Montane Spine Race

Hadrian’s Wall (photo: RacingSnakes)

The Spine Race

From one end to the other of the Pennine Way — from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm over the border in Scotland — the spine race was first held in 2012 when just a handful of competitors stood at the start line and only 3 finished. Now it is an internationally-popular race, with this year competitors from 19 different countries. Only 5 of the top 12 finishers were Brits. Several of the runners could not speak English, which made the normal race banter tricky.

The route is 270 miles, with 42000’ of climb. That would put it as a category B fell race, but the challenge is amplified by the time of year — being held in January means spending two-thirds of the time in the dark, and being subject to winter weather.

The continuous nature of the race makes it different to things like the Dragons Back for instance — where you have long days, but a fixed camp to recharge your batteries, both metaphysical and actual. How much time to sleep for on something like the spine race is a tactical problem — but also makes the event much more interesting to dot-watch: where someone is on the course is their actual race position.

First Stirrings

In 2015 I tracked Johnnie Watson’s dot on the Spine race. It was incredible to log on each morning and he’d still be going — or not, when the race was halted for bad storms and Johnnie had to be almost physically restrained from carrying on anyway! Johnnie is in my estimation the number one hard-as-nails lunatic in Calder Valley. I was fascinated by the event, but had no inclination that it could ever be something for me.

Roll on a couple of years and Anne & I are in an Indian restaurant in Sowerby Bridge with the Calderdale Tri Club and we’re sat with Doug Gurr, also a Calder Valley Fellrunner. Doug tells me that he has entered the Spine for January; he persuades me to do it too. I have been thinking for the previous months about doing a continuous multi-day race, to see how I cope. When I get home, reason numbed by beer, I go to enter the race. Then I see the price come up on the screen — and that stops me, I cannot bring myself to pay that much for a race.

But it keeps nagging at me. Its something I want to do.

So about a week later I go back to it. I enter the Spine Challenger, which takes competitors ‘only’ 110 miles, as far as Hawes (or Hardraw now, to be exact). Having never done a race further than 62 miles, that would still be a huge distance to challenge myself. And besides it’s half the price of the full distance.

Or rather, I don’t enter but I register my intent — you have to list your experience and the organisers will vet you before accepting an entry. Perhaps my mountain-marathon, 24 hour round and small ultra experience will not be sufficient and they will make the decision for me that I am not experienced enough to enter…

A month later (May 2017) I received an email to say that my entry would be accepted. On the full spine race.

I was about to contact them to say there had been a mistake — I’d entered the Challenger not the full Spine — when Anne told me that at the same time as I’d entered the Challenger she had put an entry in on my behalf into the full Spine!!

I went ahead, paid the entry fee and was committed to the Spine race for Jan 2018.

Two months later I got a second email to say my entry into the Challenger would be accepted. But too late — I’m in the full version.

It was only later that I found out that Doug was not entered into the full Spine — he’d actually entered the Challenger ‘fun run’!

Preparations

The next months would have been spent steadily building up endurance, but I managed to scupper that by pulling my calf within the first mile of the Keswick Mountain Festival 50k trail race. Being stupidly unwilling to stop within the first mile of a race, I carried on, doing another 49km and really made a mess of my calf. It would be August before I could run properly again.

Once running again, I had serious thoughts about seeing if I could drop out of the Spine. But instead I got stuck into preparing as best I could by reccying the whole of the Pennine Way in sections — 15 recces over the route from September until my final long run on Christmas Eve. I enjoyed doing these recces almost as much as the event, at least when John Minta allowed me to stop and take in the scenery anyway. I did all the recces at a slow pace just like I expected to be doing on the event, and most of them on my own — though some with John, and my friend Hannah joined me for one part.

At the beginning on November I caught the train to Edale, stopped there overnight and then set off home at 7:30am, similar to how it would be on race day. It was almost midnight when I got home (after a couple of route errors) and once more put doubts into my mind — it had taken a lot longer than I expected and by the time I got home I felt like I was on my last legs. Yet that was less than 20% of the route. How could I possibly do it? I got up after 2 hours rest just to check that I could actually move my legs and managed a walk around but could not contemplate stringing together multiple such days. But there was no backing out now. It would be what it would be.

A month later (Dec 16th) I again caught the train to Edale and set off home, but this time started running at 10pm — running through the night on my own would be a key thing to get used to. Unfortunately though, that did little to improve my confidence: there was a huge amount of fresh snow on Kinder Scout and Bleaklow. It was very slow going, every step I was sinking over my knees, and after Bleaklow I abandoned it, calling Anne to come to pick me up. If it was like that on the race it would be almost impossible to make the 24hr cutoff at Hebden Hey. I thought about checking out snow shoes. But surely it won’t be as bad as that on the race? How wrong I was — of course it could, albeit later on, not on that first section.

One key recce gave me a glimmer of confidence that I could hack it mentally: on 8th Dec I left Hardcastle Crags shortly before 10pm, heading through a cold, lonely, snow-filled night, jogged all through the next day, and then into the following night, finishing at Hawes almost 24 hours after starting. That showed that I could do long night sections with no-one else around.

Parallel to reccying came kit purchasing. I did a lot of research on what I would need, best kit for the job, and spending no small amount of money on quality gear. Chief amongst this was probably the Paramo waterproof smock and trousers that I got in a deal at the Paramo shop in Keswick — very comfortable, lined for warmth, waterproof and breathable. But I also bought a whole load of kit that will hopefully do me well for years to come — from lightweight crampons and gaiters to serious winter gloves, and even the ‘string vest’ Brynje helly that I found to be brilliant, if a little ‘unusual’. It will double for S&M outings anyway.

Most of the kit I tried to use and get familiar with as much as possible — but some things, like the gaiters, I acquired too late to have any practice with.

