Monday, September 25, 2017

The Spine Fusion - The Good,The Bad, The Ugly Part 1

I started writing this blog after the race at the end of June. It has been a painful task; the experience still hurts, the disappointment still very raw.

In summary, I had 3 of the best running days of my life (The Good), 1 day of abject misery (The Bad), 3 days of being absorbed with helping others reach the finish line, and subsequently have had a period of swinging emotions (The Ugly). To be quite frank, I feel as though I am still going through a sort of grieving process as far as the outcome of this race is concerned. There has been misery, non-acceptance, anger.

Part One – The Good

I’d always fancied running the Pennine Way in the summer – dry, warm conditions with long sunny days. Glorious sunrises and wonderful sunsets. So, when the Spine Fusion was announced, it was a done deal that I’d be playing.

It took me a long time to get over the January Spine debacle. I should never have started and paid the price by feeling totally under the weather well into February and simply lacking energy. However, more recently, I felt that I was running very strongly especially during my long hilly runs. So, although my training had been a little erratic and certainly much less than in the build-up to The Spine, I felt good coming into the Fusion. I was pretty sure that I’d finish, barring injury as the “summer” conditions (see above) would suit me.

I travelled down from Cumbria with Bobby Cullen. Having heard about my interesting conversation, Bobby had booked himself into 1st class for the initial leg to Manchester!
I had been looking forward to seeing my old Spine friend, Gary Morrison and was delighted to see him board our train in Manchester. We caught up across the crowded carriage on the way to Edale.

Registration and kit check safely negotiated, I dropped my stuff off at my B&B then wandered back down to the race briefing. Caught up with all the Spine bunch. Not much in the way of new information in the briefing, but I did leave with a better knowledge of both the Country Code and the Highway Code! Still struggle with Morse Code though.

Pleasant dinner at The Ramblers on a Spine veterans (lunatics?) table. Myself, Bobby, Gary, Karl Shields and Rob Spalton reminisced about the good old days when men were men, and life was tough.

Slept as well as you’d expect before such and undertaking. I felt remarkably calm and relaxed as I headed down to the village hall. There was the usual nervous anticipation in the room so I found a quiet spot and prayed for strength.

I had decided not to undertake my usual Spine sprint start as this was a new event.
Saw Kevin Otto, “So usual sprint start then Richard?” A question echoed by several others

Gary Marlow threw down the gauntlet. He had fire in his eyes! Oh well, got to keep the people happy. Fortunately, the start was uneventful, and everyone got away smoothly……

After a slight footwear issue, I set off steadily out of Edale. Very quickly Mark Denby, who was running the Flare, moved ahead. A man on a mission. I was running with 2 other Flare runners. Going up Jacob’s Ladder, I was on my own. This was the last time I saw any other runners during the race.

Crossing Snake Pass I grabbed a snack bar from the impromptu checkpoint – and was told that I wasn’t in their race!! Descending from Bleaklow, I managed to negotiate the descent on my feet and without breaking any equipment (see Challenger 2017). At Torside, it was nice to see Caroline McCann who was out supporting the race.

It felt strange to be alone so early in the race and have no one else in sight. I certainly hadn’t planned this and was just going along at my normal “out all day in the hills” pace. I decided to treat the race as simply a series of long training days which is how I tend to train leading up to the Spine events. Happy in my own world, I was soon up and over Black Hill.  Heading towards White House, I counted off the road crossings.

After some morning cloud and light drizzle, it was a lovely bright afternoon as I passed Stoodley Pike and ran down towards Hebden Bridge. The advantage of having run this section a couple (??) of times is that I didn’t have to refer to any navigational aids all day. A progress report from my Mum – as usual glued to the trackers – informed me of a decent lead and enquired in to my possible use of rocket fuel!

The path out of the valley was fairly overgrown but I was soon heading down towards the checkpoint, arriving after a most pleasant 9.5 hours. I wanted to be back on the Pennine Way before anyone else was in view – out of sight, out of mind. A good feed, kit replenished, feet sorted (unusually I had a couple of small blisters) and clean socks, and I was back out again in 30 minutes. I saw no other runners.

I soon settled back into my running on a pleasant evening, passing Top Withins in full daylight. I don’t remember where it got dark but I do remember seeing Matt Clayton hunkered down in the bus shelter near Cowling.

The night went quickly. I was able to turn my headtorch off at 04:00; a slight change from the summer version of the Spine. I was having a great time. I felt great, I was running completely within myself and it just felt like I was out playing.

 It was just beginning to rain as I approached Malham Tarn around 05:00. Jenny had been away with work for 2 weeks and due to time differences/jet lag was aiming to set off early and say hello at Malham Tarn before joining the main support team at Hawes. She had called me earlier to say she was on her way. I couldn’t wait to see her. I had a quick snack, drink and chat with Harshan Gill et all, expecting Jenny to turn up at any moment. After 45 minutes, I decided to push on, having missed a short sharp downpour. Jenny rang me a few minute later to say she couldn’t find the way in to the checkpoint! Next stop Horton in Ribblesdale!

Making good time over Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent, a section I always enjoy, I made my way down towards Horton. The cloud was beginning to clear and it was turning into a lovely morning. Jenny was waiting at the café and after a quick cuddle, I was on my way to Hawes feeling freshly invigorated.

