Breaking the Spine of Britain's Most Brutal Race
The Spine Race is a 268-mile seven-day contest across Britain's historic Pennine Way – and it takes place in January. We went along to see just how brutal it is.
All photos by Mick Kenyon
The Montane Spine Race is a 268-mile seven-day foot-race along Britain's historic Pennine Way – a never-ending wilderness of peaks, barren moors, bogs, and dales. That's tough, but what makes it brutal is it being held in January – and the fact it's non-stop.
Now in its fifth year, the Spine Race is the brainchild of expedition photographer Scott Gilmour and polar logistics expert Philip Hayday-Brown. I spent the seven days covering the race, following the "Spiners" as they headed north in sub-zero temperatures.
A day before the race, 68 runners from around the world gather at a youth hostel in the tiny North Derbyshire town of Edale, where the event begins. The afternoon is spent signing in and checking gear before attending a compulsory in-depth safety briefing in a dimly-lit hall.
The atmosphere is one of subdued hysteria. There's a feeling of nervousness mixed with sheer excitement, and talk of UK astronaut Tim Peake's good luck tweet from the International Space Station 200 miles above earth.
On registering, each person is given a GPS tracker that can be viewed by anyone online. The tracker has two buttons: on/off and SOS. Philip explains to a room full of apprehensive runners that if you press your SOS button, your race is over. Finished.
In addition to this draconian rule, runners are informed not to stop for longer than an hour. The reason: partners following the dots online have been known to make frantic calls to Spine Race HQ convinced their significant other is dead. It's delivered facetiously, but over the years contestants have been poleaxed by hypothermia, frostnip, and temporary blindness due to battering winds and sub-zero temperatures.
That directive is quickly followed by a reminder to always return your tracker if you do drop out. Nothing is more confusing for race co-ordinators than watching no.154 flying down the M25 at 4am as the DNF (Did Not Finish) returns home.
Each entrant must carry a compulsory 29-item list that includes a knife, Immodium tablets, and shelter in the form of a tent or bivvy bag. As part of the £725 entry fee, a resupply bag is carted to six checkpoints along the trail where food is provided, as well as a mandatory assessment by a doctor.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of race attracts a variety of individuals – from long-distance backpackers to elite endurance athletes. One such athlete is 31-year-old Czech Pavel Polancy who's won the Spine Race twice. Pavel is the captain and navigator of the Czech national adventure race team and is described by fellow Spiners as a very relaxed machine.
I bumped into the 6'5" broad-shouldered legend at the Edale Youth Hostel where he suggested I join him and other racers for a beer after the briefings.
"There's no reason to be stressed before the start," he told me. "It's no big deal. I have no expectations."
His approach is to "go hard" and let sheer adrenaline drive him beyond his limits. From experience, adventure-racing Pavel can power on for up to 65 hours straight before hitting a barrier. His mantra: resilience, navigation, towel. The towel is a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference.
The following morning at 10:00, six women and 62 men begin a 268-mile expedition to the Scottish border town of Kirk Yetholm.
As the main race developed over the first day, it wasn't long before a pack of three established itself as an unstoppable triumvirate. Joining Pavel was Catalan runner Eugeni Rosello Sole, and veteran Irishman Eoin Keith. Having come second on his first attempt last year, Eoin had every intention of beating Pavel and winning this time round. Eugeni won the 2013 Spine Race, leaving him in tears on the finish line and with huge scars on his shins. He'd DNF in 2014 and 2015.
The pack ploughed on, constantly switching leader. Tailing close behind was 50-year-old GP Richard Lendon – a popular figure in the Spine family. Richard has written publicly about his history of depression. Like many others he sees the race as a form of escapism: "You almost leave normal life behind. You can be on your own for up to 24 hours."
During one of our phone calls he told me, "If I don't finish that can be fairly catastrophic for a while. My wife doesn't want me to fail because that won't make me much better."
