be in and out – but somehow the 30 minutes disappeared. I had a massive plate of pasta, charged some things, and drank some coffee and squash. Hilary the nice medic looked at my twingey hamstring (turns out suddenly running after 4 days of shuffle is not without its consequences.) And suddenly my feet started to hurt A LOT. I didn’t take my shoes off but I could feel that it wasn’t a specific blister or hotspot, rather that my whole feet had swollen and were now being squidged inside my shoes. I contemplated cutting a hole in the top (and got as far as approaching my inov8s with one of the volunteers’ penknives) before reasoning that there was a good chance I might accidentally amputate a toe. I took some paracetamol and decided I could suck it up til Kirk Yetholm.
On the tracker Eddie seemed no closer, but I knew I’d lost time in Byrness. So I set straight off for the hike up into the Cheviots. Again I got into a good rhythm and ticked off the kms. It got colder, snowier, and wilder, all spread out under an unbelievable sky of stars, and again everything felt exciting and mad. Reaching Hut 1 I started to be aware of the first sleep monsters, scratching and gurning in my peripheral vision. I went inside and, man, those huts are basic – massive respect to the SSTs who stay in them for the full week in seriously cold temperatures. It certainly wasn’t somewhere I was going to warm up, so I changed my battery, had something to eat, closed my eyes for an 8-minute nap, and cracked on.
The sleep banished the monsters temporarily, but before long they were crawling back. The flat path stretched out, then steepened inexorably. The tracks through the snow became fragmented and indistinct, and when I accidentally went off-course the drifts were waist-deep. My power bank wasn’t working and I dropped things clumsily in the snow. I switched to my spare old watch which is a bit dodgy, and navigation became harder still. I’d lost all sense that I was running the Spine Race – I knew I was on a mission to get up this hill, but I couldn’t remember why. I had an accidental nap – probably only for a few seconds, but it was still a shock to wake up disorientated in a snowdrift. I saw headlights behind me and somehow managed to snap myself back into reality. After an eternity I was at the path junction, turned the corner and then down down down to Hut 2. I went in and had a sulk at the lovely souls manning the Hut (“thank you so much for being here … but also I HATE THIS PLACE WHY IS IT SO DARK GET ME OFF THIS BLOODY HILL”.) I faffed some more, failed to find some paracetamol for my poor old feet, whinged some more, sulked some more (Helpful SST volunteer: “It’s almost all downhill from here”; Me: “You are I both know that that’s a LIE!!”) and stomped off into the snow. (Thanks Hut 2 – I really do appreciate you a lot – sorry for being a grump.)
I checked the tracker and it seemed like the pressure was off. I hoped Eddie was OK. I’d wondered about trying to finish in under 5 days, but my slow progress between the two huts had taken that off the table. So, I just had to get to the end. Two runners, Raf and Silvia, agonisingly DNF’d at Hut 2 this year – it may be the last landmark, but there’s still a long way to go. I slid down some of the next bit on my bum, swearing at the Cheviots. I hauled myself up and over the Schill (“WHAT IS THE POINT OF THE SCHILL?”). My feet and my knee were really, really hurting now. I came to the “Kirk Yetholm 4 ½ mile sign” and it felt unimaginably far. But, the sun was coming up. The scenery was still and completely quiet. And I reminded myself to take some deep breaths and enjoy as I started to descend out of the wilderness.
It was slow. It was painful. A Noah’s Ark of imaginary black and white animals migrated across the Arctic landscape, from Shetland ponies to foxes to emus. Every fence-post was a human figure. I jogged, winced, walked, cried, fantasised about getting a taxi to the end. I walked up that final bloody hill (does anyone actually run up it, or is that a myth?). And then suddenly there was a drone overhead, Sam running alongside me with a camera, the bright finish line arches, and people cheering and clapping.
I cried, laughed, kissed the wall, broke down, cried some more, and turned around. There were an overwhelming number of people there (“You’re all real!”, I marvelled) and I couldn’t really cope.
I hid in a big hug from Lovely Lizzie, who gave me my medal. I covered my face and cried some more. I could barely form words on camera (I regret this – I desperately wanted to say something articulate about how grateful I was to so many people – but that was about 12 cognitive levels out of my reach.) I got an amazing hug from Nikki Knappett, from my mum, from Jess, from Paula, and then was ushered away inside.
(I think these pics were Adam @wildaperture – thank you they’re lovely.)
