The Spine Race 2024

Written by Haydn Williams

Well, it finally rolled around. A chance at redemption after last year’s DNF, 200 miles into the 268-mile Spine Race. I’m not sure I realised before the start gun went off just how much pressure I’d piled onto myself for this one. The context for this race is that, after much soul-searching, I realised that I had made two errors in 2023. Firstly I had simply not had a fast enough base pace, which proved critical in not timing my sleeping with darkness. Being too slow meant that I arrived at checkpoints as the sun was coming up, slept through the best of the day, then went out when it was dark (slow) and coldest (slow). Secondly, I stayed with people who were slower than me far longer than I should have done. That’s not me saying I’m a racing snake or going for the win, but paces do differ and when the race lasts a week then things can add up.

The run-up had been good – training went very well, with no sessions missed other than for injury or emergencies, and probably a better strength & conditioning build-up than last year. I also had a plethora of lessons from 2023 to implement on race day(s), and fewer unknowns meant that there was less stress in the preceding weeks too. Gear accumulation continued at a terrifying rate, as did gear modification (I now have the world’s best rucksack, bar none #fidlock). I stayed away from the Pennine Way to avoid getting bored with it, and some personal circumstances meant that I did a far greater proportion of training in Bradgate Park than anyone should ever have to.

Gear explosion beforehand. This is just he drop bag, not the bag I ran with.
© Haydn Williams 2024
Everyone loves a label.
© Haydn Williams 2024

Prologue

I arrived in Edale on the Saturday and went for a walk for an hour to stretch my legs and see what conditions were like. Kit check shortly after commenced with the words “You’re marked for a full kit check“. i.e. every single item on the 25-page kit list rather than just a selection. Thankfully I passed with flying colours, went to race brief, and then settled in to four hours of panic packing-and-repacking in the campervan. I eventually got my drop bag (which is available at checkpoints) down below 20 kg, and settled down for a restless night’s sleep. Up at 05:30; tracker fitting at 06:30; drop bag dumped at 07:00. I’m not superstitious but do like to listen to one particular song before a race – I didn’t do it last year and DNF’d, but did this year and (spoiler) finished, so draw your own conclusions.


Leg 1 – Edale to Hebden Hey

Despite not knowing many people racing, on the way to the start line I saw Rory who is also by trained by Jayson and Kim at Cavill Coaching. The countdown finished and we set off en masse towards Jacob’s Ladder. My third time running along here on a Spine race, this all felt quite familiar by now. I stuck to my plan from the start, which was to trot downhills for as long as I possibly could, and to steadfastly ignore what everyone else was doing.

Kinder was frozen solid, as was everything else all the way to Kirk Yetholm. It was nice to be on familiar ground and with visibility for once, and nothing remarkable happened over Kinder or Bleaklow. On the way through Barber Booth I did spend a nice few minutes chatting to Mike, who I first met on a Marmot 24 event almost a decade ago now. My mood was only soured by some Achilles pain which had appeared out of nowhere the previous weekend. My left Achilles was agony after last year’s race, and so the thought of antagonising it from the start line did not fill me with enthusiasm or confidence. I am prone to bouts of hypochondria in the week before a race, though, so I had spent a stressful week desperately hoping it was just another of these.

Dropping down Torside.
© Spine Media Team

There was no Glossop MRT at Torside, so I passed straight through, and then it was lovely to find Si and Lucy stood pathside just past Crowden. A quick “hello” and then onwards and upwards. Despite all the rain a week ealier the river levels were low so feet stayed dry and the awful diversion at Dean Clough was thankfully not in place. At Wessenden Head road crossing I was pleased to find a tea van which isn’t normally there – one hot drink later and I was steaming back down alongside the reservoirs. A stop at Standedge for some MRT tea and biscuits, and putting my head torch on later than last year; a good sign. A halloumi burger at Nicky’s Food Bar at the M62, then more MRTea at the White House, and my culinary tour of the Pennine Way was progressing well. The Achilles pain had disappeared somewhere further back on the course, quite probably about the same time as I stopped obsessing over it.

Since before the M62 I had been walking with Warwick, and our paces matched well all the way in to Checkpoint 1, Hebden Hey. This included the point just a couple of miles beforehand where we passed a spray-painted six-foot high sign reading “Spine racers: only 225 miles to go!“. We cursed the artist, but it turned out they had also left a tin full of toffee cake underneath, so they were swiftly forgiven.

Distance travelled: 75.9 km
Time taken: 14h 30m


CP1 – Hebden Hey

Hebden was frantic as usual. I arrived at exactly the time I wanted to, despite not having spent the entire leg obsessively checking my watch. This was good. I ditched my socks to let my feet dry, although the frozen conditions meant they weren’t wet anyway. At each CP I ate an Expedition Foods freeze-dried meal, simply because I knew I was definitely getting 1,000 calories each time, and that they wouldn’t upset my stomach. I had never planned to sleep here, because I was still fairly wired from the first leg, and it’s a manic checkpoint where lots of people report struggling to sleep anyway. A refill of my bag, mandatory kit check before departure, and then leaving at the same time as Warwick. Slick.

