Friday, December 31, 2021

Ultra Tour Monte Rosa

We spent the family summer holiday in Switzerland this year, with the first week based in Grächen, and the second in St Luc, a village on the Sierre-Zinal race route. Apart from being a super family-friendly destination (car free, and playparks on every corner), Grächen also happens to be the start and finish point of the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR), my target long race for 2021.

Feeling fresh, running from Grächen to Zermatt (photo © UTMR)

Thanks to COVID-19, the UTMR didn’t follow its usual course this year, and stayed in Switzerland throughout, avoiding the usual high glacier section crossing into Italy. Nevertheless, the course was still a real challenge, and felt more demanding than the only other 100-miler I’ve done, the UTMB. The route was more technical, and wilder, with more climb (reportedly 11,000m ascent, in 175 km) and more exposure. The UTMR is a much smaller race, which gives it a more intimate friendly feel, like a marked fell race on a grand scale. Even on the altered route, the scenery was fantastic, especially the views above Zermatt onto the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. 

We arrived in Grächen 5 days before the race, and I spent the first night sleeping up high. I hiked up to 2200m after putting the children to bed, bivvied there for the night, before an easy run at altitude and returning to the family in time for breakfast the next morning. Having Konrad and the children around before the race was the perfect antidote to pre-race nerves, helping me to keep things in perspective. Knowing they would be waiting for me was also the best possible incentive to get me back to the finish line once the race was underway!

On race day I woke up at 2:45am, breakfasted and dressed in silence, making it out of the house without waking the children, and arriving in the town centre comfortably for the 4am start. I felt great for the first 60km, and especially enjoyed the section from the start in Grächen to Zermatt, which includes the incredible Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge - the longest pedestrian footbridge in the Alps. Descending into Zermatt I caught up with Darcy Piceu – famous for her many finishes and wins at Hardrock 100 – and it was lovely to chat with her for a while as we climbed back out of the town, onto the massif above. The route circled around, taking in some incredible airy views of the 4000m peaks, before dropping back to Zermatt for an uncomfortable 20km of flat running down the hot valley to St Niklaus. It was a relief to arrive at the checkpoint there, and lovely to chat with Ruth Croft, who was volunteering on the event.

Running through Zermatt (photo Konrad Rawlik)

Climbing out of the valley, I started to suffer and feel sick, but thankfully that didn't last long. As dusk approached the route dropped me to its lowest point (700m) before starting the longest climb of the race, thankfully broken up by the Visperterminen checkpoint, 110km into the race. Tom Owens was volunteering there and did an amazing job sorting me out for the hours of darkness that lay ahead. I ran by myself for most of the night, although there were often head-torches on the mountain side ahead of me, drawing me on. I felt overwhelmingly sleepy, and debated a power nap on the path, but in the end, I just sang out loud to keep myself awake (there were some decent drop offs to the side of the path), embarrassingly this night-time concert featured mainly nursery rhymes – the Grand Old Duke of York, amongst others! The terrain was increasingly rocky, rather like the summit section of Scafell Pike. I was vaguely aware that I should be loving the technical rock hopping, but my legs were tired and kept tripping and tangling themselves up, so I just concentrated on putting one in front of the other.

Descending to the finish (photo Liz Bailey)

With dawn came new energy and the promise of the finish, and I tried to push on the final section from Saas Fee up to Grächen, although it was surprisingly technical, with a fair bit of scrambling and up-down in-outs of rock buttresses, which was hard on tired legs. I finished in 32 hours 26 minutes, in 9th overall, and was delighted to learn there that our friend Oli Johnson had smashed the overall race to win in 28 hours 23 minutes. 

Sharing soup at the finish (photo Konrad Rawlik)

UTMR is a race I would recommend without a moment’s hesitation. It has miles of stunning scenery and fantastic technical single-track paths, but what really makes the event is the volunteers at the checkpoints - it's like having your family waiting to care for you at every one. I am already looking forward to coming back and racing the full course. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

24h Munros

The challenge of the 24-hour Munro round is pleasingly simple; to climb as many Munros as possible within 24 hours, starting and finishing at the same place. With distance, ascent and terrain playing key roles, the round has fuelled discussion for decades in long distance running circles. Unsurprisingly, record attempts have focused on areas with the maximum concentration of Munros (Lochaber, Glen Shiel). In 1988 Jon Broxap ran a round of 28 Munros in the Glen Shiel area, which with the 1997 revision of the Munro tables got bumped up to 29, while at the same time Adrian Belton’s 28 Munro round in Lochaber got bumped down to 27. This record survived a couple of attempts by Spyke, standing until 2017, when legend has it that Jim Mann received a note in the post telling him to switch his focus to the Cairngorms, where he duly clocked 30 Munros in 22:05. That route was extended by Sasha Chepelin in 2020 to 32 Munros in 23:10, and again by Kim Collinson in 2021, to 33 Munros in 23:48.

(photo Graham Nash)

Against the flurry of these male records, the absence of a female 24-hour Munro round was striking. Konrad and I speculated that I might already hold it by default – for my Ramsay round (23 Munros), in 16:13, although one could argue that Helene Diamantides' Ramsay round included 24 Munros at the time it was set (the loss of Sgor an Iubhair that affected Adrian’s round also affecting the Ramsay)! Either way, it was clear that a serious effort for a female 24-hour Munro record was well overdue.

I scheduled a date for 24th July (the one week in a block of 6 during July/August that I wasn’t going to be on clinics at work and could therefore guarantee some decent sleep in the lead-up) and crossed my fingers that the weather would be kind. It was almost too good, the ground was bone-dry, and the visibility was incredible, but it was uncomfortably hot for long-distance running (Finlay Wild ran a record-breaking solo Rigby Round the same day in 16h40, and drank 16 litres of water in the process!).

It was hard to know how many Munros to aim for, since I wasn’t sure just how much long-distance fitness I’d regained since having my son Bryn (born in July 2020). With Konrad’s help, I settled on an anti-clockwise attempt, based on Jim Mann’s round, with a variety of finishing options, aiming to do anywhere from 29 – 32 Munros, or less, if time was running out.

With two small children to factor into the planning, I opted to run from midnight to midnight, which meant that Konrad could drive me up to our starting point at Invercauld Bridge (after we’d had dinner with the family and prepared the children for bed), and pace me on the first leg, before driving back to take over from my wonderful mum at home.

Leg 1 - Invercauld Bridge to Glenshee (Konrad Rawlik, Jim Mann, and Moss our border collie dog): The first leg was incredible; easy grassy running by the light of a huge full moon, with a sea of cloud inversion below us, and herds of deer streaming past in the half light. We made fast work of the Lochnagar Munros and crossed to the Glenshee group for a stunning sunrise of pink and orange, finishing the leg just one minute short of Jim’s split, in 5h38.

(photo Konrad Rawlik)

Leg 2 - Glenshee to White Bridge (Sasha Chepelin and Ally Beaven): The heat was kicking in, but I still felt reasonably good, and we made steady progress over the remaining Glenshee group and other Munro’s towards White Bridge. I stopped to lie in every stream we passed and was glad I’d remembered Vaseline to prevent chaffing – the bits I’d missed soon reminded themselves to me! The time passed quickly, chatting to Sasha about his own round, and Ally about his experiences at Barkley Marathons, and we descended to White Bridge a few minutes up on my schedule of 6h10.

(photo Sasha Chepelin)

Leg 3 - White Bridge to Corrour Bothy (Eoin Lennon and Ali Masson): It wasn’t feeling so easy anymore, and the ascent of Beinn Bhrotain was the first split I lost time on my schedule. Coming off the summit, my toe caught a boulder, and I sand-papered the skin off my knees and elbows, knocking my confidence temporarily. Nevertheless, I relished the fantastic views over the next summits lining the west side of the Lairig Ghru , especially as I’d seen so little of them on my recent clagged-out Rigby round. At the changeover point I lay spreadeagled in the river, preparing myself for the challenges I knew the coming hours would bring. At this stage I had ticked 24 Munros, and was going beyond the Ramsay total.

