2022 Montane Winter Spine Challenger North: 9-11 January 2022
In 1702, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s most famous work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was published. 320 years later, the Montane Spine Race team held their inaugural Challenger North race, covering the northernmost 160 miles of the Pennine Way from Hardraw to Kirk Yetholm.
Pennines in Winter
Snow, Ice, Bog, Fog; Britain’s Most
Having completed the Summer Spine race last year, albeit in a very slow time, it was natural to think about testing myself against the course in Winter. With the 2021 Winter Spine Race having been cancelled with all the entrants offered deferrals into 2022, the 268-mile Spine Race was already full up, but the announcement of a new winter race covering the northernmost 160 miles of the Pennine Way, the Spine Challenger North, provided a new opportunity and one that covered the more interesting, scenic and challenging sections of the course, featuring Cauldron Snout, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots.
One of the first major challenges of all the Winter Spine races is negotiating the extensive mandatory kit requirements – as an unsupported winter race in the hills with 40 miles between checkpoints, this includes sleeping bag, inflatable mat, bivvy bag, stove, 2l of water, 3000 cal of food and ice spikes, as well as comprehensive winter clothing. Sourcing light, compact versions of all these kit items, and getting them efficiently stowed in a backpack, is an artform all to itself and took me several weeks of online research and shopping, throughout which the Official Spine Race FB forum and numerous previous race reports proved invaluable. I initially tried to squeeze everything into my existing Montane 20l Dragon pack, but with the amount of gear this proved to be too much of a stretch, and the weight made the pack bounce around disconcertingly on my back when I tried to run, so I eventually settled on using a 30l Montane Trailblazer pack.
With there being so many unfamiliar factors for me to contend with, during the weeks before I experimented with a lot of different kit combinations on local trails in Kent, mainly in the evenings so that I could also get used to running in these conditions in the dark by headtorch. This allowed me to test out different types of shoes and waterproof socks, running in the mud with / without crampons, wearing an extra waist pack, and so on, and prompted quite a few last minute changes to my kit choices – buying a couple of pairs ‘super-sized’ Inov8 TrailTalons (UK 11.5 and 12 versus my usual UK size 10s) to accommodate extra waterproof socks and foot swelling, using 2 pairs of waterproof socks to provide cast-iron protection for my feet, and abandoning the idea of using the Montane 6l waist pack (as it made my backpack ride a little bit higher off my shoulders, causing it to swing from side to side when I ran). I had also lost a couple of toenails over the previous month following the December Sunrise Ultra, and while I tried using silicone toe caps to protect my toes, they proved uncomfortable for more than 5 or 10k so ended up reverting to my traditional approach of using K-tape to protect my toes, although now also used Gehwol foot cream to provide some additional protection in the run-up to the race.
Getting to the start in Hardraw was a mini-challenge in itself – the trains were disrupted due to engineering works, and registration / kit-check was scheduled for the day before the race start, so it was that it was Friday night that I caught the train northwards to Northallerton, booking a minicab for Saturday morning to take me to the White Hart Inn in Hawes. I used the Saturday afternoon to walk the 2 miles from Hawes to Hardraw for the kit check, figuring that this would be a good way to mentally get myself ready for the 150 miles that lay ahead the following day. Kit check was very efficiently managed with each runner having to present a random selection of items from the mandatory list, and after collecting my race numbers and having my photo taken I returned to Hawes where I had agreed to meet up for dinner with another runner, Ed Dailey, who had come here all the way from Chicago. There were a lot of other Spiners in the White Hart, judging by the number of trail shoes, waterproofs, buffs and beards that were being sported in the bar / restaurant, and one of the highlights I find in these races is the extent to which you very quickly form close bonds and have long conversations with people that you may have only just met. It’s such a warm, welcoming and supportive community. What’s also great is the variety of people that you meet – Ed was a triathlete (coach and athlete) with several Leadville 100 finishes to his name so it was a good opportunity for me to learn more about the US endurance running scene. Afterwards I struck up conversation with another runner, Jonny Ulett, and his friend Andrew Morley, and it turned out Jonny and I had both run in the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Ultra in October and were also both entered for the 190 mile Northern Traverse race in April. It was good to compare notes on our respective preparations, although I was somewhat concerned that my 30l pack was at the ‘light’ end compared to those that others were using.
