Spinal Cracker - 2022 Summer Spine Race, 20-25 June 2022
Updated: Jul 11
“He one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knee”
Come Together, The Beatles
Entering the 2021 Summer Spine race was definitely a triumph of ambition over common sense – lack of experience in multi-day ultras, lack of prior familiarity with the Pennine Way, lack of fitness. Doing it again this year could easily be said to have been the same, albeit for different reasons – 300km Northern Traverse in April, 400km Cape Wrath Ultra in May, only 3 weeks to recover before heading up to Edale for the start of the 2022 Summer Spine Race. Moreover, 2 days after getting back from Scotland, I had started to suffer from really bad back spasms that needed a ‘Spinal Cracker’ far more than they needed a ‘Spine Race’. As it was, the Spine Race itself turned out to be a real Spinal Cracker, for other reasons – a new men’s course record, a new women’s course record, a record number of finishers, and fantastic weather for most of the week. Oh, and for me personally, the race went really well, and proved a great way to finish off my “1,000 miles of ultra” project to raise money for Mind UK.
There had been a number of changes to the mandatory kit requirement from the previous year – a mid-weight fleece, full bivvy bag, increased water and food requirements, goggles and a poo kit – that had somewhat increased the weight and bulk that one had to carry. The increase was not enormous, but it was such to make the pack that I had used last year (a 12-litre Salomon Adv Skin vest) insufficient for this year, and the additional weight required spreading it more evenly across my waist / hips as well as chest / shoulders. I experimented with a few different pack set-ups in the weeks before the race, trying a 6l waist pack / 12l vest combination, the 15l OMM Ultra pack and the 20l Montane Trailblazer. I found it hard to find a single set-up that was perfect – the waist pack / vest combination ended up being too bulky around my waist and so was ruled out early on, but I agonised quite a bit between the OMM and Montane packs. The OMM pack was more comfortable to wear and had better padding on the shoulders than the Montane, but I’m not a big fan of their flasks. So in the end, I took both packs, leaving one in my drop bag, as the weight of the packs themselves is minimal and that would at least give me the option to change approach during the race if the need arose. My starting option would be the OMM pack, but rather than using their own flask set-up, I would just use some soft flasks that I would stow in the rear side pockets, with additional water capacity inside the bag itself.
On the way to Edale, I was surprised at not seeing more Spiners on the train from Sheffield, but managed to strike up conversation with Kevin Bowen, who as well as having completed the Northern Traverse with me a couple of months earlier, had completed a full Winter Spine Race in 2019, the year of Jasmin Paris’s record-breaking win. I certainly felt a lot more confident than last year, but was still a bit nervous about whether my back problems would recur, whether my legs were properly recovered from Cape Wrath, and whether the last few months of successful races had blinded me to the additional challenges posed by the Spine’s huge non-stop distance (268 miles).
I had booked the Ramblers Inn, right close to the start line, so with my registration slot being from 4-6pm I was able to check in, sort out my bags and head off to register and undergo the kit check, all of which were carried out with the utmost efficiency.
Start Edale to CP1 Hebden Hey (75km, 2,227m vertical)
With the race scheduled to start at 8am, I had set my alarm for 6am to give me plenty of time to do my stretches, apply K-tape to my toes and other blister / chafe zones as well as K-tape those joints and muscles that were potentially prone to fatigue / repetitive strain. The sky was clear and the weather was warm, so I decided to just wear a compression base layer and compression shorts, with liner socks and knee-length compression socks, stowing all my other spare layers in my pack. I could regulate my temperature if need be with detachable sleeves, buffs and gloves, similar to the approach I’ve used on other races. I filled a couple of soft flasks with water and Tailwind and stowed them in the side pockets of my pack – I’m not a big fan of the OMM bottles that fit on the chest straps as they seem to me to ride up too high and don’t feel comfortable when I run – and then stowed my snacks in the pockets of my OMM waist belt as well as a Flipbelt that I decided to wear to give me some extra storage flexibility. It seemed to work pretty well. One slight glitch was that my aluminium Z-poles had decided to refuse to lock properly, but luckily I had brought a spare pair of carbon poles, which while lighter and so theoretically better for running with, I generally preferred not to use on rocky courses because of the risk of snapping. In any case, I had no choice but to use them this time, so after having a breakfast comprising coffee and several pains aux chocolat, I headed down to the start to have my tracker fitted and drop off my 20kg resupply bag.
It was still warm and sunny as we lined up on the start line and began the countdown to the race, and I said hello to a few familiar faces from last year, including Heidi Haigh whose 2021 Summer Spine had finished in heartbreaking fashion at Hut 2 with only 7 miles to go, but who had displayed extraordinary guts in returning again this year to finish the job. What an athlete!
Blue skies and shades obligatory at the start in Edale
I’m usually a pretty slow starter, but with a target time that I had set for myself for the whole race of under 100 hours combined with the necessity of taking some sleep breaks after the 60 hour mark, I had calculated that I would need to complete the first two legs to Hebden Bridge and then to Hardraw in around 12 hours and 30 hours respectively, which would mean I’d need to maintain a good running pace early on.
