Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Spine 2015 - Race Report Part 2

Section 4a: Alston Checkpoint - "Eating mainly"

With the promise of some decent sleep, I clambered into my sleeping bag at just after 05:00 and proceeded to wake up at 07:30. I’ve never been a heavy sleeper but that was ridiculous. I decided to get up assuming that I’d soon crash and be able to have a nap. First stop was breakfast followed by chatting to……well, basically everybody! It seemed as though Simon, Paul & I were being seen as heroes due to our ‘search & rescue’ the previous night. I didn’t, and still don’t, see it that way; we were simply helping a fellow competitor as I hope others would do for me. Do unto others as they would do unto you; that is the spirit of ultrarunning.

It soon became clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that day. Although it was still relatively calm outside, Storm Rachel was incoming and everyone’s safety was the first priority. This was soon officially confirmed; at the earliest, the race would re-start at 06:00 the following morning.

Logistically this was going to be a nightmare – mainly for the support team. There were around 40 runners at Alston, 1 at Greenhead, and 7-8 at Bellingham. There was just about enough space for everyone at Alston but feeding us was going to be tough. Lunch & dinner were to be served at a fixed time. At this point I’d like to thank all the support team at Alston for making our stay as comfortable as possible. In particular, Leila and Laura in the kitchen worked wonders and just about managed to remain cheerful and calm under the onslaught of 40 endlessly hungry Spiners.

Please sir, I want some more...
I mainly sat around and chatted. It was great to have a chance to get to know so fellow runners, many of whom I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet otherwise. It was good to put faces to Facebook names, although it never ceases to surprise me how many people seem to know my name.

When I wasn’t chatting, I was eating. At one stage I got involved in a doughnut eating competition with Allan Rumbles, Colin Fitzjohn and a couple of others. I was way out of my depth and DNF’ed. Need to put in some serious training.

Just a wafer-thin doughnut...
I was still waiting to crash and burn but felt surprising awake and alert all day. Allan & Colin found a Scalectrix set and managed to get it working.

Other blogs have mentioned that people were getting stir crazy but this wasn’t my experience. Most seemed fairly relaxed about the situation which was completely out of our control anyway. Personally, I was taking the day as a chance to recover, more mentally than physically. A chance to relax the mind after 4 days tough going. It was all part of the journey and yet another unique experience during the Spine.

I took the chance to catch up on emails and was happy to discover that I’d got a place in the UTMB. I decided not to relate the happy news back home – “Hi darling, I’m just away for the week doing the Spine making you worry every waking moment of the day…..oh and I got a place in the UTMB!” Maybe not……

Eventually I ran out of steam and went to bed at 21:30 – so much for having an afternoon nap. The whole day had been truly memorable; real Spine camaraderie.

Section 5: Alston to Bellingham - "On our way again"

I woke at 05:15 and had a panic that we were starting at six. Missing the start of something is one of my perpetual bad dreams but fortunately the re-start was confirmed at 7.

I was quietly apprehensive about the upcoming 20 miles to Greenhead. This was the section during which my 2013 race had very nearly come to an abrupt finish. Also, having recce’d it a few weeks earlier had confirmed it as one of my least favorite parts of the Pennine Way – a 20 mile flattish bog trog. I fortified myself a quiet prayer for strength.

Looking serious
We were soon on our way, a ‘mass start’ for the 40 of us at Alston. Simon and I were keen to continue running our own race but it soon became apparent that the rest had benefitted all. The pace was more akin to the opening day and it was strange to be this far into The Spine and still be a group of 15 or so. Annoyingly, I allowed myself to become aggravated by this – the Spine was meant to be about relative solitude not group running!

The train to Greenhead
Apart from face-planting in a bog, the section passed fairly uneventfully. Funnily enough whilst my face was planted in the aforementioned bog, my phone accidentally managed to call my Mum. She rang back and told me that she hadn’t been able to hear what I was saying (good think as it was probably “damn, shit, bollocks……”) but that I’d sounded like I was in a bog. Funny that……

Simon was finding it tough to get going again and at one stage told me to go ahead. As we approached Greenhead, the pack had finally broken up and a few of us approached the CP together.