Start Hardraw to CP 1 Middleton-on-Tees (55km)
With the race scheduled to start at 8am, Ed had booked a minicab for 3 of us to take us and our 20kg drop bags to Hardraw for 5.45am, which meant a 5am wake-up time. I tried to get a solid 5-6 hours’ sleep, but nervous excitement made it hard for me to fall asleep, so it was that I crawled into the taxi with only a couple of hours’ rest, worrying about how long I would be able to go in the race before I needed to sleep and feeling already that I needed a couple of coffees to get me going.
At the Green Dragon in Hardraw they fitted the GPS trackers to our packs, and were serving breakfast – several cups of coffee, a bowl of porridge and some bacon for me. I sat with Ed and the other minicab passenger, Hannah Rickman, and talked a bit about the course ahead. Having done Summer Spine last year, I at least knew what lay in store, but Hannah’s pack had seemingly been packed by a Jedi Master in pack-packing and was almost half the size of mine, let alone Ed’s. I had in my own mind planned to run the race as effectively two 75-mile ultras with a sleep break in-between – the first two stages effectively non-stop to Alston, which I calculated should take about 36 hours, an 8 hour break for sleep, and then another 36 hours to cover the final two stages to Kirk Yetholm, to give an overall time of 80 hours. I had no idea what impact the underfoot conditions, the weather, the heavier pack and the 16 hours a day of darkness would have on my pace, but I figured that I was a lot fitter and better prepared than last June, and sleep deprivation would be less of an issue than with the full 268-mile race.
Knowing that I tend to heat up quite quickly as soon as I start racing, and conversely cool down whenever I stop, and also having realised that stopping to change layers is a major source of lost time, I decided to start the race wearing only a compression base layer, compression arm sleeves and a waterproof jacket, with several buffs and a Sealskinz hat as flexible items that I could remove and stow in my jacket pockets without stopping if I warmed up and needed to dump heat. It turned out to be a good decision, and one that I used throughout the rest of the race.
At 8am, the countdown was complete and we set off on the trail up the first peak, Great Shunner Fell, with the field rapidly starting to spread out as the initial spurt of running gave way to a mix of different paces from the front runners to the back markers. I stayed near the back, as the climb up Great Shunner Fell is a long slog and my legs tend to take quite a while to warm up and operate efficiently. If I start too quickly, my muscles quickly get fatigued and I know that I become more prone to soreness and injury. For the same reason, I had also decided to use poles and wear knee supports from the very start – anything that delays the onset of leg fatigue would help me immeasurably towards the end of a 150 mile race.
As we climbed the slopes of the fell, the snow and ice become more and more prevalent, and while the air temperature dropped, my body warmed up and I felt quite comfortable and glad that I was only wearing the single base layer. The snow was quite firm and crunchy, and with the pace being slow, I did not feel any particular need to wear spikes. As we neared the summit however, I found the ice patches were becoming more widespread, and so decided to put my crampons on – I had brought both YakTrax and full walking crampons, and went with the latter because of the extra grip and security that they provided, figuring that on the downhill sections it would allow me to run and “make gravity my friend”, confident that I wouldn’t be in any danger of slipping or falling. It turned out to be a really good decision – all the practice using these crampons running through the Kent mud paid off as I was able to break into first a light jog and then a full-blown run down the northern slopes of Great Shunner Fill. The spikes bit into the surface on every step, whether it was snow, frozen mud, bog or even thin ice-covered slabs. It was exhilarating. I passed maybe 6 or 7 other runners in this way, and my Garmin vibrated every 7 or 8 minutes as each km was ticked off. I pulled into Thwaite just after 2 hours, removing my crampons as I hit the road section and stowing them in a small bag that I dangled from my chest straps.
After passing through Thwaite, I caught up with a couple of other runners and started climbing again as the path skirted around the side of a hill towards Keld. Although these slopes did not have much snow on them, they were muddy and slippery, so I decided to put the spikes on again to improve my traction and keep them on as long as we were off-road. It definitely helped – it was not long before we had passed through Keld and hit the trail towards the Tan Hill Inn, the halfway point of this stage. The flatter moorland terrain allowed me to see another 3 or 4 runners ahead, and as the path gently climbed, frozen snow became more widespread, the temperature started to drop again and a cold wind meant that I had to put on some warmer thermal gloves as my fingers started to feel numb. Soon, the Tan Hill Inn appeared and I checked my watch – 4 hrs 15 min. Given that I had budgeted 5 hours for this section, this felt like a great pace. I needed a short break to go to the toilet and to refill my water bottles, but otherwise decided not to waste any more time at Tan Hill (tempting though a hot pub lunch might have been!) and pressed on to the next section of boggy moorland.
