Spine: stage 4, I wish I had a willy


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.