Total distance so far: 75.9 km
Time stopped: 1h 30m
Sleep: None


Leg 2 – Hebden Hey to Hawes

Eurgh. “The big leg”. One hundred kilometres, including some bits I knew I would find boring/tedious/horrific. Nevertheless, we started well over the moors out of Hebden, and it was good to be leaving the checkpoint only half an hour after I arrived last year – all time in the bank when battling the daylight problem. There were no major dramas initially, but the descent off the top of Ickornshaw Moor really started to hurt the soles of my feet. The frozen ground was like concrete, and so there was no respite from a constant battering with each footfall. For context, my watch says I took over 560,000 steps over the whole race. I whimpered and complained my way to the farm track which leads off the hill, and after a quick “hello” from a Spine Safety Team (SST) member in the village we ticked off the fields that would take us over to the unofficial Triathlon club support tent at Lothersdale. I was wary about stopping here for too long, having learned the lessons of last year. A bacon sandwich and a cup of tea restored spirits, and after twenty minutes we were off again.

Some more faffing around with fields, and eventually ditching the headtorches as the sun came up, and I decided I wanted to push the pace a bit more than Warwick so forged on ahead. [Note: I may have misjudged this one, as he overtook me in Gargrave and got to Malham before me!]. I caught, and got chatting with, Rick along the canal and into Gargrave (the approach to which seemed to last forever). Co-op once again proved a life-saver, providing primarily the opportunity to buy a slice of pizza for breakfast. I did also pick up some cough sweets to deal with the sore throat everyone was experiencing as a result of breathing such cold, dry air for 20 hours a day. Some lovely banter/borderline abuse from the SST in the bus shelter, and once again we struck out.

Onwards with Rick towards Malham, the fields between Gargrave and there providing no excitement but equally no major obstacles. By Malham Cove I felt less tired than last year, despite being there earlier in the day. We had a lovely time past the pavement, up the gully/ravine/defile, and eventually round the Tarn into CP1.5. This is a ‘monitoring station’ rather than a full-blown checkpoint, so you have to report there for safety reasons and there is a small warm room with a kettle if you want to do any admin, but there is a maximum stay of 30 minutes unless receiving medical treatment. My admin consisted of a small rehydrated meal to fortify myself before the difficult bit of this leg, and a tea refill in my insulated soft flasks. They were one of my top pieces of kit last year, and again this year, despite it being so cold that even they couldn’t keep things properly hot for too long. Definitely still better than icy water.

With Rick at the top of the steep climb up Malham Cove.
© Spine Media Team

After 30 minutes Rick was still discussing ankle pain with the medics, but I had to leave. Rather than stand around in the cold waiting, I just ploughed on to the ascent of Fountains Fell. Last year I’d needed my headtorch when arriving at CP1.5, but this year I made it up the long-but-eventually-over ascent of Fountains, and all the way down the other side. Suitably illumnited for Pen-y-Ghent, I once again did my Good Samaritan routine of leading people up the scrambly bit, before getting stuck into the descent. I’d forgotten how rough the track was, and how awkward the gradient is on the section after the steep bit. However, as with every other point in this race, there are two choices: (1) deal with it and keep going, or (2) give in. Astute readers will note that option (2) still involves having to do the descent to get to civilisation before you can retire anyway. So onwards to Horton via the track that has more false endings than I could possibly recall, and eventually into the village. Last year the caving club HQ was open and providing refreshments (sounds terribly civilised) but this year the only facilities were a friendly welcome from the SST, who had a jerry can of water in the boot of a car.

I was not looking forward to the remaining distance. This was not because I remembered how awful it was last year; quite the opposite. I had absolutely zero memory of anything between Horton and Hawes, my mind presumably having blocked it all out as one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. The prospect of finding out all over again just why it was so terrible didn’t fill me with excitement, but I set off solo to see what awaited me. I can therefore report that it’s just absolute monotony for hour after hour. Having been on the go for over 36 hours, at one point I made the mistake of sitting down briefly to take the weight off my battered feet, and immediately nodded off. A new mantra was therefore repeated out loud with every step – “Don’t stop. Don’t go to sleep.“. That didn’t prevent me from stopping to stand and lean on my poles rather than sitting down, but again I nodded off, so the only option then was to doggedly keep going. That eventually got me as far as the Ten End turn off the land rover track and onto open fell (although there was a teeny bit of sleepwalking on the way). The lack of signposts here seems particularly cruel, even if presumably not designed specifically to mess with Spine racers! I was very cross with the rough, frozen ground by this point, and swore I would never run again after Spine. Shortly after making that resolution I took a Superman-pose fall fully outstretched, which certainly woke me up. After an eternity hour, I eventually wove through the houses of Hawes and gratefully up to the YHA.

Distance: 101.5 km
Time taken: 25h 10m


CP2 – Hawes

I like Hawes. It seems like a tranquil oasis after Hebden, and the team there are universally brilliant. Arriving at 1AM, I planned to be out again by 7AM thus giving me a whole six hours and still getting me out before sunrise. The soles of my feet looked awful, but no worse than last year when they magically healed themselves completely while I was asleep. Instead of worrying about them I ate, then slept for three hours, then ate again. I saw Warwick and Rick arrive, and was donated a bottle of Irn-Bru by a lady who was being forced to retire because of a suspected fracture. The medic provided me with some advice about the blisters forming where my foot rubs against my orthotic – this had never happened before, so was something of a novelty. Everything else went according to plan, including finding out that snow had fallen while I was snoring, and had since stopped again. Perfect. Out of the door exactly on time.

