A Run in the Pennines: The Spine Race - by Pete Woodward
The Spine Race is billed as one of the World’s toughest endurance events. It’s easy to see why, with a spectacular route up the Pennine Way, starting in Edale in the Peak District and finishing after 268 miles of boggy moorland and rocky mountaintops in Kirk Yetholm, just north of the Scottish border. The race is run non-stop with a time limit of seven days. Runners can sleep when and for as long as they want, but in the full knowledge that while they are doing this, the competition is hot-footing it towards Scotland and gaining crucial ground. This spectacular cocktail of extreme race distance and inevitable sleep deprivation pushes runners to their limit on some of the most challenging terrain the UK has to offer. The winter race, held in mid-January and often taking place through deep snow and sub-zero temperatures, has been running since 2012 and has achieved legendary status. In June 2018, I ran the newer summer event over the same course. In comparison with the fierce winter conditions, we gained firmer footing and daylight hours in a trade for running in a week-long summer heatwave with temperatures over 30 degrees C.
Running 268 miles wasn’t something I was taking lightly, and I had trained hard for months in the lead-up to the race. I had struggled along the top of the Seven Sisters in the pitch dark in a winter storm, given myself hyperthermia running 16 miles in a foot of snow and fought hard to take third place in the East Sussex Cross Country League. Standing in the hills on the night before the race, watching the long shadows of a beautiful sunset melt into a still night, I knew I was as ready as I could be, but I still wasn’t sure if it would be enough.
The first two days, covering 110 miles to Hawes, passed fairly smoothly. The sun baked the ground hard and felt like a physical pressure. A cool night running under a bright moon refreshed me and gave me the confidence that I could cover the ground well around the clock. The stunning Malham Cove inspired me. I arrived in fourth position feeling reasonably fresh. I jogged into the checkpoint at the hostel, had something to eat and had four hours’ broken sleep. When I woke, I was concerned to see that a couple of hot spots under the front pads of my feet had developed into huge blisters.
As I shuffled out of the hostel and onto the rough ground of Great Shunner Fell, I entered a very difficult period of the race. My broken feet and swollen shins sent searing pain up my legs. I was exhausted and very daunted by the fact that I wasn’t even half way through the race. I staggered over the top as the first light broke the horizon and shuffled through Thwaite towards green fields. Tired and broken, I lay down and slept on the path as soon as the sun broke the horizon. I woke with the sun on my back and the sound of a crashing waterfall below in the valley, and felt fresher. Pushing on through a huge empty valley, the route passes England’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, before heading into the vast Sleightholme Moor. The path meanders through a seemingly endless expanse of dry heather which shimmered in the heat in all directions. Parched, with the heat building and my exhaustion stifling, I wobbled through an incredibly tough afternoon, eventually staggering into the third checkpoint in Middleton in the late afternoon, determined on ending this torture. How could I possibly cover another 124 miles like this? I could barely stand.
I sat in the shade and stared into space for a while before being plied with chicken curry and slowly becoming more optimistic. Inspired by the steely determination of the first woman, Brigitte, as she screamed while the medics attended her feet and shrugged off the hole in her foot caused by standing on a nail a week earlier, I resolved to rest and head out in the cooler temperatures of the night. Overtired and irritable, I abandoned my attempt to sleep and headed out of the checkpoint as the last of the sunset faded.
The path follows the River Tees for six miles past the spectacular Low Force and High Force waterfall. While initially my progress was good, my attempt at sleep had done little to ease the draining lethargy that smothered me. My temper was short. Two fields warned of bulls and I crept through the sleepy herds, trying to sound soothing to the startled cows while frustration grew inside me. Past one farm a dog came racing out to meet me and aggressively snapped in the dark, eventually forcing me to wearily pick my way across a lumpy field to join the path at a stile.
My feet throbbed with pain and a cold sweat covered me from dealing with this and the tension that every stuttering footstep caused. I sat on the stile and felt close to tears. Feeling alone and vulnerable in this vast space on a dark night, I turned my phone on and was instantly greeted by a flood of positive messages from friends and family. I felt my strength rise, knowing that everybody was willing me through this. I resolved to keep pushing, but the gnawing doubts about my pathetic progress and the vast distance still to be covered nagged at me. Cliffs closed in around the river, their looming presences felt rather than seen in the moonlight. The next two miles to the Cauldron Snout were pitiful. Almost completely covered in a jumble of waist-high boulders, the path was very slow going. I picked my way across the mess on sore feet, every footstep at a different angle, scraping broken legs, tearing blistered skin. I screwed up a lump of my coat, stuffed it in my mouth and bit hard to help deal with the pain. It also stopped the pathetic whimpering sounds that were starting to annoy me.