It was at this point that my waterproof socks would face their first real test. Although I was actually wearing 3 layers on my feet – Coolmax liners, 360Dry knee-length waterproof socks and then another layer of Desxshell knee-length waterproof socks on the outside – I was still suspicious that they may not fully protect my feet from the impact of repeated full immersion in icy water. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Gingerly at first, and then more and more boldly, I found myself striding through deep mud, bog and streams as though they were all hard-packed trail, and my feet stayed bone dry and remarkably warm. What seemed to be happening was that they outer Dexshell layer absorbed the water, the first membrane largely did its job preventing any seepage into the inner layer, which in turn was stopped by the second 360Dry waterproof membrane, and then whenever the ground became firmer, the pressure of my foot against the upper of the shoe squeezed the absorbed water out from the outer layer of the Dexshell sock again. It was effectively acting as a fully-sealed knee-length gaiter.
With the moorland being flat, I was able to keep up a reasonable pace, combining fast striding with occasional trotting or jogging whenever the ground was firmer, and I soon came to the edge of the peat moorland and the start of the mixed terrain of farmland / moor that characterises the Tees Valley. I took off my spikes again, stowing them now in my jacket pocket, and set myself a new target of getting to Middleton inside 10 hours, 2 hours ahead of my original goal. The farmland was muddy, particularly by the tunnel under the A66, but I was able to maintain a good pace, eventually catching up with another runner just as we donned headtorches on the final slopes approaching Middleton, and as I passed through the village streets towards the checkpoint I glanced at my watch – 5.30pm, and 8½ hours to cover the first stage – well ahead of plan and a good start to the race.
CP 1 Middleton-on-Tees to CP 2 Alston (120km)
In contrast to the Summer Spine, where the Checkpoint is in fields by the banks of the Tees right on the Pennine Way, this time the checkpoint was indoors, so after taking off my shoes and handing over my poles I walked inside and started to tick off my CP checklist items:
1. Charge devices and headtorch batteries
2. Get coffee and hot food
3. Change socks
4. Refill water bottles and reservoir (with Tailwind)
5. Have some savoury snacks – Polish cabanos sausages and Mini Cheddars
6. Pick up devices
7. Head off
Despite my new-found CP discipline, I still spent 1h 20 in the checkpoint, mainly because I was waiting for my GPS watch and phone to fully recharge, and also took the opportunity to give my legs a blast on the portable massage gun that I had packed in my drop bag, but by 6:50pm I was on my way again, stopping to say hello to Jonny and Andrew who had just arrived as I was leaving.
The next stage would include some of the most dramatic scenery of the whole race with the waterfall at Cauldron Snout and High Cup Nick – unfortunately, as with the Summer Spine, I would be going past them all in the darkness so would not be able to see much. I quickly jogged back to the turning that took us back onto the Pennine Way and the path beside the River Tees. I soon passed another runner who had stopped, and this would be the only person I would see for the next 8 hours. After just over an hour, the roaring sound to my right alerted me to the presence of the first set of rapids, Low Force, and 30 minutes later I passed by High Force. The path was very clear and although it was wet and muddy in parts, it was generally in great condition, so progress was quite rapid. I had forgotten exactly how far Cauldron Snout was along the path, but after crossing several bridges and following a road section, my memory started to return, and eventually I came to the quite treacherous section of scrambling over boulders right on the river’s edge. Last June, I had found this a lot harder, partly because my headtorch back did not provide a lot of illumination. This time I was using both a chest torch and head torch, both of them LEDLenser Neo 10’s with plenty of power, and with them both switched on it was the closest thing to running in daylight. It still wasn’t easy – the boulders were quite slippery and my TrailTalons didn’t get as much purchase as I had hoped for on them – so I had to be careful not to slip and hurt myself.
The path wound back inland, then again back to the river’s edge as I negotiated another section of boulder-strewn riverbank. Eventually, after about 4 hours, I came to the steep rocky scramble up the side of Cauldron Snout, which even at night is one of the highlights of the whole Pennine Way. Although the rocks were wet, they were not as slippery as the ones by the riverbank, so it didn’t pose any particular challenges, and it was not long before I was striding out across the bridge and onto the path that led across the plateau towards High Cup Nick.