(photo John Ryan)

Leg 4 - Corrour Bothy to Invercauld Bridge (Graham Nash, John Ryan, Eoin Lennon): The steep gulley climb up to Carn a’Mhaim felt just as hard as it had on my Rigby round, and the subsequent pull up to Ben Macdui took just as long. At least we didn’t get lost on the traverse to Derry Cairngorm this time, although we were now losing time steadily on the schedule. Whilst I was still trying to run the flatter sections, it was clear how feeble my efforts must be, as my supporters were walking along chatting beside me. Graham guided the scramble up the summit tor on Beinn Mheadhoin, before the horrible rough descent of heather, rocks and holes, down its eastern flank. This was the point at which I needed to decide how I would finish the round, based on the time I had remaining of the day. By now it was clear that I needed to be getting back, but we opted to include Beinn Bhreac on the way, hoping that the improved descent line John had in mind would have us back on the final 14 km of flat tracks in good enough time. The line was indeed much better, but my slow progress by this stage, combined with rough and trackless ground, left things tighter than any of us would have liked by the time we reached the valley. John and Graham thrust a banana and a bar into my hands, ordered me to eat, and then set off running, telling me I needed to keep up. I dug deep, focusing on their backs in front of me, and the rhythm of my stride, thankful that we were on a track at least. At Linn of Quoich, Graham peeled off for the car, whilst John and I continued along the darkening valley, towards the lights of Braemar twinkling teasingly in the distance. We were making steady progress, and it seemed that we would reach Invercauld Bridge comfortably before midnight, but then we took a wrong turn, and ended up in a field waist deep in grass, with John telling me to ‘Turn right’, and me finding myself face to face with a 2m high deer fence and no way through. ‘Back here, over this fence!’, went the cry, and I grabbed the twine to lift my leg over before an electric shock sent me flying backwards in surprise. ‘Cross the gully!’, ‘But there’s a river there!’, ‘It’s not a river, it’s a stream!’ went our exclamations, before we finally hauled ourselves back onto a track, still trying to work out which way to run next. With precious minutes ticking by to midnight, the record seemed to hang agonisingly in the balance, but at exactly that moment the lights of two torches appeared from above, and with them the very welcome figures of Sasha and Ali. We raced along with them leading the way – I’d never have believed I could still run like that if I hadn’t needed to – passing through a field of sleeping cows, and finally reaching my starting point at 23:48 (although by the time I’d worked out how to stop my new watch it was 23:49:02, so that’s the official time).

(photo Graham Nash)

It was an exciting and memorable end to an incredible day, which I was fortunate to spend in the best of company – talented runners all, and equally great friends. I was delighted to have given it everything, and to have persevered when it started to hurt and doubts were creeping in. I’m pleased there is now an official ladies 24-hour Munro round, and I have no doubt that the figure of 29 will only be temporary, as others take on the challenge for themselves.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Rigby Round

Described by some as the ‘connoisseur’s round’, the Rigby Round is a circuit of 18 Munros in the vast and tundra-like wilderness of the Cairngorm mountain range. The route was first completed in 1988 by Mark Rigby solo-unsupported in 22 hours and 44 minutes, including 2 hours spent sheltering in bothies from terrible weather. The spirit of that inaugural round inspired subsequent attempts in the same minimalist style, and it is now suggested that the route is completed solo and unsupported, ideally with no prior reconnoitre.

At 3am on Saturday 19th June, I touched the Norwegian Stone outside Glenmore Lodge, and set off anticlockwise around the loch. My last big challenge had been the PTL race in 2019. With a baby and a pandemic between then and now, this was to be my first big run for almost 2 years, and I was excited by the adventure it promised.  
 
I made good progress on the run out to Braeriach, and felt strong on the climb, buoyed by the brilliant pink sky of dawn. As I reached the summit the cloud came in, and visibility dropped to a few metres. Given the excellent forecast, including “80% chance of cloud free Munros”, I was hopeful that the mist would burn off as the morning progressed. I pulled out my compass and continued into the murk of the summit plateau. The cloud lifted for my next Munro, Sgor Gaoith, but settled back in for the steady run across to the gentle top of Mullach Clach a'Bhlair. 

I ticked off Beinn Bhrotain, came back over Monadh Mor and then dropped down before re-ascending to the ridge of Sgurr an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, and Devil’s Point. I enjoyed the technical challenge of the rocky path, but the mist removed all sense of space, and felt oddly claustrophobic. I was glad to drop out of the cloud on my descent to Corrour, although the steep ascent awaiting me to Carn a'Mhaim loomed large, and I squinted to make out the best line up through the crags above. 

At this point I was running roughly to the splits of Sam Alexander, who’d finished in 19:36. However, as I started to climb again, it began to rain. I dragged and slithered my way up the waterlogged gulley and my mood fell as I re-entered the mist and my field of vision closed in. With my hopes of a fast finish fading, I started to question my ability to complete at all. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this stuff anymore? What was I doing up here in this isolating fog, when my children were in the valley below? I reached the summit of Ben Macdui, passing several hunched shadows of figures on the summit expanse. With cold fingers I took a bearing for the descent, failing to find the obvious path that should have been there. I stopped to put on a warm mid-layer, hat and gloves, then muddled my way through to the climb for Derry Cairngorm. By Beinn Mheadhoin I’d warmed up, and things were seeming more optimistic, although I was aware that I’d lost a chunk of time in the preceding hour. 


A representative view from the day. 

The cloud cleared as I descended between heather and boulders into the valley, and for the next 90 minutes I delighted in my ability to see the landscape. Beinn Bhreac was a long plod over marshy ground to pick up a track, before retracing my steps towards the ascent of Beinn a’Bhuird. To my disappointment the cloud swirled in again then, and I spent several minutes on the plateau searching for the summit cairn, which I knew must be only metres away. I pushed on towards Ben Avon, once again on a bearing, and now heading into wind and rain. With evening approaching, I wondered whether what I was doing was sensible, feeling far removed from any hint of civilisation in the hostile weather and dim light. 

Turning towards home was a boost for morale, although my pace had dropped, and progress over the tussocky peat hags seemed grindingly slow. Thankfully, my fastest option for getting back was now to complete the round, so I plodded on. I summited Ben a’Chorainn, descended to the Fords of Avon, and climbed Bynack More, hearing my phone bedtime reminder tune (one can but try!) as I neared the summit at 10pm. I kept my eyes glued to the compass bearing on the descent, promising myself hot tea and dry socks in a couple of hours’ time. As I neared the valley, the sound of the river rose to meet me and I paused to assess the view that was emerging from the mist. My tired brain struggled to match the landmarks below to my supposed position, and I turned the map around a couple of times to try and make things fit. Why was there a big expanse of water over in the valley to the right? And where was the loch I was supposed to be above? With a sinking feeling, I realised that I must have descended the wrong spur, and was now almost back at the Fords of Avon.  

The light was nearly gone, and I fell thigh-deep into a bog as I tried to contour across, vainly trying to save height. I gave up, put on a head torch and dropped to the river, where I began my gradual climb to the saddle and thereon to Caingorm. The night was dark for mid-summer, and the patches of snow stood out eerily in the foggy light of my headlamp, as I climbed straight up alongside the sound of the swollen stream.  

At the summit I sat for a minute leaning against the weather station, then filled my mouth with sweets and started the long descent, knees angrily chiming in protest. As I stumbled into holes, rocks and heather, I cursed my decision to follow the ski lift down from the restaurant – there might be a good line in daylight, but I certainly couldn’t see one now.  I was relieved to finally reach the road, and its promise of an end. 

