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The Spine Race 2014: No Margin For Error

by Andy Mouncey
Thursday 13th February 2014
Tags  MONTANE Spine Race   |   The Spine Race   |   Montane   |   Andy Mouncey   |   Cracking The Spine

Race report: Andy Mouncey takes on the Montane Spine Race for a second time - January 11-18, 2014

In January 2014 Andy Mouncey took part in The Spine Race: A 270 mile as-continuous-as-possible journey in the depths of the English winter south to north along the length of The Pennine Way. Andy was on the start line in 2013 and got as far as 105 miles: In 2014 the goal was to finish the job...

Below is his emotional report from the 2014 race:

Photos © Sharon Mcdonald (left) and © www.racingsnakes.com (right)

Lights in the darkness

HOW. Can you be here..?
I’m stumbling my way through ice-strewn bogs that pass as The Pennine Way path on the final descent into Hawes and Checkpoint 2. The mist is right down, it’s dark, I can see a few yards ahead of me at best, and the only blessing is I’m finally out of the killing wind which threatened to rip me off the hillside higher up when this latest weather front hit a few hours ago.

I’ve now been on the go for about 36 hours and the sanctuary of the CP can’t come soon enough. The happy smiley chap of a few hours ago has been replaced by a befuddled shell as I get payback with interest for two bad decisions earlier in the day. Since reaching the Cam High Road as the weather deteriorated horribly at around the 95 mile point I have been steadily spiraling into the abyss, have lost all interest in the detail of looking after myself and just want to GET THERE.

And then out of the murk ahead there’s a light of a headtorch looking right at me. A few stumbling steps closer and the owner of the light is revealed as…
Speedy Paul: My friend from back home.
It just doesn’t compute and I just stare trying to make sense of the grinning familiar face infront of me. What? How..?
‘Paul.’ Big breath. Order words up for coherent sentence. ‘You have no idea how pleased I am to see you, but how the come are you here?’

Paul (bless him) has been gripped by tracking fever, has been following the race on-line and just decided to drive to Hawes and come up the final descent in the vague hope of finding me. In godawful weather.
As you do.

His presence is a huge welcome distraction and I even manage to twitch the sides of my mouth upwards hearing his indignation on discovering that England’s longest national trail is not actually a wonderfully signposted clear path throughout after all, and that this morass we are standing in is actually right on route.
Welcome to my world, pal.

Except the universe hasn’t quite finished conspiring to help me.
A second light appears.
‘Hi Andy,’ says the voice under the light, ‘My name’s Matt, you don’t know me, but I live in Hawes, been following the race, heard about the project and just wanted to come out and try see you. And when you’re ready I’m happy to go up the first part of Great Shunner Fell with you…’
Now I’m really struggling to put any kind of sense of this. I know damn well I’m not going anywhere near Great Shunner Fell (the first part of the next section out of Hawes) anytime soon – but two guardian angels??

Matt chats away as I let him down gently about Great Shunner. I’m oscillating between wonder at this meeting and despondency at my condition. I try to keep some sort of conversation going in appreciation of the effort Matt has made, but I’m soon slipping back to the dark side. When the weather front hit a few hours ago I elected to keep going for Hawes. I did put another layer on but it wasn’t enough and I neglected my food as well. I just got my head down and concentrated on walking with purpose. Completely contrary to the goals I’d set for myself.

Tipping Point

It’s only later when I start to put the pieces together that I realize I was already seriously depleted and cold was before this final sting in the tail. The result is that my decline has been quite shockingly swift and now despite the downhill I’m barely making forward progress.

I can feel my feet are a mess as well – another consequence of a bad call that was a decision to ignore a hotspot on the ball of my right foot at Malham.
‘Nah.’ I said to the indomitable John Bamber at CP 1.5 Malham Tarn at around breakfast time, ‘It feels OK – I’ll look at it at Hawes.’
Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. All my coaching is around heeding the warning signals and I have a track record of doing just that.
Except, it would seem, today (sigh).

