Tuesday 26 January 2016

The Spine Race 2016 - the finale

We left Bellingham into the cold. It wasn't as cold as it had seemed last night when we were exhausted and needing sleep. Although by now we were always needing sleep. i was beginning to panic we wouldn't get back in time. My panic manifested itself in a bossy, sergeant major, marching, yelling directions, telling people to keep moving. I was soon put in my place by Zoe, who gave me a talking to and quite right too! That would have been a long day for everyone had I carried on like that!

The next section was a bastard. Truly. It wasn't particularly hilly which was nice. What it was however was miles and miles of moors with hideous deep snow. Energy sapping, high stepping snow that I hated. It was hours of it. I sulked my way through it like an angry teenager. There was a diversion after I believe 3 days of hiking through it to avoid the "deep snow". Feck knows how bad it was through the next bit!

This section saw my first hallucinations. From here the race got weird. I can't even confirm if what I'm going to write is real or if the events actually happened.
Hiking along through not quite so deep snow now towards the forest, still night, I was becoming mesmerised by the glitter off the snow from my head torch. The only other time I'd felt this way was in Amsterdam several years ago after eating magic mushrooms.
I saw things in the trees. Faces that probably weren't there. People that shouldn't be there. Things that gave me a fright, things that made me giggle. I was walking along with my eyes shut, wondering if I could sleep walk. I stopped and shut my eyes, I could sleep standing up. I was totally incapable of navigating, I was just following behind Doug like a told off child.

I dozed in and out of awareness of Zoe and Doug around me. Doug getting irritated by my slow movement. Zoe was struggling too now. She wanted to sing. We were hanging behind singing something, I can't remember what now.

We caught up with Doug, or more accurately he waited for us. Zoe wanted to sing again. No, she wanted Doug to sing. Doug started singing "the amazing horse" I joined in, in a drunken slur. I don't think Zoe knew this song.

I was aware that Esteve the Spanish racer who didn't speak much English was with us. We sung a round of frere Jacques, and some song about a caterpillar that my tired brain was unable to repeat the lyrics back. The sparkles in the air holding me in a trance. The sun was beginning to rise once more. I was so tired. What day it was I couldn't tell you. I was moaning. Why aren't we at byrness yet? Can I sleep? Looking for anywhere to curl up in a ball and sleep for just five minutes. I handed round pro plus.

Doug, let me sleep, just here for 2 minutes?
Why wouldn't he let me sleep? I'd be so much better if I could sleep.

We slowly trudged on. Doug and Zoe had held back doing something, maybe fussing with gaitors which had clogged up with giants snow balls. I knew I had a couple of minutes On them. I kept looking out for snow holes. Trees I could duck behind. Grab just 90 seconds sleep. That's all I needed. Esteve was somewhere in the distance, escaping our increasing idiocy.
I took my bag off and sat on it, closed my eyes and was immediately asleep. I woke to Doug looking angry. He was right, it wasn't safe to stop in the freezing cold. It wasn't fair on the rest of the group.

It was daytime now. I needed to wake up. I ran. Actually ran. It was the only thing I could think of to wake myself up. I stopped to strip off some layers, during which time Doug passed me. He tried to wait but I told him to carry on and I'd run to catch up. The gradient was declining slightly making my amble much less arduous. I ran to catch him. He was hiking hard. Knowing we were only a few km from Byrness and a nap and a feed and a hot drink! Entering kielder forest I brightened up further. I had fond memories of mountain biking in kielder. We had dropped Zoe a little way back but we knew she'd catch us shortly, the nav was straight forward, the sun was up and the only way I could keep awake was to jog.

By the time we'd regrouped, Zoe was in a chipper mood too, moving briskly, banging off clumps of snow from boots and poles. The sun was shining and it was once more a gorgeous alpine day. Reaching Byrness we bumped in to Ronnie once more. He was full of spirit and excitement. Partly at the excitement of seeing us still in the race but also to deliver some news.

News was that over the Cheviots the snow was knee deep and waste deep in places, people were travelling a max on 1.5 mph though the section, the last 28 miles taking over 20 hours! He was urging us to press on, not stop too long and get the fuck on with it.

