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Montane Spine Race 2019

Race Report (Colm O’Cofaigh)

I have been fascinated with the Spine Race since about 2016 when, like so many other people, I followed the dots on the tracker and watched Eoin Keith and Pavel Paloncy battle it out at the front. The race is 268 miles long with about 13,135 m of ascent. It starts in Edale, in the Peak District in Derbyshire and follows the entire ‘Pennine Way’ long-distance national trail to finish in Scotland in the small border town of Kirk Yetholm. The race is held in January each year to ensure bad weather and maximum darkness and it is designed to test a racer’s ability to look after him/herself in fairly harsh conditions. It is an unsupported race in that competitors are not allowed to receive any help from spectators or a support team although they are allowed to avail of shops, cafes and pubs en- route. It is also a non-stop race in the sense that racers have exactly one week (168 hours) to reach the finish. They can choose to sleep or rest en-route but the clock never stops ticking. It is that balance between sleeping enough and keeping moving which is one of the key challenges of the race. There are five main checkpoints along the course which are separated by distances which range from 34-63 miles so you have to complete an ultra between each CP. At these CPs racers can sleep, get hot food and receive medical support as well as access their drop-bag. This bag had to weigh under 20kg and would travel in front of me up the course. I would be able to access it at each of the five CPs. It was filled with spare socks, warm clothes and food. I also packed a spare pair of size 13 shoes. Normally I take 11-11.5 but I had decided to start in size 12’s to allow for thicker waterproof socks and swelling as the race progressed and I had a backup pair of size 13 in case I developed ‘elephant feet’ in the latter stages of the race. As it turned out I only ever used the one pair of shoes that I started in. Each racer also has to carry a long list of mandatory equipment which includes a sleeping bag, bivy bag, sleeping mat, stove, traction aids, googles and 3000+ calories of food. In addition to extra clothing, headtorch(es), spare batteries, GPS, maps etc. It makes for a big pack. I had entered the shorter ‘Spine Challenger’ race (about 109 miles from Edale to Hadraw) in January 2018 but I had to withdraw just before the start with illness. My original plan had been to do the Challenger first, see how it went and then enter the full Spine Race in January 2019 but the flu put paid to that plan and so I decided to just go straight for the full distance in 2019.

I spent a lot of time thinking about, and testing, kit. I reccie’d as much of the route as I could and read any guidebooks to the Pennine Way that I could get my hands on; all to try to familiarise myself with the course as much as possible. My main concerns in advance of the race were my feet (due to the likelihood of very wet and muddy ground throughout) and the attritional effect of being in the dark so much with relatively little sleep. Perhaps strangely I was less worried (but not unworried I hasten to add!) about the distance. The longest races I had done before were just over 100 miles and I figured that that the Spine was so far there was no point in worrying about whether I could go the distance or not. I would just try to get from CP to CP and slowly try to knock of the miles. The day before the race there was a rail strike so my good friend, running buddy and next door neighbour Tony White very kindly gave me and my kit a lift to Edale. I registered, went through a pretty rigorous kit check followed by the pre-race briefing and then made my way to Edale YHA where I stayed the night. The race started the next morning at 8 am. Needless to say it was dark and raining and so full water-proofs were on from the off. It felt good to stand on the start line. I had been thinking about this race for so long and now finally the time had arrived to get on with it. Whatever happened I figured it was going to be an adventure at the very least.

