Sevenoaks AC member Alzbeta Benn, better known as Bet, took on the challenge of a lifetime in January 2015, when she competed in the Montane Spine Race, writes Jim Knight. This involved covering the entire Pennine Way on foot, from Edale in the South to Kirk Yeltholm in the North, a distance of 268 miles in 7 days. This would be difficult enough in Summer, but imagine if you can, doing that in Winter, with the long nights and the freezing cold. Not to mention the hills, carrying the compulsory kit and having to navigate the whole way.

The race started on the morning of the 10th of January 2015, in dreadful weather. In fact the conditions were so bad that the start had to be delayed by 3 hours. A sign of things to come…

Of the 95 starters, which included 9 ladies, there were 47 finishers of which two were ladies.

BetThis is Bet's report:

"How Spine went

The MONTANE® Spine Race is a 268 mile, non-stop, uncompromising winter challenge encompassing the entire Pennine Way. Widely recognised as one of the most demanding National Trails in Britain. The race is in January.

The race has two version Challenger 100miles and the Spine Race.

Friday 9.1.2015 Registration, visit to pub. Get some beer, food, desert and some cake for tomorrow and go to sleep. All night I could hear somebody laughing, then I was too hot, needed pee…what time is it, I got some sleep. And morning came and noise from wind was quite strong.

I came to start to 8, and the news was that the start was delayed by two hours due to strong wind and that we will all meet in the hall then.
When we were waiting for people to come on the agreed time Marcus S. came back from challenger (they started at 6:30 and he won last year Challanger), and said to windy (he had retired due injury). I couldn’t stand on my feet. He is skinny bloke, but imagine we all are waiting and last year winner had retired. What I will do there?

Finally the let us go. Up hill, and the wind was blowing really, imagine that somebody grab you and push you side ways. So every step was battle with wind. I even was pushed to the ground couple of times. Constantly I was worried if the wind will drag me I might step badly and it’s over. My choice of bag was bad for this to big, so the area of me was even bigger for the wind. But I was still moving and then the waterfall. Have you ever seen waterfall spraying water up. It was something incredible, apparently really rare.

Next highlight was peeing in the strong winds. It was good that I had waterproof trousers.

I was with Kevin and Steve. Steve had crew in Cowden and they had walkies talkies and orders had been made for nice hot soup, and teas and sandwiches. David the crew was absolutely the hero. We all needed something warm. After 10 minutes we were off. Steve was telling me its ok Kevin is always slower after eating. Other magnificent view its pitch dark, we are there with head torches, and on right hand side there is small town in glow and snow is falling. It felt like Christmas.

Road crossing and surprise surprises race van it was nice to see human face and get some food in and I spoke with husband. I remember my husband telling me how cold is at home. I was laughing cold? It can’t be worse than here. But obviously I didn’t tell him how windy it is, and that is snowing. And that I am heading out again in few minutes. Kevin tried to get bit better as he was slowing down before the van a lot.

Next section, I did sections between roads. Steve and Kevin did together races and they knew each other, and Kevin was slow this time. And was getting slower and slower. Steve was pushing and didn’t want to be straight behind his head torch because it made me blind, when I was in front the powerful torch was casting shadow of me, so I could see anything. So I was bit behind so I can see. The wind got my hood and I lost my torch, luckily Kev was behind and pick it. Kevs battery were going and in one place was felt and the bang was quite laud. Ok? Yeh..let’s change the battery, can you see? Then Kevin was putting hand in his poles, I can’t. Shit not good place, but its not far from road. Just have to keep him moving, so he doesn’t get cold. Grab his arm and walk with him till he got pace back. Then gel out, and straight in his mouth. Good he is still moving.

The Road what a relieve. Kevin is retiring. Steve,me and new member Fran carries on through moon land. It was bit rocky and difficult to walk on. Next road crossing Steve is retiring. So I continued with Fran to CP1. It was good to be with lady. No trouble to put pants down and to be seen. She was supported too, so her crew was waiting for as on next raod crossing with hot chocolate. It was like heaven. After the long night we need it.

