The Spine Race is a 268 mile (431km) ultramarathon taking part in the UK Winter.
It’s well regarded as one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world. With only around 150 participants attempting it every year and under 50% even finishing it! And this is despite the seemingly generous 7 day cut-off!
2023’s race was won by British elite ultramarathon runner, Damian Hall,
in a men’s record for the course. And so he adds this victory to his incredible
running CV, which includes:
- Representing Great Britain
- 5th place at UTMB
- 1st at the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa
- Several records/ Fastest Known Times (FKTs)
As well as being one of the UK’s best runners over ‘lumpy places’ and a self-confessed tea addict, ‘Ultra Damo’ is a co-founder of the Green Runners, and author of We Can’t Run Away From This.
And, luckily for us, he has written a really detailed, informative and entertaining blog, summarising this year’s victory.
Plus there’s an ‘exclusive Q&A’ at the end, where he tells us his top tips and hints at what’s next for him.
Day 1 – Making Friends and Taking it Easy
You’re not going to win the The Spine Race in the first 24hrs. But you could lose it.
In 2022, my bruva from another muva, the pathologically compatible Kim Collison and I possibly sewed some seeds for our mutual destruction with an overly brisk start (but it was such fun!).
We were determined to be more chilled this time and literally asked each other, “Are we being more chilled this time?”
When Kim stopped to splash his daps I stopped too. We power-hiked sections we’d run the year before. We stayed longer at CPs and ate more Pot Noodles. Instead of thinking how to drop Kim, I just wanted to get to Hawes (106 miles) in good shape.
The weather was feisty enough for goggles early on and a bit spicy on the Cam High Road too, but otherwise brill. Jack Scott, Eugeni Roselló and Dougie Zinis ran with us for a while (Dougie’s weather forecasts are uncanny). We weren’t trying to drop anyone, but we didn’t see them after Hebden (approx 40 miles).
Pacing and fuelling were good, company was good and getting the news of Totscum 0-2 The Arsenal at 11pm in Gargrave (thank you!) made all those squelchy fields more bearable.
I wouldn’t normally be pleased to be slower in a race, but we were both chuffed to arrive at Hawes an hour behind our 2022 time. Spine Life was good…
Day 2 - Making Tough Choices
On day two, from Hawes, Kim Collison and I climbed the white monster, Great Shunner Fell (where super-snapper Steve Ashworth took some stunning pics).
The descent was pretty hard on the body and I felt it in my hips.
Near Keld, Kim said he’d back off for a bit as the pace didn’t suit him. Like last year, I was torn between being a friend or a competitor… He seemed in good spirits, so I went on, hoping to see him again.
On Sleightholme Moor, snow covered thin ice which covered freezing water and made me a bit grumpy.
I reached CP3, Middleton-in-Teesdale (143 miles), at 8.25pm.
Tea was placed in my hand before my shoes were even off. Though they took a while to be de-iced.
Time to sleep. But, due to leg pain, it didn’t really happen. I aimed for 90mins, but got about 20. I knew second-placed Jack Scott would be in soon, so if I wanted to stay ahead I needed to get going.
We exchanged some bantz and I was back out the door at about 11pm…
Day 3: Part a - Deja Vu
On day three we were deep into deja vu territory.
In the 2022 Spine Race I had a four-hour lead by Dufton, but in truth I was still too concerned with the runners behind me, pushed too much and my groin said no.
This time I was determined to chill.
I listened to football podcasts to semi-distract myself. I felt very happy in the snow and the dark.
Nevertheless, at Dufton (165 miles) at 5.30am I was told irreverent whippersnapper Jack was only about an hour behind (and he would have likely had a proper sleep). Hmm. I’d anticipated a bigger gap…
Had I been chilling too much? I didn’t panic, but I climbed Cross Fell with renewed focus.
It was around –15˚C up there and dawn brought an eerie pink-peachy light with wind-sculptured ice decorating the rocks. I ruddy loved it.
Whether to stop at Greg’s Hut is always a dilemma for the Spine racer. It can be a hugely welcome haven but John Bamber does like a natter and a teastop can soon swallow 30mins. I settled for a couple of slurps and obligatory tea photo.
