Having completed her first Montane Spine Race, how did Nikki Sommers cope with the darkness, the bogs and the sleep deprivation? The key, she says, is to "be a warrior, not a worrier!"
The idea of running 268 miles up the spine of the country in the middle of winter is unfathomable, isn't it? You must be crazy to go out on a wet Sunday morning in January, and head north for seven days along waterlogged paths and fields, through storms and high winds, over snow-topped mountains with the one sole goal of touching a wall on the side of a pub in Scotland.
That's probably what I'd have thought a few years ago too. Climber-turned-triathlete-turned-ultra-runner, I wouldn't say I'm a stranger to suffering. I'm by no means an alpinist, but as a dedicated wife, I have climbed a handful of longer routes with my husband. Carrying thirty-kilogram rucksacks up Mount Kenya to climb Nelion because we were too skint to pay for porters would be the perfect example! Ultra running and adventure racing is yet another way to get that endorphin hit we spend life seeking out.
I ran my first ultra marathon in 2017; the super friendly Highland Fling, from Glasgow to Tyndrum. Buoyed by that success, I entered the 400km stage race Cape Wrath Ultra 2018. This probably isn't the normal route into ultras; most people usually increase the distance gradually. Not me! What could go wrong? Rather surprisingly I finished it and had a fantastic week. Fast forward a few months, and I've had another of my stupid ideas. I somehow manage to persuade Ian to enter the Spine Race with me next year.
Then, the Spine Race 2019 happens; the country is gripped by Spine fever, and the story of one woman's incredible feat. Jasmin Paris leaves the men for dead, smashing the course record, to finish the race in an incredible 83 hours and 12 minutes. The niche sport of ultra running hits headlines across the country. The Spine's tracking website is straining at the seams as dot-watching becomes a national obsession.
It's always exciting entering a big race. That moment when you realise you've paid your money and are committed. Whoops! But there's eleven months to prepare; that is lots of time...
What is it?
The Spine Race runs 268 miles along the Pennine Way in winter. Unlike races such as the Cape Wrath Ultra or the Dragon's Back, it is a continuous race. The clock starts when you leave Edale, and finishes when you reach Kirk Yetholm. This adds a big element of strategy to the race. You sleep when you choose to, where you choose to, and for as long as you desire (or your strategy allows); be that on the trail, in a ditch, or bothy, or in the warm, dry (but busy) checkpoints. In each checkpoint you have access to a drop bag with spare kit, clothes, and food inside. There is also hot food and drinks.
Outside of the checkpoints, it is a self-supported race. You are not allowed pacers or additional support from family or friends (but cheering is very welcome). You can only accept help if it is available to all competitors.
There is a detailed kit list of what you must carry in order to be safe during the race, including a sleeping bag, mat, and bivvy bag, plus stove, food, warm layers, head torch etc. Many racers spend months and copious amounts of money deliberating over kit, trying to get the lightest bag possible.
My ability to work shifts, perform under pressure and deal with the associated sleep deprivation would definitely come in handy during the following week
After a winter of full-time work, plus revision on top, I was raring to get going. I was determined to have covered most of the route before the race, and to be familiar with my kit. At Easter, in the midst of a heatwave, I headed up to Haltwhistle to run the top third of the Pennine Way with Ian. Conditions were obviously not replicable; the infamous Cheviot bogs were dry. But it was good to get some miles under my belt with a full rucksack.
The beauty of the Pennine Way is that it's really easy to dip in and out of as there as lots of train stations near by, so you can do point-to-point sections. Over the summer and into autumn I had a few more adventures along the Pennine Way with overnight bivvys. In November I was able to tick off the middle third, with a weekend trip from Horton-in-Ribblesdale up to Haltwhistle. Whilst heading off into the dark, a couple of guys commented on how brave and fearless I was. This got me thinking about fear, and I spent the next four hours on the trail petrified! The brain is a wonderful but frustrating thing.
After a couple of years of over-training, 2019 was about taking things steady. Plenty of quality days out in the hills on foot, but I had no strict training programme to dictate my social life around. I ran if I wanted to, and rode my mountain bike if I didn't.
