Jan 17th 2016: I’m beginning to question the sanity of flying when the skin of my lower legs and feet are straining at full capacity. I’m also wondering why, when mud is supposed to be a natural beauty aid, my fingertips are so cracked that, to touch or try and pull anything, is just agony. I’ve apologised in advance to my partner for all the really stupid things I’m going to be asking him to do over the next few days eg. tying my laces yesterday. Fortunately, he’s a dad so he’s used to these things. Today, my feet are so swollen that I couldn’t get my shoes on at all this morning - I’m flying in my checkpoint slippers! And my sleep deprivation got me through the delayed take off very nicely.
I had had to ask for help at CP5 because I couldn’t seem to get my Injinji toe socks on. The wonderful Caroline McCann had helped me, explaining that I wasn’t experiencing a loss of ability due to sleep deprivation, it was because my toes had swollen up and that it was “like trying to fit a sausage in a chipolata skin”. I’ve been reminded of that description many times since then, and probably will again many more. Whilst waiting in airport security this morning, I remembered that I’ve packed no jewellery; as I tend to favour rings, that’s no loss - I have sausages for fingers too!
But I did it. It needed the help of a lot of people, many hours of preparation and more money than I care to acknowledge but I am a Spine finisher!
Why did I want to do it? That was the question which, even now, I’m not sure I have the answer to. Other than I wanted to challenge myself. I’ve been participating in ultra events for over 25 years and have never felt completely satisfied at the end - relief that I can go home, yes, but not the knowledge that I worked hard and gave it everything. I finally reached that point on a freezing cold, desolote moor, some time very late last Friday night.
It’s a strange feeling - I thought I would feel complete; instead, 36 hours later, I just feel numb; I’m in an in-between world, working on auto-pilot whilst, I suppose, my head gets used to the sudden change of environment. The Spine has occupied most of my waking brain for over a year. Often, after an event, I wake up thinking I’m still out there; if I sleep on the event, I wake up thinking I’m at home. I had none of that this time - I was fully there for as long as it took. Hence why I’m writing it now because I don’t want this experience to sink into the depths of my increasingly dodgy memory.
Day 1 - Jan 9th - seems so long ago. I arrived at Edale by train on Friday morning; I was far too early and had time to support both of the local cafes before going through all the registration and briefing procedures. It was fun putting faces to names of people with whom I’d shared FB discussions and it was a relaxing party atmosphere in The Rambler that we all knew we had to leave early before we had cause to regret it. Pavel Paloncey came over and said Hello to us all - it was starting to resemble living in a favourite book!
Having nothing with me but my race sack and drop bag, I don’t know how I managed to faff so much but I was still making alterations as we crossed the start line the next morning. This wasn’t helped by my partner phoning me to wish me luck 30 seconds before the whistle! I became part of a long train snaking out along the valley, up Jacobs Ladder and around Kinder Scout. More familiar characters were met - Michael Frenz, Andreas Siebert, Colin Fitzjohn. For once, Kinder Downfall was travelling in the right direction, the sky was clear and I think the sun came out occasionally. It was a beautiful start to the week, and spirits were high.
Gradually, we became more strung out and I continued happily on my own, enjoying the good weather and the knowledge that I was out for a walk. As I crossed Black Hill, It was getting dark and started to rain; I caught up with Rich Cranswick at about this point, who’d left me for dust on Jacob’s Ladder, and we made it to the A635 together. My parents were meeting me in a layby here and provided us with hot noodles whilst I changed my socks and boots. I was very glad to get rid of the latter as they’d given me a large blister on the ball of my left foot. I’d asked them to meet me here as, when recce-ing this section, the last stream crossing had been quite tricky and I was anticipating getting very wet - hence my choice of different footwear for this section. In the event, this crossing was now quite manageable but it was lovely to change and have some hot food.
First night On The Spine
Torches on and along a string of reservoirs; a moment’s disconcertion when, at the end of Wessenden Reservoir, I could have sworn a car drove past, parallel to us, as though we were approaching a road. Of course, this made me wonder where I was but fortunately, we were close to a couple walking with GPS at this point and they were able to reassure me that everything was as it should be.
