Leon and I are on the final leg (of the 268 mile Pennine way) from Bellingham to the Spine finish at Kirk Yetholm and in the dead of night, high up on the bitterly cold Cheviots, I spy a light.
I'm approximately 110 hours into the race, with about 6 of these of these being 5/10 hostel based dorm sleeps and everything is a blur.
Is this a fixed light.
Is it one of the many glorious still night stars.
As we get closer the light appears to be mumbling/ softly sobbing.
Before the start of this years Spine race I had only a basic idea of what to expect. I had managed to recce a few sections (one of these being the gnarly Middleton to Alston stage - coming up!) Some of these recces were with fellow newbies Alison Walker, Eloise Eccles and Matt Buck and we all shared a sense of trepidation. As a seasoned runner of Londons parks I feel I have genuine imposter syndrome. Most of the other 185 competitors that I have been stalking live in the Lakes, Peaks, Snowdonia, Alps - surely an advantage over Victoria Park laps. As someone who loves cuddling radiators the thought of spending multiple nights in the cold mid-winter gave me the fear.
The Winter Spine race has a lot of rules. There is a mandatory set of kit that you must have (and carry). Here are some key things you might need when you sign-up (don't say that you are not tempted - I am coming for you)
- Poo shovel
- 3000 calories of food (see item above!)
- Sleeping Matt - Bag + Bivvy Bag
- GPX + Compass + Map (I also add hopes/prayers/dreams in mine)
- My own lucky pebble from Guilianna (ok this wasn't mandatory kit but I do recommend that you get one of these - they seem to work)
In total this was about 8KG of weight. Running with a weighted pack was something completely new to me and as someone not gifted with upper strength my incredible Coach Paula Bedford (strongly) recommended that I sign up with a Strength and Conditioning expert - well she signed me up and attended the same classes to spy on me. This actually was a real game-changer and something I would tell everyone to do. Key here is that Fab from Victoria Park Fitness knows his onions (he is French d'accord and has meticulous French electronica taste) and as an ultra runner he really was specific with things that would aid my Spine mission.
Second massive prep item for me was the cold-water immersion plan that Coach Paula set for me. This was a twice weekly run-swim to the Mecca of London water swimming - Stokies West Reservoir - and as the weeks rolled by the temperature went down from a pleasant 18 degrees to a bone-shilling 2 degrees. Each time my inners would freeze and I would tell myself that if I fell into a Spine river this is what it would be like and this is what I would need to know to survive. To go through this experience with the support of Gaby, Paula and whole new family of cold enthusiasts was again something I found invaluable to my Spine mental training.
Back to Eddie then.
Me: "You ok mate"
Eddie: "Here, track, Call, down, lost, You....."
Me: "That's fine Eddie - let's get moving to the next shelter point".
At that point I had no idea what had happened to Edwina but we sure needed to get her to the next checkpoint and be in some kind of inside environment to figure it out.
Some things you need to know. In the Winter Spine you are alone but you are not alone. You are tracked!!! You have this orange block gaffer-taped to your race pack and it is following you by the organising team. If your tracker stops for 15 minutes in a place that doesn't look like Greggs then they will monitor you, possible try and contact you on your phone. Conversely if you are in trouble you can hold the SOS button on there for 3 seconds and this activates Mountain Rescue.
It was cold out there. Listening to others over the following days it was possibly the coldest time of the race. Different reports but something like Minus 15 degrees.
We needed maximum warmth and some good things to happen to us at 'HUT 1'.
We finally made it (cannot tell you how long it felt to trudge through the ankle deep snow to make it).
Leon knocked on the door.
Leon knocked again.
I'm pretty certain Leon kicked it karate style and the door opened.
Inside it was dark and boy it was cold - it felt no warmer or inviting than outside.
There was a stir - in the corner was a sleeping guardsman. He awoke and introduced himself: "Welcome to Hut 1 - we don't have anything - but you are welcome"
Start of the Spine Race:
Weather Watch ( to say I was mildly obsessed by the weather is a chronic understatement. I'd seen one of the hundreds of posts on the Spine Official FaceBook group about the virtues of the Met Office Weather App (and how you could save every Spine peak as location) and the forecast for the race had been rain with outburst of rain splintered with heavy downpours + lightning + sleet.
Here we were in a boggy field in Edale (approx 185 of us) with our full winter waterproofs getting wet.
