Running The Spine Challenger North With Jonny Ulett

The Spine race is a 268-mile winter ultra marathon from Edale to Kirk Yetholm following the complete Pennine Way. There are also two other races under it: The Challenger - 108 miles from Edale to Hawes and the Spine Challenger North -160 miles from Hard Raw to Kirk Yetholm.

Ultra runner, Jonny Ulett ran the inaugural Spine Challenger race in January and shares his experience.

 

It's Saturday 9th January, 8:00am and I'm stood in frosty field ready to go on what would turn out to be an unforgettable and amazing adventure. With a large 38L backpack strapped to my back, containing clothing, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, plenty of food and everything else that is mandatory kit that helps you stay alive, off I went climbing up the first of many hills that were to come my way.I ran most of this race with my good friend Andy Morley, from the get-go we told each other we were running our own races, but we would stay together for as much as possible, but if one was to compromise the other we would agree to make sure the other person was OK then continue to move forward alone.From the start it's around 32 miles to the first major checkpoint at Middleton-in-Teesdale, then another 40 miles to Alston, it was during this stint the first mistake was made. That mistake was planning on going all the way to Alston from the start with bare minimum rest at Middleton, so when we arrived at Middleton we grabbed some food, had a quick change and away we went.

What I should've done was tape up my feet and let them rest a while as my toes had already started to rub. Even though it was only minor at this stage (minor turns to major before you know it! Remember that!) and yes there was chafing, chafing that became a major pain in the arse ..... literally. As I just wanted to push onwards without actually realising how much of a slog the next 40 miles would be, it took some real strong words inside my head to get through this.Along the way we passed rivers that you were shimmying along the rocky edge hoping not to fall in as it's dark as hell. Then we hit Cauldron Snout and that was flowing with some serious force. Later into the race they actually diverted you around as it was deemed too dangerous to be on the edge, if you fell in here you would most likely drown, so that was a good call.

From here the next land mark was High Cup Nick but at this point all I wanted to do was sleep. Visibility was pretty much zero, so mentally I was fading. But soon enough we dropped down to Dufton where we were able to grab some caffeine and press on to what would be a tough slog over thick muddy tracks and a very snowy and frozen Cross Fell. Once that's ticked off it's a few miles to Greggs Hut where we grabbed some food while having a 30-minute pit stop to let the body rest. Then it's straight to Alston (10kms / 10miles I can't remember) where the life saving team delivered some words of wisdom, thanks Nigel B.So, my little toes are burning with a blister on each and my arse crack is on fire with chafing but after some tape on the toes and some sudocrem on my nether region it was time to get some sleep, 3hrs approximately and a huge plate of lasagna to follow. We are now around 73 miles in at 31 hours and I'm questioning "can I even finish this race?" and wondering how on earth people do the full Spine race.It was after this sleep and rest that my mind became clear and I knew what I had to do to reach the end of this. That was to accept the fact it takes as long as it takes to get to the checkpoints. I'm not competing against anybody but myself, I've got enough gear to stay comfortable and this is what I've dreamed of doing, so I better just crack on.Next up we have Alston to Bellingham, approximately 43 miles. Upon leaving Alston my feet felt much better now they were taped up, but the swelling that had subsided while resting soon came back and the chafing started again, a constant pain ..... it never ever went way for the rest of the race, so I won't mention it again but I can't stress enough how much discomfort it brought throughout.

After only a few hours into this part of the race Andy started to feel sick and kept wretching which started to cause a bit of concern. I'd started to fall asleep while running because my body clock was messed up, and I was on auto pilot in the darkness but as daylight started to show I came back to life.

As if the situation with Andy feeling sick wasn't bad enough for him, his knee started to swell for some unknown reason and you could visibly see this through his leggings. Climbing stiles and obstacles was becoming a serious problem for him and we were down to a very slow pace at this point with Hadrians Wall looming ahead of us. As we had passed through Green Head, which was an intermediate checkpoint about 4 miles prior, it was at this point where he sadly had to withdraw from the race. He couldn't have continued and I couldn't have continued at that pace, so now it was time to go solo from around the 100-mile point.Once I was alone I kicked up a gear in my mind and started to get a move on. I pushed hard over Hadrians Wall for a couple of hours. This was all daylight and surprisingly good weather and I was just focused on getting to the Bellingham. Once off the wall it was a long grind over some pretty rough ground that took me over some fields (containing a lot cow shit and sheep shit!) then onto some unforgiving tarmac where the voices in my head kept reminding me of how tough this race really is.