At this point, a thick clag descended and my headtorch started to simply reflect dazzling drops of mist back into my eyes, so I switched it off and relied just on my chest torch. The clag would stay all the way until High Cup Nick, and made navigating quite hard – it was difficult to discern any path on the ground, and as I tried to follow the GPS tracks I found myself zig-zagging as I kept veering away from the route only to try and return to it. The claustrophobia and tunnel vision that tends to accompany foggy nights didn’t help, and I could feel my pace dropping significantly. It’s only around 8km from Cauldron Snout to High Cup Nick, and fairly flat, but it took me almost 2 hours before I saw the small signpost that denoted I had arrived at the head of the steep V-shaped valley that in daytime would have been a spectacular sight. As it was, all I could see was fog. I followed the GPS trail and soon found myself descending a rocky slope. The slope steepened, and before I knew it I had already lost around 50m in elevation. I checked my GPS again – I certainly didn’t remember the path being as steep as this, and as my GPS position updated itself on the map, I realised that I had actually plunged over the edge of High Cup Nick into the gorge itself. Luckily, it only cost me maybe 15 minutes to scramble back up to the lip of the valley, before turning to skirt around its right-hand side along the proper path.
By the time I arrived in Dufton it was around 2am and the village was deserted. I made my way to the village hall and the water station there, where Carlos Marcos, who had left Middleton shortly before me, was already in the process of packing up his things for the next section towards Cross Fell. I was feeling a little tired after the navigational difficulties in the fog and decided I would use the full 30 minutes allowed to brew some hot drinks (coffee, hot chocolate and soup) and take a toilet break. Pretty much bang on 2.30am, I headed out again, thanking the wonderful volunteer who had had the lonely job of manning the Dufton station throughout the nightshift. As the path towards Cross Fell turned away from the village road, it soon became apparent that the next few kilometres were going to be extremely muddy and slippery, and my shoes would really struggle to get any purchase in such muddy ground. I stopped for a few minutes and donned my crampons again – not designed to be used in mud, but anything that improved my traction would be a good thing. They did their job, although I was constantly worrying (unnecessarily as it turned out) that they might break whenever they caught a rock.
The climb up the first of the series of peaks that led to Cross Fell was steep and seemed to take forever. Although there was not much snow on the slopes as yet, it was hard going and felt much harder than it had done last Summer, even though objectively speaking I was in much better shape. Maybe it was the weight of the pack, maybe the winter ground conditions, maybe the aftereffects from the bout of Covid that I had in September, but it was 2 hours before I reached the top of Green Fell, and I was very relieved to feel the ground flattening out, and to finally see the flagstones denoting the path towards Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell and ultimately Cross Fell. However, as with the plateau before High Cup Nick, I found myself in clag again, visibility shrank to 20 or 30 metres, and the flagstones started to disappear beneath an increasingly thick layer of snow and ice. I was now doubly grateful that I had brought such good ice spikes, as they did help me maintain a reasonable pace on the flatter ground, despite the difficult underfoot conditions and the challenges to follow the route. Every so often the flagstones would disappear and then I would frantically scan 20 or 30 metres ahead to see if I could see where they re-appeared. Eventually the path crossed the road that led to the radar station on the summit of Great Dun Fell, not that it was at all visible in the current weather. As it gently descended towards the next climb towards Little Dun Fell, the snow cover become more widespread and thicker, the temperature suddenly dropped a few degrees and the wind rapidly picked up strength. Before long, it was below zero with a 30 to 40 mile an hour wind blowing the snow horizontally, and visibility shrank to more like 10 metres. I struggled past the summit cairn of Little Dun Fell, wondering for a moment whether it was actually the summit of Cross Fell that I had passed. After regaining my bearings, the path dropped again for a short distance, before climbing more steeply to the summit of Cross Fell. With every footstep sinking in the blown spindrift, or in occasional icy puddles, progress was difficult and the conditions reminded me more of a tough day mountaineering in the Alps or Andes than an ultramarathon in England. After passing the summit and descending, I kept my eyes peeled looking for any sign of Gregg’s Hut, the mountain shelter that lay about 1 km north of the summit. I couldn’t see anything, but that was not surprising given how foul the weather was and that at 6.30 in the morning it was still dark. Eventually I came upon a couple of figures, who I afterwards learned were Chris Worton and Dan Walker – I asked if they knew where Gregg’s Hut was, and whether I had somehow managed to go past it in the dark, but I’m not sure if they heard me as I couldn’t make out any answer. Five minutes later I suddenly made out a bright light ahead, and the silhouette of a small building emerged from the fog – Gregg’s Hut.
