Overcoming a Broken Spine – The Spine Race 2019
By Garth Reader
This is a draft of the article that appeared in the Issue 19 of Ultrarunning World.
This all started some time ago…
I first heard about the Spine Race in 2016. Being a somewhat eccentric ultrarunner from the States, it sounded like my kind of event. 268+ miles of the Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in Northern England. Since the Spine is held in January weather is typically terrible and there are only about eight hours of light a day. You can expect darkness, rain, wind, snow, fog, freezing temperatures, no real trailmarkings and infrequent aid stations. As such it is billed as “Britain’s Most Brutal Race” and is quite the challenge. I applied for the 2017 edition and was accepted. I had experience in ultrarunning, orienteering, stage racing, everything necessary to participate. I devoted time to train, invested in a good kit and was diligent in addressing all the thousands of details associated with an event of this magnitude. I even did a stage race in Iceland to shake down my equipment. The Spine was going to be an “A” race for me. When January of ’17 came around, I was ready.
When the start went off, I realized that perhaps I was not. Everything was not quite as I had imagined it would be. The weather, the terrain and most of all the slippery conditions under foot. Even so I gave it my best shot. I ran smart, but by the half way point I was suffering from a significant back issue and not able to stand up straight. By the fourth day I was reduced to a “techno incarnate” version of Gollum and by the fifth I was limping along at barely one mile per hour. Reaching Byrness, it was apparent I was done. The weather was deteriorating and with the remaining 26 miles over the Cheviot hills it would be bad form to press on only to be brought back down by Mountain Rescue. I conceded and my tracker was removed.
My first and only DNF (to date) hit me hard. I was lost for months trying to figure out what happened. Did I not prepare sufficiently? Had I not respected the race? Did I give up too soon? Physically I recovered rapidly but mentally I had been crushed. However, during those dark times my supportive wife Lisa told me “You have unfinished business, you need to go back and finish the Spine”. That statement got me out of my self-pity with a mission. I NEEDED to finish the Spine. By June I was back on the horse, so to speak, and enjoying running again.
Fast forward to 2019
While I had other running obligations in the early months of 2018, the day the Spine’s registration opened for 2019 I committed. On the down side I was two years older. On the up side I was wiser with one attempt under my belt. Game on! Minor tweaks to my kit were made including a new pre-production Raidlight Responsiv 24 race vest with front pack. Training involved more core strength work and I backed off some on the pack runs. Even though I had been training and racing for almost three years straight with no breaks I kept going. I was going to be ready.
A strange side story to interject here. During the High Lonesome 100 in August, while wearing my Spine shirt from 2017, a racer named Walter Handlooser approached me and asked if I had done the Spine before. Turned out that he was going too. It is a small world when you run into one of the only two other runners from the USA entered in the upcoming Spine edition.
As the race drew near, feelings of self-doubt begin to creep into my mind. What if conditions were biblically epic? Additional JICs (just in case) items started making their way into my resupply bag. I started second guessing many things. I pored over my previous navigation errors. Fortunately, my departure date arrived and ready or not I was on my way. The one solace I had was that this time I was there to finish. Not to race, not to beat some predetermined time, but to just get to Kirk Yetholm.
The hop over the pond was uneventful, and the logistics from 2017 were basically repeated. I arrived at Edale early for kit check and was one of the first through. No problems! Lisa and I met up with friends of ours from the Grand to Grand Ultra, Mark Thompson and Lynn Rowe. The plan was for Lisa and Lynn to follow Mark and myself throughout the race cheering us on at road crossings and pubs. We enjoyed a lovely dinner out and made it to our accommodations. Some final preparation, then off to bed for a very sleepless night listening to the wind howl.
Edale to Hebdon Hey (about mile 0-45)
Check in on race day went smoothly and the start was on time. The weather was windy with a little drizzle. The field made good time as the conditions were acceptable, especially the footing. No massive snow run off as was the case during my previous attempt. As the day progressed however, the temperatures dropped and the wind really picked up (30 mph) for a while. In spite of all this I got to Hebdon Hey ahead of my anticipated schedule and I decided to sleep an hour or so and allow the weather to subside.
Hebdon Hey to Hawes (about mile 45-107)
This is the longest stretch of the Spine. I got a good start out just before 1:30 AM and was making good time running with Walter Handlooser until around Gargrave. Walter’s pace was just a little fast for me so I throttled back and let him go. This decision put me by myself for the next 40 miles. OK, I was used to running alone. I made Malharm Tarn and had a quick supper with a fine cup of coffee provided by long time Spine volunteer and resident chile expert John Bamber. (Note: in New Mexico the proper spelling is “chile” not “chili”). This was in return for the two tins of New Mexico Hatch Green Chile I gifted him at check in. Setting off at dusk I started the climbs over Pen-y-gent where of course the weather deteriorated. High winds and rain made the dark climb not much fun. In fact, the whole way into Hawes the wind was ferocious (a constant 30 mph with stronger gusts) necessitating the use of goggles. I really do dislike the wind, in fact I was beginning to develop a list to my left side because the wind was constantly from the west! This slowed me down terribly and I rolled into Hawes around 6:00 AM exhausted and about three hours behind where I hoped to be at this point. I could hardly stay awake to eat some breakfast. Time for a change of plans. I decided to get the 3.5 hours of sleep I needed at the expense of losing some daylight. In the Spine the ability to improvise, adapt and overcome is a key attribute. I believe that letting go of my initial plans was critical in the end.
