Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Spine 2015 - Race Report Part 1

Not entirely sure where to start this one. Does it start in December 2011 when I first heard about this mad new event called The Spine? Or last November when I finally decided to enter this year’s event? Or on the start line itself?

After a dismal DNF in last year’s event, I swore that I would never take part in the full Spine again. However, coming into November, I was in great shape, feeling really strong and the Spine was calling me again. A few emails later, and helped by some subtle persuasive tactics by Damian Hall, I was in again. This would be my 4th start and it absolutely had to be my 2nd finish; failure was not an option.

In the 8 weeks leading up to The Spine, I trained harder than I ever have previously, spending as much time as possible in the hills (primarily the Peak District). For the first time I recce’d parts of the course – Marsden through to Hawes, and Dufton to Bellingham. I averaged 75 miles/week with around 2300m of ascent. I was fit and uninjured. I was feeling incredibly positive and in just the right place mentally. I had no excuses.

Jenny and I arrived in Edale on Friday afternoon in time to dump our stuff at the B&B before heading off to the briefing. It was great to see so many old friends again. The Spine really is an extended family. I felt relaxed and amongst friends but there were many anxious looking faces nervously glancing around.

After the obligatory kit check, it was off for dinner at The Ramblers with Damian and Gary (Morrison). With his unrivalled 3/3 Spine finishes, Gary had decided to enter the Challenger this year. Pavel joined us but wasn’t eating until he got back to the youth hostel. He was on his third beer; perhaps he knows something we don’t!

Following a reasonable night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we headed for the start line, only to find out that the start had been delayed for 2 hours until 11.30. The wind had been picking up through the night and was by now as strong as I had ever encountered in Edale. Goodness knows what the tops would be like.

This was my first mental test. I didn’t stress. I didn’t dwell upon all the new variables associated with starting 2 hours later. I didn’t hang around and discuss the delay to death. Jenny & I went back to the B&B and watched TV for 2 hours – I have never watched an entire cookery show before!

Back to the start for a second time, the wind had eased slightly. Standing on the start-line I considered the task ahead but tried to only think of today’s section to Hebden Hey. Considering the whole is too mind-bogglingly massive. One step at a time, one section at a time.

I had a plan and this year I was going to stick to it:
  1. Move quicker than previously but….
  2. Ensure enough rest and better sleep
  3. Keep myself adequately fueled at all times
  4. Layer up and down more efficiently
Section 1: Edale to Hebden Hey CP1- “Leading the way”

All set.....
First important task was to negotiate my traditional sprint start without pulling a hamstring or falling flat on my face. Hitting the road, I had a sizeable lead. Now I just had to hang on for the last 267.5 miles!

And they're off.....
Pavel and Eugeni surged ahead and promptly took a wrong turning up to where the race briefing had been held. Damian & I led up to the official start point of the Pennine Way. Heading towards Jacobs Ladder, Pavel, Eugeni & Eoin Keith were 100m ahead of Damian and myself. I didn’t feel that I was going too fast but there was no one else within 400m. The wind was howling down Jacobs Ladder and once on top, the wind was savage; stronger than I have ever experienced on Kinder.

Approaching Kinder Downfall, we were met by an amazing spectacle. Kinder Downfall was in fact Kinder Upfall – the wind was blowing the water back up again. Simply a staggering sight.

Kinder Upfall
We were now running straight into the wind which made progress really tough. Damian took great pleasure in announcing that a certain part of his anatomy was cold. I declined to offer assistance.

Approaching Snake Pass Damian & I had lost sight of the leading 3 runners. Turning around we saw them a couple of minutes back. They had got confused in all the excitement at Kinder Downfall and headed off in the wrong direction. Damian & I gloriously led the Spine race over Snake Pass.

This then set the scene for the next few hours, with the 5 of us essentially running together. As I have now become used to, I was losing time on the downs but gaining it back on the ups. Up and over Bleaklow, then down to Torside. The wind still ferocious, Damian’s bits still cold.

I enjoyed running with Eugeni carrying on our own version of Spanglish from last year! Just before Waseenden Head, Eugeni had a nasty fall, badly hurting his knee. He was to carry on manfully but was forced to retire at Hawes with a ligamental injury.

Damian had ceased to mention his icy extremity. I assumed it had either warmed up or fallen off!

At Wassenden Head, there was the welcome sight of Jenny with cup of tea and doughnut in hand. Heading down towards the reservoirs it was time to don headtorches as the 5 of us headed into the night.