In the week before the race I worked night shifts, followed by a round trip to North Wales for a pre-job interview visit, followed by two more busy ten-hour shifts in A&E. I headed into the weekend tired, but at least didn't have any spare time to panic. My ability to work shifts, perform under pressure and deal with the associated sleep deprivation would definitely come in handy during the following week.
It's time to go!
Race morning arrived, and after an early alarm, Laura and Hettie came to pick Ian and myself up and drive us from Sheffield to Edale. There were lots of people milling around in the car park. After leaving my drop bag in the village hall I retreated back to the car to try to relax and close my eyes for 20 minutes. All too soon it was time to line up at the start. I had rushed hugs with friends (plus my favourite baby) who had come out in the rain to cheer us across the start line, and found my place at the back.
I'm a mid-pack runner, and had two aims for the race:
- Have fun
I'd be happy if I could be in the top ten females (there were twenty-one on the start-line), but this was very much a secondary aim, and not what was driving me forwards.
A bit like the climbing community, it's a small world in the ultra-running community. I chatted to various familiar faces, and exchanged hugs here and there, before it was time to go.
I was determined to take things steady heading out of Edale, but also wanted to run the first few flat kilometres before we headed up Jacob's Ladder. Ian and I had already had a discussion, and decided we wouldn't be running together as our paces were a bit different. In full waterproofs I shuffled my way out of Edale and up onto Kinder. I find there's always a sense of relief to finally be moving; the realisation that this long-saught-after goal is finally happening.
Vomiting this early in the race could mean game over for me...
I like Kinder; one of my favourite runs is the Kinder plateau circuit. Somewhere after the Downfall, on the western edge, I paused to check my map. There's a little bit, near Sandy Heys, where I always think I should head down, but it's too early. Amusingly, eight guys all stopped in a row behind me; clearly they had been following blindly. I exchanged banter about their faith in my navigation, before continuing onwards. Heading across the flagstones down towards the Snake Pass, many of these guys flew past me. One had the cheek to say something along the lines of "Don't you feel like you need to speed up when people overtake you like this?" I responded that as I didn't have a penis, this wasn't really an issue for me. I had a long race ahead of me; rushing off on day one was not in my plan.
At 429km, it's an awfully long way. But splitting the race down into bite-size chunks from one checkpoint or café to the next, it was easy to make progress feel more achievable. Everyone has different ideas about sleep strategy. It only takes a search on the Spine Facebook group to reveal a host of different, often polar, opinions. Except for the first night, I planned to sleep in the checkpoints.
Hebden Hey checkpoint (CP) is only 74km into the race, and it's another 100km to CP 2 at Hawes. There's an interim CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn, but this has a thirty-minute time limit on it. I had planned to get to Hebden late on Sunday, move quickly through, and sleep after another fifteen to twenty kilometres, somewhere on the trail. Then I'd have 80km to push through to Hawes.
As the first night of darkness set in, I teamed up with Chris and Antonio, two fellow runners. It seemed like there was safety in numbers. Despite all my previous experience and practise in the dark, I was nervous about going it alone. The company was good, and we made good progress to Hebden. Despite moving well, I felt really nauseous, which I suspect was a reflection on my exhaustion before the race. Heading uphill in Hebden, I lent over my poles and had a good vomit. "Ahhh, that's better!" I told the boys. They were amused, but worried. So was I. Vomiting this early in the race could mean game over.
I learnt a lot about CP efficiency during my first adventure race in the summer (ITERA). As I approached the CP, my laminated checklist came out, I verbalised my plans, and we agreed a time to leave. Inside it was shoes off, feet dry, electronics on charge, eat (not much; still feeling sick) & drink (lots!), re-pack bag, and then a short power-nap whilst the boys faffed. The CP crew were amazing, and continued to be throughout the whole race. Made up of a team of volunteers, all working long hours, they were there to help with kit, feed you and direct you to bedrooms. The logistics associated with moving your bags north from CP to CP is mind-boggling, and the whole team did a fabulous job.
We headed back out into the night, with an aim to try and get some sleep in a few hours time. I'd scoped out a couple of places to sleep near Ponden Reservoir. Certain memories stay with you. In Wainwright's book on the Pennine Way, he comments on the excellent example of dry-stone walling that runs next to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs. Chris shared this with us, and it had us in fits of laughter. As the race continued, there were many more comments on the excellent dry-stone walling.