A note re GPS: although I am not a naturally technical person and have never used GPS before, preferring a map and compass, I can see their benefits. One of these is the ability to quickly check whether you are on the correct path, or in which direction you have wandered. Therefore, I bought 3 GPS units for this event. The first was second-hand but unfortunately, proved to be a bit of a dud. It took me about a year, however, to realise that the problem was with the unit and not my incompetence. Which brought us to about 10 days before we were due to set off from Edale! After much internet research and questioning of GPS savvy friends, I sent off for a second unit - but the screen was far too small if I wanted to be able to see a map on it. So A third unit was duly bought, arriving the day before I left for Edale! Multiple FB conversations later and I’d managed to download the GPX routes, and ensure that I was on the British Grid system. I was quite proud of myself! Until I got to Edale and took some time to practise with it, and realised that I’d forgotten to download any maps! Hence, all I saw on my screen was an arrow - which seemed to be creating a route, rather than following one. Totally useless! I later learnt an alternative way of using it was to get a GPS compass bearing and relate this to the map - but I was so frustrated with myself that I wasn’t thinking outside the box very well and didn’t bother using mine again.
Standedge Edge in the dark was a bit tedious. Route finding was easy enough but sprained ankles seemed easy to come by. I think Rich was starting to tire by this point too - his diet of nuts probably wasn’t giving him the quick access energy he needed. I was mixing savoury pastries, bagels and bean burgers with chewy bars, Garibaldi biscuits and the occasional Boost bar, and was feeling fresh and energetic. So, by the time we reached the Aiggin stone, I’d pulled ahead and reached the White House pub not long after. Rich and I had been discussing the perfect drink and I ordered two, ready for his arrival - full-fat Coke with a head of hot water - to take the chill and the fizz out of it, whilst retaining its rich sweetness! I waited for what seemed like ages but finally had to make a move, meeting Rich coming in as I was going out. He’d taken the wrong path coming down off the old railway but didn’t mind my moving on as he was planning on stopping for a meal.
I knew that next section was straightforward and relished the chance to stretch my legs out and get a wiggle on, all the way up to Stoodley Pike. I looked back just before the top and could see a line of lights sweeping round from Coldwell Hill. A beautiful view - a rarity at night!
On my November recce with Chris Edmonds, we’d turned off the PW just below Stoodley Pike to find breakfast in Hebden Bridge. So the section down through Callis Wood and back up to the checkpoint was new to me, and looked complicated. In reality, the route finding was fine; the steep climb up from the A646 however, was not. It seemed to go on forever and I wasn’t able to travel more than 100m or so without needing to breathe. This really isn’t like me, and I wasn’t enjoying it much. When I mentionned the climb at CP1 though, no-one else seemed to have much issue with it - it was apparently just me being a wuss!
Fortunately, all things come to an end eventually; CP1 was reached and I faffed around, trying to sort myself out in the rather confined space. Having said beforehand that I was going to do all of my own foot care, I caved in at the first hurdle and asked Kat Ganly to look at the blister on my left foot. It was perfectly comfortable in my change of shoes but part of it had peeled away, and the exposed flesh needed protecting.
A note re my shoes: I spent approx 18 months looking for the perfect pair of Spine shoes, and must have spent at least £1000 on various models and sizes. I was beginning to panic when I still hadn’t found anything by September - I had some comfortable candidates but, in every shoe, the balls of my feet were becoming agonizingly sore after only 30 miles or so. I also had two areas on each foot (the ball and the inside heel) where creases and large blisters formed. I took the plunge and went to ProFeet in Fulham for an assessment. Two trips and £350 later (train travel from the Cotswolds is not cheap!), I was the very proud owner of a pair of orthotics. Proud because they worked miracles! No more sore feet - I couldn’t believe it. Then, by chance, I tried a pair of lightweight boots on, just because they looked nice ( - and they were Merrell which seems to be a make that likes my feet). With the orthotics, they were the perfect combination - they didn’t rub anywhere, regardless of how wet my feet got. Their grip on mud wasn’t as good as it could have been, but wet rock wasn’t a problem and over 268+ miles, I was prioritising comfort rather than speed.
A greater challenge at CP1 was to not succumb to the comfort of a warm bed. I’d asked Mum and Dad to meet me a few miles further on, and knew they’d worry if I didn’t turn up. So I kicked myself out, collecting my poles from the ‘pole park’ by the back door and marched up the road. I met Richard Woods at some point here, and we made our way through the slightly confusing collection of paths across Clough Head. Almost as soon as we’d started, the weather changed and we were soon plodding through a heavy blizzard. This was the one point on the event when I would have appreciated my goggles but, in the middle of it all, I wasn’t about to stop and get them out. They were only in my rucsac lid but my Aarn rucsac, whilst being as comfortable as an old slipper, is not the quickest to put on; I quickly learnt that to be accessible whilst on the move, an item had to be in the bum bag that sat in front of me.