That hotspot has grown into something much worse and the pain in my feet as meant I’ve adjusted my gait and form to compensate. Safe to say I am no longer flowing along with elf-like grace and that’s causing all sorts of related fun and games as everything comes progressively out of kilter.
I retain enough self awareness to know that I am seriously on my chinstrap and will need some serious recharge time here to have any hope of successfully pressing the re-set button. I also know I can recover fast if I’m smart - but first there’s the small matter of arriving

It’s a death-march through the houses as I torture myself even more by thinking about the 1600 kids I’ve met through my Cracking The Spine (HERE) school project. I do retain the presence of mind to thank Matt and Paul at the entrance of the CP, but once inside the hall the walls I’ve erected come crashing down: At around 6.30pm I open the door, sit down and promptly burst into tears.

Starting out

The start didn’t exactly go to script either. A lovely fine day! proclaimed the forecast.
That was clearly somewhere else: We started in rain that quickly turned into a blizzard that quickly deteriorated into white-out conditions as we climbed on the Kinder plateau. You could see the collective What the **** ?? as the clock ticked towards 8am start time and we all dived into our carefully packed rucksacks for that additional waterproof. The only bright spot was the effervescent Mimi Anderson, resplendent in her trademark pink.
I started at the back and walked the first mile, realized I was cold already and dived into a barn – already stuffed with Spiners doing the same – to don full winter gear. Part of me on a this is outrageous! trip, the other part making soothing calming noises.
Now I really am at the back – but at least I could laugh at optimistic few who started in shorts.

So we got dumped on for the first three hours and the sun only emerged as I hit Crowden and Torside reservoir and passed one of the early leaders hobbling badly after a fall on the icy rocks. He wasn’t the only one: The hugely experienced Mark Hines had also gone over in the early stages sustaining fractures to his wrist and putting him out of the race. Treacherous underfoot conditions would continue to be a theme.
The second big climb of the morning out of Crowden brought home to me one of the positive differences 12 months on: I was moving differently on the ascents. Deliberately relaxing, longer striding, good posture with chin forward, yet still maintaining good pace. I’d worked on this by training under big loads and it’s clearly paying dividends.

20 miles in and I pass a very relaxed Mark Caldwell. Mark was one of the three finishers in the pioneering year 2011 and last year he cut back to the Challenger distance finishing in the top few. Last year we criss-crossed each other periodically through the first night and the second day and this year he’s back on full distance duty.
We shared a few words at the start and I thought he looked in great shape and certainly expect him to be there at the end.
Though I hardly know him I find myself genuinely pleased to see him and I pause to chat briefly. He stresses the importance of staying relaxed in these early stages:
‘I don’t want to stretch myself the first two days,‘ he smiles. ‘It’s too early to start playing just yet…’ Mark is as good as his word and will go on to his second finish.

I jog away on a downhill – I’m running all the downhills - consciously doing Mr More Floppy as a consequence. It’s only by running the contrast that I realize I’ve actually felt quite unsettled before meeting Mark – lots of internal chat and not all of it wholly positive for no reason I can readily identify. I press ‘pause’ before a full diagnosis unravels and just enjoy the calming fallout from the Caldwell encounter.

Hooking up & calming down

I’ve been steadily moving through the field and a few hundred yards ahead as the track straightens out I spot what I think is a familiar figure. It takes me another 8 miles or so but as we cross the M62 with daylight fading I catch up with Charlie Sproson and Andrew Burton (www.mountainrun.co.uk).

I’ve been trying not to run time comparisons on last year and failing. Last year I was over Blackstone Edge at around the 30 mile point (with Halifax to our right) and past Warland Reservoir before my headtorch came on. This year I reckon I’ll be about 3 miles short of that. Last year I started much faster in much better conditions but was not running my own race. This year I’ve started much slower, been more in my bubble and reckoned on being later into CP 1 just outside Hebden Bridge as a consequence. And while I’m slightly pissed that the torch will need to come out earlier than last year, the big picture does look good…

After a day flying solo I welcome some company and I unceremoniously trample all over Charlie and Andrew’s team dynamics (www.mountainrun.co.uk/about-us/news/the-spine-race-2014), asking to join them for the last couple of hours into Hebden and our first stop. For the first time all day I feel genuinely relaxed, do a big all-over fully body exhalation and happily cruise the final 10 miles. Once again I’m Mr Cool on the big climb out of Hebden and I register how controlled I seem in comparison to the folks around me. It’s all fuel to my fire and the final smile comes as I slow for the CP and sneak a look at my watch: 12 hours – exactly as last year.

