Jan 2014

Spine: the aftermath

Or how the Spine broke my head.

Having experienced post race mood swings before, I was expecting the week after the race to be tough. But I had no idea quite how tough. In some ways it was harder than the race itself.

On Saturday I was high as a kite. I spent the train journey home answering e-mails & tweets and posting on various forums I usually just lurk on. The OH picked me up from the station, before heading off to a goth metal gig, leaving me to hog the sofa and bask in a ‘I finished the Spine race’ glow.

The fun and games started when I tried to sleep. I was too high to even try sleeping until the early hours of the morning. My usual post-100 ‘feet being hit with hammers’ pains had started a few days before the end of the race, so I had to take some hefty painkillers to damp that down. Eventually I got to sleep. And a couple of hours later woke up soaking wet and shivering, convinced I’d fallen asleep in a frozen bog and was about to die. I thought the bedroom furniture was dry stone walls and only realised I was in bed at home once I spotted the glowing lights of the alarm clock (you don’t get those in a bog).

On Sunday I was a bit more melancholy. I spent a lot of the day answering work e-mails and watching 80s brat pack films. And wondering if I could find a branch of physics which would allow me to go off on epic expeditions on my own as well as playing with equations. (A couple of years ago I met some geologists whose research involved extended trips to isolated bits of Mongolia to collect rocks). That night I slept in the spare room to avoid disturbing the OH’s sleep. And again woke up, drenched in sweat convinced I’d fallen asleep in a bog. This time I ended up kneeling on the bed, looking out the window trying to work out where I was “there’s some fences, and a river, and some street lights... I’m in the spare bedroom”.

By Monday morning superficially I was recovering well. My toes were healing, my knee/ITB was no worse than it’d been pre-race and I was walking normally. Feeling smug I headed  into the office. And about an hour into the day realised I was in fact completely broken. A constant stream of people dropped by to ask about the race or to update me on things I’d missed in the week I was away. And I struggled to say anything which made any sense (“Germans!”, “toilet floors!”). It felt like trying to pretend to be sober after drinking 10 pints. My body temperature was also all over the place. I had to constantly add and remove items of clothing mid-conversation. At one point I was wearing a down-jacket but no socks or shoes...

Things didn’t get much better as the week went on. The nightmares continued and I was adding to, rather than reducing, my sleep deficit. One night I woke up convinced I had frostbite as I’d lost all sensation in one of my arms. I got up and halfway across the room before I realised it’d just ‘gone to sleep’ as I’d been laid on it. Another night I dreamt that I’d taken the OH on an expedition and his feet had got frozen and he’d had to have them amputated and it was all my fault. And then there was a repeating dream where I was on a very specific descent (I’ve haven’t worked out where on the route) and still to finish.

I’m wondering if my slightly obsessive focus on the route is the underlying cause of the dreams. Or maybe it’s just my head being my head? I’m prone to vivid dreams in times of stress. Or maybe it’s a normal way of processing the experience? Some of the discussion on the Spine facebook page suggests that this might be the case.

On the weight front, the scales said I’d only lost 2kg, but the mirror told a different story. Bones I hadn’t seen for 20 years were visible. I spent the week post race eating constantly. On top of huge meals I got through a tub of Pringles and a packet of doughnuts most days, and only regained a single kg in the process.
 
 
 

Spine: stage 6, the race for last orders


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The night before there’d been discussion of leaving the final checkpoint as a group at 2 am. But I didn’t want to commit as I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I was struggling to keep up with the group and slowing them down.  Like the previous nights I slept restlessly, even having taken painkillers to dull the hammering in my feet. At 1 am I got up and went and told Steve, who was up and sat on the sofa, that I wouldn’t be ready to leave at 2. But by 1.30 I was raring to go, so I got up, forced down some breakfast (for the first time) and taped my blister & smeared my feet in sudocream (for the last time...).

In the end only Steve and I were ready to go at 2, so we left and the vague plan was the others would catch us. I got half way across the car park before noticing my pole had got longer, and grown a wrist strap. I’d stolen someone else’s pole. So back I had to go to swap it for my own. Steve’s badly battered feet were causing him pain, whereas the painkillers I’d taken to dull the hammering sensation in mine had done the job. And without even noticing I pulled away.

On my own I happily negotiated my way through Bellingham and across the following moors. I only lost the path briefly, just before Whitley Pike and had to do a bit of heather bashing. I was a bit taken aback to find someone in a car monitoring runners at the next isolated road-crossing. I’d been planning to stop and have a wee there!

I’d been feeling a bit sleepy on the descent to the road, and this got worse. It took all my concentration to stay upright on the slightly uneven climb and descent past Padon Hill. The steep climb along the edge of the forest woke me up a bit, but the subsequent bog was a struggle. At one point I sat down in the bog and closed my eyes for 30 seconds. But common sense prevailed, this was a bad place for a snooze. I knew from my recce that there were some public toilets a few miles away at the end of the forestry section. So I focussed on getting there. I was still very sleepy, but my legs and feet felt fine and this section flew by. Rounding a corner I thought, in the dawn light, I saw a gritstone ridge ahead, but quickly realised that in fact it was the forestry track. I’m not sure whether this counts as an hallucination, but it’s definitely the closest I’ve ever got.

When I got to the toilets my heart sank when I read the sign on the door ‘closed until April 2014’. But I desperately needed to sleep. I couldn’t head onto the Cheviots in this state (and didn’t want to show up at the monitoring point just down the road like this). So I put on my primaloft hat and top and sat down in the doorway. I’m not sure why I thought this was better than lying down-less contact with the cold concrete perhaps?

I dozed for about 30 minutes, waking up as various forestry vehicles went by and finally waking up for good when Gary and Rob appeared. This seemed to be a good time to get moving again, so I took the extra top off and headed off with them. The power-nap had done me the world of good. I was initially slightly chilly and incoherent, but perked up rapidly as we headed into Byrness.

At this point Flip was manning the final roadside monitoring point and enthusiastically plied us with food and drink and explained the diversion around the ‘super bog’. The ever-smiley Ruggiero arrived, and once it started raining heavily he and I headed off along the well-signposted diversion. He was far faster than me though and pulled away on the never ending climbing forestry track.

As the painkillers wore off my right leg became very uncomfortable. Everything hurt, from the hip down through the knee to my ankle. Trying to look on the bright-side, I told myself the pain would help me stay awake (and I’d been very lucky to get this far before the ITB became a problem). I drip-fed myself painkillers through the day to keep the pain manageable though.

Like on my recce the first part of the Cheviots dragged, and I kept myself going with the promise of a stop for an expedition meal at the first refuge hut. Just before I got there Rob and Gary caught me (moving at speed) and we stopped together and ate. Being extremely nosey I got out the visitor book to see if any other Spiners had signed it. None had so far but  Rob and I did adding to the entries we’d both made, a few days apart, back in December.  After eating I shoved my flameless cooking system back into my rucksack, before realising it was still generating heat (and I was potentially at risk of setting my rucksack on fire).

When we left the refuge hut the guys were clearly moving faster than me, and asked if I wanted them to slow down for me. I said no and I’d see them at the finish. However I finally cracked out my iPod and this gave me a much needed boost (why didn’t I do this when I was struggling on the previous two afternoons?). I hadn’t put too much attention into what was on it. I just dumped all my playlists on and (since I usually use it to listen to podcasts) it was set to play them sequentially rather than shuffle. First up was ‘classic metal’. Starting with all of ‘Appetite for Destruction’, including (for some unknown reason) ‘Rocket Queen’ twice.  To my sleep-deprived brain the lyrics seemed remarkably apt. 10 days later I’ve still got

I see you standin'
Standin' on your own
It's such a lonely place for you
For you to be
If you need a shoulder
Or if you need a friend
I'll be here standing
Until the bitter end
No one needs the sorrow
No one needs the pain
I hate to see you
Walking out there
Out in the rain

going around in my brain. Next up was Iron Maiden (I’ve got the music tastes of a teenage boy...), including ‘Run to the hills’ and then the Hellacopters (which reminded me of the very happy 2 years I spent living in Stockholm). And plodding along in my music bubble the Cheviots flew by and I kept pace with Gary and Rob’s headtorches a couple of hundred metres in front.

We joined up again for the steep, and painful, descent from Auchope cairn. I grunted lots in the style of a female tennis player. Four of the mountain and medic support crew were stationed in the 2nd refuge hut, and 2 of them came out to meet us. We stopped briefly for a quick hot drink. I slammed down one final Mars bar and we revealed our plotting to arrive in Kirk Yetholm in time for last orders. At this point I was high as a kite and didn’t even sit down. I merrily told Matt(?) the medic that my feet were in a better state than when he’d treated them at Hawes. There were still several hours, several lows and a lot of grunting, to go however.

At the refuge hut a facebook thread on ‘what music would you like to finish the Spine race to?’ had been mentioned. And thinking about this kept my head occupied for a while. I briefly considered ‘Weak’ by Skunk Anansie and ‘Pretend that we’re dead’ by L7 (2 of my favourite tracks ever) before settling for the Sex Pistols cover of ‘My way’.

Just before the start of the long descent into Kirk Yetholm I made one final toilet stop, and it took a concerted effort to catch the guys up again. I then started worrying about whether I’d be able to finish my pint without getting wobbly, so I ate my final packet of Hula Hoops.

