The Spine 2013
I’m long overdue writing up this event, to be honest it’s taken me a while to digest what was achieved and the scale of what was overcome during this event and the run up. Having now decided to go back and attempt the 2014 event it seemed like a good time to revisit it. Be warned, this is going to be a long entry.
How it came to my attention
Around October last year my friend James, who is something of a mountaineer/adventurer sent me an article about this event which was essentially his way of daring me to enter this. He knows I like to attempt the often downright stupid and enjoy a challenge and I think that at times he likes to scratch some itches through me. I’m sure if he’d been available he’d have been keen to join in the fun! So I had a look to see what it was all about and to decide if I was up to the challenge, although, those who know me will know that the seed would have already been planted by now.
What is The Spine?
The Spine is described on the event website as “Britain’s most brutal race. The longest, coldest and most demanding mountain marathon in Britain. 268 miles of snow, cold and savage winds. Competitors have 7 days to complete the race”
I devoured the details on the website and upon further reading discovered the was a shorter (what later in the field became known as “The Sprint”) distance – only 108 miles with a time limit of 60 hours.
The course follows the entire length of the Pennine Way which is a long distance walkers’ route up through the Peak District, Dales and over the border of Scotland. It’s considered a tough route by experienced walkers, who wouldn’t normally tackle anything longer than 20 mile sections in summer weather. So to take on such a huge distance deep in winter is considered pretty crazy! Oh, add to this that it is self-sufficient out on the course carrying full expedition kit (tent, stove, food, sleeping bag amongst other mandatory kit) with the full expectation that at some point you will need so sleep outside.
The sprint version seemed like a more sensible option, whilst it covered a large distance over the same pro-rated time limit it meant that I didn’t need to take so much time off work and was a more achievable completion, less chance of dying and still looked damn hard! Note, this would also be my first Ultra.
Both races started at the same time from the same place in Edale, with only limit places due to the highly challenging logistics for the team of experienced organisers. Last year only 3 people completed the event (2 completing the full 268 miles and 1 completing the 108 miles).
So there I was, an email confirmation in my inbox stating I was signed up for the spine as well as a training weekend in November.
Between entering and the Training Weekend, “Team Chuckle Bros” had an outing at “The OMM” where we got to use all our expensive light weight kit we’d purchased earlier that year. During the course of the weekend and a hilariously dreadful performance both physically, and navigationally I told Doug that I’d entered this event. Doug being Doug, got race envy and by the end of the weekend was also going to be doing the event so Team Chuckle would be attending, we’re a good team out in the field though and being great friends means we can spot the tell-tale signs of fatigue, food swings, laziness and can usually snap each other out of it, and it sounded like the event would be one that would be safer and more enjoyable as part of a team - plus, he had a super lightweight tent and would save me carrying a bivvy ;-)
The Training Weekend
The training weekend was set up by the organisers to give the competitors (all of whom were exceptionally experienced ultra runners), some frankly, lifesaving advice. I would say that had I not attended this, I would have either died* or at least would not have got near to the finish. It was designed for people to meet who else was competing, discuss kit, terrain, survival techniques, with highly experienced adventurers and learn as much from them and previous competitors as possible – their aim was to get people round, not like some events where they seem to aim for certain levels of drop outs, the guys genuinely wanted everyone to succeed and give them the correct tools to do so. Physical fitness was down to us, even that though was something the team wanted to be sure of and we had to prove ourselves on this training weekend.
Without giving too much away as the training weekend itself is worthy of its own blog post but it involved a 2 night trip to Hebdon Bridge where we stayed in a scouts hut and had talks on foot care from the amazing team of medics (a frightening insight to blisters, trench foot and ejecting toenails), Talks on Navigation, sleeping systems, clothing, mountain survival, trekking in winter conditions from the awesome team of Phil, Scott, Conrad and John, all of whom have amazing backgrounds of many many years of Mountain and Polar expeditions amongst other achievements I can only dream of! We had to then put to the test all that we had learnt during a physical test – a 48 mile tough off road loop of the Mary Towney Loop, with kit checks along the way, erecting our sleeping systems, checking our stoves. All in all it was a great day out, it put us to the test, and for me, this is the furthest I’d ever have done in one go before and true to form, Team Chuckle Bros lived up to our name rolling through the door last after the team had been unsuccessfully been ringing us after we’d not been spotted since ducking into a pub for chips and a pint about 10 miles from the end. But this late night gave us invaluable practice at night navigation and testing out our cold kit.
