Friday 22 January 2016

The Spine 2016 - Part 1

As I write this, I’m still decompressing from last week. I’m trying to figure out what is real and what my tired mind created out there.
It’s sounds dramatic but I’m struggling to understand myself what my mind as well as body went through. It was a week like no other I’ve ever had, nor imagine I will again.

It’s no secret to our friends, that this was our fourth trip to the Pennine Way on one of the Spine races. The first year, we had a successful trip to take on the Challenger, came back with a medal, t-shirt and a sense of deep achievement.
Why then would we come back to have another bash at the same race? Having got soaked through, kit failure (leaky jacket) and bailed not far from Malham, being repatriated from a phone box by Scott and Justin we went home feeling a little deflated but not so bad as we’d come along with nothing to prove and enjoyed a couple of beers in the pub all the same.

Last year we came back with the intent of completing the full spine and never coming back. What happened was something which we hadn’t counted on. An ignored hotspot on my heel, which appeared 30 miles into the event. By the time we passed over Malham Tarn, my heel was inflamed, and I was limping. Doug did his best to go at my painstakingly slow limp. The limp caused knee inflammation in the opposite leg. Periods of “OK” sorted by painkillers, followed by appalling limping and whimpering. We limped our way to Hawes and uncovered a revolting infected ankle. We were kicked out of the checkpoint almost immediately due to our tardiness in arriving at the CP by an ever patient Nici (though she did feed me Pizza which I loved her for!).
By the time we ascended over Shunner Fell. We knew it was over. I popped behind a rock to make a toilet stop, returned to find Doug asleep. It took us an hour to cover half a mile into Thwaite, the pain in my knee too much. The time running away from us. Our dream of finishing gone and once more, repatriated back to HQ.

Fast forward to this year. This was definitely going to be our last Spine. There was no doubt in our minds we would finish. We discussed our weak points, where we lose time. Where we can cut faffing. Our Nav is so much better than it was a year ago. We’d been on training courses, and navigating events and we knew the first part of the course pretty well by now! We knew we could work as a team and as long as we could avoid injury and kit malfunctions, keep eating, keep moving, keep ahead of the cut offs, everything else was out of our control.
Our biggest asset was that we could now navigate on the move much better and with much more confidence than ever before. I much prefer to use a map, I struggle to get on with technology. Doug is very good with being logical and keeping his head straight. With my thumb on the map, and the odd grid reference check and Doug keeping us sane, we would prove to move pretty well. My other asset was “Cheddars”! which I’d take on last year’s OMM as my race fodder and found to be a great race snack when moving at a slower pace than a trot. I bought shit loads of them, in fact too many to fit in my overfilled drop bag, resulting in bags of cheddar crumbs. Yum!

I won’t bore you with the usual kit stuff. We had all the kit, we’d used it all in anger at various times. The pre-race routine was as previous years, though it’s become a lot slicker over the years from the organisers. The briefing similar to last year, but still we listened intently. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since last year is that I respect this race. I think I’ve been a bit flippant before. “How hard can it be”? We knew by now how hard it can be. Or did we?? No number of blogs you can read can really prepare you for how you will cope. We caught up with familiar faces, JZ was doing the Challenger this year, Jenn was there to see everyone off. We had dinner with Chris Mills and Steve (they were hoping to get round the Challenger in 40 hours. I didn’t have the heart to explain that this was likelty to be a death March from Hebden Bridge, not a trail run, as I have no idea of the training and preparation they had done.)
The race started off well, in mild weather along my favourite part of the route. Up and over Kinder Scout. I could run this route until the cows come home. We were moving well. Taking off layers when required, putting them back on. Not stopping to move whilst doing so. All saving valuable time. Our goal was to reach Hebden Bridge in 15 hours. The main issues which we had along this part was that Doug’s shoes did not like the mud. They just acted like ice skates, his legs going in all directions when he met a bit of wet mud which made the going tricky and slow at times whilst we focussed on not turning an ankle so soon in the day. I urged him to swap shoes at Hebden Bridge as the section following is pure bog and sludge! Nothing much else of interest happened along this part, we were enjoying ourselves and we moved well into the darkness not aware of where we were in the field. Just focussed on not wasting time and getting to the first CP in a good state for a short break, foot check, feed and nap. The ground underfoot along this first section is pretty decent, you can run* (*the sort of run you can imagine whilst carrying a heavy pack!) much of it. We didn’t get our poles out until we reached the last climb into CP1, it’s a shitty part of the route, which I never fail to hate. We bumped into a guy doing the MRT event struggling, so I offered him one of my poles. Some folk took some interesting routes in to the CP round here, but we were confident that we had the correct route in. The mud and slime certainly felt right! We found our way down to the scout hut at exactly 1am (15 hours in) – talk about sticking to the plan! I discovered I was first lady back which was a great boost. But assuming some of the others would turn straight back out again, I didn’t think any more of it.