On the final road section we discussed, and binned, our earlier plans to jog in to the finish. I said my goal had been to finish in the style of Mick Cooper in the early hours of Saturday morning. However not only was I not going to finish in the style of Mick Cooper, I wasn’t going to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning, it was Friday night! It was suggested I could have a snooze on the bench on the final hill to kill time until Saturday morning, but not to expect them to come back and wake me up.

At the top of the final small hill Rob’s wife and some of the support crew were waiting for us. We power-walked in a line, grunting, towards the finish while they followed us giggling. It was a bit surreal. The village green came into view and there were loads of people standing on it. What were they doing? In fact it was a lot of the race support crew and various runner’s supporters who’d come out of the pub to see us finish. I’ll never forget the reception we got. I didn’t even mind lots of people hugging me (much...)! And, as the finish photos demonstrate, I had the world’s biggest grin on my face.

We went into the pub. I phoned home to tell the OH I’d finished and then had a celebratory pint. I’d liked to say it tasted great, but actually I can’t remember what it tasted like. Ian was in the pub, having had a storming finish. And (with his competitive head on) was enthusiastically telling me what I could do to reduce my finish time in future. I was just ecstatic to have finished well within the 7 day time limit.

Then it was into a mini-bus and a trip to the village centre for food and sleep. There were no showers there. It was possible to get taken somewhere else to have one, but at this point I just couldn’t be bothered. Another fitful night’s sleep followed. I kept falling off my thermarest.  After dreaming I was falling down a river I eventually ditched it and slept on the floor. Reunited with my iPhone, in between bouts of sleep I skim read my e-mail and surfed the web. And discovered quite how much attention the race and the trackers had attracted (including some, umm, rather imaginative discussion on the ARmy Rumour Service).

Overnight the hall filled up as more people arrived, in some cases with some epic stories to tell. After my first wash in a week (in a sink) I put together a very stylish outfit from my remaining items of clean clothing: crocs, primaloft trousers and a purple fleece and down jacket before heading to the station to get the train home.

Spine: stage 5, the 1100 calorie brunch


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I had the luxury of a room to myself at CP4, and I got my best night’s sleep of the race. However it still wasn’t a good night’s sleep by any means. It was too warm (and it didn’t occur to my addled brain to turn the heating off) and I got the ‘feet being hit with hammers’ pain that I usually get after a 100 miler.

To get out of the CP I had to climb over Charlie and Alan who were both having their extremely battered feet dressed. Rob was ready to leave at the same time, so we set off together at about midnight. Shortly afterwards we came across a group heading back up the hill having over-shot the Pennine way. My recce memory helped out here, as I twigged where we were and we set off on the fiddly field crossings to and through Alston. Like the previous day I felt great, full of energy (and premature thoughts about finishing).

After an hour or so I stopped for breakfast (I can never eat straight after getting up). I quickly caught the group back up and we proceeded to collectively make a bit of a hash of the navigation. We were never lost, or more than 50m off route, but kept loosing the path. The worst incident left me knee deep in a pile of dung. I decided that my navigational mojo works better when I’m on my own and sped up a bit, to get myself a bit of space.

On the field crossings North of Slaggyford I had my final Charlie ‘fly-by’ as he ran past me (on his hamburger feet), faster than I can move, when fresh, without a pack. I caught up with Rob and Gary (who I think had pulled ahead when I had yet another food/wee stop) and we stuck together across the fields and moors towards Greenhead. As the Sun came up we stopped on a roadside bench and had a snack. I was very jealous. While I took a packet of Ritz crackers from my ‘savoury pocket’ and a Mars bar from my ‘sweet pocket’, they both pulled out freshly made sandwiches. Just before Greenhead I was harassed by a flock of sheep who thought we were bringing them breakfast.

Rob’s support were waiting in Greenhead and I headed off to the Youth Hostel, which had been left unlocked for us, and proceeded to eat. I had an Expedition meal, a(nother) Mars bar, a Mule Bar and half a pack of cashew nuts. A total of 1100 calories. Gary then arrived to have a quick sleep and I regaled him with the details of my 1100 calorie breakfast/lunch. I wasn’t sure which it was. It was 10 o’clock in the morning, but we’d been on the move for nearly 10 hours already.

Feeling fairly perky I headed off along Hadrian’s wall. Having been blown off the wall on my recce, this was the one bit of the route I wasn’t familiar with. The weather was gorgeous though and, for the first and only time, I took my waterproof jacket off. The down-side of this was that every time I lifted my arms to climb over styles, I realised quite how much I stank. To my surprise I loved the short steep climbs, but as the day wore on the flat bits got a bit tedious and I started feeling really tired. I really didn’t like the fuggy headedness which the lack of sleep brought on. I like being able to think straight!

Towards the end of the wall I passed Javed and another runner, who’d stopped to change batteries. We had a quick chat where I moaned that physically I was fine, but mentally I was struggling and the super polite Javed asked if there was anything they could do to help and suggested I walked with them. However I suspected I was moving a bit faster than them (when I arrived at CP4 they were both having injuries treated before leaving) so I pressed on. In retrospect I wish I’d been a bit more grateful.

Not long after Conrad Dickinson appeared, in running gear, with a flask of hot drink. I’m guessing I was a bit incoherent as he asked me how much sleep I’d been getting and what my plans were for CP5. He told me I was first lady. I told him I wasn’t, but I didn’t care (at this point this was 100% the truth, all I cared about was finishing). He warned me about the deep water/bog coming up (‘It’d probably come up to your head’), and I told him I’d already been there and done that and would be testing the footing carefully with my pole. My final encounter on the wall was with the race photographers who were lying in wait in a chilly spot at the top of the final hill.

After the turn off the wall I avoided taking a dip in the bog. The subsequent forestry tracks were really tedious. I tried to sit on a tussock for a snack but it collapsed and I ended up on my back like an up-turned turtle. (I’d seen a photo of Annie in a similar position, at a similar point in last year’s race and had wondered what on Earth she was doing....) Sitting up seemed like too much effort and, since there was no-one around to see me, I started eating in this position. And then Rob and Gary appeared around the corner...

They were marching at a fast pace and I struggled, and failed, to keep up. Part way through the forest a black clad running ninja darted out of the trees. I wondered if this was my first proper hallucination. But no it was someone (Tony Holland from the Ultra Runner store I think) out supporting the race. He was waiting at the next road crossing with a boot full of stuff  you might want after 200+ miles of run/walking. I was extremely grateful for the caffeine gels he gave me, which made the remaining miles into Bellingham a little bit less of a struggle.

Next up was the infamous ‘mud road from hell’. Knowing this was coming made it a bit less of a shock. And I think the rain had actually made it a bit less horrific than it was back in December. Plus one of the advantages of being short is that I could avoid bits of it by crouching and shuffling under the trees. None the less I did swear out-loud (‘for fucks sake!’) a couple of times. By this stage in the race I’d also started swearing at some of the more unwieldy gates.

Pushing to try to catch up with Gary and Rob I made a minor navigational error, overshooting a bridge across a river. It cost me less than ten minutes, but I was annoyed that I didn’t realise sooner (since when did the Pennine Way involve limbo-ing under branches?). At this point I decided to give up on the chase and just plod.

Just before Bellingham Ruggiero (another runner who would have been hours in front of me if it wasn’t for injuries) caught and passed me. He proceeded to go in roughly the right direction, but kept missing the small trods and his presence was enough to disrupt my navigational mojo. So I was paradoxically happy when his head-torch disappeared into the distance.

When I arrived at CP5 Rob told me they’d only arrived 5 minutes before me. And I inadvertently came out with what was apparently the quote of the day: ‘I felt so much better once I’d dropped back from you guys’. Oops. I tried to back-pedal (‘I’ve only got one speed, and you were too fast...’).

This CP was quite small and a bit chaotic. 4 or 5 of us had arrived fairly close together, and there was another pack sleeping. Joe Falkner asked me what my priorities were. ‘Food and sleep’. All the beds were currently full. There was floor-space across the car park, but some of the runners currently sleeping were planning to leave in an about an hour, which was about as long as it would take to eat and sort kit.

There was gear strewn everywhere (jokes were made about teenage boys’ bedrooms and UV lights...).  I found myself a space in the corner and tried to sort my gear. Someone managed to drop/throw their mobile phone into someone else’s food. I had my biggest meal of the week- a huge plate of pasta bake. Since I was ‘the last vegetarian’ I was given everything which was left and I shovelled most of it down while talking to the OH on the phone. As the pack in front prepared to leave I commented that one of them’s drop-bag was nearly as big as mine. He wasn’t amused. Oops, again.

Just after I finished eating and sorting kit, Joe told me there was a bed free and I dragged my kit through to it. I don’t know what the previous occupant had done, but the pillows and sheets were soaked. The room only had 2 beds and thankfully the other one was taken by Ruggiero, who either didn’t snore, or didn’t sleep.
 

Spine: stage 4, I wish I had a willy


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Just before my alarm clock was due to go off someone stuck their head into the dorm and announced that the cut-off was an hour and a half away. Time to get up and see if I was in a fit state to continue. To my surprise the food and 4 hours disturbed sleep had worked wonders. Within 5 minutes of getting up I was feeling fine, and there was no question: I was keeping going. While sorting my feet out, on a bit of a high, I waved my right foot at Scott and told him it was the best thing in the Universe (due to its lack of blisters). Despite the imminent cut-off there was a surprising number of people still in, or even arriving at, the checkpoint.

