Hannah - Camino Ultra Legend came second female in last week's epic Spine Race - North Challenge.
We became healthily addicted to following Hannah's tracker (aka dot-watching) and we were privileged to be on a small WhatsApp group with some of Hannah's dearest friends - going through the daily mill together.
What Hannah (and all the Spine 2022 competitors) achieved was extraordinary - 160+ miles of continuously racing along the toughest stretch of the Pennine Way - the organisers call this Britain's most Brutal race - for reasons you will uncover when you read Hannah's guest blog post below.
We are so proud of Hannah - she is an amazing, gutsy and resilient athlete but more than that she is inspiring in the way she takes on these epic challenges with heart and kindness. Will we be joining Hannah at the Spine 2023 - 100% x
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth
The Spine Race, running the full 268 miles / 431km of the Pennine Way in winter, is one of Britain’s best-known ultras. Having run (and enjoyed!) my first 100-miler at the NDW100 in August 2021, I was looking for a winter ultra for my next challenge. “Not the Spine,” I told everyone; “I’m not a lunatic.” But I was intrigued to see that the Spine had some feisty little sisters – the Challenger, covering the southern 108 miles of the course, and a new race, the 160 mile Challenger North, which covered the rest. Of the two the Challenger seemed marginally less ludicrous – but it had already sold out. So the Challenger North it was to be. 160 miles/260km, 6000+ metres of elevation, a 108-hour cut-off, carrying a whole lot of equipment (including a sleeping bag, mat, bivvy, stove, gas, right down to a compulsory spork). In January. Hmm.
This silly decision got sillier in autumn 2021, when I moved out to Malawi in Southern Africa – not an ideal training ground for British bog. But luckily Malawi does have beautiful mountains and, more importantly, I met some great running companions. So with the help of Camino I decided to put in the miles, and worry about the bog later. This involved lots of running and hiking some fabulous hills with excellent company, often leaving at 5am to escape the 30C heat, and sometimes lugging a depressing rucksack containing 5 kilograms of rice.
In true 2021 style, there were some last-minute curveballs that even my 12-tab spreadsheet hadn’t predicted. South African scientists discovered Omicron three weeks before I was due to travel home for Christmas, and Malawi (even though it was a COVID-free haven compared to Britain’s Plague Island) got plonked onto the UK’s red list. Travel plans were turned upside down, and lots of my British friends ended up cancelling some very long-awaited trips to see family. Luckily my housemate Rachael was pretty determined to make it back, and before I knew it we were on a last-minute flight (via Kenya and France) to Ireland, to spend ten days in rural Donegal before being allowed to enter the UK without having to hotel quarantine. This meant working from home in a B&B, but also a chance to get in some miles on the nearest thing to British bog (Irish bog), including a climb up Errigal and two big days out on the Sli na Rosann and Sli na Finne.
Once I got back into the UK the training continued with some very squelchy running and cold water acclimatisation swimming. The uncertainty lingered – Omicron rumbled along, and with a week to go we heard that there were two big route changes to avoid forest destroyed by Storm Arwen, including one impassable section where we had to be driven to the next point in the course. This reduced the length by about 10 miles, which I wasn’t all that disappointed about. And then 2022 swung around, my lateral flows remained negative, and suddenly I was packing up my dropbag with individual motivational cards for each checkpoint from my lovely housemate Laura, ziplock bags of suspicious white powder (onto which I’d printed “Tailwind” for clarity) and drybags labelled things like “Checkpoint 3”, “Emergency food” and “Oh Shit It’s Cold”.
Two trains, a bus, and then I was in Hardraw, having my kit checked and my mugshot taken for Mountain Rescue, before settling down for one last night sleeping in a bed.
