Sunday 12 January 2020 to Sunday 19 January 2020
268 miles (431.3 km); 43,733 feet (13,330 m) of ascent
168 hour time limit
First Man: John Kelly (USA); 87:53:57
First Lady: Sabrina Verjee; 5th overall; 108:07:17
Steven Jones: 32nd man and 36th overall; Dark Peak Fell Runners; 149:16:27
The Spine Race series consists of the Spine Challenger and Spine MRT Challenge (for cave and mountain rescue volunteers) and the Spine Race itself. The first two events start on the Saturday and follow the 108 miles from the start to Hardraw following the same route as the Spine Race. The longer race commences on the Sunday.
In the Spine Challenger Jen Scotney (Dark Peak Fell Runners) was 6th lady (21st overall) in a time of 49:15:15. In the MRT Challenge Gregory Crowley (Dark Peak Fell Runners) was 2nd in a time of 32:21:35 - less than five minutes behind the winner.
In the Spine Challenger the first man was Douglas Zinis in a time of 29:00:32 while the first lady was joint 4th overall in a time of 34:19:04. Out of 110 starters there were 52 finishers with 58 DNF's.
For the Spine MRT Challenge the first man was Joe Parsons in a time of 32:16:42 while Ella Corrick was joint 5th overall in a time of 46:54:45 to be the first lady to finish. Out of 25 starters there were 12 finishers with 13 DNF's.
On Saturday 11.1.20 I registered for the race at Edale and went through kit check and had the race briefing. I stayed at the YHA Edale.
On Sunday 12.1.20 drop bags were weighed at the Edale YHA with a strict limit of 20.0 kg. I was right on the limit at 20.0 kg!! Others were over the limit and had to remove stuff and one was about 35 kg which must have provided quite a dilemma to the runner concerned! There was a shuttle bus transfer to the start at Edale. Competitors had the chance to compare kit and chat before the start at 8 am. There was a hint of a dry start but the most likely outcome was rain so most runners put waterproofs on. It was a wise move since the winds were high and the rain got heavier throughout the day. Indeed, Storm Brendan was due and would last for a few days. It would get much worse over the coming days.
I started at a brisk pace but within about 2 miles I felt a left groin strain. I had had a niggling injury there which had been troubling me for a few weeks during training before the race. This was an unwelcome development so soon after the start so I eased off the pace a bit to try and prevent it getting worse. Up and over Kinder Scout and then Bleaklow in rain and wet conditions. Some runners on the Marsden to Edale Trigger Fell Race were passing the other way and I stopped to chat with several of them and it was good to see them. Then on to Black Hill with stream and river crossings. The wind and rain had been steadily increasing in intensity during the day. The conditions were muddy and slippy. This made progress over the moors and past Stoodley Pike slow. I was a bit behind my target schedule when I arrived at Hebden around 10.30 pm after skidding down the particularly muddy path to the checkpoint. My legs felt a bit tired. I ate before sleeping for 90 minutes.
I left in the early hours of Monday 13.1.20 struggling up the slippy path with ankle deep mud. Then over moorland in darkness. By the time I got to Lothersdale it was daylight and a marquee had been set up to provide some light refreshments for runners. My legs reluctantly obeyed my request to press on and there was now more walking than running. At Malham I diverted into the Lister Arms for a full all day breakfast. However, when I attempted to stand up and leave my knees were stiff and sore and I struggled to get going again. I caught up with Ian and we pressed on together to the Malham Cove intermediate checkpoint. I didn't hang around there and was eager to tackle Fountain Fell. The descent was particularly slippery with extraordinarily waterlogged ground. Despite wearing grippy fell running shoes I was skidding and sliding and it was more luck than skill that kept me upright. Due to stormy conditions courtesy of Storm Brendan there was a route diversion and so I didn't go to the very top of Pen y Ghent which was both a disappointment and a relief. I was tired and feeling at a low ebb. An extra intermediate checkpoint at Horton in Ribblesdale provided a chance to pause for a while. While slumped on a chair runners who had been behind me overtook me while I rested. There was still a long way to go so time lost here might be made up later.