Couple of field and we will be there, open mouth and sleeping when walking. And it was quite nice and sunny in the morning.

Checkpoint 1 – food, feet, get ready for next section. I lost lots of time being with Kevin. But not sure if I will be much faster, but could get some sleep instead of 5 minutes for next 60 miles. Never mind, strategy is gone have to try if I can get to CP2 with little sleep. Maybe I will find some nice spot to rest at night. We had to carry bivvy bag and sleeping bag and other kit.

After couple of hours I caught Tom and Fran, and Tom was running up and down hill looking on gate, it look like 200m from the top of hill to me on the map. And I did about 150m. We were moving together and next road and Fran’s crew Nick fit us all in his small car. Nick was in boot, other Tom in back too, Fran, me and Tom on front. We shared seat with Tom and had hot chocolate.

We are off leaving car when the wind is taking the car doors. Its really windy again. They are faster then me uphill so I walk by myself, and I try to chase them on flats. Then I could see them next to cottage with some soldier in golden uniform. Is this real? Blinking, tried to turn the light off to see if the party will go away. And I am still chasing them in my mind, and they have party maybe I should go and have some drink too? Shit this is not real, it can’t be GPS says turn left so does map. I have to be really tired. Maybe I can find some spot for sleep.

Next village had bus stop. Bothy bag out get wet clothes of and get in, food and sleep. Its cold but not windy and some ducks are next to the bus stop talking. I want to sleep. Shut up. I am still cold. Who I will call? I can’t call to husband. Call Rob, he is watching the tracking anyway. Shivering and talking with Rob. And he did you call your husband. I can’t. He will be worried. Got bit wormer said buy and try to sleep. Its cold but not windy and some ducks are next to the bus stop chatting. I want to sleep. I almost try to talk with the ducks to keep them quite. Bit rest. Let’s get up, this is waste of time. Rob told me that the two are just in front of me.

Later I caught the two people in front, but they were waster up hill. And I walked open mouth and sleep. When I woke up, I was up the open ground, wind blowing and heavy rain. GPS out what is the grid reference. Its about 100 m of the path, not bad. Which is the faster place to go to the route. This way, bearing and no path. Again, where is the path. There was also trig point, which I could use for navigation, but my brain was dead. I was getting seriously cold, bothy out and think how to fix this. Let the SOS team now that I am in bit of trouble but that I will try to sort myself out. Near by there is road, so if I take bearing and follow it to the road I will get there. I walked and bogs, fell in it. ( they were in map) so my tummy got wet. Shit fast move, have to keep moving. Where is my gloves from volunteer, I don't know possibly in the bog. Move move, you have to get out from here.

GPS trackers were working, and I got call from the mountain rescue team if I am ok, they have seen me walking in circles. I was just so confused, falling everywhere, the lights started to wave at me and flash at me. What is real? There was some wall, they told me to follow it so I did. How good was to touch a wall, its real its there. And then I hit the path I was looking for. Where is the second gloves. Somewhere gone. Andy was waiting for me on the road, strip all the wet clothes and get into dry once. Soon we got the three people in car who were in front, they pull them in because the weather was worse in front of us and couldn’t keep us safe.

I will try to make it to finish next year. I was bit upset that I stayed with Kevin, but I got good news that my application was accepted for next year. 

Its good that I didn’t make it to finish I will finish with a book.

I tried to be anonymous as long as possible, because I don’t like the comments about some other long distance runners."

Rob Carr interviewed Bet shortly after the event.

So Bet, before you tell us how the event went for you, tell us more about your preparation?

I had to buy lots of equipment for the race so I spent lots of time counting grams to keep my pack down to the minimum. Regarding running, I did lots of long runs over weekends and cycling during the week together with pilates for core strength and circuit classes twice a week. I maybe could do more running but was worried about my foot so rather rested more. I went also on the Penine Way to train and I have spent some time in New Forest on moors practicing navigation. I have slept in my garden to test the sleeping bag in minus temperatures. And on top of this I did some long walks, some marathons and lots of eating.

