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Spine Race 2015

268 miles along the Pennine Way

By Ernie Jewson

Spine Start

As I finally lined up at the start of the 268 mile Spine Race I reflected that I was as prepared as I could ever be.  I had recced every stage of the course and my Garmin routes had numerous waypoints that I had plotted whilst running the course.  I had spent hours studying foot care and perfecting taping techniques.   My training was on the cross trainer and treadmill on very high inclines with a fully laden pack and carrying dumbbells , given that Essex is not blessed with the hilliest of terrain this was the best way to simulate the race conditions.   I had prepared for the worst of weather so far as my race kit was concerned, micro spikes, five layers of clothing, as far as I was concerned it was time to bring it on at last. The race conditions on the day were a warning of what was to come, a delayed start because of 75-80 mph winds and even higher at increased altitude, pouring rain first thing and hail stones just before the start.  This race is not billed as Britain’s most brutal race for nothing. 

Spine Start Running

My race plan was to start steadily, although I intended to run as much as I could up to the first checkpoint so my shoe selection was trail shoes for the first 45 miles.  I was pretty much mid field to second half of the field in this first stage.  As we went up the first major hill (Kinder Scout) we were faced with the incredible sight of the waterfall was being blown upwards and we were struck with wind, sleet, hail, rain and ice and were being blown off the track in very difficult running conditions where it was hard to stay upright.  Almost half the field were struck with wind blindness in the left eye (the direction of the westerly winds) and fortunately I reacted quickly and put on my goggles and managed to minimise the damage.   The hail, rain, sleet was intermittent.  My first adverse reaction to the cold was just after Torside Reservoir shortly after darkness fell.  I decided to stop and have something to eat but as soon as I stopped, sleet started to fall, slowly at first then quite heavily. I put my waterproof trousers on and when I got going again I began to feel cold and weak.  As I struggled up what I perceived to be a steep hill some 15- 20 people overtook me.   I felt the sodden waterproof bottoms I had put on were dragging me back and decided to take them off.  Fortunately this lethargy only lasted for a couple of hours and I then snapped out of it. 

Kinder Upfall
Kinder Scout - more upfall than downfall

Coming into CP1 (Hebden) I was 1 hour 20 mins ahead of my target time.  My priority was my feet, I had the doctor treat my left eye by steaming it and I had plenty to eat.  On reflection I spent too long here and was disorganised.  Upon leaving I headed up the steep hill from the CP, then shortly after realised I had forgotten my walking poles and had to head back.  I must have lost 30 minutes.  For the next few hours I plodded on and felt slow, the lethargy was back with me, then at Ponden Reservoir I stopped in the rain to put some extra clothes on and Jon and Elizabeth (a Tasmanian woman) came past me followed by John Vernon. Having met John a couple of times previously and knowing that John although not the fastest runner had a reputation for finishing tough ultras I decided that I would attempt to at least keep him in sight. My pace was faster now and I fell often on the slippery rocky path. Navigation was difficult as my sight was somewhat compromised from the wind blindness but at least I could see the arrow on my etrex. It was around this time, as it became dark, that John and I sort of teamed up, it was not planned but I think we both realised that it was advantageous to do so. John’s sight, also affected to some degree by wind blindness, was better than mine but the extra waypoints I had previously put on my etrex were invaluable to us, as well as Jon and Elizabeth, in finding our way in pitch darkness in very wet, cold and muddy conditions. It was tough going and certainly tiring so coming across the Hare & Hounds Inn in Lothersdale we decided to pop in for a hot drink. At the door we were stopped from taking our boots off as the owner reaping the benefits of the roaring trade from Spine Competitors had put floor coverings down and we were ushered into a back room occupied by other “Spiners” as well as Medics and Race Officials. It had become an unofficial mini checkpoint and John and I both had a most welcome large bowl of hot chips each and 2 large mugs of hot tea/coffee. Refreshed and refuelled we soon were back in the race. On we pushed through the rain and wind although tiredness was starting to take its toll. Knowing that we would soon be walking along a short section of the Liverpool Canal and the possibility of some shelter underneath a canal bridge we battled on and by the time we got there the rain had stopped. John put up his tent and I my hooped bivy on a grassed area in the lee of a canal bridge and managed to get 3 hours sleep (the first sleep for 2 days). Fortunately it didn’t rain while we slept but as we packed up the rain returned again.