My parents are a fabulous support crew. When I first starting walking ultras 25 years ago, it was with my dad by my side, and my mum chasing round to meet us at the checkpoints. I believe they enjoy the camaraderie and know that they fully appreciate what the traveller is going through. I think we arrived at their van near the Walshaw Dean reservoir at about 4am but they were still awake and watching out for me! We bundled in, dripping water everywhere, but they took it in their stride, sorting Richard out with fresh water and food, whilst I climbed into the nest they’d made for me on the front seats. With the dividing curtain pulled around me and my ear plugs in, I was in heaven! I didn’t even wake up when a little while later, Anna Buckingham stopped to use the van’s shelter to put another layer on. I was even organised enough to have pre-warned the organisers, whilst I was at CP1, that I was going to stop. Previous bloggers warned about the lack of reception at the reservoirs and their need to continue further in order not to break the ‘if stopping for more than 1 hour’ rule.
I think I had 3 hours here, and it was just coming light when I (or, more likely, Mum) forced me out and I made my way over Withins Height. Coming down the track on the other side, a gentleman out walking enquired after my number (race, rather than telephone) and said that he’d keep an eye on me from the comfort of his woodburner-heated room. He did too - he’d gone so far as to join one of the Spine groups on FB and, following my finish, had added a congratulatory message.
Around Ponden Reservoir and over to Ickornshaw, then Lothersdale. I don’t remember anything particular about this section except that, again, it was less wet than I had experienced on my November recce. I was making good time though - my arrival at Lothersdale was ahead of schedule. (I think this was the last time I was ever remotely near my schedule, except for the finish at Kirk Yetholm, where I was just 20mins late!) Anna Buckingham and Douglas Braidwood were just tumbling out of the pub as I stumbled in with my parents. It was a lovely cosy atmosphere within - they’d taken a whole section of the front room and protected the chairs and floor with plastic. I stuffed my boots with paper and placed them with my gloves by the fire whilst we ate and discussed the upcoming section. It wasn’t one I was looking forward to after the floods of the previous two months.
Again, however, it was drier than I’d previously encountered. But I was very slow - this was one of two occasions I wasted time on poor routefinding. Or in this case, route spotting - in a field above Brown House, I walked to the correct corner but couldn’t see a stile. I then tried different route options for at least 30 minutes until I was caught up by Colin Fitzjohn and Tateno Hisayuki. After all that, it was very frustrating to find that I’d been in the right corner but that the route passed through a gap, not over a stile! The field of slurry and electric fence across the footpath at Brown House are also worth mentionning.
I finally had a quick phone conversation with my partner Allan for the first time whilst walking along the track to Langber Farm. I don’t think he really believed how difficult it really was to communicate with the outside world whilst completing this event. Firstly, there was rarely a decent phone signal, then there was rarely the time. If I was at a checkpoint or rest stop, I was always busy, sorting kit, eating, dressing my feet, discussing important points with other racers or support crew - and not usually fewer than 3 of these at a time! Even when I found a decent track with decent signal, I couldn’t talk for long as walking without the use of one arm was actually quite exhausting. Needless to say, it was always great to catch up when we could.
So, into Gargrave. Mum and Dad had been mixing with the locals in a pub here and asked me to just pop in and say Hello as they had a bet on between them as to what time I’d actually turn up! A flurry of cheers and handclaps greeted me as I stuck my head around the door; they even donated some money to my fundraising. More examples of the friendliness and support that I encountered along the whole route. Mum accompanied me along the road out of town but had to turn back when the street lights ended. With foresight, I’d have remembered this was a road section and could have suggested she get a torch out.
And from there to Malham - and another planned sleep - Bliss! If only it had been that easy. Stupidly, I’d got distracted and had simply followed footsteps in the snow, then couldn’t work out where I was for quite some time. For some reason, I hadn’t thought it worth noting on my recce that the route crossed left over a stile near Harrows Hill - I’d noticed it on this occasion but discarded it as not being my route. So that was more wasted time, and I was annoyed with myself for losing track.
Even then, I messed up again when I arrived in Malham, not recognising my parents’ van. Another supporter kindly offered to go and check the local campsite in case they’d parked there instead; I realised my mistake in the interim and was very embarrassed when he returned and I had to confess. Finally into bed, only to wake 5 moments later, remembering I needed to phone headquarters. Panic (sleepy)! No reception! My lovely mum made her way between cars to find someone who could send a text for me. And so to sleep - my longest stop of the week. I think I had 4 hours here, although my sleep was broken as my body started to complain about the demands I was making of it. I started taking Paracetamol at regular intervals at this point (approx every 15 miles).
Onto Malham Tarn - the section from the car park to the tarn edge was very different in the dark but I stuck to the compass and reached the gate safely. John Bamber bounced out of CP1.5 but I was feeling good and declined to stop. Although Peter Gold’s offer of a coffee was very tempting!