After 22 hours and 19 minutes of running (72.5 miles, 21,142 ft ascent), I finally touched the Norwegian Stone for the second time. It had been the longest time I’d been away from Bryn since he was born, the longest solo run I’d ever done (even on the Spine, I came to checkpoints at 50-mile intervals), and certainly the longest time I’d ever spent running on a compass bearing! I’d made plenty of mistakes, and I hadn’t been fast, but I was proud of myself for persevering. I slowly got up, and hobbled down the road towards the warm light of the van, where at least one person was still awake to greet me. 

Tired but happy to be done.

Postscript: Little did I know that some 24 hours before me, Viv Scott (an Edinburgh friend) and Oli Johnson (a Dark Peak friend) had individually set off from the Norwegian Stone on their own Rigby Round attempts. Making use of good conditions that day both had completed, with Oli finishing in an incredible new record time of 17 hours 13 minutes. Simply astonishing!  



Saturday, February 6, 2021

Bump and Baby, Second Time Around

Fuelled by months of lockdown and no racing, the summer of 2020 saw UK long distance hill running records toppling at a staggering rate. Decades-old records were broken not once, but twice in a season, the classic rounds all changed hands, and new ones emerged. 

Meanwhile, I was delighted to walk the Pentland Skyline route (26.6km, 1890m ascent, course record Angela Mudge 2:42:29) in a little over 7 hours. It was you see, the first hill day I’d had in months, and I was doing it in the company of my 4-week-old baby son, Bryn. We had a couple of breastfeeding stops on the way in the heather, and I celebrated at the finish with lemonade, tea and ice cream. It was good to feel tired again from physical exercise, rather than the absolute exhaustion which I’d experienced at times during this second pregnancy. 


During my first pregnancy I enjoyed running, and even occasional racing, right up to the day our daughter Rowan was born. In contrast, and contrary to my expectations, being pregnant felt much harder second time around. For the first 4 months I was permanently exhausted, as if I might fall asleep on my feet at any moment. I tried to keep up some form of daily run before work - partly because it helped to ease the constant nausea - but it was rarely more than 3 miles along the flat, and even that tended to involve some walking. It was during this period that I ran the only two races of this pregnancy, although in the abominable weather (Trigger) and general chaos (Devil’s Burdens Relays), my slowness didn’t really stand out. At 5 months my energy returned, but within a month I’d started to experience Braxton Hicks contractions (practice contractions for labour, it turns out that with second pregnancies they can start months in advance) whenever I went for a run. I purchased a support band for my belly, thinking that maybe less bounce would mean fewer Braxton Hicks, and it did help for a couple of weeks, but then I started to experience pelvic girdle pain. In the end, the only exercise I found myself able to do (bearing in mind that coronavirus restrictions were in full force, and so gyms and pools were shut) was running reps up the slope of the reservoir dam beside our house. For some reason, the angle made running pain-free, and it felt good to raise my heart rate a little, in the 12m of ascent each rep provided. Each day I’d aim to do a session of 20 reps, for which I always had the company of our dog Moss, sometimes even Rowan. At 36 weeks even this activity became uncomfortable, and I switched to short swims in the reservoir (by this stage in the season the water had warmed up sufficiently, since I obviously couldn’t fit in a wetsuit anymore), enjoying the feeling of weightlessness. 


Bryn was born at 41 weeks, after a drawn-out early labour of 2 days (who said second babies come faster than first babies?!). Coincidentally, Sabrina Verjee was making her way around the Wainwrights at the time, so there was a tracker to follow at all hours of the day and night, which proved to be a welcome distraction. Thankfully Bryn’s birth was without complications, and we returned home later the same day to start life as a family of four. 


I waited until almost 6 weeks postnatally to attempt any running after Bryn was born, which is how long it took for my pelvic girdle pain to settle down. In the meantime, I followed advice from the postnatal physiotherapist I had visited after Rowan was born and worked on my pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. (I subsequently visited her again, for my ‘mummy MOT’ after Bryn; I really recommend a check like this for any mum getting back into training after childbirth.) When I did start running again, it was very gradual, just short jogs interspersed with walking, letting my body guide things. At first, it felt strangely stiff and unnatural, but within a couple of weeks things had loosened up and running became more enjoyable again. At 3 months post-partum I felt ready for some more structured training, and thankfully Damian seemed pleased to coach me again. There have been a few hiccups along the way (including frustrating metatarsal pain that took a month to fully clear up), but Bryn is now almost 7 months old, and I’m beginning to feel my previous fitness and stamina creeping back. I’ve also started doing three-times-weekly live strength sessions with Strength for Endurance, which provide great motivation (especially for someone like me, who finds strength work much more appealing in company) and are great fun. Sometimes Rowan joins in, offering to ‘help’ by clasping my head on her lap during hamstring raises, or sitting on my back as I do push ups, whilst Bryn happily chews on a resistance band in the corner… 

I hope that this blog doesn’t read as a series of pregnancy complaints, it wasn’t meant to. Rather I wanted to give an honest description of the second experience, just as I did about the the action-packed first. Having children has made me incredibly happy, and I am grateful every day for my family, knowing how lucky I am. As for running, I am determined to make time for it, even in the chaos that two little ones bring (at the moment, getting out of the house is my biggest challenge running wise!). Not necessarily because I need to remain competitive, but because it makes me happy. It is my bit of daily self-care, and ultimately makes me a better mum. 


Looking ahead, it is hard to know what this year will bring. I am hoping to run the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa in September, and Konrad has an entry for the Tor des Geants the following week, which will make for an active family holiday. If races don’t go ahead, I expect we’ll see another record-breaking season on the UK long distance hill running circuit. In that case, I hope to have more ambitious targets than the Pentland Skyline this time around…


Monday, January 6, 2020

PTL

La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) is the first and longest race in the week-long Chamonix carnival that culminates in the famous Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Although strictly speaking this is not actually a race. As the organisers said in the briefing beforehand, the course has been designed as a mountain adventure which will draw on the essential solidarity, collective spirit, and basic skills of human mountain endeavours. Whilst the course stats (roughly 290km and 24000m ascent this year) might suggest a challenge roughly double that of the UTMB, this event is far removed from those runnable and meticulously flagged trails, and their spectating crowds.

The PTL is a circular route, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland, and run in teams of two or three. The majority of the course is on small footpaths, frequently taking the lesser known route across the mountains, giving the race that remote feeling of the high mountains. In places there is no path at all, or it is so overgrown that its existence becomes irrelevant to the exhausted travellers trying to find the next refuge in the dead of night.

Our team, composed of myself, Konrad (my husband), and Jim Mann, had been planning this PTL adventure for some time, in fact an entry for the PTL was my long-term goal when I ran the UTMB in 2016. Nevertheless, somewhat ironically, our team was far from prepared when we arrived in Chamonix the day before the race, feeling significantly less fit than we’d have liked (in my case due to a grumbling injury over the summer, going back to clinical work whilst still finishing my PhD thesis in the evenings, and a small person who likes company at night), with zero altitude acclimatization, and in Jim’s case also without any food (cue some last minute shopping and an unusual assortment of bakery products comprising a large portion of his race nutrition).