Total distance so far: 177.3 km
Time stopped: 6h
Sleep: 3h


Leg 3 – Hawes to Langdon Beck

I was very cheery leaving Hawes last year, and the same was true again this year. The climb up Great Shunner Fell was icy, but the snow on the ground made me very happy, and the incline gave me something to get stuck into at the start of the day. I passed a couple of people on the long pull towards the eventual summit, catching a Canadian chap called Jordan as the angle eased, and chatting amiably. We fell in to pace together by fluke as much as anything, each reassuring the other that they should just press on alone if the pace wasn’t quick enough, but neither of us feeling the need to do so. Having company from Thwaite to Keld was great (I wasn’t a big fan of that section last year) and I pretty much frog-marched Jordan up to the community cafe in Keld to revel in the warmth, wood panelling and home-made cakes. Despite this we had an efficient turnaround, and made the transition from “snow silently settling on tree branches” in Keld to “snow slapping into you sidways at high speed” as we climbed towards the Tan Hill Inn. A pint of soup and a pint of Coke were very welcome, and yet still we were stopping for less time than I had last year. This was all good.

Sleightholme Moor was dealt with swiftly and effectively, even if the going was still hard on uneven frozen bog. Over God’s Bridge and then torches on under the A66 (saying hi to SST on the way), and then it was another bit of moorland, where we caught up with Ashok. To my mind, this was the worst of the weather I experienced across the entire race, being at once windy, cold, snowy and wet. I knew the massive open-ended barn in the farmyard at Clove Lodge traditionally had a kettle and some biscuits, but was quietly terrified that it mightn’t be stocked up for some reason. In the snow/sleet/rain/gale though, it seemed prudent to give Jordan and Ashok something to aim for. A slight navigational blunder on my part meant that the fairy lights of the barn shone through the night far sooner than we expected (yay!) and we collapsed gratefully into the pool of welcoming light as the precipitation (all types) lashed against the far gable end.

All good things must come to an end, so we said goodbye to the farm cat and – fuelled by all manner of crisps, cakes and biscuits – powered onwards: Hannah’s Meadow; Kelton Bottom; Beck Head; How; all despatched with aplomb. Down to Grassholme then climbing back up yet again and, with the final steep climb up to Wythes Hill afore us, my wheels started falling off. With me succumbing to tiredness more than was probably ideal, Jordan strode to the front and provided me and Ashok with a focal point. A can of Dr. Pepper from a box outside the final farmhouse took a few minutes to kick in, by which point we had been pulled along to the top of ‘hill three’ as it had become known, and could see the long descent to the lights of Middleton. This woke me up a bit, and the next couple of kilometres passed uneventfully.

In previous years this leg has finished at Middleton, a stone’s throw from where we emerged onto the road. A change this year, however, meant that the checkpoint had moved 13.5 km further up the trail, or about three hours according to my 2023 times. Before turning off the road again we met some SST staff who told us that there was a course hold in place because of bad weather over High Cup Nick and Cross Fell. Any competitors already at, or reaching, a checkpoint during the course hold were not allowed to leave until the bad weather had passed and the hold had been removed. This wouldn’t directly impact us because we wanted/needed to sleep at Langdon Beck first, but it had the potential to mean that when we arrived the checkpoint would be chock full of people who had been held there. That would mean less space to sort gear, more difficulty getting food, and potentially even no beds. We logged the information, then started the slog up the river Tees to Langdon. I’ve done this a few times in the past and it’s always been quite a pleasant wander. This time, however, it went on forever, particularly the first bit through farmers’ fields. Low Force looked impressive but High Force was shrouded in darkness, only the roar of the water cutting through the night to reach us. Once again the tiredness was becoming overwhelming, but at least there hadn’t been any hallucinations thus far. I don’t think there was any sleepwalking on this section, but I couldn’t swear to it. Past the quarry there is a small climb, and we both perked up – we’d worked out by now that climbing gave us something to sink our teeth into, and shake us out of any gloomy funk we might have settled into. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump (AKA: a shuffle, shuffle and a shuffle) to Langdon Beck YHA, picking up a lost/hallucinating competitor on the way.

Distance: 69 km
Time taken: 18h


CP3 – Langdon Beck

I knew what was in store at Langdon, having attended a training weekend there with Cavill Coaching in November. As we approached, a head torch came to greet us and the owner said “Is one of you Haydn?“. I immediately panicked that I’d broken some rule and was about to be DQ’d, but – unable to think of a false name quickly enough – I was forced to acknowledge my identity. Brilliantly, the headtorch owner turned out to be Annette, an old friend from our university mountaineering club, who was volunteering as a medic. This bit of serendipity perked me up immediately; she also relayed that the course hold had been taken off a little while ago, and everyone had flooded out of the now-quiet checkpoint. Win. The building turned out to be full of familiar faces old and new (Jen, Steve, Kendra, Sophie), which was lovely. Although it felt like we’d been running together forever, this was in fact the first checkpoint that Jordan and I had come into since pairing up on Great Shunner Fell eighteen hours earlier. Fortunately our plans were similar – food, sleep, get out again before daylight. We arrived at 01:18, so this seemed perfectly feasible, and would give us daylight over High Cup Nick and hopefully Cross Fell too. It’s also never a bad thing to be going over high ground with a partner rather than solo.

Using a needle to drain a blister at Langdon Beck.
© Jen O’Neill 2024

Plans were enacted, sleep was had, food was eaten, and we departed slightly later than anticipated at 08:30.

Total distance so far: 246.4 km
Time stopped: 7h 30m
Sleep: 3h?