The temperatures were definitely dropping - the road at Tennant Gill was icy and I was glad to get back onto the hillside again. I definitely prefer the moors to the lower levels. Fountains Fell came and went and I started up Pen-y-Ghent. I could see someone a little ahead of me and the infatiguable duo of Peter Gold and Kevin Otto were catching up behind. Thick cloud all around me prevented me from seeing much more though. The scrambling section near the top was a challenge; most of the rocks were icy and getting a firm grip with either hand or foot was rare. But slowly, slowly.... and then I was striding across the flatter summit section.
At which point, another beautiful moment. The clouds cleared, sunshine flooded through and I was handed a cup of hot mint chocolate by some members of the safety crew who’d positioned themselves at the top. We stood there for some moments, enjoying the inverted cloud filling the valley below us and the clear blue sky above.
All too soon, time to continue down - the slippery flanks of PYG. I was very glad to get below the snow line as the ice slowed me down considerably. Even the slog down into Horton didn’t seem too bad with that hot chocolate taste stlll in my mouth. And my timing was spot on for lunch at the cafe. My parents were there, as were the German trio, Emiko Kawakami and her walking partner, Sarah Fuller, Julie Pritchard, and Peter and Kevin soon arrived. Another change of socks (I had at least 2 changes in my pack at any time) and I was off again - into new territory; I hadn’t been able to recce past Horton, except for the Hadrians Wall to Bellingham section.
The Cam High Road was a very sociable section; I walked for a while with Peter and Kevin, and discussed torches with Spencer Lane for another couple of miles. But the opportunity to stride out and walk without restriction was too tempting and I moved ahead a little (although they were never as far behind as I thought they were!)
Hawes CP2 was a wonderful sight and even better in the flesh. Mum and Dad were there again, distributing goodies in the form of pineapple fruit cake (mine), date flapjack (mum’s) and maple syrup and salt fudge (sent to me by a friend when she heard about the Spine).
This was the last time I was to see my parents on this trip; they had a life to get back to. So I was able to sort my bag here and get rid of a few things which weren’t working (mainly food products but also a softshell jacket which, judging by the smell, could have walked the rest of the route on its own). I also found an empty room and had a proper 90 minute sleep. And a fantastic veg curry to follow. I certainly didn’t want to leave this stop. Fortunately, Peter and Kevin were packing up to leave and were happy for me to join them, at least over Shunner Fell.
Fond Farewells to the Challenger Race
Much as it was lovely having my parents around, I was also a little relieved to see them go; I didn’t feel I was properly getting into the spirit of the Spine by being looked after so well. And I knew that opportunities for meeting points would get increasingly rare as we moved further North. I left with dry socks and dry gloves and a magnificent package of flapjack - well worth its weight!
I was so glad to be with company over Great Shunner Fell, particularly as Kevin had a GPS and knew how to use it. There were a couple of junctions where, in the dark and with snow blowing around us, the correct route was less than obvious. On the descent, I moved ahead though and, up above Keld, I met up with Anna, Doug and Colin Fitzjohn, and we walked on together to Tan Hill - an oasis in a harsh land.
The staff had left some food in heaters out for us and a few of the safety crew were manning the supplies. As usual, sleep was foremost in my mind so I dug out my sleeping bag and ear plugs. Initially, I tried the floor but was too cold so curled up in a chair instead - alongside the other 3 who were lined up on the sofa like the three monkeys. I didn’t notice when they left, having taken a long time to actually fall unconscious, but on waking, a cup of hot water and a bag of survival foods cereal worked wonders, and I felt quite good when I finally left. The sun was coming up too, which always helps!
I followed the white poles over the moor, taking advantage of the tarmac section to call Allan, turning off at Trough Heads and down towards the A66. I caught up with Ryan Wood and Tateno Hisayuki here, each of us continuing at our own pace so that we overtook each other several times as we alternately slowed to eat or strode ahead. Our procession continued all the way through to Hannah’s meadow. I have always been fascinated by this woman, and love to picture her going through her daily routine when I pass through her old farm. Ryan’s support crew, the effervescent Ronnie Staton, was waiting for him at the top of the lane. I’d already stopped for a 10-minute snooze on the way up so couldn’t understand why Ryan wasn’t already there. One of the Spine mysteries!
Pondering on this must have kept my mind busy because I can’t remember the next few miles at all. But I made it safely into Middleton and followed the road round into the checkpoint. I was looking forward to a decent stop here, aiming to get a decent sleep to buffer me through the remaining sections. I didn’t even stop at any of the food shops here, and there was a large selection of decent establishments - my mind was set on sleep!