It struck 8, we started off, and were soon trotting through the village of Edale towards the start of the Pennine Way proper. It was clear early on that my pack appeared to be a little bit smaller and lighter than those of most of the other competitors, and this perhaps helped me get off to a relatively quicker start than my usual pace, and I was soon moving towards the front half or quarter of the pack. Perhaps the cumulative conditioning effect of having done so many races this year meant that I was just in much better shape that I was expecting to be, and the last 3 weeks of only light exercise had done their job in helping me recover from Cape Wrath and gotten me into a reasonably fresh state again. Whatever the reason, I felt in great shape and my worries about post-CWU fatigue began to disappear as we made our way towards the foot of Jacob’s Ladder and the first big climb of the day. The ground was rocky and bone dry, and I was grateful that I had gone for the thicker sole protection provided by the TrailFly, as compared with the more minimalist TrailTalon that I had used in 2021 – the difference was enormous and I could barely feel the sharpness of the rocks this time round in contrast to last year. As the climb flattened out and we made our way across the Kinder Scout plateau towards the virtually empty waterfall of Kinder Downfall I caught up with Kevin Bowen and we ran and chatted together for the next 5k or so as we passed over High Peak towards Snake Pass. By now the clear blue skies had given way to low cloud and a cool, brisk breeze, which at the same time was not particularly unpleasant – at least there was now no risk of overheating.
Climbing Jacob's Ladder
As Kevin stopped, I pulled away and started running on my own, the field having now spread out considerably with only a handful of runners in view in front and behind. The rocky ground of Kinder gave way to the mixed peaty ground of Bleaklow and the run down to Torside. I was continuing to try to push my pace quite hard, but at the same time was also conscious that my legs and feet were not as responsive as usual – several times on the narrow path to Torside I stumbled on rocks underfoot, once ending up spreadeagled in a very undignified manner on the ground. I arrived at Torside at 11.25am, 40 minutes faster than my split last year and almost 30 minutes ahead of my plan. So far so good.
After Torside came the mixed moorland of Wessenden and Standedge – parts of it peaty ditches, parts of it well-maintained flagstones and parts of it gravel tracks by reservoirs. I’d forgotten quite how many reservoirs there are up here in the northern Peak District. Progress was still quite swift, although the temperature had begun to rise again and it was thirsty work. As we passed by the A635 there was a small roadside café van where a few runners had stopped – I pressed on, deciding to try and keep the good rhythm I had established at least until I reached Nicky’s Van at the A672 crossing, which was still a good 90 minutes away. I was now running with James Cripps, with another runner Chris Murphy just a short distance in front of us. I kept scanning the horizon for signs of A672, as well as the M62 that lay just beyond it, and it didn’t feel like long before the thread of the road appeared and slowly moved towards us, and the boxlike shape of Nicky’s new café grew larger. 7h 35m, and 40 mins ahead my race plan so far.
Nicky's new digs
Nicky’s new café – which appears to be a converted shipping container – is a huge improvement on the previous van, and I can only imagine how welcome the indoor space it offers will be to Winter Spiners come January. I stocked up on a couple of bottles of water to see me through to the checkpoint, as well as a couple of cups of flat coke, Nicky adroitly responding to the particular demands of ultra runners, before heading off while James and Chris were still in the hut. The rest of the stage sees milestones coming thick and fast – M62 bridge, White House Pub, Warland Reservoir, Stoodley Pike – and it was not long before Chris and I were running down towards Hebden Bridge. Unlike last year, the checkpoint is not in the town itself but a further 5km along the Pennine Way at Hebden Hey Scout Hut. So no long, relaxing downhill run to a checkpoint! After we reached the floor of the Calder Valley we were faced with a long, steep climb up an overgrown cobblestoned path, the overhanging trees and vegetation making the air still and clammy. It was really hard work, the only consolation being that it would take out some mileage from the next stage. As I hit the road and approached the village of Slack, James Leavesley came past me in the opposite direction – he must have only stayed a short while in the CP.
The path down to the checkpoint was steep, mossy and through dense, dark woods – it felt for all the world like the way to some secret Buddhist temple – but it is surely a great location for a scout hut. As I came into the CP, Andy Heaney, whom I’d raced with on Cape Wrath a few weeks earlier, came out to greet me, and I made my way inside to get some food and restock for the next stage.
CP1 Hebden Hey to CP2 Hardraw (106km, 2,891m vertical)
Apparently I was the 6th runner to arrive at CP1, and a couple were there when I arrived, Chris Murphy who’d arrived just before me, and Rob Moore, who I would be staying close to for pretty much the remainder of the whole race. Rob was commenting that he thought he may have pushed too hard on this first stage, and the same thought did occur to me as well – 10h 50m was 1 hour ahead of my plan and I did wonder whether I had already drained the tank a little bit more than anticipated. I helped myself to soup, several cups of flat coke, tea and hot chocolate, and then applied my compression bands to my calves and quads while refilling my water bottles. I headed out at 8pm, having stayed for 10 minutes longer than I had originally planned for, by which time several other runners had come into the checkpoint, but I was still ahead of my overall plan and felt strong as I headed back up to the road to rejoin the Pennine Way.
This next stage was the longest of the whole race, and would be the first one where I’d have a night section to negotiate. Luckily, there were quite a few natural breaks during the stage where I would be able to stop and get some additional drinks / snacks – the tent manned by the Craven Energy Triathlon Club (and Gary Chapman, with whom I’d recently run on the Cape Wrath Ultra and Northern Traverse) just before Cowling, the water station at Malham Tarn, and the tea shop in Horton-in-Ribblesdale – so although at 100km it was a long stage, I could treat it as four mini-stages.