I forced myself to continue and was on my own with nobody visible in front or behind. Going along the Cam Road I started falling asleep.I found myself waking with a start while running and walking. It was horrible: too cold for a power nap and too tired to focus properly. On the slippery descent of Ten End I was awake enough to run and even managed to overtake two other runners. The final bit on roads seemed to drag on forever. The checkpoint at Hawes was close but the plod through the village dragged on and on. I ate quickly then summoned up the energy to climb the stairs for some long overdue sleep in a bunk bed for three hours. Apparently I looked shattered and in a bad way (which was just how I felt).
I resisted the urge to use the snooze mode on my mobile phone when the alarm went off. I knew that there was a risk of falling back into a deep sleep and delaying my departure. I ate and sorted kit out and set off again in daylight on Tuesday 14.1.20 later than planned. I had hoped to make better progress and set off before dawn. I was now reduced to a shuffling walk on stiff, tired legs. Wincing in pain and limping my groin injury was now hurting a lot. This was to be a day of walking rather than running to recuperate.
Just before the ascent of Great Shunner Fell there was gentle rain which became steadier. The rain was replaced by sleet and then snow and the ground was covered with snow obscuring the route. The snow obscuring the path made things more interesting: with each step there may be deep puddle, bog, slippery stones or ice. In places the route had stepping stones traversing pools but some were submerged or missing which invited detours off the route and back again. Trying to avoid the worst of it lead to coming off the route particularly where the pools were deep and partially covered in ice which may or may not have supported my weight. After a while I realised I had drifted too far from the route and had to battle back to it through deep heather, bog and snow. As the wind picked up I embraced proper Spine Race weather; it would have been a disappointment to face easy conditions and miss out on a challenge. After all one of the attractions of the event is the brutality of it and testing yourself. Attaining more and more height towards the summit the weather deteriorated (or improved if you were seeking more of a challenge) and the snow became deeper. Finally I was over the summit and heading down the other side. Care was necessary to avoid a fall on the slippery flagstones, ice and mud. After a while Mick from Racing Snakes was braving the weather to take photographs and I stopped for a brief chat before resuming the descent. I caught up with someone and we plodded along towards Tan Hill trying our best to avoid deep water from flooding along the way. When I arrived at the Tan Hill Inn it was already dark and a room had been set aside for Spine Racers. I bought a substantial meal and relaxed for a while. Meanwhile, Storm Brendan raged outside with winds of up to around 90 mph reported in the press.
The warmth and comfort of the Tan Hill Inn had an invisible hold of me but I broke the spell and ventured out into the night and over Sleightholme Moss. I seemed to be making reasonable progress and distant headtorches hinted that I might catch up with someone but I didn't see anyone else for quite some time. At Clove Lodge Bunk Barn there was a notice inviting Spine Racers to come inside, rest and make themselves a hot drink. I went in briefly and resisted the temptation of a hot drink since I was keen to press on and finish this leg. I looked at my maps briefly and it didn't seem very far and the terrain would not be challenging. However, I was tired and it was very muddy and slippery underfoot and my progress was slow. Suddenly I slid and fell and went back to admire the skid marks - I had managed to stay on my feet for about five yards before sprawling in the mud. This was the first time I had fallen over on the event and I reflected that in the conditions that was quite an achievement. Apparently the medics reported a high incidence of twisted knees and ankles this year due to falls. Along with hypothermia these injuries may have been factors in some of the DNF's this year. Finally, I arrived at Middleton where I ate heartily at the checkpoint before sleeping in a bunk bed for three hours.After my sleep I ate, chatted, sorted kit and packed up ready to go. While procrastinating and fortifying myself with more refreshments others had been more efficient and had left already. I had been possessed by a certain reluctance to leave the comfort of the checkpoint. At last I finally set off in daylight on Wednesday 15.1.20 on stiff and weary legs. I forced myself onwards and there was a route diversion along roads rather than along the Pennine Way next to the river due to flooding. Something seemed to be not right and different. Then it dawned on me that it was the first time that it had not been raining almost constantly since the start of the race. I paused to gaze at High Force before pressing on and overtaking a few people. Cauldron Snout was in spate and was a sight to behold; the scenery was certainly inspiring along the route and was effective at distracting thoughts away from tired legs and general weariness. A long trudge up towards High Cup Nick followed but by the time I got there it was already dark so I was denied the opportunity to admire the fantastic vista