My love for running is taking me to places around the world that I have dreamed of visiting. I love the challenge the races provides and the opportunity to visit somewhere new and beautiful, it is so rewarding and inspiring. While I do these challenges I also want to support The Gracias Foundation as a charity close to my heart, please feel free to support their many projects by donating on the link below.

Saturday 18 January 2014

The Spine Race:  Part One
11-18 Jan  430km - 1st Lady : 153 hr 17min

As I sit in my warm living room trying to put a few paragraphs together of my race, am I finding it hard to start trying to describe this mammoth experience and all that I went through.  It is so overwhelming knowing where to start, and it has been stopping me from writing.  So I decided to do it in a format of a question and answer session, and use the questions people often ask me when we get chatting about my endeavours. 

At the start in Edale
I ran this race to support The Gracias Foundation. Gracias’s mission is to empower vulnerable and impoverished women and children with holistic resources to lead dignified and self-sustainable lives. They work with small grassroots organizations that are already catalysing social change in their communities but just need an extra boost to maximize their impact – like the safe house in the Congo that heals young women and girl survivors of sexual violence, or the youth home in Ethiopia that cares for adolescent orphans living with HIV. Thanks for taking the time to donate using the link on the left hand side of the page.

Why did I choose to do this particular race?
I entered this race to give myself a challenge between seasons.  However when I entered the race I thought it was 268km and it was only after I had paid and started to read through the details of the race that I realised it was 268 miles.  This was a bigger challenge than I thought and was the first time I got really scared and would not be the last time.   This would be the longest race I would be attempting and I had trouble fathoming how long the distance was and whether I could even complete the distance.

Sunrise at Walshaws Reservoirs
However, there was another reason why I wanted to do this race; it’s also a reason why I enjoy taking part in Ultra races.  It’s to get back to nature and experience something unblunted and real. To experience the pain of pushing myself beyond my boundaries but equally the joys of seeing the beauty of nature, feeling the lowest of the low moment and some great high moments and seeing sunrise in the mornings.  I like to feel all the emotions of real nature, which are often supressed in the world we live in today.  I like to escape from the TV, the i-pad, the internet, work and budgets and all those homely comforts I enjoy.  It about going back to basics,  being in the moment and experiencing what nature has to offer whether it is good or bad.

What is the Spine race?
It’s classed as the most brutal race in Britain and it lived up to its name!  The race is 268 miles (431km) in length and I had 168 hours (7 days) to complete the course.  This was not your normal ultra-race and had many differences comparing to your standard Ultra. 

Firstly this course was not marked, so I had to use a compass, map and GPS to follow the route.  The route is the Pennine Way and a large part of it is sign posted, as it is a hiking route.  However don’t be fooled into thinking it is just as easy as following the sign posts. Very often there are no sign posts and you are left to follow a loose path which might be clear in daylight however in the dark following the route can become very difficult.  This meant I would need to ensure my navigation skills were on the mark as I didn’t want to waste time and energy getting lost!

Pub Meal from Hare & Hound at Lothersdale
Secondly there were no water/feed stations catering to your needs every 5 or 10kms.  There were however 5 checkpoints which were approx. 70km apart, therefore I would have to carry enough food and water to last between checkpoints.  It was only at these checkpoints would I be able to get access to my drop bag, extra clothes, hot food, tea and a bed, however we were allowed to make use of local services such as pubs and shops, if we passed them when they were open.  This was one of the best rules in the race.  You cannot believe how great it is to arrive in a little village after being out for 10 hours in the wilderness.  To sit in a warm, dry pub and order some hot food.  It’s like feeding all your senses with the most amazing things possible.  As this is now the 3rd year of the race, the locals were not fazed by my muddy tired appearance and hardly batted an eyelid when I stumbled through the door to order a dish that I had been fantasizing about for the last 3 hours. It’s like heaven and Christmas all rolled into one.

Thirdly most ultra’s finish within a day or two of the starting time so sleep deprivation is limited.  As this race lasted up to 7 days, sleep deprivation was going to be something I would feel and have to overcome.  In fact my sleep strategy would be major part of this race and getting it wrong could mean I might not finish.   In total I had roughly 13 hours sleep which was about 25% of what I would have in a normal week. While I did have times where I had hallucinations and sometimes was falling asleep walking along a path only to be woken up when I waded through a large puddle, I felt this was roughly the right amount of sleep and think that I could have done with a little less, if I was to push myself harder. 

Some of the Muddy trails
Fourthly and finally the running ultra-scene and races normally take place in the summer or early autumn months so you can make use of the long daylight hours and warmer weather.  This makes it all the more pleasurable to see where you are placing your feet and enjoy the wonderful beauty around you.  The Spine however is held in the middle of the British winter where I would have approx. 8 hours of daylight each day, so the majority of the race would be ran in darkness.  Additionally for those that know Britain and its weather, winter is not the best time to be running around moors and mountains in the dark.  In fact before the race, Britain had endured a very wet start to winter with much of Britain seeing extreme flooding.  This meant that the course was going to be very wet and muddy, not the easiest of running conditions and something my feet would not enjoy.  We also got to experience the best of Britain’s changeable weather with gales, hale, snow, rain, but were luckily enough to see some sun.