I didn't really believe him. Although having coming through what we had through the night, I can't imagine it would be worse than that.

We went into the forest view b&b where there was a great set up, sofas, medics, beds should we need them, hot food. We took advantage of most of it. I slept on s sofa, had some coffee, a pile of mince and mash, got to use a proper toilet. Whilst there it got pretty busy so when we felt we'd had enough to of a break we decided to push on.

We almost instantly climbed up out of the forest onto the Cheviots. The Cheviots were the final legend of the spine race. Again, they filled me with fear. Stories of spines gone by had nearly taken men to the grave (or something) on paper it was a long long section with two mountain refuge huts breaking it up. We had expected to take 15 hours to cross to the finish. With the new estimate of 20 hours I'd thought that we could get a nap in at hut 1 at the least.

Once up onto the Cheviots we looked back at a spectacular view across the snow and onto s perfect sky. Once more wishing I had a camera but taking a mental image.

Once more, we tried to work as a team on the navigation, it wasn't too tricky to be fair. We cross referenced the summits, partly for our satisfaction that we weren't just following footsteps. The snow wasn't that bad here, mostly ankle deep, the sun on our backs, what was Ronnie on about?? I felt like we were making great progress. The air was really cold though and a breeze was whipping up. Someone back at the cp had warned against breath inning in the cold air as you could get hypothermia from it, so to breath through our buffs. This I was doing but still the cold was biting at my chest.

We'd dropped down into a valley and Doug needed to stop to de-ice his boots. I confidently led the way off. Fifteen or so minutes later, dougs caught up with us and it transpired I had no idea where I was going. Doug went off back to the gate he'd stopped at, and retraced the correct route. I didn't know what was going on. Should we be following?

Once more I found myself following dougs heels. We finally saw a pennine way sign and I felt better about our location. The sun was beginning to lose its shine. A misty cloud cover forming, it would be night again in a few hours. we seemed to be striding out well now Into the cold. Seeing footprints now and then to confirm we were heading in the right direction or at least the direction of other lost folk.

I begun to feel a bit weird. I had a really strong sense of de ja vu. I knew I'd never been up here before but it all felt so familiar. The trail looked familiar, striding out with Zoe with me. It was very strange. It as very cold now, so I was marching back and forth while maps and Gps were being checked by Doug and Zoe. I wasn't capable of reading a map at the moment. I was so cold. We plodded on, my de ja vu becoming more and more surreal. This entire situation was now playing back like a movie I'd once watched.

Doug was beginning to act strange. Whether this was just in my mind or reality. He was really tired. I suggested that we take a decent break at the first hut, have a half hour sleep. I as expecting a lovely warm hut like Gregs hut. I thought we could get our sleeping bags out and have a hot meal and good sleep. Doug was falling asleep on his feet. I was really starting to worry about him. I told Zoe such. He was acting strange. We were right by the rufuge hut all of a sudden. I stopped for a pee and let the others carry on in.

When inside, the hut wasn't quite what I expected. The floor was wet. It was full of racers, mark and al were in there boiling up water and making ration packs and noodles for those in need.

I was so worried about doug. He needed sleep before we carried on. I tried to tuck up in to sleep while I prepared hot water and got food going. I made a hot water bottle out of my sigg bottle. Doug may have closed his eyes for s minute.

People started to leave. Suddenly I knew the ending of the movie I'd been watching, Zoe was going to leave us. We were going to get lost out in the snow. We'd miss the cut off. I was panicking. I was struggling to read a map. I could barely concentrate. My brain was making up fictional endings to a story that I thought I'd lived through before. Apparently the next bit of the route was the worst hit by snow drifts. This was the bit that would take forever to get through. It was dark again, it was of course night time again.

I was so worried about this bit. I knew what would happen. Of course I'd seen it in my memory. I asked mark for advice in the nav for this bit, he said, just keep following the fence, he went through it. Head to the fence. Following the fence. Get to there and follow the fence. Just follow the fence.