I took it very easy to start with (and for the rest of the race actually!) and we slowly gained height and moved into thick cloud on Kinder. The wind picked up and gusted strongly with horizontal rain lashing us but it was manageable. The descent to Snake Pass follows a line of Pennine Way slabs. These occur at various places along the Pennine Way and are used to prevent erosion of the peat. They make for drier going than over the peat but they can be slippery and uneven and so demand concentration. The rain eventually passed as I made my way over Bleaklow and Black Hill and then across the reservoirs near Wessenden and the M62 where once again the rain lashed down for several hours. It was now dark and so with headtorch on I proceeded to make my way past the huge Stoodley Pike monument and then down to the road into Hebden Bridge and up again to eventually reach CP1 at Hebden Hey Scout Centre (45’ish miles) in about 15.5 hours. It was pretty chaotic in the CP. I sorted out my feet, ate, packed my bag for the next leg and then tried to sleep. I had budgeted on 2 hours sleep here. I reckon I slept for less than 30 minutes due to the noise. It was actually good to leave the CP about 4 am. I was on my own for quite a while after this, moving along steadily in the dark. I took a 10 minute power nap at Top Withins bothy – supposedly the setting for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – before pushing on again. And so the night turned to day as I passed a succession of places: Ponden, Cowling, Lothersdale, Thornton in Craven, Gargrave (a nice pit stop at the Co-op shop) and then along the river to Malham once more in the dark. I had another pit stop at in the Lister Arms pub in Malham for food and then headed up with some other runners including Colin Green to climb up the side of Malham Cove and eventually around to Malham Tarn and the intermediate CP at Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre. This was not a full CP. There was medical support and water available but you were not allowed to sleep in the CP and there was a maximum time limit of 30 mins inside. Still it was nice to chat to people and also to find out what was happening at the front end of the race. Being in the dark so much means you have a very restricted ‘world view’ (basically the bubble of light of your head-torch) and you have no idea what is happening elsewhere. Anyway I learned that Jasmin Paris was ripping up the trail, and was miles and miles ahead. I shook my head in awe, left the CP and plodded on. From here the route went over Fountains Fell, dropped down to the road and then went over Pen y Ghent. This was a tough few miles. The weather was truly awful going up Fountains Fell. It was the middle of the night, pitch black, mist, heavy rain and strong gusting winds. I couldn’t get down fast enough but there was no protection on the road below either. Colin and I rang in to the race HQ to ask if there was a diversion around Pen y Ghent because the weather was so bad. The answer came back “no, no diversion”. Fair enough, so over the top we went and down the seemingly never-ending trail to Horton in
Ribblesdale. Apparently quite a few people avoided going over the top of PyG due to the weather and took a lower route to Horton for which they received a one hour time penalty. It was good to get to Horton. I was having a bit of a sense of humour failure by this point as was Colin and so we really enjoyed arriving at Horton Café which the owners had very kindly kept open through the night for Spine racers. A bowl of stew and a cup of tea hit the spot and then off we went on the next 15 miles or so to Hawes. The Cam Road was a real slog, but we arrived into Hawes about 9’ish in the morning (I think) and then into the CP at Hawes YHA. 108 miles done. Again this CP was pretty chaotic but I went through the usual routine of sort out my feet (by now I had a couple of blisters ) eat, repack for next leg (changing over maps, replenishing trail food, changing batteries in headtorch and GPS etc) and then sleep for a few hours. A group of 4 of us arranged to leave about 3.30 pm. We waited for Colin but he never showed so we left. It turns out he slept through his alarm and ended up sleeping for 6 hours rather than 3.

The climb up Great Shunner Fell was a misty affair but thankfully it was dry and we reached the top after a couple of hours just as it was getting dark. This was followed by the long decent to Thwaite and then eventually after several more hours the Tan Hill Inn. I made a mental note to come back here to sample the beer on a future occasion. The next section on the Pennine Way is Sleightholme Moor. This is infamous and is regarded by many as one of the worst sections on the entire trail. Bog and mud city. Having reccied it I knew what was coming and to make matters worse it was the middle of the night. Funnily enough though this section passed ok. I felt mentally pretty strong and was moving well. I reached the A66 underpass in pretty good shape but after that things became more of a struggle. The rain started up again, it was really wet underfoot, I had a troublesome blister and the fields and section to Middletone in Teesdale just went on and on and on. We picked up another racer, Thane, on this section. He was almost sleep walking at this stage and the rest of us were not much better. Eventually we arrived into Middletone in Teesdale. I was delighted to get into the CP. This section had been hard and I had struggled mentally for the last few hours. It made such a difference to get into the CP get my wet stuff off, get my blisters lanced by the medic, eat and sleep for a few hours. I was a new person and woke up feeling very positive and psyched up for the next section. 140 miles done and over half way. Brilliant.

