Back to The Spine Race, a tale of obsession, determination and challenge.
I will start this story in January 2015. It was 4am, I had just pulled out of the race at the M62 road crossing. I was sitting in the support vehicle trying to rationalise my feelings of disappointment. A week earlier everything had seemed so positive, I felt prepared for this brutal challenge, then sickness had come out of the blue to undermine my fitness. With hindsight I should have known the outcome: a weakened body, not capable of the rigours of the trail. With the hurricane force winds battering us as we pushed north over the Kinder Plateau, the effort was just too much for me to to be able to make the required progress to hit the cut off times. As we drove to Hebden Bridge Check Point 1, the feelings of comfort, of relief from struggle gave way to feelings of bitter disappointment. The long months of preparation, of planning, of optimism had evaporated in just 30 miles and 17 hours of pitiful effort. While waiting for a lift to the station I watched other competitors, eating, resting, preparing to leave for the next leg to Hawes and felt so envious of their hours and days to come, adventures that I would only watch from afar, glued to their trackers as they moved ever nearer to Kirk Yetholm.
Back home and the inevitable question. Would I do this again? Could I master this race? What would I do differently next time? Oh yes, there would be a next time!
Even on what was a short trip to failure there were many lessons to learn. Was I optimally equipped for the conditions? What would I change given that each year the conditions change? One thing that was obvious, the pack. It was heavier than it needed to be, heavier than others that I had seen? Filled with ‘nice to haves’ rather than ‘must have essentials’? Could I use lighter alternatives? Oh the planning opportunities. Right the challenge, a 5 kg pack without water.
Fast forward to Friday 8th January 2016. I was in Edale for registration. I had achieved my first objective. I was fit, well and ready. At kit check I drew one of the numbers that meant I did a full kit check, everything out of my pack, check, re-pack. Easy, I knew every item so well, had chosen each so carefully, to be functional, lightweight, compact, robust. Off to the YHA for supper and an early night. Ian Bowles kindly drove us there in his van. In bed by 8pm, alarm set for 6.30am, reading a book titled ‘The Moor” by William Atkins, the tales of “A journey into the English wilderness”, very apt as I had got to section ii, with chapters entitiled The Waste: Saddleworth Moor; The Desert: The Calder Valley; The Flood: The Haworth Moors; complete with tales of multiple murders, of bodies emerging from the peat bogs fully preserved with eyelashes still intact! Hey this is where I’m going tomorrow, put it down, go to sleep now.
Day 1- Saturday
After a typical YHA breakfast with Robin, Alzbetta, and Mark, we loaded up Robin’s car and headed to the Village Hall to have our trackers fitted and await the 10am start. The tracking for this race has become legendary, people become fixated by watching the dots progress up the Pennine Way, become emotionally involved with hitherto unknown competitors, will them on, watch their every move, become frantic with worry at their navigation errors, disappointed when they drop out.
Waiting around in the final hour before the start of something like this is tense. There is lots of chatter, talk of the weather, of preparation, “have you done this before?”, “oh really, that’s a shame, better luck this time”.
Finally Scott strongly suggests we should make our way to the adjacent field and the start. 68 competitors line up nervously behind the start banner, a quick final briefing from Scott and then the countdown…….3, 2, 1, go.
We all jog off, through the car park, up the road towards the Ramblers Inn and the start of the 268 miles of the Pennine Way. I start with a run but soon grab hold of my emotions and walk the uphill, there is a long way to go and running now is not the plan. There is a muted procession over the hill to Upper Booth, I let gravity pull me down the hill, nice to feel my legs feeling strong. I anticipate the climb up Jacobs Ladder with a degree of trepidation. This is where I knew last year that my race was finished. The effort of that climb was such an indicator of my lack of strength, so obvious, even though it took me another 16 hours to admit to it. This year all seemed fine, contol the pace, don’t get carried away, walk, walk, enjoy the view. Ian Bowles caught up with me on the last part of the climb to Edale Cross, we chatted, I thanked him for his wise words in his Spine Race blog. The procession continued up to Edale Rocks, Kinder Low and Kinder Downfall. Running with Robin now and picking the ford across the stream and turning west into the wind, so much nicer than last year. At Mill Hill I turn north again, it feels good to be going north, that’s where Scotland is, it must be getting closer! Snake Pass comes and goes without incident and I find myself heading up Devils Dyke to Bleaklow. I really don’t like this area, I share Wainwrights dislike of peat bogs, bleak it’s called and bleak it is. I arrive at Torside Reservoir around 3pm and treat myself to a call home. A nice chat with Pauline as I cross the bridge and head into the wood, then it’s back to business and the slog up to Laddow Rocks, then the plod through the wet boggy ground of Meadowgrain Clough to finally find the welcome slab path to Dun Hill and Black Hill. It’s still light but not for much longer and by the time I reach the A635 road crossing it’s head torch time for the first long night.