Except this year I have a plan for the checkpoints, and to make damn sure I stick to that plan I have a printed checklist attached to my dropbag in big friendly letters:

  • Arrive
  • Sign in, locate dropbag
  • Shoes off, socks off
  • Strip top half body and wet-wipe
  • New base layer
  • Wet-wipe feet, dry, talc, crocs on feet
  • Bag dirty kit
  • Remove litter, replenish food,
  • Change batteries, check map required
  • Wash hands, go eat, fill bladder, check forecast
  • (If sleeping: Sleep with feet up, earplugs in)
  • Brush teeth, fresh socks, secure sack and dropbag
  • Kit on, say thank you, sign out

I’ve reckoned on the swiftest stop being half an hour to faff about and half an hour to eat and drink, and the swiftest stop being this first one. In the event I’m pretty close because 70 minutes later I’m on my way again – additional smile material being provided by a surprise encounter with one of the teachers from my Hebden Bridge school who’d clearly decided to check I was indeed doing my Cracking The Spine homework.

Tactics & strategy

I was always going to go straight through this one.
There is an option to sleep here and I also considered packing a shelter in my dropbag so I could bivvy on the trail at a time of my own choosing and break every 24 hours up with a rest period. In the end I decided to just use the CPs for sleeping – drier, less faff, only stopping once – and the first sleep would come at Hawes CP2 after around 36 hours.
I’m rested, ready and I know I can do 36 hours comfortably…

Another reason I’m heading out is that the forecast continues to show that a big weather front will hit us sometime on Sunday afternoon and I want to be as close as possible to Hawes when it does not least because travelling in bad weather is just so much more draining. I’m prepared to put the time in now to minimize my exposure later. The weather is another significant difference one year on in this race: Last year was pretty settled but very very cold. This year is much more changeable which means we’ll be forced to deal with more uncertainty and more variety – it’s a harder ask, I think. Thinking on this again afterwards it’s clear that much of my tactical thinking was influenced by weather changes or weather forecast – traveling in a good weather window on a gig like this one is just worth STACKS.

Heading out as I’m coming in are familiar faces from last year. Last years’ winner Eugeni Rossello and his friend Joel Casademont. I beat them out of this CP last year before they caught me half way through the desperately cold night. We were together till Fountains Fell at around 80 miles then Joel and I hooked up for the final drop into Hawes through a snowstorm. Joel Did Not Finish and Eugenie went on to win. I wonder how this time will pan out for them. Smiles, gestures and pigeon English – and Competitor Bloke pipes up: Interesting, not that far ahead then are you…

Moving in a mysterious way

I have company for the first 1.5 hours or so out of the CP. Matt and I criss-cross eachother as we head towards Withins Top above Ponden Reservoir. The night is calm and we have a three quarter moon that eases the navigation somewhat. Unfortunately it does nothing about the traction co-efficient underfoot. Paths in this part of the world over the peat moors are often covered in stone slabs. These slabs are now either covered in frost or are part frozen making them absolutely lethal. The moonlight may be welcome but I find I need to be completely on task re my footwork: Often I’m reduced to a walk-stumble off the stones as safe footing becomes a dream on them. I console myself that it is the same for everyone, but mentally it’s very draining and concentration needs to be total.

Ice is not the only problem either. Lower down the ground is saturated which means if we’re not ice-skating then we’re mud-skating and the effect is the same. (I will suffer a number of near falls before the night is up, each time doing that marionette-style flail that throws other limbs in spontaneous compensating directions in the desperate hope of staying upright. I succeed, but not without wrenching various bits of tissue – my left shoulder will trouble me for the rest of the race).