*may be an exaggeration
Going home from this satisfied we had all the gear and no idea, were likely to DNF if not die, training commenced – for me, this meant a cheeky off road coastal marathon, followed by 3 weeks over Christmas pissing it up in Thailand, and for Doug a more useful new year spent in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
All the kit but don’t know shit
The mandatory kit list for this event is pretty huge, and has to be carried at all times for obvious reasons. There were going to be 16 hours of darkness a day, sub zero temperatures, likely ice, snow, wind, rain – we had to be prepared for all eventualities.
Below is the mandatory kit list and what I took (there is a real need for lightweight kit as you need to carry all this whilst running/walking/sleeping), although it isn’t strictly a team event, as Doug and I had said we wouldn’t be leaving each other during the event we were able to share some equipment.
Backpack/Rucksack – 32l OMM pack
Compass/Maps – Silva compass and Harvey mapsGPS – Garmin eTrex 10
Whistle – Part of the OMM Pack (clever buckle with whistle hole)
Knife/Multi-tool etc – Doug took care of this (not saying he’s a tool but….)
Head Torch with Spare batteries – Silva strap on thingy
Waterproof Trousers – OMM Kamleika
Waterproof Jacket with a hood – OMM Cypher
Hat, Gloves and spare socks
Appropriate clothing for mountain/fell running – Salamon Speedcross
Medical Kit – Waterproof medical kit
Survival Bag – emergency bivvy
Sleeping Bag (Extreme Rating) – PHD minimus 600
Roll Mat – thermarest neoair
Tent – Doug carried his Vaude Lizzeard (I think)
Waterproof matches or similar – lighter
Stove with one pan to produce hot water – MSR micro rocket, MSR 0.85l pot
Water Carrying System – 2 Bottles
2 Days rations – freeze dried porridge plus various other snacks and treats
Mobile phone with charger – Samsung s3 mini and a charged power monkey
Spare Set of Clothing – spare layersSuncream N/A
Vaseline or similar – N/A
Lip Salve – Cocoa butter
Waterproof Map Case – N/A
Gaiters – N/A
Buff or similar – Buff
Hand Warmers – several heat packs
Snow Shoes - N/A
Snow Spikes – Yaktrax
Bothy Bag - N/A
Anyway, enough of that techy stuff, let’s get on with the race weekend! I’ll remember what I can (what I want to remember) and hopefully you’ll enjoy what is one of my biggest achievements to date.
The Spine Challenger
So, here we are the second Friday of January in the middle of winter on a train to Edale with a huge kit bag each looking very nervous and under prepared as usual. There were a few other people on the train who were clearly also racing and others we recognised from the training weekend, riding past frost capped peaks and blue skies, we arrived at Edale station which conveniently was 100 yards from the race HQ and start. We walked across and found the organisers setting up and waiting to check our mandatory kit, give us race briefings and final safety info.
We seemed to be some of the first to arrive so we got our kit checked, and a cup of coffee from one of the volunteers and chatted with some of the others as they arrived.
Once we had our kit checked someone kindly gave us a lift with our stuff to the YHA we were staying at the night before the race, so we had the opportunity to dump off some stuff before coming back for the race briefing.
We headed back to race HQ and there were many more people, most of which we recognised from the training weekend and we found our way to an empty seat and enjoyed another very informative talk further putting fear into me that we might die, talks of 100ft mine shafts out on the route, snow forecast, 50 mph winds which were expected. It was suddenly beginning to dawn on me that I was way out of my depth, my comfort zone was somewhere south of Nottingham. After race briefing we collected our numbers, and gave our final contact details for whilst we’re out in the field, some people were taking part in some testing for some research being carried out as part of someone’s masters, so there were people giving blood samples and various things going on (and something I’m banned from disclosing)
Once we were all done, we headed to a local pub for dinner and a couple of pints (in true Team Chuckle Bros style), the YHA was about 2 miles away and being from the south where all things are easy, we expected to be able to ring for a cab – we were laughed out of the pub. We walked back to race HQ sheepishly and managed to get a lift back from one of the volunteers, in time for what wasn’t really an early night in our bunk beds.