On the way to Wessenden Reservoir I meet up with Peter Gold. We walk together for a while and realise we are pretty well matched for speed and decide to stay together. This is a change to my plan. I had resolved to do this thing alone, to not get involved with anyone else’s race, to not be affected by anyone else’s pace, either faster or slower than mine. But Peter seemed a nice guy, it was nice to have some company, to share the burden. At Hey Green the track drops down to the stream and then climbs steeply up the other side to the radio mast. I had warned Peter that I was running low on energy and would take this climb very slowly, at which point Peter offered me a cup of coffee. “Coffee? you have coffee?”. “Of course, just take my flask from the side of my pack”. We sat on the hill side and enjoyed a small cup of nectar. It was just what I needed. Onwards and upwards over Black Moss and down to the A62 at Harrop Dale. There was a mini CP at the car park, a MRT oasis, a gazebo, with chairs and coffee and biscuits. Robin was just leaving as we arrived, he would later turn round, return and sadly drop out. As we sat in the gazebo the wind was blowing hard against the sides, but not a headwind this year. I had a second cup of coffee, with milk!! and another biscuit, rocket fuel. We reluctantly left, giving up our chairs to new customers. Last year we made a navigation error here and worked had to regain the lost height. Not this year though, I was watchful for the signs, the route of the Oldham Way and Pennine Way to cross the A640 and on to the infamous Saddleworth Moor. No time to look for bodies or ghosts we were on a roll now and I was setting the pace with my new found energy source. Soon we were at the car park at the A672 at the radio mast on Windy Hill.
This is significant. This is where I packed in last year, this is where I gave up and took the comfort of the warm support van. Not this year though, begone doubts and concerns, this year was a different scenario.
After a brief chat with the medics we were off to the M62 road bridge and Blackstone Edge. If we were quick we may yet get to the White House pub before closing time. Navigation throught Blackstone Edge can be troublesome, but I had recced it this year and I knew the way. We missed to gate at the Aggin Stone by a few meters but soon found the gate and we were heading to the A58 and the pub. Another mini MRT CP in the car park, numbers given and we asked the important question “is the pub still open”. “We don’t think so, and we have hot drinks here if you want them”. Unbowed we headed to the pub to check and found to our amazment that it was full of Spiners eating pub grub. It was 11pm, “are you still serving?’ “Yes, what would you like” was the unexpected reply. We sat near to the blazing fire, eating chilli and chips, drinking pints of cola. It was so perfect, too perfect, we have a race to run and a CP time to make, so reluctantly we left the wamth and headed out for the final part of the journey to CP1 and a longed for sleep. I know that my body takes time to adjust to this type of event and the first day is usually my worst, just getting to CP1 and having some sleep would be key to the rest of the race. On our way alongside the reservoirs we received a text from Race HQ to inform that there had been a landslip near Stoodley Pike and there was a short diversion. We could see the light of a headtorch in front and we gradually caught up with Alzbetta. She had passed us while we gourged ourselves in the pub and had not realised there was food available. We were to stay together until Chalestown. I had recced this part of the route so headed straight to Stoodley Pike and did not see any sign of the expected diversion. The monument really does look spooky in the dark, until you see the graffiti proclaiming support for Manchester City painted on it’s SW flank. We made good progree to Callis Wood and the A646, then hit the horrible, almost vertical steps up to Higher Underbank Farm and through Charlestown to Colden. We left Alzbetta behind on the climb and headed quickly to the footpath and steep hill down to CP1 at Hebden Hey. We arrived a 4.10 am, I quickly had a cup of tea and found a top bunk in one of the dorms. I set my alarm for 6.30am with the aim of getting 2 hours of sleep.
