“For every candle on our cake, we need to be more active”
I’d had my eyes set on the full Spine since February 2023, patiently waiting for October when spots would open up. Silence ensued, and I accepted it wouldn’t happen this year. A silver lining in some ways as I was troubled with knee issues and could opt for a few months of gentler training. Then came an unexpected November email – Spine Challenger North had openings. My initial response was “no chance in eight weeks”! Yet, the allure persisted, and I found myself signing up to avoid another year of dot watching.
Venturing into the Cheviots in December with Antonio for a snowy reccie and falling multiple times through delicate ice to frozen bogs below, the challenging 26 miles confirmed the Spine commitment. Fitness wasn’t ideal, I’d been doing multisport for the past year, not hill endurance but it’d be a hike, not a run. I’d also had an odd series of joint issues. However, it seemed like a do-able event until a near miss with a car speeding along a local lane left me awkwardly in a hedge, damaging the knee I’d spent months rehabbing.
I wasn’t quite back to square one but it limited what training I could do. The weather wasn’t helpful either. Most of my reccies are solo and it simply wasn’t sensible for me to head up high alone with strong winds and apocalyptic rainstorms.
Why do it? I was concerned that the joint problems I was starting to experience might put an end to my ultra participation so this may possibly be my last ultra. Rather than grumpily wondering, I chose to be on the start line, enjoying the experience. I’d rather be out there seeing what was possible than sitting at home and wondering about it.
Preparation and event
An adventure such as the Spine has a necessarily exhaustive mandatory kit list and gathering that together coupled with planning the contents of a drop bag for checkpoint re-supply and clothing changes is an endurance effort in itself. My rucksack weight was around 10Kg with little room for reduction given that I carried additional items to ensure I had enough to keep warm. Registration was straightforward, my kit selections passed muster and the race briefing held no surprises.
Spending the night in my own bed meant a 5am start with a lift to Hardraw. It was minus 4C and there was no shelter so I walked around and up and down the field for 40 minutes to keep warm before the official start.
I set off steadily knowing I would be at the back of pack. As we climbed the sun rose, bathing the runners and the hill ahead with a rosy glow. The photo belies the Baltic temperature as the windchill on Great Shunner Fell gave a ‘feels like’ temperature of minus 18C. I stopped at the shelter to put on microspikes which would give me confidence on the ice that I’d encounter on my way down to Thwaite. Shortly after I started to descend a voice from behind said my name. Turning I found the smiley Kim Collison who paused briefly for a few words and a quick hug before floating off down the fell in front of me. I’d done a mere five miles at this point whereas he’d done 115 and been going for 26 hours yet looked as fresh as I felt!
At seven miles in Damian Hall and Konrad came past me and just as I was approaching Keld at ten miles so a fresh faced James Noble skipped by closely followed by Jack Scott.
One cannot help but marvel at the capacity for these young men to train their physiology to deliver these phenomenal athletic performances.
There was much ice around on the climb to Tan Hill and care was needed but I was gaining confidence in my footwear and was also using poles.
Tan Hill Inn was warm. I had a dehydrated veg chilli containing 700Kcal of welcome heat. My ‘readybrek’ outer jacket had become wet but draping it around the large water urn for 20 minutes dried it out completely and my windproof, also wet, dried on the back of a chair helped by convection from underfloor heating.
Suitably revived I departed for a traverse of Sleightholme moor, something of a bog fest normally but that day mostly frozen over, although still with a risk of falling through a thin icy surface in places if not careful.
I met up with James and Ben just before the A66 underpass and spent a few pleasant hours with them. The daylight had now gone and headtorches were on.
This was new territory for me. There is a shelter on Ravock Moor where we stopped for a short while to eat and drink. Eugenie past us at this point.
A few miles further is Clove Lodge where the lovely owner has a barn with hot and cold drinks and a variety of treats for users of the Pennine Way. The boys wanted to stop again and although I’m not used to ad hoc stops during events, the coffee was welcome not least because as the evening progressed, the temperature seemed to fall further with each hour that passed.
Next up another honesty box drink station where the boys stopped again. I kept going as I was starting to feel the cold with each stop and I needed to keep generating heat. All those layers I wear serve purely to keep that heat in. I had thought the boys would catch me up but I didn’t see them again until Langdon Beck. Shortly afterwards I noticed a red light in front of me and was surprised to find I was catching up with the next person in the event. It turned out to be Stephen. I checked he was ok to which he explained he always slowed down at night and was quite ok. Then the lights of Middleton appeared below and I experienced a moment of resignation at the obvious descent that was needed. I’m not great with descents at the best of times and this one seemed to go on forever. Then a bit of road before turning west to follow the river for the final 9 mile stretch to the checkpoint at Langdon Beck Youth Hostel. A Spine Safety crew was stationed at the turning and keen to check I was ok and warm. I assured them I was and thanked them for being there.
