Are you ready? Weeks before the start of the race I was listening to this question over and over again. “You are never prepared for such race.” I was answering, making partly fun of it. I had no idea how close I was…
If you look up “Spine” in the dictionary, it says something about main mountain ridge (apart from other meanings). That’s not too bad. But The Spine Race means 430 km of running, all on my own, in January and in the middle of English winter. That sounds much worse. Technically, the race is divided into 6 stages, which means that at beginning/end of each stage (CP – transition area) you can access your drop bag, get some food, go to sleep, have a rest… but time keeps ticking away. Last year I was able to win and set a new course record, so the first question was usually followed by another ones: Will you win again? What time are you going to do? Well, what to say? I am not José Mourinho, Zlatan Ibrahimović or another bigmouth ball-kicker with self-confidence size of an airship to have an answer ready for this. I had my wish, but I kept it for myself.
The race uses on-line GPS tracking technology, so you can see the position of every racer almost realtime. The length and expected conditions on the race were such that it would be worth watching.
Plan was clear – keep going as long as possible…
How to prepare for a race that can’t be prepared for? I did not make any big changes, I focused on a few details. Two weeks before the race I stopped drinking coffee, week before the race I put my gear together – I more or less reduced it to mandatory gear and added a towel. I completed map sheets, added markers and reminders for tricky places I remembered from last year and thought up a strategy. I was also presented with hand-made chocolates with filling that would punch me, when needed. Chocolate, coffee beans and chilli, it is tasty and works. The tactic was simple, no rocket science – no big moves during the first stage, minimize the time in transition areas, namely bolt through the first CP and try to go on my own. I believed that if each of us was had to navigate on his own, my navigation would be smoother and I would be slowly gaining minute after minute. And run, run, run, no stop, no rest, and hope that the rest of the pack would be dropped somewhere on the way. It seems simple, so in January I toed the start line. Few days before the start weather started to be a hot topic in the facebook group. Every person had his own version of what’s in store. I remember only one image – strong wind from the west, the more north the stronger. This was enough for me.
Evening before the start – silence before the storm
I went to Rambler’s Inn, had a chat, couple of beers and greeted with known faces from last year and in the evening I could sleep really well for the last time. In the morning, the start was delayed by two hours due to strong winds… second round of breakfast, that comes handy.
And so we set off. After a while a leading group was formed – Catalan Eugenio Rosello Solé (winner two years ago), Eoin Keith from Ireland (probably the most experienced racer in the race field), Damian Hall (4th place last year and did a lot of preps for this year), Richard Lendon (local racer, doing his 4th Spine Race) and me.
Great, exactly this my tactic anticipated. But what it did not anticipate, was a wind so strong, that water would be “falling” upwards.
Also no one really anticipated, that Eugenio would step into a hole and injure his knee. So I went with him one km to the road, but he refused a medic and continued. He is a fighter so we were together once again. First stage offered a strong wind from the west, but we were moving in a group and in principle it was fun all the way. We reached the CP as a group of five, already in the darkness. Check in, take the maps, take some food, bit of tea and out. On my way from the transition are I ate one AdventureMenu – proper food and no need to stop. This went smooth, as planned.
And this was the last time, when I could say, that something went as planned. Few mistakes in the first half of the long (100km) second stage. Even though this stage goes through some fields and meadows with altitudes around 200 to 300 meters, every time I get to some open area, the wind gets stronger and sharp crystals of snow keep biting my face. As the night is over, I begin to feel pain in my tibialis anterior for the first time, so I take some Ibuprofenum + Diclofenac. The light is coming and the most beautiful part of the race is in front of me. Malham Cove and waves on Malham Tarn as if it was a sea, it begins to snow. Chasing group is some 40 minutes behind. Not bad, given the amount of mistakes I have done. But now is the time to make a push…
Mordor in winter
Bit of a flat area, heavy snowfall and first bigger hill, it is getting harder. I can hardly see anything on the top, spiky ice crystals make me go with my head down and look to the ground. I run downhill, get my head up… what the?! What’s that?! I can see steep Pen-y-ghent, with viento blanco borrowed over its top. Viento Blanco usually appear in Peruvian Andes around 6000. But this blob has something over 600 meters…
We cannot survive this, it’s a… Mordor in winter! Right below Pen-y-ghent, I get instructions about a course diversion. It’s blowing around 120 mph, I can hardly hear anything. Protecting from the headwind, I am crouching slowly and making my way down. I was so much leaning to the front to make up for the headwind, that if it had stopped suddenly, I would have fallen face down to the ground. Coffee for everyone in Horton and I pass another Challenger. Only two more remaining. Challengers started 5 hour earlier and their finish is at the next CP. I had a tactical vision, how I would see a line of headtorches and I would catch them as targets in the night, but I passed most of them on the first CP or at the beginning of the second stage, so there was not much of them left for the night.