It was also at Hawes that I realized that I was having some blister problems. Previously I had removed my insoles from my shoes to make some room for my waterproof socks. That was a mistake which I corrected a little too late and had to live with the consequences in the days to come. I used a lot of tape from then on!
Hawes to Middleton (about mile 107-143)
Rested but with a late start I made my way toward Great Shunner Fell. Shortly after leaving the Check Point I met up with Paul Horsewood. A very pleasant chap who asked if I didn’t mind him tagging along with me for a bit. Little did we realize that this partnership would last for the next 160 miles until the finish! We were fairly well matched, and with respectable footing and weather conditions, we moved along at a good clip. Upon reaching Tan Hill, we were greeted at the pub by Lisa and we stopped for a Coke (the original energy drink), some potato chips (crisps) and pack food since the pub was not serving then. After the quick stop, we pressed on across the boggy moor to the A66 underpass where a slight navigation error cost us a little time. The rest of the way into Middleton was quite uneventful. There we got situated and slept for a solid four hours.
Middleton to Alston (about mile 143-182)
The trail to Cauldron Snout was nice and the weather was calm, cool and partly sunny. As we climbed up onto the moors, we saw lots of red grouse. Dropping into Dufton we stopped for the obligatory full English breakfast at the Post Box Pantry, filling up for the climb to Greggs hut. As we approached Green Fell the darkness descended and the weather turned; wind, snow and cold temperature. Four of us linked up for the trek over Great Dun Fell and Little Dun Fell to Greggs Hut and the prospect of chile noodles and a hot drink.
While the others decided to take a little break, both Paul and I thought it wise to continue on. We wanted to get below the storm as quickly as possible and do some serious resting in Alston. Memories of struggling the final miles in a sleep deprived state during 2017 were with me. However we were in much better shape and had a great visit on the way into town.
Lisa and Lynn were on the road to greet us a few miles before Alston, as their accommodations were right on the track. It is great to have your own personnel cheering squad! We arrived at Alston just before midnight and I had the best plate of lasagna of my life! Sleep came easy that night (for a short four hours).
Alston to Bellingham (about mile 182-222)
Paul and I traveled this day mainly by ourselves. The weather was cold but clear and we made good time. At Greenhead we stopped at a pub for huge plate of French Fries (chips) with gravy and a large Coke. We then started the Hadrian’s Wall section. A much more pleasant experience than in 2017 for me. Paul would crush the uphills and me the downs. It all evened out. Lisa caught up with us around dusk to cheer us on. Though we were tired, we both were in good spirits with lots of pleasant and intriguing conversation along the way.
We eventually made our way to the Horneystead Spine Pit Stop where we were treated to a wonderful bowl of soup and some bread. Helen, who runs the Pit Stop, remembered me from two years ago and we had a pleasant visit. A quick thank you and we were on our way into Bellingham. It was on this section in 2017 that I started to really crash, but now I was feeling strong. I was beginning to believe that I was going to make it.
Once in the Check Point, we did the best to organize ourselves and get some sleep. Unfortunately, it was cold and noisy and our sleep was restless at best. Alarms were set for an early departure.
Bellingham to Byrness (about mile 222-242)
Preparation for leaving Bellingham tried my patience. While everyone was helpful it was very difficult to find a flat spot due to the small size of the facility. This was also compounded by a required kit check as well as a large group trying to leave about the same time as us. We finally made it out and were on our way. The weather was excellent and despite our poor sleep we made great time. This was the day to race! The track was good, navigation was easy and there was limited elevation gain on this section. As we approached Byrness I started to remember back two years ago. How I was limping along in the dark at this point and grasping the very real revelation that I was not going to finish. But then an old church with graveyard full of headstones came into view. It was there that I decided to bury these demons and move on. They were gone. We made our way into the check station at Byrness for a quick bite and some cheers from Lisa. Then and there I knew I was going to finish. Only 26 miles or so to go!
Byrness to Kirk Yetholm (about mile 240-268)
The weather was holding as we climbed up into the Cheviots. The views were stunning! The footing was excellent so now there was some real trail running. We made the Lamb Refuge Hut just before dusk and had a nice spot of tea provided by the race volunteers. We eventually pressed on looking forward to the last 17 miles. We could taste it!
But the Spine was not quite finished with us. As we climbed on and reached Windy Gyle, the weather obliged us with one last blow. The wind came out of nowhere, snow and fog descended, and the temperature dropped dramatically. Ice was forming on the flag stones and we each took a spill. Paul even lost a glove in the wind, but fortunately he had a spare pair. We struggled into the second refuge hut at a reduced pace.
During a quick cup of tea, we were quizzed about the conditions we encountered. Race officials were considering holding runners at the Lamb Refuge Hut due to the ice and low visibility. We thanked them for their support and headed down the last seven miles. Soon, we were below the storm and on less slippery footing. We picked up the pace in order to finish in time for a quick beer since Paul had to head back home that night. His wife Michelle and a friend were waiting at the finish to spirit him away.
It was amazing finishing. Quite a crowd cheering us on. Paul’s wife even ran in with us. Lisa was there leading the cheering! As Paul and I touched the wall of the Border Hotel together, we knew we had both accomplished something tremendous. We had overcome the Spine together, yet individually. We had done it in a respectable time and in good form.
Stage races and multi-day events such as the Spine are not always about the race. True, they provide you with a challenge and you can focus on that. A podium finish, a personal best, a certain finish time are all goals worthy to strive for. However, these events also allow for forging new friendships with other from around the globe. The time you spend with others facing a challenge together can form strong bonds.
I had also overcome my “broken” Spine from two years ago, putting to rest frustration and self-doubt that had been lingering since then.