How hard can it be? How did I get so lost last time I was thinking?

Doug was so tired, he wasn't ready to go, but I rushed him out. Forced him to put more layers on than he wanted. But you're cold Doug.its so cold out there. We can't stop when we're out because Zoe will leave us and we'll be lost.

Mark ushered the three of us to the fence where we dutifully followed it. It was funny, to one side of the fence was England, the other Scotland. How funny, I thought. We starte off at a steady pace. My legs felt fine. I just wanted us all safe together.

Heading up towards windy gyle was the most horrific wind. Blowing straight from Scotland, it was already below freezing but apparently with the wind it was minus 15. I remembered this part of the route from my dream. I couldn't remember when I'd been here though. Maybe it was with penny and David. But it must have been daylight.

We could see lights ahead of us, which we were slowly catching up with. It was so cold. We were constantly checking on each other. Anna are you ok? Doug are you ok? Zoe are you ok? Doug leading Keeping the pace steady so everyone could remain close. The wind was biting. The hill went on forever. We weren't even at windy gyle yet. I felt like I was in labrynth. Tricked into taking a wrong turn somewhere, waiting to fall into the bog of eternal stench.

The snow was getting deep again. My de ja vu just wouldn't go away. We caught up with the the others now. I had feelings of being on the Southdown way by Eastbourne. Except it wasn't sunny. The snow was creating a strange light around us. We plodded on, mingling with the group we'd caught up with who were all behaving weird. Everyone was acting like when you're drunk and trying to hide it from your parents. No one really wanted to take control of the direction we were taking. So Doug pushed on passed. We bumped in to javed who was acting weird. He was just stood still and said he'd lost his food somewhere. Could we give him some food. I searched in my bag and pulled out some malt load to share with him. I saw a bag of food in my bag. Oh no! I stole javeds food! Of course I hadn't but my brain convinced me I had. It was some food that Ronnie had given me earlier that day/week/month. The rest of the group caught up and he asked them for food too, Colin said he'd lost his food too. This was weird.

We pushed on once more, moving as a detached group of maybe 8 of us. The snow was so deep. Every step was a high step followed by falling somewhere between knee and waist deep snow. There were no tracks. We can't be going the right way. The fence was still on our left. We were moving really weirdly. Doug and luke had taken control and were taking it in turns to blaze a trail through the snow. We'd been moving for hours. Javed said we had about 5k to go before the 2nd hut. This made me whimper. It had taken us so long to get to here.

I was confused. I voiced this. I didn't understand what was going on. I knew I was in trouble. I felt we all were. We were all acting weird. With the exception of luke and Doug who were just ploughing through the snow. Doug was getting infuriated with me, he said to stick with him and keep moving. I kept saying I was confused, why is all this snow here. Why would this be in the race. Was this a new part of the race, a twist to make it impossible?

I fell in a massive deep hole and couldn't get out. Zoe tried pulling me out, but it felt like she was laid on me pushing me in deeper. I started laughing. Uncontrollable laughter. I couldn't get out. Doug was getting impatient. I crawled out of my snow hole.

By now I can only describe how I was feeling as being stoned. Not the good stoned your get from a cheeky drag. The awful paranoid stoned you get. Why was everyone acting weird? Why didn't this bit of race end? Why could t we reach the road from here?

I could see lights ahead of the mountain rescue teams in the road. Only to get there and it be nothing but snow. We were physically hauling ourself along the fence like a tug of war. Through the snow drifts. It was exhausting.

I was still confused. Doug force fed be as much food as he could get in me. He shouted at me. I whined. I can't do it. Can we pitch the tent?

"No! The only way out of this is to keep moving. Were our best hope at getting out of this"

The others were still drunk. I was stoned. Doug was focused. The bottoms of my feet were freezing. Is it possible to get frost bite out here? I wondered.

For hours I was trying to remember Zoe's name. I knew it had three letter and begin with z but I couldn't for the life of me remember her name. It was crazy. Of course I knew it but I couldn't get it to come to me.

Why weren't we getting anywhere?