As with earlier in the day, after a short initial climb back onto the moors, the ground was reasonably flat and the trail of good quality, with several gravel path sections besides reservoirs. It was 10pm and the afterglow of the setting sun still lit the Northern horizon when I passed the ruined farmhouse of Top Withens – quite spooky in the dark, only lacking a full moon to complete the experience. I was running pretty much all of the flats and downhills, so progress was quick and although my plan had me reaching the triathlon tent at 12:46am, it was 11:30pm when I saw a headtorch ahead of me and the figure of Gary loomed out of the darkness, walkie-talkie in hand. Night sections are always psychologically that bit harder than running in daylight, and it was a very welcome sight, made doubly so when Gary asked for my food and drink orders so that he could relay them to the Triathlon station up ahead. We ran together for the 5 minutes or so that it took us to reach the tent, where a mug of coffee and some bacon was awaiting me – 5-star service! We chatted for about 15 minutes while I filled my bottles and ate some chocolate, before setting off again, after posing for photos by the open fire outside. Huge kudos to Gary and the Craven Energy team for making the tent such a cherished part of the Spine Race, particularly as it breaks up what would otherwise be a very long and tiring stage. It’s amazing to think that they’d already been doing this for 24 hours as all the Spine Challengers came through.
Fireside ambience at the Craven Energy Triathlon Tent
Although the air temperature was not that cold, sitting down for just 15 minutes had caused my core temperature to drop somewhat so I rolled my detachable sleeves to cover my arms and put my buffs around my neck so that I could quickly warm up again. It was 38km to the next mini-stop at Malham Tarn, which I should reach early in the morning, but a fair amount of the way was on road and path, with the villages of Cowling, Gargrave and Malham providing some mental milestones to tick off along the way. I soon warmed up, the rest of the night passed without incident, and as the sky began to lighten again I was passing through the village of Malham, turning onto the path that led to the “upturned molars” limestone formations of Malham Cove. A year before, I had done this section by night, and by headtorch the top of Malham Cove is a genuinely surreal and disturbing sight – perfect for the final scenes of a horror movie. By daytime it is spectacular rather than sinister, and infinitely easier to negotiate as you leap from stone to stone. By the time I’d made the climb up to the Tarn, I could see couple of back markers from the Spine Challenger race, which had started 24 hours earlier, ahead of me, which gave me a little bit of encouragement as it meant that at least I would not be running entirely on my own for the next few hours. There were several Challengers in the Malham Tarn stopping point as I arrived, but with no drop bag here I limited my stay to just 10 minutes, enough to have a cup of coffee and a snack and to refill my bottles again. Rob Moore from the Full Spine was also there when I arrived, and as I left he had about a 10 minute start on me as we headed round the lake towards the climb to Fountains Fell.
I really like the next section of the Pennine Way – you have the climb up to the top of Fountains Fell, with the steep drops away to the right hand side, followed by a long, runnable descent just as the bulky dome of Pen-y-Ghent appears, and then the steep scrambled ascent of Pen-y-Ghent itself before yet another long descent toward Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The only downside of all these fun segments is that you then have the seemingly endless slog up the Cam High Road, but hey, it’s a small price to pay.
Every so often I could see Rob a few hundred metres ahead of me, and I did my best to hang onto him as we climbed up Fountains Fell and then hit the descent, which was dry but with the stones loose enough to provide some relief for the knees as we bounded down. It was beginning to warm up and the sun was getting more intense. As we followed the road around to the foot of Pen-y-Ghent I started to mix in some walking alongside running, even though the road was flat. I’m not sure if that was just laziness on my part or whether conserving energy was a strategic move – either way, it looked as though Rob had a similar idea as we seemed to be moving at the same pace. The climb up Pen-y-Ghent was hard but fun, as always, and as we approached the summit I caught up with Rob while at the same time stuffing my face with Haribos to replenish all the energy I’d used on the last 2 climbs. I knew that on the other side of the summit I would be able to give my lungs a rest while my knees and quads took over the work of controlling my descent. 12 months ago, my knees at this point were completely trashed and the descent was a slow, excruciatingly painful affair, but this time I was able to make reasonably short work of it, increasing my pace to a run as the slope eased, and passing several more Challengers on the way. They had about 11 hours left to complete their race, so after spending a second night out on the course they would all now hopefully make it home ahead of the cutoff and would be celebrating in the evening.
I reached Horton at 9.30am, and the teashop there was open for business – I stopped long enough to buy an ice cream, as well as water, squash and Coke, all of which were a bit of an indulgence, but it was pretty hot by now and I felt that I deserved a treat before the next 20km of boring trails towards Checkpoint 2 at Hardraw. I headed off again just before Rob arrived, my progress only interrupted by an articulated lorry that appeared to be trying to reverse onto the footpath from Horton to Cam End! Four hours of long slog later I was pulling into Hardraw and the checkpoint, feeling hot and tired, but very happy at reaching it after 29h 30 min, 40 minutes ahead of my plan and with the longest stage behind me. From now on, I could treat the race as effectively four 60k-ish stages, each with natural breaks in the middle, which mentally makes everything a lot easier. I also reflected on how far I’d come as a runner since last year – at this point in 2021, I’d been on the course for over 45 hours, so my pace was more than a third quicker than last year.