After what seemed like an eternity, I got to the foot of the rocky scramble up the cliff alongside a surging waterfall. I was sure that these were the last steps of my race. The crashing white water roared down the rocky steps and the thundering echoed around the valley. Tired, broken and intimidated, I scrambled to the top where I could see Pete from the race crew frying bacon and brewing coffee. “How is it going?” he cheerfully asked, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a man who had stood out all night waiting for us to arrive. “I’m broken,” I mumbled and crawled into a tent in a ditch by the side of the road and instantly fell asleep.
I slept deeply, with the sound of the crashing water seemingly distant. Two of the messages that had really helped me to push on earlier in the night were from my wife, Talie, and my brother, Andy. As I came around, surfacing from a deep sleep, I thought I could hear them talking about me outside the tent. My heart raced. Were they here? How? On stiff legs I stumbled out of the tent and blinked into the darkness as Pete grinned at me over the flames of the camping stove. He was on his own. I had imagined it. I was confused and still only semiconscious as Pete took the opportunity to load me with coffee, bacon and paracetamol.
“I nearly went for a swim while you were asleep,” he joked. He had gone to the edge of the swirling waters to rinse the mugs and had fallen in, only just scrambling out. We chuckled about the daft situation, in a remote part of the Pennines, where I could barely stand, and he had almost been swept over the edge of a waterfall.
I was off before I really had time to think about it and, walking up the bridleway to the crest of the next hill, I had a chat with myself. The way I saw it, I had three options: stop, stagger to the end like the living dead, or take the fight to the race. In the end, there was no real decision to make. There was fighting or there were various forms of giving up. I had come here to race, not to mince around on broken feet.
By now, I had reached the crest of the hill and the sun broke the horizon, flooding the vast empty plateau with golden light. I stuffed my coat into my mouth, bit hard and started running. Cold sweat caused by dealing with the pain ran down my face. Tears prickled in my eyes. I have previously developed a strategy in road racing, inspired by the great Ron Hill, that when it starts to hurt, I push harder. These are the moments that can decide whether races are won or lost. Here I was fighting for survival in the race, but the principle was the same. I ran harder, it hurt more, I ran harder still. Eventually, my feet went numb and the elation of covering ground quickly rose within me. I am going to survive this race. I am going to beat this race. The more the elation rose inside, the harder and more aggressively I ran.
Through a vast open plateau and to the lip of High Cup Nick, a huge U-shaped valley gouged by a glacier on the edge of the Northern Pennines. Around the rim I soared and raced down the grassy slope to Dufton. Coursing with adrenaline and feeling fiercely defiant, I snarled and grimaced up the longest climb of the route to the highest point of Cross Fell. The scale of the landscape inspired me and fed my almost animal-like aggression. Soaring on my momentum and looking to land the killer blow on the race, I hatched a plan to run straight through the next checkpoint and collect my sleeping bag. I planned to run as far as I could before dark and put myself within striking distance of the finish on the following day. Suddenly thinking about the race finish had me surging like a track runner who has just heard the bell and I pushed hard until, by sunset, I was staggering across Featherstone Moor on shaky legs.
I eventually lay down my sleeping bag and crashed into a deep sleep, 72 miles from the finishing line in Scotland. In my exhaustion, I forgot to text race control and had a very entertaining midnight rendezvous with the race safety team; me surfacing from a deep sleep in complete panic and thrashing around unable to escape from my sleeping bag.
I overslept, or more accurately, semiconsciously told my alarm what I thought about being woken at 1 a.m. to go running. Waking an hour later ,I squeezed stiff shoes onto swollen feet and hobbled through a thick mist. A spectacular final day started with a run along the ridge of Hadrian’s Wall, a sea of silky white clouds below extending to the distant hills. Magical memories. Into the Northumberland National Park, I pushed hard through pine forests and fiddly stretches of farmland, my fuddled brain struggling with the navigation and making simple mistakes.
Just after the final checkpoint, I caught Heinz in fifth place on a high heathery moorland that was shimmering in the stagnant afternoon heat. By now it was clear that I was enjoying a spectacular day of running form, the sort that I have only experienced a couple of times before. Keen to secure fifth place, I pushed hard on wide forest tracks and up the steep climb from Byrness onto the Cheviot range, our final obstacle. A dark, springy ribbon of peat wound through the Cheviots over the final 27 miles to Kirk Yetholm. A spectacular sunset lit the sky on one side of the ridge and a bright moon rose over the other. I ran with abandon, in pure joy at pushing hard at the end of a race that had brought me to my knees only a day earlier. A sense of calm settled within me and as I skipped across the paving slabs and scree slopes, trails and summit cairns, I felt completely at one with the mountains in a way I have never experienced before. I thundered down a steep slope, nine miles from the finish, past Jonathan to take fourth place. With a still night settling over the mountains, I eased back and soaked up the moment. Over the cattle grid, up the final hill on the road and I floated around the village green to touch the wall of the Border Hotel and finish the race.
“How do you feel?” Scott, the race director asked.
“Incredible,” I replied. “That is the best run I have ever done.”