A few weeks ago I wrote about how I (somebody who genetically has a quite ordinary body) was able to achieve Something Extraordinary when I ran 168 miles in just under three days. Well, I have gone and done it again, and this time it is even more extraordinary.
Two days ago, I completed the 268 mile (431 KM) Spine Race from Edale in Derbyshire, along the Pennine Way, to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland, I completed the distance in just under 133 hours (about 5.5 days). If you had told me 18 months ago that I could run that far, I would not have believed it.
This post is about my experience of the race, my thanks to the many people who make the event possible, and to highlight that ordinary people (people like you and me) can do extraordinary things if we put in the time and effort.
What is the Spine Race?
The Spine Race is one of the best-known UK ultras and is billed as ‘Britain’s most brutal race’. The race is held twice a year, in January and June. The race comes in three lengths, the Sprint (43 miles, 69 KM), the Challenger (108 miles , 174) and the full Spine Race (268 miles, 431 KM). I have previously run the Summer Challenger race and the Winter Sprint race, so this was my attempt to get the full set.
The route is off-road and follows the UK’s Pennine Way hiking route. The total amount of hill-climbing achieved during the race is just over 11,000 metres (Mount Everest, BTW, is 8,849 metres high). The runners have to navigate the route and carry all the equipment, food and water they will need while on the trail (in my case the bag I started each section with weigted about 11KG (about 25 pounds). Partly because at the start of each leg I was carrying 3.5 litres of water, which accounts for 3.5KG of the weight.
A Run/Walk Combination
Ordinary people have to mix running and walking when doing the Spine Race. The hills are too steep, the ground too tricky, and the distance too long for regular people to be able to run all of it. I look at the winners in total admiration (this year Tiaan Erwee won the race in just under 71 hours, and Anna Troupe won the women’s category and came second in the overall category in just under 79 hours). However, my body is not like theirs, I am 65 years old, I have short legs, and have never excelled at any form of sport.
Running Inside Myself
The way I articulate my system for running (which I call running inside myself) is to be very aware of not pushing my limits. I need to avoid getting too hot, too cold, too hungry, too thirsty, too tired etc. This means being alert to how my body is performing and taking the right decisions. This year the weather during the race was mostly very hot, so I ran and walked slower than I would have done if it had been colder. In sections where it was going to be impossible to top up my water, I ran and walked a little slower to cut down on the rate I was drinking water. This strategy meant that I was able to push quite hard near the end and finished the race feeling great (except for the blisters – more on these in a moment).
Part of running within yourself is avoiding arbitrary targets, for example, “I want to reach X before it gets dark”. Another part of running within yourself is only running in the company of other people when it suits your body. I do not speed up to keep up with somebody who is going a bit faster than I feel I should, and I do not slow down to stay with somebody slower (unless they have a problem, or unless it is the last couple of kilometres before a checkpoint.
We carry what we need for a section of the race on our back, but at about every 50 miles (80 KM) there is a checkpoint. The race is a non-stop race, which means we can stay at a checkpoint for up to 6 hours. At the checkpoints, we get access to a cooked meal, somewhere to use our sleeping bag, support from medics if needed, and access to our drop bag. In our drop bag, we have the trail food for the next day and changes of clothing.
The checkpoints are also great chances to talk to other runners, to check the weather forecast, to have a peek at social media and messages, and to think about a strategy for the next section. The checkpoints are staffed by volunteers and I will write more about these wonderful human beings later in the post – but take it from me, they are the thing at makes the Spine Race great and that makes it possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
On Sunday 19 June at 8am the starting horn sounds and I and the other 91 runners set off from Edale, in Derbyshire. Almost immediately the fast runners started disappearing out of site, and the people who are going to walk almost everything are starting to fall behind. I am settled somewhere near the middle of the pack, with perhaps two-thirds of the people ahead of me and one-third behind.
The main feature of this year’s summer race was the heat and the dryness of the ground. The ground was dry because of a lack of rain in the weeks running up to the race, and the heat was because we had a heat spell for almost the entire race. I find dry trails are much worse for causing blisters, particularly when running on broken or loose rock, and this proved to be the case for me and many of the others.