There is a long compulsory kit list, including stove & gas, bivvi bag, ski-goggles, etc. I think many of the ultrarunners had problems with carrying so much gear — but this was one area where experience of mountain marathons and full days running with a rucksack would help. My rucksack weighed about 6kg — not much more than it does on a mountain marathon. I also wore a bumbag at the front (a ‘fanny pack’ as the Americans would say) containing food that I could dip into — with big gloves it would be easier to get to than the pockets of the rucksack.

At the start you hand the organisers a drop-bag that they will transport to each of the five checkpoints. This contains changes of clothes, food for the next sections, etc. There was a limit of 20kg for this bag and, like many others, I found that limit tight. I had to take out some non-essential things, like spare poles in case mine broke, to get it down to the weight limit. I had organised it with a plastic bag inside for each checkpoint containing food and dry socks for the next section, spare batteries, etc; plus additional bags containing dry clothes that I might need as-and-when, additional waterproofs, first-aid, additional sleeping bag, inflatable bedroll, towel & toiletries, additional running shoes (for when my feet swelled) spare headtorch in case of a failure, and such like. The rules of the race had changed for this year to make it completely unsupported, so if I needed anything it had to be in my dropbag — I couldn’t get it from Anne or a supporter.

Not being sure how much food would be at checkpoints, I also packed a pot-noodle, rice pudding and porridge for each checkpoint — but only ended up using one pot noodle over the whole event.

No alcohol or coffee from New Year’s Eve until the race on 14th January — I was taking this seriously!

Race Start

Nervous as hell, I felt like I had no energy in the days before the race start, and all sorts of niggling injuries. But I know that is normal, at least for me, and hopefully just psychosomatic. I am the same before 24 hour rounds.

Anne drove us to Edale for Saturday registration, kit-check and briefing then we went to a B&B outside Castleton. It was good to be away from the nervous tension of the other competitors that would have filled Edale youth hostel and pubs. We followed Simon Bourne and Doug Gurr on the tracker, doing superbly on the Challenger and had a good meal in a Castleton pub. I felt incredibly sleepy — hopefully again psychosomatic with my mind just imagining the lack of sleep that was to come.

Next morning, Sunday 14th January, after a good sleep we returned to Edale to handover the drop bag and wait for the start. John Minta had been suffering with back pains; he had registered on the Saturday but didn’t start on the Sunday — shame, I felt his disappointment.

Pre-start — seemingly I am an island of calm, but it is an illusion!

And at 8am we started. I always think people start too quickly on long events, with the adrenaline rushing, so did my usual start in the back half of the field and gradually moved up as the pace eased off.

Start

Edale to Hebden Hey (CP1) — 47 miles, 9500’, time 12h20 (then rest 2h25)

With my normal planning and analysis, I had drawn up a schedule for the whole route that I felt I had a chance of keeping to, if all went better than my fears reckoned on, and would get me to the end before the 7-day time limit.

Looking at previous years, the pace on day one had been far quicker than the pace on later days, so I planned on taking it more steady, to keep myself fresh and able to continue. My schedule put me at Hebden Hey, the scout hut in Hardcastle Crags that is the first checkpoint after 47 miles, at 40 minutes after midnight, taking 16.5 hours for this first stage. However the forecast was for heavy rains to come in at between 10pm and 11pm, so I decided to press on quicker than I planned, to try to get to the checkpoint before the rain.

The weather for this first day was perfect. The forecast was for it to all change after that, and the forecast did not lie! But we could at least enjoy the weather on the Sunday. I wore just my string-vest-helly underneath the Paramo, and no need for waterproof bottoms.

I was somewhere mid-pack over the initial rolling fields, but seemed to overtake lots of people going up Jacobs Ladder onto high ground. Not unexpectedly I tended to gain ground on the steep climbs and descents, but lose out to experienced ultrarunners on the longer, flatter sections. Over the first 4 hours or so, places kept changing as people took a while to drop into the pace they wanted to go at.

The three ‘dark peak’ tops came and went — Kinder Scout, Bleaklow, Black Hill. I was in about 40th place (out of 118 starters) at Crowden before Black Hill. On Bleaklow we met runners in the Trigger race coming the opposite way. Both John Allan and James Penson stopped their race to shake my hand which was a lovely boost — though I felt guilty since their race was more time-precious than mine! Bleaklow was one of only a couple of places on this day that I had to slow to check my map — make sure I was going the right way off the top. A big advantage of having recced well was not having to pause to check the route.

By Black Hill I was over 2 hours up on my schedule — enough to get me to Hebden before the rain — but I was comfortable at the pace so kept it up. It was strange at Wessenden not to need my head torch yet — I recalled turning it on shortly after here on my recce, but it wasn’t until over 2 hours later, going up Blackstone Edge that I needed it today.

Approaching Standedge

It was great to see Gemma and Anne at Standedge, and friends (Jon, Phil, Jackie, Hannah) at the White House where there were sandwiches outside for the runners — the landlady had banned Spine competitors from the pub to protect their carpet!

Then it was the long, flat but familiar jog past the high-level reservoirs to Stoodley Pike, down to Callis Bridge, and up/down/up/down to Hebden Hey. More familiar faces on the way made this go quick — many, many thanks for coming out and seeing me!

Outside White House, concerned look from Phil Scarf!

I arrived at CP1 at 20:21, in 30th place, more than 4 hours under my schedule and before any rain. Completely naively I had estimated that I would spend 40 minutes sorting myself out and eating at each checkpoint and the rest of the time sleeping or resting. My plan was to get 3 hours sleep/rest, so with 40 minutes sorting time that would be 3:40 at the checkpoint, leaving well rested and able to crack on.

How naïve! My first rooky mistake was in my thankfulness to be at the checkpoint and general bewilderment, to lose my headtorch. I wandered around for ages at the checkpoint trying to find it, with several of the staff helping. Stuart Smith told me he’d seen me take it off and wrap it up in my hat so that’s where it’d be. Ah great. Problem number 2 was that I couldn’t find my hat either! Eventually I found them both near the entrance.