Leg 4 – Langdon Beck to Alston

It was absolutely baltic, but there was a clear blue sky and not much wind. Following kit check we’d been given a stern briefing about the severity of conditions, the presence of large amounts of snow, the need to wear goggles, and the severe wind chill. Briefing on the way out of a checkpoint was new to me, so I figured it must be serious if they’re speaking to everyone specifically before leaving. We followed the diversion around Cauldron Snout, which I was secretly a bit gutted about. Last year all of the rocks up the side of the Snout had been completely covered in ice and it was still perfectly navigable, but I guess the awkward river’s edge rocks at Falcon Clints may have been iced up this year, which would have made people more prone to injury. Our good pace along the road to Cow Green dam continued along the track to the farm at Birkdale. We had entered a tracker blackspot by now, so a single location update was given as we walked through the farmyard, courtesy of a Starlink satellite connection which the Open Tracking team had set up. Very cool!

Leaving Langdon Beck.
© Jen O’Neill 2024

We carried on great guns along the farm track, and then down to Maize Beck. There had been snow on the ground throughout but as we gained height, it gained depth. While we’d been sleeping at Langdon Beck everyone ahead of us had been breaking trail in the darkness – thanks! We therefore had tracks to follow, although there was the occasional section where (presumably in the pitch black) there had been no consensus on the best direction and the single well-consolidated trail split up into several post-holed paths before coming together again. We soon crested the top of High Cup Nick, which Jordan had been looking forward to. Having previously covered almost every inch of the Pennine Way – and some sections like High Cup Nick multiple times over many, many years – I really enjoyed seeing his reaction. This was his first visit to any of these places, and it made me step back and appreciate them that bit more than I would have normally done.

Approaching High Cup Nick.
© Jordan Tyson 2024
Lovely!
© Jordan Tyson 2024

The long traverse in the snow, then the skittery, icy, spikes-on descent to Dufton. I dropped an overmitt here (one of only a couple of gear-related mishaps) but there was no way I was going back uphill to find it. We got into the village and raided the Post Box Pantry for cake and coke, before heading to the CP3.5 monitoring station. Same rules as Malham – there’s a kettle and a toilet, and a time limit of 30 mins. Having carried my Irn-Bru from Hawes all the way to Dufton, it seemed like an opportune moment for a pick-me-up. At first I was bemused by the tiny orange glaciers which had formed in the cold conditions and were floating around in it. That soon changed to horror as I realised this bottle of Irn-Bru was sugar-free! What kind of monster would do that?! My bewilderment and anger were tempered somewhat by having to first explain to Jordan what Irn-Bru actually is, before I could then be indignant about the lack of one of the crucial ingredients. Our 30 minutes up, we layered-up again and set off up Cross Fell.

Wind scour on the western side of Knock Fell. Hills on the horizon are the Lake District.
© Jordan Tyson 2024

It’s a big climb from Dufton to Knock Fell, and to use the modern parlance, we smashed it. Uphills were just working well for us, and we knew this was a short (ha!) leg. Time continued to be of the essence, too, if we were to make the best use of the daylight. We stopped at the Knock Old Man currick and put more clothes on, continuing our trend of making sensible decisions in unison without any fuss. There’s something quite freeing about walking with someone whom you trust to just look after themselves without any reminders or intervention, and so far that’s exactly what Jordan had done. Approaching Great Dun Fell he suggested finding some shelter to don headtorches, so we stopped in the quiet of the aptly-named Dunfell Hush to do so. From there, intermittently-visible slabs, footprints, and forging our own way led us over Little Dun Fell and on to Cross Fell. This was the highlight of last year’s race for me, and I think it was this time too. Lovely snow cover; clear blue skies; moving efficiently; conditions meaning you can’t get complacent; good company.

Approaching Cross Fell from Little Dun Fell as the sun sets.
© Stuart Rose 2024

By the time we reached the summit of Cross Fell we had torches on, and took advantage of the snow to move quickly downhill. Taking care not to trend us too far right into the old mine workings, I instead led us to the ninety-degree turn that soon spits you out at Greg’s Hut. I had arrived in a big group last year which meant that tea and noodles took a long time, and I was desperate to be faster this year. The improvements to the hut are great, and although we were still stopped for 40 minutes (vs. 50 last year) I was much more relaxed about it this time. Although we had long-ago become used to mouthpieces and tubes on drinks bottles freezing, in the hut we had the novelty of realising that entire soft flasks had frozen into blocks of ice. Jordan got to sample the famous chilli-whack noodles, and I left mentally prepared for the endless slog down landrover tracks to Garigill. As it turned out, it really wasn’t too bad – I had some mild hallucinations (often real lights turning themselves into people with headtorches coming to see us) but nowhere near the unending sleep monsters of last year.

Lovely! Best part of the race.
© Stuart Rose 2024

Fed up of slipping around, we put our spikes on again as we left Garigill on a diversion because of an unsafe bridge. If I had to pick three words to describe myself here, they would be: tired, tired, and tired. It was against this backdrop that we ran into two more problems. Firstly, check out the map below – we were on the green dashed footpath on the northern side of the river, travelling from SE to NW (bottom-right to top-left!). See how many black lines that footpath crosses? Each is a dry-stone wall with a ‘traditional’ stone stile, necessitating a few steps up and then a few steps down again, each step often being covered in ice, sometimes missing entirely, and occasionally with a gate on the top of the wall thrown in for good measure.

Additionally, the fields in-between the dry stone walls were festooned with molehills. Not a major hazard for intrepid athletes navigating over 250 mile of Pennine Way, right? Wrong. These molehills were frozen solid and therefore essentially like lumps of concrete just waiting for you to stub your toe on them. Repeatedly. I didn’t enjoy the approach to Alston last year, and it wasn’t much better this year. But just as my patience ran out, we made it.