The pre-Alston stiles were where my groin started yelping last time, so I was thrilled to be issue-free. One large helping of legendary Alston Lasagne disappeared down my gullet, plus tea x2, while the tracker showed Jack off course. Things were going perfectly. But this is the Spine Race.
Sleep deprivation and the cold would become bigger factors…
Day 3: Part b - Making A Major Mistake?
I left Alston (185 miles), the inspiration for The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey, just after mid-day on day three (Tuesday).
It was sunny, the next section is low-lying and I couldn’t imagine anything being as cold as Cross Fell, so I foolishly left my lovely Inov-8 Thermoshell jacket behind.
The next section, despite wonderful Slaggyford, isn’t many people’s favourite, but was unusually beautiful, with bogs and muddy fields all white with snow.
Passing the point where my groin had said no the previous year felt like a moment.
It was cold. Minus something and getting colder and the terrain wasn’t conducive to fast movement. I’ve been across it many times, but Blenkinsopp Common still sucked away my soul.
I seriously considered wrapping my sleeping bag around me under my waterproof. I went into a Greenhead toilet to do so, but I forgot why I was there. My watch unexpectedly died, which stressed me out more than it should have.
I don’t believe in angels, but it felt like someone was looking out for me. At key times on Hadrian’s Wall when I was starting to unravel, random supporters turned up to perk me up. 🙏🙏🙏
North of the Wall, in the woods, I caught up with fellow leaner Colin Green and pals, running the Spine Challenger North. They were great company for a time, before I jogged on.
I thought I was running pretty well. Then they hiked past me.
I knocked back soup at Horneystead Farm, but learned my gap to Jack had shrunk from 8K to 5K, which was concerning. I didn’t know he’d found a canny shortcut and assumed he was moving much better than me (probably also true).
I debated it for a while and came to the conclusion that at Bellingham, the final check point, I needed some zzzzzs. Even if, with just 43 miles left, that would almost definitely mean handing over the race lead to my younger friend turned foe, who was showing a flagrant disrespect for his elders…
I set an alarm for 5.45am. At least, I thought I did…
Day 4: Part a - The Hunt Begins
After 220 miles/ three days and nights of bog-bothering, it came down to a 40-mile ‘sprint’ between a 47-year-old with mixed recent results and 28-year-old with a head-start.
I had planned to have 90 mins sleep at Bellingham, on a cold wooden floor. But I didn’t set an alarm properly.
Instead of 5.45am, I awoke at 7am.
“Feck! Jack must be miles away! You’ve blown it, you effin muppet…”
As I necked tea and porridge, race officials explained Jack had a 41-minute time penalty. That lifted my mood.
If you hadn’t heard of Jack Scott before, you weren’t paying enough attention. He’s broken Mike Hartley records and has a resume of numerous domestic podiums. I’ve gone on long runs with the fellow Inov-8 man, chatted about training on the phone. He always asks the right questions and has a very bright future – and present – in this sport. I love that disrespectful whippersnapper. (Even if he does support Stoke City). But that morning he was my enemy.
This was the crux of the race. It’s 14 miles to Byrness, the final monitoring station before the long remote section over the snowy Cheviot Hills. He HAD to get bad news there – ie, that I was gaining on him.
Jack left an hour before me, but due to the penalty, was really only 20mins ahead. I told myself, though he is younger, faster and winning the race, I had several small advantages: waking naturally, I’d had a full sleep cycle and felt like I was, well, 28 again. I knew the course, was running in daylight, I had poles and I had SO MUCH frustration from the previous year. Plus now I was doing the hunting.
I also had a secret weapon. A packet of Biscoff Sandwich Creams. They didn’t last long.
The white hills sparkled in the early morning sun.
On the downs, I extended my stride further than my body wanted to. On the ups, I asked myself, how could I ever tell my kids to try their best if I didn’t do that right now.
Some day, maybe soon, I won’t be able to race at the front of ultramarathons. But not this day.
