Spine Race 2024 - Langdon Beck to Alston

This next section became one of the most memorable for me of the whole race.  If someone asks me to flash back to any given part of the race this would be it.  I left Langdon Beck at 3pm, following the diversion that avoided Cauldron Snout.  The diversion along a minor road was pretty straight forward and the snow continued to fall steadily and was starting to drift in places.  Generally though the going was good as the road diversion finished and the track to the isolated farm house at Birkdale continued.  The light faded just as I arrived into Birkdale and it coincided from what I'd consider to be a snow shower into a full blown snow storm.  It was blowing horizontally into my face and it was here that I decided I need to wear my goggles.  As I pulled them out of my bag the strap detached from the goggle and I had to spend 30 seconds fiddling about getting it back in place.  This was plenty of time for snow to land on the inside of the goggle so after putting them on I had an obscured view.  Eventually the horizontal snow caused the goggles to to smear from the outside as well so I was essentially blind with them on.  The problem was that taking them off resulted in snow stinging the eyes, but I could at least see more than with the goggles on.  In the end I sort of improvised a half way house by wearing the goggles over my eye brows which was enough to shield the worst of the snow from my eyes, but I must have looked a right wally.

Departure from Langdon Beck on the diversion to Cauldron Snout.

Snow storm not yet commenced!

After Birkdale its footpath all the way to High Cup Nick and then into Dufton.  The snow was now averaging a foot, drifting much much deeper in places.  I could barely see where I was going, but it didn't really matter as visibility was so poor.  I just trusted the GPS and followed it religiously.  Occasionally it would be reaffirmed by a bridge crossing a small brook, or a stone marker but I was otherwise right on my limit in terms of safety.  It was more about margin of error being the issue and if something happened that resulted in the need to stop would I be able to have done it safely?   In terms of anyone else around me I was clearly on my own, there being no head torches ahead or behind me.  I was also breaking trail for several miles making progress a relative snails pace.  Very occasionally I would see the hint of a faded footprint being rapidly infilled by the snow but not in a way that it ever provided help.

I eventually got to High Cup Nick, making sure I stayed well clear of any potential drop to my left and eventually the conditions did ease somewhat.  As I descended into the village of Dufton the snow stopped altogether.  I was thinking that if this represented the conditions going up to Cross Fell then the race needed to be held, or at the very least relax the strict 30 minute rule at Dufton.  At the very least I need a bit of extra time to sort things out with kit and eating / drinking that I had to neglect out of necessity.  I arrived into Dufton at 8.10pm to indeed find that the race was being held.  To be perfectly honest I was probably relieved, albeit not knowing that the worst had already passed.

Dufton is a perfectly pleasant place to be but its not the same as a checkpoint.  There was a lot of confusion going about as it wasn't clear how long we were going to be held for.  I knew that the clock doesn't stop in these situations, so although I'm not allowed to make further progress, the time advantage I had built up to this point compared to last year was steadily being eroded.  I also knew that I had lost a shed load of time in the lead up to Dufton and in all probability was going to lose more time in the next section to Alston.  From this point onwards I stopped thinking about sub 110 hour finishes or whatever and just accepted that it will be whatever it will be.

A still from a video taken whilst being held at Dufton.  The way we were all positioned made it all look like a massacre had happened.  Unfortunately although lying down there was no sleep and was not yet aware of the sleep deprivation to come.

Although there was the opportunity to sleep, the reality was quite different.  There was quite a buzz in the air, then occasionally more competitors would arrive.  I did lie down for a bit but sleep it wasn't.  Eventually at about 10.20pm we were told that we would be back on our way at 11pm.  In total there were seven of us, of which I think I was the third to arrive.  Assuming I would have used my full 30 minutes allowance, I was held for an additional 2hrs 20mins in total.

On the way back out two competitors went off at a solid pace with me a couple of minutes behind and then a group of four containing Eoin Keith, Elaine Bisson, Nicky Spinks and Marco Consani further behind.  About half way up Knock Fell I had massive waves of sleep deprivation hit and I was now paying for only having had one sleep lasting 1hr 45mins in some 63 hours of racing.  I still wasn't hallucinating much at this point, just massive waves of wanting to stop.  The thing was that I knew it wasn't safe to stop.  There was at least a foot of snow, maybe 2 feet in drifts and involved breaking trail (albeit a couple of people were ahead).  I was soon passed by the experienced Eoin Keith leading the group of four and we exchanged pleasantries and I explained the issues I was having.  I remember him blowing his cheeks and saying you really don't want to be stopping up here.  It would have been nice for them to slow to my pace due to the conditions, but they owed me nothing and it was down to me to sort myself out.  The gap eventually increased to 100 metres but for one reason of another they stopped and it was just enough for me to close the gap, get ahead of them and this time as they overtook me for a second time I was just about able to latch on.

Eoin led the way for 99% of the time and to be honest I provided no help whatsoever.  He was using his vast experience to try and hunt out the stone slabs which made the going a touch easier but it was mostly luck of the draw.  If anything I felt like a bit of a hindrance as at times I slotted into different positions within the group, probably hindering their rhythm somewhat.  At other times I stumbled in the snow as Eoin ahead broke the trail.  In reality, I was probably not the hindrance I thought I was at the time, but I somewhat unfairly felt like the imposter of the group.  We rocked into Greggs Hut at about 3.30am, having started the descent from Cross Fell.

I was in bits and in desperate need of sleep.  Although I had some noodles and a cup of tea I fell asleep, having then woken to find the others had already departed (although I later gather Marco got to Greggs Hut after we had arrived and later unfortunately had to drop out from the race).  I was basically told that I was not allowed to sleep in the warm room and that if I wanted to sleep I was welcome to in the entrance room that was freezing and damp.  I'd probably had 5-10 minutes of dozing and hoped it was enough to see me through to Alston.

The next 10k is a gradual descent along a track to Garrigil.  To begin with I was running most of it at a fairly decent pace but half way along the sleep issues hit with a vengeance.  I was stumbling, falling asleep whilst still on my feet, once or twice having woken up as I fell over at the side of the track.  I was now also starting to hallucinate, in my peripheral vision often seeing cottages on one side and village halls with their lights on on the other.  For some reason there was some link to Australia amongst it all but cant explain why.  I was having to stop either every mile for 5 minutes, or I managed to stumble on but progress was excruciatingly slow as a result.  The last four miles to Alston took 1hr 45mins.

I arrived into Alston, had a bit of food and just left all the kit and other issues that needed to be resolved after I'd had some sleep.  I was so tired I didn't even bother with a sleeping bag.  I just lay on the bunk and set an alarm for 2 hours.  I was out like a light.  So much so that I actually slept through my alarm, but thankfully woke up after 2hrs 15mins, but boy did I need it.  I didn't feel like a new man, but I was refreshed just about enough to get back out on the trail by midday.  I stayed for a total of 3hrs 40mins, leaving about 20 minutes behind Eoin, Nicky and Elaine.


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