Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Spine Race Epic Adventure.......( The Final installment )

( Photos to be posted later....)

So I rested up well at Alston ( Checkpoint 4 ), taking full advantage of the comfy beds, hot showers and copious cups of tea. Steve and I were interviewed by BBC Radio Newcastle shortly after we'd had our feet dressed. So all my swear words were momentarily out of my system.
Time was getting on so Steve and I readied ourselves for the nightshift and 40+ miles to Bellingham.
I headed out into a drizzly, windy evening. My feet were so painful, every step felt as if nails were being driven into my feet and that I was walking on broken glass. I embraced the pain by stamping my feet several times hard onto the tarmac street in Alston, within a few moments I'd transcended the pain. I was on a mission to get this race finished.
Through the wind and drizzle, Steve and I pushed on, making good time past Hartleyburn Common and on towards Greenhead.
In full flow........ picture courtesy of John Bamber

Greenhead was a significant landmark, as that  meant I was now on the Pennine Way North map.

On this day Steve and I chatted about what was going to happen in the closing stages of the race, by now we were both confident of a finish, we were both happy to keep pushing on through the pain.
My main goal all along was to finish, but now it looked possible that a first place finish in the Elite class was possible. By now in the race the only Elite class competitors left were Mark Caldwell and myself. Steve had originally signed up for the 100 mile ( 108 mile ) Challenger class, but felt so good he decided to carry on for the full 268 miles ! This essentially meant Steve wasn't in any official class.

Having gone through a lot together, and having got on so well during the race Steve and I decided if we had a substantial enough lead over the other competitors, we would cross the finish line together in Kirk Yetholm. The only way that would change was if Mark appeared on the horizon, then it would basically be everyone for themself in a race to cross the finish line.

So on we pushed, passing Thirlwall Castle and up onto Hadrians Wall.

What a tough route it is along the wall, especially when the ground is muddy and claggy. The going becomes really heavy, every stride your muscles ache with the extra effort of extracting yourself from the clinging mud.
Once north of the wall it doesn't get any better with the route disappearing through farmers fields knee deep in mud and slop.
It was in this section that Andrew Collister was retired. He was struggling to make steady progress due to excruciatingly painfull trench foot. Steve and I were lucky to avoid this, but it is a very real prospect for those considering the full distance Spine race.
Andrew Collister, age 21, put in a remarkable effort to go that distance. He would have still kept going but the race organisers retired him due to his trench foot. No doubt he'll be back to complete the full distance sometime in the future.

Andrew Collister receiving the Open trophy from Phil Hayday-Brown for a galant effort.

Daylight was breaking as Steve and I crossed the deep bogs of Ridley Common and Greenlee Lough. Our feet had been  soaked for around a constant 12 hours in non-stop bogs and mud, some bogs immersing us up to almost waist  level.

The rugged beauty of the by Scott Gilmour

We escaped the rain and wind in a forest near Haughton Common, and there we had a more substantial bite to eat.
For fuelling I had been eating something every 15 minutes since leaving Alston, keeping my fuelling at an optimum. This far into the race it is very easy for the wheels to come off, by not eating enough, over exerting yourself, or not protecting yourself well enough from the elements. Or a combination of the aforementioned.

As the daylight improved the sun came out, and the previous night's drudge and torture faded away. My spirits lifted and I had a renewed energy. Steve and I made great speed and progress through the beautiful Northumbrian scenery and down into Bellingham.

We'd made it !! Checkpoint 5 ( Bellingham )  Over 226 miles covered, just a mere 42 miles to go !!

We fell into Bellingham checkpoint. We'd been promised by Becky Wood some of her 'special' pasta and we were starving. We were also in need of VERY urgent foot care.

Shortly after arriving I was handed a mobile phone by Scott gilmour and told BBC Radio Scotland will call me and give me an interview over the phone. I was struggling to keep my eyes open when the phone rang. I did my best to answer the questions, not sure how incoherent I was, but I do remember the presenter saying I was in the lead and now on the home straight. I remember answering... ' Aye...a 42 mile home straight over the Cheviots !!!!'
I had my feet attended for an hour, lancing, draining, squeezing etc etc, lots of food to eat and a sleep for a couple of hours. When I awoke I witnessed Steve being carried out of the door and to a local GP to have his feet checked. It looked as if there was the start of an infection.
Steve reappeared , again being carried, pretty amusing, all was good, he was ok to carry on.

As Steve and I were preparing to leave, Mark Caldwell appeared. He was looking pretty good, but like Steve and I, his feet were suffering. We shared some good banter, then departed.

Mark Caldwell...a great character and a great competitor.

Again Steve and I were on the nightshift, but now only 42 more miles.
My feet were shot, but I was past caring, I was capable of handling the pain, and now I could practically smell the Finish.
The weather was turning for the worst. Large snowflakes were falling, we'd been told there was snow lying on the high ground and getting deeper. The one advantage with this being it would cool my feet and take away some of the pain.