Day 4: Part b - Chasing Snowy Footprints
Jack had left Bellingham 1hr before me, but at Byrness he was only 10mins ahead. Plus he’d stayed at the monitoring station for the full 30mins allowed.
This was even better news than hoped.
I necked a tea, some delicious, spicy pasta (thank you Sharon!) and left within 5mins, to give chase. I was buzzing. Trying to hold back my emotions. Jack must be broken?
I spotted him ahead on the climb up onto the Cheviots. Annoyingly though, he wasn’t moving like a man ready to surrender.
At the top, I gave chase in the snow. He must have seen me. Using markers ahead, I could tell I was around 10mins behind (which with the time penalty, meant I was actually 30mins ahead). But like a boxer against the ropes, he was still swinging punches. The ruddy git. Won’t this whippersnapper show some respect for his elders?!
For about two hours I chased him, always 10mins ahead.
Then suddenly, over a small hill, his X-Talon footprints disappeared.
I continued on slowly, looking around. Has he fallen? Has he gone off course?
Finally he appeared behind me. I shouted to see he was okay. Then instinctively, I waited.
When he caught up, he was clearly tired. I gave him a hug. I’m not sure he was expecting that.
I put on almost all my clothes at hut 1 and necked two bagels.
I don’t think we verbally agreed to run the rest of it together, but it was a mutual understanding.
The snow was so beautiful. But it got deeper, till most strides went above my knee.
“This is the most snow I’ve ever seen,” said Jack
Day 4: Part C - Snogging A Wall
Finally, after hours of trudging through snowdrifts, the white stuff became fun for the last long downhill as we tumbled towards Kirk Yetholm, the lights of which elude you right till the end.
Jack offered to let me finish first, but that didn’t feel right.
How shall we celebrate? “Touch the wall, shake hands, go home,” he said. He’s not one for wall snogging.
It felt oddly serene to get to those bricks. It was the culmination of years of training and daydreaming and 12 months of simmering frustration.
It was so brill to have so many friends there. And share those last few magical miles with someone so talented (in any other year than 2023 or 2019 his run would have won the race), so likeably dour and with a similar penchant for comedy hair. Thanks man x
Big thanks to everyone at The Spine Race, folk who came out to support or followed online, David Roche for genius coaching, Renee McGregor for nosh wisdom, Coach Dee for working hard on my groin (stop it), my sports therapist Matt Holmes, my running hero Eoin Keith for all the inspiring words and performances down the years, and Inov-8 for the ace kit and unwavering support.
Doing It For Something Bigger
Big shout out to the amazing people at Just Stop Oil. Thanks for your incredible, selfless work and the brill banners you made me. Thanks to everyone at The Green Runners, too, for the amazing things you do.
Bedfellows Extinction Rebellion UK plan big protests in London on 21 April. Please come along. This is an emergency. The Spine Race may have been cold, but our house is on fire.
That’s my why. What’s yours?
An Exclusive Q&A Into The Winner's Mindset - An Interview with Damian Hall
- What’s your favourite race? How does this compare?
Damian Hall: At the moment, this one! I just love the drama of it and the wonderful community around the race, kindness from strangers. Thank you all!
- What’s the Best Part of the Race?
DH: Scenically, it’s the beckoning canyon of High Cup Nick, but I tend to get to that in the dark.
Cross Fell was special this time. -15C and a pink-peach sky, it felt like another planet.
- What’s the Worst Part?
DH: Neither of the two most notorious bogs, Sleightholme and Blenkinsopp, disappointed.
- What tips do you have for being a successful runner who cares about their impact on the environment?
DH: Race travel will be the biggest emissions for most runners, especially if there are flights involved.
So it’s worth asking yourself how important that event is to you, can you travel there better and can you stay longer/make more out of the trip?
- And what do you say to those who say you can’t be an elite, ultra-successful athlete AND care about your impact on the environment?
- What’s Next?
DH: Tor Des Geants in September and just trying to decide what to do beforehand
Thanks Damian. Congratulations on an amazing performance. And we can’t wait to follow your next adventures!