The Spine Race – England’s most brutal race

430 km. In the UK, in winter, on foot and solo. What is this race actually like? It is neither the longest one I have done, nor hardest or coldest… In the race description it says, that it is “the most brutal race in Britain” and this probably is the most accurate description you can get. It is brutal. By its length, because it is a foot race, due to its weather, cold, this all makes it brutal. Despite all these things, the memories I have from this race, are in many respects special and way more positive than “brutal”.

Photos: Pictures that have logo were shot by persons behind the logos, the rest I shot during the race using my cell phone.

Before the start.

On one hand it was something new – ultralong foot race in The UK. And solo and in winter. And this was most attractive for me. I felt well prepared, I felt I have experience with similar races and that I could use them. But there was also some tension from the unknown and a bit of worries, if I can cope with the race, mostly with the fact, that it was solo race. Limit was a full week – can my head get on with itself?

There was 5 CPs awaiting me on the course and I had one of a few tactical rules, that until CP1 I will not go into any pranks, will look around and try to catch up as much as I can and learn something. And there was a lot of things to look at.
The race leads along Pennine Way, 430km National Trail, which means that land owners have to let you pass. Some of the own a pack of hounds and a double-barrelled shotgun, but they have to let you pass through. 5 CPs on the course and we had our drop bag at each of them [organizer was moving it around], warm meal and you could sleep there.

Lesson one

I wanted to learn so I did that.. First leg I was in no hurry, I was looking around carefully and tried to absorb as much information as possible, especially regarding the map. Right at the start, Britain has shown, what is capable of. We started in a heavy rain (nice weather was forecasted), during first few kilometres we went through several gates, went over many walls, went through some farms, about 10 cm of melting snow has fallen to the ground during first half hour and on a rocky hill the trail disappeared.
Later, we found the trail and England began to show its other sides – such as trails. In fact, the first 150 km was a trail running with occasional slippery sections on grass or meadows. Otherwise it was a real trail running, rugged trails with lots of stones. Apart from that, I have occasionally taken a slide or two on a slippery grass.


End of Day 1, where we ran together with Eugenio.


At that I was more than OK.

Water management

Water was all around and in all possible forms. Three weeks before the race there were heavy rains in England, and many places were flooded. English have very nice paved trails in the moorlands, which would have been really nice to run, indeed… had they not been under the water and icy at times. And so almost all moorlands were soaking wet, trails were icy and bog wetter than wet and mud everywhere. Forest happened right at the end. This was kinda strange, I met forest for the first time at about 350 km into the race…
And all this was covered with fog at times. During the day, but mostly in the night. Sometimes I could see as far as 15 meters, but most of the time the visibility was about 4 meter, few steps in general. And once, the fog was so heavy, that I could hardly see my own feet. Well, different country, different fog.
And so how everything happened? There is no point in describing every part of each leg, complete 430 km. It was dark most of the time, anyway. So I focus on the most important and most interesting. The rest.. is just dark 🙂
After all of us got lost in the first section on a snow, the race started over and the field began to stretch and I with two guys from Catalonia formed the leading group (last year’s winner Eugenio Rosello Solé and his colleague Joel Julia Casademont). Even though I tried most to go my own pace and to save as much energy as possible in principle, we turned up at CP1 as leaders and this is where the Catalonians got stuck a bit. Second leg (almost 100 km) I just went my own pace, from time to time I closed a gap on some challenger racer (racers on “shorter”, 100mile, course that ended at CP2), we ran together for a while, then he was dropped and I went on my own pace. With only one challenger we kept meeting several times.
I came to CP2 as a leader and when I was leaving the CP I just met with Eugenio and went off to face the second night of the race. And this was the last time I met any racers at all. At first, I was quite angry on myself, that I ran too slowly and squandered the lead I had had, but then I rather got back to staying focused and ran further. English weather took the rule and changed the second night of race more into a fight for survival. Cold, wind, fog and heavy rain fell upon all racers, most of them in the final part of 100km leg, where power is scarce and so many racers were hypothermic, had to be searched for, rescued and delivered back to safety. So it is very understandable, that when I reached the end of third stage, CP3, in this weather and no stop for sleep until this point, the CP was virtually non-existent.
But the volunteers at all CPs were always very kind, helpful, and tried to help me, so even here we managed the situation – we shared a porridge with banana, I found instant soups in my drop bag and went so sleep for an hour instead of proper meal. And probably during this night, during my partly punk-style stay at this almost non-existent transition area, I gained the biggest part of my gap over the rest of the field. All those who tried to chase me down immediately, did not finish. Those who came to CP2 during that night, did not want to chase me right away. I was also thinking to stay a while in the middle of 3rd section at crossing point at Tan Hill, but eventually I found enough will power to move on to CP3. Since this time nobody really knew what my gap was, everyone was just assuring me, that it was huge.
I went from one surprise to another, for example when I set off from CP3. Track went along a river, very flat, so it looked very runnable, but the opposite was true. Hardly any trail and those trails that were there, were broken and stony. But the reward was great – probably the most beautiful leg of the race. First, I could enjoy the Low Force and High Force rapids, but later I got into completely remote wilderness, which I never would have expected in England, until I went near beautiful water reservoir to a brutal glacial valley High Cup Nick, where some small jet fighter was just having a practice. Wonderful.