Heading out I broke into a jog. My legs and feet felt fine. In fact my knee/ITB felt better than it had since May. I wondered whether sleeping with my feet raised on my sock/underwear bag had helped. And then realised that my sock/underwear bag was still on the bed. Even the quick trip back to the CP to put it in my drop-bag didn’t spoil my mood. For the next 4 or 5 hours I was on a huge high and was (prematurely) convinced I was going to finish.

Dave and I had left the CP close together, but he’d moved ahead when I stopped for breakfast and a wee. After High Force he went slightly off course. He was too far ahead to shout back. I shone my head-torch in his direction, but he wasn’t looking the right way. I was glad to eventually see a head-torch back on course behind me. Somewhere along the Tees I passed what looked like an alien. An orange blob leant against a fence post. This, it later transpired, was  Michael, having a power-nap in his bothy bag.

On the tricky boulder falls before Cauldron Snout, Dave, Michael and a 3rd person caught and passed me. I’m crap on technical terrain, and my priority here was getting across in one piece, however slow it was. I wasn’t looking forward to Cauldron Snout but, having packed my poles away and picked out a route a little bit back from the falls, it didn’t seem too bad. Joe Falkner was loitering at the top, presumably to make sure we all got up in one piece.

When I got my poles back out I couldn’t get one of them back together and thought I’d broken it. When I got home it turned out it was fine, but from here on in I was on one pole, like a little old lady with a walking stick... I eventually caught Dave again, and then Michael having another nap, on the climb to High Cup Nick. It was snowing and I began wondering what Cross Fell was going to be like.

Snow on top of mud is a bit slippery, and I slipped and slid on my bum down towards the stream at the top of High Cup Nick. This was actually great fun. I managed to find the path on the other side quite quickly, but then we ended up on one of the minor, slightly more hairy, paths along the side of the valley.

I pushed the pace down into Dufton, trying to keep my body temperature up. A lot of the blogs from last year had mentioned sleeping in cars at Dufton, but there’d be no car waiting for me in Dufton. Instead I hatched a plan to head to the ladies toilets, put on some extra layers and have some hot food before heading up onto Cross Fell.

In fact when I arrived in Dufton a marshall (who I later discovered was Tom who’d had to drop out early on) told me that there were deep snow drifts before Cross Fell and therefore they were holding us in Dufton until dawn. Tom took me to the ladies toilets, where Thomas and Guido were asleep on the floor, having rigged the heater to stay on. I heated some water for a meal, spread my clothes out to dry and settled down in my sleeping bag for an hour or so of fitful sleep. Most of the rest of the support-crewless runners ended up cramming themselves into the bus shelter across the road. In retrospect we should have got more people into the, relatively cosy, women’s toilets.

Once dawn came we were allowed to continue, but in groups of 3. Tom suggested I went with Thomas and Guido, but this would have been suicide. They were far, far faster than me (and were only just in front of me only because of their numerous pub/cafe stops). In the end I was grouped with Dave & Michael, which made sense, since we’d arrived close together. However Michael was still in his sleeping bag and it was another half an hour before we left (although we were still only just behind the 2nd group to leave).

The weather on Cross Fell actually wasn’t too bad. By the time we got there most of the snow had melted or been blown away. It was windy and misty, but nowhere near as bad as it’d been on my recce. Staying together was a bit challenging though. Michael was struggling with an ankle injury while Dave needed to keep moving having chilled in damp clothes in the bus shelter. We managed it though (and kept up with the group in front).

Just after Cross Fell there’s a bothy, Greg’s hut, where John Bamber and Paul Shorrock would be waiting with hot drinks and noodles. In fact Paul, Kat the medic and Mist the dog came out to meet us, which was great. We stopped for maybe an hour and ate lots of noodles, chocolate and Kendal mint cake. However putting my hands back into wet merino gloves was very unpleasant and I made girly squeeing noises.

On the decent down to Garrigill I had to stop repeatedly to wee. Up until then I’d been going with my rucksack still on (to minimise the time taken). However tucking multiple layers of wet clothes back in, in the right order, under the rucksack was tricky. The final straw came when I tucked my wet jacket into my pants, creating a lovely damp, nappy sensation. This was the closest I came to crying on the race. From here on in I decided to take my rucksack off to wee. Yes it was slow, but less likely to cause a breakdown.

On the subject of rucksacks, during the first two few days I was very aware of it and constantly adjusting it. After that though, when it was on, I didn’t notice it was there. Lifting it up and getting it on was another story, however. Post race it took a week for me to stop grunting on picking up a rucksack...

On top of the toilet-stop frustrations I was running out of steam, and dropped back from the guys I’d left Greg’s hut with. On the final flat mile from Garrigill to the CP I stopped, leant against a wall, and cracked out my emergency caffeine gels. Just before the CP two of the guys came back along the path towards me, saying we needed to head up across a field to the checkpoint, despite a CP sign saying straight ahead. The path matched what I had marked on my map, so I convinced myself that maybe the sign had been turned around. It was really steep, but despite feeling crap I didn’t have any problems getting up it. So, looking on the bright-side, my feeling crap was a mental thing rather than a physical thing.

At the top of the path there was a farm house with no obvious footpath around it. We ended up sneaking through the garden, trying to avoid attracting the attention of the person we could see inside. The next morning the penny dropped.  We’d been told at the briefing that there was a farm with a farmer who ‘had a gun and dogs and wasn’t afraid to use them’, and hence we were to follow signs along a track rather than taking the route we’d previously been given through the farm. We lived to tell the tale, so no harm done.

We eventually found the CP safely, and then struggled to find the entrance... First job was to take wet-gear off and put it in the drying room. Which was full of what appeared to be children’s kayaking gear so this was more challenging than it sounds. Then it was time for food. Pasta bake was in the process of being made, but it wasn’t going to be ready for at least an hour. Random members of the support crew, plus runner’s support crews, were making toast but (I’m guessing it had to be cooked under the grill) it wasn’t coming out of the kitchen at a great rate. So I ate one of my Expedition meals as well. And was very jealous of someone whose support crew had brought take-out pizza.

I wasn’t eating as much at CPs as I’d anticipated, so I was rattling through my food supplies, in particular Mars bars. Thankfully Richard did a shopping trip for us, and I asked for some Mars bars. When he got back with my Mars bars he called me “Miss. Green”. Normally this would provoke a hissy fit where I snarl ‘It’s Ms. or Dr., not Miss.’. But instead I called him a hero because, frankly, he was.

While stuffing my face someone (I think it was Colin who I think I spent part of stage 3 with, but I was struggling to recognise people without their waterproof jackets on) asked whether I thought we were on course to finish within the time-limit.  Feeling less bullish than I did earlier, I replied that I wasn’t sure, but I was going to keep going at what felt like a comfortable pace rather than trying to push it. However thanks (I think at least in part) to the weather on Cross Fell, we’d caught up with people who’d previously been way in front. I could’t believe that I was in the CP at the same time as Gary Morrison and Mark Caldwell, Spine legends after they’d finished 1st and 3rd in the first race in 2012.

The mobile phone signal wasn’t great, but I managed to call the OH briefly. He told me that Mimi had dropped out. So, given the incorrect information I’d received at CP2, I wondered if this made me the last woman still going? Curiosity got the better of me and I got my iPhone out of my drop-bag to check the race standings. I discovered that actually Debbie was hours ahead of me (and was leaving the CP as I later headed to bed).

On the subject of being the first woman to finish, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about the possibility. And I’d have been happy if it happened (the small number of trophies I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years are proudly displayed in our sitting room). But being first woman is never  my main goal. With the small number of women who do really long stuff it depends hugely on who’s entered, and what sort of day (in this case week...) they have. And since I’ve only got one speed (slow) racing simply isn’t an option for me. With the British Ultra-fest 24 hour track race last Summer I knew that if everything went to form I’d accumulate more miles than the other women who’d entered. But with the Spine race realistically the only way I was likely to be first woman was if I was the last woman standing.

In fact at this point, given my earlier toilet stop woes, I really wished I wasn’t a woman. I vented my frustrations by telling everyone in ear-shot that it wasn’t fair that I didn’t have a willy, because weeing was much easier with a willy. I even calculated how much time not having a willy was costing me (several hours over the week I reckoned). Someone suggested a shee-wee, but I don’t think it would’ve helped. Not with so many layers of, fly-less, clothing.

And then I went to bed, in the empty, en-suite female dorm (there are some advantages to not having a willy...). I still couldn’t be bothered to take a shower though.
 

Spine: stage 3, plodding on fumes

I’d originally planned to leave CP2 at 10pm, but by 7pm I’d given up on sleeping. The toes on my left foot were looking a bit messy: a big blister on my little toe had formed and burst, the manky toe-nail on my 3rd toe was turning into a manky toe and the base of my big toe was sore. Time to see the doctors. But there was no sign of them-they’d been dispatched to the pub for dinner. I got my stuff ready to go and, just as I was deciding whether to try and sort my toes out myself, they returned.

The guy who treated my feet (Matt?) had originally been taking part in the race, but had had to drop out due to foot problems caused by the wet conditions. He was surprised my left foot was, in general, in as good condition as it was. He insisted I took my right sock off so he could have a look at that foot. Initially he thought it looked so good he was going to call the other medics over to have a look at it. But then he spotted swelling across the balls of the foot, which apparently could turn into blisters later on.