At some point Doug stopped, gave me a talking to. He was freezing. He told me he was so cold. His boots had frozen with snow and ice and he was properly frightened we werent getting out of this, that I need to focus, stay with him and keep moving to keep warm.

Seeing him like this sobered me up slightly, I started panic hiking. Doug, luke and I got a march on. We marched for days. My confusion didn't go away, I still didn't understand what was going on but I trusted Doug to follow him. I looked down and saw I'd lost my map. I have no idea when or where. I checked my pocket where I keep my gps, it was open, and empty. Great.,lost that too. Just stick with Doug. he'll keep me safe.

We got near the top where we were to make a turn or something and group had all dispersed. Zoe wasn't with us anymore, Dan was with us, some people were going to camp. Colin wanted to ring hq and collect us. Doug and I both queried what they'd do. There's no way down here with a vehicle. We'd be dead and frozen before we were found.

It was so cold. My feet were burning for the ice on them. Hell only knows what dougs felt like. I felt guilty for dawdling so much. Dan and Doug worked on finding the route to the refuge hut.

I thought the refuge hut was a different one to what we were trying to get to and that we were out of the race now. I didn't know how we'd get from here to the proper refuge hut.

Doug had run off down a hill and was shouting for Dan and I to follow. My feet were so sore but adrenaline let me run hard down through the snow chasing after Doug. He saw a flashing light of someone st the hut. I wondered if someone was always at the hut or if they'd known we were out there.... I still thought we were somewhere far from the race route left to freeze on the mountain somewhere. We reached the bottom and someone told us it was about a km to the hut we kept going going going. Eventually we were in the hut, it was warm and snow free. I thought the race was over for us. We'd gone too far off course to correct it in this deep snow.

When the realisation came that we were still, in the race I was happy. But where was the lady who we were running with? Why couldn't I remember her name? We should wait for her. What if she doesn't make it down?

I sat down. I just wanted to sleep. Doug was keen to carry straight on. Can we sleep a while?

Pretty quickly I was bundled into a foil bag, along with hot water bottles, a medic was force feeding me hot food, I just wanted to sleep. Why won't you let me sleep?

I have vague recollection of drifting in and out of sleep over the next few hours, being fed hot things, Doug trying to make me lie down. Doug refusing to go to sleep so he could keep an eye on me. I was given some glucose at some point which seemed to act like adrenaline. Very quickly I sobered up, what time is it? 3am. Shit we need to get back by 10, I looked up to see that Zoe was in another corner of the Hut also in a bag. Thankful she had made it down safely.

I asked the medic could we go? She said not for a couple of hours. during this time, I guess I slept some more, people came and went in varying states of disrepair. Dougs feet and ankles were still frozen up. I urge him to sleep. He refused. I felt he was disappointed. People had overtaken whilst I was being pathetic. We ended up being held there for 5 hours. We could have been back by now.

We were told the last 7 miles was taking 5 hours. Which meant we need to get moving. Zoe was awake now, and we had an escort of tom waiting to take us to the finish.

I'd been stopped too long. My feet were so sore. The night had destroyed them. They'd also swollen so I had to loosen my shoes off. Which meant that the snow kept pulling them off. I hobbled painfully outside.

Zoe and Doug were moving well and clearly keen to be back. I just couldn't walk. It was so painful. I knew the longer I went the more comfortable it would become, but it hurt so bad.

The next 7 miles were excruciating. Doug and Zoe waited patiently for me. Zoe and I knew we were joint First Lady, and had made a gentle woman's agreement almost as soon as we'd joined forces that we'd finish together, for one of us to run off now would have been a dick move but she was well within her right to at that moment as it's the only time we'd really been a significantly different pace.

The last few miles went on forever. Although it was no longer night time, for a change. The snow gave way to treacherous ice. Every time I stood on it my feet flew from beneath me. Three time landing me flat on my ass.

We knew we would finish now. It s just a matter of putting one foot in front of another. Doug and Zoe were so patient with me this last few hours. Ronnie caught up with us as we were coming through the final few hundred meters, so happy for us, I could barely raise a smile. I was so exhausted and the ice was pissing me off.

