The Spine Race 2023

Written by Haydn Williams

In 2016 I volunteered on the Spine Safety Team, watching in admiration and bemusement as people walked/ran/crawled the entire 268 miles of the Pennine Way, from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm across the Scottish border.

The Spine Race. Colours mark segments between checkpoints.

It looked absolutely horrific and I swore I’d never do it because it seemed like no fun whatsoever. In 2017 I ran the Dragon’s Back – a tough five-day mountain race, but a civilised one with sunlight, temperatures not preceded by the word ‘minus’, and structured time demarcations known as ‘days’. Last year I did the Spine Sprint, the ‘baby’ version of the Spine race. At an advertised 75 km (I ran 73.2 km), it was the longest day out I’d ever had. Looking back, I’m not sure why doing anything Spine-related seemed like a good idea – I think the ‘baby’ race looked challenging but doable at that distance, across terrain I knew well, and couldn’t possibly last long enough to be too horrific even if turned out not to be particularly fun. It turned out that the weather was a bit grim but otherwise I was fortunate enough to find it not particularly tough. I suspect another reason for entering might have been that I’d secretly hoped for it to be utterly awful, thus putting me off entering the ‘proper’ Spine. But it wasn’t. So I entered the big one.

I’ll spare you all of the details about training, but suffice to say that there was lots of it, it went well, and I came into this race feeling very well prepared. I tested kit, I ran in the dark, I ran in the rain, I walked lots of uphills. Life was good. But I suspect you came here to read about how absolutely disgusting the race was, so I shall oblige…

The race was absolutely disgusting. At least, the two hours beforehand were, as I sat in the van in Edale car park while torrential rain fell outside. The actual start was drizzly and hail began whipping into our faces on Jacob’s Ladder. Snow fell as we climbed, and by Kinder Low everywhere was white and footsteps were crunchy. Lovely. I barrelled along Kinder having a fantastic time, confused as to how this section of the race prompts complaints from so many people. Bleaklow wasn’t bad either, although the photographer on Mill Hill beforehand did manage to make it look like I was already dejected enough to consider quitting.

Haydn Williams on a flagstone path across a snowy misty moor.
Despite looking depressed and slow, I was cheery and quick here.
© Jamie Rutherford 2023

Black Hill was tackled in the daylight this time, which was pleasant, as was the absence of the irritating detour around Dean Clough from last year. Past a couple of MRT tents dishing out hot drinks, and on to the burger van at the M62. A rapid Halloumi burger – out again ASAP before I get too warm and don’t want to leave. Here I’m caught by Matt, who also did Dragon’s Back in 2017. We blather on about running and punk rock all the way to checkpoint one, Hebden Bridge. The checkpoint on the full race is in a different place to the Sprint finish, so I’ve already clocked up 75.9 km in 15h 30m – my longest ‘race’ ever.

Sleep at Hebden has been discounted for a variety of reasons, mostly time- and noise-related. Matt decides he wants to grab an hour though. I fear getting too comfortable, so eat lots, sort kit, then sit with my eyes closed and listen to some music. My feet are damp but otherwise OK. New socks (liners and knee-high waterproof ones), and after a total 2½ hours stoppage time, we set off on ‘the big leg’. At 100 km it will almost immediately usurp my briefly-held 75 km ‘longest day out’ record.

We leave Hebden at 02:00, crossing Heptonstall Moor, then Wadsworth Moor, then Ickornshow Moor. The word ‘moor‘ features heavily in any description of this route. ‘Bog‘, ‘dark‘ and ‘bloody miles away‘ are strong contenders too.

In daylight we reach the aid station set up by the tri-club at Lothersdale. It’s 08:30 on Monday morning, so we’ve been on-the-go for 24½ hours now. We have a sandwich as snow starts to fall outside. Onwards again. We’re already north of Leeds, which is mad. By 16:00 we’re at Malham, albeit in the gloaming. No time to stop, it’s torches on again and up the side of the cove. At 17:00 we reach the mini-checkpoint at Malham Tarn. There’s a warm room with chairs, a cup of tea, and a time limit of 30 minutes. We laugh and joke and recuperate but then eventually have to head outside into the second night.

A couple of proper mountains now. Fountains Fell is cold. The rain on Kinder has been the only precipitation so far, but it’s been baltic throughout, and stopping for any more than thirty seconds results in rapid and dangerous cooling. We start Fountains as a group of five, but slowly string out. Off Fountains and up Pen y Ghent, catching a lady who’s stuck on the little scrambly section. I do my “good Samaritan” routine and guide her up the crag. Once the difficulties are over she zooms off ahead of us, but we get distracted on the summit by two random people who have stood up there shivering and handing out biscuits simply because they are intrigued by the race. The Eccles cake they give me is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. The descent is slow; Matt’s developed a blister and it’s hampering his progress.