The fix for the blistered small toe was the usual padding with moleskin. The sore big toe was a blister deep under the callous (I hadn’t looked after it as well pre-race as the soles of my feet). It would probably need draining with a needle later on. For now the plan was just to tape it. However none of the medic teams’ tape would stick to my foot. At one point there were two doctors trying to get tape to stick to it. In the end we used some zinc oxide kit from my own first aid kit. The manky 3rd toe was more of a worry. What was wrong with it had a name (I don’t know whether it was the Latin for ‘manky toe-nail due to hacking at it with nail scissors’) and I was probably going to end up with an infected nail-bed which would need antibiotics. For now the treatment plan was to stick a needle in it, squeeze the pus out and slather it in Savalon. It hurt a bit. All of this took a while, in particular the trying to get tape to stick to my foot. Irrationally (since originally I hadn’t been planning to leave until 10) I got frustrated at the rate at which time was ticking by. (I hope I kept this to myself.) In the end nearly an hour passed between giving up on sleeping and leaving the CP. Just before leaving I found Scott to check I’d done the right thing in calling for help for the guy I’d found on the way into Hawes (apparently I had). I also whinged that I was worried that I hadn’t managed to get much sleep up till then.

Remembering last year’s tales of ‘9 layers of clothes on Great Shunner Fell’ I’d irrationally convinced myself it was going to be really cold, and put a base layer on under my tights. And, since it wasn’t raining when I left the CP, left my waterproof trousers off. 5 minutes later it started raining and I had to stop and put the waterproofs on. 15 minutes later I was over-heating and had to stop and take all of my lower-body layers off and remove the base layer. In the process I dropped it in a muddle, rendering it wet and unusable... This was my worst ‘kit fail’ of the week.

Toward the top of the climb to Great Shunner Fell it started snowing, making staying on the path a little tricky and the descent slippery (several people overtook as I inched my way down). On the fiddly field crossings after Thwaite I caught one of them (Colin?) again. We went slightly off course a couple of times (both times by turning right through tempting open gates too soon). The first time I convinced myself I recognised a field barn (highly improbable given the number of them in this area) and we needed to be on the other side of it. Luckily I was (accidentally) right. The 2nd time, according to our GPSs we weren’t far off the route, but there was a high wall topped with a barbed wire fence separating us from where we were supposed to be. We found a track going in the wrong direction. Looking at the map, this would connect with another track which headed back up towards the route. And, remembering a throw-away comment in one of the guidebooks about a tempting track heading the wrong way, I figured this would get us back on route, and it did.

The rocky paths and wall crossings on the way to Keld were hard-going, but at least they kept me awake. Just after Keld we passed two people bivvied out (in one case with an elaborate duck-tape, trekking pole set-up rigged up to shelter their head). I wondered if I should ask if they were OK, but convinced myself that it looked like they were, in which case the last thing they’d want was me waking them up.

The climb to Tan Hill dragged. I was feeling, really, really tired and I dropped right back from Colin. I’d somehow got it in my head that I could sleep at Tan Hill and used this as a carrot to keep going. Someone came out from the marshalling point to meet me. I told him I really needed a couple of hours sleep. He broke the news that they only had access to the porch of the pub and there was nowhere I could sleep. I said (in a lame attempt at a joke) that  I could ‘make like the Germans and sleep on the floor of the ladies toilets’. But apparently there was only one toilet.

This was probably my lowest point of the week. In the pub porch I fumbled with my kit, drunk a coffee, ate as much as I could and tried to ‘man up’. Quite a few people had converged at this point. One offered me some ProPlus. I declined as I was worried it would stop me sleeping at the next CP (which was a bit irrational as it would take at least another 7 or 8 hours to get there). Someone else mentioned there was a shooting hut half-way to the CP so I set off with this as an intermediate goal.

After Tan Hill there’s an infamous long stretch of bog. This was just the challenge I needed to wake me up. In the dark/mist I managed to pick the marker poles and path out (keeping my headtorch on a low setting and sweeping it from side to side seemed to be an effective way of doing this). I ended up with a bit of a pack following me, and I shouted happily ‘we’ve made it!’ when we hit the track at the end.

Ian caught up with me here (he’d been one of the pair we’d passed bivving after Keld) and we chatted for the next few miles. His enthusiasm for the race, and positivity about my prospects of finishing, buoyed my mood hugely. Just after dawn, by the tunnel under the A66, I stopped to shovel some more food down. Ian, and some of the rest of the pack from the bog, pulled ahead and I struggled to keep up with them across the moors. I spotted a hat by the path and, remembering reading about Ian loosing his hat last year, I guessed it was his and picked it up. Initially I carried it, but then decided I needed to store it more securely. Feeling fuggy-headed, attaching it to one of the karabiners on my ruck-sack seemed to take forever. At the shooting hut I decided to press-on, on the grounds that a longer sleep at the CP would be better than two short sleeps.

Just before Balderdale I followed the pair in front slightly off route and my mood crashed again. Michael caught me and (seemingly with energy to burn) took several photos. I don’t like having my photo taken at the best of times. He told me he’d email the photos to me ‘for your children’. I didn’t have the strength to tell him that the closest thing I have to a child is an elderly, bad-tempered, lop-eared rabbit, who wouldn’t be very impressed by them. But if I had to stop at CP3 they would, I thought, at least provide evidence of quite how bad a state I’d been in. He offered to check how many miles there were to the CP for me. I didn’t want to know, I knew the answer would just make me miserable. There was nothing for it but to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got there.

My stomach was growling. I kept eating, but it felt like trying to keep a fire going using paper. I’d feel better for a few minutes, but then ‘puff’ the fire had gone out again. A couple of miles out Richard (who’d dropped out of the race due to hypothermia) was running a roadside monitoring point from his car. He told me the biggest lie anyone has every told me (‘you’re doing great’) and offered me a bewildering range of food. I took a Rocky Road mini-bite and, fuelled by this, recaught the pair in front as they struggled with a style. I probably didn’t help matters by telling them there was an nasty wall style coming up (sorry...).

As Middleton-in-Teesdale, and CP3, got closer I started feeling better. At the top of the final descent Dave, who’d bivvied out with Ian, caught me. He told me (jokingly I think) that I might have beaten him to Hawes, but I wasn’t beating him to Middleton. I was surprised that it’d taken so long for him to catch me, and we made our way into Middleton together. We got to the CP at around 2- the time I’d originally been aiming for, despite my earlier departure from Hawes. This stage had been a very long, very slow, slog.

While I was feeling a bit better than I had earlier, I still wasn’t sure I was in a fit state to continue. I decided to get as much sleep and food down as I could and see how I felt when the cut-off for leaving the checkpoint arrived. I had a decent sized piece of veg lasagne and chased this down with 6 pieces of toast. I phoned the OH to tell him my plans, but didn’t sort my kit, there’d be no need if I wasn’t continuing. Just before going to bed I went to the toilet and was horrified by what I saw in the mirror. With great big bags under my eyes and red weather-beaten skin I looked just like my (70 year old) dad. I also had loads of small white spots along the sides of my nose.

Nici had tipped me off about a warm, quiet dorm. I slept better than at the previous checkpoints, but was woken by someone who came in to wake one of the other runners and sat on my head.
 

Spine: stage 2, the long one

On the climb out of the CP I was surprised to find there were people still headed in (last year almost everybody had already left by now). There were a lot of speedy runners still in the CP when I left though, so I was expecting a stream of people to come past me during the morning. First up were ‘the Germans’ (Thomas, Michael and Guido, who’s actually Swiss) moving at high speed with Steve in hot pursuit. Just like last year it was a beautiful morning, and various fell runners were out and about. Their positive comments were a boost, but it was depressing how much faster they were moving than me. Ian caught me just before Top Withins and, after a brief stop there to remove layers and check feet, he pressed on aiming for a cafe just off route.

Another group, including Dave and Annie, came past on the flagstones across Icornshaw moor and I was a bit depressed by how fast they pulled away from me. I eventually caught one of them, Alan who was doing the Challenger, and spent a while with him. We had the usual ‘where exactly do you come from with that accent?’ conversation (I get a bit bumpkiny when I’m tired). To my surprise this was the only time someone asked the question. Does my accent get less broad again when I get really tired? Or does it deteriorate so much there’s no need to ask? (Hopefully I wasn’t greeting people with ‘ow be yon’ me lover’.) Alan stopped for a meal in Lothersdale, while I pressed on. My plan was to keep going while the Sun was up and stop later for dinner at Garsdale.

Just before Garsdale it started raining, which made me feel unreasonably miserable and I was glad to stop at a pub and get out of it. True to form ‘the Germans’ were there on (at least) their 2nd pub stop of the day. I ordered veg lasagne and chips. ‘Do you want the chips as well as or instead of the garlic bread?’ ‘As well as.’ I sat by the fire and phoned the OH while waiting for my food. A couple of other runners came in to eat. The locals seemed somewhat intrigued/perplexed by us. All told I was stopped for nearly an hour, but felt so much better for it. Despite sitting by the fire I got a bit cold and put an extra layer on.