It was very strange walking into the Middleton checkpoint; the entrance room was obviously where we were to leave our footwear and another large room beyond had all our kit bags, but it seemed deserted. Finally, I found everyone in the dining room, and registered my arrival. Then took myself, my sleeping bag and some ear plugs into one of the dormitories alongside the entrance room. I had been advised by now not to stop as long as I’d planned, but to bank some hours in anticipation of trouble ahead. What wise words from Bruce Ballagher! I was to appreciate his words a thousand times over when I reached Byrness within the amended time limit. (I appreciated him even more when he and Stuart Smith volunteered to repack the kit explosion that was my drop bag!)
Unfortunately, sleep eluded me. I lay on my bunk, trying desperately to relax whilst my legs twitched and remained restless. I couldn’t understand how I could fall asleep sitting on a grassy bank but not in a warm, comfortable bed. But it set the pattern for the rest of the week - my only problem. I’m an insomniac and frequently suffer restless legs so it wasn’t surprising, just very disappointing.
So, up again, some food and lots of hot blackcurrant from Phil Love and his partner, Emiko Kawakami who, after choosing to retire to rest a damaged quads muscle, had stayed on to help the rest of us. And out of the door - into the dark again. I enjoyed the next bit - an easy path alongside the river; the waterfalls were visible, even in the dark. Low Force was particularly impressive! Anna and Doug caught me up as I passed High Force but soon dropped back again as we turned onto the Cauldron Spout diversion. I could see their lights so continued up the road, reasoning that they’d soon catch me again. I was starting to tire already - damn my restless legs. Suddenly, I couldn’t see those lights any more; Colin Fitzjohn and a couple of others were there but not Anna and Doug. I continued on, back onto the moor but was desperate for rest. A Landrover like vehicle presented itself - we think a hunting bus. The chaps were in need of a rest too so went into the trailer part whilst I went up front so that I could change some layers. No rest here though; I think we tried for about 30 minutes but it was too cold; I was also worried about Anna and Doug and I kept being disturbed by a light just ahead of us. On we went!
Colin was a good man to be with for this section as he knew the route through to Maize Beck. I felt we’d turned off too early and was struggling to co-ordinate the map with the route we were taking, but once we’d crossed the Beck, I knew where I was again. I moved ahead here, checking back every few minutes to make sure the others were still there. I didn’t want them to feel as though I’d just used them for navigation purposes but I also found it uncomfortable to walk at their slightly slower pace. The descent down into Dufton wasn’t pleasant but I knew the village hall had been left open for us and was looking forward to another rest.
What a great stop! I think I managed to grab an hour’s sleep here, my sleeping bag supported by 3 plastic chairs. With no support crew in the building, it was a very restful place to be and I could see Anna and Doug were also there, which settled my mind. I woke slightly after them but they kindly agreed to wait for me and, after some hot food and a change of socks, we headed off into the sunrise! Just out of Dufton, we momentarily lost the track but a quick glance at what was available and I remembered some advice given me by Matt Clayton, who’d recced this part of the route - “the stream is the track”. It hadn’t made sense at the time but looking at the stream, I could see a line of narrow slabs nestled in alongside. Obvious when you knew where to look! From there, it was an easy climb up onto The Heights, the snow beneath our feet getting ever thicker as we ascended. Looking back, the view over the lower slopes was stunning.
Once the path disappeared, Doug took grid references from his GPS every so often so that Anna and I could check our location on our maps (Harveys and OS respectively). There was no mistaking Great Dun Fell though, and its radar installation. A dog walker we met here was on skis - very sensible, because the going started to get rougher from here. The snow was at least 2’ deep and must have been fresh because we were having to break our own trail. This made the slopes a little deceptive, and I felt very stupid when I thought we were on Cross Fell when, in fact, we had only reached Little Dun Fell. Still, finally, we hit a very obvious T junction and turned right to the shelter of Gregs Hut.
This was another highlight for me - one of those ‘key’ Spine places that, until now, I’d only seen in pictures. And I was in the company of John Bamber and Paul Shorrock, eating a dish of the famous noodles! But Anna and Doug are far better at quick turnarounds than I and barely had I emptied my mess dish than they were out of the door and heading down the track! They must have slowed their pace a little though because I caught them about halfway down, just in time to meet Joe Falconer who was out to be sociable. Another Spine legend - I was in danger of becoming seriously starstruck!
Alston was a long time coming; the route from the Pennine Way up to the Adventure Centre had been waymarked but it wasn’t very clear in the dark. We felt as though we’d been led in a complete circle, miles away from our route and the steep road climb at the end just polished off our frustration. Just as it started raining, we finally fell through the door of CP4. (In fact, we’d timed this section perfectly. Those who were behind us got caught in a horrible snowstorm on Cross Fell and we missed it completely.)
