Post Race Blues
(This is the first posting - please advise of any glaring errors with names, etc. and I sorry for the lack of photos latter on but I had other priorities and need to save phone battery life)
Ok, let's make this clear. I joined the race support team on Tuesday afternoon at Middleton-in-Teesdale (Checkpoint 3) whereas the race had started on Saturday morning from Edale. Basically I was at the halfway point of the Spine Race, so the racers and support team were pretty tired by then.
268 miles along the Pennine Way in Winter, non-stop, is an interesting idea. When I first heard of the event last year I thought it was abit
daft and didn't really appeal, and as I had done Terrex Swift, Sting and The Dragon's Back in 2012 another big race wasn't really on the cards for me. I'm always keen to help out at events and put something back in to our
sport, and have often stated that supporting is more tiring than racing,
but I'm not sure in this race. What better way to find out what it is all about than getting involved with support.
The quick summary is that I spent five days and nights on the route, driving, waiting at checkpoints, driving to remote locations and monitoring the progress of the runners along the course. Four of us also made a dash up to Greg's Hut on Crossfell as well as a few other quick sorties along the route, more of which I'll write about later.
There was a great team on support with six 'Mad Medics' plus Doctor-in-Chief doing the bulk of the work along with Stu Westerfield and Expedition Leader co-ordinating safety cover and logistics. Phil and Scott, the Race Directors were also out on the course but very quickly our team was spread over a distance of 50 or so miles as runners became separated by large distances. This was mainly due to a Spanish runner being way off the front, although our own Yorkshireman, Mick Cooper, was marching northwards at an undeminishing rate.
I'll let you ready the official race reports for detailed accounts, along with the various facebook stuff and personal blogs, and I
can only write about what I know and saw. In such an expedition race,
spread over such a distance with runners 12 -24 hours apart, the
experiences of us all are so varied due to weather and darkness, never
mind any other factors. Sleep and food is a priority for all of us; runners and crew. Fortunately I'm fairly good at grabbing a few hours when, and wherever I can, and having a Ford S-Max that I can tottally stretch out in and sleep in comfort is very useful!
There are five main checkpoints each roughly 45 miles apart. Each allows sleep for runners and support crew, hot food and drinks and medical care is available. The main issue for runners is managing their 'sleep strategy' and planning, and actually executing the plan by sleeping at checkpoints or in the tents or bivis they carry, or in B&B's for some. But remember, the race clock doesn't stop. With hindsight, this is an Expedition not a Race; 'to finish first - first you have to finish'.
Down to Work
So, my first task, was out to the A66 crossing with Scott. Andy Hayes had phoned in saying he was in a bad way and needed help. The roads were much more passable than the weekend but still sketchy with snow and ice. The A66 is a fast and dangerous road and you feel very vulnerable and incongruent parking in a layby and trying to spot a lone runner. Scott found Andy pretty quickly, we supplied a hot drink and drove carefully back to Middleton. Andy was quiet, exhausted but generally OK.
Back to base for a short while and then further reports of two or more runners may needing assistance or evacution from the A66 crossing. Out this time with Aidean and Katie and soon we are watching head torches move steadily down across the moor and up the fields to meet us. I wasn't sure what to expect but Becky just looked fine; well equipped, warm, coherent and very rational. Rob was a short distance behind and they had both already made their decison to call it a day (no pun intended) having been out for four days and covered approx 130 miles.
The remainder of Tuesday night was spent at Middleton, eventually getting some sleep myself after encouraging several runners to eat sleep and rest. The next stage takes them upstream along the River Tees and over High Cup Nick before dropping to Dufton and then back up on to Crossfell which is the highest point and one of the most challenging parts so far, but there is very little we can do to help. Waiting and not worrying is a tiring game.
On Wednesday morning I drove up to Alston and checkpoint 4 with the car crammed with gear before Naomi, Olivia and myself are dispatched around to Dufton to check on the condition of Micheal (one of the three 'Germans' and a few others. Here I met Jenn for the first time. She's was cold, didn't have much of an appetite and her race buddy, Ian, is asleep in her mum's car. And her mum was worried, naturally. The Mad Medics checked her out and her core temperature was Ok, but it was 11am and a decision was made to wait for the pub to open and get some chips inside Jenn. Ian wakes up after a good sleep.