Coming along Standedge, the other 4 led by Damian missed the turning and started to head towards Oldham on the imaginatively named Oldham Way. I called them back and suggested that Damian should get himself a decent guidebook!

Approaching White House Pub, I was aware of playing ‘keep up’ with the other 4 runners and decided to back off a bit. The Spine can’t be won on the first day, but it can certainly be lost. Jenny was here and it would be the last time I would see her until Kirk Yetholm, so I took 10 minutes to refuel and have a love.

I made good time to CP1 at Hebden Hey, meeting Pavel coming up the road from the CP, then Damian and Eugeni just leaving the CP.

It had taken me 11 hours from Edale – my previous best was 12.5 hours, but I felt really strong. However, I was feeling a bit sleepy and made a tactical decision to have a quick sleep. Unfortunately, the CP was really noisy and I forgot that I had packed some earplugs – 2 hours lying down translated into only 45 minutes sleep.

Section 2: Hebden Hey CP1- Hawes CP2 “Solitude, Reunion, Fear”

The next 26 miles to Gargrave was possibly the lowest section of the race for me. I didn’t see another competitor at all. I invariably train on my own and love the solitude of the open hills but for whatever reason I found this section really tough mentally. I didn’t want to be here and I didn’t need to be here – I began plotting my escape route along with some solid excuses. Jenny texted me to let me know that my parents were coming up to Gargrave and/or Malham to see me – even better a lift home!

I called Jenny:
R: I’m fed up and I’m not having any fun
J: You are going to finish, aren’t you?
R: I’ll do my best
J: No, you ARE going to finish, aren’t you? Because I’m not picking you up until next Friday in Kirk Yetholm!
R: Yes, I’m going to finish

Sunrise made life seem a little rosier but I really wasn’t having much fun. Approaching Gargrave, I was looking forward to a couple of pastries from the Co-op, but decided to pop into the Dalesman café and see if anyone was there. By some incredible chance, who was there but Gary, just preparing to leave.

Crossing the road to the Co-op I was nearly run over by some doddery pensioners who then had the nerve to hoot me! Hi Mum & Dad! Mum gave me some pocket money for my lunch and I then got told off for spending it all!

Leaving Gargrave with Gary, I was fueled up, my enthusiasm was back and I was on my way again. Even some heavy rain on the way to Malham failed to dampen my spirits.
Entering Malham, Gary & I made our annual pilgrimage to the Malham cake shop, where my parents had taken up residence. In a departure from previous years, I declined the carrot cake and had a plate of chips, followed by a Bakewell slice. And very good it was too. Simon Beasley then joined us – a fellow cake aficionado. Mum was trying to force feed me, with moral support from my Dad. It was great to see them, and they seemed to enjoy the Spine experience!

Gary, Simon & I headed out with full bellies. Stopping briefly at Malham Tarn CP1.5 we learnt that we were being diverted down to Horton just short of Pen-y-Ghent due to severe wind conditions.

It's raining and I don't care!
We made short shrift of Fountain Fell. Doing this in the light during a recce made it far easier to visualize the route even in the dark. We were soon on our way down towards Horton. Fortunately I knew the detour well, having often ascended in that direction from Horton. We were fed well at Pen-y-Ghent café with beef stew and dumplings. I discovered HP sauce – the Spiner’s condiment of choice. It was also good to see Mark Caldwell, this year guesting on the Mountain Safety Team.

Now it was the long 15 mile drag to Hawes. This section always seems to last forever during the Spine but is surprisingly easy on a recce in the light. With what was essentially a tailwind we made good time. With the temperature beginning to drop noticeable, we turned northwards towards Hawes and were immediately met by a savage crosswind.

I’ve spent many long days in the hills of Great Britain but I have never encountered wind like this. Poles had to planted into the hill for each step. Often we had to face into the hill with both poles planted whilst a particularly ferocious gust passed. One mile must have taken the best part of an hour. There was no conversation; it was each man for himself. I was as scared as I’ve ever been on the hills, and probably the first time that I have felt genuinely scared during the Spine.

Eventually we descended sufficiently to be out of the worst of the wind. We had missed a right turn and had come down too low; hardly surprising as survival had been the priority. We navigated our way back on track and eventually down to Hawes and CP2 arriving at 03:30. We heard that many were being held at Malham Tarn due to the wind, and that those at Hawes were being held until 08:00.