Day 2- Sunday
It seemed like 2 minutes and the alarm was going off. I got up, sorted my kit, had some porridge, tea and toast and waited for Peter to emerge. As Peter was still getting ready we agreed that I would set off as I wanted to call Pauline when I got to the top road and got a cellphone signal. I think we managed to misunderstand our convestation as Peter thought I would wait at the road, and I thought I would head off and he woud catch up. I left the CP at 7.50am and called Pauline as I walked up the road towards Colden and the resumption of the Pennine Way and then carried on across the moor to Clough Head as the sun was rising as a large orange ball behind me to the SE. As it turned out I would not see Peter again until Lothesdale. I set what I thought was a reasonable pace, crossing the footbridges at Graining Water, which was running full and fast, and heading along the Calder Aire Link to Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and Withins Height, Bronte Country, the home of Wuthering Heights. This is a fantastic open moorland that has been in sunlight both times I’ve been there. I always end up with Kate Bush singing in my head for some reason as I walk across these moors. I caught up with a group of Spine Challenges here who I was keen to encourage. They said they may be dropping out when they got to Ponden, I tried to convince them they had lots of time left. Next I met another challenger Rob Carr and chatted for a while. Rob was suffering a bit but is made of stern stuff and would press on to a succesful completion in Hawes. Ponden was next, a drop down to the reservoir and then the inevitable climb back up the other side of the valley. I had called Pauline as I walked along the road beside the reservoir and asked where Peter was. He looked to be about 1 km behind so I was looking back as I climbed up to Ickornshaw Moor to see if he was in sight, but no sign. I decided I would wait at the pub. I arrived at the MRT checkpoint at the road crossing at Cowling. It was nice to sit on the wall chatting to the team whilst drinking hot chocolate and eating biscuits. There seemed to be a strong correlation between MRT and biscuits! Its only about 2 miles to Lothersdale from here so I decided to press on to the pub and much needed food. The Hare and Hounds had prepared well for the race. When I arrived at just after 3 pm a table outside was full of bottled water, and inside was just what we needed. One half of the lounge carpet had been covered by plastic and the games room by cardboard sheeting so we didn't need to remove our shoes. The fire was blazing and the Spine Race Special was Lancashire Hotpot (a lamb stew) served in a large Yorkshire pudding (a real cooperation between the red and white roses), served with choice of soft drink: tea or coffee, all for the special price of £10.50. I was just finishing this wonderfuly nourishing meal when Peter arrived. “Bloody hell, you took some catching” suggested I had probably set a hard pace. After Peter had finished his meal we set off at about 4.30 pm and headed up the hill to Pinhaw Beacon. This was the start of our second night and we switched on head torches on the descent to Thornton-In-Craven.
I remember crossing the main road, the A56, at about 6.20 pm but then the next 2 hours passed without incident or even anything significnt to remember until we arrived at Gargrave at 8.20 pm. We were attracted once more by the promise of more food at the Masons Arms. This was another case of amazing hospitality. We arrived covered in mud, asked for somewhere to wash our boots off, told it didn’t matter but when we insisted were directed through the pub to the back yard and the outside tap. Back inside we had another meal, fish and chips for me, whilst the locals enjoyed their Sunday night pub quiz. I even managed to answer some questions, “which football club do you associate with Bill Nicholson?” was one that a serious Spurs supporter just couldn't fail to answer!! An hour later and we we on our way again. At the next road junction in Gargrave we met the Spine Support team and were questioned by the Medics. “ How are you doing? Any problems”. We of course answered “no” and were on our way out of town. The next section through to Malham via Airton was the most tedious of the whole route so far. Muddy field followed muddy field, stile followed gate, followed stile, followed footbridge…on and on. Navigation was difficult, important to be on the right side of the river, or fence, or wall, important to take the right line to find the stile or gate.