I had a checklist written out at the top of my dropbag of what I needed to do at each checkpoint. It was a long list: get meal, get boiling water on pot-noodle for seconds, check weather, talc feet in an attempt to protect them, change socks, change batteries in GPS and torch and second torch if used, recharge phone and watch, set GPS to next section of route, change into dry clothes/gloves/hat if needed, pack ready to go, set alarm before sleeping, elevate feet while sleeping. then on waking Vaseline feet, eat something, fill water bottles, remember poles and gaiters. All of that and general faffing took an hour — not too bad I suppose really.

I had debated with myself endlessly about whether to try to sleep at CP1. Everyone said that it was really difficult to drop off — with the adrenaline still flowing and it being very noisy — but the consensus was that without rest somewhere on the way, by the time you get to Hawes (CP2) it is hard to be in a state to continue. Some people aim to sleep on the trail further on — at Top Withens for instance, or in a bird hide at Malham Tarn — but I decided to try for sleep, or at least good rest, on a bed at CP1. I lay down in a dorm with 2 other people but unfortunately one of them coughed incessantly for the whole time. After about an hour and 20 minutes I gave that up, got up, prepared my feet, packed (fortunately still in possession of both my torch and hat) and set off into what was now heavy rain. It was 22:45 and I’d been at the checkpoint for 2:25. No good rest but at least I’d been lying down for a bit.

Scottish runner Kirsty Williams, who I’d been to-ing and fro-ing with for much of the day, and would be doing so for the following days, said that she would be disappointed if the weather continued to be so good — she wouldn’t feel she had the full experience. Her wish was about to be granted.

Hebden Hey to Hawes (CP2) — 63 miles, 11000’, 23h45 (then rest 7hr)

The forecast was for heavy rain all night and all day, and it wasn’t wrong.

Although I loved my Paramo, I had not used it in heavy rain. By all reports it would be good, but it doesn’t have taped seams. Not willing to take any chances, I switched to my OMM Kamleika waterproofs –I had confidence they would be OK in heavy rain. Something like this demands different standards in kit. Nothing is indefinitely waterproof, it is always a matter of time before it wets out. If we have waterproofs that keep out the rain for 6 hours then generally they are good. But if you are going to be in rain for 20 hours then it is not good enough. The Kamleika did pleasingly well all day. Unlike my gloves…

I caught up with David Betteridge and we ran together for a bit. Up to Top Withens at about 1am, the wind was strong and the rain heavy. It was really quite unpleasant and my pace slowed. It was good to get out of the wind a bit by Ponden. A Norwegian runner had come past, and we’d caught up with a French couple, but the pace was quicker than I was comfortable with so I let them all go. Getting cold, I had some food and put on a bit more gear. But soon I got a lot, lot worse.

I have always found Keighley/Oakworth/Ickornshaw Moors to be a bleak place, but I got seriously worried that I was heading to be a hypothermic casualty there at 2:30 that morning, with no-one else in sight. The storm was at its worst — strong winds blowing heavy snow now. Lots of snow on the ground. I stopped and put on five good layers on my top — Icebreaker heavy merino helly (the warmest thing I own), good technical T-shirt, OMM fleece, OMM smock and Kamleika waterproof. That was enough to keep my core warm, but the problem was my hands. I had gloves that had been brilliant in the cold in all my recces, but they were not so good in constant rain. Under the outer gloves I always wore warm inner gloves — so that when I have to take the outer gloves off to do stuff there is no exposed skin — but both sets of gloves were wet. I put on a 3rd pair of gloves that I carried for such emergencies, but I still could not feel my fingers. I thought of trying to bivvi and warm up, but without the use of my fingers that would be impossible. Heading forward meant going further onto the exposed moor, but behind me there was no shelter either — no place to get warm. It had all come upon me quickly. I don’t mind admitting that I was very worried.

What came to my rescue were handwarmers that I carried — tear them open and on exposure to the air they heat up. Unable to use my fingers, I ripped them open with my teeth and put one in the palm of each hand, then gradually tried to shift them to warm my fingers as well. It worked. It was another two hours before I could move my fingers properly, but at least my fingers didn’t feel like they were succumbing to frostbite, and with my core now warm I could continue. Over the most unpleasant moor I know and down into Cowling.

At Cowling, at 04:30, I found a vision — an idyllic bus shelter where I stopped out of the incessant wind and rain, sorted myself out and was ready to continue.

One thing that I never had a problem with, to my surprise, were cold or wet feet. I wore waterproof socks (Sealskinz or Dexshell) with Injinji toe socks underneath, and Goretex running shoes — a size larger than normal to cope with the bulk of sock. That worked brilliantly. I wore Inov8 Trail Talon 275 GTX for the first two days then switched to Salomon Speedcross 4 GTX — to mitigate any issues with rubbing. The Speedcross were better for me — I got blisters from the Inov8 and nothing but comfort from the Salomons.

On from Cowling through the rain to Lothersdale at 05:30, where the landlord of the Hare & Hounds had so kindly put out bottles of water for any Spine runner to help themselves from. I caught up with David Betteridge and the French couple again — though in the dark I didn’t realise it was the same people I’d seen before.

At Thornton-in-Craven at 7am I could turn my head torch off. On the way in is Brown Farm that always has one of the biggest, deepest extents of slurry on a footpath that I know. The farmer’s wife was out to milk her cows. She was fine with me, but getting frustrated with some of the foreign runners, many of whom had little English, who were trying to find the barely-marked right of way through the farm.

Before Gargrave, a friend (who used to be Barbara Lonsdale’s mountain marathon partner) Jon Moulding caught up with me. He was going a lot better than me and after a short while running with him I let him go ahead — I’d end up seeing him again later. At Gargrave I had been planning to call in at the co-op (like most of the runners were doing) for hot food — but I had so much food with me and was only eating half of it that I decided not to take the time to do that.