Some 25k to go, experience from last year says that these will be tough. Last hill, Ten End, is long and rolling, obviously wind is common there, as the track is protected by a stone wall. The scene begins to turn surreal – I can see white everywhere and the drains leading below the stone wall are turned into fountains as the wind is blowing the water back up. Suddenly the wall ends and I am in the middle of windstorm. I am staggering in the wind like a drunken boat, I have to make my best to stay on the track. Here my bearish figure comes handy, but what would lighter runners do here? Or girls?! I start to descend, snow with ice turns into mud, trail turns into a slide and I slide down to CP2.
Based on my last year’s experience, I am bit scared of the next stage. This should be worse then the last one? Can it be possible worse than that? Yes, it can.
In the TA, there is a twofold surprise. I see Eugenio with his knee of a size of a small melon – you cannot really run with that, so he had to pull out. And then Scott [race director], when asked if I can proceed to stage 3 replied something like “Of course, go ahead.” Well, I was bit surprised by his stoicism. Expecting troubles on the next stage, so the plan “speedy transition and out” is changed to “transition, put myself together and out”. I set off for the next stage into wind and cold. Bit of improvisation as part of the race course is flooded. I start to tackle the Shunner Fell. Wind is getting stronger, fog is heavier, snow is sharper and spikier than before, but I still progress on a paved trail in the middle of a frozen bog covered with snow. I am having gradually bigger problems to stand on my own, I fall and slide several times, get up and fall again, burrow into the bog, stumble and fall again, but I always manage to get up and go on. I try to make it easier by swearing and shouting, but the wind steals my words and sends them somewhere into oblivion or Norway.
The good thing is that I am still moving forward. But some animals are not so lucky. I can see rabbits and partridges [or whatstheirname] crouching and hiding in their hollows and hides. Those who made bad assumptions, feared more me than the elements, pay for that dearly. From time to time some of the rabbits loses his temper, bolts from his hide and gets blown away to the east. And with partridges it is the same. Natural selection at work. Flying rabbits, partridges flying backwards – am in a parallel universe where times goes backwards? My thoughts are interrupted by a few gusts the blow me down and I am not able to stand up. I am fine, but I cannot make a move against the wind at all. Crazy. So I divert a bit, leave the exposed trail, traverse over moors and streams, hopefully no one will object. The next part is OK, I am satisfied, that I can avoid mistakes I did last year, but I cannot keep myself warm by moving. I am looking forward to Tan Hill in the middle of the stage. I reach it shivering cold and probably slightly hypothermic and spend 50 minutes drinking tea and accumulating as much heat as possible. During my recovery I am telling my story to Matt and Ellie.
I set off from Tan Hill and the ability to keep myself warm by moving lasts for around three hours. But it’s three more hours to the CP and I can’t get myself warm at all – theatrical gestures as if I was running, but hardly making any progress against the wind at all. Last few kms is simply too much, like a punishment. I am drenched to the bone, frozen… “frozen noses, frozen toes, frozen cities start to glow“… Yes, Middleton. I reach the CP after 42 hours, around 6 AM, soaking wet and freezing cold, but ready to move on. Despite these conditions I am still almost two hours faster then last year, obviously I made some mistakes at that time. I am thinking whether to continue right away one or not – according to last year splits, I could make the Cross Fell in the day light, I could – if the first 25 km were not westward – against the wind. I could also spend 10 hours on that part as well.
Scott cut my thoughts short: “Race is stopped. According to the weather and forecast, it will take some time.” First things first. Eat, fall asleep eating, sleep, eat, sleep, have a shower, dry my clothes, greet other racers once they come, sleep, wake up, pack my things and go. This is how spent 21 hours at CP3 – race was restarted at 3 AM.
At one point it looked as if I had an advantage of an entire stage. Technically I had, but: After the conditions got too bad, the third stage was closed. Everyone had to wait at CP2, the time was neutralized, so they got through the stage after a night rest, in the day light and in moderate conditions. I was already out there on stage three, so I had to reach CP3 – in the night, in one stretch, freezing and in conditions described above. The race clock was stopped for me at CP3. I lost around three hours on this stage (other racers covered the stage significantly faster] and it seemed, that the gap between and the next racer is only 42 minutes. The closest to me was Eoin Keith and he was the one I raced the most in second part of the race.
We started into 4th stage somewhat chaotically, no mass start really happening. When I started, Eoin was already on the course, first half I went more or less easily, soon we formed a group with Damian, Beth and Mark. At High Cup, around 10 minutes behind Eoin, I decided to go bit faster on the downhill and try to chase him. I did bit more stops than was necessary and the result at CP4 was the same 10 minute gap.
From here we started together and had some fierce racing. Pace was high and heavy snowfall came to make it more epic. None of us opened a gap of more than 100 meters. Pace had faded, darkness was coming and 4th night changed everything. Omnipresent bog was draining our energy, conditions were getting significantly worse and we started to cooperate. Around halfway into stage, in Greenhead, we stormed into a hotel, wolfed down French fries, bacon, coffee or two and colonized the fireplace. We were in desperate conditions, but it was a strange stop anyway [see textbox below].