We've also learnt the 'The Germans' have gone past just before we got there and so there is only 'The Foursome' (Russ, David, Annie, Rob) yet to come through. They soon arrived to a party welcome with big hugs all round; the emotions and bounds that these people are creating is becoming very powerful.
After a busy hour in the pub, with soup and chips, a bit of foot care they are all in fine spirits and set off for Crossfell.
Back around to Alston for us and a few hours catch up. Russ Ladkin and Paul Dickens are there looking strong, relaxed and confident and plotting the next stage in terms of sleep, darkness and accommodation options as it's along way to Bellingham and checkpoint 5.
Here I also met Conrad Dickinson, who acts a Safety Consultant for the race and lives locally. Conrad knew of the YHA at Greenhead and phone the landlady to arrange for the back door to be left open as an extra optional shelter option. More tea, some food, then with time to kill and pondering where the remaining runners are, four us drove to Garrigill to walk up towards Greg's Hut on Crossfell. It was a cold but relatively clear night the track all the way for some six miles is driveable in a 4x4 and the snow is hard packed. We made fast progress soon meeting the The German Trio (aka The Trans European Freight Train) in fine spirits then we met Ian, who is solo and without Jenn. Very sensibly, Jenn had turned back shortly after leaving Dufton as she'd run out of steam but she was safe with her mum.
Above: High on Crossfell (2500') in Greg's Hut - John and Paul's Hi-Altitude Tea Room. John, Annie, Paul, Kath, Dan, Rob, (left to right) several others missing from photo. It was relatively cosy and warm!
Pushing onto the hut we found it busy with mountain men John and Paul as resident safety cover and Charlie and Kath (Medics) as well as three of the four (Annie, Rob and David) but no Russ. This was a bit of a concern as he had been slightly ahead of them and going strongly, but after a while he arrived safely having relocated himself after a complacent navigation error. I was very impressed with his actions and attitude. Back at Alston after a six mile descent it was time for some more tea....and sleep maybe.
Another phone call from the trail, this time from Gary to say Richard is in a bad way. (Racers are briefed to phone in if needed) They are just short of the A69 near Greenhead. Naomi and myself drove on icy roads North to find them walking along the main road in severe windchill as the temperature plumets during the night. Gary quickly states that he will walk onto the Greenhead YHA as he doesn't want to get cold. Richard is very cold, a little incoherent and very lethargic, but not so bad that when we gave him some hot black currant he made a remark that he must be bad as that is what his mum gave him when he was ill! His water bottles were just about frozen so I topped them up with hot water and gave him some warm soup and wholemeal wraps. Naomi checked him over and it was a difficult call as to what to do. With the YHA just half a mile away we managed to convince him to walk on to the YHA and drove there to check on Gary, and re-assess the situation.
I hadn't met Gary before but he's a bit of a legend having finished the race last year. He was well sorted in the YHA and I quickly discussed with him what he wanted to do. He was very willing to stay an hour or so and wait for Richard. He said he could move much quicker without Richard but he really wanted to make sure Richard was going to recover, get some more food and sleep. Richard arrived soon after, and we spent 30 mins or so making more tea, soup and then scrambled egg for them both before we felt able to leave them especially as Richard's wife would be coming shortly to see him, and he promised to get a good sleep. This would be the last time we would see Gary or Richard until the finish 48hours later. And when I did they would be drinking in the bar just as if they'd been for a stroll.
Back to Alston, tea, food and sleep. Up mid-morning and clear up the YHA as all runners have departed. Sadly Rob had withdrawn at Garrigill but he was sat laughing with Jenn, and their respective parents who'd come to drive them home. The big clear up resulted in a very full car as we drove in convoy upto Bellingham. This was now the routine; get ahead to the checkpoint and await the arrival of runners, who are mainly in clusters here. Back out to Hadrians Wall and Greenhead to sweep the course we found Russ, Annie and David all well at the Greenhead YHA. Along the wall to Once Brewed we parked up to intercept Ian and the 'TEFT' team. 'TEFT' came striding towards us and stopped for Coffee, entertaining us with three of them in a two man bothy bag.