The next morning came round too quickly and we packed up our things, ate some breakfast and waited around for a lift (most of the other racers were staying here too)
Somehow we were in the last group to leave, there seemed to be no more vehicles to get into. We waited a little longer as the final people disappeared. There was no mobile phone signal and the phone in the hostel didn’t work. We waited ten minutes hoping that someone would come to get us, but no one. It was getting close to the start time and we began panicking. We would struggle to walk that far with our huge bags full of our spare kits so walking didn’t seem like a great idea, plus it was pitch black and freezing. After a few more minutes we saw some lights coming back up the drive and the girlfriend of one of the racers had very sweetly come back for us!
A short speech from the race director and we were off on our way up the Pennine Way! The route started with a steady climb up towards Jacobs Ladder – a famous climb up towards Kinder Downfall, the front runners were off at a pace, we were left near the rear huffing and puffing and immediately faffing, pulling out trekking poles.
As we climbed up Jacobs ladder we noticed a quick dip in temperature, the wind was high and the 50 mph speeds which we were promised did not disappoint, the rocks under foot were frosty and slippery so we stopped in a sheltered spot to pull on waterproof trousers and our yaktrax. These made a big difference to the slipping we were experiencing as we climbed higher. After a few miles of this, the field had already spread out considerably and it was clear we were in the trailing group, not that this mattered, we weren’t here to win, we were here for the experience and hopefully the medal!
As we went round kinder downfall the wind was crazy, I was being blown sideways into the hill, thankfully it was into and not off the hill! Forward progress was increasingly difficult and the wind was sucking the air right out of my mouth.
The first stage to Check Point one was about 42 miles, which would be the same scout hut we spent the night in at the training weekend, here we could if we chose take a sleep in the beds there, have some hot food a even a shower if we wanted. For the sprint distance this was the only “proper” checkpoint available to us and hence the only place we could swap any spare kit from our drop bags.
The day was a mixture of big hard climbs up, icy slabs across frozen open windy moors and sometimes tricky navigation and of course that crazy biting wind. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember much specific about this first day but when nightfall came, down came a thick fog and sub-freezing temperatures. The fog made it difficult to see where were we going obviously and the light reflecting of it from our headtorches made it even more difficult.
Navigation was becoming tricky as we couldn’t make out any features, we were among a load of large boulders which made us feel like we were on a moonscape, GPS wasn’t helping much either but eventually we found our way back on track.
The temperature was so cold, we put on our down jackets plus our waterproof ones over the top, yet we were still cold. I could barely feel my fingers, even with 3 pairs of gloves on, what I could feel of them was excruciating pain.
I remembered the heat pads I had in my bag, stopped to pull some out for each of us and gradually we begun to feel the relief from the warmth spreading back into our gloves. Whilst the fog was making it difficult, it made it feel like an epic adventure, I was glad of my team mate at that point, the thought of being out in that fog on my own filled me with fear.
Again I can’t remember much between here and the checkpoint, there were patches along this section that we recognised as parts of the MTL had crossed this section and we felt we should be close to the checkpoint, but as always wishful thinking meant it was further than we thought. Eventually the map drew us to the place we needed to turn off to the scout hut but on our way there hut we had difficulty finding the way and spent a good hour trying to find the way in and eventually picking a very precarious route down the slippery banks and icy rocks to the hut. We were amazed to see people already heading back out onto the next stage looking fresh and keen still. We were so tired, we just wanted to get in and get our heads down for a few hours.
We signed into the checkpoint and had some hot food, we spent far too long faffing around and after probably a couple of hours got our heads down for a sleep. We set the alarms for about 5 so we could have a decent sleep and set out just before first light. The morning proved more faffing and took too long having breakfast before getting back out onto the next stage and saw that most people had been and gone already.
We set off again, knowing we weren’t even half way yet but still fairly chipper, having had a nice nap and warmed up nicely. Once more the day was full of big icy climbs, frozen slabs, reminding each other to keep grazing and sipping. Throughout the second day the wind had dropped and the cloud cover had increased. It was still cold but during the day it was much more bearable. It was around lunch time (in normal times) and we could see on the map we were very close to a pub so we decided that we’d stop here briefly to get warm, get a hot drink and a snack. As we made our way down the hill into the small village we began to see snow falling lightly around us. It looked beautiful and put a spring in our step as we trotted down towards the pub. The snow was quite wet at this point so we were keen to get in out of it before we got too wet.
