Giving Back: The Spine Race
Updated: Jan 5
After struggling with postvrace blues from the WHWrace I have no big race goals for 2019, instead I am volunteering at several events throughout the year and setting up some community events. I started 2019 off by volunteering for a week on the Spine Race Media Team.
The Montane Spine Race is a non-stop race with a 7-day time limit covering the entire length of the 268mile long Pennine, in January. Via Twitter and live tracking ‘dot watchers’ are kept up-to-date with the 100 or so athletes as they journey on foot from Edale to Kirk Yetholm. The darkness, extreme winter weather and sheer distance makes this race unique in the UK and it is billed ‘Britain’s Most Brutal.’
This race was in the mainstream media this year because it was won by a woman (Jasmin Paris incase you missed it), who was also a relatively new mother.
So, before I begin a run down of my time volunteering I want to try explain what it meant to follow Jasmin and then see her win. It is more than just about a race win and it was not about a woman beating a man. Women and girls are both openly and subtly told that they are less and that we should not try. We are taught to curb and limit ourselves, and that our place is not to take an opportunity from a man. You can argue this is not true, but it is ingrained, even in the tiniest detail. I pointed out to Scott on the finish that he had a woman winning overall, but no finisher T-shirts in women’s sizes. Same for the female volunteers, there were no tops in our size. Our bodies are an afterthought. I do not believe this was an intentional oversight, just that it had never occurred to the RDs as a problem.
Then you see what Jasmin is doing. You can argue the weather was good, but the previous course record holder came in 2ndand he did not come in faster than his record. The runner she raced the entire course with, retired 6km from the finish. They both pushed each other to the utter limit. You cannot say she is selfish and put her career first, because she is a mother and an amateur runner, not a professional. She has a profession as a vet and is reading her PhD. Jasmin has gone and done the opposite, and she has done it with such style and with such respect. She was always friendly, polite, running on her terms and with no trace of ego. So many people were wanting her to win. Women have been winning extreme races outright for a while so this is not new, but this was timely and the fact that she was expressing milk only raised awareness of what many mothers go through – maybe not running an ultrarace, but in the workplace and in their daily lives. There should be space for women’s bodies as well as men’s without it feeling like we are an inconvenience or an afterthought. We should be able, without guilt, to be ourselves fully and not to dumb or slow ourselves down, or let notions of what motherhood or womanhood should look like stop us from achieving our goals.
Race Fact Box
Race begin in 2012 and co-directed by Phil Hayday-Brown and Scott Gilmour.
Montane Spine race – 268miles, 7day cut-off. Overall Record: Jasmin Paris 82hrs 2019
Montane Spine Challenger – 108miles, 60hr cut-off. Overall Record: Jim Mann 23hrs 2019
Montane Spine Mountain Rescue Team Challenge – 108miles 60hr cut-off.
Here is my experience as first time multi-day race volunteer. On the media team there are no shifts, we could be out in the field for over 22hours, I never knew exactly when I would sleep or eat, but it was a fantastic role and would do it again. With zero experience, no equipment and no car I arrived at the race start in Edale to volunteer. My role was to help provide social media coverage of not only the Spine Race, but also its slightly less brutal little sisters, the 108mile long Spine Challenger and Mountain Team Rescue Challenge. Team briefing involved meeting the paid media team, including Ellie and Matt Green from Summit Fever, a few professional photographers (check out the pro photos here), Alex Flynn – an experienced ultra-runner who would deal with the press and Will Roberts who, whether it was he defined role or not, seemed to manage the rest of us and who provided me with the most guidance. I have to thank Will, as he always had my back. Co-race director, Scott Gilmour came to introduce himself and give some guidance to what he expected from us, something along the lines of ‘celebrate the athletes, and no dick pics.’
