Thinking about taking on the Spine race? Or just intrigued to find out what it is about this brutal race that gets athletes signing up in the first place? Endurance athlete Jenny Lucas-Hill shares insights from experienced ultra runner and coach, Jayson Cavill, in our comprehensive guide to this legendary ultra marathon event.
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The Spine race is possibly one of the most brutal endurance challenges you’ll find. Not only because of the sheer distance – with the full route clocking in at 268 miles. But because of the constant battle runners face against the terrain, and the biting British winter weather.
The Spine ultra marathon is a non-stop, expedition challenge. Once the clock starts, it doesn’t stop until competitors reach the finish line. The race is unsupported, and competitors have seven days (168 hours) to take on the full ferocity of the Pennine Way in freezing January temperatures.
Founded by Arctic explorers Philip Hayday-Brown and Scott Gilmour, the Winter Spine race is a serious ultra running challenge which will push competitors to the very edge of their mental and physical limits.
Location - the spine of the Pennines
The Winter Spine is a point-to-point race. Starting in Edale, Derbyshire and finishing in Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish borders, the Spine gets its namesake from the Pennine Way it traverses. Known as the ‘spine of England’ the Pennine Way is arguably Britain’s most challenging national trail route.
Spine participants will travel through the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland National Park, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots. A brutal challenge it might be, but the tough terrain also offers up some of the most stunning landscapes you’ll find in England. Expect everything from sweeping moors and winding valleys to formidable rock faces and crashing waterfalls. Those not taking on the full Spine can experience the southerly part of the route from Edale to Hawes, or the northerly part from Hardraw to Kirk Yetholm with the Challenger South and Challenge North events.
If the landscape is the beauty, then the elevation gain and the weather conditions at the winter Spine race are the beast. Wind chill can reach as low as -20C, and gusts regularly reach 45mph. The ferocity of the conditions has the potential to make this already incredibly demanding ultra marathon a true test of physical and mental limits.
Route & distances at The Winter Spine
In addition to the full 268-mile Winter Spine route, runners also have the choice of the 46-mile ‘sprint’ race, the Challenger South and Challenger North events (clocking in at 108 and 160 miles respectively), plus two separate events for active members of the Mountain Rescue service.
The total ascent of the full Spine route exceeds that of Mount Everest. And even the shortest of the routes on offer still presents an extreme challenge in terms of terrain, ascent and conditions. But for those equipped with the tenacity to take on the Spine – the reward is an incredible route, exploring Britain’s most stunning national trail which is steeped in heritage and history.
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Qualification & race entry
To qualify for the full Spine race, entrants must have either completed an ultra-marathon of over 80 miles, previously completed one of the Spine Challenger events – or have significant mountain, orienteering and/or fell running experience to support their application.
Due to the high degree of difficulty, all routes at the Winter Spine event require entrants to have significant prior experience. For the Challenger routes, you’ll need to have completed an ultra of 60 miles or more. And for the sprint, prior completion of an event over 30 miles is a requirement. Extensive relevant experience can also be submitted for consideration in lieu of specific ultra/marathon experience.
Those who can complete the epic challenge the Winter Spine presents can earn up to 6 ITRA points.
Expert kit tips
The Montane Winter Spine race has a mandatory kit list which runners must comply with to avoid time penalties or disqualification. Experienced ultra-runner Jayson Cavill shares some top tips below which go beyond the mandatory kit list to help you optimise your Spine race gear.
Trail Running Shoes
Using a wax-coating (such as a clear wax boot polish) is a great way to fully waterproof your shoe uppers for a wet winter ultra.
Use a large dry bag inside your backpack to protect everything from the elements. Also use additional smaller dry bags to separate items and increase protection.
Store your waterproof overtrousers in an accessible side pocket, so you can get to them easily without having to remove your backpack.
Opt for a headtorch with replaceable batteries so you’re not totally reliant on having to recharge it. You can charge spare batteries on the move with a power bank.
Race prep & route recce
Every route at the Spine race includes a significant amount of challenging terrain, steep uphill sections and technical descents. With limited daylight hours in January, you can expect to be navigating much of this tricky terrain in darkness – with a strong chance of inclement weather creating even tougher conditions and reduced visibility. Recce as much of the Spine route as you possibly can, ideally both in daylight and darkness. The Pennine Way is a National Trail, meaning it’s relatively well waymarked. However while racing during the night, and/or in bad weather conditions navigational errors are a real possibility. A GPS unit is mandatory, but it’s still essential to be as familiar with the route as possible to avoid losing your way.
In the full Spine and the Challenger events, sleep deprivation is also an important factor to consider and prepare for as best as possible. That’ll involve doing some of your training overnight.