All day we have been winding people up about the Cam High Road. This Roman road runs up to almost 600m elevation, and gets an entry on Making up the final 25 km of this 100 km leg, it’s notoriously difficult for reasons that seem to boil down to “it just goes on forever“. We’ve never been up there, and it’s been great to see everyone’s reactions as we say “it can’t be that hard; just knuckle down and power through it“. Those with prior experience bluster and rave about how terrible it is. We giggle like small children. How little we know.

By this point we ha ve been on the go for 39 hours. Almost as soon as we leave Horton in Ribblesdale, I am in trouble. I finally start to get properly tired, and Matt is a bit ahead of me on the exhaustion curve. For a while I hold it together as he drifts from side to side on the trail, but eventually I find myself waking up having swerved off the path, with no idea how long I’ve been asleep. I can only assume it is a few seconds (how long can you sleep walk on such terrain before you faceplant?) but it’s impossible to tell. My watch displays the distance remaining: 20.1 km. I walk for another fifteen, twenty minutes maybe. 20.0 km remaining. Writing this now, I wish I had the literary dexterity to accurately describe those few hours. I was acutely aware that we were both tired, and therefore prone to navigational mistakes and incredibly vulnerable if we did stop. It remained bitterly cold, and the snow that started at Lothersdale had been a constant companion on the ground since. It had been dark for hours. I don’t lucidly recall much of the entire 25 km section, but I do recall quite clearly that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Regular readers will know that I’m not prone to hyperbole, but the sheer mental effort involved in holding everything togther while so exhaused, and still performing physically too, was indescribable. Navigating, keeping warm, calculating timings, eating, drinking, watching the weather, managing kit, simply staying awake. Exhausting.

Eventually we stumbled into Hawes and the sanctuary of the checkpoint. 175 km completed in 46 hours. Four marathons in less than two days. Eurgh. It was 06:00, so we would be going to bed just as the sun came up; not ideal. There is a time limit of eight hours at all checkpoints, but also an overall time limit of one week for the whole route, so you must choose your rest strategy carefully. I checked my feet, which looked a bit worrying.

More food, then bed for four hours. We’d agreed to rendezvous at 11:00, but when Matt appeared he broke the news that he was retiring with an injured knee. I paid my condolences, then got taped up by a medic (#chafing). Feet looked OK, and I left at 12:30 to make the most of some daylight. Up over Great Shunner Fell in glorious sunshine and lovely snow cover, but with a chill wind my constant companion. Darkness again by Thwaite; a cruelly short period of time in which to actually have daylight and see things. From Thwaite to Keld, where the phenomenal community honesty-shop tea room gave the opportunity to make a lovely cup of tea. Chasing someone else from there to Tan Hill Inn, well known as Britain’s highest pub. A bowl of soup to warm me up again, and then strolling blissfully unwares out of the door into the teeth of a gale and onto Sleightholme Moor. I managed to avoid the hidden “person-depth” moss-covered swamp hole that we had been officially warned about, and marched confidently on towards the A66. This was to be a bit of a high point for me, because to my mind the idea of walking from Edale as far as the A66 was mind-blowing, and not something I would ever have said I could achieve. The only flies in the ointment were: (1) it took forever to get across Sleightholme – it doesn’t look too far on the map, and I thought I was making reasonable time, but boy did it drag, and (2) the underpass at the A66 is pretty manky and full of litter. However, 58 hours after starting I proved it could be done, and strode confidently onwards towards Middleton-in-Teesdale.

The confident striding didn’t last long. I hadn’t recce’d this section, but had studied the map and thought I knew what was coming. But the combination of unfamiliarity and darkness meant that I underestimated every section laid out in my head. When I thought I’d reached the halfway point, I wasn’t even a third of the way there. And so it went on. Just as I thought the worst of it was over, I reached a section of fields with seemingly hundreds of dry stone walls punctuated by stiles and gates. In the dark I was unable to simply look across to where the next gap in the wall was, so navigation by GPS and torchlight was both necessary and painfully slow. Looking back at the map now it was only a few kilometres, but on my own, in the dark, quite tired… it was the second hardest night of my life, pipped only by the Cam High Road twenty-four hours earlier.

Dry stone walls going on forever. At least that’s what it felt like.