Kind humans defrosted my shoes and extracted my feet. More hugs from Nikki and Jen. Food. A bath, which succeeded in removing the first of many layers of grime. My face was alarmingly puffy and the sandpaper look was coming along nicely. Clean clothes – over the 5 days my trousers had mysteriously grown, and my shoes had mysteriously shrunk.
Mum and Jess took me to the BnB for a nap, and then a few hours later Jess drove my puffy, shuffly carcass back to the Border Hotel to see David, Leon and Eddie cross the line. Debbie Martin-Consani was there and gave me a hug #starstruck.
It was so, so lovely to see David finish. In our photo together we both look awful, but happy – like we’ve just finished the Spine Race.
Everything after that was a blur. I spent the rest of Friday being very sweetly nursed in bed by Mum and Jess, who fed me little morsels of food like a Victorian invalid child. I had a LOT of lovely messages. The weird physical symptoms were dramatic (facial swelling, muscle spasms, overwhelming fatigue, nausea, tendonitis, ulcers all over my tongue… my feet were initially numb and then unpleasantly regained sensation all at once at 3am on Sunday) but mercifully short-lived. Mum drove me all the way back down to Oxford and I had a day of laundry and ice swimming.
I then headed back to London for some frenetic packing. I did a podcast interview (gah!) with Runners’ World and Damian Hall (gah!!), which was terrifying but good fun, and included the memorable quote “The Spine ages you like a rucksack ages a banana” – which seems accurate – squishily, mercilessly, permanently. And THEN, back to Malawi in a whirlwind.
A week on and I still can’t believe I finished the Spine. Finishing 2nd woman was an extra level of surreal, although honestly I feel like a bit of a fraud – Claire was almost a full day ahead of me having been in a different county for most of the race, and what she did was phenomenal and inspirational. But I’d been on an unbelievable journey. I’d met some amazing people, seen some extraordinary places, and experienced some very high highs and very low lows. Almost immediately I found myself thinking of all the mistakes I’d made, and identifying what I’d do better “next time” – an alarming prospect, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing in January.
My main take-home is very very profound gratitude to all the people who contributed towards this mad experience. I will inevitably miss some and the list is long. Mum & Jess, for driving all the way up to Kirk Yetholm and taking such good care of me. The unbelievable Paula, for all your help and support in preparation, for driving us to the start line, for being a superstar volunteer and for coming to see us at the end.
David, for all your wisdom and sharing the journey. Fanny, Claire, Eddie and others for being amazing inspirational women out there. Matt, James, John, David, Richard, and all the other people I shared trail time with. Whoever lent me their Yaxtrax in Hawes. Friends who popped up on the course (Steph, Archy, Nico, Anna, Kit, Savs, Amalie), surprised me with sweet gifts (Sam, Helen, Laura), and dotwatched from the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Malawi. Annie in Garrigill, Helen in Horneystead, Cathy, Rasta Ralph, and everyone else who came out with Haribo, coffee, steak pie, chocolate and encouragement.
ESPECIAL BIG MASSIVE THANK YOU to all the volunteers and Spine team; I’m sorry I didn’t remember everyone’s name. Every single checkpoint was amazing. The Tan Hill team scraped me off the sofas; Greg’s Hut was glorious; Lizzie and Jay joined me at a deep low point on Hadrian’s Wall and turned my night around; seeing summer friends like Jen, Paul, Nikki, Lindsey and Julian made some of my highlights of the week. Thank you to everyone who made sure my dropbag was waiting for me, fed me, warmed me up, helped me to bed, made me laugh, popped up in a field to take photos of me looking feral, got me a drink, cleaned up after I inevitably threw my drink on the floor, went anywhere near my revolting feet, kept me safe in cold scary places, kept my legs attached to my body, shared wise words and sensible advice, and gave me hugs despite the smell. You are all humblingly fantastic and thanks don’t really cut it. THAT’s what I wanted to say at the finish line.
Finally, it’s been exciting how many people have been in touch to say that the Spine makes them think about signing up for their next adventure. To reiterate something I said after the Challenger North last year, if you have questions – especially if you are a woman or someone who doesn’t see many people like you at the start-line – I’d be delighted to chat. I had massive imposter syndrome going into this race which I suspect is a factor which contributes to the underrepresentation of women on the Spine – but we belong there, and can do more than we think we’re capable of. In those 268 miles I was lucky enough to experience nature at its most raw, and humans at their kindest. It felt amazing. I’m still hooked. I’ll be back.