I decided to stop at the cafĂ© next door. See food, eat it. As I stood making my way through a hefty slab of cake, Simon popped in and we sat and watched nearly everyone go straight past as we feasted on cake and sandwiches. It was here we decided on a new Spine rule for 2016 – “There will be a 2 hour time penalty for anyone deliberately passing a cake shop without stopping to eat”. I don’t eat cake much so on The Spine I’m going to make the most of it!

Reunited, and refueled, Simon and I left Greenhead and made our way towards Hadrians Wall. We were soon joined by Paul Orton and Johnny Watson, with whom we were to spend the rest of the section.

Making up for the previous 20 miles of drudgery, the 10 miles along the wall are beautiful and steeped in history. It is hard not to be inspired and think of the history as one passes along the ancient remains of forts.

The weather so far had been overcast but otherwise fairly benign given the onslaught of the previous few days. However, it was obvious that rain was coming as dark clouds chased us along the wall.
Heads down as it starts to rain
Dropping off the wall, the heavens opened and we were hit with squally, driving rain which we could see driving up the valley. Spirits and bodies were soon dampened and cold, and we took shelter as we entered Kielder Forest to add layers.

The next 11 miles to Bellingham were thoroughly miserable. The impenetrable bogs through the forests are not much fun at the best of times but in this weather they were infinitely worse. The 4 of us tried to keep spirits up, but my spirits weren’t amenable to being raised. “Are we all having fun?” No, I was not.

I really started to question my reasoning for being out on a cold, wet night in January. Where was the fun in that? I called Jenny for a natter and as usual she gave me motivation.

At once stage we had to ford a stream. After a few minutes searching for a shallow part we gave up and were up over our knees. I was nearly pushed over by the force of the water. This was a day that just kept on giving! On my recce a few weeks earlier, I had crossed this raging torrent without getting even my feet wet.

Eventually, we came towards the Bellingham checkpoint. At least there would be comfortable beds here. Except that, on arrival, we discovered that the previous years comfortable beds had been exchanged for floor space in a communal hall. Any port in a storm!

After changing into dry clothes, we wandered across for food. I still wasn’t feeling very happy but I was soon cheered after hugs from Ali, Amanda and Anna. Having eaten whatever anyone put in front of me, it was time for bed – well time for floor anyway. I found myself a spot under a table which seemed to be relatively quiet and away from the traffic of incoming runners. It was 22:30 and Simon & I were planning to be away by 03:00. I went to sleep knowing there was just 1 section to go. It was there for the taking.

Section 6: Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm – "The perfect finish"

After a reasonable sleep, we were up and raring to go. After a light breakfast of porridge (2 bowls), toast (2 slices), rice pudding (1 tin) and a muffin to go, we were back out into the dark. The rain and stopped and we ascertained that conditions were set fair for the day with no further rain expected until after midnight, and we expected to be long finished by then.

It’s a long, slow, boggy march to Byrness from Bellingham, made even worse in the dark, but we put our heads down and slogged out the miles. The section alongside the forest before Byrness was particularly unpleasant; a boggy grind uphill, then a particularly marshy section to meet the forestry track. Some choice language was exchanged. However, once on the forestry track we made excellent time towards Byrness. We overtook Allan Rumbles, Colin Fitzjohn and Colin Searle all looking very tired having gone straight through Bellingham with no sleep.

A beautiful dawn
At Byrness we stopped at the checkpoint at Forest View Guesthouse and were treated to delicious home made soup, bangers and mash. A second breakfast given that it was just after 09:00! Great service from Colin & Joyce, all completely from the goodness of their hearts.

Soon we were off, steeling ourselves for the climb up into the Cheviots and the final haul across the Cheviots to Kirk Yetholm and the finish. The sun was out, there was only a light breeze and ground conditions were good; it really couldn’t have been any better.

Gradually crossing the imaginatively named hills -  Ravens Knowe, Ogre Hill, Brownhart Law – we made great time to the first mountain rescue point. At various times we met Paul Orton, Ian Bowles and Paul Wilson. Simon and I stopped at the hut for a few moments – Simon to pay homage to his overnight accommodation of the previous year and me to eat a peanut butter and jam sandwich.

As we got higher there were some icy patches. We donned spikes for a while but soon decided to pack them away. Well Simon did; one of mine had fallen off so I didn’t have much choice.