This does not much as winter, but this shot I took myself:)


High Cup Nick. Hole to…

But the other part of this leg went through the highest hills of the race and during the descend, heavy fog came, that few puddles in the path was enough, that it was hard to see where does it really lead to.
When I try to recall the route with hindsight, I can see a lot visions. Well, it was a really long route. I can see clearly the first hour, when heavy rain turned to snow and the ground was covered by 10 cm of snow in a while, I can see nice paved, submerged and tricky trails in moorlands, which turned icy at times. I can see large number of meadows and farmlands that the way was crossing. I also remember seeing no one at the farms (As my sister noted, English people have tractor and Polish for taking care of the farmland). I can see very traily second leg, fight with weather in the third, beautiful fourth leg, mud, Hadrian’s wall and mud again in the fifth section and forest and windy hills in the last one.


Shaun the sheep – on one farm.


Tristram, as in Diablo. The only question is – where are Griswold and Deckard Cain?


They sometimes had this landscape available, so there was no need to build a wall.


For most of the time it looked like this. Not far from here, there is a hill called Windy Gyl, proper name indeed.

I also remember permanently present mud and thick fog that could be cut, had not my knife been blown away by wind and also “bog and moorland”. This can be translated in many ways. Probably the closest would be “hassle and troubles”. There were more and more moorlands and more and more troubles. Troubles with night navigation, because sometimes there was no trail at all, even though these situations I handled most pf the times, but also with your legs and feet, because few steps in bog were enough to keep your feet freezing cold.


You could not see much in the morning.


Typical moorland…


at least one selfie – 4th day. Somewhere in between bogs.

And the final thing that comes to my mind is…


That dreaded word, when you feel pain at some point, and the pain grows stronger and stronger as you continue in the race. It drags bigger and bigger portion of your attention. You cannot filter it and not think about that, because it is not some unimportant kind of pain that would not mean anything, such as when your skin is rubbing somewhere and you get a blister or a rash. This pain means that some muscle (tendon or something else) is overloaded and if you continue, it suffers and you overload it more and more. And exactly this happened around 90 km before the finish line, when I felt the paint at familiar place in tibialis anterior.
For a while, I was thinking what to do with that, and then I found the solution. Nothing. Ibuprofen. Or 2. (Usually I avoid taking pills during my races, but I know this muscle what is capable of when inflamed.) I will have to slow down, that’s true, but 90 km is not so much not to finish the race and it is not too much for the inflammation to get much worse. Morning after I finished the race, I could almost could not walk (at all, really), but the estimated time of recovery (week or two), was a good estimation. Now it is ten days after the race and I go for a run for the first time…
Well, even the last 90km has passed and I ran down to Kirk Yetholm village, where was the end. And a lot of organizers and food and beer and rest and sleep and warm. And also the finish line! After 110 hours and 45 minutes I reached the finish line in a new course record. This is nice to hear. But this does not last for a long time. In the finish, everything is just falling apart, so my body stops working and I can feel cold, hunger, fatigue, pain and suddenly I realize that I am really sleepy.


You reach the finish line, when you touch this stony wall.

Two races at a time

This race was a solo race and this was my biggest fear. Five days somewhere in bogs of England, what will I do there? How will I get on with myself? Can my head cope with that? But, I was never alone in this race. Before the start of the race I asked my friend on Facebook for support. And so many people were racing with me at other places. I was somewhere outside, during the day and night, running my own race. But thanks to perfect GPS tracking anyone could run virtually with me. And through cell phone I could know, that more and more people were watching that. Beginning with second leg, I was receiving messages with support. Sometimes were people writing how big my gap is, sometimes just cheering for me. And as the race went further, I could feel how it was getting stronger. Support and expectation can put you under pressure, but it was enormously encouraging and this was driving me further. Thanks to all of you. This huge and growing support defeated all bogs, sleep deprivation, fatigue, inflammation and to some extent also the falling apart after reaching the finish line, when all the race tension is just released.

Bad technologies

I often hear lament (which I do not really approve of), that modern technologies are alienating people. How we use SMS, Facebook and internet in general to replace personal communication. Kids tend to sit at home, instead of going outside. Instead of meeting with friends we message on Facebook, send and SMS or share a lot of bullshit in our status. Well, in this case, modern technologies enabled any communication at all.


Tracking worked perfectly

In “Into the wild” we could hear that happiness is only real when shared. I would not think of it in connection with SMS messages and such, but this was the case and the end of the race was very emotional for me, even though I was making my way alone on grassy slope.
Technologies are just tools, it is how you use them. So Facebook and phone are OK, they enabled me to stay in touch, but I’d go for a real beer now instead Facebook.

What more?

I often get questions, if I am going more to do this kind of races. If I get myself into ultralong solo races, such as Yukon Arctic Ultra and such? Well, I don’t know. It is great that I did well here, and it means a lot to me. But the last 90km I was fighting with inflammation of tibialis anterior, morning after the race I could not walk at all (literally), it took me a week until I could move normally and it still was not OK until 10 days after the race to do some running. And if this was to happen after each race, I will not do these races.
SImply put, 400 km is just too much and I hope I find a way how to reinforce or train some critical parts of my body or find a way, how to avoid these inflammations. I feel that in different points of the race different parts of my body were giving me hints that it had been too much for them. I could convince most of them, the rest I could not.
But I believe that I find a way. Because I have a very positive experience from England. It is not only the win, but the reception I received in England by the organizers before the race, what the volunteers did during the race to me and basically everyone was very nice to me. Now I go for a winter adventure race in Poland, where we go with a team, I feel much more as team player and if we sort out the funding, in august we go back to The UK, now as a full team, for Itera ARWS event.
At the end I would like to thank everyone for the support I received, it was really amazing. Special thanks goes to Sanasport running store, which support me in the long run in these extreme races.
Pavel Paloncý’s web site .
Race website The Spine Race, results.
Talk Ultra Podcast – week after the race Ian Corless asked me questions during his show Ian Corless (time 2:27:47).

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