Malham

Its low-level from Gargrave to Malham, and along here there was one of several diversions from the actual Pennine Way — I guess landowners had refused access for the race. The river we ran alongside looked ready to burst its banks with all the water that had come down.

At Malham Cove I met Jo Buckley, bouncing along. She said I looked geriatric, or words to that effect — I can’t argue against that! There was an intermediate checkpoint at Malham Tarn, but not one you are able to rest at and you need to be carrying your own dehydrated food if you want to eat there. So I just had a tea and then carried on. Jon Moulding was there and we went over Fountains Fell together. Descending was feeling painful, so I let him go ahead again on the way down.

Because of ice on the way up Pen Y Ghent and the strong winds, the organisers diverted the race to avoid it — from the shoulder of Pen Y Ghent, just before the steep climb, we went directly down to Horton in Ribblesdale rather than over the top. I got to the café in Horton at 16:30, just before it started to get dark. Met Anne there and had some food before setting off 40 minutes later on the final leg over the Cam Road to Hawes. Jon was asleep at a table when I left.

Horton-in-Ribblesdale

On the way up to the Cam Road I chewed some caffeine gum to stave off the sleepiness in the dark. I’d never had it before but it worked — I stormed up the route. The Cam Road seems to go on for mile after mile, a gradual never-ending ascent. There was another diversion from the Pennine Way on the way down — taking a slightly longer route on the West Cam Road rather than down through the open fell. This West Cam Road is high above the valley and the winds had now got to gale force. That was fine while the route was walled but suddenly the walls ended and I was exposed to the full force of the gales. It was side on to me and frequently blew me off my feet, staggering to the side. Where the path was mostly all water from the heavy rain, with just a narrow dry route to negotiate, this was most awkward. I used my poles to jab into the ground on the side — without them I would have been knocked flat for sure.

Unfortunately by the time I got to lower ground, out of the gale, I had developed a calf strain. I don’t know if this was because of the buffeting of the wind blowing me around, or my increased pace from the caffeine, but either way I slowed down and walked cautiously the rest of the way to Hawes checkpoint, arriving at 22:30, almost 24 hours after leaving Hebden Hey. I had moved up 10 places since arriving at Hebden, into 20th place.

After getting some food at the checkpoint, I went to stand and found that I barely could! My lower (right) leg with the strain had seized up so I went to see a medic. She asked me: “do you want to continue?”. “Yes of course!” I replied. She examined my leg and the pain was now mostly at the back and inside of the knee. I planned to get a few hours sleep so she said to find her afterwards and she would strap the knee up. I might be able to continue or I might not, we’d just have to see whether it eased.

I got into a bunk and managed to drop off to sleep this time — for three hours anyway, then more people came into the dorm. One of them just lay down and coughed incessantly. Not sure if it was the same person from CP1, but I listened to that for a bit then got up. On rising I could only hobble with my leg still seized up so I went to find the medics again. The medic I’d seen before was now sleeping but the one I saw this time said that strapping my knee wouldn’t do any good. She checked that the ligaments and knee-tracking were OK and told me just to take a couple of paracetamol and get out there. So that’s what I did.

I’d had 7 hours in the checkpoint, but only 3 hours sleep — with all the medical attention and general sorting out. At least I had a good bowl of porridge before setting off, and I was still almost 3 hours up on my schedule.

From now on I had five pairs of gloves with me at all times, after my difficulties earlier on! Two good outer pairs, two warm inner pairs, and overmitts. Usually I would be wearing two pairs at a time, but sometimes three.

Hawes to Middleton-in-Teesdale (CP3) — 34 miles, 5500’, 14h20 (then rest 8hr)

I set out from Hawes at 05:30, ideal timing — I would have a couple of hours in the dark, then there would be a dawn and the boosting of spirits that comes with daylight. I set out with a German runner Jens Wackerhagen, but he was going quicker than me and I dropped behind him fairly soon. That seemed to be the general pattern — I’d be going slower than the people I started to run with and they’d go ahead, but hours later I’d catch them up again. Sadly Jens dropped out just a few miles from the end of the whole thing, at Hut 2 on the Cheviots.

There was now a lot of snow on the ground, and more snow was falling. I trudged up Great Shunner Fell. At 716m its not the highest, but it is very expansive — it goes on for ages. It took me 2.5 hours to get to the actual summit and another 1.5 hours to get down to Thwaite on the other side. I couldn’t move at much of a pace with my sore knee, but the paracetamol helped to relieve it and by the end of this day it would be fine. There was supposedly a dawn on the way up, but with the dark snow-filled skies it barely registered. Dragging myself over here through the snow with everyone seeming to pull away from me (Kirsty came past once more) was mentally tough, especially protecting my knee on the snowy descent.

At 12:50 I got to the Tan Hill Inn — one of the most remote-feeling, and the highest pub in Britain, often with an ‘interesting’ clientele. There was a great, friendly welcome here — the pub kept their doors open 24 hours a day for the Spine runners and had no problem with snow-covered muddy shoes. I bought a meal and chatted to Kirsty and the Norwegian runner Thomas Oderud. There were 8 of us in here refuelling. Anne had planned to meet me here but the roads were impassable so she couldn’t manage to get there. With the amount of snow I hadn’t really expected her to make it.

Photo of Anne’s attempt to get to Tan Hill Inn — the tracks are hers from reversing back

Leaving the Tan Hill after 45 minutes with Kirsty and the French couple, it was the usual pattern — I trotted slowly and the others went quicker into the distance leaving me trudging solo. Then I would catch them up a few hours later.

Unfortunately, despite the freezing temperatures and heavy snow, it had not been below zero long enough to freeze the bogs, so there was deep soft snow over the top of bogs — hard work.

