By Laurence Baldwin
Three trail-race directors are sitting in a bar. After a few beers, they decide that they should create “Britain's Most Brutal Race”. The first race director says, it needs to be long: the 280-mile Pennine way is the longest trail in England - let's make the race the complete trail. The second race director says, the weather needs to be challenging; the worst weather is always around the second week of January. Let's do the race then. The third race director says, the other mountain ultra-marathons are all multi-stage, multi-day events. Let's make it non-stop, over seven days.
This is what the Spine Race is: 280 miles along the Pennine Way National Trail, non-stop, in mid-winter.
Growing up in the 1980s, I loved the Camel Trophy and Paris-Dakar Rally. I assumed that as an adult, I would do these kinds of challenges. When I first heard about the Spine Race, I was approaching middle age. I saw in the Spine Race the same spirit of adventure that I saw as a child in those iconic events, but at that point, it was not a race that I could even contemplate doing!
In 2016, I had just started hiking on Dartmoor and doing the odd Parkrun. The hikes and running flared up an old knee injury that I had seen few physios about and had rested for over a year, hoping it would sort itself out. At this point, I met Jen from Quay Kinetics Physio, to whom I owe a lifetime of gratitude for working with me to rehab my knee and, ultimately, giving back the sporting part of my life.
With my knee no longer holding me back, I could plan for my first ultra-marathon: a 55km race across Dartmoor. The training for the ultra was really enjoyable and the actual race was rather undramatic. I made it around the route with no drama other than a blue toenail.
Having completed an ultra, it filled me with confidence and I started thinking about what to do next. The Spine Race had, by this point, got stuck in my subconscious. Wanting to be involved in the race, I signed up to volunteer.
In 2019, I spent 7 days working on the race. They talk about being in a race bubble and I can think of no better description. For that week, I was totally engrossed in the race, following the route north with a safety team. That year was an epic race, with Jasmin Paris famously winning outright. (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/17/jasmin-paris-first-woman-win-gruelling-286-mile-montane-spice-race-ultrarunning)
Having spent time on the route and seen the race, I knew two things: I wanted to do the race, but I was not ready to do it.
The first thing that I needed was more experience to meet the race's entry criteria. So, I signed up for a tough 50 mile ultra (Lakeland 50) and a multi-day orienteering event (OMM). Even with these under my belt, I would not meet the criteria for the full 280-mile Spine Race event, so I compromised and signed up for the Spine Race Challenger, which is 110 miles. It is often jokingly referred to as the Spine Parkrun or Baby Spine Race.
In an attempt to make up for my lack of experience, I took a Mountain Navigation and Winter skills course. Training wise, I went back to Jen when I developed niggles like plantar fasciitis, and she sensibly reined in my over-ambitious training program.
In January 2020 I was on the start line of the Spine Race Challenger. I felt confident. I had a plan, and I was in good shape. In hindsight, it was ridiculous to do this as my first 100-mile race.
The distance to the first checkpoint was under 50 miles. I had done my first 50-mile race less than 6 months ago, so I knew I could get to that point.
The first 50 miles went as planned, but that first night the weather was atrocious, and many people started dropping out. Having trained a lot on Dartmoor, I was comfortable looking after myself in foul weather.
I did not rush at the first checkpoint, probably taking too long trying to sleep. The truth was - and I did not release until the next day - I had been under fuelling. Without enough fuel, the second leg, which was me going into the unknown, became a death march.
Going into the second night, I joined a group who were in a similar state. We spent 10 miles convincing each other that we would pull out at the next aid station. Our logic was that it had taken us 24 hours to get to this aid station, and to finish the race within the cut-offs, we would need to do the similar distance again in less than 12 hours. Arriving at the aid station, the race crew refused to accept our resignation. As is usual practice, they make you have a warm drink, eat something, and have a nap before they remove your GPS tracker, taking you out of the race.
After a cup of tea, a packet of potato cakes and an hour of sleep, I felt a lot better. With a mega pep talk from the race crew, we got pushed out of the aid station. Into the last leg of the race just as the named storm Brendan arrived.
Based on my social media, I think the last leg was as stressful for my friends as it was for me. As on a lot of races these days, you are provided with a GPS tracker and everyone can watch your dot move along the route. We got to the finish 2 hours before the cut-off, which was cutting it close considering the 60-hour cut-off time, and vowing to never do the full race. That year, 38% of the field failed to finish the race.
Shortly after that, the UK was locked down and I was working from home, which gave me more time to train and to contemplate what I wanted to achieve in life.
In January 2021 the race was of course cancelled, but I put my name on the waiting list for the full race in 2022. With all the entries deferred from 2021, I did not get a place in 2022 but I got offered a place in the new “Spine Race North”, which is the second “half” of the Pennine Way: 160 Miles, a good progression from the 110 miles that I had done previously.
The lesson that I took from my 2020 race was that I can go deep into my misery cave, but it was not a productive place for me to be. I operated a lot better when I stayed in a positive mindset. When people talk of ultras, often it is said that it is 90% mental. I think this understates the amount of training over the longer term that goes into the preparation. It also suggests that the mental aspect is something that you either have or you don’t. To me, the physical and the mental aspect go together, and I approached the training in that way.
I made my race-specific long runs an adventure, so that I did not dread them. I made sure that I was properly fuelled and dressed to be completely comfortable. These runs looked rubbish on my Strava but gave me confidence for the race.
On the start line of the race in January 2022, I felt good. For the last 12 months, I had followed a plan from a coach, which had me running fewer miles in total, so I was free of any niggles and stronger on the hills than I had been previously.
The race went incredibly smoothly for me. I kept a positive mindset for the majority of the time, only occasionally slipping into a frustrated mode when my pace slowed so much that the miles were not ticking off.
Around half-way, it became obvious that I was towards the back third of the field, but comfortably within all cut-off times. At that point I decided to focus on completing the race, taking long sleeps (4 hours) at the checkpoints, stopping to eat properly at the aid stations and mainly to enjoy as much of the race as I could.
A real high point for me - and a legendary part of the Spine Race tradition - was having chilli noodles at Greg’s Hut, located just past the summit of Crossfell and the highest bothy in England. Each year a safety team for the race is stationed at the hut and make the famous chilli noodles for competitors as they come in. As I came off the snow-covered summit, the hospitality and warmth of the bothy brought me to tears.
I finished the race just after midnight on the Wednesday, having taken 88 hours to cover the 160 miles. 51% of the field did not finish the race.
The full Spine Race of 280 miles is still there for me to tackle, but I am in no rush. My next challenge is more local: The Arc of Attrition100 mile race along the South West Coastal Path in Cornwall.