I briefly went inside and a number of people were napping in the inner room. Considering the dire conditions, I was actually feeling in pretty good shape, and as the path from here on was decent and I was keen to get to the next checkpoint as soon as possible, I decided not to stop and just press on along the old mining track that ran to Garrigill. Although there was still quite a lot of snow and ice on the track, my spikes made light work of it, and the gentle downwards incline made it relatively easy to hold a jogging pace on the descent. As with the descent of Great Shunner Fell, the reassuringly frequent buzz of my Garmin watch told me that I had upped my pace and I could see that I was now moving at around 6-7 km/h, almost sprint pace by (my) Spine standards. As the track pulled into Garrigill, I caught up with 2 more runners, Martin Hill and Richard Garland, and we stayed more or less close to each other as we followed the track (which always feels much longer than its 7km distance on the map) through the farmland as it led to the much-awaited checkpoint at the Alston YHA.
CP 2 Alston to CP 3 Bellingham (188km)
The Alston checkpoint really is a thing of beauty, and the volunteers there are absolute angels. No sooner had I checked in than I was tucking into a portion of their lasagne, having my water bottles refilled, sorting out all of my electrics, and going through my drop bag to replace socks and buffs. My original plan had been sleep at Alston, but arriving at 10am meant that I was only 26 hours into the race, 10 hours ahead of where I was expecting to be, and sleeping now would have meant both giving up 6 hours of precious daylight and going out into what was forecast to be heavy rain in the evening.
Four or five people were already in the checkpoint when I arrived, and another three or four came in while I was there. It seemed that about half of them had decided to have a longer stop to get some sleep, but I still felt pretty fresh and decided to just take a short break and press on towards Bellingham, stopping just long enough to clean my teeth, wash properly, change all my clothes and just generally freshen myself up. I reckoned that if I could get to Greenhead by the early evening, given that the rain was coming from the West, the eastward turn along Hadrian’s Wall would give me more time before the rain arrived and would make it somewhat lighter.
So it was that after 2 hours in the checkpoint, including 10 minutes with the massage gun giving my calves, quads and hips another going over, I set out again just after noon. I soon caught up with Carlos again, as well as with Jamie Hall, and Jamie and I seemed to be holding a similar pace by maintaining a 50:50 jogging / hiking split. The first part of the Bellingham section was farmland, and the daylight, combined with the experience of having done this before last summer made it easy to avoid some of the false turnings that you tend to find when traversing fields and walls. We made good speed and it was not long before we hit the road into Slaggyford, and the Angel of Slaggyford who tempted us with cake and coffee. Jamie and I were keen to press on to reach Hadrian’s Wall section as soon as possible, so declined the invitation, but were gratified again by the support and encouragement on offer.
Half an hour or so later, we reached the bogs of Hartleyburn Common. I remembered doing this section in the dark in June, and that was bad enough, but the bogs here were truly atrocious and I soon became incredibly thankful at my double-waterproof-sock strategy that was keeping my feet dry and my spirits up. On the plus side, doing this in daylight made a big difference. In the summer I had made a number of navigation errors in the dark (and fog) that had both cost me time and been quite demotivating and seeing the route in the light made me chuckle a few times at the obvious mistakes that I must have made at the time (such as not seeing a footbridge and attempting to ford a stream instead). Blenkinsopp Common, whose bogs and midges in the summer had been a horrible experience, was comparatively benign as it was simply yet another marshy section, and as the sun went down and our head torches went back on, the headlights of lorries and cars on the A69 meant that we were approaching Greenhead and the Hadrian’s Wall section. There was quite a lot of fast-moving traffic on the A69 crossing, and we had to wait a while for a gap to appear before sprinting across at probably the fastest pace we had managed in the whole race.
I broke into a jog and pulled away from Jamie as we passed through the golf course and Roman Fort to approach the Greenhead mini-checkpoint. I had considered grabbing some sleep in the toilet block here, but again confined myself to just refilling my water bottles and putting on an extra upper body layer, as it would not be long before the rain arrived and I wanted to get as far along Hadrian’s Wall as possible. It had only been 6 hours to get to Greenhead – an hour ahead of schedule – and I figured that it would be another 12-14 hours to get to the Bellingham checkpoint from here, taking into account the diversion which had added probably another 1-2 hours to the time.