We could see the pub now. Scott was there waiting for us. The three of us reached the pub and with a 3...2...1 we all touched the wall at the same time.

It's the only race I've finished she I've actually felt euphoric. I'm sure I didn't look it, but I'd taken quite a battering.

What a race, what a week. What an amazing achievement that I'm so proud of. I couldn't have done it without Doug by my side. Until those last 10 or so miles, I'd never doubted us. But it goes to show how quickly things can turn bad.

Monday 25 January 2016

The Spine 2016 Part 2

The next section for me was full of trepidation. The legend of Cross Fell was something we'd heard all about. It sounded like something of nightmares, where folk disappear into the mountains, fall down disused mineshaft deep in the ground, or return a different person, scarred by what they've experienced up there. On the map, this section looked very bleak. Approx 12k of heavily contoured fells, featuring several peaks across empty high altitude moorland. I was nervous about what was ahead. Thankfully, we'd be crossing in daylight and the snow storm from the night before had passed.

Doug and I left Dufton a couple of minutes ahead of Zoe and we agreed she would catch  us up, dawn was breaking so I didn't bother with my head torch, I got myself into my map and started trying to identify the surrounding hills, cross checking with Doug in agreement. Very soon, we were regrouped and heading up our first climb. We were all moving well, and had given each other orders to remind one another to eat. (It's easy to get stuck in a pace and forget the important bits like grazing) as we crested the first climb we all turned round to look back at where we had come from. It was stunning. The day had broken, the vast expanse of hills and fields spread out below us, above and beyond. Some way in the distance we could see huge white snow top peaks and plateaus. My phone didn't like the cold weather so I was unable to take any photos on this trip but I have an amazing mental image of that moment and it was lovely to share it with my two adventure companions. We continued up up up, and were soon above the snow line, and the mist thickening. Before long we we were ankle deep in snow and following the footsteps of those ahead of us. At times the footsteps didn't agree with our tracking so we made new tracks of our own. 

I was enjoying this. What was the big deal? Cross fell is nothing more than a snowy adventure! We made slow progress through the snow, across the various peaks, great Dunn fell, came and went. We stopped briefly, as the sun broke through the mist, we could have been skiing in France. Taking care not to veer off track (not that we could see the track) and fall 100ft down one of the disused mine shafts we continue our journey up towards the highest part of the pennine way. I was ticking off the peaks along my map just one more to go before Cross Fell. I finally felt like I'd clicked with my navigation, it felt empowering. We were very lucky with our crossing, the weather was largely in our favour, the fog made visibility difficult at times but the blizzard from the night before was just a memory underneath our feet.

Knowing after Cross Fell we had not far to go before reaching Gregs hut, another legendary location on the pennine way, somewhere we'd only dreamed of reaching until today. We summitted cross fell and I tried taking a bearing. I didn't do it right. I was annoyed with myself. Zoe set off into the mist, practically skipping towards John bamber waiting for us in Gregs hut. Doug and I were eating, I was annoyed at my nav error, Doug was trying to help me take the bearing correctly. We set off in the direction that we thought right, and could no longer see Zoe. I panicked a bit and we shouted into the mist. I blew my whistle and got nothing back. Doug said let's carry on, she'll just be ahead. We shouted and blew our whistles, where was she? She was just there? What if she'd gone off the wrong way?? A minute later, a figure appeared in the mist, wondering what all the fuss was about I'm sure!

We continued on, the navigation was a little tricky here as the cairns were difficult to see in the mist and visibility was down to about 25m or so. We knew we were only about a km from Gregs hut and were all excited to get there. Before long, we saw a little stone building appear down below from the mist, buoyed up by the thought of warmth and humans and a hot meal we bounced our way down and into the hut. Once inside, we were greeted by John, Paul, a medic and Paul's dog appropriately named Mist. We were given hot drinks and a bowl of noodles each. It sounded like we'd timed our descent perfectly as a big snow storm was heading in and the folk behind were sure to be caught in it.