Section 1 – Hardraw to Middleton-in-Teesdale – 54km, 1871m elevation
In the footsteps of strong women
The race kicked off at 8am on Sunday morning, with a no-nonsense climb up Great Shunner Fell. As usual a few people shot off quickly, while I remembered to maintain a sensible walking pace, chatting with other racers as we ascended. The landscape was breathtaking from the beginning – coated in snow and ice, with a silvery sun edging through the mist in the valley below us. Crisp snow made for pretty comfortable underfoot conditions, although a bit of sheet ice and bog kept us on our toes (and sometimes on our backsides). From the top it was a fun but treacherous icy descent down into Thwaite and over to picturesque Keld. That was the end of the only bit of the route I’d run before (and that had been in summer and in the opposite direction) – from here it was all uncharted.
From Keld we romped across bleak snowy moor to the incredibly inviting Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub. The warm lights and smoke rising from the chimney were tempting, but I was feeling good, so gave a wave to the team and passed by without chips or a pint. In Damian Hall’s official route description, the next section, “the dreaded Sleightholme”, is summarised as “notorious” and “super-squelchy.” Each footstep on the frozen bog was a coin toss. Heads: it holds your weight. Tails: knee-deep mud. It could have been miserable, but on fresh legs and in daylight, it was just about fun.
For a lot of this section I was with or near Victoria, the ultimate ladies’ winner and excellent human. I’ve subsequently learned about her amazing achievements and adventures http://www.mappamorris.co.uk/ which she was too modest to mention – but I think it’s safe to say that she’s the world’s most bad-ass librarian, and also excellent company. We passed through Hannah’s Meadow, which Victoria had told me was named after Hannah Hauxwell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Hauxwell , a Yorkshire farmer and archetypal strong woman whose story put our dabble with winter endurance to shame. This inspirational namesake gave me a sense of connection to history and the landscape as we journeyed north. (We also passed near to Barnard Castle, although I didn’t actually see it – but perhaps this was just my eyesight. Ahem.)
Victoria powered ahead as we descended into Middleton-in-Teesdale, and the checkpoint was the last time I saw her before she absolutely demolished the rest of the course. It was also my first Spine Checkpoint experience and it was incredibly friendly and formidably organised. The lovely and efficient Glenn took care of my every need (1. Change socks. 2. Charge electronics. 3. Warm layers. 4. Eat. 5. Two cups of coffee. 6. Go.) and I got to open the first of Laura’s checkpoint cards. I was full, smiling and recharged as I left Middleton with about an hour of daylight left.
Section 2 – Middleton-in-Teesdale to Alston – 65km, 2002m elevation
Shit gets real
From Middleton the Pennine Way follows the river Tees upstream, past an escalating series of waterfalls with increasingly evocative names – Low Force, High Force, Cauldron Snout, all swollen with the recent heavy rains. It was properly dark by the time I got to Low and High Force, but I could hear the roar of the river and glimpse the falls in my headtorch beam. Cauldron Snout was a section I was nervous about. The path became increasingly rocky, scrambly and slippery, moving slowly for a couple of kilometers perilously close to the raging river, before clambering up over the rocks right above Cauldron Snout’s huge churning torrent. It was exhilarating (like all good near-death experiences) – there was a real feeling that a small slip could result in things going very, very badly. It was a relief when the path flattened out and the cauldron’s roar receded.
High Cup Nick is apparently very beautiful. In the dark, I just about got a sense that I was on a hillside which dropped away sharply to the left. Through a narrow headtorch beam it was steep, snowy, tricky to navigate, and every now and then I almost walked off a cliff. Speaking to other runners, several of them ended up accidentally traversing down into the Cup and then having to clamber out. I put on the Hamilton soundtrack and got my head down. The hours and the miles passed by, into the mini-checkpoint in Dufton for a quick coffee. There I encountered Irish John, who turned to be the Lazarus of the Challenger North – at various points I saw him at checkpoints getting medical attention, often while curled up shaking in the foetal position. Fair play to him, he pulled through to finish 6th. We started out together, chatting, and then I went ahead up Cross Fell. That was the last time I was with another runner.