I pressed on, ramping up the speed of pace. I was determined not to be overtaken by Mark.

We headed up the Pennine Way through the falling snow, eventually making it into the expansive Redesdale Forest. Once inside the forest out of the wind we stopped, removed a couple of layers, had a more substantial bite to eat them ploughed on, literally.
Inside the forest with big snowflakes falling, it was magical, more fairytale than reality.

I crossed through Byrness, then up the steep climb to the top of Byrness Hill. Now above the tree line we were once again on top of the exposed fells.
Snow continued to fall, getting deeper, now I had to really concentrate on navigation. What was painfully obvious was that Steve and I were blazing a trail, if  Mark trusted our navigation, all he had to do was follow our steps.  He could essentially move faster.

At this point I noticed a headtorch not far behind us through the falling snow. Steve turned to look and saw the same light. Mark had caught us up.
I thought he must have followed us right out the door at Bellingham without stopping.
Still, the headtorch behind us disappeared at a point where we took the Pennine Way along the top of a small crag, I thought Mark must have gone along the base of the crag and overtaken us.
Steve and I pressed on, we were following the Pennine Way route, but there were no footprints in the snow, no tracks, where had Mark gone?
An hour further on still no tracks. I must have been seeing things, so for that matter must have Steve !!
Mark had obviously not overtaken us, the light must have someone or something else !!!

Daylight started to dawn, Steve and I were making good progress, moving fast. We'd passed Chew Green, our last available water collection point for 27 miles, a stream. From now on the only water would be in a bog, not drinkable.
We headed up onto the Cheviots, Wedder Hill, bypassing the mountain refuge hut at Yearning Saddle, without stopping.  Up and down the route went, bogs, snow, sheet ice, wind, basically miserable. Yet the scenery is dramatic, wild and unspoilt.
We crested Windy Gyle, a significant landmark, we were well on our way to the finish, approx 11 to 12 miles only to go !! Less than a half marathon !  With every step I felt stronger, my pace increasing all the time.

Steve and I chatted away.

Then turning around to admire the view, I spotted 2 figures cresting the summit of Windy Gyle.
Instantly I thought it was Mark Caldwell with someone from the Spine team, encouraging him on.

I turned to Steve and said, ' that's it.. the race is ON, let's move !!'
I started running, pushing the pace, ignoring my screaming feet. Steve gathered himself up and started running.

Here we were sprinting for a Finish line 10 miles away, with trashed feet, aching muscles and  heavy backpacks, having covered 258 miles over the last 5 days !!!  If people could have seen us we would probably at that point looked more like geriatric zombies trying to catch a meal !
Mark Caldwell may have been labelled the 'Aberdeen Android', I was now becoming the 'Paranoid Android' !!

Having covered around 2 miles at this ridiculous pace, Steve announced that he had seen 2 walkers on Windy Gyle, I then remembered I had seen them too. Yet again there was no Mark Caldwell chasing us down !! Doh !!!
Unknown to Steve and myself, Mark had unfortunately slipped and fallen crossing a stream.And was now drying off his kit before he could continue.

Still realising it wasn't Mark in the distance I pushed on. Now I just wanted to finish.
My wife Vicky was waiting at the Finish. Friends and family had been sending me messages via Facebook, I'd read some of them at Checkpoints, and they had really spurred me on.

The last few miles to Kirk Yetholm I ran a fair bit, the downhills, the flats, the pain had subsided, I was totally elated, I knew I was finishing.

Pushing the pace... photo by John Bamber
It's a great route dropping down towards Kirk Yetholm, seeing the grassy track descend off the fells into the glen, knowing that you have broken the Spine. That within a few minutes you're going to cross the Finish line after a truly Epic Adventure.

As Steve and I neared Kirk Yetholm in the distance we could see blue flashing lights and a small group of people at a farm. I commented to Steve that there must be an incident of some kind. As we got closer it became apparent it was a welcoming party for us.

A great reception from Borders Mountain Rescue
The Borders Mountain Rescue team had turned out and gave Steve and I a 'blues & twos' escort into Kirk Yetholm to the Finish line. It is the most memorable race finish I have ever had, and ever likely to have.

The final push to the Finish !!!

Steve and I mustered up a sprint of sorts, and in perfect unison we crossed the finish line together, setting a new offical Winter Pennine Way record / time of 152 hours and 2 minutes.

I was congratulated by the whole of the Spine Team, locals, Steves family, and most importantly, my wife, Vicky.
Then to celebrate I downed the pint of Guiness handed to me at the finish.
The best pint ever !!

A Welcome reward !!!....picture courtesy of John Bamber

Later on that evening Mark Caldwell crossed the Finish line in a time of 158 hours and 55 minutes. Only the three of us completed the distance of what is a truly brutal, epic ultra-marathon.

Mark Caldwell on the final few metres to the Finish


  1. Well done Gary. Fantastic result and great blog - thanks for sharing your story.

  2. magic mate, really enjoyed reading it, hope to see you next year.

  3. Many congratulations, a great read and an awesome result.