We had a few hour stop here, to refuel, foot admin, a short sleep in a very hot room, as we were getting ready to leave, I saw Zoe getting ready to go back out, and was impressed to see her pushing straight through. She told me, her parents (who were supporting for the first few days) were parked 5 miles away where she’d get a couple of hours sleep and some tlc. Upon leaving the CP, the snow started.
We dug out our goggles, and added some more layers in a bus shelter. Around here, we were joined by Colin, who asked if he could stay with us, I assumed through the snow storm as the next part can be tricky with Navigation. He hadn’t slept at all at Hebden Bridge so was looking a bit sleepy. As soon as we got on the moor, we took a wrong turn. After correcting ourselves, we got back on track and continued into the snow. As we crossed the reservoir the sun was up, and I was feeling very cold. I spotted a couple of camper vans and hoped they were supporters of the race, I knocked on one door and was greeted by a lady who wasn’t too happy at the racket we were making. I asked if I could step inside to add some layers, it turned out to be Zoe’s parents. They let me inside and asked us to keep the noise down as Zoe had just got her head down to sleep. I couldn’t have been more grateful to them at that point. But I took rather longer than I should have and the others were getting cold outside.

We headed back out, across the moor and on to familiar paths. The pace we had from yesterday wasn’t quite there. It may have been due to the additional team member, or general fatigue or the fact that we could barely keep our feet in one plane. We took a slight detour round a particularly flooded and muddy area, with a steep muddy climb like the travelator from “The Gladiators” (we’d been told this was acceptable should we think it impassable) came across our friend Chris’ van and realised that he’d popped out to see us en route but had gone down the muddy hill to see us. I rang him and he said he’d catch us further along the route.
Dropping into Lothersdale for a bite to eat at the Hare and Hounds, we had too long a stop that planned (about 90 mins)as Doug managed to lose his gloves and the usual temptation of the warmth of the pub kept us inside. Gloves borrowed, and then gloves found, we pushed on and bumped into Chris. He walked with us for a while back to his van and we carried on our way towards Malham. We were expecting this part of the route to be pretty waterlogged as it usually is without the weeks and weeks of solid rain we’ve had lately.

To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I’m sure Doug would disagree with his slip sliding shoes! We reached Malham and stopped for a while in a comfy bus shelter, Colin and Doug went to the Co-Op to pick up snacks whilst I tended to a bit of a hotspot on my foot.
Re-stocked and back on the move, we pushed on through to Malham Tarn. Colin was beginning to get pretty tired, and starting to lose concentration. Convinced we were going the wrong way, we took a bit of a detour the wrong way. Doug put us back on track and we made our way up towards Malham Cove. Still Colin was in a bit of a bad place. I convinced him we were going the right way but he wasn’t having it. We helped each other up and over the Cove which was slick with ice by now and not much fun crossying the icy rocks waiting to suck you into a gap and snap an ankle or two!