Distance: 55 km
Time taken: 14h 10m


CP4 – Alston

Checkpoints had a familiar flow by now. Fortunately for me, this included Jordan and I continuing together for the next leg. We each did our own thing at the checkpoint. I was astounded when another competitor remembered my face and my name from a time I gave him a lift to the train station after a race almost a decade ago. A shower and sleep provided some rejuvenation, and after yet another kit check we were off. Looking back now, I can see that we were perilously close to the eight-hour checkpoint deadline but I can’t honestly recall even thinking about that at the time.

Total distance so far: 301.6 km
Time stopped: 7h 45m
Sleep: 3h?


Leg 5 – Alston to Bellingham

Crunch time. The leg that finished my race last year. Having had plenty of time to reflect, I think what stung most about retiring last year was that it was because of the cold. I love the cold. I’ve had hundreds of days out running, climbing and walking in snow and ice and generally freezing conditions. To be surprised by the cold so quickly last year was confusing and upsetting, but this year I’d taken steps to ensure it didn’t happen again. Nevertheless, another cold year meant that since Hawes I’d been wearing a long-sleeve 260-weight merino top, a technical t-shirt, a Gore Infinium (AKA Windstopper) soft shell, a Montane Fireball insulated jacket, and my Gore-tex Pro waterproof. We stomped out of Alston and despatched the section to Greenhead without any major incidents. The box full of goodies was at the road crossing at Lambley again which was good for morale (I didn’t cry this time), and Blenkinsopp Common was frozen solid (I tried to explain to Jordan how wet it normally is!).

Whoever does this is an absolute hero.
© Jordan Tyson 2024

After the golf course and road crossing, we stormed another uphill and were suddenly at ‘the toilets’, scene of my demise in 2023. However, this year it was daylight and I wasn’t cold, and the lovely National Park Authority staff had opened the visitor centre specifically to provide a few minutes respite for Spine racers. Amazing! We had a cup of tea and a biscuit (OK, Jordan was drinking coffee, but then I also had to explain what ‘squash’ was at CPs, so we have much to educate our North American cousins about), some lovely back-and-forth with the SST, and promptly smashed through my previous record race distance.

About to pass the toilets! Jordan perhaps less excited than me.
© Juddy Hirst 2024

We got onto Hadrian’s Wall just as the ‘golden hour’ started, so were treated to some nice photos from the Spine media team who were positioned not far from Greenhead (and must have been freezing sat up there in those conditions!). After that the up-down-up-down novelty of the wall tapered slowly off, to the point where I was quite happy to see the end of it and turn north into the forest.

Heading east along the wall.
© Spine Media Team 2024
One of my favourites images of the whole race.
© Spine Media Team 2024

We had torches on again by this point, and I had no idea what the route was like. The reason I recce’d so much of the Pennine Way before last year’s race was that I much prefer knowing where I’m going, and how much more of it there is to be going to. I was tiring now, and somewhere near Gofton Burn we opted for a three-minute sit down. I’ve taken a few milky way photos recently, but the stars there somehow had a clarity I’d never seen before and can’t really find sufficient words to describe. From there it was a bit of drudgery until Horneystead Farm.

Old man mode: It’s nice to take the weight off your feet.
© Jordan Tyson 2024

Horneystead is the thing of Spine legend, and Jordan was determined to check it out. The farmer, Helen, opens an outbuilding 24/7 during the race, stocking it with hot and cold drinks, crisps, sweets, heaters, and even a bed. Her enthusiasm for the race is brilliant, and so I was also keen to see what all of the fuss was about. We had discussed how we wanted to continue our efficient streak and not stay long, despite Jordan clearly being a people person and happy to chat to anyone, any time. What even I couldn’t have predicted, though, is that within 30 seconds of entering the building, he would have figured out that many years ago Helen got married in Vancouver (where Jordan lives), he knew the pub they went to for drinks afterwards, and they had both worked picking fruit in the Okanangan Valley (wherever the hell that is). Now I appreciate that is a very specific thing to remember, but when you’re sleep-deprived your brain does very weird things, and now the phrase “fruit picking in the Okanangan Valley” is inexplicably but forever burned into my neural make-up. I’m also of the opinion it should be the title of Jordan’s autobiography but I should probably leave that decision up to him.

We eventually tore ourselves away from the hospitality, with only a few kilometres left until the Bellingham checkpoint. I was tired still, and it was all getting to be a bit of a faff. I was forced to wake up for a frozen river crossing that would not have been deadly if the ice cracked, but would certainly have been rather demoralising. I bravely let Jordan go first, and then we were jolted back to life by the steep climb up Shitlington Crags (*obligatory snigger*). We took this at warp speed, were given incorrect directions by SST (shame on you), corrected, and duly popped out at Bellingham checkpoint.

