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Running up that Hill…

I adore the music of Kate Bush.  Recently her 1985 hit found new life due to the Netflix series Stranger Things.  My dad also enjoyed her music and to me, he was always ‘the man with the child in his eyes’.

I’m no runner, but a chance message found me volunteering as part of the safety team for the Spine Race.  I knew it was going to make it a manic few days because of other commitments, but it sounded a great experience and the cold weather looked just my kind of thing.

I drove north to meet Spine Safety Teams 6 (SST6) at Langton Beck YHA and rather sheepishly entered a room full of folks chatting away and staring at their mobile phones.  All runners wear a tracker and many eyes were glued to the live updates online.  I was soon teamed up with Mick – a veteran of the race and we deployed to the village of Garigill.  As safety team we keep an eye on the runners in our section, make sure everyone is ok as they pass through and give lots of support.  We can call on medical assistance if required, but everyone we met was in high spirits and loving the cold, clear conditions.  Snow had blanketed the hills and a bitter wind whistled through the sky, but the route was hard underfoot and the scenery stunning.

Monitoring online requires mobile service, and this is a problem at Garigill.  Nestled in a valley, the village is a blackspot, but we were saved by Annie – a wonderful Brazilian lady who has taken the race into her life.  She opens her house to everyone, cooks, makes drinks, laughs and has become a race favourite.  She also allowed us to access her wifi so we could keep an eye on the runners.  Mick and I would go out to meet them as they entered the village and make sure they were ok.  Many stopped off for a drink and flapjack/toast/soup/chilli (the list goes on), before heading on their way.

We handed over to our relief at midnight and headed to bed. Day one done.

Day two brought more cold and clear skies, so I headed for a wander to High Force before deploying to Garigill again.  Mick and I walked onto Alston Moor to check conditions and greet a number of runners.  Everyone looked good and was enjoying the sunshine and clear skies.  They wanted to get over the moor before dark and make the checkpoint at Alston for a rest, before heading north in the night.  The hard packed trail was helping them make a good pace and by nightfall, many were clear of the high ground.  Runners still came in and we met them with applause as they passed us by.  Another great shift, followed with a drive north to The Sill at Hadrian’s Wall.

My final day brought a wander over the wall to the famed Sycamore Gap, before heading to the checkpoint at Alston YHA with Birgit, a team medic.  It was here that the race really hit home. The cut off for all racers was 22:00hrs.  A mish-mash of tired faces littered the hostel, but one thing was for sure – they were all still determined to continue.

I know a thing or two about foot injuries, but what I saw that night even made my stomach churn. A number of runners were sat with the medics and time was running out. The 22:00 cut off time is taken very seriously and tired, almost hallucinating people don’t sort kit fast. Tape was applied to feet which were boggy, blistered and bleeding. Lots of quiet medical advice was given regarding the race, but there was no stopping these back markers. Whatever it took and no matter the pain, they were going on. Faces winced as feet touched the floor and one chap had to change in the car park as the cut off time arrived. Three others were waiting for him to dress, all in pain and all suffering, but determined as a group to support each other through the night as they headed north. I’ve seen people push hard in the past, but rarely with a will as strong as this.

I had to leave for home as other commitments called and I drove through the night, only arriving back at 03:30am. I was shattered, but nothing like the runners still heading north. I had a warm bed and put what’s left of my feet up for the few hours kip before speaking in a Sheffield school.

They still had a hundred miles to go. I hope they made it…

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