We didn't stop too long as we were keen to get off the hill before the snow came and into Alston check point for a snooze. We left once more before Zoe, down the hill towards garigill. It was easy navigation from here to Alston, so we didn't need to think much. We looked back to see Zoe was on the move again so slowed to let her catch up before moving once more as a group. Soon we were passed by Ryan who seemed to have an amazing burst of energy running briskly downt the hill.

The snow was thinning and the path was becoming gravelly and making my feet sore. My legs were more than happy to jog to keep up with the fast walk of Doug and Zoe but my feet did not appreciate it so I trotted on the grass where I could to keep up. Along here we bumped in to Joe who had given us some nav instruction last spring. Hoping he was impressed that we'd not gone horrifically wrong yet he walked with us a little while and took a few snaps. Leaving joe behind to catch other racers on their descent we continued on through garigill and on towards Alston.

The last km into the checkpoint was a bastard. It took us around a field and up a fucking steep Tarmac hill. We rolled into the cp and got on with eating, foot care, and I took advantage of some lovely showers. Ronnie was at the cp with Ryan, he said the weather was turning and big snow was forecast further up so Ryan was only taking an hour stop and then out to keep ahead of the weather. Outside I could see it was snowing now but I was so tired, we needed to sleep. Once more, alarms set for no more than 90 min from now we tried sleep. I was struggling. I was so cold. We had fancy beds again with duvets. I had two Quilts on and was still shivering. When I wasn't shivering my legs were spasming in pain. I finally got off and had about 30 min sleep before getting up and getting in the medic queue for foot checking.

I ordered some breakfast
"is it morning or night?" Always it's night.

Doug was still asleep so I sent someone to wake him. He appeared Bleary eyed and very sweet but not happy with being woke up and too got in the queue for foot taping and handed a porridge and coffee. This checkpoint saw a lot of faffing. Our earlier efficiency was gone. Our kit was exploded across the room. It took us ten times longer to vacate, Zoe was ready before us and finally we were out the door. Next target was Green head. We weren't sure if there as going to be somewhere to sleep along here but we hoped so. Out into the night we went. It's surreal. It feels like morning and the sun should be coming up soon. But it quickly dawns on you that it's night. always night. And only just night, and there is a whole night of hiking and cold ahead of you.

Leaving Alston was shit. I was navigating confidently through some fields. We were all tired so we worked as a team to navigate. Doug was on the gps, I was in my map, Zoe had a 1:25k map so had much more detail to offer. Cross checking with each other. Before long, we felt trapped. I poked around in the bushes and found myself thigh deep in a bog. Struggling to get out, fell backwards into it. Zoe and Doug helpless whilst I hauled myself out of it and Zoe located the correct route. The next few hours was just awful. Tricky nav, through awful wet boggy fields. We were really struggling to stand up in the mud, slipping over constantly we we getting exhausted and not to mention caked in mud, so we took the road which ran parallel to this part of the route. I looked down and saw I'd dropped my map. It couldn't have been far back so I dropped my bag with Doug and ran back to find it. I felt like a deer! Bounding easily without the restricting weight on my shoulders. This is what running feels like!!

We popped out onto a road Crossing and spotted a barn to stop in and put some more layers on as it was getting chilly. Whilst Doug and I layered up, Zoe had seen what treats the barn had. Chairs and tarpaulin, some ducks hanging by their necks. She sat down for a few minutes whilst we fettled. We were jealous of her sleeping so we climbed into some chairs and pulled the tarp over us and set an alarm clock for ten minutes time. Power nap in, we felt happy to continue. It's amazing how much of a boost you get from a short nap.

I don't remember much of the night from here until greenhead but we reached greenhead with the most impeccable timing, we were exhausted and wanting to eat something and have a nap, by now there was snow heavily under foot. We saw a tea shop that looked closed but there were lights on, I poked my head in to enquire if they were open and luck had it , they opened at 9am (it was 9:01!) so relieved to be inside and the prospect of breakfast we huddled round the fire and were treated to coffee, and a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Also a short nap on a lovely comfy sofa. We stayed here longer than intended but enjoyed the welcome relief from the cold.