Tent City at CP2 in Hardraw
CP2 Hardraw to CP3 Middleton-in-Teesdale (56km, 1,574m vertical)
The Hardraw checkpoint was a series of individual tents, and I was lucky to have a tent to myself where I could sit down, put my feet up and be waited on by the wonderful team of volunteers who were only too eager to provide food, drink and support. As at Hebden Hey, I drank copious amounts of flat coke, tea and soup, while also having some chili and nachos to eat, a welcome change after the monotony of chocolate and Haribos of the last 30 hours. I took the opportunity to change my socks, reapplied some of the tape that was covering up my chafe zones, and started to prepare to leave, just as Rob arrived in the checkpoint and put his head in the tent.
At 3.30pm, bang on 2 hours after arriving at the checkpoint, I finished going through kit check and made my way back onto the trail, and the long climb up towards Great Shunner Fell. Within a couple of km up the hill I started to get short of breath and started coughing – I couldn’t quite understand why so tried to clear my throat, to no avail. The wheezing and coughing got worse, and I had that tight feeling in the chest that I only get when exercising hard on hot, dry, days. I only rarely get exercise-induced asthma but it is precisely on days like this when there is a lot of dust and pollen in the air. I stopped and rummaged in my bag for both my asthma inhaler and my antihistamine tablets, swallowing a couple of them while taking three deep puffs of my inhaler. Almost immediately I felt some relief, but I took a couple of minutes to take stock – luckily I was not far from the checkpoint, and it was downhill all the way, so I decided that at a minimum I could carry on and if there was any recurrence of the symptoms, I would be able to get back down to the checkpoint relatively easily. On the other side of the hill was another downhill run to the village of Thwaite, so either way I would have relatively easy escape options during the next few hours. If all was well by the time I got to Thwaite, then I would probably be OK to carry on, at least until the next village of Keld and then the Tan Inn pub at the halfway point of the stage. Perhaps triggered by the coughing fit, I had also started to experience some acid reflux, which was exacerbated by the cloying sweetness of the Tailwind and sweet snacks that I’d been consuming, so I also resolved to switch at the very next opportunity to drinking just electrolyte tablets and to cut out any more Tailwind.
Having sorted myself out, I pressed on, eventually reaching the summit and the subsequent long descent towards Thwaite. In January I had enjoyed bounding down this descent at great speed, but my energy levels had noticeably dropped since earlier in the day and I was only able to manage a half-walk / half-run despite the gentle descent being an eminently runnable one. As the path wound into the village of Thwaite, I saw that the bar of the Kearton Hotel was open, so popped in to buy some extra bottles of water that I could drop my salt tablets into, before the next leg across the moors. The narrow path from Thwaite to Keld is always a rocky, fiddly affair that can prove tricky in the dark but luckily I was able to negotiate it quickly in the light and was soon passing the signpost that marked the intersection of the Pennine Way with Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast path, and I briefly reminisced of my early April Northern Traverse race where I had passed the exact spot, albeit at right-angles to my current direction of travel. As I joined the path to the Tan Inn, I upped my pace to a half-run / half-walk and as I rounded the hill that led to England’s highest pub, I glanced at my watch to see it turn 8.00pm – 4½ hours after leaving CP2, which was not a great time, but considering some of the unanticipated stops I’d had to make, not bad and still leaving me roughly on plan.
I didn’t stay long at the Tan Inn, just enough to refill my bottles and use the toilet, as I wanted to get across the featureless ground of Sleightholme Moor before it became dark. The moor itself was quite dry – an enormous contrast to the bogfest of January and a welcome change from the moors I’d encountered in Scotland just 3 weeks prior. The sun went down just I was leaving the moor at 9.30pm, and I turned my headtorch on just as I crossed over God’s Bridge and the underpass beneath the A66, which signalled the transition from the Yorkshire Dales to the Tees Valley. I always imagine in my own mind that this section is largely ‘easy’ farmland, but the reality is that it has its fair share of featureless moors as well, which in the dark meant that I did find the next 4 hours quite hard work. It was made worse by a sudden sense of weariness that crept over me, combined with an increased feeling of cold. I wasn’t sure whether this was the temperature itself, or just my own body temperature dropping, but it meant that I had to put on some warm gloves and an extra layer, as well cram some more chocolate inside of me in order to carry on.
The Wythes Hill Tuck Shop
I counted down the climbs as I scaled each one of them – on the third I passed by the famed Tuck Shop at Wythes Hill Farm and helped myself to a can of lemonade and a can Dr Pepper, leaving £10 in the money box, which on the one hand was absurdly generous relative to the £1 / can listed price but on the other hand was cheap compared to its value to me at 1 o’clock in the morning with no other refreshment options available. Reinvigorated, I crested the final hill and jogged the short descent to the road into Middleton, turning left to take the path to CP3 which was a further 4km along the river. Just as I neared CP3, a couple of headtorches approached and I was greeted by a couple of volunteers from the checkpoint, including Hannah Rickman who had done the Challenger North race with me in January (finishing in an outstanding time as 2nd female). As with seeing Andy and Gary earlier in the race, it is always an enormous pleasure to see old friends at checkpoints on races like these, particularly when they are completely unexpected and after long stages when you’ve been running on your own in the dark. Although I was now a little bit behind my original plan, my spirits were certainly lifted by seeing a friendly face.