The good thing about Hadrian’s Wall is that it is almost impossible to lose your way. You just keep the wall on one side of you and try to head East in a straight line. Even so, in the dark, it can be hard to pick the best line to follow on the numerous climbs and descents. It had started to rain by now, and although it was by no means heavy, it added to the general feeling of bleakness that tends to accompany night sessions. The Hadrian’s Wall section is normally about 12 km long, so takes about 3 hours to complete, but the diversions that had been put in place due to the damage from Storm Arwen had added an extra 9km or so; there was also an additional diversion around Steel Rigg that was not on the GPS tracks, where we would have to rely on signage that had been put up by the marshals. So it was that after about 2½ hours I came to the sign for the Steel Rigg diversion, at which point the path pretty much completely disappeared into thick, wet, slippery foot-deep mud. The sign said to “follow the lower path” and displayed OS coordinates for where the diversion returned to the GPS route, but in the dark and with few other indications in place, it was hard to tell whether you were on the right path or not, and in fact what actually was the lower path. It appeared to follow the route of the Military Way, but the mud was making hard to tell what was path and what was not. A big highlight on this section was bumping into previous Spiner Mark Russell, who offered plenty of encouragement at a time when I was feeling pretty low - it's hard to overstate have how much these chance encounters mean when you're cold, tired and haven't slept for 2 days. At a minimum, it provided reassurance that I was not completely lost and that I was at least keeping my place in the pack. That said, it still took me 3½ hours to cover the 9km to the point where we left Hadrian’s Wall and turned North towards Bellingham, following the second of the diversions, so progress had been painfully slow.
On the map, this second diversion was a series of straight lines, and appeared to follow various farm tracks. So I was hoping that this would prove easier than the mudbath of the last diversion. I could not have been more wrong. If anything the mud was even worse, making even walking pace painfully slow, and the path seemed to cut randomly across the middle of fields, over fences and across streams with no particular pattern to it. The lack of sleep was also beginning to affect me, and I was experiencing hallucinations, seeing a figure with a green jacket and red backpack walking alongside me out of the corner of my right eye. At least I wasn’t hearing things too! At one point I came across a fence that appeared to be electrified – my GPS was saying that I had to keep going, so I grabbed the wires and vaulted over, feeling the buzz of electricity through my gloves. Afterwards, no-one else appeared to have encountered an electric fence, so I wonder now whether this was entirely a figment of my sleep-deprived imagination. It was almost 3 hours of slogging through this trackless mud before returning to more familiar territory and It was 4am as I crossed the stream and climbed the slope to Horneystead Farm and the fabled pitstop for Spiners. I couldn’t make out any signs of activity inside – which didn’t surprise me given the early hour – and in any case I was reluctant to stop now that progress was becoming easier, so pressed on. I afterwards discovered that Martin and Richard, along with John Murray, had been resting inside while I went past. From Honeystead to Bellingham is not far – maybe 7km – and after the climb up to the aptly named Shitlington Crags I was soon trotting down towards Bellingham, accompanied by yet more shadowy figures on my right hand side, this time wearing red and blue jackets, and my watch showed 6.30am, 46½ hours, as I pulled into the checkpoint.
CP 3 Bellingham to Finish Kirk Yetholm (230km)
Due to the impact of Storm Arwen, the final stage had lost 20km or so from Bellingham to Byrness, and so car rides to the start of the Cheviots were being arranged by the organisers for everyone as they left the Bellingham checkpoint. At this point, I was mentally quite tired and had struggled to stay awake during the previous night. At the same time, I had arrived at the checkpoint in 7th place just behind Fanny Jean – way ahead of my expectations – and was tempted by the opportunity to press home my position to push for a top-10 finish. I faced a choice – carry on with only a short break, at the risk of really struggling to stay awake on the final section over the Cheviots or try to get a couple of hours sleep risking my race placing but reducing the risk of major hiccups on the final stage.
I reluctantly decided to try and get a couple of hours sleep, but soon regretted my choice as the freezing hall, combined with the adrenaline of the race, made it very hard to drop off to sleep, and it was after a couple of hours of fitful tossing and turning that I repacked my sleeping bag, deflated my mat, and came back out, only to find that while I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep, I had been passed by 4 people and was back in 11th place. So much for a top-10 finish. Still, with the sun now up and the weather looking fantastic, I set myself a new target of finishing the whole race in under 60 hours, which taking into account the time for the car transfer, gave me 9 hours in which to do the Cheviots.