I left the CP about 3 pm or so. It was a lovely afternoon, cold but clear and sunny (that was to change relatively soon…). This section of the Pennine Way is beautiful. You are beside the River Tees and pass the waterfalls of Low and High Force. After Cronkley Farm I met up with Patrick, Thane and Matt (and we would be together for much of the rest of the race). We arrived at the scramble up beside the waterfall of Cauldron Spout in the dark. This was quite exciting, there was a lot of water coming down and the scrambling was wet and tricky in places in the dark. It was not a place to slip or fall. But we made it up and pushed on towards Dufton. The mist came down again, it was dark and still we plodded on past the spectacular glacial valley of High Cup Nick (or at least it would have been spectacular except that in the dark and mist you could barely see 10 feet ahead of you). This took a few hours and was tough. There was an intermediate CP in Dufton YHA and into it we piled, got hot water for a dehydrated meal, sorted out feet and generally re-grouped before the climb over Cross Fell which was on the next leg. It was good craic in the CP. There were quite a few racers there and the CP team were full of life and there was much laughing and joking. I felt totally reenergised by it. I was excited about Cross Fell. It is the highest mountain in England outside of the Lakes and has a reputation as a bleak and unforgiving place. I had climbed it twice before but both times in daylight and in the summer. This time was to be very different. It was the middle of the night and very very cold with snow on the ground. The long ascent to Green Hill was slow but steady and then we proceeded on over Great Dun Fell and Little Dun Fell and then up onto Cross Fell. Boy was it cold, particularly with the windchill. I had all my spare clothes on as well as googles due to the freezing wind. The summit plateau was snowy and windswept but there was a huge yellow moon above and it was a spectacular place to be. This was actually one of the highlights of the entire race for me. It was about 4 am, I was cold but things were in control and it felt fantastic to be there. We took a photo on the summit and then got down to the bothy of Greg’s Hut as quickly as possible where we were greeted by John Bamber (a Spine Race ‘institution’) and a bowl of his homemade chilli noodles. The noodles were so hot they nearly took my mouth off but they did the job of warming me up although my tongue felt burnt for a couple of days afterwards.

With Matt and Patrick on the summit of Cross Fell. Photo: Thane Hall

Then off we went down the ‘Coffin Road’ which leads down interminably from Gregs Hut to the village of Garrigill. There we were greeted by Annie – a long time resident of the village and a keen Spine Race watcher – who invited us into her house for tea and home-made flapjacks. We were all tired but her company and the hot drink really perked us up and we set off again for the last few miles along the banks of the river to CP4 in Alston YHA. Upon arrival it was the same procedure as before: attend to my feet, eat, repack, sleep, eat and go. I enjoyed this CP. The volunteer staff were fantastic, so friendly and couldn’t do enough for you (and that was the same at each CP). Alston felt significant to me. We were over 180 miles into the race now with only one more main CP (Bellingham) to come before the final leg over the Cheviots. I knew the next leg to Bellingham would be tough being about 39 miles long following the valley of the South Tyne, then along Hadrian’s Wall and finally through the forests and fields of Northumberland north of the wall to Bellingham.