RDs giving all the volunteers a briefing day before the challenger start and 2 days before spine race start
Spine Race Day 0
I was paired with another volunteer, Matt Harris, a budding photographer and ultra-runner full of enthusiasm for both. Our job was to cover Facebook live of two of the race starts (Challenger Saturday and Spine Sunday) and then follow the race leaders on Day 1 of each race. This involved driving to points where roads intersected the Pennine Way and waiting in the weather for the runners to come by, document them and post to Facebook, and then race them to the next intersection. This may sound easy, but these runners are fast and taking the direct route. In the car, it could be an hour to drive a net distance of 10miles. In addition, we rarely had phone signal to either track the runners or upload items to Facebook. To add even more to our challenge, Jim Mann in the Challenger Race was looking to break 24hours and the record. This left us with the impossible situation of covering both the lead man and lead woman of the race, not only was Jim Mann around 2hours faster than Carol Morgan, but of nearly everyone else!
Clockwise from left: Ellie and Matt Green (summit Fever), Matt Harris & me.
Spine Race Day 1
Before the Spine start on Sunday we got a call that we needed to interview Jasmin Paris as the team had missed her as she slipped through a hectic registration the day before. Daunted, but up to the challenge we went in search for her. I had never interviewed anyone before, let alone someone I was in awe of (met her since and still can’t talk to her like I do with the other athletes!). The trouble was, we did not have the right equipment and due to the rain and wind we could not ask Jasmin to step outside! In the registration hall the sound quality was terrible and the footage unusable (I will try to write up the interview below). In summary, I asked Jasmin why the Spine? How would motherhood impact her race? And did she have a mantra? She answered that it was the challenge of the race, that motherhood had given her sleep deprivation training and her mantra was every step will bring her closer to her daughter.
I bumped into Lee Kemp (beta running) who I knew from the Highland Fling training camps and who coached me when I started long distance running. He was there supporting a fellow Beta athlete, Shelli Gordon. I interviewed Shelli too, she was running to raise money for CALM – campaign against living miserably and raising awareness of male suicide, the greatest cause of death in young men, after losing her partner in 2018. To be on this start line and carrying this story for so many other people who had experienced what she had touched me greatly and left me in awe of her strength.
If you want to support Shelli or read more about her story please check out https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/shelli-letsrun
Shelli Gordon, 2nd place woman running to raise awareness of male suicide
I Facebook lived the start and then we rushed to Snakes Pass to catch the front runners. The weather was utterly horrendous! Within 3 minutes on the moor I discovered that my waterproof trousers were not up to the job. The leader, Eugeni Sole came through earlier than we expected and not far behind him a group of four runners, the record holder Eoin Keith, previous multi -Spine finisher John Knapp, a runner in shorts(!) and Jasmin Paris! She gave us a sideways look and a smile and I was utterly joyed to see a woman so far up the field, I had to suppress the urge to jump up and down as I was still filming. As we began to head to the car (learning from Jim’s speed previously we needed to get to Crowdon ASAP) a couple more runners came by including Shelli Gordon within the top 10!
At Crowdon, Paris was still in the front group and then Matt and I headed straight up to the White House Pub to catch them again. The Mountain rescue team there gave me coffee and charged my phone and then we ran up to blackrock edge. The front group were moving so fast that we met them before we reached the edge! Eugeni out front closely followed by Eoin and then Jasmin and John running together.
Matt ran on ahead and I sheltered from the wind behind a rock to pre-write Facebook posts ready to go once I filmed the runners. After catching a few runners my phone died in the cold so I ran around the rocks and moors enjoying winds that threatened to take me off my feet in the setting sunlight. I kept an eye searching out for runners and Matt, but in particular looking for Shelli. Exhausted, but high on the land, sky, race and the wind I could not help but give Shelli a huge hug as she arrived at the trig point. All of it was overwhelming and we raced back to the pub trying to film her running in the failing light.