Simon and I had already decided to continue together as we seemed to be travelling at the same speed and have the same view on cake stops and adequate rest. We decided to try and get 3-4 hours sleep and leave by 10:00.

I’ve always considered Hawes as a critical point in the Spine. The event really starts here. Reach Hawes in decent shape and you’re really in the mix.

The few hours rest at Hebden Hey had definitely made a difference in keeping the sleep demons at bay through this long section.

Section 3: Hawes CP2  - Middleton CP3 “Consolidation”

Having remembered my earplugs this time, I had a solid few hours sleep and woke feeling relatively refreshed.

We left on schedule in about 12th place. I had reached Hebden Hey in 5th place and had not been overtaken by anyone on course – I had ‘lost’ places either in checkpoints or cake shops. I was running my own race, and not wanting to short change myself on sleep or fuel. See food, eat it.

I have to admit that I very nearly left my headtorch at Hawes. Fortunately a last minute visit to the powder room gave me a chance to mentally run through all my kit, and remember that I’d left my headtorch charging.

Coming out of Hawes, the road was completely flooded. Fortunately a friendly local had told us to divert round the sports field which avoided an early morning swim. As we climbed Great Shunner Fell we were again met by exceptionally strong winds making progress tricky at times. Running through Thwaite, we were met by a couple of friendly support team faces. Apparently we were the only people that they’d seen smiling. We were just enjoying the journey.

After a couple of navigational embarrassments requiring some off-piste work, we were soon passing Keld and on our way to the haven that is Tan Hill. The stretch up to the pub always seems to take longer than expected; perhaps it is the promise of a hearty meal and warmth that awaits.

We reached Tan Hill in the last remnants of daylight. Not one to miss a chance, I ordered soup, chips, a bacon butty, and the obligatory hot chocolate. I am sad to report that I couldn’t manage it all and half the chips were donated to worthy causes. I spotted a delicious looking chocolate slice as we were about to leave and added it to my emergency rucksack supplies.

Feeling energized, we left Tan Hill and made good time across the dreaded bogs which weren’t actually that bad this year. Chatting away and in good spirits we were soon passing under the A66 and on our way to Middleton. This section requires careful navigation to avoid unnecessary grief and I’m happy to relate that we were pretty much spot on. We spent a few moments with headtorches off gazing at the stars on a cloudless night – with minimal light pollution the night sky was spectacular.

We passed one of my major psychological landmarks, the green-doored barn where I’d been forced to pull out in Spine v1 2012, and pushed on to Middleton, arriving at the checkpoint at 01:00. We were happy with our day’s progress, having pushed fairly hard without any major issues and kept ourselves fuelled well.

After a very therapeutic hot shower, we were well fed (as we were throughout the race). My Mum texted me to say well done and that they could go to sleep know that I was in. I replied back that I was 49 and they didn’t need to wait up for me.

Again the leaders had been held due to weather. Apparently the area leading to and around Cauldron Snout was extremely icy, and a detour was being recce’d and marked. Our plan was to have around 4 hours sleep and leave between 8-9am. There was no rush, and mental rest is just as important as physical rest. I think it’s important to have mental debrief and relax on arrival at checkpoints before attempting sleep, and similarly take a little time re-order one’s thoughts before leaving again.

Never neglect a few creature comforts during the Spine – a few minutes spent relaxing can save hours later.

Section 4: Middleton CP3 – Alston CP4 “Smashing it, Search & Rescue”

Again, we left the CP pretty much on schedule. This section, especially up and over Cross Fell, demands respect and I was suitably apprehensive especially given the wind conditions so far. The route had been detoured to avoid the ice around Cauldron Snout.

We made good time up the valley and had our first encounter with ‘Carlisle Man’ aka Paul Wilson. After a navigational detour through a sheep dip, we successfully found our way onto the detour.

As we climbed the road up to Cow Green Reservoir, the wind was increasing and the temperature decreasing rapidly. I definitely needed to layer up at the top and tried to find some shelter behind a rock. Fortunately we spotted a camper van which turned out to be inhabited by one of the MST teams. Happy days! Taking refuge from the cold, we could layer up in luxury conditions whilst being treated to Dundee cake. After some friendly banter with Mark Caldwell and others we were off again, spirits refreshed.