We pushed on through greenhead where Tom was waiting to offer hot chocolate but aware we'd already stopped longer than planned we pushed on through towards Hadrians wall. I'd never seen Hadrians wall before and it was exciting! It was huge and Imposing and I was feeling fantastic. We cocked up our nav a little in the beginning but were soon back on track traipsing through the the fine deep snow. Through the next couple of hours I felt great. I could have run and skipped along the whole section but as we were moving as a team I ran along then stopped to admire the views whilst I was caught up. Doug was getting some leg pain so I insisted we stopped and taped it up, it was still a bloody long way to go to risk not dealing with niggles as soon as they cropped up.

The day was beautiful. I felt almost guilty for the sun being out. Most unspinelike. We were moving well as a group once more when we turned off towards the forest. I'd heard that this was boggy and unpleasant so was expecting this to be a shit part. I'm sure if I was in a bad mood or feeling particularly sleepy it would have been but I was feeling energised by the sun. When we reached the forest it was like an alpine dream. Deep snow, big evergreens heavy with glittery snow. Still I was feeling good so I'm probably rose tinting it. Zoe had reccied this part of the route so was familiar with which way to go which took a little bit of pressure off thinking. We caught up with Stuart who was struggling a bit. Saying his batteries are low. We pushed on passed, I told Doug and Zoe I'd catch them up whilst I nipped in to the bushes for a pee. Stuart edged past me and I quickly caught him back up through the deep snow. I offered him some malt loaf as I passed which he gladly took. I hung back with him a while and chatted briefly.

I pushed back on to catch up with my teammates and the course opened up on to a fantastic plateau. The sun was setting and turning the sky pink and we were all enjoying the fantastic view behind. I felt like an alpine skier (minus the skis) As the day faded to night (It's always night) we approached a farm which was offering coffee, sit downs, soup and snacks. I could see Doug was struggling with his feet and needed to get off them I was tired and getting cold. We were only 5 miles from Bellingham checkpoint and he and I were keen to push on. Zoe went on in to the farm and we reluctantly followed. We discussed between The two of us what we wanted to do, not really knowing what was right or wrong. Do we push on to the cp and have a proper stop, or have a brief stop here? We were ushered inside, but we'd all but decided to carry on, but Zoe was keen to stop and enjoy a soup.

I felt really rude and ungrateful to our hosts and bad that Zoe wanted to stay. Already having only stopped for a minute the cold was setting into my bones and we had a rushed stop which I still feel awkward about as I know we must have seemed so rude and we should have acted as a team and not rushed Zoe out. When we were back on the move, I apologised to Zoe that I didn't want to appear rude but was keen to get on to the proper check point. I sure if she'd stayed she'd still have caught us up!

The navigation into Bellingham was pretty easy from here but the temperature had dropped significantly and the ground under foot was really icy, we stopped to look at the sky which was glowing red like a strange aroura. Eventually we found our way into Bellingham CP where we faffed and Put kit on to heaters to dry out. Ronnie was once more here, telling us to get our shit together, the weather was shit ahead. Stop faffing, and helping us in any way he could to hurry the fuck on. He was ace though, he was rooting for us to finish but knew that the next section was a beast and had our best interests at heart. We popped over to have a hot meal and Jenny was there being super lovely and mothering me a bit, which is always nice.

Heads down in the hope for a decent sleep once more. I looked over to where Zoe was asleep under a table and Doug asked if she was alright. She certainly didn't look alright. I sat up and looked to where she was appearing to have a fit on the floor. What was really happening was her legs twitching severely while she slept. I managed about 30 mins of broke sleep once more, my legs were cramping horrifically. I got up and got my feet taped up, not that the medics thought there was much wrong with them. Doug had to wait as someone had just been brought off the hill with hypothermia. While he got his feet sorted, I went in search of breakfast as was donated some porridge by the supporter of Richard who was the hypothermic racer, now warmed up but sadly out of the race but in fantastic spirits already planning his return assault.

As we left Bellingham.

"Is it morning or night?" Always night.

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....

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