Cross Fell is the highest point of the Pennine Way, official coldest place in England, and somewhere I scared about. Rightly so – it was serious up there. Sub-zero temperatures, strong wind-chill, fog, and terrain that offered the choice of walking on 1) sheer frozen ice-slabs, 2) knee-deep snow, or 3) waist-deep bog, sometimes with a deceptive sheet of ice on top just waiting to crack under a footstep. The navigation was tricky, and the snowy footprints I was trying to follow would sometimes disappear or go off course. (I was aware that I was leaving some HORRIBLY misleading footprints for the people behind me – heartfelt apologies to anyone who tried to follow them, hopefully you soon realised that I was not a good bet!). I just kept ticking off the summits – Knock Fell, Great Dunn Fell (with its surreal radar station, glowing through the mist like an alien invasion), Little Dunn Fell, and finally the blasted icescape of 892m Cross Fell itself.
Finally through the fog I saw two blinking red lights, which turned out to be fixed to the wall of Greg’s Hut, a remote mountain bothy, with a welcoming figure outside to meet me. Greg’s Hut is famous as “Britain’s Highest Noodle Bar”, where Spine legends spend the week serving up the world’s best noodles to hungry runners as they huddle by the fire. THANK YOU.
Eventually I pulled myself together to leave, glissading down the icy track into Garrigill and somehow breaking a pole. From then it was a squelchy countdown through fields into Alston (two parkruns to go… one parkrun to go… although this was a little misleading as each parkrun was taking about an hour). In my best-case scenario I’d wanted to get into Alston while it was still dark, to rest without wasting daylight, so was pleased to jog in at 6.15am. As the only runner there I had the undivided attention of six lovely volunteers, who were treated to the feral sight of me devouring a plate of lasagne before packing me off to bed (BED! An actual BED!), for just under an hour of sleep. Somehow by lying down in the dark and waking up as it got light, brushing my teeth and having a breakfast of coffee and a Mars Bar, I temporarily tricked my body into thinking it was a new, normal day. Embarrassingly I left Alston in the wrong direction, before sorting myself out and getting back on the road.
Section 3 – Alston to Bellingham – 68k, 2002m elevation
Shit gets weird
This section kicked off with a lot of flat, farmland, fields and fiddly navigation, followed by Blenkinsopp Common, which Damian’s route description accurately calls a “soggy wilderness” and “no-one’s favourite place”. I felt like I should be making good progress but it was all just demoralising muddy trudging. I was dawdling and constantly forgetting I was in a race. I put on an audiobook (Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, which at least helped things to feel a bit more epic and beautiful) and tried to appreciate the open moorland views as I crawled north. At least it wasn’t raining.
Everything changed when I saw Hadrian’s Wall for the first time. It was a spectacular, evocative rift in the landscape, oozing history, and made me profoundly grateful that I wasn’t a pre-Goretex Roman soldier. I know lots of people hated the Wall’s punishing undulations but I loved them compared to the endless trudging of earlier – I found a satisfying rhythm of romping up stone-cut steps, jogging along grassy flats and flying down smooth descents. The views were unbelievable and I was treated to one of the best sunsets I’d ever seen. Looking back along the wall I just felt so lucky to be out there in this wild place at this wild time, seeing this wild view. The whole journey seemed to make sense. Coming off the Wall in the dark I received a further boost when I was met by Steph, Mark and Douglas the Dog, local runners who had kindly decided to spend the evening jogging down with passing Spiners. They were the first people I’d seen for hours and great company. The miles passed by and they left me at the lane at the start of the diversion, now fully in the dark.
My high was swiftly deflated by the next bit – the first godawful Storm Arwen diversion. The starter was a serving of knee-deep pig shit, before a main course of pathless bog, garnished with steadily heavier rain. My navigation had got very mushy by this point, and I was sleep-walking into ditches and fields, wading through mud, and frequently unsure if I was off the path or if the path was just terrible (or both). For dessert there was some punishing, monotonous road. I made bad decisions – ploughing on rather than getting out my waterproof trousers, running my headtorch on its lowest setting rather than getting out a spare battery, following my watch and map rather than getting out my GPS. I was cold, wet, miserable, disorientated, and probably at my low point of the entire event. And then – in the distance – I saw the glowing floodlights of a farmhouse on the brink of the hill.