One of the first to retire was Ben Taylor at 73 miles. 21-year-old Ben has been the youngest on the course during the past two events. Last year he successfully "Broke the Spine" but he told me that this year "lots of little things went wrong." After eating "something bad" at CP1 he headed out at 5am in a raging snowstorm. Soon after his temperature began to drop and with a worsening limp he "decided to save the mountain support team a liability and end [his] race."
As the racers wore on and each day came to a close, I would call the head of race HQ Robert Campbell for updates. After two days there had been several dropouts due to dire weather conditions. Reports were coming in of runners getting to checkpoints completely sodden due to the cold and wet underfoot. By Hawes, 20 of the initial Spiners had registered as retired.
The next day, as runners left Yorkshire and headed towards CP3 Middleton in County Durham, Eoin, Pavel and Eugeni had reached CP5 Bellingham in Northumberland – a full day ahead of those in pursuit. But Bellingham would be the end of the line for Eugeni. After 77 hours the Spine Race Twitter account announced that "Eugeni has sadly been withdrawn by the event medical team." Via a translator, the 35-year-old said, "My knee's ligaments were swollen and after two hours of leaving CP5 I threw up my sandwich. Some doctors appeared and told me I couldn't continue like that. I don't know who called the doctors. It wasn't me. I wanted to finish and I could do it. But in the end I'll do it again and I highly appreciate the whole team because it's an important race. Pure survival."
GP Richard had dropped out almost a day earlier, several miles north of Middleton. With a recurring heel issue flaring up and a bad groin, Richard had been throwing himself over stiles in a bid to keep going.
All eyes were now on Eoin, who was creating a significant gap between himself and Pavel. Less than three months before the Spine, the 47-year-old app developer was racing through the Italian mountains in the Tor Des Geants – a 205-mile trail run in the Aosta Valley. Now he was gunning for the Scottish border.
Pavel maintained a close chase, but, while the Czech giant rested at Bellingham, Eoin made a push to the finish. The Spine twitter feed read, "Just heard from Eoin. No plans for rest, or anything for that matter other than to get out and finish this beast!" In the end, whether it was the luck of the Irish or the many years of experience in multi-day adventure racing, Eoin reached The Border Hotel finish first, arriving at 9:17 on Wednesday morning. Having taken just 95 hours and 23 minutes, Pavel's record of 110 hours and 45 minutes had been smashed. Nothing lucky about that.
By the time I arrived at Kirk Yetholm on the Friday, so much snow had fallen it looked like a Norwegian hamlet. A tiny room in a local B&B had been transformed into race HQ. Computers, charts, phones, shoes, pens – all were strewn around the crammed den like a scene from The Social Network.
Adverse weather conditions were slowing the racers' pace, which was as low as 1km/hour at some stages. Concern was mounting, so a decision was made to shorten the cut-off time to hit checkpoint 5.5 at Byrness from 8pm to 2pm. Between Byrness and the finish stand the imposing and exposed Cheviots – a range of rolling hills that were being covered in thigh-deep drift snow. The new deadline meant racers way down the course were being told they were out. Game over for the battered men and women, several of whom left crying in frustration.
I spoke to Safety Team Co-Ordinator Stuart Westfield about the change in deadline and the racers who weren't able to complete the distance.
"Pulling people out is not an easy call to make but first and foremost it's a race, not just an expedition. From what I heard, after five days of hard racing they were disappointed to say the least. But we couldn't have 18 people exposed over the Cheviots going down with hypothermia. In retrospect, once they'd had time to absorb the information they began to realise the decision was made [with] the best intentions."
The Spine Race is known as the graveyard of ultra runners – and for good reason. In the end, of the 68 that set off, 24 made it to the finish. With a 35% chance of going the distance, anyone entering "Britain's Most Brutal Race" is either crazy, deluded or balls-to-the-wall determined – in fact, they're probably all three.
All photos by Mick Kenyon