Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Spine Race 2015 - Part One

Ok, was it Brutal?  Yes in parts, but equally it was beautiful, bountiful and, at times, boring.

Let's get this straight;  I've worked on The Spine for the past two years, in 2013 I went to Middleton-in Tees for 24 hours and stayed another five days becoming a crucial role in a crazy, risky and very ambitious adventure.  For 2014 I was contracted to provide safety cover, but ended up providing all manner of things way and beyond my original brief.   

In 2015 I decided to 'run'.  Why?  Because, I always say that taking part is usually easier than working the full length of an event, plus I had been bitten by The Spine bug and could do very well.  It suits my skillset; long distance expedition skills, in winter in remote places. And, 'Yes' it many ways it was easier taking part. It was certainly simpler.  Just get myself to the start and then the end with a few days in between, look after mind body and soles (feet) and the rest all falls into place.

So, after much training and coaching of others I'm at Edale and firend and good egg Mark Rawlinson is asking my thoughts on strategy.  Well, 'Go steady, really steady to Hebden CP1, take an hours TLC break and push on towards Hawes and CP2.  Sleep somewhere on the second night, where ever that might be  and take it from there.'

Spine Challenger Start - 0630-ish

Day One - Two

What actually happened is that the winds gave us battering on Day One and progress was slow and harsh due to this and the wet saturated ground.  Hebden Hey CP1 was the bun fight as I expected, with no where to sit and sort stuff out, and no hope of sleep.  From my expedition adventure racing experience I'm very happy to go 36-40 hours without sleep (I simply can't sleep on the first night) and so on we went.

I've known Mark for several years, ever since he took part in our Great Lakeland 3 Day event, and latterly at The Dragon's Back race in 2012.  It wasn't my intention to stick with Mark throughout the week, but we spent a very amicable first day together, with me tapping into Mark's superior local knowledge in the first few miles.  By Day Two we had formed a partnership and it became evident that we would spend a few days together and ultimately get each other to the finish.

I really enjoyed Bronteland in the dawn, but the section of undulating farm land to Malham is tedious and very slippery.  The only highlight was an impromptu coffee at The Lothersdale pub on Sunday morning.  We pushed on through in Churchillian conditions, with a 'steady go slow mission' to Malham Visitor Centre.  John Bamber was working his magic at CP1.5 and everyone looked suitably wrecked,  We managed a comfortable bivvi in the woods nearby and returned for a early morning brew with John Bamber before battling over Fountains Fell. On the shoulder of Fountains we headed into some terrible conditions; head down, hood up, goggles steaming up and ...hey-ho your batteries fail in your head torch. Wtf!!! I'm not changing them here.

Pen-yGhent was easy due to the re-route, although I'm not sure that Mr. Portuguese who couldn't find the trail would agree.  We were held at Horton Cafe for 2:40hr, so enjoyed a good feed on a veggie breakfast and a catch up with some 'out of the bubble' stuff.  The current assessment is that we are cruising.... and in good form.  Steady to Hawes CP2.  Bit of a battering on the last stretch of high moor from strong cross winds, which make you tense and stiffen the muscles.  CP 2 - an another one hour's TLC break. 'Crocs' on, socks washed, food eaten and out the door.  Sleeping in CPs' is a no-no as there is too much activity and noise.

One Hour TLC at Hawes CP2

Great Shunner Fell - an excellent peak

I had a great time on Shunner Fell; Mark is climbing well, we had blue sky and even a slight tail wind. Life was good. We had a surprise visit by Dave and Ruth, having driven from their Shap home after some dot watching, catching us up on Gt Shunner, which was very welcome.  And then Rich from Swaledale Outdoors who makes us laugh and takes us off route momentarily, such is his prowess as a local guide and navigator!  Seriously, we noted a re-occurring theme that when a visitor / supporter appeared on the trail it often took away your focus, Indeed, we habitually observed a supported runner often going off route and losing copious amounts of time and time and energy during 'support interface'.  

Onward; the section to Tan Hill was good, but afterwards it deteriorates into tedious moor land, with intricate navigation. By this stage, we had teamed up with Julie Garner who had some hand written route notes (but not by herself, I think?) and so with Mark monitoring his GPS, Julie's notes and myself keeping in touch with map and compass we made good progress finishing with a 25 hour day from Malham to Mid-Tees, despite some horrendous sleep monsters from me.

CP3 Middleton-in Teesdale 

CP 3 Middleton-in-Tees is a much better checkpoint with plenty of space, bunk rooms and showers etc.  There are no Spine Challengers, of course as there race has finished at Hawes. The race had been held here until 3.00am, which is just when we arrived.  Why it was held I'm not sure, it can't of been weather related, but must only have been that the race was getting to strung out.  So .... we take a six hour break in race time whilst others head out on the trail

The trip up the Rive Tees is a delight.  The riverside paths are good, the scenery excellent and the weather quite becalmed..  High Force was impressive with a full body of water and I particularly remember quarry activity across the river, a solid reminder of man's interaction with this wonderful environment.