We headed to Malham tarn, a half checkpoint (only hot drink provided, not beds or food) to catch up with the runners at the back of the Challenger race, but also to get ahead of the leading Spine runners. The satnav takes us down a road that is clearly marked ‘not suitable for vehicles’ but we take it anyway. The night is stunning and I would happily run in it. This is in contrast to the gale force winds that forced challenger runners to retire less than 24hours earlier. At Malham, we got our footage uploaded and found a spare space on the floor to sleep. I woke up at 3.30am from the cold and checked the tracker. To my disbelief, Eugeni, Jasmin and Eion were nearby. Eion and Jasmin arrived quiet, and to be honest looking tired and a bit shot. Eugeni a whirlwind of Spanish and excitement pointed out the giant tear in his shoe. Jasmin went to use the bathroom while CP team make her a hot chocolate. While in the bathroom Eoin quietly packed up and left and Eugini, realising a bit too late also left to follow him. Jasmin returned, noticing the men were gone and genuinely apologises to the volunteers for not drinking her chocolate, she says she wishes she could stay to finish it! Eion knew the cut back to the Pennine Way that the other two did not. It is at this point I get a glimpse of how competitive the front of this race is and they are only 78miles in.
Spine Race Day 2
I stayed that morning at the checkpoint talking to the runners as they arrived. John Knapp came in and I think wanted the company over breakfast, he said he had been alone all night so we did a mini interview for the Facebook page. A group came in loud with a lot of banter and chat, Gwynn Stokes, Kevin Hadfield, Jayson Calvill and Thure. Kevin instantly had shoes off revealing horrendous blisters. They were in and out the CP quickly, other than Kevin who needed his feet treated. He let me post photos of them online and I said I would get another later in the race to see if they were worse! Shelli arrived and needed her feet looking at. She was ok, but stopped longer than she wanted to and we got liquids and nutrition into her. Shelli had a film crew with her making a movie about her run for CALM. They said I could come with them to Pen-Y-Ghent. The day was stunning and we clambered up the hill to wait for runners to come by.
You would be surprised how bad runners came in that first morning, and how many mention retiring. Most of them do go on a lot further in the race though and even though they go sleepless for many more nights, it seemed to be this first one that they struggled with most, or at least were most vocal about struggling with it.
Pen y Ghent climb on day 2
From Pen-Y-Ghent, we then visited the Pen-Y-Ghent café, open 24/7 for the race and I got my first meal in a while. I was so hungry I bought two meals and good job I did as I would not get food again until breakfast the next day. We saw Shelli, but also Tony, John Minta and Mark Thompson. Tony would drop out at the next Checkpoint, Hawes at 100 miles with injury. Mark and John would run together, pushing each other on until Bellingham around 200 miles where Mark would pull away. Both finished.
I joined Shelli’s team to a road junction in the night where we hiked about 1km to the Pennine Way just in time to film her. We used mobile phones to light her up. After I was then dropped off at Hawes, a couple miles from the Challenger Finish line at 7pm. I needed to get the finish to live stream the final finishers coming in. At Hawes I asked if I could have a bed, but was met with some slight annoyance. Something about the only bed being a top bunk and me using it was unfair to the person already asleep below(?!). I was visibly annoyed at this logic. Without a car, having been working non-stop for over 13 hours already with less than 3 hours sleep I was getting stressed! A really helpful and kind CP volunteer drove me to Hardaw and I arrived in time to film the finish, but so sleep deprived now I struggled to memorise the 3 full names of the finishers and felt terrible to forget the surname of the 3rdfinisher. There were so many names and numbers, 3 races to cover, little sleep and little food. I could see someone put an angry emoji up on the stream and felt I had failed that runner. At Hardraw I tried to find a bed, but failed. One of the mountain rescue team drove me back to Hawes and now near tears I tried to negotiate a bed again with the CP doorman. Finally, they let me have that top bunk on the promise I would be out of it by 6am and that I would get ready for bed in the bathroom. I would have anyway. I spoke to the runners as Gwynn, Kevin, Jayson, Orial and Thure had now arrived and said goodnight to them. Kevin’s feet were definitely worse now.