I believe we agreed on a 3-hour sleep here; I think I managed an hour. I was so worried about holding Anna and Doug up with my lengthy administrations or that they would get up earlier and thus be waiting for me anyway, that I kept waking myself up! Still, this gave me plenty of time to sort myself out, have my feet dressed (still all preventative except for the ball of my left foot) and eat as much as I could find. I can’t remember what was on the menu but I know it was good! I was surprised to meet Javed Bhatti here; he should have been miles ahead. And then I remembered his (until now) semi-secret plan - to turn around at KY and walk back down to Edale again - what a nutter! Still, it was good to see him and the big hug he gave me was very reassuring.
Somehow, as we made our way towards the town of Alston (supposedly the highest market town in England), we lost the official track and ended up on another which twisted its way through the trees overhanging the river. At one point, thinking that our track had ended, Anna went off looking for the other path. Unfortunately, she’d chosen the one point at which the two were the furthest apart, and were separated by marsh. Twice she fell into the bog, the second time quite seriously, and floundered around for some time, apparently on her back, trying to get out. I don’t think Doug and I could quite work out how to help - although I have to admit that we were probably laughing a bit as well. After all that, our original path led us all the way through to the youth hostel anyway.
The next section was atrocious - the worst for mud and generally uncomfortable movement since we’d started. It made for incredibly slow going and worse, seemed totally pointless when there was both a road and a disused railway track heading the same way. When we hit another road after a good couple of hours of sliding around, we were in unanimous agreement that we should give ourselves a break and follow one of the alternatives for a mile or so into Slaggyford. Going back onto the official route here, we passed a barn; I think Anna had expressed a wish to put on another layer or something similar so I was on the look out for some sort of shelter. Anyway, we ended up having a quick nap on the hay bales within - we were so sorry we weren’t further away from the previous checkpoint, when a longer break would have been justified. It was definitely the most comfortable rest spot on the route (apologies to Tom Jones etc of Hut 2). The dead pheasant hanging on the wall added the perfect finishing touch!
This must have all been in the dark because, although I can’t remember Lambley, Hartleyburn and Blenkinsopp Commons, we arrived at the Greenhead Cafe at 9:01am, just as they were opening! A lovely place - the woodburner was already lit and blazing - and the fireguard provided the perfect drying spot for our gloves and my boots. Large cooked breakfasts were speedily consumed and Anna and Doug took advantage of the comfy sofa for another catnap. Frustratingly, I wasn’t able to do the same but, therefore, was awake to watch as Matt spotted us through the window and sneeked in to include the pair on the daily video blog.
I am so glad we got to do the Hadrians Wall section in the daylight - the going wasn’t easy owing to more layers of deep snow but the views were superb! The support team were at Walltown Quarry Cafe with hot drinks and food; I’d suggested that we use this cafe area for a bivvy because I knew there was a covered area there but was glad we hadn’t - I don’t suppose it would have been very quiet with a Safety Team HQ inside! However, I felt guilty at refusing their offerings - they were putting so much effort into looking after us and we just walked straight through. Mick Kenyon, the Racing Snakes photographer, was also bouncing around on this section - racing ahead of us every time we drew near one of his ‘good shot’ locations. Mick’s sunny disposition and conversational skills meant that he was always a welcome sight, even if I do hate being photographed!
As was the way when the going got tough, Anna and Doug pulled ahead but fortunately, not too far and I was able to do a bit of ‘back-seat route guidance’! The route through Wark Forest had been horribly boggy a month previously but the cold weather was proving to be in our favour - the snow-covered ground was crusty and we made good progress. Halfway through, there was an open section across Haughton Common - a long trudge, broken by a group of pines in the centre. The sun was just leaving us as we reached the far side and the sunset was superb. In every direction was a different cloud configuration and colour combination, all of them stunning beautiful. I didn’t have a camera of any sort with me and most regretted this at that particular moment.
Down to the valley bottom and up steeply again to Horneystead Farm. I had been very glad of this on my previous visit, being drenched through to my baselayers and in dire need of warm food. This time, asleep on my feet again, I was desperate for caffeine. Anna and Doug really didn’t want to stop, with Bellingham not far away. But, very graciously, they sat and waited whilst I downed a mug of black coffee, and I was pleased to be able to thank the owners in person for the wonderful service that they provide. Unfortunately, it took a while to take effect and I had to try and persuade my legs into a trot to keep up when we left; having not really run at all for many months, I wasn’t surprised when they refused.
