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Britain’s Most Brutal Sprint Race

Ray at the start of the race

Ray at the start of the racePosted by Ray Poynter, 20 January 2022


This post is about taking part in the 2022 Montane Spine Sprint Race.

If you already know about the Spine Race, you can skip this paragraph. The Spine Race is held twice a year (January and June) and currently comes in four versions. The full race is 268 miles (about 431KM) along the Pennine Way, from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. The runners do their own navigation, the route is a hiking path (with some scrambling) and is hilly. In the Winter the runners have seven days to complete the course, this drops to six-and-a-half days in the Summer. There are also: the Challenger Race (108 miles/ 174KM) which I ran last Summer, the Challenger North Race (160 miles / 257 KM) and the ‘Sprint’ which is ‘just’ 46 miles (74 KM). The winter version of the Spine Race is referred to as ‘Britain’s most brutal race’.

The route of the race
The 45 miles of the Spine Sprint

At midday, 8 January, I lined up in Edale with 58 other runners, all wearing waterproofs (it was raining quite hard as we waited to start), and carrying our packs with food, water and safety equipment. The packs tended to weigh between 8KG and 10KG, including the water. The safety equipment included sleeping bags, stoves, pan, mat, bivvi etc. The Challenger competitors had set off at 7:30am, the full Spine racers were to set off the next day at 8am. Midday came and off we went, on our adventure.

The start of the race is very gentle, out of the field, across the car park, and up the road into Edale. From there we head up the Pennine Way into the fells. As we started to run across the fields we could see all the snow on the hilltops and we knew we’d soon be in it. The Spine gets serious at about 4.5KM when we reach the bottom of Jacobs Ladder. This is a steep ascent up the shoulder of the Kinder plateau. As the Profile image shows, the climb from the bottom of Jacobs Ladder to the plateau is over 300 metres, straight up. When we were on the plateau the conditions were different. The ground was frozen, there was ice on the rocks, and there was light snow instead of rain.

Profile of the race
The profile of the race. The first big climb is Kinder, the second peak is Bleaklow. The deep trough is Torside, which climbs eventually to Black Hill

I ran sections of the plateau with other people including Kev Simmonds and Lauren Johnson, which was encouraging. Generally, I was as fast as Lauren, except on the rocky descents, where I was struggling to see. When I had my glasses on, they misted up with the cold and snow, when I took them off my vision was less good and wind/cold/snow made my eyes run. I had the first of my two falls on the plateau, but it was a gentle affair.

River Crossing
Photo from Pete Henley, showing a river crossing that his team did earlier in the day.

We really knew we were in a different ball game when we reached Kinder Downfall at 9KM and the River Noe. Often this river is just a trickle, but today it was wide, fast, and deep, and bouncing down a waterfall. Several of us banded together and went upstream where it was safer to ford the river, and where we could help keep each other safe. The water was about knee-deep, fast moving and there were chunks of ice in it about 60cm in diameter that had broken away further upriver – these chunks bashed into your legs and tried to knock you over. I was wearing waterproof socks, but they only came to just below my knees, so water got in from above and I had cold, wet feet for the next 14 hours.

Note, I run on Kinder Scout regularly, and if I had simply been running with friends socially, I would not have forded the stream. However, surrounded by other experienced runners and working as a group I felt OK about tackling it. As we descended off the plateau I lost contact with Lauren, who finished an hour ahead of me.

At Mill Hill, 12KM, the route shifts from NW to NE and heads towards the Snake Pass. To preserve the fragile peat moors, a series of slabs have been placed that go all the way from Mill Hill to Snake Pass, a distance of 4KM. Many of the slabs were covered in clear ice and were really tricky – which was potentially heart breaking as this stretch is mostly downhill, not too steep, and is a place where the pace can be higher. Luckily Kev had the brainwave of running on the moorland. Normally we would sink into the bogs if we stood on the moorland, but it was frozen, really, really frozen. We were able to make quite a good pace over this section and did not fall, reading the reports of other runners who stayed on the slabs, they were much slower and many of them fell.