Just before the race I packed my kit bag and went to see sport massage therapist Cathryn Bishop just for final massage in the Integrated health clinic in Sevenoaks. She said your muscles are in good conditions, which is always good to know.

That’s a lot of things to consider. Going into the event, what aspect, if any worried you the most?
Being alone for long times and the risk of hypothermia.

And how did your race go?

Not according to plan. I retired after completing 68 miles. Earlier in the race I had been with a chap called Kevin, who was struggling.   I couldn't leave him behind I could see him struggle and was worried that he will get cold and in the wind, but if I will leave him when he got slower on first down hill who knows. Staying with him resulted in me going slower than I intended. This left me little time at Check Point 1 and it became a struggle from that point onwards.

Why did you retire?

I caught myself sleeping while walking. Where I am? GPS out here on letter B, bearing counting steps, and no path. I knew that GPS can be 100m out, so again and it was raining and really windy and my brain was really tired, again and again. I was so tired that some wall or trig point nearby didn’t even strike me to use it for navigation, what a massive features. But I was bit cold and told the race mountain rescue what is going on before I got so confused but that I am fine and I will sort myself out I did it just as precaution just in case something will go wrong that they know where I am. One the map there was some quarry which worried me a bit, will I step on shaft.  So they could watch my dot on screen more closely as we all had gps tracker for this purpose. And I in my battle to get to path and the road I started to see lights flashing and I was falling over every grass and finish in bog having bath and half of tummy got wet. As I said it was really windy and I was getting more and more confused and I got a phone call from race mountain rescue if I am ok and that I have to walk west. So I walk for bit and then I thought the rescue team is flashing at me from the other side lets walk there then. After while the phone rang again, can you see the wall, yes, walk to your right and then you will hit the path Andy is coming and will beep horn and will have lights on you are 500m from road. How nice it is to touch real wall, I was just touching the wall on purpose to be sure that it’s there and not just in my head. And finally I have seen the biggest bloke Andy coming towards me. 95 km on my gps and race is over.

What lessons did you learn?

Don’t stick with somebody slower then you, just continue before they get even slower
And to rest and eat more

I think that navigation was more important then walking faster, I could save 5 min every so often if I could navigate faster
Practicing with the bag, and have everything ready was other think where I could save. Moving bag was nightmare front pouch from clips ( and I had nice big carabins to make it easier when I have cold hands). I haven't move the bag to much but its 10 minutes or 15 a day where I could save
And I will get faster stove I cooked once but my old stove is degraded to camping only where I can sit and read paper. I think that new kit and more gloves one pair is not enough. I had lots of the liners pairs of gloves but what I seemed to lost was waterproof gloves. Kev lost one too, and somebody else commented that they lost some.
One week on how do you feel physically and mentally?


Will you do it again and if so when?

Next year if the race director let me

What went well in 2015?

The friendship and I had fun.

What didn't go according to plan in 2015?

The arrival to Check Point 1.  I arrived there much later then I had planned.

What will you do different next time?

Leave Kevin behind much earlier so I don’t lose my sleep. Since the race I had a chat with Kevin and we had agreed that I didn't know that he is ok in mountains and we have agreed next time we have to have strategy when somebody goes slow we have to agree what to do.

What are some of your highlights?

Seeing a waterfall spraying upwards
Crawling out of bog on my four - it made me laugh.
Having a chance to speak in Czech with Pavel, the race winner.
The best was the hot tea, and hot soup from Steve's crew

What was your low point?

It came actually when I was in CP2 safe in sleeping bag and crying. The reality hit me I could die there it was windy, raining and I was so confused that I lost my map, bothy bag, front pouch gloves. Also I didn’t know what is real anymore.

What did you find most difficult?

The constant battle with the wind, then carrying monster on my back and seeing Kevin struggle.

Just in case someone at SAC is interested in signing up for a future Spine Race, how would you rate the race in terms of:

Beginner friendliness? Everybody was really nice and welcoming
Organisation? Great
Value for money? Good
Scenery? Dark
PB potential? 268 miles first time will be always pb
Course marking? PW is marked a bit but map and navigation skills are required
Checkpoints? Excellent

And finally describe the Spine in one word:

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