Night fell, and coming in to Middleton-in-Teesdale the French pair did not seem entirely confident in their navigation so when I caught up with them we stuck together for the final miles. The woman, Daphne Derouch was 3rd woman and seemed happy and strong. Her partner Benoit Rothan did not seem as strong as her and we waited for him a bit. He hardly spoke any English.

I had lost 4 places since Hawes, not surprising since I was struggling a bit today.

Middleton to Alston (CP4) — 41 miles, 6000’, 19h10 (then rest 6h45)

Arriving at the checkpoint at 9pm, I planned to have a good rest here, to maximise my chances of finishing. I was never going to be on the start line a second time, so I’d bloody well better finish on this attempt! The French pair were aiming for only a short stay, to keep up Daphne’s podium chances. But leaving a couple of hours before dawn would be perfect for me — as before, to do a bit in the dark and then get the boost of daylight.

This time I changed my packing strategy — at the earlier checkpoints I’d tried to pack before I rested so that in theory I was ready to go when I got up. But it didn’t really work — I had stuff to pack away and sort out when I got up anyway. So this time I just left all the packing for after I got up. There was the risk of sleepily forgetting something crucial before I set off, but it seemed to work better.

After eating I got about 5 hours sleep, despite heavy snoring in the dorm — and no thanks to the guy who came in and turned the light on so he could sort himself out. ☹ Before setting off I had to see the medics again. This time to lance and dress a blister that had taken over the whole of my little toe and spread underneath the nail too. I also tried to get some Bonjela-type ointment: at Hawes I had a pot noodle and started eating it as soon as the boiling water was in — burning my tongue badly. That was the one thing that pained me most for the rest of the event — I dreaded eating because it was so painful, and it would not heal because of the constant strain your body is under. The medics didn’t have anything suitable — oh well.

I left Middleton at 5am. The forecast posted at the checkpoint said -4C but -19C with the wind-chill! At least the initial route would be no problem to follow I thought, on a major path up to High Force. However there was a lot of fresh snow and I went wrong only a mile from the checkpoint — ending up the wrong side of a wall and having to retrace my steps. Someone else who went wrong at the same place climbed the wall but I didn’t want to do that.

Further along here is one of the most awkward parts of the route — a boulder field on the edge of the River Tees and then a scramble up to Cauldron Snout. Luckily I knew how bad this section was from my recce with John Minta, so I was ready mentally, because a storm blew up just as I got to it. I put on my ski goggles so that I could see into the snow-laden head winds, my yak-trax crampons for grip and put away my poles so I could use my hands while being blown around on the boulders and the scramble.

On to High Cup Nick and down to Dufton, I felt good for the first time for a couple of days. I gained several places on the run down to Dufton and met Martin Stone & Anne in the café there, for a full English, at about 13:30. There was a lot of argument going on in the intermediate checkpoint in Dufton: the marshals were checking that everyone had goggles (part of the compulsory equipment) before heading over Cross Fell. The French pair claimed that they had misinterpreted the word in translation and just had flimsy glasses. They ended up being stopped there until morning, leant goggles and given a 3-hour penalty. The winner, Pavel Paloncy was also given a 3-hour penalty for kit-check failure further on. I gather it was GPS-related but I don’t know what exactly.

Down from High Cup Nick, coming into Dufton

Unable to finish my full English breakfast (not like me!) I left the remains for Martin and headed up to Cross Fell at 2pm, to get as far up it as possible before dark (about 5pm).

Martin Stone availing himself of my leftover breakfast, at the wonderful Post Box Pantry in Dufton

Cross Fell is the highest point in England outside the Lake District and a lot of competitors were worried about it. For a second time I had some caffeine gum and again I powered up the hill. Gary Chapman left the café at about the same time and he was also going well, then at the top we caught up with a third guy, Andy Sample, who seemed to be weaving about and going very slowly. It was now dark and the snow was deep on the tops. Gary and I decided to escort Andy to the top — one in front and one behind. He was very grateful and we made our way like this up to Cross Fell and down the other side (aside from a minor mishap after a stop at the top, where Gary at the front followed his GPS trail in the wrong direction and we started heading back down the way we’d come up! We encountered a headtorch coming up and thought they were coming up a strange way — only to realise it was us making the error!)

The wind was whipping up a lot of spindrift. I still had my yak-trax crampons on from Cautley Snout, not that they were much good in deep soft snow, and I put my ski goggles on like everyone else. It was harder to see in goggles, especially in the dark, and I also struggled with having both headtorch and goggles strapped behind my head. The torch kept pinging off my head and I ended up just hanging it round my neck.

Heading off Cross Fell we got to Greg’s Hut — a mountain hut high on the slopes. The character that is John Bamber manned this hut for the race, along with a marshal and a medic. John heated up noodles for us, adding exceptional chillies to them for extra heat! Here we were informed that the organisers had halted the race — there was a big storm coming in to the whole area, bringing even more snow. So everyone was instructed to halt at the next point and a decision would be made in the morning as to when to release us. It was now 18:30, there were 6 runners in the hut (Kirsty had been held there for 1.5 hours before we got there, and two more — Karl Shields and David Bunn — arrived a bit after Gary, Andy and me), and there were 6 more on the way up from Dufton. That made 15 people potentially in Greg’s Hut, with room to sleep maybe 6. The marshals had been told to halt us here, but they agreed with us that it was daft to do that — the route down from here is a big path and we could get to Alston, where there would be space, beds and our dropbags. Eventually they managed to get permission from the organisers for the 6 of us to go on, as long as we stayed in one group and as long as we realised that it would not be possible for help to get to us if we had problems.