Just up the road Annabel was manning another monitoring point. Apparently Dave and Andy had passed through a few minutes before and had been a bit concerned that I hadn’t been through before them. This time, with my pub food stop, I had a good excuse for what had taken me so long. I soon caught them and, thinking that 3 heads would be better than 1, we more or less stuck together for the tricky, boggy fields on the way to Malham. This turned out to be the case. A couple of times my route memory kept us on track. I stopped under a bridge to take off the extra layer I’d added in the pub and was surprised to see headtorches coming back along the route. It turned out they couldn’t find a small gate in the corner of the field and thought they’d gone off-route.  Dave’s GPS (a SatMap with a much better basemap than my Garmin) guided us back to a tiny wall crossing which we’d missed and at one point he called me back when I overshot a bridge across the river. I’d missed this on both my recce and last year’s race, and now had an explanation for why on both occasions I’d ended up floundering around in marshland.

Feeling perky, thanks to my pub meal, I pulled away on the last stretch into Malham. In retrospect Malham would have been a better place to stop & bivvy, but I wanted to keep going for a bit longer while I felt good and pressed on to CP 1.5 at Malham tarn. I did try and stop for the loo, but couldn’t get in as ‘the Germans’ were setting up camp. I was somewhat disgruntled at instead having to go al fresco in the rain (I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me go in the men’s loos instead).

I picked a better route across the limestone pavement at the top of Malham Cove than I’ve managed before. There was a bit of crawling on all fours and shuffling on my bum, but this time I wasn’t worried that I’d fall down a gap and break my leg. Up at Malham Tarn the weather was wet and windy but, looking on the brightside, nowhere near as bad as had been forecast. I was expecting to find a sea of tents and bivy bags at the CP, but in fact there was just one, and one person trying to sleep on chairs in the CP tent. I set my bivvy bag up and, after some jogging on the spot, crawled in. I’ve bivvied out in far worse conditions, but for some reason I struggled to sleep much. The intermittent noise as other people passed through the CP didn’t help.

At about 4.30am I gave up on sleeping, packed up and headed for Hawes. This was a couple of hours later than last year, so I hadn’t lost any more time since stage 1. On Fountains Fell I caught up with a pair, including Alan who I’d been with the afternoon before, and, just like the day before, ‘the Germans’ charged past me. Apart from this (and Joe Falkner in a car at the road-head before Pen-y-Ghent) I didn’t see anyone else until just before Hawes.

Perhaps thanks to my climbing lessons, Pen-y-Ghent didn’t seem anywhere near as bad as last year. The long climb up to Cam High Road was as tedious as ever, and this year Hawes was just another CP and not the finish. I was beginning to get tired, and stopped and sat down to eat several times. Usually I eat on the move, but these short breaks made me feel better and also allowed me to get more food down. Like last year I kept seeing things on the horizon and initially wondering if they were something else (last year it was clumps of snow-covered grass and sheep, this year gate-posts and people). There was a camper-van waiting at the top and I got confused about whether it was an official monitoring point (I didn’t want to miss another one and risk getting penalised).

Reminiscing about my Challenger finish last year, I was looking forward to jogging the descent into Hawes. However early on I came across someone stopped a bit off-route, rummaging in his bag. I shouted over to ask if he was OK. He said he wanted to drop and asked how far was it to Hawes. I pointed at Gayle in the valley, and said Hawes was just a mile after that. I told him that I knew the route and he should follow me down. I headed off and a couple of minutes later looked back, to see him still stood there rummaging in his bag. I then realised that he was in a worse state than I’d initially thought. 

I headed back up and asked if he wanted some food. He said yes, if I had some to spare, which I did. I asked if he wanted Hula Hoops or a Mule Bar. He seemed flummoxed by the choice, so I gave him a Mule Bar. It turned out he’d been trying to use his phone to call race HQ. I asked if he’d like me to phone them and ask them to pick him up from the road-head. He said yes. The food seemed to have perked him up a bit, so I set him off on the route down and got my phone out. Initially there was no signal, and then the first number I called went through to answer-phone, but finally I got through. Thanks to the trackers they could see where we were and said they’d send someone out. A photographer from Sport Sunday offered to take over walking him off the hill, and I continued my slow jog down to Hawes. In the midst of all this someone flew by wearing shorts and carrying a huge rucksack. I later discovered this was the super-speedy Charlie who (after being close to the front of the field on day 1) had had a long stop at CP1.5 due to hallucinations and trashed feet. A little bit later I encountered Scott and Stuart on their way to the rescue.

This incident shook me up a bit. The weather wasn’t that bad, and we were really close to civilisation. What if something similar happened in bad conditions, somewhere remote?

On arriving at Hawes I attempted to do some shopping. This didn’t go entirely smoothly. First I went to the two outdoor gear shops. Both of my pairs of waterproof gloves had leaked and I wanted to get some new ones, ideally (I somewhat over-ambitiously decided) Goretex with Primaloft insulation. Not the sort of thing small shops in a small town stock. Then I went to the Coop. Having run my food supplies down due to the sparse food at CP1 I’d been planning to buy a lot of food. But the supermarket was small, with narrow aisles which seemed to be full of small children. So I just grabbed a handful of Mars bars. When someone finally came to serve me at the checkout they made some comment about me having finished now. ‘No. I’m going on to Scotland.’ Judging by the look on their face I think they thought I was making this up.  And then a small boy told me off  for buying so many Mars bars.

The CP was really crowded, and somewhat confused I just stood in the doorway. Some people must have thought I was doing the Challenger and started clapping. Nici came over and sorted me out with a chair and my over-sized drop-bag. She also warned me that I needed to keep one eye on the cut-off for leaving CP3. But I (naively) already had a plan. It was now about 4pm. I’d eat, get four hours sleep and leave at about 10pm, with the goal of getting to CP3 by 2pm the next day, giving me another 6 hours to eat and sleep there before the cut-off.

The food was a bit sparse again, but this time I was sensible and also ate one of my Expedition meals. While it was cooking I phoned the OH. One of his friends, who’s a fast ultra-runner, was following the race online and had texted him excitedly, telling him that various decent runners were either behind me or had dropped out. He also (incorrectly I later discovered) thought I was 2nd placed woman at this point. I said that I was fairly sure that most of the people behind me would either drop-out or be timed-out (given that I was going to be pushing the mid-way cut-off), but I’d be happy to finish last. Because that would mean I’d finished.

I spread my damp gear all over the place before heading behind the curtain on the hall stage to sleep. I managed a couple of hours, but my ear-plugs couldn’t block out the noise from the hall, in particular the clapping as people doing the Challenger race finished.

Spine: stage 1, a slow start


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After a disturbed night’s sleep (I kept dreaming I’d missed the start) we drove over to Edale. I was experiencing a huge feeling of foreboding. The scale of what I was about to try and do was completely overwhelming. I tried to focus on my plan: take it stage by stage, and keep going for as long as I was on target to make the cut-offs and (mostly) having fun. Stay safe, have fun and (if everything goes to plan) jog into Kirk Yetholm in the style of Mick Cooper in the early hours of next Saturday morning,

The village hall was chaos, so I was glad to be able to sit in the car with the OH in the quiet away from all the faffing. At one point he said ‘we should do this more often’. It turned out he meant him come to race starts with me, not sit in car parks in the dark.

The start was delayed due to the logistics of getting paperwork completed, kit checked and GPS trackers fitted to ~130 runners (~80 doing the full Spine race and ~50 the shorter Challenger).

Just before the race started it began to rain, so I put my waterproof gloves and trousers on. Then it stopped and I took them off again. And then it started again so I was struggling to get waterproofs on again as the race started (so much for my pride in avoiding last minute faffing). At this point I discovered a kit issue. My favourite jacket had given up the ghost on my last recce, and I’d bought a (supposedly identical) replacement. But the newer model had a different cut and I couldn’t get the hood to wrap around my face, leaving it exposed to the elements.

As we crossed the fields out of Edale the rain turned to sleet and then snow, and lots of runners stopped to put on more kit, so I had more company at the back than last year. Before Kinder Scout the little finger of one of my previously trusty waterproof gloves started leaking. Hmm, not a great start on the kit front.

On top of Kinder Scout the guy in front kept stopping dead and taking photos of me, which was really irritating. I also started worrying about whether the OH was going to get home safely if it was snowing in the valleys. Heading down to Mill Hill I fell off the back of the pack I was with, but I wasn’t bothered. Staying on my feet was more important than speed. And soon after I came across the first casualty of the slippery flagstones being helped to the road crossing at Snake pass and an early bath.

Across Bleaklow the weather improved, and there were many more people around me than last year so I was feeling pretty happy. There was a monitoring point at Torside reservoir and someone asked me how I was feeling. ‘Great’ I responded (in all seriousness). ‘Seriously, how are you feeling, do you need medical attention?’. Which was a bit perturbing.

A bit later on I phoned home to check the OH had got back OK (I’d been imagining having to DNF because he’d been in a car crash). He was a bit surprised. It hadn’t snowed in the valley and he’d had an easy drive out following one of the race vehicles. Attempting to drink and talk at the same time I dropped one of my water bottles (valve down) into some agricultural bog (i.e. cow shit). Luckily I’d almost drunk all of the water it contained.