Refuelled both physically and mentally and in good spirits we tackled the part around Hadrian’s wall. In these conditions it reminded snow-covered plains with a giant step. Conditions got even worse, we returned to a forest and Eoin started to fall a sleep. I tried to keep him awake, asking questions about wife(s), kids, work.. sleep-deprived and delirious he sometimes answered in unintelligible gibberish (probably speaking Irish) and few times I stopped for mapreading, he bumped into me. We had some good laughs. It may seem that this was the perfect time and place to attack, but I would not leave him out there in these conditions. And so we were shouting at each other to stay awake and slowly making our way to CP5.
When we had around 10 km to the CP, just before dawn, we happened to witness another surreal scene. In the middle of a bog, we could see an outline of a person with a flash light, wading through the snow and going our direction. This must be some organizer. In fact, no. We were wrong. Some oldish farmer lady was tracking us over the internet, waited for us and around 5 in the morning invited us to a warm barn for hot chocolate and biscuits. Last year I slipped her… Eoin gets another base layer to go and after eight in the morning we happily reach the last CP. Another windstorm is to come and race is stopped once more.
Another round of eating and sleep, I enjoy this one much more. I am in much better shape and also the rest of the pack arrives much earlier, so the stop is more sociable and friendly. The staff takes care of us very hospitably. Basically we have everything we could ask for.
After 24 hours we set off for the final stage. We are all here, only Eoin is missing. Where is Eoin?! I can’t find him. Did he not manage start in time? He can’t be in front, we started at 8 sharp and there was a long straight road ahead, we would have seen him. What to do? Shall I make a move and take advantage of that? Or wait for him until he reaches the group and then race head to head? I am bit confused, so I just jog in the group, really slowly and not really putting effort in the run, absent-mindedly to the extent that I lead the group into a navigational error. Just a small one, but completely unnecessary. We are running out of Bellingham, I see grasslands and person running on the over the horizon! Eoin!
Easy pace is over, pushing hard and chasing Eoin. How did he got there? Our navigation error was around 3 minutes, the gap is around 10. If he started few minutes ahead, we would have seen him on the long straight stretch of a road. Or is it not him? It must be him. Who else would be running there some crazy pace? I don’t get it, but there is not time busy with this.
Let’s face it: Eoin is 10 minutes ahead, he is challenging me and I have to fight for the overall win. And I am not going to give it away. At the road crossing am loosing 8 minutes, another 12 km to Byrness is on a forest track, I am making sub 5-minutes kilometres, but still can’t close the gap. Just a short while before Byrness Matt is reporting 6-minute gap and I can see Eoin leaving the checkpoint. (After the race Eoin told me, that he thought that I wouldn’t be anywhere near him and was really surprised to see me there.) On the moors and after ascending on the ridge of The Cheviots I could sometimes see him and the difference was the same. It grew up a bit to the end, when checked the map more to avoid some stupid mistake on the last kilometres.
In The Cheviots the weather is set for an epic adventure once again. It is suitable more or less to get out of there asap, not for a race, but we already got used to it this year. Wind and snow is not a surprise anymore. What else to expect from a hill called Winding Gyle? The power of GPS tracking has proved once again, when local runners waited for us with some refreshment in one of the mountain huts. „Pavel, you are mad!“ they greet me. “Thanks guys, I’d have to go quickly…
I reached the finish line 18 minutes behind Eoin, but only there I happened to know, that the gap in fact had been much bigger – around four hours. Well, good to know, but now it was completely unimportant, nothing could change the joy of defended title and above all – the happiness from finishing and that it was all over. Only the fatigue has changed. The last stage we did really in a furious pace, 65 km in winter and wind we covered in less then 10 hours. I could keep the pain tibialis anterior and some other troubles with my toes on a acceptable level, until this stage. But the finish line changes everything. What is more – I was not alone, tons of support text messages were constantly reminding me, that I was not racing alone.
Finish line, that is mainly emotions.
Support, safety and everything on The Spine Race
The Spine Race is perfectly organized both in terms of logistics and safety. Organizers have perfect GPS tracking system with safety functionality, many MST groups available, team of polar medics and many volunteers. Thanks to this support they are not afraid to let racers into harsh conditions: Scott explained that to me: „If we have enough MSTs within reah, we will let you go there. They will not be helping you, but in case of troubles, they will be ready: Thanks to massive safety support the race can go on without changes or interruption in much harder conditions than it is usual at similar races. I would add to it, that I really appreciate that, because experience from these epic conditions are the deepest.
With hindsight and a hole in my big toe
Recovery and putting myself together after such a race is generally hard. The second day I was hardly walking, more staggering than walking, but still much better than last year (I could walk). For virtually entire race I was fighting with an inflammation in my muscle and I was successful with that. One side muscle on my tibia was nonetheless overloaded (only on one leg). But it is not the inflammation I will remember the most. It is the power of the elements I had to bow down before. Or the same elements bringing surreal experiences in the form of drifting rabbits and partridges, meeting great people, competition, friendship and support I could feel even in that frost out there. I will also feel some physical things such as a hole after a missing nail on my big toe, still tingling tips of my fingers, many holes in my clothes as a result of falls and slippings and as a memento of the conditions that were on the race. But I will never forget the images from this race and that is why I am doing this – for the experience that sticks.
We can remind the much better in april or may, when the movie is out.