A quick look at the mandatory kit list, and you’ll know that you’re going to have a lot of gear to carry. Training with your kit bag is essential, both to get used to the weight of it but also to finetune how you pack everything for maximum efficiency.
Travel & accommodation
Given that the full Spine route is a point-to-point race, it’s important to plan your pre- and post-race accommodation options carefully – along with considering the logistics for how you’ll get home or what you’ll do if you have to drop out along the route. Volunteers will be able to provide information on taxis, public transport and lift-matching options. But the race organisers won’t be able to organise the travel for you if you have to drop out and there is no pre-arranged transport at the finish.
The Spine race starts in Edale, which despite it’s rural location is fairly easy to travel to. Edale is accessible by train via the Manchester-Sheffield line and it’s only 40-60 minutes off the major UK motorways if you’re travelling by road. Registration and equipment inspection takes place the day prior to the race start so make sure you arrive in the area with plenty of time.
TIP: You’ll have to unpack all of your kit for checking at registration – so don’t spend ages getting your bag packed to perfection before you’ve been to the equipment inspection. You’ll only have to take it all back out and then re-pack it afterwards.
Prior to the race, the Spine organisers recommend staying at the YHA Edale. If this is at capacity, there’s also a YHA in nearby Castleton along with a range of other hotels and B&Bs including The Peak Hotel and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. If you are staying outside of Edale, just make sure you make travel arrangements to get to the race start early in the morning.
You can organise to leave your car in Edale, if you plan to return there after the race. You’ll need to purchase a parking pass online from the High Peak Borough Council website. The pass can take 5 days to arrive so make sure you purchase your parking in advance. Runners travelling to race the Spine from overseas can also make arrangements for their luggage to be transported along the route.
For competitors, the checkpoints along the route offer floorspace for sleeping along with access to hot food and showering facilities. You can spend a maximum of 8 hours at a checkpoint, and if you need to drop out the volunteers can help you with local taxi information or bus timetables. If possible, it’s worth having a friend or family-member on stand-by to collect you if you need to drop out at any point.
The Spine race finishes in Kirk Yetholm. Accommodation in this small Scottish Borders village will be in high demand, so book in advance. Options include the Kirk Yetholm Hostel, the Borders Hotel and a few smaller holiday homes and B&Bs. For onward travel from Kirk Yetholm, the nearest train stations are Berwick-upon-Tweed or Tweedbank – approximately 40 minutes away by car/taxi.
Race support & spectators
The Spine race is an unsupported event, meaning competitors must be self-sufficient – carrying food, water, shelter, a medical kit and a cooking stove as part of their long list of mandatory kit.
Participants will however be provided with hot meals, hot and cold drinks along with access to sleeping areas and showering facilities at the five main checkpoints. These are located at Hebden Hey, Hawes/Hardraw, Middleton-in-Teasdale, Alston and Bellingham. Your resupply bag will be moved along the route from check point to check point. The maximum stay is 8 hours, and spectators are not allowed to join runners at check points.
Spine runners are not allowed to receive planned support or pacing out on the course, or to have a private support vehicle. You are, however, allowed to utilise cafes or pubs along the route for sustenance or shelter. Accepting generous – and unplanned – help from locals (such as sustenance) is deemed to be fine, according to the organisers.
Due to the length of the event and the remote locations, the easiest – and warmest – way for supporters to follow your progress is via the live GPS tracking system. This provides near-real time updates of each runner’s progress. “Dot-watching” has become a popular phenomena in ultra-running, and given the brutality of the Spine challenge – it’s become one of the most followed ultras in the calendar.
For those that have defeated the legendary Spine race challenge, the primary concern post-race will be rest and recuperation. But once you’re back up on your, probably blistered, feet – the Scottish Borders area is a great place to spend a bit of post-race vacation time.
Aside from the stunning landscapes you’ll have had plenty of time to appreciate during the Spine race, the Scottish Borders are steeped in history – with some of the most beautiful Abbey ruins in the UK. Visit nearby Melrose and Kelso and you’ll be rewarded with quaint market towns. Or take a trip to Galashields to visit The Great Tapestry of Scotland. For a coastal getaway, head to Berwick-upon-Tweed – about 20 miles away from the Spine race finish location. Here you’ll find a tranquil beach, fresh seafood and a whole lot of history about the town’s complex past.
If all that time out in the wilderness during the race has you craving the hustle and bustle of the city, then Scotland’s historic capital of Edinburgh is only approximately 90 minutes away by car. Explore the castle, experience the Royal Mile, indulge in a “wee dram” of the famous local whisky or take a trip to Edinburgh Zoo. This compact city has something for everyone.