On the way to Black Hill the density of ‘runners’ was still quite high and there was a fair bit of overtaking, and being overtaken, going on. One guy, when I stepped aside to let him by on a technical section of trail, commented that he was struggling too. Too? Thanks, I’m just plodding along at my usual slow speed. In fact taking it easy on the flats and ups was part of the plan. In the Challenger last year I’d put on extra layers going over Kinder Scout, but then didn’t want to waste time taking them off and ended up arriving at CP1 drenched in sweat and shivering. This year the plan was to regulate my body temperature by varying how hard I was working. A rivulet of sweat running down my front would be a sign I needed to ease off.

After Black Hill there was ice on the flagstones. I couldn’t be bothered to get my YakTraks out so I tried to walk along the tussocks by the size of the path, which was almost certainly slower than stopping and putting the YakTraks on. I’d hoped to get to the road crossing before dark (last year I’d got to almost Wessenden head in the daylight) but had to stop and put my head-torch on. Only to discover it didn’t work as I’d put the batteries in wrong (a timely lesson, and from here on in I checked it worked after every battery change).

The race briefing had said there would be no water until the White House pub, so I’d filled my bottles up with 1.75 l of water. One of the support crew at Torside had, however, been telling people that there would be water at the next road-head. A lot of people were disappointed to find that there wasn’t, and wouldn’t be for quite some time, and I ended up giving away some of my supplies.

The subsequent moor crossings went slowly because of the mud. I did overtake a slow moving group on the steep climb after Wessenden though (the stair climbing and hill repeat sessions must have done their job, I’m usually the world’s worst climber). My knee was worrying me though. The inside was sore on the flats and climbs, and the outside was sore, border-line painful, on the downhills.

At this point I was with 2 veterans from last year’s race (Annie & Tom). Annie had energy to spare (and kept pulling ahead) but Tom was really not feeling well. In the mist we were keeping a close eye out for the right turn on Cattleshaw moor. It turned out to be easy to find, due to the group of people looking for the path having found the marker stone. The mist was so dense it took a while for me to spot the stone (‘it’s there, right next to you’), but then finding the path was easy.

We lost the path just before Blackstone edge, heading a little left, but this year I avoided dropping too low after the trig point. Like last year I didn’t stop at the White House (just got a top up of water from Ali & Amanda) thinking that there would be substantial food waiting at CP1.

Thanks to the mud I was an hour and a half slower than last year to this point, but the 10 or so miles to the checkpoint didn’t involve mud/bog so should have been OK. If I hadn’t got over-confident with my navigation. Up to here I’d had no problem navigating by memory and I knew that after the reservoirs there was a left turn onto flagstones heading to Stoodley Pike. The mist cleared a bit and in the distance I could see something lit up. For some reason I assumed it was Stoodley Pike (even though it’s never been lit up in the past). And when I saw a left turn onto flagstones headed towards it, I took it (even though it wasn’t sign-posted as the Pennine Way). I happily motored along the flagstones, until I saw some ducks. ‘That’s a bit weird, ducks shouldn’t be in a bog. Hang on, that’s not a bog, that’s a reservoir. And I’m not where I think I am.’ Getting my map out I discover that I’d turned left too soon, and had headed a mile or so in the wrong direction. I could regain the Pennine Way by keeping going, but I didn’t want to risk taking a short-cut (or worry anyone who was watching my tracker). So I back-tracked and berated myself for my idiocy. Again this was a salutary lesson, and I was far more careful with the navigation from here on in.

I caught a couple of people I’d passed before again in the next few miles, but was irritated that a lot of the people I’d painstakingly overtaken during the afternoon/evening were now ahead of me again. After Stoodley Pike the gravel track was really slippery and I had to stop and put the YakTraks on. Before taking them off again for the track down to Hebden Bridge. I was going to have to improvise a way of attaching them to outside of my rucksack to minimise the time taken in getting them on and off. Thankfully I had a handful of karabiners waiting in my drop-bag at CP1.

At the briefing we’d been told there would be penalties for not having our race numbers taken at monitoring points, and that if marshals were asleep we should wake them. I wasn’t expecting to encounter sleeping marshals until later in the race when runners would be hours, rather than minutes, apart. So I didn’t know what to do when I found a car in the valley with a race marshall bib on the bonnet and someone asleep inside. I shone my headtorch in. Still no sign of life. In the end timidity won over paranoia and I didn’t try hammering on the windows.

The field crossings and roads to CP1 were a bit slippery, but nowhere near as treacherous as on the training weekend (when I’d ended up crawling across one road on all fours). Just before CP1 Annabel (the first female Spine race finisher last year) was running a monitoring point. After giving my number she asked ‘is that Anne?-are you OK where’ve you been?’.  I tried to deflect the question with ‘I’m fine, just slow as usual’. But in the end I had to admit my navigational snafu.

I finally got to CP1 at about 3.30, 2 hours later than last year. Scott (one of the RDs) kindly carried my oversized (but definitely under the weight limit...) drop-bag upstairs for me, while I told him about my lawn-mower induced ITB problems. First job was to get some food. Last year the food at CPs 1 and 2 had been great. Huge, tasty meals and lots of snacks. This year, as a veg I got a small slice of aubergine stuffed with rice and I ended up raiding my stage 2 cold pizza supplies.

The CP was chaos. Drop-bags everywhere and people hobbling around with injuries sustained from falls on the flagstones. I sorted my kit, repacking with heavier duty kit for the long stage 2, and then found myself a space, on the top of a bunk-bed. I don’t know if it was me being dim, but I couldn’t spot a ladder so I ended up standing on the lower bunk (while trying not to stand on its occupant) and hauling myself up like a fish trying to get out of water. Having succeeded in not getting sweaty I stripped my upper layers off and crawled into my sleeping bag in my base layers.

I’m not very good at getting to sleep at the best of times (getting my brain to switch off is difficult). And a checkpoint full of snoring runners is definitely not the best of times. Last year I’d struggled to sleep at all at CP1 and headed back out after a couple of hours. This year thanks to ear-plugs, which I’d spent weeks training myself to use (I hate having them in my ears), I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep. I’d set my alarm for 7.00, but before then so many people were moving around it was impossible to sleep, so I decided to call it a night and head off.

My manky toe-nail was sore and inflamed and I’d have liked to get the medics to look at it. But there was a long queue for blister dressing, so I decided to tape it up myself and hope for the best. A DNF due to a self-inflicted dodgy toe-nail would be very, very embarrassing.
 

Spine: the week before

I’m usually pretty organised. Weeks in advance I made packing lists and piled my gear up in the spare room. But I turned into a headless chicken in the week before the race.

On Monday I randomly decided to get a ‘race haircut’. Not quite the ‘very short all over’ most of the rest of the entrants would be sporting (I didn’t want to scare people). I told the hairdresser to ‘cut it as short as you can without it looking really silly, its spending the next week under a hat’.

The main problem was the medical certificate. I dropped it off at the doctors in early December and then it disappeared into an administrative black hole. After numerous phone-calls and visits to the surgery (‘No you can’t just make an appointment with a nurse to fill it in. It’s with the doctor.’) I found a private GP who was willing to fill it in (for £50 for a grand total of 5 minutes work). He told me I looked ‘very fit’. Just as my ego was puffing up, he followed this up with ‘I had a bloke in with one of these forms earlier in the week. He looked like action man’. He declared my heart-rate and blood pressure excellent, but actually both were higher than usual (due, possibly, to the stress of getting the form completed).

For some reason I’d decided I wouldn’t pack my drop-bag until I had the form signed. So on Wednesday night I started cramming stuff into my large North Face holdall. And it wouldn’t all go. I was also flying close to the 20 kg weight limit (as far as I could tell by standing on the bathroom scales holding stuff Crackerjack style). Cue a panicked order of an extra large holdall and some baggage scales to collect from Cotswold Outdoor the next day. I finally got around to packing on Friday morning and, after culling a couple of items, my drop bag weighed in at 19.6 kg.

In the midst of all this I popped over to the physics tea-room to chat to Jenn Gaskell about the race. We burbled over-excitedly at each other while some of the rest of the physics department looked at us as if we were slightly deranged.

Living in Chesterfield, I’d been a bit complacent about booking accommodation in Edale for the Friday night. By the time I emailed the Peak Centre they were full, and I was a bit nervous about staying at the Castleton Youth Hostel as I’d have to rely on getting lifts to and from Edale. At this point the other half (OH) suggesting getting a hotel in Castelton and he’d come over to the start with me.

We headed over to Edale late on Friday afternoon and I left the OH in the pub while I went to the 6pm briefing. This was shorter than last year’s and involved less focus on the different ways in which you could die. I did manage to disgrace myself though. Conrad Dickinson called on various participants from previous years to talk about their experiences. The first two duly provided stories of near death experiences on the Cheviots. He then looked at me. “You did the race last year didn’t you?”. “Not the whole thing” (I tried to deflect the question). “How did you find it?” “I just did the Challenger, (pause) which wasn’t that bad actually. (bigger pause) I’m not supposed to say that am I?”

Kit check was from 6.30 on race morning, but you could get it done on Friday night if you then left your rucksack in the hall overnight. So, to reduce the amount of stuff I had to do in the morning and the OH’s complaints about getting up early, I got mine done. Kit check brings out my worst girly swot tendencies. I don’t just want to pass, I want to impress with how well organised me and my kit are. And I went into flap mode. I’m guessing the kit checker was wondering how on Earth I was going to cope with the Pennine Way in Winter if kit check had this effect on me. He was impressed with my water bottle insulation and blister repair kit though...