Could this possibly be… Horneystead…?! Another legendary location, I tried not to get my hopes up as I hauled myself up a scrambly, slippery bracken valley. And on a stile there was the magical sign – “Pitstop, open 24 hours.” I cried briefly, crossed a field, and standing there to meet me waving a torch was Helen, a.k.a. the Angel of Horneystead. “You must be Hannah!”
Had I died and gone to heaven? She’d transformed her little outbuilding into a Spiner’s cosy Paradise: comfortable chairs, a sofa bed, a toilet, a shower. A bowl of hot soup was placed into my hands. Coffee appeared, followed by bananas and chocolates. There was everything there that I could possibly want, including the overwhelming joy of another human to talk to. Words can’t describe how happy I was to be there, or how grateful I am for Helen’s incredible generosity. I burbled some incoherent words that included “you’ve restored my faith in humanity” and “I love you.” I meant them. Twenty minutes later I stepped out a new woman. The rain, miraculously, had stopped. The stars were out. And it wasn’t far to Bellingham.
Unfortunately this was when the sleep deprivation got really funky. I was 40 hours in and I’d slept about an hour. Since nightfall I’d been seeing lizards and insects in my peripheral vision, people standing in the fields ahead, birds flying and deer running alongside me. Walking down the track I came across a group of miniature tigers, all driving tiny cars, led by a rabbit wearing a top hat. I stopped for a closer look, and when I squinted I could make out that actually they weren’t real tigers, just models, placed by the track by a local farmer to amuse passers-by. Duly satisfied I carried on walking, before reflecting that this seemed unlikely. I went back to double check, and when I really really focussed, realised that I was looking at a forked branch which very slightly resembled a rabbit, and some rocks. But although I knew they weren’t real, those tigers drove with me for several hours, weaving around my ankles, beeping their horns and smiling at me from behind their colourful sunglasses.
My brain was shot. I sang to myself, LOUDLY, to keep myself awake. I kept dropping things and having to retrace to retrieve them. I couldn’t resolve left from right, let alone east from west. At one point I thought I was marching down a track to a footbridge but was actually on a parallel track which led to a ford. I stopped abruptly as I came to the still river in front of me – my torchlight didn’t reflect off the water and all I could see ahead was inky darkness – I thought I’d reached the edge of the universe. Volcanoes erupted over my shoulder. Chinese lanterns glowed in the bog. Crocodiles lurked at my ankles. And those tigers just kept driving round and round.
I was moving unbelievably slowly and probably should have stopped and had a power nap, or at least a ProPlus, but I was fixated on getting to the checkpoint at Bellingham. So I talked aloud to myself, first nicely (“just keep going”), then angrily (“stop being pathetic and get a bloody grip”). A friend Ben had messaged me pre-race to say, “remember when the time comes, you have more in you.” “Aha”, I thought. “This must be the time Ben was talking about. OK, I guess I must have more in me.” Somehow I hit the road… saw Bellingham… saw people waiting for me… and at 2.20am was ushered inside to a world of lights and food and non-imaginary humans.
I was a mess. I tried to string together conversation while shovelling vegetable tart and casserole into my face. I faffed around spectacularly with my dropbag, and eventually made my way into the sleeping room. I was trying to be quiet because there was a retired racer sleeping, but promptly dropped my head torch (sorry). In a real lesson of the brain-shutdown/bad-decision vicious cycle, I didn’t get my sleeping mat out, reasoning that I couldn’t be bothered to inflate it and I was tired enough to sleep anywhere. That was true comfort-wise, but it was really, really cold in that room, and I needed the insulation from the stone floor, especially as I’d left my down jacket in my dropbag. Stupidly, rather than getting back up to sort myself out, I buried myself in my sleeping bag and proceeded to enjoy an hour of shivering, cold sweats, spasming, hyperventilating, wheezing, googling “ultrarunning pulmonary oedema” (sorry medical team, I didn’t tell you this), and not a lot of sleeping. When my alarm went off I snoozed it a couple of times (again, really sorry to my roommate) and eventually reasoned that things weren’t going to get any better. I counted down from ten, gritted my teeth, and got out of that sleeping bag.