Yes, I really am that nerdy - checking my race plan at CP3 Middleton, with Hannah and the checkpoint team in the background
CP3 Middleton-in-Teesdale to CP4 Alston (61km, 1,641m vertical)
While filling myself up with chicken curry and rice, and also catching up with another familiar face at the CP – Ann-Marie who had been the queen of the breakfast porridge stall on Cape Wrath – I took stock of where I was on the race. The good news was that I had moved up into 5th place, and had built up a 12km or so lead over Rob behind me in 6th, with another 12km to another group behind him, led by Michael Burke. The bad news was that I was feeling pretty tired, and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to head out for the next stage without getting some more rest. It was 2.40am, so about 90 minutes to go before sunrise, and my weariness earlier that night, together with the offer of some bunk beds upstairs, persuaded me to try and put my head down to get at least an hour or so of sleep. I grabbed my sleeping bag, headed upstairs, set my alarm for 90 minutes later and lay down to see if I would naturally just drop off. I didn’t. My muscles ached, the hips in particular, and it proved impossible to settle into any position where I felt comfortable and tired enough to even snooze. After more than an hour of closing my eyes and turning this way and that I gave up and returned downstairs to gather my things and get on my way again. After another half an hour or more of faffing around with my drop bag, I was ready to leave – 6.15am and I’d spent 3½ hours in a CP where my plan had originally only budgeted an hour. I was now 3 hours behind my original “Plan A”, so was already now mentally switching to my slower “Plan B”, which targeted a finish between 90 and 100 hours depending on how much sleep I needed in the second half of the race.
As I came out the checkpoint, Rob was just arriving – he looked like he’d also had a rough night, so we high-fived and exchanged a few words of mutual encouragement as we passed. It looked like it was shaping up to be a warm day, and I was looking forward to doing the next section in daylight, as both previous occasions had been during the night, so this would be the first time I would actually see Cauldron Snout and High Cup Nick during the daytime. I was not to be disappointed.
Cauldron Snout - in daylight!
Progress was very swift to Cauldron Snout, with even the tricky rocky riverside section much easier in daylight than by headtorch, and I eagerly soaked in all of the surroundings that I’d only ever seen dark silhouettes of before. It wasn’t long before the third riverside section was rounded, and the tremendous cascades of Cauldron Snout came into view. I stopped to take some photos and a short video of the waterfall, before quickly scrambling up the right hand side and over the bridge towards the road on the opposite side. A member of the Spine Safety Team was there, and I took the opportunity to drink some water and refill my bottles before carrying on towards High Cup Nick and the long but gentle uphill climb on the road that takes you most of the way there. At night it feels like the path is endless, but during the daytime the fact that you can see the path winding ahead into the distance gives you a sense of perspective, and with that, comfort. It still took me about 1h 20 min to cover the 7km to get to the top of the cleft, but it was well worth it given the stupendous view I was greeted with. I stopped for about 10 minutes to take it all in, and carry out an impromptu Facebook Live broadcast, taking advantage of the mobile coverage after the last few hours of “dead zone”.
The stupendously shaped High Cup Nick
From here to Dufton was downhill all the way, and aside from the first few hundred metres, it was all very runnable, so I pounded out a fast pace all the way down to Dufton, slowing down only where gates or stiles forced me to. It was mid-morning, the sun was shining and checking the Open Tracker map on my phone, I’d managed to re-establish a lead of 12km over Rob behind me, although Michael Burke was now closing the gap to Rob and was only a further 6km behind. As I passed through the village, I could see that the Post Box Pantry was open and before commencing the big climb ahead to Cross Fell, I popped inside to treat myself to a Calippo ice lolly, proper coffee (cappuccino!) and scone, as well as a further water restocking. Occasional home pleasures like this, in between the inevitable gnarly parts, is one of the great charms of the Spine races, and I was very glad to take 15 minutes to rest and recharge.
Post Box Pantry - best scones on the Pennine Way!
The long climb up to the first of the four big peaks, Knock Fell, was uneventful, and I was glad that, unlike in January, the flagstones were (a) visible and (b) dry, which made much of the route from Knock Fell over Great and Little Dun Fell and then to Cross Fell an easy jog. It had taken less than 3 hours from Dunston to reach the top of Cross Fell, and it was now downhill pretty much all the way to Garrigill and then CP4 at Alston. After the race, everyone seemed to complain about the track down Cross Fell. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s stony. Yes, it’s dry and hard-packed. Yes, it’s hard on the feet. But it’s got a reasonably gentle incline, is for the most part very runnable and it allows you to cover a lot of mileage in a short space of time. I ran as much as I could of it, emerging in the village of Garrigill 4.30 in the afternoon, which even at that time appeared to be a complete ghost town – the one and only shop in the village was already closed. By the time I had run through the farmland trails that led up to the Alston YHA, it was approaching 6pm, and my stomach was already rumbling for a portion of the famed Alston lasagna!
The famous Alston lasagna - only 1 portion though ...
CP4 Alston to CP5 Bellingham (67km, 1,784m vertical)
As soon as I took my shoes off in the entrance to the Youth Hostel, I could feel the increased tightness of fit that suggested my feet had already started to swell in the heat – not a big surprise given how hot it had been, but a clear indication that now was the right time to switch to my half-size larger shoes, the size 11.5 TrailFlys, for the rest of the race.
With it being early evening, I was in two minds whether to have a short break and press on, or to take advantage of the indoor bunk beds and try to get the couple of hours’ sleep that had eluded me at Middleton. It was now 58 hours into the race and I had still not slept, so was now in unknown territory with respect to sleep deprivation. I decided to try quickly have some food and drink, and then go upstairs to lie down and attempt a 2 hour nap, setting my alarm accordingly. As at Middleton, this plan failed to work and I again found it hard to settle, the aches in my joints making it hard to stay in one position. After two hours of non-sleep, I got up, stretched and decided to have a shower instead – at a minimum I would try to be as fresh as I could be for what would be another night section. By the time I had sorted myself out, four hours had passed since I arrived at the CP, and Rob had just arrived, followed close behind by Mike. The 5th to 7th places were beginning to bunch up!