What was the best part? 
There were so many good parts to this race, so I will give you some of the highlights of my race:

No sooner had we started and the heavens opened.  I saw a lot of people stop to put on their waterproof trousers.  I had polar fleece pants on and was moving fairly quickly so decided not to bother with mine and it was a good decision as I didn’t feel cold at all on route to CP1.  I stayed warm even when it started to snow.  I secretly had been hoping for snow during the race, as I love running in the snow.  I was so happy that I got to experience some of the race with snow.  It made me smile and I got energy from it falling from the sky.  Smiling is always good on a race like this, it creates positive energy and keeps the forward momentum.

I loved the route from CP2 (Hawes) up Great shunner fell.  At this point I had teamed up with Karl and Ed and it was beautiful morning with the sun shining.  The views were stunning and the terrain was fairly dry with a great firm path.  From the top I was skipping down the hills on an easy runnable route towards Thwaite.  This gave me energy and another smiling moment.

Me and Karl 
Me and Ed

The route from CP3 to CP4 was fantastic.  The path along the river going passed low force and high force was firm and dry, we passed many waterfalls and again the sun was shining.  We had to cross a few boulders and continued further up the river to the magical falls at Cauldron Snout.  What a great sight.  From here to Dufton was a long trek via High Cup Plain.  I believe this was my best moment.  I was still with Karl and Ed but at this point I was ahead marching through the snow to High Cup Plain.  I began singing to myself and made up little songs of the race, they were basic but I sung them over and over.  Then I just hummed the tune or la la’d to the tune.  During this whole time I was singing out loud, with the biggest grin on my face.  Here I was in the middle of nowhere, taking part in the Britain’s most brutal race, hiking through snow, singing to myself and I loved every single minute.  I even took time out to stop and make little baby snowmen on the bridge.   Feeding my inner child!

Cauldon Snout

High Cup Plain

In Dufton we were told the conditions on Crossfell were harsh.  The wind was howling, it was dark and there was a lot of snow. With such tough conditions we were advised to team up, so Karl, Ed and I teamed up with Gary, John and Steve.    I was really nervous at this point.  I had not experienced being up a mountain in the dark, having to find a path through snow, while the wind was howling and being sleep deprived.  This was new for me and I was so scared of getting Hypothermia and having to drop out that I was being super cautious with what I was wearing and ensuring I had enough on but not too much where I might overheat and then the sweat makes me cold.   Massive thanks to Karl and Gary who took the lead of the navigation and the rest of us followed in single file behind them, sometime in thigh deep snow. 

 As I got used to being in the conditions I started to enjoy it, which was good as there were 4 summits, Green Fell, Knock Fell, Little Dun Fell and Cross Fell.  Each time I thought we were there we would go down a little and but up again.  The one thing keeping me motivated was making it to

Greg’s Hut.  Waiting at Greg’s Hut was P&J’s Noddle bar with Kat, John and someone else (sorry can’t remember the name but I bet it begins with a P) who looked after filling us with hot noodles, cups of tea and coffee, biccies, chocolate and Kendal mint cake.  The time we spent there was amazing, all cosily gathered around the fire.  Whilst this part of the race pushed me the furthest out of my comfort zone, it was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying having managed through and making it to Alston (CP4) without Hyperthermia.

My Kit at Checkpoint 1…making use of the space
A great part of the race that I cannot miss out, are the Checkpoints.  Most checkpoints in a race are basic, where they are designed to allow you to quickly come in, restock on food and return to the race.  The spine checkpoints are completely different and feel like luxury.  They are a haven for hot food, multiple cups of tea, a mix of snacks and the best feet fixers I have met!  My feet suffered badly during the race so I can attest to their first rate service, which was often done while they were sleep deprived themselves.   The checkpoints were where you got access to your drop bags to changes clothes, restock on food and have a sleep.  In most of the checkpoints there were beds and it was fantastic to grab a couple of hour’s kip after being out for nearly 24 hrs.  A massive thank you to all those that helped out at the checkpoints and words cannot describe how much us runners  appreciated your support.
My feet at the end…taping as a result of the excellent Medics…thank you!

Another big thank you was to Sharon Dixon who let me use her car for a nap at Byrness.  At this point in the race I was completely exhausted and sleeping as I walked along the paths.  I do really mean I was sleeping.  My eyes were shut and I was moving forward or sideways and suddenly I would wake up again.  We didn’t stop as Karl assured us we would be arriving at Byrness very soon.  When we arrived at the car park I fell to the ground and just wanted to sleep.  After much persuasion I got into Sharon’s car and had the best 10-15 min nap of my life.  It is amazing what a power nap can do, it really picked me up and energised me for the next leg.