A major area for me over the previous months had been my mental state and coping skills to go solo in the race for any major block of time. I had split the race into three blocks:
Start to Cp2 Hawes - Happy to do my own things
Hawes to Alston - some danger areas that in night might leave too exposed
Alston to Finish - total unknown re fatigue and ability
So at the start I was most focused on drinking my final cup of Exhale Coffee in Coach Paula's van (yes coach had driven me to the race and was about to head up to volunteer for the week - can never express enough gratitude to you Paula xx) and on the start line it was just me.....and then Alison. She growled at me "If you leave me before Hebden Bone you are going to be in a lot of trouble" - Ha ha...Let the Spine insanity begin.
Day 1 was spectacular.
Such a 'let's have this' sleet and ice up Jacobs Ladder was to begin this new life. Looking around and soaking it all in.....and then there was Hannah.
For those that don't know Hannah is also part of Camino Ultra and coached by Paula - we were two of Paula's Spine students. Hannah is an A-star student where I am definitely still a 'back of the bus' school-boy. If you have heard about Hannah's spreadsheets you will know that every inch of the Spine has been considered - every time block - every weather variation - every kit advantage.... importantly this is still all done with a joy and swagger which we love about Hannah.
Me: "I had wanted to ask you all year Hannah - what is the likelihood of us running any of the Spine together"
This was a heavily leading question to be asking a few hours into the Spine but it does give you an insight into the time vacuum that occurs in this race. The actual chances of staying with someone for a long time is very slim. You would have to sync toilet breaks - CP sleeps - lows and highs (which I can tell you oscillate wildly).
For what felt like the next few seconds I loved skipping through the icy bogs with Hannah - dreaming of us winning the Spine together and then we bumped into Eloise (Ellie) and me being me we started the banter. We laughed and we fell. We laughed some more about how useless we were in this stupid terrain and I looked up and Hannah was gone....gone for good?
I'll treasure that Day 1 with Ellie for ever. Every day inside the Spine bubble is epic beyond words. The 8 hours of daylight lasts about 5 blinks and the 16 hours of dark lasts 35 cat years. So much was packed in - Ellie fell hard and cracked her pole. Ellie had magnetic bog attracting shoes and we sang our hearts out. Ellie is an extraordinary runner - her CV is elite level. In the Spine she was running up every hill - not a bit of the hill - every bit. However with one pole and endless falls the night down sections were becoming big missions already.
A big thing for me was to enjoy all the legends and the legendary spots of the Spine.
The first was Nicky's - the truckers food stop off the M62. I had pre-ordered a veggie burger but Ellie hadn't ordered - with some clever sales techniques we both super-sized and Ellie popped out for a wee whilst things were being cooked. In a blink of an eye Nicky said: "Here's your burger and here's the one for your wife"!!!!!!!
Heading into the town of Gargrave and morning one the going was real slow.
We were overtaken by quite a few fresh looking challengers and then by this tall chap who would go ahead but would then open up one of the four million gate and styles on the PW and just wait for us. There wasn't a huge amount of chat but enough to glean that this was Leon and he was a Coldstream Guard.
Ellie then dropped the bombshell.
In all those slow grinding hours (where all the incredible singing, laughter and naughtiness had been stolen by the Spine Grinch) Ellie had felt an increasing chest pain and the enormity of a second day in the saddle had become unthinkable.
We parted ways at the Co-op. With a crappy coffee and some questionable pastries in Leon's arms we trudged away from Ellie into more crappy weather and.... into what.
The Guts of the Spine:
I thought about this A LOT!!!
What is it really like to take part in the Spine.
I feel this might help explain.
Imagine that you go the cinema to see a film. You come out of the movie and a friend asks "How was it?". You go "Yeah it was a pretty cool film - lots of drama - mostly good bits - some that dragged but yeah overall it was amazing......However it felt really long" You check online and you realise the film was 5 hours and you go wow that was epically long.
Well imagine that you go to the same cinema to watch that same movie and without you knowing how - the projectionist plays the same film back to back over twenty times - so you are actually in the cinema way over 100 hours - but you don't know how - you definitely feel it - the soreness - the warped feeling of deja-vu and the hallucinations.
Can you see what I can see?
Yes Embryos right.
Buried in every single one of the infinite amount of ice patches were embryos - with human faces - Damon Albarn was everywhere - as was Karl Marx and many of his mates.
I know Hannah saw them too. On the climb up to the infamous High Cup Nick there were rows and rows of semi detached bungalows - all with their lights on.
These hallucinations come thicker when the sleep Zombies are trying to get you to topple over and wither into dust.