As tiredness descended, I resorted to my usual strategy, and starting singing. We blasted out songs as we headed over Withins Height, although none us dared try any Kate Bush. Luck was on our side, and Top Withins Bothy was empty. We grabbed an hour's sleep in the dry, away from the wind, before venturing back out into the night. Our next target was the Craven Tri Club tent at Lothersdale; filled with chairs, blankets and hot soup. Dawn arrived before Lothersdale, and it was a welcome boost. I was (still!) feeling sick, but had a pep talk over the phone with a race medic friend, Charlotte. She must have been worried, as she unexpectedly came out to Gargrave to check in with me. My memories from Ponden to Gargrave are quite vague. There was lots of muddy fields and boggy moorland.
The positive energy from all the hugs really boosted me and helped push me along the Spine
In Gargrave we stuffed our faces with food from the Co-op, before trudging onwards; next stop Malham Tarn. Darkness came as we climbed steeply up the side of the impressive Malham Cove. The wind whipped up, and driving rain intensified as head torches came out. I crawled across the limestone pavement, blindly following the guys. I hadn't reccied this bit, and felt very out of control, but in the rain and wind I got my head down and concentrated on forwards progress.
We were welcomed with hugs at Malham, and had a chance to dry out a bit and eat. The rain had eased by the time we headed back out into the night; next stop Fountain's Fell, then Pen-y-ghent. Due to the high winds, there was now a diversion over Pen-y-ghent, so we missed off the summit, but the descent was less favourable as a result. My map and compass were firmly in hand, and I was very much back in control after the uncertainty earlier. As a group we moved really well over the fells and made good progress, arriving at what I'll call CP 1.75 in Horton-in-Ribblesdale sometime in the night. Previously the Pen-y-ghent café has stayed open for Spiners, but now closed, the Cave Rescue Organisation (CRO) were manning the Old School House with soup, hot drinks, and a floor to sleep on. As it was dark, we made a sensible decision to sleep here, before heading onwards over the Cam High Road to Hawes.
From the onset, I expected after Hebden that I would sleep at every CP rather than on the trail, and hoped that I would be moving fast enough that this would always be in the dark. The last thing you want to do is waste precious daylight stationary in CPs. Horton was a blessing. It meant the notoriously tough Cam High Road was no longer so tough, and we could breeze through Hawes with only a short stop to sort out feet, kit and food.
If you know me, you'll know I'm a big fan of hugs. And the Spine did not disappoint. In particular, Debs who I had worked with on the Dragon's Back was working on the CP team, and it was fantastic being greeted with hugs and a big smile from her at the CPs, before she helped remove my muddy shoes and got me cups of tea. The positive energy from all these hugs really boosted me and helped push me along the Spine.
I continued to move well on day two, from Hawes to Middleton. Over Great Shunner Fell our trio split up for a bit, choosing to move at our own pace, only to re-group a few miles further along the trail, with smiles and cheers. Moving towards Tan Hill, the weather deteriorated. Pushing on through the wind and snow, it was a relief to make it to the Tan Hill Inn, and get inside to rewarm, have yet more hugs, and some food. We were cold when we arrived, but had pushed on, as we knew warmth was imminent. Other runners arrived in a much worse state after us, and their race ended there.
Snow and storm force winds welcomed us to the highest point of the Pennine Way
After Tan Hill, there's a section of bog over Sleightholme Moor that is notorious. I had done this in the dark on a practice run, and was not looking forward to it. Somehow, we worked as a team, and it flew by. I was up front with map in hand, and eyes on the trail, and Chris followed closely behind, acting as co-pilot with his eyes glued to his GPS, giving micro-adjustments. We reached the A66 road crossing (cue more hugs from family) in no time, and ploughed strongly on towards Middleton. We must have been a funny sight, appearing from and then disappearing back into the darkness. Tan Hill to Middleton was a section of the race where everything just seemed to fall into place. We pushed our pace a bit more, got the navigation bang on, and it was hard not to smile. The only slight frustration was the two international runners that had grabbed on to the back of our group and were closely following to avoid having to nav. When we paused at Deepdale, they were disorientated and unsure of their location.