“I’ll be ready in 15 minutes” I told the CP staff optimistically, and then settled in for a monumental 45+ minutes of faff (sorry), in which I botched my blisters, spread my possessions liberally around the space, managed to put some warmer layers on and have a coffee, repacked my bag multiple times, and eventually stumbled out of the door into the car which was going to take me past the Storm Arwen diversion to where the route restarted. Third-placed lady Fanny came in just as I was getting ready to leave, looking tired but chipper, and we had a brief chat and wished each other good luck. I slept again in the car for twenty minutes and then had another almighty moment of pulling myself together at the other end, to head back off into the dark at be back on the trail for 0540. Bellingham – thank you and sorry!
Section 4 – Cottonshopeburnfoot to Kirk Yetholm – 42k, 2000m elevation
The Pennine Way just keeps on giving
The next section started with a 2 mile walk along a straight, tarmacked military road. It was crisp and clear, so once I got myself into a marching rhythm, I turned my headtorch off to enjoy the stars. The moon had set, but there was just enough starlight to make out the edges of the road, keep myself central, and walk. It was stunning. Billions of stars formed obvious constellations, and it was completely silent – just my breath, my footsteps, and the stars. In hindsight this may not have been super sensible (I turned my torch back on fortuitously just in time to avoid falling into a cattle grid) but it was worth it. Everything felt raw and extreme and once again, I felt so lucky to be outside instead of comfortable in bed.
The route climbed up onto the Cheviots and over frozen boardwalks, which sparkled outrageously in my torchlight (the beauty partially compensating for the fact that they were lethal to walk on.) The first light slowly flooded the cold, spectacular landscape. A few gentle daytime hallucinations floated around (who knew there were so many rhinos in the Cheviots?) but I felt focussed. Just a marathon to go, split into three chunks. Victoria was miles ahead and Fanny hadn’t yet left Bellingham, so I knew I just had to keep going and enjoy the day. At Hut 1 I asked the safety team member to tuck my headtorch into my bag, and promised myself I wouldn’t be taking it out again.
The middle chunk was maddeningly slow. Most of the path was flagstones which were covered in ice, so it was a precarious skate to stay on both feet. But the day brightened into one of those rare, distinctly un-Spine-y winter’s days – blue skies, glorious sunshine, frozen landscape glowing like a jewel. The mountains stretched out to the horizons, and the “Spine” of Britain unfolded to the south. I power-hiked the ups and tried not to get too despondent about the icy, unrunnable flats. I took photos, put on some music and sang aloud to myself, but the last couple of days were catching up with me. I was achey, exhausted, hungry, elated, and emotionally overwrought – completely full and completely empty at the same time. By the time I got down to Hut 2 a little after 2.30pm I was right on the edge. “How are you doing?” the Spine team asked me, and I struggled to speak without crying. “It’s all downhill from here, right?” I joked – actually I sort of thought it mostly was – and they laughed and pointed at the Schil and said “well, apart from that.” Seeing my face they added encouragingly “only about three hours to go.” “I decided I was going to finish in daylight,” I said, pointlessly and pathetically. They looked at me, and at the falling sun, and said unconvincingly, “Well, you might.” So I pressed on.
I pushed up the Schil, with a pause to admire the golden sun and the silhouette of the summit cairn, and hobbled the steady descent. The iconic “Kirk Yetholm, 4 ½ miles” sign glowed in the evening light. The clouds turned pink as I ducked down into the valley, and as the light trickled away a whole lot of imaginary humans started to gather by the sides of the path, silently watching me stumble on.