Back to the pub to collect the OH and we headed over to Castelton, checked into the hotel and had an excellent meal at the 1530 restaurant. Getting away from the hubbub in Edale was just what I needed.  I’ve finished some fairly serious ultras over the past few years, but (not really looking like your stereotypical ultra runner) I still feel out of place at race starts.

Spine: kit

I’m a little bit obsessive (I’m a theoretical physicist...) so I actually enjoyed the process of finding kit that worked for me.

Since finishing safely, and not racing, was my focus I wasn’t too obsessed with weight. But I did try and reign in my ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ tendencies, and cut my starting pack weight down from 10kg (for the Challenger last year) to 9kg, including food and water.  

The one mistake I made was testing kit to breaking point, leading to a couple of panic replacements in the weeks beforehand, one of which didn’t work as well as the original.


Feet
Sudocream
Drymax socks
knee length SealSkinz socks
Outdoor Research Flex-tex gaiters
Inov8 Roclite 336 boots
This combination did a pretty good job of keeping my feet blister free. The first pair of SealSkinz leaked horrendously (despite only having been worn once and hand-washed carefully) but the second did their job. The boots were good for grip and stability, but had a bit more cushioning, and were more robust, than the 286s I wore last year. Think they’ve been discontinued though. I changed to a pair a half size larger at CP2 (bought half price from Sport Pursuit). The biggest challenge was finding some gaiters with underfoot straps which were robust enough to last a week on the Pennine Way but weren’t slippery on the flagstones.

Sleeping
Rab Ridge Raider bivy bag
Plenty of room for a (flexible) midget like me and all my kit and a lot easier to pitch than a tent. Used this for stage 2 where I was planning to sleep out.

Terra Nova Discovery lite bivy bag
Carried this for the rest of the race (bought cheap from Field and Trek).

PHD custom made sleeping bag
Based on the Minim 400 with 100g extra down and midget length and narrow to give a comfort temp of -10. The race rules stipulated an extreme rating of -10, but I feel the cold.
Narrow width was a mistake in retrospect as it doesn’t have much room for wriggling.

Thermarest NeoAir short
This had been fine for recces, but for some reason during the race I kept falling off it and wished I’d taken my slightly bulkier Exped SynMat Ultralight 7.

RAB neutrino 250 sleeping bag
In my drop-bag for use at checkpoints. Not too warm and also no need to unpack my rucksack.

Misc

OMM Jirishanca 35 litre sack and OMM front pack
I bought a lighter Terra Nova Voyager pack, but it was nowhere near as comfy (or as robust) so I switched back to this workhorse. Never quite needed to fill it. The one plus side of having broad shoulders is that unisex packs fit me OK.
The front pack was pretty much essential for carrying map, GPS, snacks etc. It was one of the items I had to replace at the last minute having trashed the original.

Black Diamond Z-poles

Lots of Ultrasil dry bags in various sizes

Trekmates flameless cooking system
Slower than a jetboil (which I had in my drop bag in case the weather got really cold) but I like it because I can get water to almost boiling point while in my sleeping bag, in my bivy bag.

Petzl Myo RXP
Workhorse headtorch. Good compromise between  brightness, weight and battery life. Newer model designed to work with lithium batteries.

Petzl e-lite

Camelbak insulated bottle

Nalgene bottle and cover
Didn’t get cold enough for water bottles to freeze, but I was prepared if it did.

UVEX Active Vario Sunglasses
Got these post Fellsman 2012 for protection against the wind in overcast conditions. Had googles in my dropbag for blizzard conditions.

Yaktrax run
Used these for the frozen flagstones. Easier to run in than Katoola microspikes.

Harvey’s maps & Garmin Oregon 450 GPS
Since I knew the route fairly well this combination worked OK. I only used the GPS for checking location and the compass function when crossing featureless terrain. Navigating off of the map screen doesn’t really work (c.f. my going around in circles episode after checkpoint 1.5 last year). Something with a 1:25000 scale would have been useful for some of the fiddlier field crossings. Sections of OS map would probably be the best bet. The base map on the SatMap GPSs looks good, but at least some models come with a rechargable internal battery, which would be a faff.

iPod
Only got this out on the Cheviots, and wished I’d done it sooner.

Food

BeWell Vegetarian Expedition meals
Ate these at checkpoints as well as mid-stage.

Mule bars (summer berry & mango tango)
Got a bit hard in the cold, but I didn’t have to resort to the ‘stick them down the bra’ trick. Went off summer berry after a couple of days.

Mars bars
I don’t usually like them, but discovered them on my final recce and ended up eating lots, 3 or 4 per day...

caffeinated Gu gels
A small number of these were good for much needed quick boosts. Should have packed more.

Hula Hoops
My favourite running food, unfortunately a bit bulky.

Ritz crackers

Cashew nuts

Dominos margherita pizza

Wish I could have resupplied mid-race.

Clothes

Patagonia bra
Stayed on all week and didn’t rub/chafe at all.

Patagaonia Capilene baselayer + Rab Meco LS tee
This combination kept me warm and my inner layer dry. Swopped to heavier weight versions mid-way.

Raidlight microfleece jacket
Only used this for the coldest hills (Cross Fell and the Cheviots).

Gore running and North Face winter tights

Rab Meco & Capilene baselayer tights
Didn’t get cold enough to use these so (apart from stage 3 where I wore them for the first 5 mins of Great Shunner Fell...) they stayed in my drop bag.

Haglofs Actives Warm Q Knicker
Stayed on all week. Warm, comfy and fairly decent for wandering around checkpoints in (at least compared with what some of the Europeans were wearing...).

Icebreaker 260 gloves
Love these. Fairly warm even when wet. Wore them up to the Cheviots (swopped to a clean pair half-way through the race).

Montane prism gloves
Carried them as a back-up and put them on for the Cheviots. Mainly because they feel really cosy and I fancied a treat.

Mountain equipment Epic Glove
Bought these two years ago after seeing people use them to satisfy the UTMB ‘warm and waterproof’ requirement. Had always worked perfectly in the past but one hand started leaking before Kinder Scout. Probably shouldn’t have washed them pre-race...

Sealskinz 4 seasons gloves
Brought as a back-up to the Mountain equipment gloves, they leaked even worse. Leaving me out of waterproof gloves at the end of stage 2.

Buffalo mitts
Back-up to the back-up, but saved the day. Not waterproof, but kept my hands warm in the cold/wet/windy conditions.

X-bionic Bondear headband and Rab meco hat
Kept my ears warm and my head warm and dry throughout.

Merino wool buff
Kept it round my neck for most of the race. Not sure why. I really don’t like stuff covering my mouth, so didn’t use it for its intended purpose.

Integral Designs primalid beanie
Carried throughout, put it on for my snooze just before Byrness and kept it on until just before the finish.

X-bionic Balacava
In my drop-bag just in case, but never needed it.

Montane Fireball smock

Wore it while bivying and carried as a back-up throughout.

Montane Prism pants

Carried as a back-up from stage 2 on.

Waterproofs

OMM Kamleika pants
OMM Cypher jacket
Mammut Convey jacket
North Face paclite (not sure of model)

Buffalo smock (not waterproof, but it fits best here)
The Cypher jacket had been my workhorse ‘really bad weather’ jacket for several years, but the seam taping came off en masse during my final long weekend recce. I bought a replacement online (painfully paying nearly RRP), however it seems they’ve changed the cut of the hood and whatever I did I couldn’t get it to cover my face (my head’s big but not that big...).

I put the Mammut jacket in my drop bag in case I decided to use the Buffalo smock (as the OMM jacket wouldn’t fit over the top of it). I didn’t, but used the Mammut jacket instead of the OMM for a day mid-week. It kept my face protected, but the cuffs wouldn’t go over my Buffalo mitts and it didn’t cover my bum properly so it got cold and wet. Bum trumped face and I switched back to the OMM jacket.

The Kamleika pants were on their last legs after 4 years of fairly extensive use. By day 6 they were falling to pieces and I switched to my heavier duty back-up waterproof trousers. Should have got a new pair before-hand.

Thing I didn’t have but wish I did

Bothy bag

Saw people using these effectively for quick power-naps.

 
 

Spine: preparation

My Spine race preparation started long before I even entered the race. I entered the shorter Challenger event in 2013 with one eye on the main race, treating it as a test run. It went fairly well, and by finishing 1st woman (out of 2) I bagged a free entry for the 2014 race. I just wasn’t 100% sure I definitely wanted to do it. The events towards the end of the 2013 race, when a blizzard hit on the Cheviots, scared me. I wasn’t confident I’d make the right decisions (i.e. drop out if appropriate) in those circumstances.

I spent the Spring doing things to improve my confidence in my ability to handle the hills in Winter conditions. A winter skills course at Plas y Brenin (not really relevant to the Spine, but useful in general and fun) and a Mountain Running Essentials course with
Nav4 Adventure (which was great, and I wish I’d done it years ago). I even had some climbing lessons to try and make the scrambly bits (Pen y Ghent and Cauldron Snout) seem a bit less scary.

I didn’t officially confirm my entry until September, at which point I wasn’t doing much running and had had to pull the plug on a training run/walk on the Pennine Way at Stanedge, a paltry ~24 miles in. On top of my existing knee injury I’d dropped a lawn-mower on my ITB and descending was really painful. Through the Autumn I had regular sessions with John at
Holywell Health, and did lots of strengthening exercises.