The windchill was awful and darkness approaching rapidly. Conrad appeared out for a run from home and after a quick chat he set off in the direction of Greenhead, before shortly returning with Ian who was also moving very well. It's just before dusk; a brew and battery change for Ian was simple but his request for Camenbert was hard to service. Conrad said he may have some at home so we call their on our return trip on the way to look for Annabell and Iron Brian on the small roads between The Wall at Belligham.
It was good job Charlie is a good navigator as our road map was a bit inadequate for such small lanes and tracks. We hadn't expected to go to this intermediate and remote road crossing, but we found the right spot and Charlie and Kath walked back along the road whilst I kept warm and tried a snooze in the car. I thought I was hallucinating as I woke from a deep sleep, dazed, very cold as TEFT arrive in their usual high spirits. I stayed in the front seat out of the way. Charlie and Kath walked back out to meet Ian as I redressed myself in more layers, wnet for a warming jog and got a brew on. Ian arrived soon after still in good form and was even better when we gave him two wedges of brie that Conrad's wife had donated.
Back to Bellingham for more tea and an update. News came through that Russ had phone in as he was in a bad way. Phil was going to collect him, but we couldn't understand why we could go as we were closer. Phil's 4x4 arrive about an hour later with a very cold and sore person laid across the back seats. It took me a few minutes to realise this was Russ Ladkin and not Russ Swift. Russ is a very experience ultra adventure racer and works in polar regions so is used to extreme conditions. I was surprised and shocked but it goes to prove that anyone can succomb to the conditions. Russ was suffering stomach pain, and bloating, (I'll spare you more detail) all of which were bought on by the race, his diet / hydration and harsh conditions.
Russ Ladkin recovered very well. But what this meant was we were waiting for The Trio again (Russ, Annie and David) and it was bitterly cold in the increasing wind, and we hadn't had a fix on them since Greenhead. I drove out alone keeping spare seats available as I really expected them to need a lift, and our medics needed sleep.
I found them a mile outside the village moving well, and sounding good, but stating that the naviagtion had been really slow in the mixed open terrain of fields, forest and open heathland. It had been a long and tedious evening which ended at 3.00am. Consequently, I needed sleep and left them in the very capable hands of Anna and her medics (Aidain and Olivia, this time?) and Louise and Stu. This meant that 'TEFT' plus Annabelle and Iron Brian were due to get up at 4am for a 5am departure, in a team of six with a tracker attached for the very remote last sections. The Trio would leave soon after, once they had some sleep.
I slept for a few hours but was aware of them all leaving and was very impressed the crew had got them all out by 7.30. Everyone was looking good, although Micheal had turned back from the team of six shortly after leaving as he couldn't get warm. Unbeknown to us, he had quietly got himself into bed and woke next morning feel fine. SMJ - Sound Mountaineering Judgement.
Sleep for all. Clear and clean the bunkhouse (great place by the way, sleeps 15? ideal for a group visit, walking, biking and running with Kielder Forest well worth a visit) The next road crossing is at Byrness which is the last road crossing before the 27mile Cheviot ridge. John and Paul had been manning the road crossing and when our convoy gets there there is no sign of them as both teams have made excellent progress and are onto the last stage. The long drive around to Kirk Yethlom remains.... and a long episode of 'the waiting game', with all the support crew finally in one location.
It was now Friday afternoon and suffice to say that whilst a few runner's had finishing already (Eugeni, Mick, Greg) we were waiting for Paul, Richard, Gary and then the TEFT team of five and then The Trio, each of which had a tracker with them. Snow was falling fast and thick and whilst it was concerning I was very confident that each individual was well equiped and collectively each team had great strength and experience amongst them. The crucial factor is that there are two Mountain Refuge huts on the ridge, each towards one end and it's no co-incidence that as each team decided to spend the night in the relative comfort of the huts. The trackers were confirming this as the hadn't moved for several hours, and the chances of a team splitting up was very small given the sense of community and commaderie amongst them.