Feeling even more refreshed now we were determined to make up some time and passed through Gargrave without  stopping to chat with the race officials. Although an easy start had been part of my race plan I felt until this stage of the race I had taken it rather a little too easy. Walking faster stronger now we were soon past Malham where we stopped to have a chat with the people who were making the Spine Film. At Malham Cove we stopped for a quick brew before climbing up the cove and another hour later the way checkpoint at Malham Tarn where many of the competitors had slept overnight. We didn’t stay long here, only enough time to eat, drink a couple of cups of hot tea, change socks and we were off. It was the morning of the 3rd day and my feeling was that we were getting stronger, we had been through some nasty weather over the past couple of days and nothing that was thrown at us from that stage on could phase us now. Out of the sheltered areas it was still blowing a gale and the climb ahead of us had involved a steep rock scramble over Pen-Y-Ghent but this was re-routed due to high winds just before the main climb. Without doubt it would have been dangerous to attempt to go over the top since even at where our diverted track left the original route at 150 feet lower in altitude, John and I struggled against the wind to open a gate.

Pen-Y-Ghent under cover of snow and mist

There was a relatively easy walk down from here to Horton in Ribblesdale where we found our way to the local cafe (another impromptu checkpoint) met up with some other “Spiners” and had a big meal of eggs, baked beans etc. Leaving here we were soon caught up once again by Elizabeth and Jon and spent the rest of the day and into the night leapfrogging with them.  As we got closer to Hawes the terrain made it difficult to navigate and my previous knowledge of the area and the extra waypoints I had became invaluable in getting us down off the high country and into Hawes quickly.

Coming into Hawes Checkpoint (106 miles approx) to a round of applause was a bit of a surprise but we didn’t waste time, I dried and re-taped my toes, had a meal, a couple of cups of coffee, sorted my pack out, loaded up with supplies then tried to put my head down for 1-2 hours sleep. Sleep was out of the question though as it was too noisy for me but at least I did get a rest which I told myself counted for something. Poor John Vernon’s drop bag had been moved on prematurely from the checkpoint but to his credit he did not let this bother him.

Leaving Hawes in the early morning darkness we soon linked up with Jon and Elizabeth and stayed with them for a few miles before pushing ahead and up the long slow climb up Great Shunner Fell. We were both very tired, vision was bad and a mist seemed to envelope us as we slowly plodded upwards through the night on snow covered ground before what seemed like many hours (although in reality it could not have been that long) reaching a summit cairn and another “Spiner” who had difficulty finding his way. After staying with us for a short while and the path down off Great Shunner Fell becoming more defined we left him and continued onwards as dawn broke through the townships of Thwaite and Keld then a couple miles past Keld we stopped after a climb up a valley. The view from here was glorious and although close on freezing the sun was shining and here we rested and picked up maybe 15 minutes sleep which was enough to charge the batteries for the next push.  We picked up the pace here keen to get to Tan Hill Inn and to get some hot food even running a little as snow and sleet once again dusted the landscape. Arriving in Tan Hill there were photographers taking pictures and after finally managing to get  a mug of coffee and something to eat (I think it was a chip butty but can’t be sure except I do remember it not being very good and leaving the butty) we left.

Tan Hill
Running into Tan Hill

Although I felt we had wasted valuable time here we acquired Michael a German competitor who having pulled out of the race some 4 hours previously with knee pain had some success with pain killers and decided to rejoin the race. Michael had given his sat nav device to his previous running partner  when he had pulled out so needed the use of mine, this new acquisition was a great bonus for us since Michael rested and a strong ultrarunner helped lift us to even a faster pace as we pushed through the rest of the day and into the night over fortunately frozen ground  through some very tricky and hard to navigate farmland until we arrived at the checkpoint in Middleton in Teesdale where although we had pushed hard we had only 4 and a half hours of time up our sleeve.  I felt although tired that we were still very strong and if needed we both had the strength, fortitude and determination to lift ourselves to another level. A lot of the competitors seemed to be suffering more than we were. After re-strapping my feet, having a good meal and getting a much needed 1 hour 20 minutes sleep we left at 11.30pm, right on the checkout closing time but not before we had been briefed on the new route we were to take since bad weather, snow storms etc were on the way and the following route over Cross Fell, the highest point on the race, was off limits for safety reasons. 