After just a few hours, I could feel that I was getting blisters on the sides of my big toes (despite pre-taping them). I found a good spot, popped of my shoes and I could see that each big toe had a bulge under the rock tape I had used to protect my feet. I attended to the blisters (antiseptic wipe, clean needle, pop and drain blister, put a clean dressing on, and protect with fresh rock tape – do not do this at home, doctors say DO NOT pop blisters, more on this point later).
The first Checkpoint was at Hebden Bridge, just over 75KM, and I ran that in just over 14 hours. The checkpoint was really busy (and noisy) because at this stage of the race we are grouped more closely together and relatively few people have dropped out. I had something to eat, and processed my two blisters again (they tend to re-fill, so I removed the dressing, popped them, drained them and re-dressed them). However, I did not remove the protective rock tape from my little toes, something that proved to be a mistake, I should have visually checked them as blisters were growing under the tape.
I took my sleeping bag into a dorm and tried to sleep. The luxury of this checkpoint was that out our sleeping bags on mattress – which should have helped. However, there was too much going on, too much noise and my head was buzzing with the excitement of the race – so I doubt I got more than 30 mins of sleep.
At 30 minutes past midnight, about 2.5 hours after arriving at Hebden Bridge (and wearing one of my two head torches) I set off again. I knew that the Craven Energy Triathlon Club were running an unofficial (but approved of) food and rest centre just before Cowling and I decided to take a break there. The distance to the rest spot was just over 23KM and I took just under 5 hours to get there). As always, the Craven team had done a great job, tents to sleep in, bacon sandwiches and hot drinks. I stayed there a couple of hours and got at least 60 minutes sleep.
From the unofficial pit stop at Cowling I pressed on 37KM to a mini checkpoint at Malham Tarn (no drop bags and a limit of 30 mins) – stopping briefly in Malham to buy an ice cream. A medic there looked at my handiwork and improved the dressings on my blisters, including highlighting that the two little toes had problems too. From Malham Tarn, I set off at 10am on day two to run the final 42KM to Hardraw. Hardraw is the end point of the Challenger Race, the version I had run in 2021. However, in the full Spine Race Hardraw is simply the end of the second leg of a six-leg race. Sleeping in Hardraw was much easier, I took my inflatable mattress and sleeping bag out of my drop bag and slept a couple of hours in a one-man tent. The feet seemed reasonable and with the help of the medics I patched a couple of the blisters up again.
From Hardraw there is nice run up to the Tan Hill Inn, the highest in England. In truth, I spent too long at the Tan Hill Inn, having a fish sandwich, salad, chips and an Eton Mess. One of my learnings from this race is that nice meals take too long and the rest factor of 45 minutes eating is not as good as 20 minutes eating and 25 minutes catnapping. Leaving the Tan Hill Inn, I ran the 32KM to Middleton-in-Teeside. The food here was great, I had the chance to sleep in a one-person tent, and I probably got close to three hours sleep. The blisters on my feet were still limited to just four, but two of them were bad enough that the medics were now dealing with them without any assistance from me.
The run from Middleton to Alston is one of the best of the race. The initial section follows River Tees past several spectacular waterfalls, then the scramble alongside the Cauldron’s Snout, finishing at High Cup Nick (a fantastic sight). From High Cup Nick there is an easy run down into Dufton and a visit to the wonderful café (where again I stayed too long, eating wonderful food, including rhubarb with custard). From Dufton we tackled the energetic climb up to and over Cross Fell.
The Alston checkpoint was wonderful. The food included its famous lasagne, I was able to have a shower (the first since before the race started on Sunday, and this was Wednesday night, running in a heatwave. From a foot point of view there was bad news in Alston, my Scotts running shoes had split on the top and there was a real risk they would not hold together on the next section. This meant taking my relatively new Hokka’s out of my drop bag (I had run about 60KM in them during my preparation, which is what I mean by relatively new).
From Alston to Bellingham takes you through the sections that are OK, good, and yuk. Immediately after Alston we ran through fields and countryside – which is fine, but it is not the high fells. Then we ran along Hadrian’s Wall, with repeated climbs up and down spiky hills with good views and a good sense of history (yes, to Spine runners the hilly bits are the good bits). But then we had an interminable run through the storm-damaged, monocultural
Forestry Commission horror, where the surface was made of crushed rocks (about the size of your fist. This stretch through the forest was without a doubt the least pleasant and most painful section of the race. This is not the fault of the race organisers, there is where the alternative route of the Pennine Way goes.