High Cam Road is a great deal more pleasant on a sunny, June morning than a freezing cold, blustery January night! It also seems a lot shorter in the daylight. I was soon heading down towards Hawes and then to the checkpoint at Hardraw at about 14:30

Jenny was here, heading up the checkpoint, and I was treated to royal treatment was the full complement of checkpoint staff and medics. Fed, watered and feet sorted I was on my way again, with a plan to stop at Tan Hill for a proper feed and a quick nap if needed.

I had a great few hours, going up Great Shunner Fell, down to through Thwaite and Keld and on to Tan Hill, all in lovely afternoon and early evening sun. 

Harshan met me just before the pub and escorted me in. I was feeling in need of some normal food; lasagne followed by sticky toffee pudding really hit the mark. Apparently no other runners had gone through the last checkpoint yet, which gave me a lead of 15 miles!  This felt rather bizarre as I didn’t feel that I was particularly pushing it but I seemed to be stretching my lead. I decided to have a quick nap (my first of the race) on one of the most comfortable sofas. I slept well for an hour or so; I wonder what the other patrons thought of me sprawled on a sofa!

I headed out in the last vestiges of light. The post-Tan Hill bog was most un-boglike. I hardly recognised it and just about managed to emerge the other side with dry feet. Almost! It was a wonderful clear night and there were numerous owls in the air; I felt very lucky.

Moving towards the A66, the temperature had dropped considerably and it was feeling decidedly chilly. Having crossed the A66, I stopped briefly in the shooting cabin to put on an extra layer and over-trousers. I was also feeling very sleepy and fancy I may have fallen asleep for a few minutes!

The next section, up and down past reservoirs, always seems to drag on. I stopped to pay homage to the green-doored barn, site of my DNF in the very first Spine in 2012. It was feeling decidedly cold now.

I was able to turn my headtorch off at 03:45. It seemed that the glow of sunset had given way almost seamlessly to the glow of sunrise. Heading down to Middleton in the light, I felt really good and was looking forward to arriving at the checkpoint and a few hours sleep.

The new checkpoint seemed to take ages to get to which was frustrating especially as I knew I’d have to retrace my steps back through Middleton. Arriving at about 05:30 I had something eat before putting my head down for a couple of hours of well earnt sleep.
On waking, John Bamber fed me with a couple of portions of chocolate porridge whilst Kevin the Medic sorted out my feet in a most artistic manner. I could barely get my shoes on as my feet were already very swollen. Jenny arrived just before I left for a little moral support and offered to get me a size larger shoes.

Leaving around 08:00, I set off on the long trip back to Middleton (!!) and headed up the Tees valley. This is a beautiful part of the world – almost reminding me of a scene from the wild west as the valley opens out. It was great to see Bobby Cullen out supporting the race after his earlier DNF. The Spine family is great.
After Cauldron Snout, I had a nose bleed of biblical proportions. I had to lie on my back for a few minutes to stem the torrential flow and felt decidedly peculiar for a while. Coming up to High Cup Nick – surely one of the best views in England – and looking down to Dufton, I decided a quick stop at the café was warranted prior to the fun and games of Cross Fell.

Paul Wilson was out and about on the way down to Dufton, and I had a most pleasant few minutes at Dufton café in the afternoon sun with a piece of cake, Paul, Harshan and Kevin the Medic. I had a strange realisation that they could sit, relax and chat all they wanted but I needed to go up Cross Fell!

The climb up to the Cross Fell plateau seemed to take ages. It was very warm and muggy and I remember having to refill water bottles at least once. For the first time, I began to feel the distance in my legs. However once at the top, I made good time over the two Dunns and Cross Fell. I was planning on just popping my head into Greg’s Hut to say hello but on arrival there was a group of D of E’ers taking up residence and no sign of the proprietor of the noodle bar. Heading down, I met the advance party making their way up. I felt quite chuffed that I had beaten the Bamber to Greg’s Hut.

I ran strongly down towards Garrigill. After 3 days out on my own, I could distinguish curlews, golden plovers and oyster catchers by call alone. I watched and listened to nature in the glow of early evening – a glorious few miles.

The final climb up to the Alston checkpoint felt like hard work, and I was relieved to finally arrive – it had been a long day at the office. However, I knew that, barring disaster, I had a virtually unassailable lead, and therefore I planned on having a solid night’s sleep before the final two stages. I knew the weather was due to change dramatically overnight but I had packed my winter Spine waterproofs so was prepared for it.

Jenny was checkpoint mother at Alston and proceded to feed me – probably with lasagne as this seemed to be my staple diet up the Pennine Way. I relaxed a little and caught up with social media before quickly falling asleep.

I had planned to leave around between 4 and 5am but overslept a little and then took a while to ensure I had all the kit I might need. It was now raining steadily but I had all the right gear. I also had my very nice new pair of blue Speedcross that I could get my feet into.

I had a load of crumpets for breakfast, eating whilst my feet were once again seen to. On hindsight, I wasn’t really concentrating and probably didn’t have enough to eat but I had packed extra for the trip.

I left feeling really positive. I had split the remainder of the race into manageable portions – 20 miles to Greenhead, 10 along Hadrians Wall, then 10 to Bellingham, expecting to arrive around 10 pm. I planned a few hour’s sleep, leaving in the small hours. 12 miles to Bellingham and then just the Cheviots!

This was proving to be my greatest sporting achievement ever. Now I just needed to keep on moving forward and finish it off.

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