For many, the dark nights of January bring dismay and boredom. Christmas is over and the weather is cold and damp. For some of us however, winter brings great excitement at the prospect of ice, snow, and for the really energetic – ultra running.
I volunteered for the 2024 Montane Winter Spine Race and began the journey checking kit in Edale and Hawes. This is a world similar to alpinism – you need to be light and move fast, and a long way from expedition mountaineering. Equipment moves at a pace which I find difficult to keep up with, and I wonder how much new, lighter kit I’d like to afford. I prefer to wear gear to the bone, but every year materials improve and we all saw that in the checks. We all saw people pushing the rules beyond what is reasonable, but thats why we check kit..!
Thankfully the weather was fine for both the Edale and Hawes starts, a far cry from the recent rains we’ve suffered. There’s nothing like running through a bog in the light, never mind the dark..! A little snow fell on the moors above Hawes, making for a beautiful vista.
The kit checks went well, unlike my car which auto locked with the keys inside whilst I was taking a picture of Wild Boar Fell (not impressed Skoda). My thanks to the delightful Andrea, who allowed me into her house, lent me a telephone and made tea to keep me going, whilst I awaited assistance. I defrosted in Kirkby Stephen, before basing myself at Dufton for my first shift on the safety teams. This sleepy village comes alive for the race and we worked 24/7 for the next three days, greeting runners, fighting the weather and trying to keep warm and dry. There is no point burning yourself out early. Like the runners, this is a multi day race and there is no space for heroics. Everyone needs rest as well as duty, as safety is paramount for all.
The weather deteriorated on the daytime of the 16th and I walked up towards High Cup Nick to assess conditions for myself and also stretch the old legs. Conditions were scarier coming down more than up, as the ice was covered with a fine layer of powder snow. It was very treacherous underfoot, but all competitors carry spikes and they were greatly needed. I headed back to Dufton and got some sleep, ready for the night shift. Well, that was the plan…
At 21:30 the door burst open and I was rudely awakened to a chaotic scene. High up, the weather had deteriorated badly and the race had been paused. Runners had been stopped at checkpoints and held, pending a restart. Wet bodies and kit were strewn everywhere, rapid messages were pinging in the WhatsApp groups, and hustle and bustle filled the room. Over 30 years of stand by, shift working and expedition travel have taught me well. Walk slowly into the excitement, assess the situation, make calm decisions and then execute them. By 23:00 the race was restarted, runners were away, and I was left alone to monitor the trackers, allowing everyone else to get some well earned, and needed sleep.
The next day dawned bright and after a steady morning, I walked up to the summit of High Cup Nick, to again assess conditions and enjoy a wonderful sunset.
A biting cold night fell, but it was clear and I could easily see the transmitter masts at Askrigg. Back at the Checkpoint we welcomed a steady procession of runners through the night, before closing down the following morning. Our work at Dufton was done. It was time to move north…
I drove north to Bellingham and was delighted to have a shower. It doesn’t sound like too much to ask for, but managing my skin grafts is a huge priority in my life. Expeditions are very tough on my injuries, so any opportunity to wash properly is a bonus. I wasn’t out long before deploying to the Transmitter Mast at Ealingham Rigg for the end of the day. Thankfully Stuart brought his camper van and we monitored runners in relative comfort. The sunset was beautiful and another freezing cold night fell. The runners all seemed in great spirits, but they were also exhausted and looking forward to a sleep break. Midnight passed and I enjoyed another wonderful comfort – a bed.
My final day on duty was spent at the races finish in Kirk Yetholm. Runners had been coming in for a few days and we were monitoring the tail enders and they fought not only the worsening weather, but also the clock. The cut off time moves relentlessly up the course, and for many, just finishing is a heck of an achievement. In ones and twos, they kept coming, late into the night. Many managed a sprint to the finish, to much applause and were reunited with loved ones. It was a wonderful experience to see such joy and excitement, after so much effort. I left my final shift with a warm feeling inside, even if it was still biting cold out.
I’m no runner, I never have been, but I do planning, logistics and safety. Years on stand by in the electricity industry and more expeditions than I can count have trained me well.
That’s the best part I can play…