After this low comes a high and the was Honeystead Farm. This is a point in the race where you're able to sit down, resupply, refuel and take some warmth. This is not actually a race checkpoint, it is done out of kindness by the farm owners who just like to see all the Spine racers pass through each year ...... THANKS

After some food and drink it's onwards to Belligham and after many more fields and tracks I'm finally there. It was here that I had a quick shower to rid me of the sweat and crap that I'd collected along the way. Two bowls of sausage casserole and a resupply of my kit and now was the time for another 3 - 4 hour sleep which again brings you back to life and gives you mental clarity. Off we go now to the end at Kirk Yetholm.From here I had to take a 15-mile diversion in a car (as did every single competitor who reached this part of the race) around the devastation of storm Arwen the previous month, it was too dangerous to be passing through forests where giant trees had been ripped from the ground that were precariously resting on each other.As I'm back on the Pennine Way, I was now passing through these forests but at a safe distance from the trees. I've never seen trees so big that were just lying around like snapped toothpicks with giant root systems just pulled from the ground. It was surreal as I'm seeing all this in darkness besides my head torch illuminating my field of view.

I know I'm not far from the end now. By not far I'm talking roughly a marathon distance left, but on the scale of things you know you're close so it's head down and onwards I marched over the Cheviots. Upon climbing here was when I got my next and final stint of daylight, which was a welcome relief. On this section there are two huts where I got some coffee and some more food down me. I'd also started to bump into a couple of other racers now which was nice just to chat to someone.After leaving the final hut, the race soon came to a close mentally when I saw the sign post for Kirk Yetholm: 4 miles away. It was time to forget about all the aches, the burning and the fatigue. I strapped my backpack tight and hand on heart ran as hard as I could all the way to the end (except that steep tarmac hill, if you know it you'll know why I couldn't run it! haha).

I saw Nigel one of the volunteers clapping me in, across the green, under the finish banner and finally I put my hands on the wall of the Border Hotel, the very end of the Pennine Way at the Scottish border, in a time of 79 hrs 18 mins. I was 24th out of 37 finishers with 11 not finishing.I'd done it. I'd proven to myself that I've got what it takes to tackle the real tough stuff that's out there. It was a defining moment for my ultra running journey that made me much more mentally stronger.

Shower time ..... what a relief to feel clean and fresh once again. A clean set of clothes on, a plate of hot food that was then washed down with a pint of Guinness (thanks for the drink Gavin). With my trusty mother coming to the end to collect me, it was now time to head back home on a near 4-hour drive and now I had time to think and digest my accomplishment.I was stiff for a few days after the race as you'd certainly expect but overall I felt good (I've had more fatigue from shorter races). I know that was down to having a solid year beforehand, training and completing the Paddy Buckley, recce'ing the Bob Graham, a DNF at UTS165 that taught me a few things and made me wiser and a great race at the 3 Peaks 100km where I knocked just over an 1 hour of my target and about 1.5 hours of my previous year.I'd say within less than 3 - 4 days, I'd already decided that I'd try and get a place on the Spine Race for 2023. I knew entries would go fast but I didn't think they go as fast as they did, but In less than 3 minutes they'd all gone .... Luckily for me, I was one of the people who managed to get into the race. So 2023 will see me try and tackle the whole 268 miles of the Pennine Way. But in the meantime I've got some other serious challenges to keep me busy through 2022.If you've read this far then I'd like to say thank you for reading.I'd like to reiterate the fact you do not need to be the best, the fastest or the strongest, all you need is the mindset and drive to go after whatever it is that drives you, just ask yourself 'How bad do you want it' and if the answer is 'bad' then you'll go after it.If you want to follow my story find me on Instagram @peaktotrail where I share what I'm doing and where I plan on going.

 

About the author

My name is Jonny Ulett, I’m 38 yrs old (nearly 39) I’m just an average guy who likes running around hills, moorlands and mountains. Most of the time I’m doing this with my two dogs.
I like tough challenges and willing to take on the real tough stuff as I’m not afraid to fail. I’ve been running for about 6 years now and it’s just a hobby I love, I’m no athlete or anything like. I’m just someone who has solid determination. I do it to compete against myself, nobody else.
I’m currently preparing for the Northern Traverse in April, which is a 180 mile coast to coast race using Alfred Wainwrights route. Also parallel to this I’m training for my Bob Graham round in June. Some might think it’s too much to take on at once, others would do the same, but that’s just me. 
So as you can imagine I hope to do some real big challenges over the next few years.
You can follow Jonny's journey over on Instagram @peaktotrail

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