After crossing the Snake Pass, and the volunteers watching out for the racers, we started climbing up Bleaklow. The path up is very clearly defined, but being on the South Side of the hill it was much wetter than the North side of Kinder had been. The path up the hill was now a fast-running stream, often ankle deep. The climb up to Bleaklow is about 100 metres and was just a matter of getting on with it. From the top of Bleaklow there is a long, tricky, and in places icy descent to Torside. On this section, I had my second fall, when I stood on water-covered ice, fell and soaked the whole of my left leg – but no bruises. Every year, Torside is one of the most frequent places where people drop out of the Spine Race, often because they make a mistake on this long descent. On the descent, just past 22KM, there is a ravine to climb down, a river to ford, and then back up the other side. Again, we formed a group to get across this section safely.

Just before we reached Torside it became dark (about 4:15pm) and it would remain night time for the rest of the race. I was appalled to find that I had not fitted my rechargeable battery to my headtorch (in a plastic bag in my rucksack I had my head torch and two rechargeable batteries, but neither was already fitted as I had been maximising the charging). So, with hands a bit numb from the wet and cold, I fitted the battery, with the aid of the light from somebody else’s head torch. One of my learnings is that in future races I will have two headtorches, rather than one headtorch with two batteries. Torside is 26KM, or about one-third of the race. We had been running for about 5 hours and had made good use of the light.

At Torside there was an aid station with water and offering hot drinks. I chose simply to get some water for my bottles and head straight on, which meant I lost touch with a couple of the people I had been running with. The climb up from Torside is big, over 400 metres of climbing before Black Hill is behind us. On the way up from Torside I joined three other runners and we kept together until just before Black Hill. On the way up Laddow Rocks the snow became much heavier and as we descended down to Crowden Great Brook we experienced snow thunder. Snow thunder is when there is lightning at the same time as snow, the lightning lights the sky, but it is less strong because the snow is blocking your sight of the sky, and the thunder sound is muffled and more all around. When we reached the Brook we knew we had to negotiate several fords and the path switches from left to right, each time we crossed the Brook we were in the water, sometimes knee deep. Just as we were looking for the right place to get back to the left bank, we saw two lights coming the other way – a couple of guardian angels (David Riley & friend) me crossing river with helphad come out to lend assistance to runners and pointed us towards the best place to cross at this point and even extended a hand.

Guardian Angels
Picture by one of the Guardian Angels – I am the runner about to cross, with my red bum bag in front.

Not long after meeting the guardian angels, we reached the final climb up to Black Hill. As we started to climb up to Black Hill we were once again on slabs, and since this was the South side of a hill, we were on wet ground. I was moving nicely and put my left foot on the next slab, but the next slab was only half a slab, so my left foot when down a hole filled with water, liquified peat and ice, deep enough that my groin was underwater. I am not counting this as a fall, as my right foot was still on a slab, and all my weight was now on my right foot. I have no idea how deep the hole was, but it was clearly more than one metre deep. I pulled my very cold and wet leg out of the bog and for a moment I thought about carrying straight on, to stay with the runners I was with. However, I quickly realised how much colder I would get and urged the three of them to continue, while I put my waterproof trousers on, over my wet leggings. I was really happy that I had packed my waterproof trousers in an outside pocket of my bag, but nevertheless, in the dark with cold hands and tired legs, it took a bit of doing to slide the trousers over my running shoes and up my legs.

For a while, after Black Hill, I ran on my own, but was making good progress. The normal route, after Black Hill crosses Dean Clough, but the river was in spate and we had to follow a diversion. This added some distance and some extra climbing, but not a lot. I found the diversion quite stressful as I could not use my gpx navigation watch to show me the route. Before the race, I had loaded the coordinates of the race onto a handheld gpx device, my watch, and I had marked it on a map – because the route is not signposted, not even for the people doing 268 miles. As the route started to climb up the hill it became less well defined and I met a fellow runner, Gary Bins, who I ran with for the next almost 40KM. In order to gain a bit of confidence about the path we were on I zoomed my watch out to check that we’d soon be back on the main path, and that was reassuring.