Back to Eddie and Leon in Hut 1
Eddie and I are pulling the foil blankets tighter. Leon is suggesting that we both get our own stoves out and heat up some food/warm drink but I am just too cold to do anything other than hug that blanket and pray that this ends well. Eddie tells us what happened. She had ascended the Cheviots with John Knapp but he knew he was exhausted and wisely suggested they go back down to the last village and sleep in the Church that all runners knew would be open for their refuge. Eddie is a competitor and there had been glimpses that she was making marginal gains on Second Female place so she was keen to push on.....but it had back-fired......she had lost the snowy thigh deep track and clearly just toppled over and slept. On waking up one of the first things she did was to contact HQ to clarify some essentials. They said that they could see two challengers heading in her direction - to hold tight - they would observe that we joined up.
That was when we had found this sobbing angel.
This was truly what it meant to take part in the Montane Spine Race - you put it all out there - some times that is enough but sometimes it takes a huge bite out of your soul and it's nigh on impossible to come back from that.
Leon Leon Lovely Leon.
I knew Leon was lovely because every time we met anyone they all knew Leon. He had volunteered before and the camaraderie between them was strong. Spine Angels would appear from nowhere and wish Leon well.
Leon is also an army boy. 24 years in the Coldstream Guards. Fiercely proud of his entire experience and clearly learnt some skills which were proving vital in this challenge.
PLEASE PLEASE SPONSOR LEON - build a future for others.
So many incredible things happened out on the Spine but this one will stay with me forever.
Eddie, Leon and I had made it off the arduous Hadrians Walls stretch and were now heading North through the storm strangled Kielder Forest. We were beyond mashed. We couldn't walk straight, talk straight....our energy levels were flickering dangerously to nothing.
Not for the first time Leon made a healthy suggestion. Let's sit down off the track and I will cook some warm food. Eddie and I stumbled 10 metres in, collapsed and instantly fell asleep.
It's hard to really articulate what it meant all week to survive on so little sleep...and importantly just how powerful a restorative nap can be. Leon called us awake (knowing Leon is was probably a song from a siren) and we decided to stand up and walk and eat.
The journey from the evils of Hut 1 to the Oasis and Joy of Hut 2 was biblical.
The three disciples were bereft.....but we had a message to deliver.
When we reached Hut 2 Eddie promptly collapsed. Thankfully the full Hut 2 team were sensational. Their knowledgeable efforts to revive Eddie were well literally a life-saver. I cannot imagine what it is like to be so close to something but to think that to go on would ultimately be too much. Was it worth it. We sat there contemplating our final 8 miles and Eddie was adamant that we should leave her. There was just no way.
I feel that the energy of the Hut 2 team and their clever advice and warmth was the only thing that got us out of there together. We made our way back in the same snow tracks - they just felt deeper and more impassable.
Everything does End.
Walking down that final road with Leon we talked like two old men who had just checked on their flock. No worries in the world. It was over. We weren't at the finish but it was definitely over.
The Spine is like no other.
The race is won or lost before you start.
Being at the start line is like being a winner.
There were so many subplots in this one event that there was no 'one finish'.
Coming through the finish I could see Gaby up ahead. A last minute 05:45am decision to make it from London to KY for a hug..... a priceless hug .... the only thing that really matters. The link between what had come from before and what lay ahead.
More Hugs from everyone. So grateful to Hannah for heading back out to see me. She finished Second and I am beyond proud of her and what she achieved in this years Spine. I cannot wait to have a proper catch up with Hannah. Just a few weeks a go we were yomping up Primrose Hill for x20 reps with full kit - we looked stupid - I felt every inch that imposter but like one of my all-time heroes Dan Lawson says - what would your future self say to your current self.
Mine would say you aced every second of that adventure. Be incredibly grateful and remember there's more to give x
Eddie Eddie Edwina - there is possibly one thing that I love more than anything else and that is stubborn/courageous/limitless women - this rodeo with you was truly extraordinary - you truly covered both ends of the spectrum - seeing you (well I was videoing a lot of it) leap off that icy-ledge on Cauldron Snout has to be one of the most death defying things I have ever witnessed in a race. To see you want it - then challenge it's entire existence just blew my mind. I feel that somethings happened out there that we will never be able to truly explain but every time I eat a Mini Cheddar I will fondly think of you x Congratulations on your 3rd Place - epic beyond words my friend x
To the Boss, the Wise Warrior, the Fisherman Friend...to Leon - we did that thing brother. We forged a calm that ushered gratitude upon gratitude. We talked about life in a way that laid powerful plans to the future. My bedroom will look so much better for your future carpentry skills!!!!!!!
Over the coming days I will come back to this blog and hopefully add some helpful stuff for any of you (all of you) who will be doing the Spine in the future
Please ask questions - which will help as prompts to add more.
Big Love to the Spine Family
Big Love to everyone who took part in this years beautiful event
Zeus - I owe you xx