I had done this stage a couple of times before, so although it has its fair share of navigational challenges when doing it in the dark, I’d learned from my previous mistakes and so was able to make reasonable progress through the first stretch of farmland, arriving at Slaggyford at midnight – no angels in sight, which was to be expected given the unholy hour! The bogs of Hartleyburn Common and Blenkinsopp Common, usually midge-infested swamps, were uncommonly dry and lacking in midges, but the temperature began to drop and every so often a temperature inversion, with accompanying cold, clammy fog, would suddenly hit me and prompt a quick unrolling of sleeves and donning of buffs and hat. Eventually the lights of the A69 appeared in the distance, the path turned east and the ground became much easier as Greenhead and Hadrian’s Wall approached, just as the sky started to lighten again.
After crossing the main road (no traffic and no need for a crazy sprint across this time round) and passing through the golf course, I took 5 minutes for a brief toilet break at the Greenhead visitor centre and pushed on, hoping that I would be able to postpone my next sleep break till the next checkpoint and confident that at this pace I would soon be rolling into Bellingham by lunchtime. Less than an hour had passed before I started to feel drowsy and listless. In the absence of any coffee, I took a couple of caffeine tablets, ate some chocolate, and hoped that these would kickstart me into wakefulness. It didn’t seem to help. I struggled on for another hour, and found myself starting to mentally switch off, even on the steep, stepped descents that are common on this section of Hadrian’s Wall. Occasionally my brain would start imagining I was on a cycling holiday and I started wondering where my bike was, and why I couldn’t just freewheel down the descents. It was all going a bit sideways. I reached the car park at Burnhead, about halfway along the Hadrian’s Wall section, and found a closed toilet block there that at least had a sheltered area to the side, where I could lay out by bivvy bag, curl up and try to sleep. I texted the Spine HQ to let them know that I was taking a break, and this time I dozed off almost immediately. I woke and then fell asleep again a couple of times. By the time I woke up again properly it was 7.30am and I was expecting to have been passed by both Rob and Mike. Much to my astonishment, they were still somewhat behind me, so I gathered my things and resolved to use my new-found energy to try and rebuild a little bit of the gap that I had given up with my impromptu nap.
The remainder of Hadrian’s Wall did not take too long to clear, and then after turning back north again I started to follow the long diversion through the Wark Forest to avoid the storm damage-related forestry work going on elsewhere along the usual Pennine Way route. As with the descent from Cross Fell, the track through the forest was rocky, hard and monotonous – luckily my energy levels were still high and I was able to run most of it, getting a nice rhythm that took me all the way to Horneystead Farm and the famed Pit Stop for Spiners. There I was treated to a can of coke, a ham roll and some biscuits, and as importantly, a respite from the blistering sunshine that was now blazing hard on the back of my neck, arms and legs. 15 minutes later I was on my way again, and although I could feel my skin flaking in the sun, I managed to break into a dignified run as I came down the road towards CP5 at Bellingham. I was definitely now beginning to feel quite tired, but the bulk of the race had been completed and the next checkpoint I would come to after this would be the finish. As I settled down inside, I checked my mobile phone for the race positions, and Mike had now ominously overtaken Rob and was beginning to close in on me.
Recovering at CP5 Bellingham
CP5 Bellingham to Finish Kirk Yetholm (68km, 2,032m vertical)
I was the only one in the checkpoint, which always means that you get a highly personal service from everyone there – nothing was too much trouble for any of the volunteers. They’d even managed to get some ice creams in! Given that Bellingham had no indoor sleeping facilities, I had decided to try and finish the race without any further sleep breaks, and just take a 2 hour pause here to eat, drink, stretch and refresh, in particular I needed to reapply K-tape to some of my chafe zones where it had started to come away, never a pleasant experience.
This time I managed to stick to my 2-hour budget for the checkpoint, and after gathering up my kit into the drop bag for the last time, set out just as Mike was entering the checkpoint. He looked pretty knackered, but then again I’m sure I had looked even worse when I had arrived! It’s amazing how a couple of hours’ break can freshen you up. It was 3.30pm and still extremely hot and sunny. Barring a disaster, I’d already pretty much guaranteed that I would achieve my primary goal of a sub-100 hour finish, and with Mike and Rob as the two people in touching distance, I would almost certainly get a top-10 finish, so I decided that I would try to enjoy this last section as much as I could and not to worry too much about my time or placing. Obviously I would try my hardest to hold onto 5th place, but not at the expense of exposing myself to undue risk of injury or exhaustion. With that in mind, as I passed through Bellingham I stopped in one of the local shops to get myself a Calippo ice lolly before heading across the farmland that makes up the first part of the stage to Byrness. A year before, I had done this section during a windswept, rainy night, and found the navigation to be quite hard. In daylight, it was very straightforward and I smiled as I passed all the places that had posed problems to me 12 months earlier.