Distance: 62.8 km
Time taken: 16h 25m


CP5 – Bellingham

The checkpoint at Bellingham wasn’t unfamiliar, since it was where I’d been dropped by SST after my DNF last year. I was therefore prepared for it to be cold and busy, although perhaps not for there to be no running water in the buildings because the pipes had frozen. I realise there’s a big sarcastic slice of “oh boo hoo” about having to go to a different building and creep past sleeping SST to use their toilet, but at this stage in the game when you’re tired and half-dressed it really didn’t impress. Anyway, by now Jordan and I were pretty much committed to finishing together and had agreed on a quicker turnaround here to make best use of the daylight. At this point I was doing everything at about half-speed despite trying to be efficient. Unlike the other CPs, which have beds and bedding, Bellingham has what I can only liken to a school assembly hall for sleeping on the floor. I knew this in advance and had packed a warm sleeping bag in my drop bag along with a thicker Thermarest and a foam mat, but despite those, a silk liner, my Fireball jacket, and a PhD down smock from my drop bag, I was still too cold to sleep. I lay there shivering for a little while (partly because every second lying there was a second spent not faffing with kit) before eventually giving up and getting up for some more food. I also checked with the medic whether there was anything that could be done for my knee, which had been hurting as the bruise from Monday’s fall on the way into Hawes made its presence known. The answer was, essentially, “man up and deal with it”.

I really struggled with Bellingham as a CP – there’s no porch and the door is thrown open every time someone comes in or out and thus everything is suddenly sub-zero. There are loads of volunteers around and yet somehow it always seems hard to attract anyone’s attention. I appreciate that people are giving their time to help runners out here, and also realise that if anywhere in the race my perception was going to be warped then it’d be at the final CP, but overall Bellingham somehow felt more like a stress than a respite from the trail.

Total distance so far: 364.4 km
Time stopped: 5h 30m
Sleep: Ha ha!


Leg 6 – Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm (Finish)

The problem with the final leg is that it’s the final leg. This meant I focused more on the fact that we were near the end than I did on looking at the distance (fairly meaty). Nevertheless we were in good spirits as we left the checkpoint at 04:00 and made our way through the sleeping town. A pull up the farm track and out onto the fellside, all familiar ground from a recce, even if I didn’t make it this far last time. Across the first minor road and then suddenly everything started grinding to a halt. Still nowhere near daylight, I was so, so tired. Between my two Spine races I’ve now figured out that when I start getting dangerously tired the first thing to go is my eyesight, specifically focus. As I feel myself drifting I can still consciously ‘snap’ my eyes back in to focus, but almost immediately everything starts getting fuzzy again. This had happened at lot in 2023 and a little bit on the Cam High Road this year. Worried, I checked in with Jordan. He reported that he was struggling too – I couldn’t work out if this was a good thing (it’s not just me) or a bad thing (oh God, we’re both jiggered). After a bit of discussion we concluded that daylight must come at some point, and that just standing around somewhere on the flank of Whitley Pike wasn’t really going to achieve anything. This was absolutely one of the low points of the race for me – for a few minutes I simply didn’t see any way of carrying on. Logically a trailside nap would have been the ultimate solution, but at that point we were beyond tired, miles from any kind of proper shelter or respite, and the weather was not actively nasty but certainly waiting to take control if you stopped moving and generating heat. We somehow shuffled our way to the next minor road crossing, where SST were waiting to check up on people. Obviously we relayed our concerns, by which I mean we immediately perked up and tried not to look like we were on our last legs. A cheery “hello” and confident stride meant we didn’t risk anyone trying to retire us. With hindsight I realise this was highly unlikely anyway – everyone was exceedingly tired by that point, and the whole Spine team is focused entirely on getting you to the finish, not retiring you just because you need a little nap.

I’ve no idea what I was saying here, but I think Jordan’s facial expression is saying “Help me”.
© Spine Media Team

Across the road, I was able to formulate a plan that took us to some lower ground out of the biting wind, and gave us an opportunity to regroup before entering the forest and – in theory – some easier and sheltered ground to Byrness. The plan worked well; after a short rest (which I remember being filled with laughing and joking but I have no recollection about what) we climbed nicely up to Brownrigg Head and then entered the trees. There were a couple of frankly questionable route choices on the official GPX here, and it was clear from other competitors’ footprints in the snow that they had been asking the same questions as us on this section, namely “Really? This way? When there’s a perfectly good fire road ten metres away?“. After another long while Jordan pointed out a hill that we were due to climb, at which point I recognised the church and realised we were approaching Byrness. Hurrah!

At Byrness there was another monitoring station, although this one had the usual 30-minute limit plus hot food! The team there were incredible, even if they did point out that the forecast (from MWIS no less, not some random website!) was for a ‘feels like’ temperature of -32°C over the next leg with 70 mph winds. We had a quick laugh and then realised that they were deadly serious. Hmm. Having luxuriated on their settees for 29½ minutes, we departed and headed off to church.

CP5.5, pinched from the competitors’ Facebook group.
© Carrie Brookes 2024

I’m not a religious person, and the race hadn’t prompted any kind of epiphany despite me visiting some dark places, but the lovely people at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Byrness had opened it up for Spine racers to use. This meant that we could use the kettle, and put our heads down for a brief sleep before heading up onto the Cheviots (after a contactless donation to the Diocese, obvs!). After a genuinely quite nice ‘lying on the wooden floor with a rucksack for a pillow’-type sleep, we got our stuff together while chatting with one of the race photographers, and layered up. In light of the forecast we’d seen at Byrness I put on literally every item of clothing I had left. This meant that, in addition to the five upper body layers I listed earlier, I also had another thermal base layer and a Salomon windproof on, and on the bottom half I put on another pair of Gore Windstopper tights to supplement the merino leggings, Montane fleece-lined trousers, and waterproof trousers I was already wearing.