We left Alston in the evening. I was with three other runners, Patrick, Matt and Thane and we would be mostly together until the end of the race. Many people have said that the next leg of about 16 miles from Alston to Greenhead is one of their least favourite parts of the Pennine Way with a lot of muddy fields and deep bogs to be negotiated. Luckily for us the ground was fairly frozen and that really helped. Two friends Dave and Carolyn met us out of the blue somewhere near the village of Slaggyford. It was totally unexpected and they had brought a rucksack of food for us and so I felt really bad saying we could not take anything from them as the race was unsupported. But it was great to chat to them for a few minutes before we disappeared off again into the night. On we went, and on and on. The section over Blenkinsop Common was never-ending and very wet. I was longing for the sight of Greenhead but it seemed to take a lifetime to appear. By Greenhead I was cold and very tired and I knew I needed to sort myself out. I put on my spare clothes and we agreed that we were going to have a pit-stop at a public toilets (a well known Spine Race stopping point) a mile or so further on. We arrived at the car park and toilets about 2am (I think). There were already quite a few Spiners there either cooking up or asleep in the toilet block. I entered the gents and found there was plenty of space. There was one guy stretched out in his sleeping bag fast asleep on the floor so I sat down and had 15 minutes sleep and then some hot food. This felt much better and I left mentally and physically rejuvenated (or sort of anyway…). The route now followed Hadrian’s Wall to the east with lots of climbing and descending. This is a very scenic part of the Pennine Way but as it was the middle of the night there was not much to see beyond the bubble of my head-torch. It took a long time to cover these 7-8 miles to get to Rapishaw Gap where the Pennine Way leaves Hadrian’s Wall and heads north through the forests to Bellingham. It was dawn when we got to the Gap but it was a great feeling turning north and heading into the Northumberland ‘wilds’. The day was freezing but it had the effect of making the ground frozen which made for firm, dry footing.

Eventually we came to Horneystead Farm. This is an isolated farm but is a Pennine Way institution. The owners provide an outbuilding for Pennine Way walkers with armchairs, kettle, toilet and tea/coffee biscuits. When we got there we also found hot soup in a slow cooker. It was an oasis and only 5 more miles to Bellingham! Finally we got into the CP about 1.30 pm. Before the race I had thought that the further north we would get the quieter the CPs would be. Unfortunately this was not the case. Bellingham was crammed full with people and gear and there was very little space to sort out kit for the next leg. This was the last CP before the finish (with the exception of a staging CP at Byrness where we could only stay for 30 mins maximum). It was 42 miles to Kirk Yetholm from Bellingham and this included the traverse of the Cheviots which was the last big obstacle to come but a significant one and one which many people describe as the crux of the race. I had decided on a longish 3.5 hour sleep in the CP in preparation for what was to come but the sleeping room opened off from the main hall and was very noisy. I could not find my earplugs and as a result this was a really frustrating few hours with little sleep. In retrospect I should have got up and bivvied outside the CP but wisdom is great in hindsight. When I got up I was told that apparently there was a big dump of snow forecast for the Cheviots overnight and that racers were going to be held at Byrnes and Hut 1. It was therefore advisable to get out of the CP asap and get moving otherwise there was a danger we might be held in Bellingham as well. As it turned out thankfully none of this transpired but I packed quickly and left. As I walked down the road into the town three small figures loomed out of the dark. It was Méabh, Finn and Ruairí, and Emma and Róisín were not far ahead. Fantastic. Hugs all round, great excitement and then off I went again. By this time Thane and Matt had caught up with me and so it was nice to have their company as we headed out of Bellingham and into the Kielder Forest. From Bellingham to Byrness is about 15 miles and the section through the forest was easy enough moving on the forest road. However, all of us were feeling the effects of sleep deprivation and were all hallucinating at this stage (mostly animals on the road, cars to the side and large buildings in my case, none of which existed in reality). We decided we needed a power nap so we all lay down in the snow beside the track for about 15 minutes. I went right out and felt the better for it. On we went eventually getting into Byrness and the Forest View guesthouse (the halfway CP) around 3 am I think. We were given a hot meal there but told we had to leave after 30 mins and sure enough out we had to get. It felt a little like we were ‘pushed out into the dark’ but that was the rule so best to just suck it up and get on with it. We decided we needed a bit more sleep before tackling the Cheviots so we bivied down in the local church for an hour. I had a good sleep which I really needed. It felt really good to be starting the climb up into the Cheviots. I knew this section from reccies, felt optimistic of finishing and I was psyched up for it. This section starts with a very steep climb from the village up through the woods and then you get on a rolling ridge line and follow it basically for hours. There are two refuge huts in the Cheviots. One at Lamb Hill about 7-8 miles in and the second at Auchope Cairn 12 miles further still. It was misty and cold and visibility was pretty poor. We met another runner here – Massimo – who looked like he was suffering from sleep deprivation and so he joined our group which made 5 of us. On we went, and on and on, through the murk passing the impressive earthen banks of the Roman Fort at Chew Green (what a place to be stationed!) eventually reaching Hut 1 after a few hours. I say hut but it really is like a garden shed. Some of the Spine Safety Team were there and they boiled up hot water for us to make a dehydrated meal which went down a treat.