Luxury at Bellingham
At first, Bellingham checkpoint seemed a strange choice of location - with the drying room, dining area and general crash site all in different buildings. But the car park between them was dry and with my lovely puffy slippers on, I enjoyed stretching my legs and running between them. Spine legends Richard and Jenny Lendon were in charge in the kitchen and it was great to finally meet them and sample their delicious cooking! I also received help from the lovely Pedro (Esteve’s support crew) who, very patiently, worked the mud out of my waterproof trouser zips so that I could remove them. He even stuffed paper into my boots and took them over to the drying room!
I cannot overestimate the relief that I get from removing wet boots and shoes. I get trenchfoot very easily and I had perceived that the main obstacle to my finishing would be the inability to change my socks regularly. Taking my boots off was sometimes the last thing I really wanted to do - especially when the mud caused my fingertips to split - but, apart from the last section, I was able to change my socks, as planned, approximately every 20 miles. And, until the drop down from Hut 2, my feet were perfectly comfortable - an unexpected bonus of the week.
My legs were another matter though. I got my ear plugs and sleeping bag/mat out and found a quiet space under a table to try and sleep. Instantly, they were thrashing around as though I were being electrocuted. When this happens, I can often get some rest, even if I remain conscious but not on this occasion. When medic, Kat Ganly, came over to check if I was ok - she thought I was shivering - I thought it best to give up on Plan A and, as at Alston, I concentrated on getting the rest of me sorted. So, over to the Lendons for conversation and food, then back to the medics for foot care. And, as mentionned earlier, assistance with my socks!
All too soon though, it was time to move on. I was wearing 5 or 6 layers (2 base, a shell (?2), a synthetic down jacket and my waterproof) and had 2 more (another shell and another insulated jacket) to spare. I took as much food as I could carry (at least 4000kcals plus some pasta meals); I wasn’t going to be seeing my drop bag again.
By the time we reached Kielder Forest, I was sleepwalking again. So frustrating. Esteve was with us initially but the three of us all seemed to be having our own problems and weren’t the best of company, and he soon left us. We didn’t have any route finding problems; the path seemed very straightforward, although I found out later that not everyone saw it this way. I was desperate to keep awake; I asked Doug and Anna to sing with me - as advised by Phil Love - but, after a couple of dittys, none of us could remember anything. Once I’d dropped back and could no longer be heard by the other two, I resorted to counting my footsteps and shouting them out, as loudly as I could. But I kept eating and, as I neared the toilet block, the sun came up! (By Day 5 -Thursday - I’d lost track of both day and time so the sun coming up was always a lovely surprise. I was wearing a watch but couldn’t get to it through all the layers I was wearing!) Awake again, I marched on, catching Anna and Doug, with Mick Kenyon in attendance, at the bridge near Cottonshopeburnfoot, and we entered Byrness together.
More comfort awaited at the B&B (or is it a Youth Hostel?). We each had a compulsory foot check and a large plate of shepherds pie. Anna and Doug also had their traditional 10-minute catnap. My legs were twitching just through sitting in a chair so I opted for the Double Decker bar that I was offered by one of the Support Crew. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name but he’s the climbing friend of a friend of mine, and had been asked to look out for me! The camaraderie in this event never ceased to amaze me :) I was a tad embarrassed when the medic’s gentle attentions to my now-very-squashed right little toe caused me to shriek out loud - I think something that looked like a blister was probably just compressed and inflamed flesh. Other than that, my feet were still in good shape but there was no way I could continue to wear my Injinji socks; there was only room in my shoe for one sock and I couldn’t get the Injinjis on anyway. I just had to hope that my toes could manage for the remaining miles without blistering too severely.
I enjoyed the climb up through the wood to Byrness Hill. Matt Green (Summit Fever Media) walked alongside up for a while and Ellie West, his partner, was perched in just the right spot to catch me as I made a hash of a simple scramble near the top. Apparently, the section over Houx Hill is usually extremely boggy but, for us, all was white. So far, the snow had usually been to our advantage and I often gave a mental thank you for the unusual lack of water, both above and below.
We crossed over into Scotland and, unseen by me, passed around the Chew Green Roman Camp. We went a little wrong at one point and made a small circle; a small group were catching us from behind although we weren’t even sure if they were Spiners, and I thought I could see Javed still further back. It was quite nice to finally see some of those we were sharing this event with, although I’m not sure Doug agreed! We were all tired by now and Hut 1 (Al Pepper’s Noodle Hut - see TripAdvisor for further details) was a welcome sight. I think we were even offered hot food inside - I was more interested in sleep. My legs, for once, were willing to comply; instead I was kept awake by the knowledge that I wasn’t able to sit upright and kept heading for Luke Latimer’s shoulder. Sorry Luke!