On A Mission
Nevertheless, Stu and myself set off to intercept The Trio on the ridge just in case they needed a resupply so after a 4x4 drop off at Heatherhope we walked up to Mozie Law summit in deep snow and increasing winds. Conditions on the top were poor; probably around 25cm of snow but heavy drifts and so we were often sinking knee deep and occasionally high deep. More importantly, the wind chill was very severe and so after a 1.5km on the ridge and still with 4km to go we decided to go back down. There was no way that they would have decided to leave the hut in these conditions, and certainly not before daylight. It's a strange feeling turning around from an aborted trip, especially a 'rescue' but it felt totally right. You've got to look after yourself in this conditions and even if we had made it to the hut our addition wouldn't have improved the situation significantly. We were very confident they were safe and secure, and we needed to be the same.
Communications in the area are not good due to the deep cut valleys. Yes, MRT became involved at our request and at first light they were able to drive higher and closer to where Stu and myself had been and they 'Yes' did escort The Trio off the ridge and drove them back around to Kirk Yetholm. But to think it was a 'search and rescue' in the full sense of the phrase is wrong. Borders MRT were well impressed with the condition our racers were in, yet there was no way we could have allowed them to continue along the route. We knew from the stories of those that had finished that the snow was deep and progress would heave been painfully slow. I's so cruel that the extremes of nature did not allow Russ, Annie and David to finish the route having been so close. No way is this a 'DNF' - did not finish. On the website they are listed as CNF, which I assume is Could not Finish due to conditions and time allowed. Cruelly not Finished .... may be.
Meanwhile, The TEFT team had got moving again. This team of five were faced with c.12km much of which was generally downhill and quite literally with the wind behind them. No way would they be getting in a vehicle for the last 3km along the road. So that's it.... all safe and finished.
Finally, a relaxing beer with most of the Mad Medics and Stu Westerfield. (Naomi, Kath, Stu, Olivia, Charlie)
This is just a summary of my experiences of support on The Spine Race. Hopefully, I haven't got any details wrong, I've tried to keep it brief and reflect what ws going on in our own bubble from my perspective.
Modern technology is making many races more readily available on the web, but in areas of poor phone communcation it will alwasy be difficult to have the normal depth of social media commucation.
I went to help out for two reasons; partially to find out what the race was all about, perhaps with a view to racing next year, but primarily just to help out. I've enjoyed so many events myself as a participant, and as an organiser myself I knew that fully committed and skilful volunteers are hard to find.
What did I learn? This is not a race, it's an expedition. It's not a Trail Race. Just like The Dragon's Back, if you go to race you will be beaten by it. Anyone surviving The Spine needs hill walking and mountain experience, and a well sorted approach to their very good outdoor gear. They will be dressed well look after themselves and their feet, and they looked after each other.
I'm always a big advocate for self reliance and safety, and Mountain Skills and Navigation is the key skill which many will need to improve on before they might even consider entering The Spine or The Spine Challenger.
I'll leave you with two quotes:
'The Spine truly is an epic event. It sucks you in, drains everything
you have - physically, mentally & spiritually. Just when you think
it's broken you, you find a new level of strength that you didn't know
existed. I can only thanks all those involved with the concept, the
organisation, all the support teams, all the family & friends who
have a pretty tough time too, and all the people following the event. I
feel very lucky to have been involved twice. I am now at home still
proudly wearing my most treasured medal ever. I will be back again 2014,
either running (ouch) or as part of the support team. This week I will
be mainly resting" - Richard Lendon 2012 Spine finisher
The Key Elements of Adventure - Colin Mortlock
1) Realistic Objective - is it truely within your capabilities
2) Uncertainity of Outcome - it won't be easy.
3) Good Companionship - which can be from within for those solo racers
And a final plea from me; Please don't enter this race in 2014 unless you truely understand what is involved. I would dearly love to help anyone prepare and train for this or any other adventure, not because I have a small business in doing so, but because we must all be self and self reliant in the mountains.
If you are based in the South of the UK, Stu's website will be of use to you. If you are 'up North' then I hope I can help. Either way, please consider spending some money on some real navigation and proper hill training rather than that next piece of fancy outdoor gear. It will be an investment for the future and may even safe your life!
Many thanks to all at The Spine for a memorable week.