Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Spine 2012 - race report

Not sure where to start with this one.....but wow, what an experience. What an adventure!

The bare facts - starting from Edale at 9am on Saturday 14th January, I withdrew with hypothermia just short of Middleton-in-Teesdale, at about 3am on Tuesday 17th. Roughly 136 miles up the Pennine Way in 66 hours, with about 4 hours sleep.

Now the detail!

The day before:

Arrived at Lincoln train station having had an entertaining conversation with the taxi-driver on the merits of trying to run up the Pennine Way in winter in 7 days! Got the train from Lincoln to Edale, arriving mid-afternoon in chilly but sunny conditions - a welcome relief from al the grey and windy weather. Checked into the Ramblers Inn. Was already a bag of nerves, and failed to get my planned nap. Wandered down to race HQ, the village hall. Met race director, Scott Gilmour - nice bloke - and some of the other competitors. Compared rucksack weight. Marvelled at Gary Morrison's micro-pack at 6.5 kg. Mine pretty average at 8kg but I still had some food to get in. Lots of us were alternately taking gear out then putting it back in - all in search of a few grammes advantage. I had weighed my titanium spork the night before - it gave me a 2g saving over the plastic version!!

Back to the pub and had tea with Gary - then back to the village hall for the briefing. We had some lectures on hypothermia, hypoglycaemia, navigation , the route etc. By now, I was beside myself and quite frankly not wanting to be there - nervous had become scared as the enormity and potential of the elements became very real.

Checked in drop bags and then we then had to get all our kit out - having meticulously packed mine! - all compulsory kit present, sleeping system and stove checked. Back to the pub for dessert, glass of wine, and a natter. Finally got to sleep at 11.30 but woke at 3ish and then only dozed as my nerves got worse and worse.

Stage 1 - Edale to Hebden Bridge 43 miles, 14+ hours
Beautiful frosty, sunny winter's morning. We all convened at the village hall and then the 16 competitors wandered up to the official start line at the Nags Head.

Absolutely sh*tting myself.
After some obligatory photos we set off just after 9am.

Gentle jog to Upper Booth and along to the bottom of Jacob's Ladder. At the top the field fanned out as we tried to find the best way (not sure there is one!) across the peat bogs which were fortunately nice and frosty. A group of us - myself, Gary Morrison, Steve, Tim, Jon, Andrew Collister and a couple of others - formed a convoy down to Snake Pass. By the top of Bleaklow, Gary, Steve, Andrew and myself seemed to have left the others, with Mark Brooks and Mark Caldwell well ahead.

I was getting well into to the race now - had a cracking peanut butter and jam sandwich going across Torside Reservoir and onto Black Hill. Miles rolling by now -  through Standedge, where, from memory, it was headtorches on. We made our first nav error -  a 5-10 minute "detour" - the first taste of the concentration required when navigating at night. 

Crossing the M62 really summed up to me how far we had already travelled - this leg was essentially the fist 3 days of the Pennine Way walk!

We eventually reached Stoodley Pike, down to Hebden Bridge and then 2-3 miles to the CP1, arriving just after 23:00.

We were met with a warm welcome and encouraging words. Gary, Steve and myself had already decided to fuel up, sort kit out and then sleep for 1-2 hrs, in order to maximise the clear (but cold) conditions and hopefully get to CP2, 63 miles away, sometime the next day. Baked potato, cheese, ham & baked beans, followed by 2 bowls of pasta, some crisps, peanuts, bit of Mars Bar etc etc and I was well fuelled (and stuffed). Left big toe nail a real mess - tried, without success, to release all the fluid under it. Kit prepared for next leg and then it was head down for 90 minutes, getting up at 01:30.

Stage 2 Hebden Bridge to Hawes 63 miles, 27.5 hours
After a quick snack and a topping up on provisions, the 3 of us set off on this monster stage in good spirits at 02:30. We made good time across Heptonstall Moor. The rest of the night passed surprisingly quickly. I remember passing Withins Height, the presumed "Wuthering Heights".