We reached Malham Tarn CP1.5 and had a foot admin session, a sleep on the floor (in Colin’s case, he was asleep immediately face down on a table). We headed back out a couple of hours later into the dark. It was pretty icy under foot over fountains fell but I quite enjoy this part of the route, there’s less mud and it feels like you’re well on the way to Hawes by now.
We approached Pen-Y-Ghent in the dark, I hated this climb from the first time I was tricked up there 4 years ago in a blizzard. But after the summer I have had scrambling shitty mountains in Wales it wasn’t as bad as I remember. It was however very icy. I was nervous about any of us slipping to our death. (Dramatic yes, but absolutely likely near the top) Doug took the lead and I followed on with Colin behind me. We reached a slippery patch with a dodgy camber, another racer was frozen in front of us and Doug was trying to help him up. He moved on and I climbed up, managing to find a few good hand and foot holds. I locked myself in position and turned back to check on Colin. He was unable to get himself up. Part frozen with apprehension of the rock sliding him off the mountain, half frozen with sleep. It took as 5 or so minutes to help him up the next few steps with some physical foot placing and dragging, then a few more meters and we were up and we were treated to the sky brightening! (Although the sunrise was hidden by a heavy mist)

The descent from here was even worse. It was so slippery, it took a long time to get down. But once down we dropped into Horton-on-Ribblesdale for some breakfast and a few minutes of shut eye. I took a look at the tracker and could see I was a good 7km ahead of the next lady.
The next part of the route, is my most hated section. It is a shitty shitty long stretch of unforgiving road which just goes on and on and on. It has a slight upward gradient which means you can’t really jog it either. It’s just horrid. I’d been dreading it the whole way until now. In actual fact it wasn’t as horrific as I recall. We took a wrong turn (impressive on a straight road huh!) at a fork as there was a landrover parked up with its lights on blocking the way. The 3 mile or so turn off into the wind was probably worse as I’d forgotten how long this stretch was.

We descended into Hawes happy and in a good time, and had time to pop to the kit shop to buy Doug some pants (he’d forgotten to pack any!) before heading into the Checkpoint proper. Some friends were there so this was a bit of a social stop, (probably too much so) we were fed, watered, and treated to PROPER beds! Unfortunately the instant our eyes shut the fire alarm went off. We managed about 45 min sleep here before departing once more into the dark.
On leaving Sarah (3rd Lady) was on her way in. She was in a bad way, crying, saying she’d had enough, was out of time. I told her to get inside, get some food, have an hours sleep and get back out. She had plenty of time, just needed to refuel and shut her eyes for a bit. I prayed she’d carry on as we’ve all been there and stopping for no good reason is a shit thing to look back on.

We continued on up and over shunner fell, some nice messages were written in the snow and someone had even had time to make an enormous snowman up there! We were so far improved on this time last year, some 10 hours ahead in time, in good shape. Doug had changed into his walking boots and was unhappy with his sock arrangement. So on the decent we stopped to sort him out, Colin and I taking a foot each to speed up the process, removing a layer of socks that was compressing his feet too much. We continued on, but he still seemed unhappy with the arrangement. I continued on, while the two of them fettled some more. I was getting really sleepy now and had pushed on enough to have made a gap so I snuggled into a bush and closed my eyes for 5 minutes whilst they caught up. Jealous at my sleeping, we all agreed to take ten minutes nap. Doug set an alarm clock and we snoozed blissfully! When we woke, we were pretty cold so pushed on and decided to keep an eye out for suitable shelter for a nap, as we knew it was a long climb up to tan hill.
Reaching the bottom and a roadhead we bumped into Ronnie, who was supporting Ryan. We cheekily asked if he had room in his car for us to snooze, he did offer to make room but we thought it was too much of a piss take so pushed on. Just round the corner we found an amazing little stable, with a lovely bed of hay. So we took advantage of a little snooze. This ended up being an hour stop, pretty chilly too so I pulled out a foil blanket to lay over us. We were aware that people were passing us in the dark, but we were so tired we just wanted to nap. From Thwaites this is all new territory to us, having done the first section a few times. Beyond here is all shiny and new! We don’t really believe in Reccying, it kind of takes the adventure away. A bit like peeking a look at an exam paper before a test. Not to mention we don’t have the free time to travel up north to do so!