Soon the path crossed the B6320 and entered the endless heather moors of Troughend Common and Padon Hill. I’m sure that some people find this scenery beautiful. Personally, I would be far happier if they napalmed the entire moor and covered it in a nice asphalt running track. The path across the moor is a narrow rut, in places less than a foot wide, with low banks of heather either side ready to trip you up. It’s a little bit like the run down to Torside, except you’re doing it after 220 miles and 3½ days without sleep. Still, I wasn’t doing it at night, and I could at least see in the distance the dark green of Redesdale Forest and Byrness. I gritted my teeth and just kept going, largely giving up on using poles given their tendency to get stuck in the heather, but unable to maintain even a jogging pace due to the narrowness of the path. Eventually the descent from Padon Hill bottomed out, and the climb up beside the forest started, broadening into a wide track that was similar to that of the diversions through the Wark Forest on the previous stage. As before, I tried to run all the downhills and flats, power hiking up the climbs, while switching my mind off to the monotony of the terrain. Luckily the heat of the afternoon was now over and in the early evening the temperature had dropped to a relatively comfortable mid-teens by the time that I saw the tent and toilet block of the Byrness safety team and water station ahead. 7.15pm, just the Cheviots left, and hopefully less than 12 hours to go.
I took 15 minutes to rehydrate and chat with the team there before rousing myself for the last push to the finish, and almost immediately found myself feeling more tired after my rest than before. It’s often the case – you’re in a good rhythm and then sitting down for a few minutes causes your body temperature to drop and your muscles to start stiffening up. The next half an hour through the woods in Byrness were a real effort, and even though the path was flat and even I found it hard to summon the energy to run. Another runner wearing a Hardmoors T-shirt was coming in the opposite direction – “Only 26 miles to go” he called out cheerily. Which sounds easy enough if you’re just setting out on your weekly long run, but a different matter altogether when it’s on the back of 242 miles and almost no sleep. It was almost a relief when I reached the climb up to the Cheviots as at least that gave me an excuse for my slow pace. As I climbed, I half wondered how close behind Mike and Rob now were, and whether I’d be able to hold them off over the Cheviots, while at the same time telling myself not to worry about placings and just concentrate on finishing my own race in my own time.
As I proceeded along the crest of the Cheviots, the shadows lengthened, the light became murkier and I found myself beginning to lose focus again, just as I had on Hadrian’s Wall. I wasn’t seeing any hallucinations, which was a pleasant change on previous races, but I was having difficulty in staying on the path / GPX tracks and occasionally would just lose my balance and topple sideways. I became obsessed with reaching the first of the 2 Mountain Refuge Huts so that I could have a rest and reset myself, but obsessing about it didn’t make it arrive any quicker. Eventually 11.45pm I saw a couple of headtorches ahead and the hut came into view.
I was utterly shattered. I sat on the bench inside and started asking almost immediately whether I would be able to sleep inside the hut, as I wasn’t entirely sure what the rules said about it. While they checked with Spine HQ that this would OK, I had some coffee and tried to get my head a little bit straighter. I only had 26km / 16 miles left to go, but I was worried about whether I’d be able to safely get to the next milestone, Hut 2, in the dark in my current state. I just desperately needed some sleep. Eventually the SST confirmed that it would be OK for me to use my bivvy bag inside the hut, so I lay down on the bench, curled up and almost immediately fell asleep. We had agreed that they would wake me up when Mike arrived, but even when he did I was in no mood to get up and run again – placings really didn’t feel important at that moment in time. It was only an hour or so later when they woke me up a second time to say that Rob would soon be arriving that I felt up to venturing outside again. By now it felt a lot colder, so I put some additional layers on while I rolled up my bivvy bag and repacked by backpack. It was now 2.45am and while I’d been in the hut for 3 hours and lost a place, I felt infinitely better for having had a couple of hours’ sleep. As importantly, there was only an hour of darkness left.
The final turning point before Hut 2 - Turn Left !
I left the hut and soon managed to pick up my pace, also helped by the increased prevalence of paved sections between Hut 1 and Hut 2. If I’d realised so much of this part of the route was paved, maybe I could have continued earlier without taking a sleep break? It didn’t do to think about might-have-beens, so I carried on and reached the signpost signalling the final turning point away from the Cheviots into Scotland and then the second Hut after less than 3½ hours – pretty good considering it had taken me 4 hours to reach Hut 1. There was just the small matter of the Schil ascent and the long descent to Kirk Yetholm to go. For one brief moment I considered trying to squeeze home in an overall time of under 96 hours (4 days), but when I realised that this would require a 1h 50m final leg I relented and decided to take it somewhat easy, while still jogging all the downhills. The roads of Kirk Yetholm seemed somehow shorter than before and it didn’t feel like long before I was running towards the village green, the large Montane / Spine hoops and the grey stone of the Border Hotel that heralded the finish, where I could finally release all of the emotions that had been building over the previous 4 days and 268 miles.
Competing in these races is an enormous privilege. It wouldn’t be possible without the exceptional work of the Spine Race organisers, and the volunteers who man the checkpoints and the Spine Safety Teams (SSTs). So first and foremost, a huge thanks to them for all of their efforts and willingness to accommodate the idiosyncratic needs of weary runners like me.
A huge thanks also to the many organisers of unofficial checkpoints and support points, in particular Gary Chapman and the Craven Energy Triathlon team and the owners of Horneystead Farm. On a hot, dry race like the one this year, these support points can prove to be indispensable lifelines when you’re feeling at your lowest.
A big thanks also to the family members and friends who have supported me, not just on this race, but on all my races this year, on social media as well as in person. Running, and ultrarunning in particular, can be a lonely activity and knowing that other people are rooting for you can make all the difference in the world when your motivation levels are feeling challenged.