Greg’s Hut with Gary (photo: Gary Chapman)
Chilli noodles in Greg’s Hut — check out those eyes! (photo: Gary Chapman)

So Kirsty, Gary, Andy, Karl, David and me left Greg’s Hut at about 7pm to get down off the hill. Unfortunately we got just under 1km before Andy started to have breathing problems. We had a group debate and decided to continue slowly, with Andy setting the pace. But about 2km from the hut Andy was worse — he could barely breathe. Another debate, but there was really only one option: we turned round and headed back up to Greg’s Hut. Andy was mortified that he was causing our delay but there was no way we would have left him to make his own way back. At the hut we left Andy with the medic (who must have sorted him out because Andy did finish in the end) and turned back to the descent. I was feeling good, but a couple of the others slowed up now, so we took quite a while to get down and it was after midnight when we finally got to Alston.

Before Alston, though, was one of those great moments that make the whole journey special. In the village of Garrigill at the foot of Cross Fell, a man came out of his house and offered us all flapjack. His wife then ushered us inside for warm drinks. They were watching the tracker and coming out to help everyone who passed. Despite us having crampons on our shoes, and melting snow all over their lovely wooden floor, the couple could not have been more friendly. In fact the others had to remind me that we were in a race — I was ready to drink tea in that kitchen for hours!

Our group were the last ones moving that evening, before the race was temporarily halted. I was now behind schedule for the first time.

I felt sorry for the half dozen runners near the back of the field who had done 7 miles out of Middleton-in-Teesdale, only to be met by a van when the race was stopped, driven back to Middleton and had to repeat that section again the next morning!

Alston to Bellingham (CP5) — 40 miles, 5000’, 14h10 (then rest 3h50)

We were woken at about 4am to be told that the race was being restarted at 6am. With the storm having brought lots of fresh snow I made the decision to let everyone else race off at 6am and break the trail, while I would get an extra hour of rest and follow the footprints. This seemed to work well. I managed a good sleep at Alston (about 4 hours) and the next section would be my best. There were 14 of us stopped at Alston and 7 runners ahead of us at Greenhead, Bellingham or Byrness. I was the last but one to leave Alston (only Gary remained) and I motored past 9 of those ahead on the boggy miles to Greenhead andthe undulating Hadrians Wall, all in lots of snow. That included going past the winner of the Tor des Geants 2016, Oliviero Bosatelli — though to be fair he came back past me a bit later! Looking at the splits afterwards, I was the second fastest on the stage from Greenhead to Bellingham — faster than the leaders and with just Kevin Stephens going quicker. We even saw some sun, briefly, to further brighten proceedings.

Hadrian’s Wall from below

By now, four out of the five favourites for the race had dropped out. Just goes to show how tough it was — even for the top runners.

In the section before Bellingham — forest, bog and farmland — there was another lovely moment. The owners of Horneystead Farm are known for putting out chairs and drinks for Pennine Way walkers, and today the owner came out, after dark at 7pm, to usher me into her farm outbuilding where she dispensed drinks and snacks. I had a tea, a coke and a wagon wheel as I sat there in the warmth, while the Italian/Spanish pair behind ran on past. The farm owner had even got in pork scratchings because she’d heard that they were the favourite snack of one of the front runners! Colin Searle arrived as I was leaving — I would later run some of the final day with Colin.

Back out on the final miles to Bellingham I had a couple of gear failures. First of all my GPS started failing. Not sure if it was the cold, rain or lack of signal but it just wouldn’t work. Completely on my own (as usual, and how I like it!) in the dark and with snow covering the route, I had to switch to map & compass, which my brain seemed to struggle with — maybe because it had relied on GPS and route-memory up to now. Then there was a comedy moment where one of the sections of my yak-trax snapped and snagged the gaiter on my other foot. With both feet tied together I fell unceremoniously nose-first. Try as I might I could not disentangle the two so I had to take both crampons and one gaiter off before I could continue. The crampons hadn’t really made much difference up to then but of course Sod’s Law had it that the final couple of miles would be on icy roads to the Bellingham checkpoint and without crampons I had to gingerly make my way on the verges in order not to keep slipping over.

I got to the final proper checkpoint, Bellingham at 21:10.

Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm (finish) — 43 miles, 6700’, 25h00

My plan had been to have a good sleep at Bellingham — we would be going over the Cheviots and that would need all my strength. But sensing that I was actually doing OK now (I was in 15th place) I decided to have just a short rest and then crack on. I think in hindsight that was maybe not the best idea.

Sleeping was just on a hard wooden floor. I had an inflatable bedroll but couldn’t seem to manage to get it blown up enough to be comfortable, and then I made the mistake of using the same thin sleeping bag that I’d used at the other checkpoints — unfortunately it was a lot colder here and I spent the whole time curled in a ball trying to be warm. After about an hour and forty minutes I gave up. If I had concentrated on getting a good rest in the warmer sleeping bag that I was carrying, I may have been better prepared for what was about to come. Oh well.

One of the roads on the way to Kirk Yetholm

So I set off on the 43 mile final section at 1am. I’d not slept for 20 hours and didn’t realise how much longer than I’d planned it would be to the end — another 25 hours were to come. I couldn’t get my swollen feet into my running shoes so had to put on the ones I’d borrowed from Johnnie Watson — size 11, they were 2 sizes bigger than the ones I had been wearing up to now, and still felt snug.

In my mind, from our recce, the route to Byrness wasn’t too bad — sure it had been cold and barren across Troughend Common to the forests, but the real hard work would surely start after Byrness when we ascended into the Cheviots. But no, Troughend Common was purgatory. The snow was deeper than it had yet been and I was breaking a trail through it — pulling my feet out of 2’ or more of soft snow with every step. I was only too happy when the Italian/Spanish pair behind me came past: let them break trail for a bit and I’ll use their footsteps.