High Cup Peak
Photo taken from High Cup Nick during the race

We made good progress determined to push even harder since we were both becoming stronger and more determined as the race progressed. We followed the River Tees and a few hours later we diverted from the original course to a route which took us past Cow Green Reservoir. Here we were walking, staggering from side to side in sleeplessness along a windy freezing road with only the light of our head torches on the ground in front of us to concentrate on. It was bitterly cold and without doubt the coldest I had been yet. We were tired and stopping briefly we both laid down in the snow sheltered only by a low concrete block and fell asleep only to be shortly awakened by my own innate survival instinct -“it would not be hard to die out here” so I shook John and said that we can’t sleep here it was too dangerous so carried on. Soon we came to a derelict hut with no door or windows and the floor was full of animal droppings where out of the wind we made ourselves a hot drink. Leaving here we soon came across the Mountain Safety Team in a bus who also gave us a hot drink and a short respite from the atrocious conditions outside. Onward we pushed still determined and not flinching from the task at hand and a few hours later a truly glorious dawn broke, glorious because there was something to look at rather than the beam of our head lamps on the road in front of us. We soon left the road and followed a long winding path down towards Garrigill. Walking along this frozen path falls were commonplace and on one such fall I stepped onto what I thought was a firm surface on a frozen puddle only go through the puddle slipping fast forward face down onto the ground on top of the puddle with a 10inch shard of ice standing perpendicular in the puddle smashing into my right thigh leaving me in some considerable pain and with a large bruise. This apart from the eye damage I suffered with for the first two days of the race was the only real injury I had during the whole race. The path soon turned into a country road passing through farmland and down into Garrigill then we once again joined the Pennine Way and followed the river Tyne towards Alston and ultimately Checkpoint 4 (Alston Training & Adventure Centre). During this last section following the river I came across some of the best rock sculptures I had ever seen, fast realising they were hallucinations and aware that we were being closely monitored by race officials I said to myself that I would keep my mouth shut at the next checkpoint! They turned out to be the only hallucinations I had for the entire race. Arriving in Alston checkpoint late morning to a big welcome as many had came outside to welcome us in I was dismayed to hear that they had stopped the race until the following morning due to an expected storm with high winds. We had made up some good time through the night and felt that we were stronger and although tired were in many ways stronger than many of our competitors at that stage since we weren’t carrying any significant injuries or the blistered feet many of the others had. I had planned only to grab a quick couple of hours sleep and get back into the race instead we had a good 20 hours rest .

Alston weather
Weather report at Alston - winds 110+mph

Alston checkpoint was packed and beds were in short supply, fortunately Chris Edmonds who was helping out as one of the Mountain Safety Team members was there and he got me a spare bed in his bunk room so I was fine. The wind really picked up later that day and into the night and there certainly was a storm passing through with the power being cut off at the centre during the night. Still I made good use of the break at Alston having a hot shower, loads of the really good food the catering staff had constantly prepared and much sleep.

The race had basically been stopped at 2 places and for us at the secondary group of 25 competitors at Alston we had a mass start at 7:00am although time credits were taken into account. Fast walking down the hill from Alston everyone took the wrong path but since I had recced the route well I soon had everyone on the right track. With rest everyone was rejuvenated and it wasn’t long before the field was once again spread out and the rain and sleet was upon us once again and after reaching Greenhead (a minor checkpoint) later in the afternoon we were on the Hadrian’s Wall section and once again into very high winds, rain, sleet with increasing intensity as the night progressed with high winds making our progress difficult. The Spine wasn’t finished with us yet but daunted we were not and it was along Hadrian’s Wall that we picked up Roberto a tough Italian who although injured with what I believe a hamstring sprain, obviously feeling the cold more than us and struggling a little with navigation, was 100% determined and stayed with us throughout that night.  Around midnight John had asked if we could stop somewhere to sort himself out and as I had recced the area recently I spied an open barn only a short distance away and on the Pennine Way itself so we stopped here in pouring rain while John replaced a broken shoelace and we had ourselves a hot drink with Roberto trying his best to warm his hands around John’s stove, poor guy he was really cold. Then it was only a short couple of hours and we were at the Bellingham Checkpoint. Mud was a serious issue during this section and often our boots were submerged in it but for us and what we had been through over the past 5 days nothing seemed to bother us anymore. No great applause this time arriving at Bellingham checkpoint 1:30am as by this stage just about everyone, including officials, was more than just a little tired. I had a good feed, got my toes re- taped, maybe a couple of hours sleep and loaded with supplies once again we were off, confident, strong and just as confident as we had been since meeting up with each other 4 days ago of finishing this race. Weather-wise we felt we had seen just about the worst the Spine could throw at us so nothing was going to stop us now. The weather was fine but water on the icy footpath slabs was frozen and big slip hazard. Once again we found ourselves with Jon and Elizabeth but soon we were on our own as we walked through Redesdale Forest until Byrness where at a B&B used as a way checkpoint we rested for an hour and had some most needed hot food and drinks before leaving in the late afternoon. Leaving Byrness we climbed a steep hill through the forest and up into the barren Cheviots. An hour or so later and night was upon us once again, navigation was a little difficult but with John scouting just ahead and with me shouting directions from reading bearings from my etrex and working as a team we made very few mistakes. A lot of this section we were once again with Jon and Elizabeth and Roberto. It was freezing and slippery and after one too many falls John and I stopped and for the first time used our microspikes which we worked brilliantly where others who were using  the Yak Trax version had a considerable amount of trouble. Reaching the 1st hut at Lamb Hill it was crowded but it was good to get inside out of the cold.

