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January 22, 2022

I can't think of many bigger challenges in the UK for ultra-runners than the Winter Spine. 268 miles along the Pennine Way with a sprinkle of difficult weather thrown in for good measure. Imagine our excitement when we saw that North-East lad, Shaun McFarlane was on the start line. We caught up with him to chat about his mammoth achievement. Don't miss out on his training secrets, favorite bits of kit and (my personal favorite) his highlights from the race. 

My training for the Spine involved a mixture of short club sessions,small and big ultras and lots of days climbing mountains with a large pack weight on. I also did a lot of 10 mile load carries with 20kg of weight on my back, usually a full bag of tile adhesive (after all I am a bathroom fitter and tiler). I remember doing the L100 2021 and DNFing at Braithwaite with still 3 hours in the bag. I had severe stomach issues, couldn’t manage any solid food and just made a rash decision because there was transportation outside ready to take people back to Coniston. When I arrived back at Coniston, I could have kicked myself, I felt 100% ready to go after the rest on the bus journey.Why did I make such a rash decision? I should have just rested at Braithwaite and saw how I felt after an hour or so.Lesson learned! I won’t do that again. If I have time in the bag ,take that time and reflect.Can I still walk? Yes -then just keep moving forward. After my DNF on the L100, I was so annoyed with myself and felt so unmotivated. One of my good friends Anthony Tiernan offered me his Hardmoors 55 place, so I just thought what is there to loose,it’s all training for the Spine.The Spine had always been my number one focus.So I turned up on the start line of the HM55, my first ever HM race. I had a major head cold but my lungs seemed fine, I popped a few paracetamol and finished. I then focused on The 3 Peaks Ultra and got that done.I went on to do the North south traverse Peak District ultra which I completed. Next, Coniston to Buttermere L100 recce and weekends away walking in the Lakes. By this time, I was doing ultras or big runs in the Lakes week after week and sometimes back to back. After all this running and load carrying I decided to rest up before the Spine and did absolutely nothing for six weeks before the race. I'm 57 so I felt my body needed a lot of time to recover and get it’s total strength back. This all paid off on race day as I felt as strong as an ox standing on that starting line. For the last six weeks I had just done nothing,lazed about,stuffed my face with anything I could get into and slept until I could sleep no more. I had taken two months off work so had no pressure and I had all the time in the world to just focus on this one race

Photo Credit: Montane

This race is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, I come from a military background so that’s saying something (Green Beret). This racewill make grown men and women cry like babies then spit you out. You must have some kind of emotional attachment to this race and a good reason why you are doing it or you will fall at the first hurdle.Fitness alone will not get you to the finish, you must have the mindset to endure pain and suffering.Your mind will make up any excuse to stop the suffering,so don’t go into this race thinking it’s easy and it’s a casual walk along the Pennine way. It will break you to the core and churn you up time and time again. I think I got about seven hours sleep during the whole race so being able to focus and make good judgments  are necessary while been so sleep deprived.You must keep an eyeball on your navigation too, I looked at my watch nearly every minute checking where I was .It’s so easy to get comfortable with a trail or path and before you know it your 500 meters down the road going the wrong way. It takes every ounce of sinew in your body to carry on time and time again. My thighs were burning when I was crossing over the Dunns just before Cross Fell in40 mph winds,temperatures of -6 and 0 visibility -It was absolutely epic. I was all on my own. I stopped for a moment and felt blessed that here was me standing on top of this grandness while others were tucked up in their cosy warm beds and they all had no idea that I was up there battling the elements. Another was on top of Great Shunner fell,I stopped at the very top briefly and turned my head torch off only to be awakened by a clear sky and all the magical stars above. It was just euphoric and a moment to be savoured. Another high in the race was when I reached Hut Two on the Cheviots, 2 miles before reaching this hut I had collapsed with sleep deprivation and fatigue, I couldn’t focus on the path. It’s like being in a rabbit hole ,hours and hours on end.You can't see anything on the peripheral edges though you sometimes do see strange things when you start to hallucinate .I just felt unsteady on my feet. Luckily, I rang my partner and she boosted me up.I tried again to get to Hut Two but again I fell by the wayside. The sun came up and what a boost that was. I’d just been trudging in the dark for the last god knows how many hours and now I saw the safety of Hut Two. It was such a relief to reach, this safe haven. I was also biviing in a bus shelter in Gargrave, trying to get some sleep but I was shivering uncontrollably.I couldn’t sleep.What a waste of two hours...It was pouring with rain.I’d had enough.I was ready to quit yet again.My mind was making those excuses up again to stop the suffering…There was a competitor biviing next to me and I got talking to him, his partner had just dumped him a week before the race. He went on to tell me that he was raising thousands for cancer by doing the Spine - what a man I thought! He went on to tell me that he too had terminal cancer and the doctors had given him a maximum of ten years to live.This bloke just totally inspired me.Who was I to be feeling sorry for myself? My problems were so insignificant compared to his situation yet here is him pushing his body through all this pain; wow! I was just taken aback, this was real and I was in that moment of life. I couldn't possibly give in now. 