Eventually I made it to the checkpoint at Middleton, arriving – you guessed it – just before dawn. Once again I had been out in the coldest part of the day (night) and made life more difficult by being in the dark too. With checkpoint time limits I could hardly just have a massive sleep and then hang around until the next morning. Oh well.

A familiar routine now – food, feet, sleep, food, feet, leave. I had a good long sleep, and then ramped up the stress level when I was told that I had two minutes to leave the checkpoint. At that point I was still taping up my feet ,so spent the next twenty minutes sat in the snow on a picnic bench outside, doing all of the admin I hadn’t managed to get done while inside. Lesson learned: record exactly what time you entered the CP, because your brain isn’t working very well by this point.

Half an hour of daylight remaining as I leave Middleton and follow the River Tees north-west. Alone again and in the dark, spirits are buoyed at High Force and Low Force waterfalls by memories of a visit with Becs and Caesar. Eventually on to Falcon Clints, where a jumble of rocks right down to the river’s edge make for slow progress, before reaching Cauldron Snout. This waterfall tends to spray the scrambly path next to it with water, and with conditions as cold as they had been throughout, a few of the rocks were shrouded in big bosses of ice. Probably passable without ice spikes but since they’re mandatory kit it would be churlish not to make use of them. I meet a chap named Andrew at the bottom, and help him find a way up, and we make good time from there up to the top of High Cup Nick. It’s surreal to broach the top and see streetlights miles away in the Eden valley. There aren’t even that many, but any sign of civilisation is vaguely reassuring. A descent to Dufton and the cafe which is staying open 24-hours during the race – absolute heroes. I wolf down a scrumptious plate of eggs on toast, then spend the maximum-allowable 30 minutes at the mini-checkpoint, sleeping. To avoid any misconceptions around glamour, this entailed quite literally just lying on the floor fully clothed, pulling my hat down over my eyes, and using my rucksack as a pillow. After that I went back to the cafe to pick up Andrew and Christian, and to steel ourselves for Cross Fell.

As the highest point on the course, Cross Fell has a fearsome reputation and every Spine blog seems obliged to mention that it’s the only place in the UK with its own named wind. By all accounts this should have been a rubbish section of route, since it entails leaving a cafe and checkpoint to slog up a big climb, before cresting the highest point on the course, in the dark and the snow. In reality, I had a wonderful time and this was doubtless the most enjoyable part of the entire race for me. The climb itself wasn’t too bad, but on reaching the plateau we were inside a mixture of cloud and wind-blown snow. That didn’t matter too much because it was also pitch black and 2am, so visibility was a non-event anyway, and I gleefully took the lead to navigate our merry band. We had been behind a German couple on the ascent, and passed them as the wind blasted snow around us. Numbering five now, we continued on towards Great Dun Fell, momentarily touching feet on the snowy tarmac of the highest paved road in Britain, (another entry on, and definitely not open to the public). Staying awake was no problem now, as navigation and group management required concentration – in equal parts we tracked slabs protruding through the snow, followed where someone else had broken trail, and ploughed our own route. But everything went well, and we even picked up a bonus competitor whose glasses had iced up and left him wandering around the plateau on Cross Fell with zero visibility, hoping that someone would find him! Soon enough we reach the summit and started descending to Greg’s Hut. This basic shelter is something of a Spine institution, and provided some welcome refreshments and a 45-minute rest. Downwards from there to Alston, hallucinations in full swing on the way. Patterns in the snow had been morphing into innumerable different objects for a couple of days, but they were harmless and fairly easily acknowledged by my brain as not being real. Since Sleightholme Moor and the A66 I’d been plagued by a farmhouse continually present in the corner of my peripheral vision. Sometimes it was ruined, sometimes not, but every time my brain spotted it I thought “Oh, that’ll be helpful to confirm exactly where I am” before then immediately thinking “Ah no, it’s just the hallucination again” – in my exhausted state my brain simply couldn’t act quickly enough to intercept the default thought. Every. Single. Time.