Many of the Mountain Safety People were there so it was a very lively place in the middle of nowhere. After most of the “Spiners” had left  John and I picked up a quick hour’s sleep, myself sitting upright on the bench resting my head on my pack before waking and once again hitting the trail for the last push to the finish. I think Roberto was also with us at this time as well and that he must have also slept a little in the hut as well.

Lamb Hill Refuge Hut
Lamb Hill Refuge Hut, Cheviots

So onward we pushed on frozen ground and it was almost painful to see Roberto struggling with his injury. A group of Mountain Safety people, which had Chris Edmonds amongst them, were just  behind us, keeping a suitable distance away. Some hours later we arrived at the last hut just below the Schill to find it packed to the brim with competitors and race officials with about dozen people outside and a couple bivy bags. Roberto went inside the hut and that was the last we saw of him. John and I in the lee of the hut made ourselves a quick hot drink and pushed onto the finish. Climbing the Schill after the hut was tough, I think not because of the physical hardship involved but because of the sleep deprivation but we were close and within a couple of hours of the finish so we had no intention of resting now. We pushed on down to the farmland and along the country road leading to Kirk Yetholm with myself very much in race mode with no intention on anyone else taking whatever small line honours we had and John unnaturally very quiet!

Running to finish
Ernie and John coming into the finish, Kirk Yetholm

Coming into Kirk Yetholm just before 6:00am we were first met by Debbie who gave us both hugs then onto the Border Hotel and the finish and a small group of well wishers Scott and Nici (who gave me a big hug) and a few others I don’t know. Then a cool beer which I shared with John back at the hall where we had to go to pick up my bag and said our farewells.

Finish photo
Ernie and John at the finish, Border Hotel

The race officials, doctors and mountain rescue team did a great job with good food, good facilities and looking out for our safety.  My only reservation is that in the future the race may get easier as more checkpoints are introduced and safety concerns result in weather delays. Part of the appeal of the race and the calibre of the entrants it attracts is the challenge of facing treacherous conditions and sometimes bordering on dangerous weather, it needs to keep that element of risk to live up to or lose its reputation as Britain’s most brutal race. Whilst I understand the need to hold back a race when conditions are potentially life threatening and believe the Race Officials did the right thing stopping the race when they did I have to say I think John and I lost the advantage we had at Alston because we could not capitalise upon the energy we saved in our planned easier start and first two stages as the other competitors, some of whom were injured and others more tired than us at Alston, had the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate in the enforced stop whereas we had planned only a short stop at Alston.  That said it was an enjoyable and tough enough race for me to say that I am more than satisfied to have been placed equal 42nd and to be one of the 47 finishers from the 90 starters.

Physically for me I didn’t find it that hard and the hardest parts were the bad asthmatic coughing I suffered with during the first 2 stages and the slight wind damage to my left eye which affected my map and sat nav reading ability for the first couple of days. Sleep deprivation made life a little difficult at times but I coped okay with this. At the end of the race I felt very strong and could have easily carried on at a similar pace for a few more days, as I am sure John Vernon was, but once I did stop and allowed myself to “switch off” so to speak from the race then I crashed and it has taken me a good 2 weeks to recover. I have lost about 2 kilos in weight and about 2 inches off my waist so for me I call that a bonus.

Would I do it again? Probably not but will be on the lookout for other difficult challenges.

The Spine Race is a truly great race and I would have to rate it as one of the best run Ultra races I have yet done.