The race started at 8am on Monday morning, cheered on by a not-insignificant Chamonix crowd. Despite our efforts to set off conservatively, the first 10km of easy trail down the valley to Les Houches were by far the fastest of the race. From there, the course proper kicked off with a 1500m climb to Cabane des Rognes, with a short ‘helmets compulsory’ steep section with ladders at the top of the pass. We continued to make good progress throughout the day, until the afternoon when Konrad (who never does well with heat) started to suffer on the climb to Col de Enclave. Fortunately, there was at this point a small lake available for cold-water rejuvenation therapy (of which I am a strong believer, Lac de Champex saved me at UTMB 2016), so I forced a very reluctant Konrad to dip himself in, whilst I swam around happily, and Jim offered encouragement from the shore. With renewed momentum, we crossed the pass, and dropped to Refuge des Mottetes, and a welcome meal. By now it was late evening, and although we’d originally planned to run through the first night (the way I did on the Spine), we decided to rest for a couple of hours (at this early stage of the race it was of course impossible to sleep, too many people, too much adrenaline). It was a good decision, although a hard one at the time. We re-started with renewed energy, keen to chase back all the teams that had pushed on. The night was tough, with long sections over rocks and no discernible path, a steep scree traverse above a drop which - in the dark of night at least - appeared terribly exposed, and a challenging 2000m descent (the first of many) on rough steep ground and later a trod through overgrown brambles and branches, to finally arrive at the first live base in Morgex (82km) at 8am on Tuesday morning.
Refreshment stop day one (photo Konrad Rawlik)

The leading teams had arrived in the night and had either moved on, or were rested and setting off by the time we appeared. Keen not to get stuck in the valley in the heat of the day, we quickly ate a couple of servings of lasagne, stocked up on apple puree pouches (what a race-food discovery!) and showered before setting out again, climbing up towards Rifugio Fallere. Engrossed in chat, we missed a turn, and had to negotiate a huge herd of cows on their way to the milking parlour to re-join the route. Luckily there was a farmer present to re-direct our navigator Jim, who seemed determined to take us on the straightest line meeting the bovine march head-on. At the refuge we ate again, rested for a couple of hours (Jim and Konrad slept, I still couldn’t), before continuing the climb to Mont Fallere. We reached the top just as a storm broke, and pushed on swiftly, glad to get clear of the metal summit cross, given the lightening flashing across the horizon. It rained for most of the night, and we were grateful for the straightforward long descent on an unusually large and runnable track (not many of those on the PTL!).

Another col (photo Konrad Rawlik)

We reached the town in the valley, where a few hardy supporters were standing in an almost empty car park, to cheer us through. Konrad spotted the open boot of a car and had to be prevented from jumping in for a nap. We did go to sleep briefly on the next climb, lying on the rain-soaked grass beside the path, and for the first time experienced the scarcely credible restorative properties of the ‘power nap’. One and a half thousand meters higher, we reached the ridge, and shortly afterwards arrived at Rifugio Champillon. Inside the atmosphere was party like, and incredibly welcoming. I somehow remember the staff at the bar warming shots of liquor in the stove, which now in retrospect seems very unlikely, but the recollection of hot beef beef stew and vanilla dessert, and many wet shoes clustered around the fire to dry, I am certain of.

Glacier (photo Konrad Rawlik)

After two hours of sleep, we set off downwards again, into the valley, before a long slog up to Col de By, the highest point of the route and roughly the halfway point. A helicopter circled overhead for a while filming, and then a camera man joined us in person on the hillside, repeatedly jogging ahead with frustrating ease to get his shots. The rocky summit could have been that of any Scottish mountain, cold, windy, and damp with fog, but as we started our descent into Switzerland the cloud cleared, and the Glacier du Mont Duran opened out in front of us, sparkling in the sunshine. Donning crampons, we crossed quickly, following the prescribed flagged route, and grateful for the presence of the race officials, harness and ropes over the short section of crevasses. In contrast to our rapid progress over the ice, the rocky glacial morain, with no path, took forever. The next refuge was quiet and empty, we stopped only briefly for boiling water and crunchy rehydrated pasta, before traversing a long valley to reach the Lac du Mannoisin dam, and its thundering mass of falling water. At dusk, after two long weary climbs (made easier by the fact that someone had been out strimming the high mountain path!), we reached Cabane Louvie, where we ate and slept for 2 hours, before embarking upon what was to be our longest, and most eventful section of the race.

Yet another col (photo Konrad Rawlik)

That evening I was feeling a little emotional, and missing my baby, so I took up a position at the back of our team train, where I drifted into thoughts of home. While doing so, I twice fell asleep on my feet, and (looking back) was perhaps a little blasé about stumbling back into consciousness with a lurch, with the valley floor several hundred meters below in the darkness. Over the next few hours, we traversed a ridge, crossed the ski resort at Verbier that we’d skied through on our Chamonix-Zermatt ski tour in April, and passed a refuge that wasn’t open to us, the warm yellow glow of a kitchen window light seemingly left on to goad us. A tricky section of descending was great fun (although Jim was less of a fan of the technical sections on this race), but the wide gentle ridge beyond refused to end, and finally Konrad and I called another power nap stop, which Jim elected to preside over. Sometime later I woke up in darkness, and calling to Jim, realised he was asleep – who knows how long we’d been there!

Jim showing off his technical skills  (photo Konrad Rawlik)

Two thousand meters of descent later, we reached the sprawling and already hot valley at Fully, busy with commuter morning traffic, and a massive contrast to the wilderness of the mountains we’d come from. At the live base we met again with the two teams in front, and established that we’d somehow overtaken the first mixed team in the night, presumably by sleeping less at one of the refuges. We stayed only to eat and shower, preferring to climb out of the valley before the heat of the day set in, with a view to sleep at the next refuge if need be. The 2500m ascent cumulated with some zig-zaging through avalanche barriers below the summit of the Grand Chavalard, which was followed by a long-technical section with multiple static ropes (helmets mandatory again) a short snowfield, and finally the reward of an amazing chicken curry at Cabane Fenestral. With plenty of daylight left, we pushed on to the Dent de Morcles, my favourite mountain of the race, a bizarre layer cake of rocky scrambling. The descent was via a narrow rocky couloir, which opened out rightwards into a long and scenic traverse on a tiny trod over a steep scree drop off. The rock here was a beautiful mix of purple and ochre, and I debated taking a stone back for Rowan, but common sense (and the thought of the 70km we still had to run) prevailed. We passed several caves, clearly occupied in times gone by (one even still had an enormous wooden door, with beds and tables inside – I almost wished for a storm to appear), before arriving at Cabane de la Tourche, at 6pm on Thursday evening.

Torn between sleeping and making the most of the daylight, we hurriedly ate and continued, descending back down to 400m, and crossing the warm valley as it grew dark. At the start of the next climb someone had left a huge barrel filled with water and cooled drinks, with a sign saying “PTL Go Go Go!”, which was very cheering at the time, and in retrospect probably prompted by pity, given what was about to come. This was without doubt the hardest part of the race for me (and I think for Jim – Konrad reacted differently to his fatigue and bizarrely almost ran upwards). I was seeing animals in every rock and stick (I tried telling the others, they showed no interest in discussing the fauna of my hallucinations), and could barely walk in a straight line. At one point near the start of the climb Jim, who was walking behind me, blurted out “Oh for goodness sake, can you take a Pro Plus or something, it’s like following a drunk home!”, but it wasn’t long before he too succumbed, staring in wonder at the “huge slugs eating mushrooms on every side”, and realising that ‘hours’ of climbing had taken us only a couple of metres higher up the mountain. Konrad later admitted that in contrast to his apparent lucidity at this stage, our voices sounded far away and unfamiliar, distant memories in the darkness.

To make matters worse, the climb was ridiculously steep and the overhanging trees closed overhead like a tunnel. When the gradient finally lessened the undergrowth thickened, and we had to push back bracken, heather and ferns to make a way through. Konrad asked Jim (who was holding the GPS) several times whether we were still on the trace, until finally taking the device from him, zooming in, and discovering we very much were not. Ironically, when we did finally re-join the path the going wasn’t much easier, rather rocks and ferns, interspersed by boulder slabs running with water. When, at long last, we reached the ridge, bathed in starlight, I whooped for joy, then set off in pursuit of the others, who were already heading down towards refuge Cabane Salanfe, and our final sleep of the race. And what a sleep that was! Some 26 hours, 73 km and 7000 m ascent after our last sleep, now in our own room, with clean sheets and soft feather duvets (or at least that’s how I remember them) - this was the very definition of the phrase ‘fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow’.