I don’t know quite how little running I did (I deliberately hid my Garmin). However it was probably less than 50 miles. Not per week, but total in the 5 months between the track race in August & the Spine (one painful 20 mile run and a handful of 3-4 milers).

I wasn’t too worried about the lack of running though. The Spine Race doesn’t involve much running (at the back of the pack at least). Instead my training consisted of weekly hill repeat and stair climbing sessions (both with a 10 kg rucksack). Plus lots of time on the turbo trainer in the garage and some weekends on the route:

i) Hawes-just south of Harter Fell and back
I drove to Hawes after work on Friday night, slept at a camp-site in Hardraw (I never like bivy-ing out before a run/walk) and then headed North. The weather on Saturday was miserable in the morning and I stopped for lunch (coffee and crisps...) at Tan Hill. In the afternoon, after the never ending bog, the Sun came out for a bit, and I broke a gate. I didn’t want to be too late home on Sunday, so I turned around just South of Middleton and headed back to the preceding moor where I bivvied at the wall junction at Race Yate in pouring rain.

The next morning I made the silliest navigation mistake I’ve ever made. I knew where I was going, so I set off without checking the map/compass or GPS. The ground under foot was boggier than I remembered, but I convinced myself this was because of the heavy rain. After about half an hour, when I didn’t reach the river, I realised something had gone wrong. I headed for a high-point to try and find some features I could relocate myself from. But there was nothing, featureless bog as far as the eye could see. I got out the GPS and found myself, more than a mile off the route. I’d followed the wrong wall and headed off at 90 degrees to the way I should have been going. Half an hour of self-admonishment and plodding through bogs back to the Pennine Way followed.

After this misadventure I was running short of time and (after another coffee at the Tan Hill Inn) I headed back to Hawes along roads rather than the Pennine Way.  My waterproof socks had leaked and, after a weekend of being marinaded in bog water, the road slog produced a massive blister across the ball of one of my feet. Finally, to really top things off, I must have drunk some dodgy water at some point. Two days later I had chronic diarrhea, which took a fortnight to clear up, by which time I’d lost 2 kg and had no energy.

ii) official Spine training weekend
This came at the end of the diarrhea, and I felt so crap I nearly didn’t go. The talks were really useful. A lot of the stuff I already knew (from the Challenger or my weekends in the hills), but I did pick up several useful tips (in particular moleskin for blister care and putting a sleeping bag in the drop bag for checkpoints). The Mary Townley Loop was a battle though. I had no energy and was struggling to eat. At 10 miles I thought there was no way way I could finished and warned the organisers I might have to drop later on. But I felt a bit better as the day went on and by the end (I was in the last group to finish at 2am...) I actually felt pretty good.

iii) Middleton-Dufton and back
I wussed out of camping the night before and stayed at a hotel in Middleton (with a lovely chocolate brown bathroom suite). After heading South to fill in the gap from my last recce, it was West along the Tees. In contrast to my last recce the weather was fine and the views (Low Force, High Force, Cauldron Snout) were stunning. Scrambling up the side of Cauldron Snout was a bit scary though. I made it to High Cup Nick at dusk and dropped into Dufton for a quick coffee at the pub. Where the locals warned me of the dangers of wandering around on my own so late at night-apparently I could have fallen down High Cup Nick. I didn’t tell them what I was planning to do next... Which was head back up into the fells and bivvy by Cow Green reservoir, before heading back to Middleton by road and home for just after lunch.

iv) Dufton-Kirk Yetholm
The moment term ended for Christmas I packed my bags and headed off to bag the rest of the route. I got the train to Appleby and walked to Dufton, getting there for lunchtime. Cross Fell lived up to it’s reputation. Misty, and very, very windy (when it caught my rucksack at the wrong angle I’d get blown around). I jogged down to Garrigill to warm up, and found my way through the fiddly field crossings to Alston. The Youth Hostel was full, but they let me bivvy in their garden (much to the amusement of the wives of the middle-aged golfers who’d booked the hostel).

The field crossings and moors en route to Greenhead seemed to take forever and I didn’t get there until early afternoon. After a meal at the pub I set off along Hadrian’s wall. I’d been planning to get as close as I could to Bellingham, but not long after dark a gale hit and I was literally getting blown off the wall. So I headed for the road, and stopped for the night early at the Once Brewed youth hostel. It was good to get my gear dry, but I was worried about what the Cheviots would have in store.

Next morning, in the dark, I actually managed to temporarily lose the wall and end up in a bog. I then encountered a bad tempered farmer’s wife who wanted to know what I was doing out scaring the sheep at this time of day. And then, while on a section of submerged flagstones, one of my feet went off the side and I ended up waist deep in cold water. Not the best start to the day. The forest tracks generally made for fast going though, apart from the mud road from hell. A short stretch of foot deep flooded ruts, which took 15 mins of stumbling and swearing.

After Bellingham came into view it seemed to take for ever to actually get there. I stopped for lunch at the coop, grabbing armfuls of sandwiches, crisps and Mars bars. I don’t usually eat Mars bars (too sweet and icky) but I had a craving for them. After eating most of the food sat on a bench, I headed for the hills and more forestry tracks, fuelled by regular Mars bar breaks. The forestry tracks really dragged and it started raining heavily. Soaking wet I really didn’t want to camp but there was a ‘closed’ sign on the door of Forest View in Byrness so I thought I was going to have to. Until a passer-by knocked on the door and Joyce kindly opened up for me. Not only did I get a proper room for the night, she even dried my clothes and I bought even more Mars bars from her food cupboard.

I was unsure about heading off on the 27 mile stretch over the Cheviots in bad weather, but (having identified potential escape routes) decided to give it a go. Getting to the first refuge hut was a long slog in the rain (and I needed all my layers to stay warm). But then the Sun came out, it was a gorgeous day and the rest of the ridge flew by. The descent into Kirk Yetholm dragged, but I finally got there at 6 (roughly 12 hours after leaving Byrness). And celebrated by getting a room (they gave me the Pennine suite complete with reception room, which I tried not to cover in mud), a pint and a meal.

The muddiness of the route had me worried.  My rough plan was to spend ~18 hours a day moving at 2.25 miles an hour (giving a total of 40 miles a day and 6 hours for eating/sleeping/faffing). But the conditions underfoot were making it hard to keep up this speed. Would I still be able to do it after 4 or 5 days? And I was also troubled by the number of layers I had had to wear to keep warm in really not too cold weather and the amount of weight (2.5 kg) I lost over the 3.5 days.

My knee was fine throughout the final recce, so I thought it was sorted. Until I made the mistake of standing on a moving train with a big rucksack on (on the way to Berlin for Christmas). For a couple of days stairs were really painful. It settled down a bit, but the niggle was well and truly back.

As well as the recces I spent a lot of time pampering my feet, memorising the route and eating. 

All year I’d had problems with the balls of my feet blistering towards the end of 100+ mile races. I knew I couldn’t manage 3-4 days with feet in that state so I had to stop it happening in the first place. I adopted a nightly ‘foot care’ routine: removing the dry skin with a (pink...) pedi-egg (far more effective than anything else, even the over-priced ‘Micro pedi for men’) and then smothering them with E45 cream. While I sorted the hard skin on my soles out, I screwed up on the toe-nail front (TMI warning). My toe-nails are a bit battered and often need trimming around the edges to stop bits growing into the surrounding skin. And on one of them I got it wrong, leaving a sore, slightly pussy toe. Normally this would sort itself out in a few days, but not if I was going to marinade it in bog-water for ~20 hours a day.

Memorising the route sounds batshit insane, but that’s sort of what I tried to do (my head is really good at storing pointless information). I knew I’d be close to the time-limit so wouldn’t have time to spare for navigation issues. I bought all 3 Pennine way guidebooks and read them repeatedly. Most evenings I ran through the route in my head while looking at the map and with my eyes closed. I also made a file for each stage with a summary of the tricky bits and maps (nabbed from one of the guidebooks) with the locations of shops and cafes in the towns.

Thanks to my farming genes, at 158 cm and 60 kg, I’m not exactly stereotypical runner shape. With hard training for Summer 100s I’m secretly happy when my weight drifts down to 57 kg. However below that I tend to get a bit fragile, so my aim was to go into the Spine with weight to burn (literally). Having lost weight on my recces, I spent Christmas eating everything in sight to get back up to my usual 60 kg.

As race day approached I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence, due to my knee, the wet conditions under-foot and a nasty looking weather forecast. But the plan was to take it day by day and keep going as long as I was on course to meet the cut-offs and (mostly) having fun.
 

 
 

2014

I don’t (yet...) have many plans for 2014 beyond the Spine Race. And the goal there isn’t ‘to finish’. Because that might be beyond me, and choosing to DNF might be the best outcome. Instead the plan is to ‘make good decisions’, and (in order of priority):
  • stay safe,
  • have fun
  • jog into Kirk Yetholm in the early hours of Saturday morning in the style of Mick Cooper (last year’s 2nd place finisher).

Beyond the Spine I’ve entered the Thames 184 at the end of Summer, and I’ll probably do something ‘big’ in between, I’m just not sure what. Maybe Hardmoors 110 or another 24 hour track race.