What was the worst part?
My first low point and probably my worst, was going up Pen-y-ghent.  It was very windy, the rain was lashing down and we had to scramble up rocks.   I got very dizzy.  I was seeing little spots in front of my eyes, which wasn’t a good thing when scrambling up rocks.  Once at the top I tried to eat more bars to give me energy as I suspected my blood sugar was low.  My stomach wasn’t happy with this as it didn’t understand that I was doing a race and it should expect to be digesting food every half hour or so.   From here it didn’t get any better.  I still had more than 25km to get to Hawes which was the next Checkpoint.  My stomach didn’t want to digest anything but I knew I had to keep eating or I would pay for it later.  I tried to each a little every half hour.  My stomach continued to plague me, I was still a bit dizzy, I felt exhausted and disorientated.  Thankfully the route was fairly easy to follow up the cam road which went on for km after km.  I was with a group of around 7 people and me and another guy followed up the rear.  I was plodding away, barely holding on, but at least I was moving.  I kept moving forward believing it would pass.  It probably took 4 or 5 hours to get to Hawes and it was only in the last hour did I begin to feel a bit better.   I was so thankful to get to Hawes, where I could sit down, get some hot food and get into my sleeping bag and get a few hours kip before heading out again

Another one of my low points was moment where I split from Karl & Ed after Windy Gayle. Karl, Ed and I had been together from CP2, so had spent a good part of the race with them, almost like a small running team.  However I felt totally empty of energy, tired and overcome with the task at hand.  I was having trouble breathing when we went up hill and had developed a slight cough.   I was moving slowly and I was trailing behind both Karl and Ed which meant they had to keep stopping to wait for me.  I could tell they weren’t happy with the situation and it came to a head when Ed shouted at me that I needed to keep up.  That broke me, I burst into tears and shouted some stuff back, I was very emotional and was just trying to keep it together to get to the end (in fact re-living the moment brings tears to my eyes even now).  I had around 18kms until the end so not that far but I knew it would still take another 3 or 4 hours.  We carried on and I mulled the situation over in my head.  I eventually stopped and told the boys to carry on without me.  I couldn’t keep their pace anymore and didn’t want to hold them back.  After being together for so long , they were reluctant to go but on the other hand I could tell it was what they wanted to do.  Eventually after talking through the situation and ensuring them I would be ok, they both went off together towards the finish, leaving me upset and alone.  I was feeling very sorry for myself and had a big cry.  My feet were hurting, making it hard to move and I was focusing on the pain which was also slowing me down.  This was my lowest point, I gave my sister a call something I never do during races, but I knew she was at the finish waiting for me to arrive.  I chatted and cried to her probably making no sense what so ever but she was great, she was super positive and gave me encouraging words to get me moving.  I don’t know if it was what she said or just hearing her voice but it was the encouragement I needed to push forward.  I had been walking since CP5 and had not done any running, so I decided to try and run the downhills, something I always love doing and something that brings me energy and smiles.  The only problem was that my feet hurt so much it was going to be a hard task to tell them to move from a plod to a run.  The first few attempts were hard, but I persevered and used the pain to give me energy to get to the finish sooner.  I was now running the downhills and some of the flats and it felt good.  I had a smile on my face and I was enjoying the race again!   Races like this give you hard negative moments, sometimes for hours at a time but I always keep in the back of my mind that there will be positive moments to come and I will get out of the bad times.  Whilst these moments are often the worse part of the race, having them makes you stronger and provides you with an experience of what you can cope with when times get tough, making those good moments all the more enjoyable.   

How was the navigation, did you make any mistakes?
I don’t remember a lot of the journey to CP1 so that means I was going well and feeling good, however the bits I do remember were the silly Nav errors that were made and where I wasted about 1 hour going back and forth on Castleshaw moor.  I was with Andy and it had just started to get dark.  I had not really used my map yet and I had been following the queue of people but at this stage the queue had disappeared and with the darkness setting in it was necessary to use my map.  Andy however had done this route before so I made the assumption he knew where he was going, my first mistake.  My second mistake was to not get my map out and check where we were and where we were going.  The frustrating part was I had read about the route and marked my map that there was a specific right turn I had to make which was tricky so I should be aware.   We went straight on and somehow we ended up on the Pennine Bridleway instead of the Pennine way (Yes they are different).  We managed to get to the A640 and realised our mistake so set off back up the road to get on the right route.  However mistake 3 came about when I trusted Andy’s GPS instead of my map.  I knew the turning we had to make was beside a carpark but we took an early turn as according to the GPS it was within 5m correct.  This took us down a path which led again to the Bridleway…..ouch.  Now we were frustrated.  I took over the nav, realised where we were.  We had 2 options;  go back down  the route we had just come and find the right path further up the road or to go cross country and get back on the Way.  I preferred the latter option as we had a great handrail of a stream to take us there.  This was our choice and it worked perfectly.  Back on route and back to nav.

Part 2 coming soon….

Saturday 26 October 2013

Time off
Having got back from the Grand 2 Grand I took some time off to recovery and give my body some much needed rest.  My foot infection took more out of me than I expected and has certainly given me greater respect for my feet and for my next race I will ensure I take extra super care.

I didnt run for about 2 weeks and then did some easy training, with no plans just running when I felt like it.  If felt good to do that, no stress to get up early and run or fit my run in at lunch time or wonder how I could convince my daughter to cycle beside me while I do a session.  It has been great to run when I felt like it and run when I had time.

One run I did was from Interlaken to Harder Kulm, it was amazing