Relaxing last day (photo Konrad Rawlik)

At 4am, after a life-affirming 2 hours of bliss, we set off back into the darkness, for the final push towards Chamonix. The refuge kitchen had closed for a few hours after feeding us the evening before, and we had 3 big climbs between us and breakfast (or more accurately lunch). Somewhere between the first and second col it started to get light, and by the time we arrived at Col de Barberine the mountains were bathed in an incredible orange glow, the splendour of the whole Mont Blanc range spread out before us. It was one of those mountain moments that you remember forever, a thought to sustain the soul through the long winter months at work in the UK - wilderness, awe, freedom and perspective all rolled into one. We were running with team 3fous, and there was a real party atmosphere, we knew we’d make it to Chamonix by the evening, which in itself was a fantastic feeling.

Sunrise on the last morning with Mt. Blanc (photo Konrad Rawlik)

From the last section to the finish it felt like we were flying. Setting off that morning, we’d aimed to finish after the start of the UTMB (as we understood it, the PTL finish line closes from around 4pm to 6pm for the UTMB start), but when our companions said at lunchtime that we could get back before, we were suddenly motivated to try. I’d imagined we’d finish the PTL in a broken state, but it was actually quite the opposite. Whilst we had certainly not been prepared for the PTL at the start line on Monday, by Friday we’d completed a 4-day altitude running training camp, and were all feeling pretty good! We covered the remaining 22km/1000m ascent in 4 hours loving the ladders at the foot of the Aiguilles Rouge, and gradually meeting more and more people as we neared Flegere. Ironically, I found the final 10km much easier and more enjoyable, than I’d remembered from UTMB 2016. Our friends Katie, Iain, and Eoin were waiting for us at the entrance to Chamonix, and from there it was a short celebratory run through town to the final arch, and the prized cowbells awaiting us there. We watched the start of the UTMB in a café eating pizza and drinking beer, and called home to learn that the toddler had missed us less than the dog.

The PTL is a genuine mountain adventure, a mountain marathon with friends on an epic scale, which will leave you with memories to draw on for years to come. Definitely one to do again.

All done (photo Konrad Rawlik)

Spine Race

It’s taken me almost a year to sit down and write this, my account of running the Montane Spine Race 2019. Since then I’ve done countless interviews for all sorts of sources, and I could answer their standard questions in my sleep. Yet I feel there is more to tell, at least for those genuinely interested, so here’s my story.

The Spine is a 268-mile long race run along the Pennine Way, starting from Edale in the south and finishing at Kirk Yetholm in the north. Checkpoints along the way are roughly 40 to 50 miles apart - between them runners are reliant on their own food supplies and navigational abilities, as the race route is not specifically marked. Critically, the race is run in mid-January, when winter weather conditions and limited daylight hours conspire to thwart progress and weaken resolve. In a final twist, the race is non-stop, with competitors having 7 days to make the journey – which means that sleep is a highly tactical aspect, too much and you’ll drop places, too little and you’ll drop out.

The fact that I signed up to race the Spine was in itself something of an irony. I’d followed the race for many years, and had crossed paths with the runners whilst racing ‘Trigger’ (from Marsden to Edale) on several occasions, always noting their large packs, and slow-moving forms, braced against the wind with 250+ miles still to go… After these encounters, I’d pronounce decidedly ‘One would have to be crazy to run that race, what suffering it must entail!’. Yet I suppose that a part of me must have been intrigued, by precisely that – the challenge of a race I wasn’t sure I could finish, at least not in a racing capacity.

In September 2018, I finished my season with a second place at the Ben Nevis race, thus winning the British Fellrunning Championships series 9 months after giving birth to our baby girl Rowan. Whilst I was proud of this comeback, I was also very aware that I wasn’t back to my previous racing form. Moreover, I was finding it harder to motivate myself to train, at 5am before work, after a broken night of sleep, especially with the coming of winter darkness. So I did two things; I signed up for the Montane Spine Race 2019 - a race whose concept and reputation was crazy enough to inspire me, and for the first time in my running career I enlisted the help of a coach – Damian Hall – who provided the perfect structure and accountability to maximise the potential of the limited free time I had available to train.


Training


I trained every day from October to January in the early hours before dawn by the light of a headtorch, mostly in the Pentland and Moorfoot Hills, which are a little south of Edinburgh. Since my time was limited, weekday runs were capped at 1.5 hours maximum, and combined weekend runs amounted to around 10 hours. My weekly schedule was roughly 2-3 harder sessions (for example one speed session, one session of hill repeats, and one tempo/fartlek run), 2-3 ‘recovery’ runs, and two longer runs, one of which might involve some faster running. I did my best to fit in with our family plans, so my Saturday long run was often a loop across the Moorfoot hills to our local parkrun, where I would finish with a fast 5km pushing Rowan in the buggy, whilst Konrad raced for real. My mileage increased gradually, from around 50 miles a week in October, to 100 miles over the New Year, in a week that included 3 back-to-back long runs of 5-6 hours each. With the exception of the speed sessions, I ran everything with a pack, increasing the weight gradually from 1kg to around 6kg by January. Whilst I tried to practice race nutrition on long runs, I wasn’t convinced it was very helpful, since eating is rarely a problem for me until around 8-10 hours into a race. With the exception of the Cheviot Goat race in December, I didn’t do any recce runs on the Pennine Way itself, although I had vague memories of the route from running it with Konrad in November 2014 (on that occasion we ran from north to south, staying in B&Bs every night and enjoying slap-up evening meals and breakfasts; it took us 6 ½ days in total). To augment the running, I did some strength training (although not as conscientiously as I should have), and swimming (although much less than in my pre-baby days). In retrospect, I suppose I also trained the sleep deprivation aspect of the race – not by choice I should add – because Rowan was still waking up every 2-3 hours during the night at the time.


Final preparations


In the final days before the race I felt reasonably confident in my training and resulting physical fitness. Of a greater concern to me was the thought of leaving my family for up to a week, in particular because - in spite of my intention for her to be weaned by January – Rowan was still breastfeeding at regular intervals as the race day approached. Knowing that I didn’t want to force the matter (at 13 months she no longer really needed breastmilk and rarely asked for it when I wasn’t there, but it was an important part of our relationship), I made sure there was a sufficient supply of frozen expressed breast milk in the freezer to cover my absence, and resigned myself to pumping at checkpoints (mastitis on the Spine was the last thing I needed).

Checkpoint To-Do's

Knowing how tired I was likely to be in the later stages of the race, I laminated a list of essential Checkpoint To-Do’s, which included tasks such as ‘headtorch batteries’, ‘swap map’, ‘food and water re-supply’ and also now also ‘breast pump. I slotted this into the lid of my drop bag, which would be transported between checkpoints for me by the race organisation. Keen to limit checkpoint ‘faffing’ (in ultra-races, when one gets very tired, huge chunks of time can disappear without trace – I was determined to be either moving, eating or sleeping), I prepared food bags for each checkpoint, containing the required 3000 kcal of food, and trying to make this as varied as possible (in my experience, as one loses the desire to eat, variety is key to maintaining food intake – ultimately, it’s just fuel, and the body can’t keep moving forwards without it).