I changed my shoes from the size 11.5 that had served me so far to size 12, figuring that my feet were already beginning to swell, and would probably continue to do so during the day, put a fresh set of socks on, and climbed into the car. Last June, the Cheviots had been a day of torment, with wind, rain, and freezing temperatures combining with crippling knee pain to make it a pitiful 12-hour crawl to the finish line. Today, although the air was still chill, the cloud-free skies and lack of wind gave it the feeling of a warm spring day and I was full of energy and optimism as I headed up the road from Cottonshopeburnsfoot to the point where the climb to the Cheviots began, wearing only my compression base layer with the sleeves rolled down, my waterproof jacket open and my buffs around my wrists. It was so warm that beads of sweat even formed as I puffed up the climb to the crest of the ridge.
Once on the crest, I found that I could run quite easily on much of the flatter and downhill sections, and progress was swift. Although there were some slightly icy sections, and lots of boggy parts, the ground was mainly part-frozen bog which was firm enough to run on but soft enough to provide some give for my hips, knees and ankles. It was less than 3 hours before I arrived at Hut 1, after which the flagstones provided some additional easy terrain to help keep up the pace. The shadows started to lengthen, and as I neared the turning point and famous signpost for Kirk Yetholm, I turned around to take some photos of the sunset before the light completely went. The flagstones wound into the distance, disappearing in the haze.
My headtorch went on again, as I turned left, and bounded down the soft, dark peaty soil of the slopes towards Hut 2, the way conveniently marked by small red flags. As I hit the bottom of the slops, the flagstones started again, but were now coated with a layer of ice that had refrozen in the evening chill, making it far more treacherous than it had been only an hour earlier. On arriving at Hut 2, I was greeted by the same marshal that had been at Greenhead 24 hours earlier and briefly stopped to see if there were any runners close ahead or behind me. He pointed out a couple of what appeared to be headtorches ahead, on the slopes of the Schil, the last hill of the race. I set off again, sceptical that I could catch up with either of them, but keen to ensure that I kept to my new sub-60 hour goal. I had reached Hut 2 in just over 6 hours, so knew that the end was in sight.
The climb up the Schil was yet more trackless icy bog, made bearable only by my double socks continuing to do their job and keep my feet dry. Soon, the slope flattened and the descent to Kirk Yetholm commenced. I tried to run as much of it as I could, but not being able to see any headtorches ahead of me slightly deflated my motivation to sprint as hard as I could, and it was with a weary jog-cum-walk that I covered the final few kms of farm tracks towards the road that led into Kirk Yetholm. As the lights of the village appeared, I broke into a trot, then a run and finally crossed the finish line in 59 hours 35 mins, a time I was utterly delighted by as it was way beyond all my expectations. I kissed the wall in relief, and my thoughts immediately turned to next January and entering the full Spine Race ...
As a side note, this was Number 4 of the races in my 1,000 mile challenge to run 1,000 miles in ultra races within 12 months to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity (see the below link to donate). I'm now up to 315 miles, so less than 700 to go !
Pack: Montane Trailblazer 30
Shoes: Inov8 TrailTalon 290 (Size 11.5 and Size 12)
Waterproofs: Montane Spine Jacket (Top), Montane Minimus (Bottom)
Socks: Liner: CoolMax; Waterproof: 360Dry, Dexshell
Shorts: Montane Via Full-Length tights, Montane Water-Resistant Full-Length tights (spare)
Tops: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck, Montane Thermal ZipNeck, Inov8 Thermoshell
Underwear: Runderwear long boxer shorts
Gloves: Rab Power Stretch gloves, North Face gloves, Lerway waterproof thermal gloves (x2), Spada waterproof overgloves
Hat / Buff: SealSkinz waterproof cap, lots of buffs
GPS: Garmin Forerunner 945 (x2), Garmin eTrex 32
Headtorch: LEDLenser Neo 10 (x2) plus plenty of spare Li-Ion batteries
Hydration: 2x500ml Salomon soft flasks, 1 x 2l Platypus soft reservoir
Sleeping: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite inflatable mat, Therm-A-Rest Hyperion Sleeping Bag, Alpkit Hunka Bivvy Bag
Stove: Trangia Spirit Burner