First signs

Damien Hall breezes past and powers away up the climb to Withins. Then voices out of the darkness from the hut at Withins Top implying other Spiners are bedding down to break this first night up. Either that or something more dubious is going on. Matt clearly chooses to believe the former and heads for the door. Once more it’s just little ole me and once more I couldn’t be happier. There is, however, one thing in my world that is starting to puzzle me: Every time I drink I want to pee a few minutes later. Every time. I can’t believe I’m over-hydrated – I’m not exactly Sweat City here and I didn’t drink all my 1.5 litres during the first 45 miles – but what else can it be?

(It’s only when I’m at Hawes and quizzing Dr Anna that understanding comes. When the body is cold the brain will trigger urination to get rid of as much fluid as possible so the blood can concentrate on warming the vital organs. My frequent peeing for no apparent (thirst) reason is a BIG sign that I’m cold – and probably have been since well into the first day. Except I don’t feel that cold – OK, I’m not toasty – but I’m not shivering either. It’s another reason I don’t register there might be a problem. Meanwhile dehydration is working it’s own stealth attack…

The fixes are one or all of these three: Eat more, wear more, or work harder. Anyway, realisation is for later – for now I don’t have the knowledge to make the connection so I simply continue to drink, (cold water – and I’ll find out later this is another factor in my decline) pee and add/remove layers as I feel – all the while continuing to dig myself into a hole that two days later I will be unable to climb out of.

Just shy of Ickornshaw around the 55 mile point and Damien has pulled up to grab a few hours in his tent. A few miles further on and the owner of the headtorches I’ve seen ahead of me is revealed as I catch Joel and unknown companion – almost at the same place we crossed last year. Joel is hobbling horribly and I catch something about a fall. I’ll see him next at Hawes with the worlds’ upply of strapping on his legs, and he’ll pass me for good on his way to an amazing finish as I do my death march into Dufton.
Bravo, Joel.

Ten miles further on and more lights. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t have tight torch discipline – or plain don’t care. Surely it’s obvious that if you are going to turn round and look behind – which I just don’t  – for gods sake cover your headtorch with your hand! Otherwise you might as well fire off a flare and scream I’M HERE! Any indicator of progress during the night is to be seized on and this one is an absolute gift to anyone following and especially if they’re following solo and harbor even vague competitive tendencies. Like me for instance.

Here We Go Again

So it is that I hook up with Eugeni for the second time in two years on the first night. Competitor Bloke does the maths and I smile at the realization that I’ve taken around 70 minutes out of him. And I’ve not been pushing either. I’ve been aware that I’m moving well – especially my walking which is mainly what I’ve been doing – and what running I have done has felt very controlled. My navigation has been spot on and that’s also a difference one year on: This tricky in-and-out-of towns/hamlets section had me flummoxed at least four times last year.

Dawn finds us as last year passing through Airton en route to the next pause at Malham. By this time there’s about four of us in a loose group but I’ve no idea who’s Spine and who’s Challenger and I don’t really care. What I do care about is the hot spot developing under the toes of my right foot. Stop, shoe and sock off and wash both in a stream to get any offending grit out. Re-lace a tad tighter. Hmm, feels sore…

As the early morning sunshine paints Malham Cove a wonderful gold color I go completely off-piste as I head towards the Tarn and the interim CP. I wake up to find myself heading well away from where I need to be. I still have no idea what I did and it probably only cost me ten minutes but I was a somewhat chastened bunny when I eventually arrived at the CP.