On the advice of my good friend Jim Mann, who’d run the Spine in 2018, I’d joined the Spine Facebook page for advice on gear, in particular my dilemma about socks. Whilst some answers were forthcoming (for example, permission to use the SOL emergency bivvy), I found the discussions somewhat overwhelming – everyone seemed so well prepared and had clearly been planning their blister-evasion strategies for months. In contrast, I had tested my socks (Drymax), and new shoes (Inov8 Roclite 275s with G-grip) only a couple of times, although I’d been running in the older version of the shoe all winter. My yes/no gaiter dilemma was decided on the morning of the race, when I asked a fellow competitor whether they knew how to attach them – he pointed out that I was missing the loops to do so, whereupon I vaguely remembered the elastic bits I’d left in the box in Scotland, assuming they weren’t important. Needless to say, I started without gaiters (note this refers to running gaiters, I had the hiking variety in my drop back, in case of deep snow).

Reference Splits (colour indicates day, times in parentheses are rest times)

Having never run a non-stop race as long as the Spine, it was hard to predict how long it might take me. Looking back at the 2018 leaders’ splits, it seemed to me that their pace typically started around 5mph but dropped to half of that in the later stages. A more logical approach would surely be to aim for a steady 4mph throughout, with some solid blocks of sleep from checkpoint 2 or 3 onwards? With Konrad’s help, I drew up a vague plan along those lines, with the surprising but encouraging finding that this would have me arriving in Kirk Yetholm by Wednesday evening. Given that this would fall well within the course record, I suspected that it was probably overly ambitious (although ironically, my finish time prediction turned out to be fairly accurate, except that I ran more slowly, and therefore slept less in order to achieve it.

We spent the day before the race at my parents’ house in Hadfield (which lies at the edge of the Peak District – the moors of Bleaklow were the site of many childhood adventures), relaxing and seeing friends. Rowan slept badly that night, but she was fast asleep when I crept out of bed at 5.30am, heading for Edale and the start of the Spine.


Start (Edale) – CP1 (Hebden Bridge), 74km, 2,442m ascent


(photo Mick Kenyon (Racing Snakes)/Montane Spine Race)

At 8am on Sunday 13th January, still in semi darkness, we lined up for the start of the 2019 Montane Spine race. The weather was wet and windy, but not overly cold, any hope of frozen bogs had been abandoned. It seemed silly to push through to the front, given how far we had to go, so I started somewhere amongst the general mass, and gradually moved into the leading group. This contained the favourites for race victory – previous winners Eoin Keith and Eugeni Rosello Sole, alongside other strong contenders, including Jayson Cavill. Eugeni seemed unsettled from the outset, keen to be moving faster, and kept looking back from his position at the front, as if waiting for someone to make a move. I felt the pace was more than fast enough. As we reached the top of the climb up Jacob’s Ladder, Eugeni broke away alone, and disappeared into the mist in front. Based on previous races, it seemed unlikely that Eugeni would want to race the entire Spine solo from the front, and Eoin clearly felt this too, as he made no move to follow.

For the remainder of the day we ran into a strong head wind, which swung at times into a cross wind, but was rarely in our favour. The Kinder Downfall waterfall was blowing uphill in a great plume of white spray, and I began to question my decision not to start in waterproof trousers. Jason clearly did too, since he stopped to put them on, only re-joining us a couple of hours later, around Blackstone Edge. The rain started again, but along with it came a spectacular rainbow, a cheering sight after a day of grey. Eugeni reappeared, possibly recognising the value of company in the face of the wind. At dusk we passed the impressive Stoodley Pike, where the gusts threatened to knock us off our feet and started the descent to Calderdale. Without really noticing, we’d dropped several people, and by the time we pulled out headtorches for the final hour into the checkpoint at Hebden Bridge, it was just Eoin, Eugeni and myself. I started to worry that my achilles tendon was beginning to ache – a potential disaster at this early stage if I wanted to reach the end – and decided to collect my running poles from the checkpoint, to ease the load on my feet, just in case.

The descent to the checkpoint was steep and treacherous, wet with mud and fallen leaves. At the bottom, we emerged to lights and people, all eager to help. I’d expected we’d all go inside, but it seemed there was an option to keep our shoes on in the outer room, and this was clearly Eoin and Eugeni’s intention. Being keen to run in company for the first night if possible, I followed suit, seating myself in a corner and somewhat clumsily expressing milk with one hand whilst I shovelled down pasta and rice pudding (sequentially, not at once!) with the other. I smeared some Vaseline on areas prone to chaffing, thanked the fantastic volunteer staff, and headed after the others, whose lights were already some way above in the darkness. This was probably the only checkpoint where the expressing issue really cost me any time, and it was fairly minimal – later on my milk supply dropped (the body is pretty smart!), and it hardly took any time at all.

The first 46 miles had taken us 10 hours. In the course of the day, I’d eaten a scotch egg, a bagel with ham, several chocolate bars and biscuits, a banana (thanks to a stranger handing them – and the chocolate - out to us all), and a bag of homemade trail mix. I hardly saw the others eat anything, with the exception of the donated chocolate. Still, I felt it was better to eat whilst the going was good, since it would no doubt get harder down the line.


CP1 (Hebden Bridge) – CP2 (Hawes), 98km, 3,195m ascent


(photo Mark Haywood)

In many ways, the next section was the hardest part of the race for me. I was missing my family and worrying how bedtime would be progressing in my absence. Meanwhile, the darkness and winter had closed in tightly around us, and the occasional lights we passed only served to remind us how nice it would be beside a cosy fire, or indeed heading for a warm bed. With over 200 miles of racing still to go, I couldn’t really contemplate the finish line yet, so instead I tried to focus on getting to Hawes – or at least the intermediate checkpoint at Malham Tarn. To lift my spirits, I called home, but whilst doing so I dropped a glove and subsequently lost several minutes retracing my steps to search for it, necessitating a faster section of solo running to catch my companions.

I was very grateful for their company that night. Eoin in particular, had an aura of experience and calm about him, that made it all seem relatively routine. Once we’d started to chat, I also realised how likeable he was, and the next few hours passed remarkably quickly (conversation with Eugeni was harder due to the language barrier, but the feeling was very amiable). The wind had dropped now, so it was silent as we passed the moonlit Ponden reservoir, until a flock of roosting birds took flight over our heads. Climbing up to Ickornshaw Moor, we met some fell runners, who gave us chocolate and coffee, and a little while later – at Lothersdale – we feasted on Christmas cake courtesy of a local tri club.

For some time after that the terrain and gradient were nondescript, and sleep inducing, until we reached the slippery boulders marking the climb to Malham Tarn. Here we started to pass occasional Challenger Runners, although in my sleep-fogged state I didn’t work that out until later. At the intermediate checkpoint I drank a strong coffee and a hot chocolate, but still nearly fell asleep on the toilet. In retrospect, it seems odd that I should have been so tired on the first night of the race, but I explain it as my chronically sleep-deprived body trying to exert some influence on me – once it had given up, staying awake became less of a trial.

After that I started to feel better, especially on the climbs. We passed Fountain Fell and scrambled up to the summit of Pen-y-ghent as the sky turned pink with dawn. In Horton we stopped for a hot drink (and a slice of cold pizza from my pack in my case), before pushing on towards Hawes at a steady walk/jog, now in sunshine. Eoin had dropped back a little, and I remember Eugeni telling me as we descended towards the village “We go to supermarket, one minute!”, to which I replied with a laugh, “No, I’m going to the checkpoint to pump some milk, I’ll see you there”.


CP2 (Hawes) – CP3 (Middleton in Teesdale), 54 km, 1,871m ascent


(photo Mark Haywood)

After cottage pie, tea and cake, I sorted out my kit, changed my socks and left. I was feeling strong, and keen to run on my own for a bit, so I pushed the pace leaving town. At Hardraw I ran past a group of supporters, and narrowly avoided a chicken – later I learnt that this photograph had afforded the chicken its moment of fame on social media – before starting the climb of Shunner Fell. It felt good to be running at my pace, and I had clearly opened a gap, seeing no chasing figure behind me as I reached the summit. Unfortunately for me, the descent was open and visible for miles, with straightforward navigation. As I feared, a small black figure appeared on the horizon behind me before I was out of view and was clearly trying to chase me down. I wasn’t keen to trash my legs with a fast descent, so I stuck with my pace and sure enough, as we reached the valley, I heard a long whistle behind me… I dropped my pace and waited for Eugeni to reach me. He greeted me with ‘Ok? All ok?” or something to that effect, to which I replied (not feeling overly delighted, although it wasn’t clear whether he realised this or not) “Yes, and you?”.