Now light, we had a short stretch along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. The hours rolled by and we reached Gargrave at about 12:30. We had now been on the move for 10 hours with no more than the briefest of stops so we made a tactical decision to stop at a cafe and re-fuel. The Dalesman cafe was closed, but we found a little gem - the White Cottage Tea Rooms and a quick 30 minute snack stop became an hour+ feeding frenzy! Turkey and stuffing rolls and puddings/cakes - 2 for me!! Delicious hot chocolate, then coffee.

Bellies full, off we went, knowing that all the time the tough part of the day would be the last third.

Now followed a lovely stretch along the River Aire reaching Malham as the light began to fade. Approaching Malham Cove, we were asked several times where we going "at this time of day" - nobody believed us!

Rounding Malham Tarn at 18:00, our plan was still to push all the way through to Hawes. With at least 25 miles to go, our estimated 02:00 finish from the the start of the day was looking way off the mark.

Now followed the long haul to Pen-y-Ghent. I think we were all tiring a bit and it was getting quite cold. I donned my First Ascent down pullover (thanks Jenny!) and very cosy it was too. I slipped over on the ice on the descent to dale head 3 times in 5 minutes, the last time landing in an icy puddle getting both gloves soaked through - leading to an unpleasant hour of very cold hands.

We powered up Pen-y-Ghent - it was getting quite windy now - but we were pushing to get to the pub in Horton-in Ribblesdale for a warm up before pushing on to Hawes. Pen-y-Ghent in the dark felt special. Down into Horton, r eaching the Crown Inn at just after 22:30, the landlord informed us that he had just cleaned the coffee machine and that he couldn't boil a kettle for us. Grumpy git! So it double Coke, peanuts and chocolate all round. Got my gloves dry in front of the fire. Changed socks - feet were getting very sore especially my heels. The mesh on my left shoe had split on day one and was now leaking quite badly.

Landlord assured us it was 13 miles to Hawes, we thought 15. Felt great for the first mile or two, then a dreadful tiredness came over me. I could barely stay awake, I just wanted to sleep. The next few hours were really tough. Don't remember a huge amount about this stretch. The other 2 were fibbing about how far we had covered and how far we had to go which I eventually worked out! Gary threatened to poke me with his sticks if I sat down! The last section into Hawes was tricky navigationally. It was very cold - all insulation layers on.

Eventually we arrived at CP2, clocking in at 05:48. Was very relieved to arrive and be allowed to sit down - relieved and very chuffed!

We were immediately fed and watered - soup and super noodles which were strangely nice! Feet tended to - what felt like blisters on my heels was in fact an early case of trench foot. A few smallish blisters. Then it was finally sleeping bags - found a spot on the floor and fell asleep vey quickly for the agreed 3-4 hrs.

Stage 3 Hawes to Middleton-in-Teesdale 33 miles
I woke at 10:00, had a chat with Mark Brooks (winner of the Challenger Class) and Tim Robinson (who had withdrawn the previous day with pretty serious-sounding hypothermia. Got up and amazingly legs felt not too bad. Tim said I'd looked bad last night when we arrived and had been slurring a bit, but that I now looked "chipper" - looked in the mirror - I looked sh*t!! Relaxing mega-breakfast of one of my porridge bags, toast and whatever was going.

The other 2 rose at 11ish and we set off to Middleton-in -Teesdale at 12:30. This was the shortest leg of the race art 33 miles and we were hoping to be in by 02:00 or earlier if the terrain wasn't too bad.

We made excellent time up Great Shunner Fell in lovely sunny conditions - I was living the dream -  and then down through Thwaite, where the light was beginning to fade.

Then the long stretch up Stonesdale Moor, arriving at our planned stop at Tan Hill Inn at 19:30. I was still feeling strong and positive, knowing we were at least halfway through the leg and making excellent time. It was getting very cold but the thought of warming up in the pub had been encouraging us for a while.