Sleep in the bank, and we were all suddenly pretty cold, I tore the foil blanket and wrapped each piece under mine and Doug’s jackets (Colin seemed happy with his layers) and enjoyed the heat the hill ahead created in our bodies. We caught up with some others who’d overtaken us in our sleep, including Zoe and walked as a group for a while chatting sleepily. We reached Tan Hill around 5am to the most epic joy of it being open! We hadn’t expected this and decided immediately we’d have a good sleep here. Mark C fed us chips and coffee and we slept on the most gloriously comfy sofa for a while. The Pub was very busy with people with the same ideas.
The three of us continued on out of Tan hill, expecting hideous bogs from what others had said, but it wasn’t so bad. The sun came up and once more we were treated to a beautiful morning.

The day went on with few incidents a few stops to eat, taken in some views etc. A few miles from Middleton on Teesdale we were intercepted by a local photographer who was keen to meet the leading lady! I didn’t realise that I was still, so this was quite a boost. Although I did feel a bit of a phony, as I’m no Beth Pascall. I was feeling pretty chipper, able to trot a bit. What happened over the next hour I’m quite ashamed of. I’m not really sure what was said or how it came about. Colin made some sort of comment I took out of context, which ordinarily I’d take on the chin, or laugh off. I can only assume it was my fatigue making me particularly crabby. But I got in a strop about something and started to storm off ahead. Doug stuck with me dutifully, while tears streamed down my face and we continued quietly down into Middleton. Colin jogged past us down the final descent and wished us good luck. We walked the last mile slowly into the CP as it was on tarmac, our feet were both a bit tender and there was no value in racing in to the CP.
When we arrived, I took care of my feet and the first thing I wanted to do was apologise to Colin for overreacting that I was probably tired and took it out of context. This was the last we saw of Colin for a while and I hope he forgives my outburst!

We’d seen Zoe before bed and she asked if we could join forces from here, we obviously agreed. Her support crew had gone back to normal life, and it’s not the nicest race to be out on your own and we were all moving at a similar pace now so we agreed we’d get back on the move at 7. We had proper beds again and a semi decent nap. I woke up “is it morning or night?” It didn’t really matter.  I needed quite a bit of foot care at this CP and we took longer than planned to get out, so Zoe headed out at 7 as planned and we followed on about 30 minutes later. I wasn’t expecting to see her until several hours later but the going was great along here, a good flat solid path to follow and we put in a good pace and had caught up within an hour or so. We continued on together for a while, all feeling strong. There was a diversion around Cauldron Snout to avoid some flooding. I suddenly started to drop off the pace, Doug hung back with me, while Zoe pushed on and caught up with some lights ahead.
My shoulders were in agony from my pack, I was whinging, tears came. I was getting cold. I didn’t want to play anymore. Can I have a hug? Why aren’t we there yet? I want to go home. This is shit. Poor Doug. He deserves a medal for putting up with me. I managed to get some more layers on and take some painkillers for my shoulders. It was so cold. The snow was now coming. We were back on the Pennine Way now, all I wanted to do was sit down for 5 minutes. But there was no option.

Pretty soon I was feeling better again, the snow was falling, it felt like a proper adventure. We had to use our navigation skills as the path became intermittent across the moors up towards High Cup Nick and we were both enjoying ourselves. This next section, I was loving it. Making patterns in the snow, feeling like I was in the arctic, knowing that we weren’t far from Dufton and another nap! It was cold and bleak up over the top but the change in climate and scenery made it feel exciting. We hadn’t seen any head torches for a long time, having passed Zoe and a few others some time ago who had taken shelter in a funny little van on the trail. We descended towards Dufton to be greeted by some of the Mountain rescue team who advised us that if we wanted to continue over CrossFell, the snow was very deep and we were to do so in teams of 3 or wait until dawn. We wanted to sleep anyway so we didn’t much care for now. We arrived in Dufton, all but sleep walking and made a couple of beds out of chairs and snuggled down for a while. When we woke up, Zoe had caught up and was stirring beside us, and this is where the three of us combined efforts to become the “dream team!”
To be continued....


  1. Brill...almost (ALMOST) makes me think it sounds tempting!

  2. Doug needs two medals haha. This describes brilliantly what I was seeing. Good stuff.

  3. Wow Anna - what a post! Almost felt like I was there (am very, very glad I wasn't though!). Can't wait for part two :)


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This latest blog will be hopefully following my transwales experience. Enjoy with me :-)