Thus, we continued together on the long climb up to Tan Hill Inn, arriving there just as it grew dark. In contrast to the exposed lonely moors outside, the inn was warm and inviting, full of good smells and company. I ate tomato soup whilst chatting to Liz and Jim, who’d come out to support the Spine, fresh from his win at the Challenger. It was hard to leave that place, and return to the dark, wet, boggy night outside, but the promise of a sleep at Middleton was motivation enough. We followed the white posts and stream bank through the famous bog, then wandered for some time through heather and tussocks before reaching Sleightholme Moor Road. The next section is rather blurred in my memory – dark boggy fields, then moors of the same quality. We passed under the A66, where a welcome box of chocolate biscuits was labelled with ‘Spine Runners, Go Go Go!’ (courtesy of Jim and Liz). A mist had descended, creating a speckled light show in the glare of our headtorches. At long last the lights of Middleton appeared, and we moved more quickly, keen for hot food, company and bed.


CP3 (Middleton in Teesdale) – CP4 (Alston), 63km, 2,002m ascent


(photo Mark Haywood)

After fantastic chicken curry and more rice pudding, I attempted a short shower (not so successful, as the water was cold, but I was too tired to move into another one), washed my socks (I only had two pairs of the ones that I’d started in, and they seemed to be working, so I thought I should probably wash and dry a pair of them for later), and called home. Then I gratefully fell into bed, in my own room (the advantage of being a frontrunner in a race like this) which was wonderfully warm. I climbed into bed fully clothed, with my sleeping bag and 2 extra duvets - it’s amazing how cold one can get when tired. I’d planned to sleep for 3-4 hours, but in the event, I heard the checkpoint staff waking Eugeni around 2 ¼ hours later. I tried getting up, felt wobbly, and lay back down for a second short doze after which I felt better. Breakfast was porridge, and I had company – Eoin had just arrived. It was good to see him, and we chatted for a bit before he headed to bed and I went to pack. Eugeni left a little before me, I was happy to let him go as I fancied being on my own for a while.

I was in two minds about Eugeni’s company – in some ways it was really nice to have somebody to journey alongside, and share the challenges, and the joys. At the same time, I’d put so much effort into my Spine preparations, that I wanted an open race. Whilst I know Eugeni was capable of navigating (for one thing he had run the race several times before, for another he demonstrated it in the later stages), when running with me I sometimes felt like a personal guide, leading the way. Granted, he would occasionally shout out “Left!” or “Right!”, but ironically that didn’t always match the direction he was pointing (although to be fair, this particular feature was rather funny, even endearing). What probably irked me more, was his assumption that we were running as a team, against the rest of the field – this without me ever being consulted. As we approached Middleton for example, he told me emphatically “We must only sleep 1-2 hours, Eoin is coming!”, to which I replied that he was welcome to do as he liked, but so would I.

It was strangely easy to start out again, into the familiar darkness. The wind and rain had dropped, and it was that silent pre-dawn time when the world seems to become still. I jogged along, calculating my pace on the easy flat running to Low and High Force, and was surprised to find that even on this straightforward terrain, I was no longer managing the predicted 4mph I’d calculated on previously.

The rocks around Cauldron Snout were treacherously wet, and I slowed right down, aware of how easily a leg could be broken here (and given the lack of any reception, even for our GPS race trackers, one would wait a fair time for rescue). Climbing up towards High Cup Nick, the wind picked up again, and I stopped behind an abandoned hut to put on extra clothes, thick gloves and a hat. A murky light was coming through as I reached the top, where I wasted some time stupidly following my GPS trace down the steep ‘V’ of the ‘Nick’ itself, before using some common sense – and my map (!) – and starting along the dramatic edge, and down towards Dufton.

Eugeni was waiting for me beyond the village, presumably keen for company, so we joined forces again over Cross Fell (893m), the highest point of the race. The descent from the summit was a joy for tired legs, springy and forgiving. The famous ‘noodle bar’ at Greg’s Hut was disappointingly empty (this, and snow, are the two things I feel I missed out on in my Spine experience!), so we continued on, eventually reaching Alston in the late afternoon.


CP4 (Alston) – CP5 (Bellingham), 64km, 1,674m ascent


(photo Yann Besrest-Butler/Montane Spine Race)

I remember Alston as the site of the best lasagne I have ever eaten. I’d vaguely planned to sleep here, but as it was still light outside, and I was feeling ok, I decided to make a move. Eugeni had lain down and was having a massage – I think his legs and feet were giving him some trouble. He seemed to have fallen asleep in the process and didn’t make any sign as I prepared to leave. Seeing this as my opportunity to get away, I started with genuine purpose. I had roughly 1.5 hours of light and I needed to open as big a gap as possible in that time. I hurried along (although at this stage of the race, it was more of a stick-assisted jog), paying close attention to the race route in the knit of fields and farm dwellings that followed. At Slaggyford, supporters came out from their houses and offered coffee, as well as the welcome news that Eugeni had not yet left the checkpoint. Further along another supporter started to appear at intervals (Mark Haywood, I later learnt that he follows the Spine every year and I have him to thank for some excellent photos), clearly enjoying the race which was developing between Eugeni and myself. Darkness fell as I reached Hartleyburn Common. By now I had a roughly 7.5km gap on Eugeni, but he was definitely chasing! I crossed the A698, negotiated a fiddly bit in the fields, and then hit the frustratingly slow and waterlogged Blenkinsopp Common. Passing Greenhead and Thirlmere Castle, I reached Hadrian’s Wall. The gap back to Eugeni was holding steady, neither of us was making up time – it seemed a battle of the wills, waiting to see who would fold first.

Hadrian’s Wall was eerie and majestic in the misty dark. The short rises and drops were painful for tired legs, and demoralising in their repetition. In this dreamlike setting, the race with Eugeni was losing its intensity, and I struggled to keep some focus. I passed a group of supporters at a road crossing, and someone told me to stop and have a chat with a reporter – a request I ignored in the circumstances.

The section between the wall and Bellingham was a real slog. First bogs and endless forests, then moorland and muddy farmers’ fields. I was very tired, and struggling to stay awake, frequently I would trip up and wake myself just in time to prevent falling. My surroundings started to take on shapes of their own, and the dewy droplets that settled on grass blades and spiders’ webs shone out at me with a strange silver intensity, cutting rudely through my sleep fogged consciousness.

I tried singing aloud to keep myself awake; Spice Girl songs from childhood, and the ‘Woo Woo Woo’ train song from Rowan’s Bookbugs CD (when I hear this now, it still takes me right back to that final night). Later, I started talking to myself, kindly telling myself to put on more clothes and have some sweets – somehow the comfort of having a caring voice made it all less hard, even if that voice was my own.

I was around an hour from Bellingham when I spotted a strong light in the field ahead of me. As I approached, the lady bearing that light invited me in, for soup and tea at Horneystead Farm. Having not raced the Spine before (it seems their hospitality is a recurring feature, one of the highlights), this was the most wonderful surprise. I ate a thick broth (the best broth I have ever tasted), and felt my energy coming back, and my mind clearing. The lady told me, “Pavel’s tweeting about you, he’s excited, but he’s worried you haven’t had enough sleep”. Maybe I thought, but we’ll see.

