Spine: stage 1, a slow start


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.