Day 3- Monday
We finally arrived at Malham just before 1 am and decided to press on to CP1.5 at the Tarn rather than bivi in Malham. This was probably the only thing we could have done because it seems that the best bivi spot in the public loos was already full. Less than an hour later and we had climbed the steps at Malham Cove and were heading north towards the Field Studies Centre at the Tarn. We arrived around 3.30 am, had a warm drink and went out to find a place to bivi for a few hours of much needed sleep. I had just climbed into my sleeping bag and set by phone alarm when an alarm started to sound in the main building. Luckily for me I managed to shut out the sound and went straight to sleep. The next thing I knew was when Peter was shouting me to wake up, 5 minutes before my alarm was due to go off. Two hours of glorious sleep had passed in the blinking of an eye. I packed my bag, went back to the CP and had a quick cup of tea before we set off at 6.45 am. This next section was the most enjoyable part of whole week for me. The route up to Fountains Fell, down to the road and Dale Head Farm, up to Penyghent summit and down to Horton is my favorite type of terrain, mountain track, scrambles, wonderful. The fact that it was snow covered just added to the fun. The views from Penyghent of Fountains Fell, Ingleborough, and Whernside poking out through the cloud inversion in full sunlight was amazing. We arrived at the cafe in Horton at 11.30 and I proceeded to devour a full English breakfast, tea and a fizzy rhubarb drink. Zoe and her parents were in the cafe too and I had the pleasure of trying some of Zoe’s maple syrup and sea salt fudge. I’m sure this is her secret fuel that powers her along so fast, she sure can move quickly. An hour stop and we were once again on the move north towards Cam End and the long, long drag up the Cam High Road. We met Rob Carr on the way and saw firsthand his determination to get to Hawes before 7 pm to meet the Spine Challenger cut off time. We eventually arrived at the YHA in Hawes at 17.45 which gave us just over 4 hours to get sorted and out before the cut off time at 10 pm. We decided to be on the move again by 9 pm. We had a shower and Peter went to the dorm for a sleep while I sat in the main hall and sorted my drop bag, charged my phone and had a power nap whilst sitting up in a straight back chair. When Peter didn't appear when expected I went to find him and wake him up. We left the CP at 9.30 pm with Zoe and headed up to Great Shunner Fell, the 2nd highest point on the PW. We made pretty good progress, passing Ian Bowles on the lower slopes as he was sorting out his kit. He later passed us on the way to the summit, which we reached at 00.15 am. I had recced this route in November and it seemed so easy, but with snow covering the tracks and in darkness it was much more difficult to navigate. I had previously run from the summit to the tea shop in Thwaite but that was another time and this was now and it was treacherous and we treated it with lots of respect.
Day 4- Tuesday
We arrived in Thwaite at 2 am and looked for somewhere that we could bivi. There was little available, two benches were the best on offer, so we decided to press on to Keld. There is a bit of a climb out of Thwaite to gain a contour at about 400 m that traverses around the hillside to Keld. This is quite technicle in places and rocky ground, worse when wet and icy, but we made it without incident and arrived at Keld at 4.15. We again looked in the village for possible bivi sites but in the end resigned ourselves to the realisation that it had to be Tan Hill and the sooner we got moving the sooner we would get some sleep. The closer we got to Tan Hill the thicker the fog became, When we finally approached the pub and saw the faint glow of orange lights ahead we were suddenly shocked by bright flashes. It was the Racing Snakes photographer, not an alien, phew….The Tan Hill was a most welcome sight, the side door beckoned and there it was, a warm room, a soft floor and an hours sleep under a table, bliss. On waking, and finally realising where I was I stood up and was immediately asked a question from the Medic, “Tape?” is what she said, “Tea” is what I answered. Very confusing but soon enough I had a mug of tea and the offer of porridge with maple syrup and sultanas. Dehydrated food never tasted so good. The next stage of the route traverses Sleightholme Moor, 3 miles of bog that threatens to gobble you up if you stray from the path. We had planned to do this in daylight and when we left Tan Hill just before 9 am the fog had lifted and the conditions were perfect. I pushed hard through this section just in case the fog might return and only when we reached the safety of the main track did I slack off. We reached the A66 underpass at 11.30 am which according to the graffiti on the PW sign this is the half way point. It also suggests that we must be mad if we are contemplating doing the 2nd half! We were both starting to feel pretty hungry and dreaming of a cafe or burger van in the lay-by even though we really knew neither existed. The next stage is a series of hills and valleys that eventually lead to Baldersdale and Blackstone Reservoir, more reservoirs! It was on our way down to the reservoir that I passed a young couple out for a walk heading up in the opposite direction, they knew about the race and wished me well. Peter was a little way behind at this point but when he arrived at the bottom of the hill he had obtained a sandwich. Quite how he managed to sweet talk the young lady into giving up part of her lunch I will never understand but I am for ever grateful for not only the young lady giving it up but also that Peter chose to share it with me. It was unbelievably good and much needed. Over the next hill and we were in Lunedale, crossing Grassholme Reservoir and then the B6276 road to Middleton-in-Teesdale. Unfortunately we still had a long 3 mile trek over the hill before we finally dropped down to the road junction and the final half mile through the town to CP3 at 4.45 pm. This was the last of the CPs with a cut off for a while and we had over 5 hours before we needed to depart. We decided to make use of this time to get some valuable sleep to add to our meagre total, less than 5 hours so far, fill up with food and sort out kit. We planned to depart at 9.30 pm.