Middleton meant yet more food and another couple of hours of sleep, plus hugs; don't forget the hugs. We left again in the dark to start day four, but I felt like a zombie plodding up the road; a diversion was in place due to flooding. I took the opportunity to have a micro-nap in a phone box, to try and kid my body into waking up, and then we kept on plodding up alongside the Tees to Cauldron Snout. Before Cauldron Snout there's a horrible bit where you are scrambling over boulders right next to the river. A slip could result in a swim, and so we moved cautiously and slowly. After Cauldron Snout, we reached High Cup Nick. Wow! I'd only been here in the dark before, and it was a sight to behold. Onwards once more; next stop Dufton.
The wonderful staff at the Post Box Pantry stay open throughout the race, so we snaffled yet more food (beans on toast with cheese; my current favourite food), plus fifteen minutes of shut-eye, before readying ourselves for Cross Fell. Snow and storm force winds welcomed us to the highest point of the Pennine Way. I had to pick up the pace as I was getting cold at the back of our trio, and we pushed on to Greg's Hut. Flashing Christmas lights were a surreal sight, and my spirit was buoyed by the prospect of a hot drink and John Bamber's famous chilli noodles. The hospitality did not disappoint. Chris was struggling with an injury, and after advice from the medic in the hut, decided he needed to slow down. We trotted on towards Alston, now as a pair.
The support from locals along the route continued to amaze us. I'd just said that I was feeling hungry when we were ushered into Annie's house in Garrigill for a hot drink and some food. Just what I needed before we negotiated the difficult fields before Alston, now with Jens and Dennis too.
Debi's famous lasagne awaited us at Alston, plus a pint of sugary tea (I had taken to asking for two cups at once, so was offered a pint here). Whilst eating I turned on my phone to check my messages. I had a text from my boss to tell me I had passed my final appraisal, and so was about to become an A&E consultant. At 1am, in a sleep-deprived state, this was quite amusing.
I took the chance to have my first shower of the race, followed by a lie down. I had my own room, a luxury of the women being so far spread out through the field. My alarm went off too soon, and it was time for more food before departing on day five. Antonio had forgotten to set his alarm, and appeared a bit later than planned. I decided to wait, as I wasn't looking forward to the bog ahead of me over Blenkinsopp Common. Before that though, we were treated to chocolate fudge cake from a guy in his dressing gown, plus sausage rolls from the Slaggyford Angel.
Spirits were high coming into Greenhead; unexpectedly my friend's Dad, Dave, had come out to cheer, and we bumped into Matt and Ellie from Summit Fever Media, who were filming the race. But if I was being honest, we had started to dawdle, and waste time. The always straight-talking Joe Faulkner reminded me that 'it was a race, stop faffing!' With that in mind, as we headed along Hadrian's Wall and Antonio's leg started to hurt more, it was time to step things up a bit, and go solo.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't petrified. I was not looking forward to the night alone. I was tired. I doubted my navigation abilities. I was anxious about the approaching forest in the dark. I was scared about having sleep monsters by myself. Then I bumped into Steph Dwyer from the Spine Safety Team on the wall. I'd not met her before, but I had read her blog in the week leading up to the race. A quick pep talk as we walked along helped give me the confidence to head off into the night by myself. Up until this point I'd been using my map and compass to navigate, but it was time to switch to GPS. I quickly got used to it, and was able to speed up into the night. Whilst I will always prefer a map and compass, a GPS is clearly faster to use in the dark.
I managed to find an inner calm and channel some of my inner strength as I headed through the forest, and I was elated to come out the other side, and make it to Horneystead Farm and a bowl of soup from the wonderful Helen. Then it was back out into the evening for another two hours slog over to Bellingham.
My husband begrudgingly supports me and comes along to cheer from time to time. This year, much to his relief, he was away in the Alps, and then straight up to Scotland for a course, so would be missing out on the Spine experience. He'd landed back in the UK in the morning so at least now I could ring him when I needed cheering up! I tried to call to say good night before I got to the checkpoint, but was disappointed to get no answer. As I came down off the fell onto the road above Bellingham a car pulled up alongside me… who should it be except Tom, at 11:30pm at night! We chatted for a few minutes and had a quick kiss and a cuddle before I said goodbye and headed towards the CP. He had taken a three-hour detour to see me for five minutes; that is love!
