Slow and steady: facing Britain’s ‘most brutal’ race

Posted by pt91 at Jan 20, 2015 03:58 PM |
The School of English’s Dr Mark Rawlinson recounts his experience tackling the Spine Race
Slow and steady: facing Britain’s ‘most brutal’ race

Mark Rawlinson (School of English, left), with Joe Faulkner of NAV4 Adventure, somewhere South of Bellingham, night five of the Spine Race (photo: Andrew Burton).

The directors of the Spine Race call it Britain’s most brutal race – a continuous foot race up the Pennine Way (270 miles) in winter. Competitors can refuel at five checkpoints, but are otherwise expected to be self-sufficient. Sleep is a necessity, whether a bivouac en route (we took our first nap after thirty hours, in a bird hide in Yorkshire) or at a checkpoint, but it adds to your race time, so must be taken sparingly (competitors had from 10th-17th January 2015 to complete the course). The intervals between checkpoints dictate a big push in the first half of the race: our plan was to go straight through the first check point (45 miles) and then, after a short rest at the end of day two, do a 25 hour day to get us to check point two (Hawes, 107 miles). This achieved, we could use the remaining check points for recovery between the last four 45 mile stages. That was the theory, and despite the very harsh weather, it just about worked out.

The Pennine Way, established as a long-distance hiking route in the 1970s, combines weather-blasted uplands (two thirds of the route is above 1000’, Cross Fell tops out above 3000’) with extensive bogs; it starts in Edale, Derbyshire, takes in Hadrian’s Wall and finishes with a remote twenty-five mile stretch over the Cheviot hills on the Northumberland/Scotland border. January weather makes the journey marginal from the perspective of both endurance and safety – the start was delayed because competitors were being knocked off their feet on Kinder Scout, and we were twice held at checkpoints while the course was battered by the gales and blizzards which were making headlines in the Daily Express.

Several runners were retired with corneal abrasions from the winds of day one, and in general the competitors who make it to the end are the ones who take the greatest care in slowing down the rate of their physical decline. I teamed up with navigation instructor and Cumbrian adventure-racing legend Joe Faulkner on the start line, and we worked together over the next six days to move as efficiently as possible – error-free navigation, tactical eating and sleeping, and anticipation of the impact of the weather. Thus we were in the minority who were able to traverse Cross Fell in the snow, and placed 20th and 21st overall.

But planning only goes so far and the most memorable aspects of the race will be the surprises – both the bad ones, such as how much worse the weather could get, and the good ones: Mr Andrew Burton waiting at a road-head in Kielder Forest with bowls of his pheasant and hazelnut curry, and the ministry of the Race Psychologist.

This is the longest continuous race I’ve run, and it only now I’ve finished that I can see how little the dozen hundred-mile mountain races I’ve run in Britain and Europe prepared me for a week on the Pennine Way. The Spine Race is not about speed, but about managing resources, pain and boredom. This might suggest that the Spine offers a lesson for life, but if there was a demonstrable learning outcome for this race it would have to be ‘don’t enter again next year.’

Dr Mark Rawlinson

School of English

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