We left a 9.40 pm, walked back through the town to the PW and headed west towards Low Force. The trail alongside the River Tees is easy going and before too long we were passing the quarry building on the other bank, I had passed High Force without even noticing. Was I sleep walking? We soon arrived at the start of the diversion to Cow Green Reservoir, took instructions from the support team to follow the glow sticks to the Farm and then take the road west. On the way to the farm we saw a head torch coming towards us, it was Edu our Spanish friend. We turned him around and took him with us. The road to Cow Green was straight, slightly uphill, very icy. The tap, tap of our poles on the road was hypnotic, I sure I was sleep walking most of it. We turned south and headed for the dam and the bridge across the top of Caldron Snout. Just after rejoining the PW there is an old cow shed near the track. We decided to take a short break and Peter and Edu climbed to the upper deck for a short sleep on the straw bales. I timed 10 minutes and woke them up, no time to waste, this is a race you know. The metalled track here is good for the next mile or so but then drops down across boggy ground to Maize Beck. We picked a route to the Foot Bridge and crossed for the climb up to High Cup Nick, arriving a 6.30 am. From here its 4 miles downhill to Dufton. I led the way along the edge of the chasm and we stopped at Hannah’s Well, a cascading waterfall on the edge at Narrow Gate to refill Peter’s water bottle. I had been this way before and hoped it was not too technical for Edu. All was well and we soon gained the main track down to the village, arriving at 8.30 am, where we found everywhere closed but the Village Hall open and the kitchen available for our use. A few Spiners were asleep in the hall but this was just a quick stop to fuel up on a dehydrated meal and prepare for the trek up to Cross Fell.
Day 5- Wednesday
We left Dufton just after 10 am in bright sunshine and walked up the muddy track Cosca Hill. It felt too warm in the kit I was wearing but I knew it would soon get much cooler as we climbed. On the way up to Green Fell and the Knock Old Man Cairn I regularly looked back to enjoy the wonderful views south to the Howgills and south west to the Eastern Lakes, glinting snow coverered in the morning sun. As we passed Knock Fell at 1 pm things were to dramatically change. Suddenly the clear sunny day was replaced by a blizzard, visibility dropped to less than 20metres and we were in for a battle with the elements. Mark appeared suddenly from nowhere and we teamed up to tackle this together. What should have taken us no more than an hour to Cross Fell took nearer to 3 hours as we struggled through deep snow to cross Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Fell and eventually the summit shelter of Cross Fell (the highest point on PW). The route to Greg’s Hut was difficult and even knowing the way it was not easy to pick the route through the deep snow with very little visisbilty. Eventually Greg’s Hut appeared and the we felt the welcoming warmth as I pushed open the door. This was an oasis of calm, warmth, a cheer. The noodles and hot chocolate were a treat beyond our expectations; the relutance to depart this refuge was strong. We managed the necessary resolve to move on as the darkness loomed, almost 5 pm and still 6 miles to CP4. The track from Greg’s Hut to the disused mine working is normally very easy but as the blizzard persisted the track was being covered with drifts of snow from the south west, covering footprints and making route finding more difficult. I was keen to get down beyond the Rake End path before we lost all the light and pushed on hard. Peter was now finding this pace difficult to maintain but we soon enough got to the wide area at the old mine. Here it was difficult to keep to the path and suddenly I found myself in a hole, and waist deep in icy water. I rolled onto my back and lifted my feet out of the water, shouting for Mark to help me roll onto my side and drag my pack out of the water. I was now cold and getting colder fast. I assured Mark I was ok but needed to move fast. We quickly headed south to regain the distinct path to Pikeman Hill, and once sure that Peter was on the path, I set off at the fastest pace I could to maintain my body heat. I walked/ran the 3 miles to Garrigill in less than an hour with Mark close behind, then headed quickly along the river and up to the CP arriving at 8.30 pm.
I went straight to the showers and stripped off my wet clothing under the very welcome spray of hot water. That was a close call, could have been the end of my race. Luckily I knew what to do and was able to do it. Time to plan, it’s 9pm and I need to sort my kit as what I was wearing is not only wet but it smells of stagnant water! I need to eat lots, I need a good sleep. I had always planned for an extended stay here so decided that my target was to be out by 3 am. I bagged up my dirty wet kit, sorted out what I needed for the next leg, and headed to the dorm to find a bed.