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't petrified. I was not looking forward to the night alone. I was tired. I doubted my navigation abilities. I was anxious about the approaching forest in the dark. I was scared about having sleep monsters by myself.
The CP at Bellingham is cold and basic after the luxury of Alston, but that did not stop the support crew from being fantastic! I had four cups of tea and some beans on toast before getting my head down for some sleep. I'd planned to leave again at 4 a.m., but sat looking and feeling like a zombie, struggling to get moving. I didn't make it out until about 5a.m, but I did feel well rested by the time I was finally moving again! It is day six on the Pennine Way, with the end almost in sight.
After Bellingham it's a long stretch to the finish, with only a half-hour stop allowed at Byrness. Now that I was by myself, I'd started setting myself targets in order to keep pushing on. Despite the fatigue, I was really enjoying myself. Dudley, a guy I'd never met before, joined me to walk out of Bellingham, and it was lovely to chat about running and share a bit more positivity. He left me to drop back in to Bellingham, with an "I'll see you next year" and I headed on towards dawn. I was feeling drowsy, so rang the husband at about 6.30am to catch up on life outside of the Spine in an attempt to stay awake. It did the trick until dawn arrived as I crossed Padon Hill and made it onto the faster tracks through the woods before Byrness.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hurting at this point. My feet were sore. They hadn't blistered, but five days of running and walking through bogs and trails is enough to cause some discomfort in the best of feet. My right knee had been sore earlier in the week. I'd equated it to a tight hamstring, but it had seemed to settle down. I stuck a smile on my face, adopted a positive attitude and kept going. I passed another competitor in the woods that looked like a zombie; at the finish he told me he'd just been asleep under a tree before I passed him, and that he'd been having a rough time.
Before the race I was discussing an expected schedule with Ian, and said I hoped to finish on Friday night if everything went to plan. Whilst he definitely didn't mean any offense, Ian was adamant I wouldn't finish until Saturday; based on the performance of other friends we know who had finished the race previously. As I headed along (on Friday), I reminded myself of this conversation. "I'll show him," I thought to myself.
Coming into Byrness I was fortunate enough to chat to Pavel Paloncy, three-time winner of the Spine Race for a kilometre or two about running, and the challenges of juggling work, training and exams. We talked about women in sport, and how to try and encourage more females onto the start line (I don't know the solution to this). Then a little bit about adventure racing, as I'd just done my first one in the summer, and had learnt a lot which was very applicable to the Spine (namely; stop faffing!). I told him I'd been scared about sleep monsters, and was really relieved not to have had any. His retort was to say "What happens if you have sleep monsters in the Cheviots?" I decisively told him that I wouldn't.
At Byrness I had a quick stop for some soup, and psyched myself up for what I knew was a tough, muddy climb up onto the Cheviots. My laminated card came out, and I reminded myself to 'Be a warrior, not a worrier!' This little lady had been giving me extra strength all week long. Photographer Jimmy Hyland asked if he could join me for the climb; I remember joking that he might not be able to keep up, but of course he had no issues. We caught up on life and I heard about some of Jimmy's recent adventures while he took some awesome photos of me at the same time.
It was a clear day as I crossed the Cheviots, and the end was growing slowly closer. But it's still a marathon from Byrness to the end, and not an easy one at that. Antonio had told me earlier in the week to "never trust a missing flagstone in the Cheviots" with talk of waist-deep bog between flagstones. It was a relief to get to Hut 1 (an emergency shelter) in the daylight and know that the worst of the bog was out of the way. I got my stove out for the first time in the race and had a freeze-dried meal to boost my energy and help me on my final push to the finish. I had been joined to Francois before Hut 1, but I was keen to spend some time alone so I hung back as he left Hut 1.
After Hut 1 the sun sunk lower in the sky, and the colours were beautiful. I paused, feeling overwhelmed by my surroundings, struggling to take in the magnitude of the week, which was about to end. I was not ready to return to normality or civilisation.