Now with the wonders of hindsight here’s what I should have done at this CP:

  • Take some time
  • Wash, dry and inspect my feet
  • Pad and strap my right foot
  • Change to new socks
  • Put another layer on
  • Eat an 800 calorie Exped meal (www.expeditionfoods.com) by the simple action of adding hot water to the meal pouch and eating it on the move when it had re-hydrated

Here’s what I actually did:

  • Drank two cups of tea
  • Ate some of my trail rations
  • Decided that the foot would be OK to Hawes another 30 miles away
  • Take no time at all really…

My attention is actually way ahead of my current location and the prospect of seeing family Mouncey somewhere between the next two mountains of Fountains Fell and Pen-y-ghent. 2000’ up and over Fountains is comfortable enough and then the procession of familiar faces start. Settle Harriers (my home club) are out in some force: Hugs, cheers and shouts of 4th! in short order - the latter being a real shock as I have been oblivious to my progress up the leader board. And then there’s two little snow-suited figures hurtling down the road towards me and I slow to catch our boys in a huge hug. A big smile and a cold kiss for their mummy followed by a welcome cup of tea as the boys chatter away.

As far as Charlotte is concerned it all looks fine: I’m on time, upright, smiling, and can string sentences together. We walk together slowly for a hundred yards or so as she fills me in on the highs and lows of being a tracker groupie and what’s happening ahead of me. The goodbye hugs are abit of a wrench with our youngest waving madly as Daddy disappears into the distance.
Right then, let’s just get over this mountain…

More Settle Harrier moments before the 2200’ Pen-y-ghent is behind me – I’m genuinely moved by the level of support - and then I turn north watching the clouds build in my rear view mirror. Here comes the weather… I’m prepared to walk most of the way into Hawes and try and conserve what energy I have.
No more than 3 hours then…

Mopping up & figuring out

My tears on arrival at Hawes clearly have everyone flummoxed – all the blokes anyway. It takes Head of Checkpoint Nici to break the ice as she comes straight over and wraps me in a hug.
Trust a woman to know what to do.

As my emotional outpouring subsides other sensations swim up to take over: I really want to lie down and close my eyes now. Really. I just want to lie down… And then so very easily I’m curled up on the floor still in full kit. Now I’m half aware of a hand on my shoulder and then someone puts something nice and warm over me, but no-one’s disturbed me yet and it feels so nice just to lie here…

Until Scott Gilmour notices and suddenly it’s all business: Some barked commands and I’m moved unceremoniously into the recovery position while someone else has a start at getting me out of sodden kit. Now the machine kicks in and sometime later I’m sitting up sipping hot sweet tea to find one Mark Hindes casting a fatherly eye over me.
Betcha this wasn’t in your plan for the day, Mark, huh?

As equilibrium of sorts returns I alternate between profound embarrassment (and end up apologizing to everyone) and realization that I quite urgently need to turn this around. I have to take everything in slow motion and I find I can only speak slowly and quietly. A chat with Scott confirms I can take 12 hours here – and that actually Scott will insist I do. This is confirmed by Dr Anna who on quizzing me is pretty confident that I just stuffed it up big style, but that she also wants me to take the full time allowed. Fair enough: I’m bushed and have no plans for going anywhere anytime soon.

We talk about the peeing thing but its quite obvious that there are other factors at work in my decline: I’ve just not been eating enough to generate heat and do the moving forward bit. My blood sugar has dropped through the floor and one of the side effects of not taking in enough energy consistently over the last 36 hours is that the brain’s ability to regulate temperate is also affected. So I’ve been cooling down because I’ve had insufficient carbs and I’ve had insufficient carbs partly because I don’t realize I’m as cold as I really am. I don’t register there’s a problem because my sensor suit is compromised, I’ve trained myself to operate in a depleted state, I’ve still been thinking clearly – and anyway, what do you expect from 36 hours on the move? Clues have been lack of sweating and frequent peeing but I’d not registered the former was happening until now and the latter is a straight knowledge gap.

I’d got myself into a lovely downward spiral and the get to Hawes at all costs decision just tipped me over the edge.

Dr Anna though, had a cunning plan to speed my recovery: ‘I don’t want you to have a big feed and a big sleep,' she says ‘Cos that just ends up diverting lots of blood to your gut to aid the digestion and we need that blood working in your vital organs. I want you to sleep-eat, sleep-eat, sleep-eat all the way through and I’ll see you before you go just to check. OK?’