Day 6- Thursday
I woke refreshed with the sound of my alarm, and went in seach of food. Porridge, toast and fresh orange juice (this was so good!). I changed batteries in both my headtorches and GPS as this next leg would take me through the rest of this night and well into tomorrow night too. Then the difficult job of squeezing bags of wet clothing into my drop bag, somehow closing the zips. Finally ready and alone, I headed out into the night. It was 3.30 am. Finding the route from the CP back to the PW should be simple no? The arrows were all facing the wrong way. Did I really come this way a few hours earlier? Then a PW maker on a gate, right now it time to stop faffing and get on track. The track was easy to Alston, so easy I was able to call Pauline. It was 4 am but she had already seen my tracker move. A nice chat to prove that I wasn't really alone. I hadn't recced this part of the route but knew it was going to be tedious. Lots of twists and turns early on so need to be alert with navigation, then lots of soft wet ground to cover on the way to Greenhead. And guess what, it did not disappoint. It took me nearly 4 hours to get to Slaggyford but at least it was now daylight and that would make the next miles so much easier. As it turned out I had planned for it to take 10 hours to Greenhead and thats what it took, 2 miles per hour, good pace, I’m pleased with that.
At Greenhead I needed to find some food so took the detour into the town to the Tea Shop. What would they think of a dirty smelly Spiner in a nice clean tea shop. I needn't have worried; I wasn't the first to seek refuge here and they were wonderfully understanding, even whan I fell asleep whilst eating my soup. I left a good tip to cover my embarrasment of leaving a wet mess under my table from my thawing feet!! So, back to the PW and Hadrians Wall. I had recced this in March so knew this section well, no chance for navigation errors here then. At the first road crossing I met one of the support team, Tom Jones. “How are you doing?” was the normal question. “I’m fine now, just had a nice stop at the Tea Shop” I said. “I know, I watched your tracker”. So onwards as darkness started to fall and the waxing crescent moon shone brightly behind me to the west. If we made this wall now I’m sure we would make it flat and straight but in Roman times they just went with the terrain and that means up along and down again, repeat until you get to Sycamore Gap. As night wore on I felt tiredness creeping on, thought about the pub, the Once Brewed, thought about a short bivi at Hole Gap, but didn't, just kept on keeping on, with the moon following behind. The stars were bright in the sky, what can I see, Polaris, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, who needs a compass and GPS?. I could see car headlights at the road crossing ahead. “Hello, I’m Phil, You're looking good. Want some coffee? Maybe a cookie or two?” This was Phil Owen, support team, bloody nice guy, the best friend a Spiner needs on a cold night on Hadrians wall. Two cups of coffee later, a cookie and one for the road in my pocket and I was refreshed. The steps up Steel Rigg just seemed less daunting, was that a following wind helping to push me up? I’ll take any help I can get right now. Then finally the top of Hotbank Crags and the steps down to the stile at Sycamore Gap, 9.30 pm and time for the next phase.
After leaving the wall and heading north (sound like Game of Thrones, where are the white walkers? Am I one of them already?) I looked for an easy track through the boggy ground. It was frozen in most places but then there were wet bits to catch you out and drag you in, careful!. I chose the left track, more footprints this way, security in numbers. Head right to clear the first rock wall, follow the track left then right to repeat, then again and finally the gate to the forest track. 10.30 pm, head north through the forest, enjoy this bit of solid track, it won't last. Half and hour later and I turn northeast at the PW sign and I’m picking my way through the soft ground and finally emarging briefly into the open of Haughton Common before entering the next part of the forest. I remember this well, a track, then a road. I reach the road and turn right, east, and get carried away. Why did I miss the PW sign turning north, I’ve been this way before. But no I head east for 10 minutes before I wake up and realise my mistake. Turn round and back to the turn off. Its so obvious, why did I not see it? No time to dwell on a little mistake, there’s still a long way to go to Bellingham.