Spine Race Day 3
Next morning, up at 5.30am I get a hot shower and a great breakfast (best ever porridge) and head down to see the runners. I learn Thure and Jayson have retired. The others have left including Shelli. However, John and Mark are here and having a laugh and the 2ndwomen is still here. I get an interview with her and her teammate Jens. They have both done this before, and their goal is to complete, not compete. It is clear the goal is to work together so they both finish, Gabrielle tells me she will look after Jens and he will look after navigating the course as he knows it well.
Co-race director Phil offers me a lift up the course to mile 134, half way, at Middleton-on-Teesdale. I arrive early but catch a short interview with John Knapp at breakfast again and Gwynn talks happily to me about all his kit. I am here early and the race is now strung out with hours between the front runners. I met and chat to the other volunteers and get a second breakfast and a lunch. I head out down the course to see runners in. Later, Shelli’s team arrive and after she left we visit High Force water fall.
Enjoyed catching up with John over breakfast two days in a row! Was sad to miss him finish the race 😦
Back in Edale before the race began, Matt Green sat with me and went through the course on my footprint map. I made notes in pen in the borders of my map where he suggested the best places to the view the race. One, was about a secret key and private road to access Cauldron Snout. I tell this to Shelli’s team as we decide to try it as we may be able to light up the waterfall and rocks enough to film her on this more treacherous part of the course. It is nearly midnight by the time we arrive. The wind is picking up and the rain is coming, we are standing on the side of a waterfall on wet rocks over an hour waiting for Shelli. We have no signal to track her so I run back to the road to try find out, but even with signal it is a tracker black spot. Eventually we see her head torch and scurry to get the cameras ready. It is un-relentlessly windy and cameraman John falls breaking his lens. We get some footage, but not sure it was worth it. The weather progressively gets worse and it feels wrong to drive away leaving Shelli alone in the dark on the moor. I think I can sleep at Dufton and message Will to ask for the postcode, it is 1am, but he messages me right back. I arrive and find a radiator in the hall to lie down next to. In the night Shelli and 2 other runners come in to sleep next to other radiators, but by 5am the heat has been turned off so we get up.
Setting up lighting for filming at Cauldron snout in the torrential rain into middle of the night
Spine Race Day 4
This was my last day with the race, we are all excited as Jasmin Paris is winning, outright, and looking to absolutely smash both records, the men’s and women’s. We are aware of how monumental this is, I really want to be there to see it. One of the medics says she is driving to Bellingham, I abandoned my plans to film up on High Cup Nick and join her. From there, Will has told me Scott Gilmour will wait for me as he will be driving to the finish.
As Jasmin is about to arrive the atmosphere at the hotel was buzzing! Everyone so happy for her. I felt quite sorry for her as the number of cameras as she touched the wall was quite overwhelming. You could see she just wanted her daughter, not a wall of lenses in her way! She was patient and great with the media and gave some great interviews. It was brilliant to see her make the main stream media too.
Jasmin and her medal – my photos suck cos I was always filming for facebook live!
Spine Race Day 5
That night, hours after Jasmin had held several interviews, had dinner with her family and breastfed her daughter, Eugeni was rescued off the hill. He was recovering and well when I came down for breakfast and he ate most of my biscuits. Eion came in and he was the happiest person I have seen in a long time! Happy at his own performance and position, but also utterly and genuinely ecstatic by Jasmin’s race and finishing time.
Eion catching up with Eugini at the finish.
I left the race, not wanting to go, but also needing to return home. Humbled by the athletes, shocked by the reality of the course and feeling fulfilled by the time spent with like-minded people and being in such a beautiful part of the country. I did not race, but volunteering was such an adventure! Really grateful for the experience!
Shelli, John and Kevin in the setting sun