What remained was the not insignificant task of sorting the worst of my blisters out to reduce the pain and at least give me a fighting chance of sleeping. This translated into an hour with Cat, one of Anna’s team, draining the fluid from the worst of the swelling through skillful application of very sharp needle to very sensitive areas. And I was definitely sweating at the end of that…

The foot damage per se is not the problem: I know from previous experience that once blisters are drained, padded and strapped I can run on even badly damaged tissue. The problem is the domino effect: Time spent on foot repair means less time spent resting – and the latter is at a premium already on an event like this one.

I worked a sleep two hours then eat pattern three times through that night as the CP got steadily busier with Challenger finishers, Spine race folks in transition and increasing numbers of folks who had had enough. The first time I got up I felt like death. The second time I felt marginally less like death – but human enough to catch up briefly with Charlie and Andrew who had been transferred here after calling it a day on Pen-y-ghent – and the third time around there was definitely hope.

Snippets I pick up during the night are that leader Pavel Paloncy is en route to Middleton and CP3 after a brief stop only at Hawes, that Eugeni had pulled out somewhere between here and Tan Hill, first lady Debbie Brupbacher hit Pen-y-ghent around 1am, and hours earlier Marcus Scotney had blazed the Challenger 105 mile race in a new superfast time of 29 hours (HERE)

When I finally got up for what was probably my 10th bowl of porridge in 10 hours at around 5am I felt raring to go again. Matt and Ellie www.summitfever.co.uk had arrived in the night and had caught up with their film subjects’ dramatics. And while I’m sure the professional part was annoyed they hadn’t manage to capture all the fun and games on camera, they were clearly anxious because this definitely wasn’t in our plan for Cracking The Spine at all.

Another hour with Cat to pad and strap my feet, more food, weather check, big hugs to the crew and 13 hours from falling in, I step back outside into the gloom with Simon Beasley. I’m still faffing so Simon heads off – I figure we’ll see each other later.

I walk slowly through Hawes, relishing the feeling of feeling wonderful and also buoyed by the fact that I have now officially gone further than last year. The miles today will take me far beyond my previous longest outing and I feel ready. This is after all what I have prepared for…

In The Green Again

My new Mountain King carbon-fibre Trailblaze poles (sorry, they’re still prototypes! www.mountainking.co.uk) come out for the 2300’ haul up Great Shunner Fell. I’d not used them till now preferring to keep them as something to look forward to once the first 100 miles was out of the way. Incredibly light and strong, I enjoy the tap-tap rhythm and feeling as though I’m being pushed up the mountain. Once again conditions are progressively inhospitable as I climb and by the time Simon and I cross at the summit once more we are in the teeth of a gale. The descent is as treacherous as anything I was faced with the first night: A combination of ice, water and mud on steep often wonky flagstones makes me very glad of the support offered by the poles.

Caution is once again the watchword as I stretch away from Simon without really trying. Dropping briefly into the valley and the hamlet of Thwaite the temperature is considerably higher and clear skies give promise of the lovely day forecast. We’re into Swaledale, a part of the world I find particularly beautiful, and I’m smiling on the inside and out as I pick my way round the wet rocks to Keld. Simon and I rejoin briefly as we head to the Tan Hill Inn and the temperature is warm enough for the first time all race for me to stow my wonderful Paramo Velez smock, generously loaned to me by those lovely folks at www.castlebergoutdoors.co.uk

Then big surprise as I’m greeted at Tan Hill in glorious sunshine by my good friend Hard As Nails Sharon Mcdonald, just as Damien Hall emerges grinning around a bacon sandwich. Sharon’s presence is a double bonus as it also enables me to get word directly to Charlotte who I am certain now has been having at least some form of kittens over the last few hours:

  • A word from Paul that he’s seen me but he’s also seen me looking better
  • My tracker stationary for 12 hours and that was definitely not the plan
  • Lord knows what leakage on social media from Hawes from people who saw me doing my amateur dramatics