My head went over Troughend Common, my focus disappeared and I couldn’t think straight. I got it into my head that I need to sleep and then all would be OK. So once on the forest road after the open moorland at 04:50 I decided to bivvi. I say ‘road’ but it wasn’t visible — everything was under deep snow so the boundary between road and fell was invisible. I got my bivvi bag (good quality goretex one) out and decided that soft snow would be comfortable to lie it on. That didn’t really work though — the bivvi bag just sunk down two feet and snow came in through the entrance. Then I couldn’t get my head around taking off my crampons, gaiters and shoes in order to get into my sleeping bag. So I just dived into the bivvi bag head first, on top of the sleeping bag. After 5 minutes with my head down the far end I could no longer breath, so shuffled back out of it. I packed it away as best I could and just headed off, at wearily slow pace, down the forest road. 20 minutes wasted with nothing to show for it except a scrunched up bivvi bag in my rucksack. Looking at the tracker afterwards though, everyone around me was going at the same awful pace that I was.

At the bottom of the forest tracks at 07:30 there is a parking area which glories in the name of Blakehopeburnhaugh. There are toilets there. They were locked, but I lay down under shelter at the door to the toilets and closed by eyes for 10 minutes. I didn’t sleep, but it seemed to do the trick — either that rest, or the fact that it was now starting to get light, brought me out of my mental sump and I was ready to carry on.

Byrness arrived an hour later — the last habitation before crossing the Cheviots. The intermediate checkpoint at Forest View here was a little disappointing for me — John and I had stayed here on our recce of the route and the owners had been very helpful. But today they barely showed themselves (I think the Italian/Spanish pair who were there for 40 minutes before I arrived were requesting endless coffees and this drove the owners to hide!) and the two marshals there were very jaded. Still, I did get some food after a while and set out over the final hills.

The Cheviots were even tougher and slower than I’d feared. Deep snow with no sign of tracks — the continual fall of fresh snow and the winds covered any up quickly I guess. The snow was so soft that you would plunge up to your knees at every step, and sometimes even deeper. There a few times when I had to lay flat and ‘swim’ over the top of the snow to make any progress. The bogs beneath the snow hadn’t frozen, so often I would pull my feet up to find them coated in heavy clinging muck. At least I didn’t get a foot trapped in roots under the snow as Karl Shields did — those around him had to dig his foot out to free him.

I followed the GPS most of the way, except when there were fences to follow, but often had to deviate to try to find a route that I could make progress on without sinking too deep.

One of my gaiters failed to cope — it came undone and would no longer fasten — so I carried it in my pack. The benefit of gaiters is that they lessen the amount of snow that clings to your shoelaces, which meant that this shoe now collected huge balls of compacted icy snow. I could stop every so often to hack at it and lessen the weight of the foot, but it would just form again 10 minutes later so was very frustrating.

I also removed my yak-trax crampons — they were of no benefit in soft snow, and just added to the ice accumulation with big lumps clinging to them.

I knew that it would get mentally harder once the light faded, so tried to crack on as much as possible, chewing more caffeine gum to keep going. Sure enough darkness came on Windy Gyle. The wind was whipping into my face, laden with heavy snow and it felt like a death march on the endless stretch from here to the Cheviot. To add to my troubles I also ran out of water and started feeling light-headed. Whenever I turned round I could see a head torch constantly a hundred yards or so behind me, so after a while I stopped and let Colin Searle catch me up. In my state I needed company and I was keen to let Colin break trail for a bit while I followed in his footsteps. Colin kindly gave me a drink of his depleted water too.

My phone also died. I had bought a rugged, basic phone especially for the event for which the battery lasts ages. But despite it being on 80% charge at Bellingham the battery died. Perhaps it was the cold. I could have left it switched off so that I could use it in an emergency, but it was on in case the organisers needed to contact me for some reason. Anyway, it was no use now.

It took almost 4 hours to get from Windy Gyle to the Cheviot junction, a distance of about 4 miles. Apparently even the great bear Pavel Paloncy, winner for the 3rd time, had averaged only 1 mile per hour over here. Colin and I used the fence to pull ourselves along. Somewhere along here I dropped one of my poles, which had just been hanging useless from my hand — but there was no way I was retracing my steps to look for it. On the earlier sections I had lost the ‘snow baskets’ from the ends of both poles, so they’re weren’t great in the snow anyway.

Still using the fence to brace against, we descended from the Cheviot junction to Hut 2 — a high-level mountain hut and the last manned place before the finish. I was feeling better mentally now that we were descending, but kept with Colin to help him, after his kind support had been so good in keeping me going. We also waited for another headtorch from behind — Christof Teuscher. Colin said that Christof had been a bit anxious about the Cheviots, but the American runner had made better progress than us.

The poor pair of marshals in Hut 2 had the toughest of jobs. It was freezing even inside the hut and they had been there for ages, waiting for a relieving team to come up sometime. The only water they had was from snow they melted on a stove. For anyone who has tried doing that it takes forever and uses a lot of gas — so they were running out of fuel. Still feeling very dehydrated, I begged as much to drink as possible (not a lot!) and sat in the hut to eat trail mix, flapjack and even a pot of custard that I carried as a treat. There was still a way to go, and one major climb.

Cheviots Hut 2, eating pot of custard, with Colin Searle and Christof Teuscher (photo: Darren Hunt/Dan Davis)

We were in the hut for half an hour, from 10pm. On leaving it Christof and I started to go the wrong way in the dark & snow, towards a big drop! But the marshals called us back. Colin, Christof and I decided we’d each go at our own pace from here to the end. Christof was very strong and he pulled away, and Colin dropped behind.

So we made our way up the Schil — normally no problem, but a lot more awkward in the snow. Oh how good it felt to be at the top of the last hill! Then the final, mostly-downhill route to the finish at Kirk Yetholm. I remember being silently apologetic to anyone watching the tracker that I was going to finish at a very unsociable hour.

On the road in to Kirk Yetholm I made a navigation error at Burnhead farm, going the wrong side of the farm. I retraced my steps but in my befuddled head couldn’t work out what to do, so just carried on and rejoined the pennine way a few hundred yards further on. My headtorch died around this time, so I put on the spare that I carried.