Photo Credit: Montane 

A lot of people were saying to me during the race that if you make it to Greenhead then you’ve made it! It’s still a long way to the finish though and you still have the Cheviots to contend with and all its unforgiving terrain. When I did reach Greenhead I did think to myself, I have come this far and invested so much into this race that I wasn’t going to quit now but the finish just seemed a long way away. Bellingham was the point in the race when I actually thought to myself “I can do this." Little did I know of what was to come! Those Cheviots man!!!! They just seem to go on forever. Each mile seemed to take an hour and drag on endlessly. It wasn’t till I reached the safety of Hut 2 on the Cheviots that I knew then that I had it in the bag, 7 miles to go and I think I had about 22 hours to play with. Even if I had to crawl to the finish, 22 hrs was enough time to put this race to rest. Before I started the Cheviots section I had a sharp pain up my left ankle, it felt like something had snapped and it was dangling underneath my skin; like water trickling down your leg.A funny sensation but also extremely painful with each step, I just had to block it out.I wasn’t going to let this stop me even though I had the Cheviots to endure.  I thought I’d permanently damage my leg if I continued on but for me it was worth the price paying.I could sort that all out after the race even if I needed an op. Reaching that finish line in Kirk Yetholm.I was just overwhelmed with tears of joy and the fact that the suffering and pain had now stopped. I’d done it. I'd broken The Spine but it had broken me so many many times.I was victorious. I could now bask in the glory of all my pain and suffering that I had endured during the race .It was over. What a relief. My body, mind  and soul were broken.  I had actually pulled it off.I couldn’t believe it.I felt euphoric,like some kind of God.I could do anything now and my dream had now become a reality. I was now a Spine Legend and not many people can say that.I'm part of the Spine family now and it feels fantastic ❤️

Photo Credit: Montane

It's been 4 days since I’ve finished the race and I’ve being like an industrial hoover,putting anything I can consume into my mouth endlessly throughout the days, lazing about doing absolutely nothing and sleeping like sleeping beauty. I’m still feeling fatigued and tired but I think that’s down to my age (57), I’m not the youngest of athletes but don’t let the grey hairs fool you; I can still kick ass and get things done 😂.I think this will be a long road to recovery for me.It may take me 3 months before I feel back to normal again and I am at  full strength.A race like this takes a lot out of your body.I’m in no hurry to go out running soon and I know when I will be ready to return to exercise,your body has a way of telling you. Everything in moderation; that's what my dad always tells me. I think I’ll just gradually ease back into things,start eating more healthily and go on a few walks here and there followed by a few weekends in the Lakes enjoying my surroundings. I never really take things that seriously: plans,programs, charts and such alike. If you're exercising hard enough you need all the food you can get into your body and I just stick whatever is at hand, no special diets or anything of that kind. I can eat a full Sunday roast then down a full family bar of Cadbury chocolate followed by a family trifle; not good for me I know but I know my own body and it works for me.Everyone to their own 😎

Photo Credit: Montane

I really don’t know what's next on the cards for me, what could top the Spine? Maybe climbing Mt Everest!!!!!! But that’s just way out of my budget….I may look towards some Artic challenge pulling sledges and stuff and being totally and utterly self sufficient.I’ll ponder over the idea for a while before I make any kind of decisions, I did think about the MDS or the UTMB but having talked to competitors who were doing the Spine and had done both said that the Spine was much harder,not so much in elevation like the UTMB but just for it’s brutality and the greater distance between each CPs. So I’m really not sure where I will go from here .I am 57 and not getting any younger but I do like to push the boundaries of human capabilities and I don’t try and let age become an issue.It does get harder the older you get though but I try my best to keep my toe in. 👊


Photo Credit: Montane


What a pleasure it was to snatch a glimpse into Shaun's Spine race journey:the preparation, the highs, the lows and the many lessons learnt along the way.