So Sharon takes some smiley pictures as Exhibit A and posts them immediately. I can almost hear the sigh of relief in High Bentham from here…

It’s a happy tea stop but a brief one and as Simon arrives to get his chops round a bowl of soup I’m ready to head off in pursuit of Mr Hall. Competitive Bloke has done the maths and is tapping his fingers impatiently. Sharon has the world's supply of scoff in her van but I decline everything except half a pastie. I close on Damien as we cross the A66 and close right up again across Bowes Moor. But I also note he’s moving strongly and as I stop to add more layers and fit my headtorch, he pulls away again. I see his light twinkling a few times more and we close right up again through the quagmire out of the valley on the last climb before the drop to Middleton, but a navigational error has me stumbling about in the mist as we skirt Harter Fell with a couple of miles to go and he’s gone for good.

Wobbles Part 2

I’ve had a good stage and I know I’ve moved well in comparison to my recce trips. I’ve moved so well infact that my time compares very wellto the one I posted for my last trip over this section in November. When I first looked at this section in the summer I thought then that if I could run this last descent after 135 miles I’d be a happy boy indeed – and I’ve just done exactly that.

Once again I think I’ve controlled my effort, but on the jog into Middleton I realise all is not as it should be: I feel decidedly wobbly and suddenly have very little energy left at all. I make the CP about 12 hours after setting out and wander in abit of a daze to the small gathering in the main hall. I do the foot and clothes routine OK but then feel a pressing need to lie down. At least this time I manage to modify this to flat out-legs up position.

But now I’m really really tired. Nia, one of Anna’s team, comes over to check and pronounces that she really doesn’t like the ‘white-as-a-sheet-shaky-hands’ look on this new arrival. I’m told in no uncertain terms to get up and get a hot meal down me. This works so well I quickly ask for another. Then it’s more time spent repairing the new foot damage while chugging down vast quantities of hot sweet tea. Coherent thought returns enough for me to pay attention to the weather-led chat among the group, but I’m dog-tired and just can’t be arsed to ready my pack for departure as I know I should.

More snow is predicted late tomorrow afternoon and the consensus is to get out early and get going before the bad weather hits again. Some are readying for a 2 am departure, some 3 and some 4. ALL of us are well aware that tomorrow we must get up and over the 2900’ feet of Cross Fell which is already snow-bound, can be a challenge to navigate across and we must cover 25 of the 40 miles to Alston and the next CP before we even get to it. For me this is the crux leg of the whole race: Reaching Alston will put me around 180 miles to the good – and less than 100 to go.

Damien and I make a loose arrangement to get up at 3 am and head out together but it’s obvious that he’s in far better shape than me right now and very keen to crack on. I park final decision till the morning conscious that it’s already heading towards 10pm.

In the event foot pain and general aches mean I don’t really sleep and Damien and I are both up for around 2 am. I’m faffing, still doing dog-tired and he’s clearly not. He heads out with my good wishes while I cast around for an alternative companion. Simon is up and readying at my pace and to my relief says he’s happy to pair up. For some reason I crave companionship this morning and so at 3.30am we are once again on the move, heading on an easy but horrendously muddy path along the river to the spectacular waterfalls at Low and High Force.

Death March

Almost immediately I feel cold. One hour in and I stop to put my full winter mitts on. Two hours in and I’m wearing everything I have. Soon after that we both look at each other in amazement as the snow starts to fall – 12 hours earlier than predicted and we’re still in the valley. I’m cold, miserable and slow and this is the pattern for the next 10 hours. I’m not exactly the most spirited of companions for Simon but while conversation is limited I am extremely grateful for his presence. Despite multiple checks from me he insists he’s very happy to accompany Mr Grumpy at snail pace through some god awful conditions: No-one was happier than me that he went onto a strong top 10 finish. During the morning Neil Bryant positively skips by us and then Joel hauls himself through, still looking painfully awkward on his sticks but moving and clearly motivated. They will both go onto finish as well.