We had been told of a 10.00 pm cut-off at Cow Green reservoir but we were about eight hours ahead of this and so the FULL course was our option.  The traverse over the Pennine watershed through to High Cup Nick is bleak and feels remote and we completed this just as it became dark and with a short lived, but very threatening snow squall coming straight at us.   The navigation isn't difficult but the small footpaths become obscure and you need to ford the river or find the big foot bridge over the Maize Beck.   ( By the way, you can sample this leg during our new NAV4 Adventure event - Pennine 39 - Sat 18th July )


A steady descent took us down to Dufton CP 3.5 being run by John Bamber and Paul Shorrocks.  Here we had a bit of a dilemna; push one over 'the mighty Crossfell' during the night, or stop here for and an extend rest.  Having considered all the options over fish and chips in the Stag Inn, the obvious personal and professional decisions was to rest up and tackle Crossfell early next morning.  So, after a peaceful, spacious night in Dufton Village Hall, we left a note for JB and at 6.30am started up the Crossfell massif.  Conditions were Ok on the ascent and even along the summit ridge the winds were moderate, the views quite awe inspiring and we were moving well.  It would be rude to pass by Greg's Hut without stopping for a brew, and then onward down to Garrigill were 'Mr.I.A.M MST'  bluntly told us we could get bused to Alston CP4 , or ... WTF!

We walked the last few miles to the Alston CP , along the river and up the last little hill.  Alston CP (the Adventure Centre NOT YHA) was rammed full with cabin fevered Spine racers, including those on the Short course who hadn't made the cut-off at Cow Green.  NB; talking later with Jim Tinnion I was very impressed that he could have made this cut-off but made a sound mountaineering decision not to push it out too far.

To be brief, the impeding storm was brewing for later that evening, but we were very surprised that we weren't allowed to carry on down the Tyne riverside to our intended next stop at Greenhead YHA,  So another long halt, this time with an official time out, of some 17 hours.  The racing snakes had gorged themselves on all the food, the place is a tip and everyone's brain dead.  Bizarrely, I can't sleep due to our restful evening at Dufton so at 2.00am I found that the centre WiFi is working Ok, so I acknowledge some emails as the whole Spine Family snore it's way through Storm Racheal.

Is it Thusday?

Off again just after 7.00 am on Thursday?  Steady, steady, strong progress to Greenhead YHA and along Hadrian's Wall in an increasingly wet and windy evening.  I enjoyed the Wall, but Mark was really starting to suffer with shin / ankle pain predominately on the descents.  The section after The Wall is tough; boggy with tricky navigation and it's a long haul to Bellingham. A surprise visit from Andrew Burton deep in Wark forest gave us a bit of a laugh and brief respite, arriving at Bellingham at around 1.00am?

By now this was becoming a stage race; Each CP is busy and full with blown out racers and staff.  Little space 'at the Inn' for us but I find plenty of room under a table at the back of the hall, take a buffet of cheese, nuts, tomatoes and hard boiled eggs to bed and grab a few hours sleep.

I was really pleased to see Mike Stevenson here, looking Ok, but sadly with his feet in a bad way.  Mike has been on two or three courses and recces with me and is a fast learner and strong minded athlete. I wondered if he would be setting off with Mark and myself next morning, but at this stage it is really important to move at your own pace.  True to his ability, Mike stayed ahead of us until the very last Mountain Refuge were he needed to take three - fours proper sleep before the last 10km to the finish.  Well Done Mike - You have really impressed me.

CP 5 Bellingham - Feet Up, Sleeping, slight soreness on ankle.

The Beginning of The End

Setting off from Bellingham, we had the company of Jim Tinnion. I was good to have a three way dynamic for a while, even if it meant re-negotaiting the terms of engagement but for a while the three of us moved well together. Jim had his partner Zoe supporting him, so at one of the road crossing he elected to drop back and travel at his own speed after a short rest.

Mark and Myself, were definitely on a mission, now, I was keen to force the pace, and as the sun came out on the descent to Bryness I push the pace on as a means of combating sleepy eyelids. Mark responded and remained 400-500 metres behind me for a while arriving at Bryness just as I was getting served at the surreal Forest View Lodge with soup, the vegetarian option.

Bryness Fettling...