At the Bellingham checkpoint I discovered that the new shoes (and the brick road) had taken their toll. I now had blisters on the side of my left heel and on the middle toe on my right foot. The good news was that the blisters on my big toes had almost healed. However the little toes were a mess and I think it will be a month or two before they look like toes again.
I had some great food, some good conversation and probably about 2 hours sleep at Bellingham. At last, I was on the final leg to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. It was a fantastic day, the first time I have run on the Cheviot Hills and I was super impressed with them. They are high, wild and remote, what a great way to finish the race (just as Kinder Scout) was a great way to start it. The Cheviots also threw in a weather surprise, in just a few minutes the weather changed from a heatwave to a windy storm, which soon settled down to drizzle.
I love stats. I started at 8am on Sunday morning and finished, 268 miles / 431 KM later at 8:50pm on the Friday evening – almost exactly 5.5 days, or 132hrs 50 minutes. I know from my watch that I was on the trails for about 105 hours out of the 133 hours, and I think I slept for about 10 hours in total – implying about spent about 17 hours showering, fixing feet, faffing at the checkpoints etc.
I finished 27th amongst the men, and more relevantly 31st overall. Note, in ultrarunning the winner of the race is quite often a woman. As I mentioned earlier, the number two runner this year was a woman and she was something like 5 hours ahead of the second male. 38 runners were recorded as DNF, i.e. did not finish. This will be because some were injured and some missed the time cut-offs. Of the 92 people who started the race, and among the 66 who completed it, I came 31st. I am what is known as a mid-packer. Not good enough to be ‘racing’, but comfortably ahead of the cut-offs.
My watch estimates that I burned about 26,000 calories during the race – but I suspect I ate that number of calories too!
I mentioned popping blisters earlier. Please note, I have NO MEDICAL qualifications, do not take my advice, research this yourself. If you get a blister, every doctor I have ever spoken to would like me to leave it alone, as the unbroken skin and the fluid inside protect me from infection. However, if you are in a long race and you get a blister there are three possible options
- You drop out of the race
- You don’t burst it and you do not drop out of the race – what happens then is the blister pops/tears itself, the fluids run out and you get sock and dirt material in the open wound.
- You clean the area with an antiseptic, you pop the lister with a clear needle, you press the area to get the liquid out, you wipe the area with an antiseptic wipe again, you cover the deflated blister with something like fleece web, then you keep it all in place with something like KT Tape. Before trying this yourself research it. You risk getting an infection if you do this – but most of us do it, because then we can finish the race.
The checkpoints and various other places are staffed by volunteers. These people make the race possible. The number of volunteers is large, but they have to work very, very hard to keep the show on the road. You can arrive at a checkpoint at 3 in the morning and be met by a volunteer who has been helping for 12 hours without a break. They will be cheerful, get you your drop bag, give you food and drink and show you where to sleep.
I have volunteered in the past and I will do it again. As well as putting something back into the sport, you learn quite a bit by volunteering, watching what the successful people do and what the others do.
Are you Interested in Running the Spine Race?
If you are interested I would suggest
- Start with something simpler – in terms of mountain skills and distance.
- Volunteer to help at a checkpoint.
- Start with the Sprint and work your way up to the full race
These three points are how I managed it and it is how many other manage it.
There are so many people to thank. All of my running club friends at Redhill Road Runners, and especially our fell guru Pete, all the people who messaged, such as Kev, Lauren, Suzanne, Eddie, Lorraine, Lizzie and Sean, Sergio and Helen, Noriko and Tomoko, and many others too. I’d like to thank everybody who’s donated to CoppaFeel! I’d like to thank all of the other competitors who encouraged me a chatted to me. But most of all, I’d like to thank the race volunteers.
I am not 100% sure. The Spine Race has been my focus for the last 12 months, so I will take some time to think about what the next few things will be. I want to run some 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons, and I want to run in some fell races. I suspect that my main 2023 challenge will be a stage race. A stage race is a multi-day ultra, but each day the runners start together – so more like the Tour de France (but without bikes).
I am also going to write a book about running ultras. If you’d like me to let you know when it is ready, email ray.poynter@thefutureplace with your name and email address.