Back on the main path we met the volunteers at Wessenden Head, filled water bottles, and we had a much faster time of it as we ran past the reservoirs towards Marsden. At 41KM the route leaves the nice downhill path to Marsden, drops down a steep, slippy, muddy path to the river, crosses the river on a bridge and then climbs up a short, super steep bit which Strava calls ‘Stinking Knackers’. Gary and I took a short break at the bottom of this to put on dry gloves (the kit list includes two pairs of gloves) and to have something to eat. This must have helped as Strava says this was my fastest ever ascent of ‘Stinking Knackers’. At this point my watch was predicting we’d finish about 4:30am on Sunday, which was in about 8 or 9 hours time. Over the next 8 hours, this predicted finish time went up or down by 10 minutes or so, depending on the terrain, and was within 10 minutes of our actual finish time.

The next notable place was where the route crossed the A62, where there was an amazing group of volunteers, offering hot drinks, cakes, water and support. The volunteers were superb. This was a grim windy, rainy, snowy, icy night and they were there all day and night for the Spine racers.

The next milestone (on a long race, you don’t think about the end, you think about key milestones) was Nicky’s food van. Nicky has a pitch near the footbridge that crosses the M62 and she stays there for the two days and two nights it takes the Spine racers to pass her pitch – amazing! I had a coffee and a cheeseburger from the van and then set off. By now we were running as a three, Gary, Bruce Humphrey and me. Nicky’s van was at 53KM, so we only had about a half marathon left to go, with feet that were numb, with legs that were tired, and into the teeth of the weather – so we felt pretty good about things (no, that is not irony, things were under control and we were making progress).

On the next section, the wind really picked up and hurled hail into our faces. With my glasses on I could not see because of them misting up (the heat from my body contrasting with the negative wind chill hitting the lenses). Without my glasses, I could not see, because the balls of ice were hitting my eyes. That is when I had a brainwave, but also realised how dumb I had been hitherto. One of the compulsory kit items is a pair of clear goggles – which I had always thought of as being for ‘emergencies. Well, this was an emergency I was stood with my back to the wind unable to move. I put on the goggles and the problem was gone, and over the next few steps, I realised that if I had put my goggles on hours ago I would have made much quicker progress. Now I realise, goggles are not just for emergencies, I will wear them whenever it lets me move faster.

Our next milestone was the White House, at 57Km, where we waved hello to the volunteers and pressed on. We were feeling very chipper now, there was less than 20KM to go, we had no doubts about meeting the cut-off (we only had 18 hours to complete the race), and we knew that most of the terrain from here to the end was pretty easy. The next 6KM was relatively flat and pretty easy to travel over (with the occasional glassy ice to watch out for). I ran pretty much the whole of the last 20KM, Gary and Bruce walked most of it, and we travelled at the same speed – my shorter legs work better with a slow jog, their longer, younger legs worked well with a brisk walk – we were travelling at about 4 miles an hour.

As we approached Stoodley Pike, the path became muddy and less distinct and for the first time on the race part of my torso began to feel cold. I ran the race wearing a compression t-shirt, a long-sleeved cotton shirt and a waterproof jacket, relatively light wear for the conditions. As we ran along the top of the escarpment to Stoodley Pike there was a strong wind from the North and I believe the temperature including wind chill was about minus seven, and it was consistently blowing on the left side of my body. However, I knew this was a short section.

From Stoodley Pike it was plain sailing, although running down the tarmac road into Hebden Bridge was uncomfortable on my feet. From Hebden Bridge there is a steep climb up a road to the Birchcliffe Centre and the finish – but none of us minded that, we were pretty happy by that point. At the finish, I had the extra joy by being greeted by my friend Suzanne Roebuck (who was one of the volunteers) and by Lauren who was just heading home after finishing an hour earlier.

We (the people running the Sprint) had started at midday Saturday. Gary, Bruce and I ran for 16 hours and 22 minutes and finished at 4:22am in the morning – 98 minutes before the cut-off. After photos, food, a change of clothes, and in my case a couple of hours sleep on one of the benches, it was all over and time to go home.

I would say that was one of the best days of my life. Not a top ten day, but definitely top 100. I have never raced in weather more challenging than that, and I did it – that is a great feeling. And, I met masses of wonderful people.

Now I am looking forward to my next challenges, including trying to run the full Spine race (268 miles in 6.5 days) in June 2022.

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