Inside the pub we met about a dozen other racers, including Dan, a guy who was training to climb Everest, who was in a terrible state, unable to walk and waiting for a lift off the course and very disappointed to be retiring from the event. We had to take off our shoes as rightly the landlord didn’t want us traipsing mud through his floors, he kindly let us put all our kit in the back room. We ordered some drinks and crisps and had a sit down by the fire and chatted to the other guys. Most people were in good spirits, a few people were treating blisters. Looking back at some of the other events I’ve done compared to this one, is that the drop out rate on this was much lower than some of the more subscribed events as it seems that people are much more prepared for this sort of thing than say ticking off one of the big events like UTLD. Some of the guys were having full meals but we’d already earmarked a pub further along that we wanted to stop at for hot food (assuming we made it there before the kitchen shut)
After another slightly too long stop we relayered our clothing and headed back out into the now settling snow. It was settling across the field we were now walking across, and less wet. It was quite exciting and made the adventure seem even more epic!
As the afternoon drew on, the snow thickened and the layer on the floor obliterated the grass and mud and trails beneath it. The good thing about this is that it made navigating a little easier, as you could see foot prints, although some tracks were way off the track so we still kept our eyes on the map and GPS. The snow soon became hard work, as we traipsed through it. Fortunately the sealskin socks were doing a great job at keeping my feet warm and dry. The snow had stopped for now although a couple of inches lay on the ground with drifts forming. It was dark again before long and we knew that we’d have to camp out tonight. We hoped to get to the place in which to camp by 11pm, and with our planned pub stop not far from here we plodded on and found a lovely pub in which to get a hot feed and sit by the amazing open fire. We were cold again and tired, the appeal of just laying down and sleeping there was too much!
We checked our maps whilst we waited for our food and it looked like it wasn’t far to go to get to CP1.5 just at the top of Malham Tarn.
After dragging ourselves away from the lovely warm fire, we had to face the cold again, the snow was falling again lightly as we found our way back on to the Pennine Way. The next few hours were hard, we knew it was only a about 5 miles to go til we could stop and sleep but our bodies and minds were beginning to trick us. Doug was beginning to doubt his navigation and getting frustrated at minor errors. I realised that he was cold and not eating enough despite stopping for food, so I tried to encourage him to eat. We could see lights across the other side of the river but we knew that we definitely needed to be on the side we were on, so it looked as if someone else were having difficulty.
We checked how many lights there were, there were more than one, so we were happy to carry on rather than wait for a solitary light to find their way over. Eventually our two sets of lights converged and we met Annie and Tom, Annie had gotten wet when her drink bottle leaked and was so wearing her emergency bag as a cape to keep warm. I offered her some of my water but she didn’t take any.
Doug and I carried on and took the lead up towards Malham Tarn. I can’t remember at what point it had started hurting but I had a really bad knee, I couldn’t bend my right one, I was intermittently dropping to put it in the snow to freeze it, and the next stage was going to cause big pain. We had a couple of hundred steps up towards another moonscape, I dragged my straightened leg behind me up each individual step wincing every time I swung it up to the next step. As we reached the top we could see it was a surreal place, of giant snow coloured rocks that could have been sheep to our sleep deprived eyes. There was no clear route and it wasn’t clear if we were just climbing up in order to go back down again, it seemed unrealistic to think that anyone would be up there waiting for us. I wasn’t convinced we were making progress as we continued through the snow. After a long time wandering round the frozen moon we finally saw the light of John Bambers tent and made our way in to get a hot drink, it was 2am and we had taken much longer than we had hoped to get here.
Outside was bitter, we needed sleep so carrying straight on through was not an option, we had only until 8pm tomorrow evening now to get back, but in our heads we broke it down. To the next big mountain climb was about 6 miles, we would sleep, then get to there. Then from there we’d break it down further but first, sleep.