Ever seen the film 'Deliverance'?
Happiness is a piece of cake!
Brief moments in the Spine make a world of difference. The 10 minutes spent in the van stopped us getting cold and bolstered Simon’s and my spirit and energy. Reinvigorated we made great time towards High Cup Nick and on to Dufton. There was snow on the ground and the sun was out; it was a truly memorable Spine afternoon. 

A glorious day
Happy days!
As we dropped down towards Dufton the skies suddenly darkened and we were engulfed in a blizzard. No sooner had we considered head torches than the snow stopped and the sun came out again. A really bizarre microclimate and we got down to Dufton in the last remnants of daylight.

Due to incoming weather, John Bamber & Paul Shorrock had been forced to move their noodle bar from Greg’s Hut to Dufton Village Hall. We were treated to some very super noodles and various other goodies all with silver service of course. The piece de resistance was a fine glass of wine which had a peculiar aftertaste (and taste in general!) After some consideration on the pallet we were able to determine that it was coke mixed with hot water. A definite taste experience.

Check out the waitress!
Can I recommend  a bottle of the '69 Chateau.......
The 40 minutes in Dufton was well spent as we left on our journey over Cross Fell in good spirits and ready to tackle what is probably the most testing part of the Spine.

We climbed steadily re-overtaking Paul Wilson who had paused only briefly in Dufton. Onto the plateau, snow was obscuring the path making navigation less straightforward. The temperature had dropped quite rapidly but the wind was really quite benign for Cross Fell. We layered up at the foot of Great Dun Fell.

A gorgeous night
Restaurant closed!
We made great time over to Cross Fell and were soon descending towards Greg’s Hut. We briefly popped in to pay our respects. Both our water supplies had frozen – this was despite my tubing being insulted. Ellie and Matt of Summit Fever Media were a couple of kilometres down the trail armed with chocolate and some water. After a quick interview mainly relating to the Ribblesdale Land Rover, we were off again. We were in great spirits, chatting away. We had absolutely smashed this stage and had made tremendous time from Dufton. We were expecting to be to the checkpoint by around 01:00 which would enable us to leave at daybreak again.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…..

My phone rang. It was probably my Mum asking me how I was so I ignored it – it was too cold to take gloves off to answer it. However, something told me to just check – it had been Stu Westfield. I rang back. Apparently a fellow competitor had lost their glasses, strayed off trail just beyond Greg’s Hut and was now in their bivvy. Stu asked Simon and I to go back up trail, pick up Paul Wilson who was a couple of kilometres further up. The three of us were to locate and guide the runner back onto the trail, and then escort down. 

After 5 seconds of doom and gloom, I went into leadership/medical mode. I told Simon the happy news and we started back up towards Cross Fell. Reconvening with Matt and Ellie, they were able to drive us up trail a little in the Ribblesdale Land Rover where we met Paul. The three of us headed up on foot and located the runner about 400m off trail. On assessment, physical condition seemed OK and we quickly made our way back on to the Pennine Way and back down to Matt and Ellie and the Ribblesdale Land Rover.

I called Stu who informed me that as the runner had initiated an emergency call, he/she was out of the race and that Matt & Ellie would drive him/her down. There was a further discussion between Stu, then Scott and the runner. I told Paul to continue down as he was obviously getting cold. Simon and I waited with the Land Rover for 30 minutes whilst the situation was resolved.

Whilst, we had absolutely no hesitation in going to help a fellow competitor, as we assumed others would for us, this 30 minutes was frustrating as we felt obliged to wait but were now getting tired and cold ourselves.

Eventually we were on our way. It felt like an eternity before we got back to where we had been. We trudged down to Garrigill, both beginning to feel very tired. Eating regularly but with no water, we re-overtook Paul who was looking very tired.  We then met the South Korean runner, Sukhee Park, who was going very slowly.

After what now seemed a very long day, we reached the checkpoint at 03:30. Instead of feeling great and in good spirits, we were both very tired, very cold and somewhat downcast. Initially, I wasn’t in the mood for conversation but there is only so long one can ignore Nici Griffin for! Abuse was soon flowing.

Food made the situation much better and banter was quickly restored. We were informed that the whole race was being halted due to Storm Rachel and forecast winds up to 110mph on the tops – no one would be leaving in the morning. Many of the runners behind us had been diverted around High Cup Nick, Dufton and Cross Fell.

With the promise of some decent sleep, I clambered into my sleeping bag at just after 05:00

The next day was one of the most memorable ever in the Spine and we didn’t even go outside!

To be continued….

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