Onto the road, a final gratuitous hill, and then an agonising descent into Kirk Yetholm in the near-dark. I saw the finish line. I heard real people. “Touch the wall!” they reminded me, and I collapsed forward into its arms. No kissing the wall this time – I didn’t think I deserved that until I’d run the full Spine – but putting my hands on that stone was utterly overwhelming. 158 miles over 57 hours, 2nd woman and 5th overall in the inaugural Spine Northern Challenger, and an unbelievable adventure.
The next few hours and days were a bit of a blur. I talked nonsense on camera at the finish line. I got a medal, had a cry, and was given a cup of tea and a massive plate of food. The amazing Kirk Yetholm team showed me to a shower, helped me find somewhere to stay and a taxi for the morning, and reunited me with my lost property (Bellingham, again, thanks and sorry!). Weird, unpleasant things happened to my body – some familiar (the funky thermoregulation, the agonising muscle spasms, the immediate nausea after the mildest exertion, the insatiable hunger, the tendinitis, my toenails and I going our separate ways) and some novel (bizarrely, my whole tongue developed painful ulcers, which disappeared again over 10 hours.)
Reflecting after a few days, there are some things that went especially well. Breaking the race into chunks and never thinking beyond the next checkpoint; keeping my own pace rather than trying to compete; kit; enjoying the view; eating; keeping (mostly) warm, (mostly) dry and (mostly) cheerful. There were also some big areas for improvement – navigation; dealing with the sleep deprivation; maybe being even more conservative with pace early on; faffing; making sensible decisions while knackered. I also had some luck – while the underfoot conditions were rough, the weather could have been much worse, with no massive winds or snow/rainfalls. I think there were moments when if a real storm had come in, I’d have really struggled.
As always lots of the things that went well were down to other people. Indescribable gratitude to the Camino Ultra team for all the training advice but equally importantly, support, inspiration and confidence you’ve given me over the past months. Massive thanks to the race organisers who faced a lot of challenges and all the volunteers, medics, safety teams and checkpoint champions. Thanks for the acts of kindness from the likes of the Greg’s Hut team, Steph, Mark and Helen, and to friends and family dot-watching – your support for my “little purple dot” meant SO MUCH to me (sorry for all the times you had to watch it circling off-course in a bog.) Massive thanks also to fellow runners in the Challenger North and other Spine races for being such sources of advice, company and inspiration – especially Victoria, Fanny and all the other women smashing it out there. Women made up 15% of the Challenger North starters, but three of the top seven finishers, which felt like a pretty good showing. Hopefully next time there will be more of us on the start-line.
On which note, if you’re thinking that this sounds like something you’d love to do, but that it feels too big or intimidating, I can only encourage you to think again. The Spine races are serious winter mountain undertakings, and if you’re not nervous you should be – overconfidence or “having a bash” risks endangering yourself and others. But with the right preparation and mindset they are definitely achievable. I was shocked (but also a tiny bit reassured as someone with a perpetual imposter syndrome) on reading Jasmin Paris’s blog about the Spine https://ultrarunningcommunity.com/race-reports/13-report/1449-the-spine-jasmin-paris to find that she’d also felt a little intimidated by the Spine Facebook group, in which competitors compare the minutiae of their plans and kit. “I found the discussions somewhat overwhelming – everyone seemed so well prepared,” she writes, referring to the year in which she won the Spine Race outright and smashed the overall course record while expressing breastmilk at the checkpoints.
If you can take care of yourself, respect the elements and keep putting one foot in front of the other – you could do it. 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. This adventure taught me to sign up for things that scare me shitless (e.g. hopefully the full Spine next year…), because I can do more than I think I’m capable of. When I thought I was done, I had more. In those miles I was lucky enough to experience nature at its most raw, and humans at their kindest. I’m hooked. I’ll be back.