there. Partially to compensate for this and partially to get to Dufton quicker I ran most of the downhill section. A cafe there was open where I ate well and then a few minutes later I called in at the intermediate checkpoint. There was normally a 30 minute time restriction there but due to the inclement weather this had been lifted. There was an almost overwhelming temptation to sleep for a while. I lay down briefly contemplating a ten minute power nap but there was a risk of dozing off and delaying my departure. In a decisive move I sprang to my feet and resisted the offer a coffee from the helpful checkpoint staff. As I left I was adjusting hats, buffs and gloves to suit the increasing cold of the night. I waded along on my own in shin deep mud along a track hemmed in by hedges preventing proceeding along less wet ground along the edges. As I headed up the fells and gained altitude it became colder and the amount of snow lying on the ground gradually increased in depth. The landscape was dark and bleak and the wind steadily intensified as if it was trying to prevent me from reaching the top. It became increasingly arduous picking a route through the snow and ice; there was a compromise between trying to avoid the deeper ice covered pools and staying close to the route. The weather became increasingly wild and I was leaning into the wind to avoid being blown over. The wind was blowing my hood into my eyes and interfering with my vision. Suddenly it all went black and I was alone near a summit trying to stand upright against the force of the chilling wind. For a brief moment it occurred to me that my eyeballs may have been blown out by the force of the wind. A faint glow about 10 yards away gave cause for hope. Indeed, it was where my headtorch had landed in a snowdrift and I was able to stagger towards it over the jagged rocks despite the best efforts of the wind to propel me down the slope. Although only a short distance away it was quite a struggle to get to the headtorch without losing my footing on the icy snow covered jagged rocks with the best efforts of the wind to fling me off the ridge. Risking losing gloves too I somehow removed them; returned the headtorch to my head and got my gloves back on. Then down to Greg's Hut which was manned by John Bamber and others. John prepared some noodles and they tasted quite superb and were most welcome. We had an interesting discussion on fuels for stoves. With great reluctance I forced myself to leave for the long plod down a stoney track which was partially covered in snow and partly underwater. At Garrigill I was greeted by a man from the Spine Safety Crew and a brief refreshment stop was made in the village (a woman had put provisions out for Spine Racers which was kind of her). The rest of the route would now be easy but I was more tired than before. An ambiguous sign suggested turning left although I suspected a right turn would be more appropriate. My suspicions increased and I thought about cutting across to re-join the route but a very tall fence blocked the route. I hoped that there would be a way through before too long and rather than turning back I carried on. Finally, I was up against a river too deep to wade and the thought of retracing my steps inspired me to climb the 12 foot fence. I waded around in a flooded flood plain with sticky mud grasping my feet making me have to work hard with every step. Then there was another 12 foot fence before re-joining the route. Shortly after that I was at the Alston checkpoint feeling tired and feeling low. It was already daylight. However, I ate before having 3 hours sleep in a bunk bed.
So it was about mid-day when I left Alston on Thursday 16.1.20 after eating and sorting kit. Natasha was at Slaggyford greeting Spine Racers and kindly offering refreshments from her home. I had two mugs of soup and a chat and felt stronger. Someone else along the way offered biscuits and that was nice too. Crossing the bogs later on I was zig-zagging trying to avoid the deepest water. Although some of the terrain was flat it was very boggy with deep mud and water making progress slow. There is always an element of luck and judgement while traversing bogs. While attempting to jump across some deep water to land on what seemed to be firmer ground I just sank up to the top of my thighs and sort of crawled and swam towards firmer ground. Luckily (or perhaps due to good judgement) this only happened once and most of the time the water did not go much higher than half way up my shins.
A Safety Team greeted me just before Hadrian's Wall and after a pause to chat for a while reasonable progress was made along the wall itself. After that there were more bogs and moors. I missed a path and went through a gate which seemed to be the right way. That led to a wild goose chase back and forth until I decided to just head north and see if there was a way of re-joining the route later. In a ravine I was confronted by the fast flowing Warks Burn so I scrambled over stone walls and through deep, dead bracken until I found the correct path and over the bridge. Shortly after that I rested at Horneystead Farm where refreshments were left out for Spine Racers. Dan caught up with me and we left together. With soggy feet I could feel blisters developing but we coasted in to the Bellingham checkpoint in daylight. Some very helpful volunteers there assisted me and medics taped my feet up.I slept for 3 hours in a semi-darkened room.