My head torch came out somewhere after Windy Gyle, and I managed to find the better flagstones and keep making good progress. I imagine the person on the other side of the fence, on the boggy path, was not so impressed. As I headed up toward Cheviot I caught up with David. After a bit of leap-frogging we started chatting and continued moving together. We decided not to stop at Hut 2, keen to push on to the finish, but then made a foolish nav error whilst chatting. By the time we noticed we were off route, we'd dropped 120m of height, and begrudgingly turned around to trudge back uphill. We were already correcting ourselves when the Spine Safety Team came out from Hut 2 to make sure we were back on track. We exchanged a few jokes with the lovely Steph Dwyer again; that would teach us for trying to sneak past Hut 2 without saying hello.
Back on track, and grateful not to be completely knackered, we powered on over the Schill and started the long descent towards Kirk Yetholm. At this point we caught up with Rob Allen, who was struggling with tendonitis. "If it isn't the girl with the best feet in the race" he said. I laughed; we'd had a heated discussion in Bellingham when he proclaimed that his feet were the best in the race, but the medics had been helping him with his foot care. My feet were just as good, with no help, and I had told him as much.
Now a trio again, we continued down the hill, tired, aching and dreaming about pints of beer. We passed the infamous Tunnocks lorry in a farmyard; the sign to me that we were almost there; and then painfully the trail turned to tarmac. We really were almost there. We picked our pace up over the last tarmac hill so much so that I thought I might collapse, and we had a very polite conversation about who should finish first (together, we agreed) and then we crested that final hill.
My Mum was cheering (she'd been told to be quiet as it was nearly 10pm) and we shared a smile about her enthusiasm as we headed across the green. I broke into a run, and kissed that wall, twice! The boys followed suit, and it was an honour to be given my medal by Debs, after all the hugs and support she'd provided along the way. After photos, we were ushered inside. Shoes off, and my Mum washed my feet as I was handed food and a cup of tea. Someone commented on the size of my right knee; it was very swollen, but miraculously hadn't been causing me any pain. A lager-shandy tasted positively like nectar. You could almost kid yourself that you were just a normal person enjoying a pint on a Friday night. I had lots of hugs from lots of lovely people. The Spine volunteers really are amazing people.
- 133 hours, 57 minutes and 41 seconds of mud-filled pleasure on the Pennine Way. I finished 4th female, and 23rd overall, somewhat better than expected.
It's always odd after something like this. I wasn't ready for the bubble to end. After a long soak in the bath, I headed to bed for a fitful night's sleep, before heading back to the pub (the Borders Inn) to cheer people in, and await the arrival of my friend Ian that evening. It was nice to spend the day around other Spiners, and then it was a great pleasure to be able to give Ian his medal and a hug when he finished.
On Sunday I headed home, ready for a busy week at work, including a job interview on the Friday for my dream consultant job. Somehow I made it through the fog of exhaustion, and managed to get the job. I also managed to get my aching feet into a pair of heels for the interview. Post-race blues are very much a thing, and it's taken a while to re-adjust to normal life again. I'm getting there now. After a few days my appetite came back, and I was eating double-portions of everything as well as taking iron supplements. After about a week the night-sweats settled down, and by two weeks I'd stopped wanting to cry all the time when I thought about the race. It's worth noting those tears aren't because it was horrendous; it really wasn't! They are because I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. The positivity, the strength I didn't realise I had, the people I met along the way, the kindness of both the crew, and random strangers en route.
Now, weeks later, I've finally managed to finish writing this, and my body is recovering well. I'm enjoying some well-earned time off before I start my new job, and will be running, climbing and mountain biking around Scotland as much as my body allows.
It's taken some time to process the race, but I have come to realise that perhaps I'm tougher than I thought I was. My superpower? Being able to smile when things hurt. Hopefully this toughness will continue, as I've entered again for 2021!
Here are my rules for a successful race:
- Be a warrior, not a worrier
- Don't forget to smile
- Look after your feet (this could be rule no.1 but it's a bit boring)
- A good hug makes everything better
- Cups of tea are best drunk in pairs
- Have faith in your ability
- Don't be afraid to go it alone
- Know your kit, and practise with it
- Don't waste the daylight; maximise sleep during the dark
- Expect it to hurt; pack enough paracetamol