Anyway, after mistaking some trees for a huge industrial building and dealing with some more never-ending footpaths, we made it to the Alston checkpoint. I caused a bit of a scene by refusing their famous lasagne in favour of my dehydrated meal – not exactly haute cuisine, but it was a definite number of calories at each meal, and stuff I knew my stomach wouldn’t object to. The planned four-hour nap turned out to be just two-and-a-half when I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I popped into the petrol station shop on my way out of town, then set off solo on a section I’d recce’d not long before. With only one more checkpoint to go before the finish I was in fairly high spirits, and even managed a surprising amount of running as far as the Roman fort at Epiacum. However, I realised shortly after that I had failed to refill my water bottles at Alston. This leg was nice because it was low down, but that meant that trusted water sources were scarce, and the function of my water filter had been compromised early on by becoming frozen solid. The pub at Greenhead would be closed by the time I got there, and then there was nothing from Greenhead all the way to the end of the leg at Bellingham. By this point I was very thirsty, partly through genuine thirst and partly because all I could think about was the lack of water. It was causing me quite serious stress, until I reached the road after Lambley Common where I stumbled across a huge plastic box. It was labelled as being for Spine racers, and was filled with chocolate bars, sweets, crisps, and – crucially – bottles of water. In the strangest turn of events in the race thus far, I fought back tears prompted by the generosity of the unknown benefactor who had decided to plonk this here where I least expected it but most needed it.

Onwards across Blenkinsopp Common, which everyone else seems to hate but I really don’t mind. Then I dropped down to the road at Greenhead, starting to feel a bit chilly in the process. At the road I put on my final, sixth upper-body layer. I was already wearing three layers on my bottom half, and had no more. The route ahead was fresh ground for me, but for the first time since the start of the race I felt properly cold, tired, and lonely. After about half a mile I was therefore very pleased to round a corner and find the wonder of… a heated public toilet block, open 24 hours! With two people already fast asleep on the cramped floor, I simply sat down and shut my eyes for 15 minutes. Feeling refreshed, I struck onwards along Hadrian’s Wall, but was still cold. This was the type of cold that’s in your core, not just numb fingers or a breeze down your neck. I carried on for a little bit but was still very tired, and so messaged race HQ, turned around and headed back to the toilets.

I made a hot drink, squeezed into the only remaining space on the toilet block floor, crawled into my sleeping bag and bivvi bag fully clothed, leant up against the central heating pipes, and tried to sleep. By now it was about 2 AM. I lay there and shivered for four hours, ocassionally dozing for five minutes and then being woken up by the cold still rooted inside me. My sleep-deprived brain was desperately trying to work out if this was what the end of my race would look like. In the end, it was. I eventually crawled out of my sleeping bag for long enough to phone race HQ and let them know I was retiring. I then had a big cry, packed my gear up, and shortly after jumped into a van that turned up to collect me. A nice man called Carl/Karl made some spurious excuse to give me some alone-time in the cab of the van for some more tears, and soon after I was back in a warm YHA and awaiting a lift home from my dad (thanks!).

This isn’t me, but it is the glamorous scene of my eventual demise.
Apologies to whoever I stole this image from – get in touch and I”ll add a credit.

I’ve had plenty of experience with DNFs, mostly for valid reasons and most frequently because of overheating, but occasionally just because I couldn’t be bothered. This was definitely not one of those times, and I’m happy that I went as far as I could have gone. I was tired, but the real issue was the cold. There has been – as you’d expect – lots of soul-searching about whether retiring was the right thing to do, but I stand by the decision. I’m firmly of the opinion that the reason I couldn’t stay warm was because I was just so tired, which in turn is because I was so exhausted relatively early in the race. I suspect that getting so fatigued going over the Cam High Road was the start of my downfall, although I didn’t realise it at the time.

EDIT: Since publishing this blog I’ve been asked lots about how cold it was and what I was wearing when I finished. It was baltic throughout, and my understanding is that the forecast was for a ‘feels like’ temperature of -18oC. I wasn’t monitoring because you just have to get on with it! When I finished at Greenhead I was wearing Isobaa merino 200 leggings, fleece-lined Montane Mode Mission trousers and waterproof trousers, and on the top half had a long-sleeved Isobaa 260 merino top, two synthetic base layers (one short-sleeved and one long-sleeved), a Salomon windproof, a Rab Scimitar full-weight Gore Windstopper, Berghaus Hypertherm insulated jacket, and my Mountain Equipment Lhotse jacket (Gore Tex Pro). Brrrr!

Overall I think I got off pretty lightly. I had only one blister, on a little toe, which cleared up pretty quickly. I’ve had some ongoing Achilles issues but that’s the only lasting effect. Decent sleep was almost impossible for two weeks afterwards, because of issues with thermoregulation and suddenly waking up thinking that I needed to get back out on the trail before I lost too much time. It turned out that this list of post-race symptoms was almost exactly spot-on.

So in summary, I’m pleased, surprised, and proud that I got as far as I did. I am very glad I took part, because it was certainly quite the experience. It wasn’t Type I or even Type II fun, but it was definitely enriching and positive – I just can’t quite elucidate exactly how!

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