Entering the pub the barmaid sadly looked at us and said, "Sorry, we're closed" - our faces dropped, morale dipped and then we heard the chuckles from round the corner - she had well and truly got us! We then had a truly memorable hour in a great pub - the world's greatest homemade mushroom soup, a great bowl of chips, mug of coffee and some squash. We got chatting with the other customers and the barmaid - there were very interested in the event but unsurprisingly though us completely mad. As we we were also raising money for charity (Help for Heroes) the barmaid only charged us £6 each, then one of the customers said he'd pay for the rest. Someone else gave us a donation. It was sad to leave, but we were warm and fuelled right up and ready to press on. The stop had really confirmed our faith in humanity.

We were feeling really positive and expecting to make good time to Middleton - how quickly thing can change.

Sleightholme Moor had some tricky navigation but we were helped by the dog from the pub who followed us for about 5 miles! We safely made our way past Bowes and under the A66. It was getting really cold now. The next section was really slow. The path was very hard to find, navigation really tricky. I cold feel myself getting colder - despite base layer, shirt, down pullover, windproof insulation layer, 3 hats, 2 pairs of gloves. Started eating as much as possible - including a Soreen loaf in one go!

Knew I was beginning to struggle.

A short hard ascent up to a road head between 2 reservoirs failed to warm me and realistically I knew my race was over - I was freezing cold all over and feeling a little bit scared, and aware that I had been slowing the others down. I told them as much - Gary told to put on as much as possible - I added my waterproof top and bottoms, and we pushed on to the next junction 2km away. Although I wasn't getting colder, I wasn't getting warmer either, and worryingly I could feel myself getting confused and muddled.

I called it a day about 3 miles from CP3 at 03:00. I knew I could probably get to the checkpoint but knew that there was no way I could carry on into the 4th leg, and I knew I had to be sensible and not take unnecessary risks. I owed that to Jenny and all my family who I knew were watching the updates avidly and sending me encouraging texts but were also worrying themselves silly.

So I got picked up by Scott and transported back to the checkpoint. I was sat by the heater, given copious amounts of tea, and gradually got warmer.

Steve and Gary arrived shortly. Ironically the last bit had apparently been the easiest bit of the day! After a lot debriefing aka talking, I found a space and crawled into my sleeping bag.

I was disappointed to not be going on but was very proud of covering 135 miles. Scott had reminded me again that my longest previous ultra was 50 miles and that to get this far was a tremendous effort. I had been on the road for about 66 hours with about 4 hours sleep - far more than I'd ever done before. As my dad said later - a brave decision.

I woke up after 3 hours sleep shivering. I put myself by the heater and was lent a big down jacket. This completely confirmed the sense of my withdrawal and all in all I was still on a bit of a high.

Gary and Steve required some fairly major foot treatment and left on the 42 mile leg to Alston at about 11:00. They were to finish the race together in 152 hours - a truly amazing effort. It was a real pleasure spending some time with them and I learnt a lot from them both. Top blokes and really tough athletes - total respect!

The Aftermath

I'm planning on writing some more on kit and lessons learnt later so just a quick conclusion for now!

It's 4 or 5 days since I got home - yes my brain is also still recovering. From a muscular point of view my legs feel great. No thigh pain, no shin splints. Achilles tendons miraculously seem OK. My feet were hideously swollen initially but have just about settled now. My feet and ankles are really aching and restless. Haven't had a good night's sleep yet - having some massive night sweats and waking up soaked through - wonder if that's something to do with hypothermia - will investigate. Big toenail not very pretty! Still a real sense of fatigue.

The organisation was second to none. Scott was a source of constant encouragement and seemed to have endless energy, The staff were tremendous and at times it felt like you were getting bespoke care. Nothing was too much for any of them. More importantly I always felt the back up was there - I felt safe.

I am so glad I entered. I had no real idea what I was letting myself in for - it just looked like a massive adventure. Physically, I still felt good - but mentally I guess I didn't really know what to expect. I now understand the mental effects of going really long and will be prepared in the future. Need to get the fuelling right too - that let me down.