Kit faff in a church. Another unique experience.
© Spine Media Team

Immediately we were too hot. But the climb from the road is short and steep, and as soon as we left the trees we could already feel the wind buffetting us. Cresting the top of the climb we were hit by full force, and it soon became clear that the clothing choice was another sensible decision in a long line of sensible decisions. We passed another racer putting his ice spikes on, and were then passed at great speed by a chap in wellies and a shirt! He was apparently on his lunch break and had been racing to catch up with a local couple who were only a short distance ahead of us. This section over to Hut 1 was quite pleasant – the ground conditions were good (i.e. frozen, the same as the rest of the course), and although it was very windy the skies were clear and the wind was coming from behind us. We made good time, once again getting stuck into the uphills particularly. At Hut 1 we stopped briefly and SST offered us a hot drink. I said yes to a hot chocolate and was jokingly offered whipped cream and marshmallows! I sarcastically replied that I wanted sprinkles too, but when it arrived they hadn’t been joking, and it was indeed topped with cream and marshmallows. Madness. That set us up nicely for the push to Hut 2.

A bit breezy on the Cheviots – volume up for this to make sense.
© Jordan Tyson 2024

The whole section from Byrness to the finish at Kirk Yetholm messes with your head a bit. In theory it’s “just” 14 km to Hut 1, then 16 km to Hut 2, then 11 km to the finish. Sounds easy. As we left Hut 1 and climbed Lamb Hill, we once again returned to darkness and our respective circles of headtorch light. I had a couple of slips on icy patches, but thought nothing of them. We were both tiring but moving reasonably well, and no sleep monsters just yet. You follow the ridge along to Kings Seat before turning ninety-degrees left towards Hut 2, but that description (and the overall height difference of around 350 metres) belies the amount of climbing involved. I found it particularly demoralising to see the red lights of other competitors way ahead of – and above – you, seemingly getting no closer or ever stopping their climbing no matter how hard or long you keep going for. As the climbing continued, the inside of my right quad started complaining. The complaining rose in volume until it was a scream and I didn’t really want to bend the leg or put force through it. I must have pulled something on one of my slips earlier on. I am normally ultra-paranoid about injuries and will stop exercising immediately and rest something for a week if I get so much as an itch. But having covered over 400 km by this point, and with no real other option anyway, I resolved to simply get through the remaining 20-ish kilometres to the finish, and worry about it afterwards. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the next several hours were decidedly unpleasant. I was OK on the flat and all but the steepest uphills, but conscious that I was slowing down which meant I was slowing Jordan down too. But when we turned to head down to Hut 2, the angle of the descent meant that it was all I could do to avoid screaming out loud with each step. On this blog I’m quite particular about not resorting to hyperbole, as I think it often just ends up trivialising the thing you’re trying to describe. I’ve tried to do the same here, but I feel like I should point out that this was by far the most painful injury I’ve ever had during any event. I’m also aware that some people would carry on running with an open fracture and laugh it off, but I’m not one of those people! I tried to make best use of the snow to cushion my steps by walking off-line, but nothing gave any relief. Tired, and definitely not best-placed to be making good decisions, I tried bum-sliding for a little bit before smashing my coccyx into a rock and coming to my senses (too late) about how risky it was without enough snow depth. With Hut 2 in sight my concerns turned to whether the medic would spot my agony and retire me so close to the finish. I resolved to look if not cheery then at least normal-ish, and then focus on just limping to Kirk Yetholm. We spent a few minutes in Hut 2. At both huts I’d noticed that Jordan wasn’t particularly keen to leave, although once out of the door he’d been moving well. The decision was somewhat taken from our hands anyway, as SST were escorting competitors out of Hut 2 in groups, then accompanying us a few hundred metres down the route to ensure that in gale-force winds no-one accidentally drifted too close to the sheer cliffs waiting nearby in the darkness.

From here it’s ‘just’ 10 km to the finish. A couple of park runs. A normal weekday easy training run. The climb up the final hill of the route, The Schil, went on forever despite me knowing it was there and knowing how big it was. The descent was horrific, and I basically lowered myself down the fence by hand for 150 vertical metres rather than use my right leg. Turning left into the valley we were both starting to get very tired and a little grumpy. Jordan was calling me Dennis, and I’d forgotten his name entirely. Begins with a ‘J’. Doesn’t matter right now; as long as he’s moving then we’re good. We were each very much in our own little worlds, coming out of them only to bark at the other if something started going sideways. Some SST/MRT caught us up on their way to help someone off the hill, and a brief conversation provided some respite from just focusing on the discomfort. We passed the lorry that’s painted like a huge Tunnock’s packet – it’s amazing but I didn’t have the energy or inclination to explain to Jordan what Tunnock’s teacakes are, so we trudged silently past. I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have cared by that point anyway. The MRT people jumped in their cars a few hundred metres back and then whizzed past us. Suddenly we were finally turning left on tarmac. That meant we’d only a small (!) hill to surmount before we would be in the village and within sight of the finish line. Instantly we were wide awake, grumpiness dissolving into relief, and my leg had mounted a miraculous recovery.