I was still keen to  push on, as there is no point it sitting and dwell on soreness or lethergy, we were out quickly and efficiently.  Another surprise visitor, in the form of John Allen who had driven out from work in his lunch break,  and climbed strongly with us up to Bryness Hill. This was really the start of the end; 25+ miles along the summit ridge and the Border between England and Scotland.  

The End is Near

I'm sure we both intended to enjoy this. We got well established on the high ridge and most of the way to Mountain Hut One before dark.  The ground was surprisingly frozen and whilst Mark kept his Microspikes on continuously, I had mine on and off depending  upon snow cover as to snag your spikes on the turf caused quite a bit of discomfort to ankle and knee.  We made good strong progress; enjoy a bit of banter with MST team at the hut and push on again.  Layered up, including a RAB Guide Vapour-rise as a fourth layer, it was an indication of how cold and high wind chill was. Granted I still wasn't wearing over trousers, but being old school I try and manage without as they definitely create drag and increase chaffage in delicate regions.  We were both going strongly and navigating well. Mark remained steady on the climbs but was suffering on the descents. The final large descent of Auchope Cairn, with Hedge Hole beyond appeared very intimidating in the dark, with steep neve snow disappearing to our right.  Hugging the fence line leftwards we were now heading for Mountain Hut Two, and I pushed the pace out and searching for the best line in the snow.

Then, just as I was looking at the map, for the exact location of the Hut, and wrestling with glasses and head torch, I got a call from Stu Westfield The Mountain Safety Team Co-ordinator.  He was phoning asking us to call in at the hut and check out the condition of competitor No 68, ?  a certain Mike Stevenson!!!  A few minutes alter I was in the hut to find Mike fully kitted up in his sleeping and bivi bag, and being well looked after by Alan McCormack a fellow runner.  There were two other 'Spiners' there and very quickly the MST Team from Hut one arrived headed up by Ali Holland.  I know of Ali from years ago, a very strong and competent Adventure race and skilled outdoor person.  Mike just needed to sleep, he hadn't lost his sense of humour so we left him in Ali's capable hands and push on as a four.

From here it is just about 10km more or less down hill to the finish.  There is one last sod of a climb over The Schil and then what felt like a nicely graded and firm under foot descent. Unfortunately, Mark was really suffering by know; down hills are the most painful and he coped brilliantly with the amounting pain and culmination of this adventure.

Really good to see StuS and StuW at the end where's the tea!

Finally, at this stage I'd like to thank Mark Rawlinson for a very interesting and rewarding week, and I'm very proud that we got to the end together an in relatively good shape.

Grabbing a few ZZ's in the car before breakfast at The Excellent Border Hotel.

There are a few other 'thank-you's due as well, not least due to Stu Smith and Stu Westerfield for their sterling work on the MST and to Scott and Phil for having a made idea to race the Pennine Way in Winter.

A second, 'Part Two' blog will appear shortly and cover additional issues such as clothing and gear, skills and thoughts about how to tackle the Spine.  If you have any questions or feedback then let me know by email  and I'll try and answer them.... 

See you at Lakes Mountain 42 and Pennine 39 out on the fells, or at a NAV4 Adventure course soon?

Joe Faulkner


  1. Great blog, Joe.

    The calculation I made which you mention was as follows: I'd been on the go (on my own) since leaving Hawes at 23:30 on Monday and arrived at Middleton at around 15:30 on Tuesday. I was starting to run short of sleep having only effectively managed 2 hours in the ladies loos at Malham on the Sunday night and rest but no sleep at the two main CPs. It was 13 miles to Cow Green with around 5 hours to cover it if I'd just eaten and gone back out. I knew I could get to Cow Green OK, but it's very exposed there and I didn't know what support would be around. From Cow Green to Dufton is roughly another 10 miles, mostly also quite exposed. So I'd be committing to at least another 10, possibly 12 hours with no sleep at high level in order to get to Dufton. I'd then have to rest well before going up Cross Fell and I knew I would be pretty much the last of the full route runners if I went that way. I just felt I was too tired to move fast and probably without moving quickly I would be pushing the margins for error and relying too much on the MST and not enough on my own capabilities.

    In the end I slept at Middleton and went out on the short route at about 23:00. Arriving at Cow Green around 02:30, the conditions were really wild, big wind, and lots of snow being blown around. The decision to wait and get short routed was the right one as even the short route proved to be a slog - including a slip which banged up my knee and broke one of my poles - although I got into Alston in good order raring to go on down the South Tyne Valley to Greenhead and was disappointed to hear I'd be held (eventually for 22 hours) as I now had sleep in the bank...

    1. That's a good assessment and decision Jim.. I hear what you are saying about being held at Alston...
      Sound Mountain Judgement from you not to go to Dufton; sadly your decision making at Alston was out of your hands.
      ( Really wish we had been able to go onto Greenhead )