I tried to recall setting off from Edale almost 6 days earlier, but could not connect the two — my brain could not accept that the first day and this last day were the same event.

And then I started hallucinating through sleep deprivation — something I’ve never known before. All the footprints in the snow became incredibly sharp and colourful caricatures. There were clowns juggling, waiters carrying trays, dancers, tightrope walkers, men in smoking jackets, ballerinas, and endless outlines of people of all descriptions. It was all I could see when I looked at the ground — I couldn’t see footprints at all. Fortunately all I had to do was follow the caricatures and I would stick to the path.

Finish at the Border Hotel, Kirk Yetholm
…and Kirk Yetholm after midnight

Finally, at 2am I reached the Border Hotel that marks the end of the race. There was Anne and three or four others, including Damian Hall and co-organiser Phil Hayday-Brown watching me come in, despite the hour. But it was strangely muted — they had been instructed to be quiet so as not to disturb the locals, so it was a whispered: “Well done Bill” as I touched the hotel wall. Emotions tend to flood over you at this point without it really registering. I remember muttering something incoherent. It was so good to see Anne, who had been my well of strength throughout the build-up to the race, keeping me focussed whenever I faltered.

Staggering to the finish

Warming up in a back room of the pub, chipping the ice balls of my shoes, eating (lots) and drinking (even more) then we headed to the B&B that Anne had managed to find at the last minute in the town — a competitor had booked it but dropped out so it became available. The snow was too bad to drive and Anne was worried I wouldn’t make it to walk to the B&B, so Phil Hayday-Brown very kindly gave us a lift there in his 4x4. I had a bath, lay down on the bed and fell instantly asleep.

With Christof Teuscher, finished!

Aftermath

Anne said that I looked skeletal at the end, and I certainly felt waif-life. But amazingly when I weighed myself at home I was actually the same weight as before the start. It must have been water retention. Over the next week I ate loads, lots and lots, but my weight only came down — I guess the gradual water loss countered the extra food.

My feet stayed swollen for a week. I was a picture walking into services on the way home — shuffling at a painfully slow pace with slippers on, and huge bags under my eyes. Even now, 10 days after finishing, my toes are numb and tingle painfully. I hope that ends soon. I have no desire to run and am only just getting over being permanently sleepy.

Apart from that I thankfully got away lightly — no lasting injuries, touch wood.

Before I started there was absolutely no way I was ever going to be on the start line a second time. But now… it was such an adventure, I would definitely be tempted…

118 started, 65 dropped out along the way. I finished 13th, and 6th Brit in 138:06:30 or about 5 days 18 hours.

Pavel Paloncy won in 109h50, Carol Morgan was first woman in 130h37. Both incredible performances.

Kit

For the record, I carried:

OMM Classic 25L rucksack and Inov8 bumbag
Ortlieb mapcase with Harveys Pennine Way map (x3)
Thumb compass
Whistle
Alpkit stove, gas, lighter & titanium pot (doubled as drinking vessel at streams)
Spork
Water bladder, and foldable water bottle
Swiss-army knife (compulsory kit)
Garmin etrex 30x GPS (borrowed)
Mountain King Trailblaze poles
LED Lenser headtorch, and Petzl Tikka XP as backup
Samsung Solid Immerse GT-B2710 phone
Hand warmers & foot warmers
Yak-trax (lightweight crampon alternative), attached to carabiners outside the pack — wore days 4–6
Ski goggles (borrowed)
Sunglasses (unused)
Neoprene knee brace (unused)
Ankle brace (unused)
Chap stick
Food (lots of it!)
Spare helly — carried for emergencies after day 2, not used
Spare socks (compulsory kit)
Spare shoe laces for emergencies
First aid (extensive, including moleskin & zinc oxide tape for blisters, plus kinesio tape for calf)
Bubble wrap plus skeleton roll mat
Good-quality goretex bivvi
Mountain equipment Firefly sleeping bag
Lightweight full waterproofs with seams: Paramo did not meet kit requirements since it does not have taped seams, so I carried these as well for kit checks

I wore:

Waterproof beanie (the one item I wore every day)
Two neck-gaiters — Buff one was brilliant
Brynje long-sleeved string-vest (day 1) or Icebreaker merino top (other days)
Technical T-shirts
OMM fleece
OMM smock or Inov-8 smock
Mountain equipment fleece leggings (days 1&6) or Asics leggings
OMM lycra shorts (over leggings on day3)
Inner gloves (3 different pairs)
Montane and Trekmates outer gloves; former were difficult to get inner gloves in
Extremities overmitts
Inov8 trailtalon 275 GTX, size9 (days1–2), or Speedcross 4 GTX, size9 (days3–5), or Fellraiser, size11 (day6)
OMM Kamleika top (day2) or Paramo Velez Smock (other days)
OMM Kamleika bottoms (day2) or Paramo Velez Trousers (days3–6)
Injinji socks (x6)
Dexshell and Sealskinz waterproof socks (x6)

In my dropbag I had:

AA energizer ultimate lithium x12 (for GPS)
AAA energizer ultimate lithium x21 (for headtorches)
Hand warmers & foot warmers
Towel, toothbrush, toothpaste
Medicated talc
Vaseline
Calf compression socks (unused)
First aid (lots!)
Nail clippers
Bag of hill food for each section
Pot noodle x5 (only one used)
Porridge pots x5 (not required)
Ambrosia rice x5 (not required)
Third torch as backup
Big cagoule (not required)
Two pairs (inner & waterproof) of fresh socks for each section
Spare hats, buffs, gloves — some unused
Various clothing alternatives — some unused
Spare phone (my normal mobile, used to check weather forecasts at checkpoints)
Poweradd 10000mAh USB charger, and USB leads
Spare shoes, one pair large and one pair extra large, both used