Winter Munro aspirant, Ben, takes on one of Britain's hardest trail races along the Pennine Way.
Ben Hunter planned to complete the first ever 100% human-powered Winter Munro round last winter and was blogging about his preparations on OM, then suddenly things went a bit wrong and he was forced to cancel his attempt - the good news is that it's back on again for this winter and he'll be keeping us up to date with his preparations and training.
But while he was at a loose end earlier this year and as a consolation for having to shelve the Winter Munro attempt, he took on The Spine, a relatively low profile, but high brutatility foot race along the length of the Pennine Way...
It was thanks to Russ at Cotswold Aberdeen that I attempted The Spine this January. The Spine is billed as Britain’s most brutal race. And at 268miles along the length of the Pennine Way it was never going to be an easy challenge.
Unlike other long distance events there is very little support offered along the way. There are is checkpoints and only two bag drops, where you can replenish supplies. The emphasis is very much on self-sufficiency. This means running with a lot of gear: winter clothing, shelter, food, fuel, stove and other essential safety equipment.
I was one of 11 competitors entered in the inaugral Spine. A further four took part in the 100mile Challenger race. Two competitors, Gary Morrison and Mark Caldwell, were also from the North East of Scotland. We travelled down to Edale together with Andrew Collister, the fourth Scottish runner.
Tortoise Versus Hare
My plan was to approach The Spine like I would a challenging walking trip. I was going to walk the distance keeping an average speed of 6kph. I intended to reach a checkpoint a day and finish within six days. This would mean some long days and little sleep, but I hoped that my turtle approach would see me to the finish line.
The night before the race was filled with safety talks and gear checks. I found a quiet spot of floor and got my head down. The following morning, after last minute packing and re-packing of bags, we were all ready on the start line. Photos were taken, a few words were said, and then it was go.
The weather that morning was perfect. It was clear, blue skies and no wind. There was very little snow on the ground and the temperature sat around freezing, dropping into the minuses on the hills. The cold, dry weather meant that boggier sections of the race had frozen, making a compact and dry running surface. This would be both a blessing and a curse as the race progressed.
I had a beautiful day making my way through the lower Pennines. The runners quickly spread out and I met few competitors during the day. I stopped by Torside reservoir for a late lunch, and then got going again. The paths on the fell tops were often covered in sheet ice which slowed progress. The ice would ultimately become my undoing later that night.
As darkness began to fall and the stars came out, the temperature plummeted. The sky was clear and I knew there would be a bright moon. I was now crossing some very boggy ground. On a couple of occasions I broke through the icy lid and found myself knee deep in freezing bog water. It was dark, I was tired, and morale was low.
Frozen Bars... Frozen Ground
I stopped to chew on a frozen energy bar and for the first time that day put my headphones in. With Mumford and Sons spurring me on, my spirits rose and I tackled the next steep climb. By this time I was nearing Diggle. Eager to push on I was going at a slow jog when I slipped on the ice. I went down hard in a tangle of legs and poles.
As soon as I hit the ground I knew that it was over for me. I had landed awkwardly on my right knee and there was a lot of pain. I hobbled off the ice, hoping it was just sprained. I pulled out my stove and got a hot brew on the go. After 40 minutes I tried to press on, but I was unable to move much quicker than a shuffle. I was never going to stick to my 6kph game plan at that pace. Stumbling over a boulder alerted me to my risk of further injury. I had to make the hard call to pull out.
This was one of the hardest phone calls I have had to make. I badly wanted to continue in the race, having invested a lot both financially and emotionally. After the disappointment of postponing the Munro round I had wanted to prove to myself that I was physically and mentally tough enough to take on any challenge. And yet, here I was. Less than 24 hours after starting the race, I was pulling out.
Later, having been picked up by the race team, I was surprised to learn that I was not the first drop out. By the end of day one, five people had made that same difficult decision, and ultimately only three made it to the finish line. The Spine truly is tough.
With hindsight pulling out was the right decision. I ended up in a knee brace, and pushing on would have only done more damage. Although I raced for just a short time I did enjoy the event. I would not be surprised if I found myself signing up for a second shot at The Spine, Britain’s most brutal race.
Photos by myself and members of The Spine Team
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