I really, really appreciated the privilege of being out on this next section along the river and past the waterfalls, on my own. The ground was frozen and crunched crisply with every step; noise of the river crescendo’d and fell as my path meandered closer and then away from it’s course. Rustlings on either side spoke of the small animals scurrying from place to place. A short way along I passed through a tawny owl’s territory, it’s distinctive hooting audible for a mile or so. To my left flocks of sheep declared themselves, making me smile as I looked at dozens of pairs of floating green-yellow eyes reflecting from my head torch beam. I also passed some stone sheep.
I also caught up and passed another runner moving quite slowly but who assured me he was ok.
One downside of this section is the presence of a gazillion stiles but despite them being a little slippery, all were negotiated without incident – I have form for falling off, getting stuck or bashing one shin or another. It was along here that my knee began niggling, weirdly the patella felt bruised yet I hadn’t knocked it.
Arriving at Langdon Beck checkpoint I met Jess who took excellent care of me. It’s quite a small space and the place was heaving with competitors. Initially there wasn’t a seat to sit on but it wasn’t long before someone was headed out. I clambered carefully over a number of heavily laden drop bags to the recently vacated chair, and my own drop bag and rucksack were squeezed onto the floor in front of me. The volunteers had their work cut out, scanning the room to see who might need what, and weaving between people to deliver plates of food and warm drinks and remove empty crockery – they did a fantastic job.
I have a ‘crib sheet’ in my drop bag with a list of actions that ensures efficient use of my time. Charging devices, replenishing consumables in my rucksack, eating and drinking made straightforward by following the list. Next was bed. I really wanted to be efficient with transitions and had hoped to just spend around three hours there but given my knee was giving me mild irritation and also knowing I wasn’t trained for this distance I decided to go for the maximum of around six hours to optimise what recovery my body could manage. I got to bed at 2:15 and set an alarm for 5am. In the event, my legs were fine with no stiffness afterwards, just the knee that let me down.
I left the pleasant sanctuary of Langdon Beck into the cool crisp air and light snow fall. A diversion was in place to avoid the climb up a frozen Caudron Snout waterfall. By the time I reached Cow Green reservoir the snow was laced with small sharp ice spears driven by wind into my face. The going was more challenging given that the ice was still there but hidden by a covering of fresh slippery snow and more than one person fell heavily in front of me. Time for microspikes again which I wore all the way through to Dufton. The weather was coming in fast and visibility dropped on my way to High Cup Nick, again this was new territory so I needed to be careful with my nav as there are plenty of places you can go wrong.
Descending to Dufton I was very aware that my knee was more painful and had swollen as flexion didn’t feel right. This was my prime concern as I’d not injured it. However, I was also getting significant discomfort from my foot which has been plagued by Covid toes following Long Covid. I’ve got used to this but I guess that managing it does alter my gait and with a 10Kg rucksack on my back might have contributed to the knee issue. The ground was frozen solid and moving on such a hard unyielding surface for that length of time wasn’t helpful. I heard that a number of people across all the Spine races sustained lower limb problems on that account and retired.
My decision to stop at Dufton was due to safety considerations. Weather conditions were deteriorating rapidly for the ascent up to Cross Fell, although I really wanted to go up there. However, was my knee to worsen and slow me down further then I might not be moving fast enough to generate sufficient heat to keep me warm. Further, should I get into difficulties, although I certainly had kit to look after myself it might necessitate others coming out to find and retrieve me. The hills and the race and the lure of John Bamber’s famous welcome at Gregg’s Hut will still be there next year.
Going into the event late on and knowing I was undertrained and taking on a course I didn’t know meant I had no expectations and felt under no pressure. I don’t think I’ve been more relaxed in the days prior to an event. My objectives were to experience the event and to keep dry and warm. Finishing it would have been a bonus.
I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of two days of contrasting weather conditions and had plenty of balance practice. I was dry and warm at all times and ate and drank my way along. I gained confidence in my ability to manage myself for an extended period in sub-zero temperatures and met some lovely people along the way.
Thank you to all the volunteers across the race who give their time and experience to making sure everyone is safe and well fed and watered – it simply would not be possible without you all.
So far as my knee is concerned, I have since had an MRI scan and consulted a specialist. The bad news is that I have an inflammatory arthritis affecting multiple joints and body systems but need more tests and scans to determine exactly what the problem is and hence to decide how to treat it. The good news is that it can be treated. The unknown is how long all that will take.
We have no problems, only opportunities and where there’s a will there’s always a way. The one thing I can assure you of is that you haven’t heard the last of me – I’ll be back!
Life Lesson: The older we get, the more vital it is to challenge ourselves, fostering confidence and resilience. I encourage you also to take on any challenge that nudges you beyond your comfort zone and don’t wait around for a better time to start – get on with it now!
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Thank you for reading.
Challenges make life interesting - overcoming them makes life meaningful