But we were nearly there, weren’t we? And there was a fence to follow, all the way from Hut 1 to Hut 2 - how hard could it be?
Within 2 minutes of leaving Hut 1, the snow suddenly became much deeper. The crust would hold for maybe one or two steps, and then the next would plunge down to thigh level. Several times, Anna or I fell, one leg pinioned by the snow, then had to drag ourselves up before rolling over onto our front so that we could get up again - usually falling back down into another hole on the way. It had fallen dark whilst we were in Hut 1 and I was falling asleep again. The fence became more than a guide rail; I was hanging on tightly, using it to pull myself forwards; the poles were almost useless. At some point, we either caught or were caught by Luke, Javed and Colin Fitzjohn, as well as 5 or 6 others - this was near Russell’s Cairn. Then, as some proved stronger than others, we slowly moved apart. Doug and Anna waited for me several times but I just couldn’t keep up and finally, thankfully, they pulled away. Several have since written in their blogs that they felt we could have worked differently - as a group, perhaps? I was happiest as I was; I needed to move forwards as best I could. I had no worries about getting lost and certainly didn’t want anyone getting cold and frustrated on my behalf. I wasn’t cold at any point, and wasn’t even worried about how far I had to go. I was just focused on getting one foot in front of the other for as long as it might take. I believed I was at the back of the group so didn’t need to worry that there was anyone behind me who might need my support. (I now know that there were at least 2 more behind me who then got asked to help a non-Spine walker who was in trouble up there.)
Eventually, I arrived at the stile where our route turned left, heading for Auchope Cairn. Following the trails of those in front, I briefly left the fence but, checking the map, soon turned back to it again. Although visibility was very poor, I could see a light straight ahead but, after quite a while, it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. In fact, it seemed to multiply and I could see 3 lights dancing around. I was falling asleep with every 2nd or 3rd step by this stage and felt I would do so much better if I was a little more awake. The exertions had kept me nicely warm - I hadn’t felt cold at any time since about Day 2 - and I sat down on a handy bank, planning to just have 40 winks before carrying on. I did rationalise this move, working through all the facts that might suggest I was hypothermic, but concluded I was just exhausted. It can only have been 30 seconds before 2 of those 3 dancing lights were standing in front of me, asking if I was alright! I was very embarrassed. They were part of the Mountain Rescue Team, on their way up the hill to find the non-Spine walker. Anyway, they informed me that the 3rd light was the Mountain Hut and that I should keep following the fence until I hit it; I hadn’t far to go. And so, on I went - it felt a very long way.
The bliss of landing in there, and receiving various hot, sweet food and drinks from Tom Jones. He didn’t know if I was hypothermic or just tired so he just gave me everything - a hot water bottle, a large plastic bag to sit in, constant food, even his down jacket. Eventually, he relented and let me sleep - going so far as to clear a corner for me to lie down in when he saw that I couldn’t sit up. I put up a bit of an argument when he said I was to stay there until the early morning so that I could be walked down as part of a group; I felt that I wouldn’t feel I’d done the whole event myself if I needed an escort, and if Anna had continued on her own, then surely I could have done too. But he was adamant and I was tired. I noticed a lady sitting in the corner and thought it was Constanze Escher with her distinctive blonde hair. And then - heaven - I could rest - I think I even got some sleep! I think I was in Hut 2 for about 4 hours; at some point, I even realised that the lady in the corner was Anna. I was both glad that we still had the chance to finish together and disappointed for her because I thought she’d been doing so well - she was wrapped in a foil blanket and looked really uncomfortable.
The Final Leg
About 5am, I think it was suggested that we should get moving. I felt a lot more like myself now and for a change, was the first to be ready! Tom was to be our escort although he emphasised that we were still to navigate; he was just there in case of need. The fence continued over The Schil until we hit that much-talked-about feature of The Spine - the turnoff! We were on our way down! Hitting a fork, I had to quickly check which option was ours and then it was easy, onto a track and the road at the bottom. It was quite funny when we reached the road. We’d been setting quite a good pace until this point and then, somehow, it became apparent that all of us were suffering with sore feet and wanted to slow down. So the last mile was a bit of a plod, enlivened by Ronnie, Matt and Mick who’d come out to take photos and generally cheer us in. It seemed unbelievable that we were almost finished - and then we were! Daylight had come upon us as we descended and there was quite a group waiting for us - including my partner, Allan, who’d been willing me along from his computer all week.
Anna and I knew that, in order to share first place, we had to touch the wall together so she counted us down, the three of us touched the wall and then it was done! I could go home - it was as simple as that.