It was a real pleasure to be involved in the first running of The Spine. It has given me a lot of confidence for the future and I feel like I have taken my ultra running to a whole new level and that the door to a whole load more events has opened.

Thanks to all those who supported me during my adventure and also when I finished. It was lovely to know that at 46 years old I can still make my parents proud. Thanks to Jenny for allowing me to be a nutter!! Sorry for all the worry!

So the big question - would I want to do it again? Well I have a place in the MdS next year which I am very much considering binning, saving a wad of cash, and allowing me the time to primarily be able to do The Spine 2013. Jenny just about made me promise never to do it again when I got home - she had been so worried - but within 24hrs she realised the hype I'd got and that resistance is futile!! I think she'll either be my support team or offer to be part of the event support team.

So yes - with any luck, you'll see me on the start line next year - and I will finish.

Thanks again to Scott and all The Spine team.

Monday, January 09, 2012


Well, I'm well and truly nervous for start of The Spine on Saturday. Been going through the route a lot and the enormity is really dawning on me - it's going to be a real adventure.

Packed my drop bags yesterday - including individual bags of porridge, protein powder and skimmed milk powder for breakfasts. And there's more - random flavours of porridge so I won't know what I'm getting still I make it !! Living life on the edge.

Main rucksack - Inov8 Racepac 32 - is really very full, but I went through everything with Jenny and apart from a couple of unnecessary bags, it's all essential kit or food and snacks. Reckon it weighs about 7kg which is pretty good but feels like a ginormous stuffed sausage - will re-pack before the start and put some stuff in the outside pocket.

Training's gone really well - did 3 consecutive week's of 81, 73, and 83 miles respectively which was really pleasing. Eased right off last week - only 3 runs for just under 30 miles. Now feeling really lethargic but hopefully that's the taper.

Got to catch the train to Edale on Friday for the briefing in the evening - and then I really will be nervous!!

It's going to be interesting......

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

Firstly, Happy New Year to anyone who happens to read this!

On Wednesday, the girls went ultra-shopping at Meadowhall, so I took the chance to get some training in and had a great day out in the Yorkshire Dales. This is an area I'm only just beginning to explore - Jenny and I had a lovely weekend at Boulton Abbey in November. Left at 6 on the way to Horton-in-Ribbledale. Unfortunately discovered that he heating in my car had broken (again!!) - it has no temperature control and is on max all the time. This would be tolerable in a cold winter but on a late December morning of 10C, I had to drive with the windows open!

My working plan had been to do the 3 Peaks, but on arrival, the weather was looking a bit dodgy especially over the Ingleborough area so decided to stay around Pen-y-Ghent. This was a good chance to test out my gear for The Spine.

Off I set, climbing Pen-y-Ghent via Brackenbottom with very strong winds on the top and particularly on the way down via the Pennine Way. Lap of 6 miles in 1 hour 9 minutes, with 450m ascent.

I had now formulated my plan - to do laps of Pen-y-Ghent, so after a quick Powerbar gel it was back on up again!

On the third lap, I met some fell runners out training for the Three Peaks in April. Had a good natter with them on the way up.

The wind was now becoming ferocious and you could hear it howling over the summit from lower down. This culminated when I was actually blown over near the top, landing heavily on a rock and sustaining a decent graze on my arm. Bloody hurt! And ripped my gloves too!! Had a quick lunch on top, then back down leaning heavily into the wind to avoid being blown across the hill - brilliant!

In all I did 4 laps of Pen-y-Ghent, for a total of 24 miles and 1900m ascent, with all laps pretty much in the same time. felt really strong and could have done more but the light was fading and the wind had got stronger and stronger all day.

Really happy with my new gear - Montane Powerstretch pants/leggings amazingly comfortable and absolutely loving my new Inov8 Race Pak 32 rucksack.

 Finished a great day out with a superb hot chocolate at the Pen-y-Ghent cafe.