All Stop

I however was now too far into my downward spiral and paying for decisions made in the first day. I could not see a way to break out and more importantly I could not find the motivation to do so. After 10 hours travel at a pathetic 2mph we reached Dufton and halfway to CP4. Ahead is Cross Fell, imminent darkness and more bad weather and at least a 5-6 hour commitment to reach nearest sanctuary at Gregs Hut on the Alston side of the mountain. I slowed even more as we closed on Dufton but kept my own counsel as Simon got ready to move on and Sharon fed me hot tea from her van. I’d been fighting the decision to stop for 10 hours already and figured a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt to be sure.

  • Did it make mountain-sense?
  • Could I look myself in the eye?
  • Could I look my pupils in the eye when I went back into the schools?

I came up ‘yes’ on all counts so as Simon made last preparations I slipped out of the van and quietly told Tom the marshall in charge. A pause; surprise, understanding swiftly followed by sympathy. A pat on the shoulder and a nod followed by an embrace from my earlier companion Andrew Burton out of the race much earlier and still supporting the runners here.

Back in the van I look Sharon in the eye and quietly tell her.
She looks genuinely shocked and is momentarily speechless.
‘But…but you never make a decision like this at a checkpoint – never. You know that!’

I’m still fixing her with my eyes because I know this decision was really made some two hours ago as we stood in the clearing sky on High Cup Nick. Everything else since then has just been checking.

She gathers herself for one last go: ‘Would it make any difference if I bullied you up that bloody hill?’

The emotion of the moment quickly dissipates. I figure it’s only fair to give her my reasoning such as it is and she quickly switches gears.
In 12 months I’ve come a long way and further on many fronts than I would have thought possible. I know it – and I know Sharon knows at least some of it.

This race has been the catalyst for all that.

‘Just looks like it’s going to be a multi-year project instead, then.

Photo © www.racingsnakes.com

Roll Of Honour

Gifts of Stuff:

Gifts of time, expertise, love & support

  • Family Mouncey
  • Sharon Mcdonald
  • Phil Ward the man with the healing hands www.philwardphys.co.uk
  • Matt & Ellie www.summitfever.co.uk
  • Rebecca Dent Performance Nutrition www.rebeccadent.co.uk
  • Dr Howard Hurst and University Central Lancashire sport science testing
  • Cheers on route: Families Murfin, Pilkington, Mick, Lou, Rachel, Speedy Paul & Matt, Pete & Wendy Stobbs, Phil & Jackie Scarf
  • All the staff and pupils on my Cracking The Spine project
  • Charlie Sproson for helping me hone my navigation www.mountainrun.co.uk
  • Gary Morrison for unique insights into what it takes
  • Joe Faulkner for telling it like it is www.nav4.co.uk
  • Everyone who put me back together at Hawes: Nici, Mark, Lou, Tina, Vicky, Stu, Cat, Dr Anna, Scott and you if I’ve forgotten you or just plain didn’t see you
  • Everyone who put me back together at Middleton: Nia, Ali, Amanda
  • Simon Beasley death-march companion
  • Everyone – and there were hundreds – who sent messages before I stopped
  • Everyone – stacks again - who sent messages after I stopped. The response has been amazing: Lord only knows what it will be like when I finish the damn thing…

About The Author

Andy Mouncey

Andy signed off 17 years as a triathlete in 2003 by setting record stage times for the Enduroman Arch To Arc Challenge: A 300 mile solo triathlon linking London and Paris via an English Channel swim. Since then he's been into his ultrarunning. He is an accomplished speaker, coach and published author who lives with his family in the north of England.

Find out more at www.bigandscaryrunning.com

Andy Mouncey is the author of 'Magic, Madness & Ultramarathon Running' with a foreword by Jez Bragg

Andy Mouncey is the author of 'Magic, Madness & Ultramarathon Running' with a foreword by Jez Bragg

This book reconciles the madness of the ultra distance with the magic of the moment to give an insight into why more and more people are running trail ultramarathons for fun.

Andy's book is available at Amazon and good book shops £9.99rrp. Signed copies are available from me here www.bigandscaryrunning.com


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