Setting up the tent wasn’t the most efficient process and it was so cold we were both shivering. We both laid out the tent, then whilst Doug erected it, I started heating water and inflating thermarests. The ground was so frozen Doug was struggling to stick the pegs into the ground. I set up the inside of the tent and made us some hot food whilst Doug bent pegs. He was shivering cold so I forced him into the tent where we ate some porridge and crawled into our sleeping bags fully clothed, still in our down jackets. We set our alarms for 5am with the hope of getting a couple of hours sleep, the sleep we had was dreadful, I kept waking up shivering uncontrollably, and could hear Doug suffering the same. Even with two of us huddled together it was bitter.
5am came and the alarm went off, it was time to break camp, we knew it would be horrific but it had to be done. I heated some more water to make breakfast whilst Doug pulled down bits of tent but left it up enough so we could shelter inside to eat.
When we finally got out of the tent it was miserably cold and packing up took too long again. But we were again on our way, and onto the final (ish) leg! The snow was deeper up here and we had a long slog to get to Pen-Y-Ghent which I was dreading. A huge climb up with scrambling and snow. Not my favourite combo!
As the light changed through from pitch black to purple sky the air once more filled with snow, this time, incredibly hard. Giant flakes coating our hats, sticking to our eyelashes. My hands became unbearably cold again – worse than the first night. The snow was becoming a blizzard and not so fun anymore. It was a long long trek to go, and as we descended down into some farmland the world opened up and I suddenly felt very exposed. If a car had come at that point and offered us a lift, I would have taken it.
The next couple of hours, I was going through mixed emotions of fear, hunger, tiredness…my knee seemed less sore today so maybe the sleep had helped or maybe the cold was numbing it. The snow was still falling but slowing as we started to ascend a thousand steps up towards Pen-Y- Ghent. We couldn’t see 30 ft above our heads so it was impossible to see how high up the mountain went or how far we had to go.
I was expecting it to just be a bunc of steps up, but looking at our elevation on the GPS we were barely a quarter up. We climbed up and up and up these fucking steps. After a long while the footing changed, and we were beginning to scramble up frightening ridges. I was terrified. One foot wrong and fall a thousand feet to certain death. Still unable to see the top, I was panic breathing and really unhappy to be scrambling up here in the snow. Doug was climbing well and seemed fearless, he encouraged me up and pulled me up where I needed it.
We ran on for a couple of miles through the snow, stopped for a couple of minutes as we saw Scott climbing up towards us. He also assured us we could get to the end.
The route was a lot flatter for a while but I was starting to have food swings and wanted to stop and sit down. Doug let us do this for a while. My eyes were funny from the snow. I was tired, and I wanted sleep. By our reckoning it was about 10 miles to go. We knew there was a long boring roman road to come not far from here. What we didn’t envisage was how terrible it would be.
What was nice was every now and then, messages were written in the snow by the front runners – words of encouragement. I was slowing though and holding Doug back, he had to urge me on and put up with my tantrums. Finally we were coming to the end of the Roman road and could spot where we needed to turn left. There were some photographers there and they gave us some biscuits and told us that it’s not far now (I know that I’m never to believe anyone when they say this)
We left them and turned off only to thrown into the coldest, harshest head wind I’ve ever experienced. It cut right through us and was hell to walk into. There was no let up for some miles and the light was again beginning to change. In the distance we could see the lights for the village where we would be finishing. Eventually we were sheltered from the wind and started making our way towards the lights, only to have to zig zag our way back the other way. We dropped down into some fields and followed the foot prints across some more fields. We hurried along trying to get back before nightfall so we didn’t have to get our headtorches out.
We must be close now surely! I could almost taste that pint! We left the field and made our way through the village in search of the finish – and there, there were the flags!
We hobbled through the door and into the hall to a few claps. People were being patched up, some were napping and others leaving for the next stage. Except us, we’d finished our race and now we were given the medals to prove it!
I looked at my feet and there was a gold ball size lump of ice stuff to my laces where snow had been gathering throughout the day. We hobbled off and found a B & B to stay at, each had a hot shower a pint and a delicious well earned dinner before passing out.
I’m sorry I’ve missed out details but I’m sure this January I’ll be reminded of the bits I’ve blocked out. Having relived the above, I’m now terrified once more!
Roll on the Spine 2014!