Woohoo!
© Peter Williams 2024

I’ve learned to enjoy the last day of big events more than the actual crossing of the finish line. I find the latter to be an inevitable anticlimax, although I appreciate to anyone dot-watching it seems like the clear pinnacle of the whole adventure. It was clear from Byrness, and arguably even Bellingham, that we were in good form to finish. There is no sudden ‘eureka’ moment when you unexpectedly and suddenly realise you’re going to be a Spine finisher. It just sort of gradually dawns on you and then crystallises into a fact while you’re still climbing that last tarmac hill, or making sure you pick the ‘low level’ path into Kirk Yetholm, or descending The Schil. That doesn’t lessen the sense of achievement or mean that it’s not fun, but for me the kissing of the wall of the Border Hotel was more a formality and an expectation (of me, by others) than anything else. The real treat is the sense of satisfaction and contentment that settles over the next few minutes and hours, as you slowly realise that it’s concrete now; there is zero risk any more and you are (and forever will be) a Spine finisher. In my case, I’m a Spine finisher who managed the whole of the Pennine Way in 5 days, 16 hours and 30 minutes.

One very enjoyable aspect about crossing the finish line was doing so with Jordan. We had paired up unintentionally and unexpectedly, but over the course of three and a half days we consistently made good decisions and exercised Sound Mountain Judgement. Neither of us was pulling the other along, but each was there to support the other during the odd lull in morale. I realise that doesn’t quite sound like the plot of a buddy film, but my enjoyment of the outdoors stems a lot from just moving efficiently and having the headspace to take in my surroundings without much in the way of distractions or worries. I therefore couldn’t have asked for a better partner for this particular adventure, and I owe him a massive Thank You. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard someone describe with such enthusiasm and innocence their discovery of the existence of Jammie Dodgers!

Distance: 72.9 km
Time taken: 20h 50m


Epilogue

I wanted to do The Spine for a multitude of reasons. A big one was the self-sufficiency aspect. As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time in the mountains I was curious as to whether I could string together a week of constant effort and sleep deprivation, and continue to look after myself throughout. The other was that I had for some time quite liked the idea of completing the double of Dragon’s Back and The Spine. The two are, for me at least, clearly the hardest mountain challenges in the UK and so I shall wear that particular badge with pride.

Nice medal.
© Spine Media Team

How was the experience overall? It was fine. There were some real lows, an awful lot of hard work, but a lot of it was perfectly normal enjoyable hill days, with the kind of interesting weather you’d expect in January. The good and the bad therefore pretty much cancel out – it won’t be burned into my brain forever as a traumatic experience, but that doesn’t for a second suggest that it was a breeze. Overall I am absolutely delighted with how the race went. Last year was almost entirely reactive, I felt like I had very little control over timings or checkpoint durations. This year was a complete contrast right from the start. I knew my plan, and I executed it well. The fact it wasn’t a complete horror show in terms of broken feet or continual sleepwalking makes it even sweeter. Despite it being a cold year, I wasn’t actually cold at any point other than in the first five minutes after leaving checkpoints when you’re not yet generating any body heat. And my plan had always been to finish within the 7-day deadline no matter how long it took, so I was absolutely overjoyed with my final time, too. I think the big time gain was at the checkpoints, where I had planned more sleep but in the end took less because that just felt right at the time. My best guess at total sleep is about eight hours, possibly nine if we count the naps at Bellingham CP and Byrness church.

The after-effects have been non-trivial but no worse than expected. I’ve had trouble sleeping – thermoregulation issues resolved themselves after three or four days, and the double-whammy of dreams about a circle of headtorch light on a footpath combined with violent rapid waking while being convinced I have to get moving to avoid a cut-off subsided after just over a week. My two big blisters didn’t ever de-roof and so settled down again within a few days and I guess will sort themselves out within a couple of months. I suspect 40% of my toenails will disappear over the next four-to-six months. The quad tear was assessed as ‘minor’ by my physio and has only been a minor irritation when at full stretch since (although I haven’t done any proper exercise either!). The assumption is that it was just so painful because my legs had 250 miles in them at the point of injury. I’d be inclined to say I was imagining it in the throes of the race, but about two hours after crossing the finish line, showered and fed and looking forward to sleep, I stepped out of Dad’s van onto that leg and it promptly crumpled under me and left me in a heap on the floor. My bruised coccyx is probably the most troublesome ongoing physical issue, although I do have (the same as last year) a patch of skin between my shoulder blades which has lost all sensation. A general fatigue has been far more present than last year, necessitating naps most days, although an inability to concentrate on a single task for more than about 15 minutes dissipated after about a week. Given the state of some people on the finish line, I think I got off pretty lightly!

I also need to give out massive thanks to:

  • Becs, for putting up (again) with months of gear being spread everywhere and me being away training constantly;
  • Jayson and Kim Cavill, for getting me sufficiently prepped that my body once again didn’t fall apart after going 200+ miles, and for doing so in a way that wasn’t complete purgatory from start to finish.
  • Dad, for being on a week’s standby for emergency collection from potentially anywhere on the course. I’m glad the eventual pick-up point was the finish!
  • Si and Lucy for turning out on Black Hill only for me to say “hi” and then keep walking!
  • Annette, for compensating for my failing brain at Langdon Beck and stopping me just staring vacantly at bags of gear all over the floor.
  • Tim Budd for encouragement and conditions updates throughout the course.
  • Everybody else who sent me a message by any medium over the course of the week. I wasn’t able to reply to all of them because I was a bit preoccupied, but I read them all at checkpoints and they were a great boost.
  • All of the people who let me use their photos in this post, since I was too busy trying to reach Kirk Yetholm to take any of my own.
  • All of the Spine team, including HQ, logistics, CPs, SST, and anyone else I’ve forgotten. I know it’s a clichéd thing to say, but it is so hard to describe the level of enthusiasm they bring to their roles, without exception, despite I’m sure often being just as cold and tired as competitors (I know I was when I did SST!).