It was late in the afternoon on Friday 17.1.20 when I started getting ready. The checkpoint was now more crowded and getting hectic. Dan set off but I was not ready; there was kit to sort out and more food to eat along with a bit of media attention. I changed into different shoes and finally set off before dusk. My headtorch seemed very dim despite having changed the batteries at Bellingham. I swapped over to my other headtorch and was moving slowly but at least I was moving. Later going through a forested area progress was reasonable but the bogs were deep and the path narrow. So it was a matter of zig-zagging to avoid projecting branches and the deepest mud. Later on firmer forest tracks I was able to jog along a bit.At the Byrness intermediate checkpoint there was chance for a quick drink and some food. Upon inspecting my headtorch the problem was found to be one battery inserted the wrong way round which was soon remedied giving me two working headtorches again. It is odd how despite checking the device at Bellingham when installing the new batteries that I did not pick up the error. This is the sort of thing to expect when weary and sleep deprived after several days of running! Up a slippery and particularly muddy slope I went and eventually reached the ridge. It was then fairly straightforward and just a matter of grinding out the miles until the finish. At Hut 1 a Safety Team were suffering with the cold despite their warm sleeping bags. I declined the offer of a hot drink and continued with the hope of finishing the race within 6 days. It was still possible but would require a sustained and steady effort. It was getting colder and colder and there was ice on the flagstones here and there. There did not seem to be enough ice to justify stopping to put on microspikes so I proceeded partly on the path where it was less icy and partly over the rough vegetation next to it. By the time I got to Windy Gyle I was wobbling around and having trouble focusing and getting cold. Phil Swims was there in a tent to observe the event as a spectator. I stopped for an interesting chat and had a bit of a powernap and something to eat. It was good to meet him. When I set off again I was fully awake but cold so I ran down the hill at a brisk pace and all seemed to be going very well as the darkness gave way to daylight. There followed a long slow uphill section which went on and on and on. I could feel myself fading and getting slower and slower. Progress was made on and off the path over rough vegetation. The flagstones were icy in parts but otherwise good. The bogs were frosty and sometimes the ice was strong enough to support my weight but other times not and that involved sinking into the mud and icy water. At other times the ice was just slippy. Each 10 yards seemed to be a campaign in its own right of selecting a route to maximise speed but reduce the various risks. The hill kept going up and up remorselessly. Before the top a nasty blister on my right foot was troubling me. There was a brief traverse along and then the descent to Hut 2 running on my heels to minimise the pain from blisters on my toes. Having got cold earlier I had put two coats on and when I finally arrived at Hut 2 I was hot and sweaty. It seemed to me that a Scottish Heatwave had suddenly developed. I had a welcome hot drink and a medic attended to the nasty blister on my right foot and taped it up. There was also a bit of media attention. Shortly after I left a blister developed on my left foot similar to the troublesome one on my right foot which had now been taped. With only about 6 miles to go I would just have to ignore the pain and get it over and done with. So up the Schill before mostly downhill to the finish. There was nobody in front of me or behind me for a couple of hours so there was no chance of catching up with anyone or, indeed, somebody overtaking me. About a mile from the finish a crowd of well-wishers and a media scrum followed me to the end. A final sprint across the green in Kirk Yetholm and it was all over. I was now a two-time Spine Race finisher. There was a lot of attention and then I could eat, drink and rest.
On the morning of Sunday 19.1.20 in the hall someone tried wearing Crocs but couldn't get them on. He initially thought his feet had swollen in the night until he realised that he had been trying to wear those of another runner with similar shoes but smaller feet. I heard that one lady was suffering during the race and had said "I could just cry" but she carried on to finish anyway. I found out that the winner had nearly given up at Hut 2. However, he had two hours of sleep and was able to continue to the finish and set a new men's course record (the overall record is still held by Jasmin Paris).
© Dark Peak Fell Runners 2020
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