About to leave Hut 1 in the Cheviots. Matt, myself, Patrick, Massimo and Thane. Photo: Mark Caldwell

We left the hut and proceeded to climb steadily, ticking off the climbs one by one; Lamb Hill, Beefstand Hill, Mozzie Law and eventually, after what seemed like forever, Windy Ghyll at just over 2000 feet. It was now about a half marathon to the finish but it was cold, misty and uninviting so we did not hang around. I had a sore blister on the sole of my right foot. I took time out to deal with this sitting in the snow, and then plodded on. At one point on this section Thane said to me that he had thought earlier in the day that the race was in the bag but now he was not so sure anymore. I felt the same. It felt like success or failure was finely balanced even this far into the race. Shortly after Massimo stopped and I asked him what was wrong and he told me he was “hearing voices in his head”. Not good. We fed him chocolate and pressed on together along the ridge. We needed to get down to Hut 2.

Foot repair on the Cheviot Ridge on the last day. Photo: Matt Clayton

It was another few miles to the turn off just before the Cheviot summit where the route drops down to Hut 2. It seemed to take forever but eventually the turn came and down the steep descent we went taking great care. I could see the hut as a small matchbox far below and there were about half a dozen other racers ahead. Somehow my homing instincts kicked in and I wanted to have the race done with and to finish. I started to run (or least what I thought was running; in reality it was probably just a shuffle) with Massimo. I passed by the people in front and arrived at Hut 2, said hello to the safety team there but did not stop and pushed on. Up over the last climb of the Schill and then down down down towards Kirk Yetholm. I made the finish just before 7 pm so a total time of just under 155 hours. Emma and the children were there to meet me. Ruairí was dressed in his dinosaur suit which was a pretty surreal sight in the dark. It was quite simply a fantastic feeling to finish. I was elated. Before the race I thought I might be completely wrecked if I made it to the end but in actual fact I felt ‘ok’, mentally and emotionally anyway, albeit with sore feet. It was just wonderful to sit down at the finish and soak it all up. It was hard to believe that the winner Jasmin Paris had done the race in 83 hours smashing the course record in the process. The word “phenomenal” does not do her justice.

It is now a couple of weeks since I finished. Looking back at the race it was a pretty intense experience but also a fantastic one. Sure there were some very low points where I struggled but the support from fellow racers (especially Matt, Thane and Patrick), the volunteers and CP staff were wonderful and it is such an exciting race to do that overall it was a very positive experience. We were also lucky with the weather in the Cheviots. No big dumps of snow like last year. For the most part I was happy with my kit and the decisions I made during the race. My strategy had been to sleep at the CPs as I figured it would be easier to sleep there as they would be warmer and more comfortable than bivying out on the trail. However, the CPs were very busy and sometimes felt a bit chaotic and so I found it difficult to get to sleep. If I was to do the race again I would probably bivy out a bit more and I definitely would not bother trying to sleep at CP1. But on the whole I was happy with how it went. So that’s it. Thanks for reading and thanks in particular to Emma, Méabh, Finn, Ruairí and Róisín for their encouragement and support and for putting up with incessant ‘Spine talk’ for the months preceding the race.