And lastly, a big thanks to the other competitors. The ultra community is one that I’m so happy to be a member of, filled as it is with warm, tough, generous, strong, funny and sensitive people. To spend the hours after the race chilling and sharing experiences with the likes of Richard Hoyland, Rob Moore, Mike Burke, Kevin Bowen, and Bobby Cullen, and the next couple of days rooting for all the other runners out on the course as we dot-watched them all the way to Kirk Yetholm, were just as much a part of the overall Spine experience as was running one’s own race, and is part of what makes ultra running, and the Spine Race, so special.
I always find it’s worthwhile reflecting in my races on what went well, and what I could have done better with the benefit of hindsight.
First of all, if you’d offered me 6th place and 96h 26m at the beginning of the race, there’s no doubt at all that I would bitten your hand off. It’s a result I’m really pleased with and I’d rate it as – alongside the Northern Traverse earlier this year – as my best result in Ultras to date. A lot of (wiser) people looked at me like I was insane when I told them I was doing the Summer Spine with only 3 weeks’ break after Cape Wrath, but as it turned out I didn’t feel noticeably more fatigued. Of course, it could be that I might have recorded a faster time with a more typical “train and taper” run-in, but the large amounts of mileage and vertical that I’d racked up on NT and CWU at least meant that I was coming into the race with bullet-proof knees and no danger of being ‘under-cooked’. There’s also no doubt that, for all their difficulty and particular challenges, the multi-day non-stop format plays to my strengths. I’m not a particularly fast runner, but I’m able to maintain a decent pace deeper into races and can also go without sleep for long stretches without too many problems, at least for 60 hours or so. Looking forward, this format is therefore definitely going to play a significant role as I think about which events I prioritise as my “A” races.
I think it's also important to reflect on the performances of the winners - Tiaan's 70h 46m and Anna's 78h 57m are truly phenomenal results for a race like this and really set the benchmark for elite performance. I'm in awe of the all-round physical and mental resilience, as well as speed and fitness, required to complete the race in such times. Whether I'll have another go at this race next year or not is too early to say - I have the Winter Spine Challenger in January and while the uncertainty of weather conditions makes target times somewhat theoretical in the winter, I'm pencilling in a 30-35hr range to be targeting, although this January's conditions would have made even that a fantastic achievement. For the Summer Spine, I reckon based on what I managed this year that I can realistically aim in the future to achieve a sub-90 hr finish assuming everything goes well, but that will require me to work on a few of the areas which this year cost me the bulk of my lost time.
I was really happy with how the first half of the race went. From Edale to Tan Hill, which at 200km is almost halfway, I was actually on target for an 80-85 hour finish, which would have been an extraordinary result. Although I’d had to make a few more stops than expected because of the heat and associated hydration needs, I’d managed the night sections well, had no feet / blister issues, was not feeling particularly fatigued and I was happy with how all my kit was performing. My splits bear this out.
It was in the second half of the race where I felt I could have done a lot better. Taking unneeded rest breaks at Middleton and Alston led to 5 hours of lost time that, for example – might otherwise have helped me cross the Cheviots during daylight. General CP management was a bit lax and led to probably another 1-2 hours of lost time across the second half of the race (particularly when I compare myself to other runners that are outstanding when it comes to CP management). Diet and nutrition was something I need to work on for extremely long races like the Spine – early on I relied too heavily on sugary snacks and Tailwind and this certainly contributed to the acid reflux and associated sore throat problems I encountered later on. I need to take more snacks with slower-release carbs, use less Tailwind and more electrolyte tabs, as well as carry some Strepsils in my hill bag 1st aid kit just in case I get a sore throat during the race. And lastly I need to work in training more on my all round strength and speed – although my downhill strength is now very good, my stride length shortens quite considerably as the race progresses, ending up in a ‘zombie shuffle’ for the final few miles, so working on hamstring / glute / hip flexor strength, length and engagement is going to have to be a larger part of my training cycle from now on if I’m to improve my running times.
Lastly, a word for the cause I was running for. I started the “1,000 miles of ultra” project a year ago, after finishing last year’s Summer Spine Race, as a way of motivating myself to enter and run in more races, with the aim being to raise £1,000 for Mind UK while completing 1,000 miles in ultra races over 12 months. As it happens, over £1,800 has now been donated, and not only did I manage 1,000 miles over 12 months, I also managed 1,000 miles in races during the first 6 months of 2022. So the project has been a success in many regards. I’ll now be taking a short break from multi-day ultras. My plan was to run the Dragon’s Back Race in September, but I’ve decided to defer my entry for a year to give my body a proper chance to recover, and to allow me to focus on training and running some shorter 50-100k races to help me get in shape for hopefully stronger performances in 2023.
A lot to look forward to!
Pack: OMM Ultra 15, Flipbelt (waist)
Shoes: Inov8 TrailFly 300G (Size 11, size 11.5)
Waterproofs: Inov8 Stormshell (Top), Inov8 Ultrashell (Bottom)
Liner: DryMax Hyperthin Crew
Non-waterproof: 1000 mile compression socks
2XU compression shorts
2XU full length compression tights
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck, Montane Protium Fleece
Underwear: Runderwear long boxer shorts
Fingerless gloves: COOLOO Cycling Gloves
Thin thermal gloves: Anquier Winter Touch Screen Running Gloves
Waterproof thermal gloves: LERWAY Winter Warm Gloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, Multiple buffs
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 (+ spare)
Bivvy Bag: Alpkit Hunka
Headtorch / Chest torch: LEDLenser Neo 10 x 2