On we marched, re-catching the 2 Pauls and Ian. Just before Windy Gyle, Paul Orton moved ahead slightly, cut a corner and proceeded to go southwards down ‘The Street”. I tried to alert him but to no avail as he was out of earshot. I hoped he would realize his mistake before arriving back in Byrness.

At one stage, the remaining 4 of us briefly missed a turning but soon realized, avoiding major mishaps. In groups, in general, either everyone navigates which take longer, or no one navigates which potentially takes even longer!

Simon and I pushed on ahead with me leading. I realized my legs were feeling great and I had loads in the tank. I wanted that finish line badly. On the last big climb before diverting away from The Cheviot, I asked Simon if I was going too hard. He replied that he was “bordering on anaerobic”. Good!

As we made our down towards the second mountain refuge hut, in the last of the day’s light, we marveled over the day. The weather had been virtually perfect. The Cheviots in January could not have treated us any better. It had been another Spine day to remember.

We were feeling great and had no plans to stop at the huts. Poking our heads inside the hut, we were greeted by Tom Jones and a couple of medics. Tom asked me if I wanted a brew or something hot to eat.

“No thanks, Tom. I just want to see my Jenny”

I did, however, ceremonially eat the slice of chocolate biscuit cake that I had carried since Tan Hill. And it was good.

Head torches on, we powered up and over The Schill with minimal fuss. It was all downhill from here.

The remaining few miles seemed to take an age. We chatted about the adventure we’d shared for the last few days. We’d had very few down moments and had helped each other through those.  The companionship had been invaluable.

Passing Burnhead farm we were having a ball. We thought it would be a good idea to run around in circles or charge 200m off track just to entertain the tracker watchers.

The final stretch of road was very icy and we both had spectacular falls. I had visions of crawling across the line with fracture femur.

As we entered Kirk Yetholm, I saw Jenny who was shouting encouragement. Simon started a comedy sprint finish. We must have looked crazy as we sprinted across the green after 267.9 miles, but we didn’t care. We touched the wall of the Border Hotel together, and it was over. We had finished.

There was no sense of relief, no sense of great emotional release. No tears. Just tremendous happiness.

Jenny and I had a prolonged hug, and I then proceeded to hug anyone nearby. Scott presented us with our medals – the second finishers medal for us both. 

After a few moments outside with Jenny and doing photos, I went into pub. I heard someone say “Here he is” and there was a big cheer as I entered the warmth. I love the Spine family. Someone topped up my free half for finishing into a pint. It tasted great.

After soaking up the atmosphere for a bit, I was dispatched to our room for a bath. I took my beer with me!

Fish and chips have never tasted better. Even better was my bonus portion of sticky toffee pudding and ice cream. Needs must! It was great to see several others finish through the evening, each getting a winner’s reception. 


And that was the Spine 2015. Another unique race; another great race. I can honestly say that, with the exception of a couple of short spells, I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s race. I was physically and mentally strong throughout, and fairly much stuck to my plan.

Thanks again to Jenny who goes beyond the call of duty in supporting me in all my escapades. I think she spent most of the week glued to the trackers, concerned for my well being.

Thanks to all concerned with The Spine 2015, there are far too many to mention. Thanks to everyone whose path I crossed; you all helped in your own way.

The Spine is a unique race. It takes you on a rollercoaster of a ride; your physical and mental well-being are stretched in every imaginable direction. One moment you feel as if you can’t take another step; you don’t want to take another step. You question your reasoning, your sanity. The next you may be filled with energy, feeling as though nothing can stop you. You look around, breath in the fresh air and realize you are incredibly lucky to have such experiences. I find some of these moments truly spiritual. It is one big adventure and that is why I keep coming back

Paul Orton summed it up perfectly in his blog.

“For the last two days of the race, I could not imagine doing this race again. In fact I was slightly bemused by the people who had come back 2, 3 and 4 times. Now, a few weeks later, I know that come January 2016 I will feel a great sense of missing-out, if I am not on the start line. The Spine Race is a great adventure. The organisers, racers and volunteers form a community that is unique to this type of event.”

The Spine has a large gravity field; once you are pulled in, it’s hard to escape!

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