Down to the road, turn right, then turn left into the forest again. This is the dreaded logging road, it’s a mess as usual, can I possibly get through without succumbing to the deep? Careful, watchful, find the track that is most solid, finally 20 minutes later I see the gate ahead, the end of the torment, the last of this forest, out into the open at last. When I did this section in daylight it was straight forward. Just a series of track and gates, and stiles and footbridges leading to the road at Leadgate. Why was it suddenly so difficult, darkness? tiredness? whatever I didn't like it one bit. But I kept on, and little by little I found the route and arrived at the road.Time is passing, it’s 2.15 am, no time to waste. North to Lowstead, east to Hetherington, northeat to the road, straight across and onwards towards Shitlington Hall, remember to find the footbridge to cross Houxty Burn, no need to wade across, there it is just up stream. Over the bridge and climb up the steep bank to the hall. It’s 3.20 am but that doesnt stop Alan Cormack, there he is in the land rover, words of encouragement, a snack bar to keep me going. Next stop Shitlington Crags, how many of these bloody rock walls are there? 2? no 3? this must be the top, there’s the radio mast. Turn SE down the track, look for the turn to the left, there it is, across yet another bog, I am really getting fed up with bogs. Finally a road, steep downhill, black ice, careful, too late I’m falling, ouch that hurt. Back up as there’s a CP to find, there’s the sign, left turn, more bog and finally on the road to Brown Rigg. It’s 4.30 am, that was a long tedious leg.
In the CP I decided that sleep was the first priority, but a small problem. I was wearing two pairs of trousers, the water and sub zero temperatures had not only created ice balls on my shoe laces the size of tennis balls bur the bottom 6 inches of my trousers had completely frozen together. I had to go to the drying room to get them to separate so I could take them off. I left my shoes, my trousers, even my rucksac to dry and headed back to the main hall to sleep. I set my alarm for 6.45 and slid into my sleeping bag. The alarm sounded almost immediately, or so it seemed. I lay for a while slowly coming to, aware that this was likely to be my last sleep before Kirk Yetholm. Time to get moving, lots to do before setting off, first stop breakfast. Jenny offered me porridge but it didnt appeal to my stomach. “Do you have any eggs?” I asked. Jenny checked the fridge and yes there were eggs. Two please, boiled for 5 minutes. They were so delicious, washed down with coffee. Now to sort out kit. The drying room had done its job and I was soon sorting my clothing for the next leg, extra warmth needed. I added my Rab Extreme Down Jacket as my top layer. My waterproof could now be consigned to my pack. Time to stop faffing around and get moving.
There was a cut off to meet at Byrness at 8 pm. It was now nearly 9 am. I reasoned that even at a steady pace I could be in Byrness by 4 pm, 1 hour to get some food and on the way by 5 pm, that would work nicely. Alan checked that I was aware of the detour after Whitley Pike, the route would take the road rather than the path over Padon Hill. Alan marked it on my map just in case, thanks Alan. I set off in good spirits, the sun was shining, perfect day for a walk in the hills. I briefly stopped at the Co-op in the town for an Innocent Smoothie and 2 bottles of Lucozade Sport drink. Then up the road and onto the snow covered hills. I could see Edu ahead and soon caught and passed him. This pace was nice and easy but not too slow either. I could see another Spiner ahead, it must be Tateno as I know he left Bellingham before me. I focussed on keeping a steady pace and enjoying the view. This would be a long day and night but it was all looking good for a finish in Kirk Yetholm sometime around 8 am tomorrow.
As I reached the Lough Shaw my phone bleeped to show I had a message. This would confirm the detour I thought, yes a message from HQ. I read it, read it again not quite taking it in. “Due to adverse conditions the cut off has been brought forward to 1400”. That’s 2 pm, its 11.40, thats 2 hours and 20 mins…..I have over 8 miles still to do, I won’t make it…..Nothing else to do but keep going, I can’t stop here anyway. So I did, I kept going regardless. Getting to Byrness on my schedule was important, it was my plan, it’s what I came to do. If it had to end there so be it but I needed to finish what I started.
Maybe if I’d left a bit earlier, maybe if I’d not got caught in the blizzard on Cross Fell, maybe, maybe…..too late for maybes.
Get to Byrness; get there by 4 pm; stay positive; be proud of what I’d achieved. And I did, I walked fast, I ran downhill, I kept going, I caught Tateno, I arrived at Byrness at 7 minutes past 4 pm, 150.06.04 hours, 240 miles……
It was an incredible journey.
I am proud of what I achieved.
I am disappointed not to get to Kirk Yetholm.
I belive the decision by the Race Directors was correct.
I learnt a lot about myself, my mental strength, my determination, my ability to keep going when it would have been so easy to stop.
I will return stronger and wiser.