The last few miles to Bellingham passed quickly. My mum and friend Alex had come out to see me on the hill, which was great for morale. I descended through a field to the sound of tribal beating (the source of which turned out to be a couple of costumed supporters behind a wall – I was beyond the point of finding this strange), and at long last reached the final checkpoint.


CP5 (Bellingham) – Finish (Kirk Yetholm), 67.5km, 2,146m ascent


(photo Mark Haywood)
Whilst I had not been certain I would sleep at Alston; I most definitely had planned to sleep at Bellingham. And yet, when it came to it, I knew that I couldn’t. Or at least I couldn’t if I wanted to stay ahead and try to win the race. I knew it was a big gamble – at this point I’d been racing for almost 3 days, with less than 3 hours of sleep, and I was falling asleep on my feet. But I also knew how hard I’d worked all night staying ahead of Eugeni, and I was fairly certain that if he found me at the checkpoint, he would stick with me to the end. So, I made the gamble. I ate, changed my clothes, and lay down for 40 minutes (I couldn’t sleep, but it was something). Then I drank a strong coffee and left, making my way quickly out of town so that my headtorch light wouldn’t be seen by the pursuer behind me. It was tough, leaving the warmth and safety of that place, but it helped to know that I was on the last leg, heading for my family, and my bed.

The remainder of the night was cold, and surreal. I had a strong feeling that I was running with walls either side, but when I turned to look, there was just empty moorland blackness, and the sound of the wind. I got cold and stopped to put on more clothes, before stumbling on into a slow gray dawn. The forest tracks into Byrness dragged on, and I tried at one point to wake myself up by pressing down hard on a blister – this did the trick, but also left me hopping in pain for several minutes afterwards, the skin of my big toe having detached in the process.

The media team were waiting for me as I dropped into the valley, and Matt said by way of encouragement that many people had been sending inspirational messages, including one about two little girls tracking my progress. In my exhausted state, I found this rather emotional, especially in the context of my own little girl waiting at home, but it was good motivation, and spurred me on to start running again, albeit at a hobble.

At the halfway checkpoint of Byrness Forest Lodge I gratefully consumed hot mince and mash, before lying back in a chair whilst the volunteers kindly dressed my blister. The urge to sleep was strong, but I needed to get moving if I was to finish before night, so I forced myself up and out for the final leg over the Cheviot Hills to home.

That last day was very special. It was bitterly cold but sunny and clear – one could see for miles, all of it hills and wilderness. My mind was by now playing all sorts of tricks on me – everything I looked at changed into something else, typically something living and animal like. In the forest I passed a tree which bent down into the dog-down yoga position, before transforming into a deer, trying to shed its antlers. Once I reached the stone slabs of the Pennine Way, the shapes therein assumed the form of veiled nuns, or horses’ heads, and at one point I saw a bright pink pig running through the heather. These visions didn’t scare me particularly, I knew at the back of my mind that they couldn’t be real, and in some ways they were actually a welcome distraction. I also started to fall asleep again whilst walking along and would intermittently lurch into consciousness with a feeling of disorientation, questioning first where I might be, then realising I was running a race and panicking that I’d left the route.

Towards the afternoon it started to get bitterly cold, and I stopped in a sort of ditch (as much protection as one can find on the exposed tops of the Cheviots), where I put on every item of clothing I was carrying; two pairs of leggings, one pair of waterproof trousers, 3 base layers, one warm layer and one waterproof top, as well as thick gloves and hat. I tried to move as quickly as possible to keep warm, but I was getting increasingly weary and I’d also developed tendonitis running up the front of both legs, so every forward leg-stretch brought with it a sharp pulling pain.

The evening colours had started to soften into orange, gold, and then a dusky shade of pink blending into cold blue. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and I was aware even then that the memories of this final ridge run would last me a lifetime. I reached the junction for The Cheviot and paused for a moment, aware of its significance. As I started the descent from Auchope Cairn, the final hints of light retreated and the sky became a deep blue-black, scattered with thousands of stars.

My focus now was purely on getting to the finish and my family, I’d lost much sense of the race behind me. At Byrness I’d learnt that Eugeni had slept briefly at Bellingham, and that Eoin was further back, but I also knew I’d slowed down, and that the final miles would be painfully slow. I vaguely expected a head torch to appear behind me on the horizon at any moment, but felt strangely accepting of the possibility, knowing I’d given the race everything I had – if someone passed me now, they deserved to win.

A bright light was pulsing on the summit of the Schil in front, but my progress towards it was frustratingly drawn-out. Eventually, I could hear voices, and the camera crew appeared from the blackness in front. They followed me on the descent, no longer struggling to keep up as I ran (or more accurately now, ‘hobbled’) along. Eventually they peeled off, and loped ahead in front, leaving me alone again. The last few miles were agonisingly long – I tried to jog, but I might as well have been walking. The trees lining the road waved their arms at me mockingly, tantalisingly human-like in that silent darkness.

Finally, I reached the top of a small rise and saw the village of Kirk Yetholm spread out below me. I started to run, seeing the crowd of lights at the bottom of the green, and hearing the voices drawing me in. Those final moments were overwhelming – after the silence and solitude of the Cheviots, I was dazzled by this mass of people and flashing lights. Yet there was elation too, and relief. People were talking to me from all sides, then someone ushered me towards the wall, which I needed to touch to finish the race. Everyone was asking what I needed, a bottle of champagne was handed to me, and a medal – but I was interested in only one thing. And then they were there; Konrad handing me a confused looking, warm bundle of loveliness that was Rowan. She peered at me suspiciously from beneath her rabbit-eared woolly hat, and I sensed the potential for rejection, in amongst that crowd of strangers and lights. Quickly I pulled off my black hood and hat, pulling her close and hoping she could smell mummy beneath the layers of sweat and mud. To my relief, she turned to face me with a look of understanding, and all was well (although she waited to ask for a feed until I’d had a shower!).

(photo Yann Besrest-Butler/Montane Spine Race)

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of warmth, clean clothes, food (fish and chips – I’d dreamed of them on my journey), and interviews. I was worried to learn that Eugeni had stopped at Hut 2, and that the race crew were going up to see if he needed help. It transpired that he had started to get irreversibly cold, and there was no choice but to rescue him, with only 6km of the race to go. I was desperately sorry to hear the news - the frustration of being so close to the finish after all that effort – but mainly just relieved to hear he was well and recovering in a warm bed. I’m excited to follow his race this year, and I’ll be holding my fingers crossed for him to have good luck and a cracking run.


The aftermath


I wasn’t really prepared for the media storm that would result from my run at the Spine. Ironically, the post-race days of family time I’d imagined as I ran were taken over by interviews from all sides, it seemed that everyone wanted to talk to me. Whilst the whole thing was rather overwhelming, I have also been touched and deeply inspired by the many messages I have received from people all across the world, telling me their own stories, and explaining that I have made a difference to their lives.

I didn’t race much for the remainder of 2019. It took me several months to feel fresh again, and even then, I kept picking up small injuries which probably indicated a deeper-seated tiredness. After a 3 ½ year hiatus (for a research PhD and maternity leave), I returned to part-time clinical work as a vet (the remainder of my time is still research focused), which in itself was a challenge. We published the paper of my PhD findings, and I submitted and defended my thesis, which was a great weight off my mind. In April we skied the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt, in June I raced on the GB team at the World Trail Championships in Portugal, and at the end of August we ran the Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), with Jim and Konrad, a great adventure that I’ve written about in a separate blog.

As for the future, I won’t be racing the Spine this year, but I will probably be somewhere on Bleaklow to cheer the runners on their first day. I’ll no doubt feel some nostalgia, and maybe even wish myself in their shoes for a moment, but I can guarantee that I’ll make the most of my warm bed and toddler cuddles that week, when I head to sleep after the final dot-check of the night. Good luck!