Interview: Harriet & Karl

I’m sure many of you, like us, spent much of the second week of January following the progress of the Spine Race 2022. Known as “Britain’s most brutal”, it covers 268 miles along the remote and exposed Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to the finish at Kirk Yetholm, just over the border in Scotland!

This year’s overall winner was Eoin Keith (92:40:30) and the first female finisher was Debbie Martin-Consani (104:08:22). However, every finisher has their own epic story to tell, and when we spotted that Harriet and Karl Shields were running together as a couple we just knew we had to speak to them! They finished together with a time of 152:49:25 after more than 6 days on the course, and we were so pleased when they agreed to answer a few questions on their Spine experience for the blog. We hope you enjoy it!

Thanks for making the time to speak to us here at Miles Together! Please tell us a little bit about yourselves

Karl: Both now dragged kicking and screaming into our 50s, we have always loved the outdoors, the hills, walking and running, and enjoying the cake eating opportunities that such activities can lead to.  We spend a lot of time together (testament to Harriet’s patience as I cannot be easy to spend time with) and spent both working and free time together for many years until last November when we sold our family business and are now “considering our options”… many of which involve the outdoors, and cake.

Before we get to the Spine race itself, how and when did you get into running?

Karl: I sort of reversed into running from more expedition style events. I did Kilimanjaro, some alpine stuff and then the 450 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra. Running came along as I loved being out on the trails and trail running became my principle training activity to support the longer events. I did the Spine Race for the first time in 2014 and said never again… which interestingly I said again in 2018, and again about 3 weeks ago.

Harriet:  I felt I was missing out on adventures, so decided to tag along on some, then got hooked! I made many good friends on various races, and now regularly meet up for days and weekends away on trails on the North York Moors, Pennines, and Cheviots. Started with 10ks, then half marathons, road first, then trails later. Going long started when I was in Ambleside supporting Karl and watching Lakeland 50 and 100 runners go past. I decided there and then that if they can do it, then so can I.  Got into the Hardmoors races, a range of brilliantly organised and varied races in the North York Moors run by husband and wife team Jon and Shirly Steele. I only did my first marathon two months before the Lakeland 50 in 2015.  My first 100 miler was the 2017 Winter Spine Challenger, which sounds like a pretty brutal first encounter with a 100 mile race but I had a firm base of experience in hill walking to fall back on. 2017 was my best year ever with Hardmoors 1000 mile club, Hardmoors Grand Slam Marathons and Grand Slam Ultras including the 110, then finished the year off with the Cheviot Goat. Loved every (well almost every!) minute of it.

You’ve both been involved with the Spine Race in one way or other for several years – either running various Spine events, or helping out as a volunteer. How did you first get involved with the Spine community?

Harriet: My first encounter with the Spine Race was in 2014, sat in the Borders Hotel in Kirk Yetholm waiting for Karl to finish (he was taking ages), talking with Richard Lendon, Mark Hines, Eugeni Solé and a selection of other Spine royalty hearing stories of their adventures. I definitely remember stories about moose and wolverines, but it’s a bit of a blur as there may have been alcohol involved. When asked when I was going to do the Spine I laughed and said “no, I’m more than happy doing my 10K races”. Never say never eh?

Karl: The Spine Race is a black hole. It relentlessly draws you in despite any resistance you try to put up. My January would be incomplete without being part of the Spine bubble in some way.  The race itself is a beast – never the same twice, and worthy of its claim to be Britain’s Most Brutal. I’ve been involved not just race side, but also on the safety team, and checkpoint team, and the experience has been amazing (and exhausting) every time. If you want to get a feel for the race ahead of participating I’d strongly recommend volunteering.

Tell us about what lead you to deciding to run this year’s winter Spine Race together, and how you prepared for the race. Have you ever done anything like this together before?

Harriet: At the time I signed up for the winter Spine (February 2020, pre-COVID) my motivation was to get a medal in each of the four races (summer and winter, Challenger 100 miles, and full race). I already had a winter Challenger finish and summer full race finish, and planned to finish off with the summer Challenger in 2021. But then the 2021 winter race fell victim to COVID and was cancelled, and in the meantime they moved the goalposts by introducing a winter Northern Challenger covering the last 170 miles of the Pennine Way, so guess what I’ll be doing next January…

My preparation involved lots of single day trips and back to back trips with my running friends. Many an early morning dragging a tyre around in preparation for hills and snow – you never know what you will get on a winter Pennines trip. We were both pretty under-trained for this years race – a fact that made itself clear in the first couple of stages of the race. We’d had a lot going on in our work life through 2021, assisted by everyone’s friend COVID, and had really struggled to focus as much on our training as we would have liked.  We would tell anyone who listened that the first 2 days of the race were our training, the middle days tapering and then we would race on the final day. Secretly we hoped we would get by just fine on experience and good intentions… What could possibly go wrong on the Pennine Way in January eh?!

As for running together, it was a bit of a last minute decision. We had originally planned to each run our own race and check in together by phone once a day. But the weather didn’t look great for day one with the likelihood of a lot of ice in places so we didn’t think our pace would be that different and it made sense and would be safer to stick together for day one. Then I seemed to be stuck with him! But seriously, we enjoyed leg one together and decided to stay together for leg two, and so on. Both of us were comfortable running alone, but together it added to our enjoyment as it became a shared experience, both highs and lows.

Lots of other spine racers talk about the challenges of the route, the weather and simply the distance – sometimes as their own personal battle and sometimes forming partnerships out on the route. How did it work out for you guys – did you stay together the whole way? What were the biggest challenges?

Harriet: As soon as you accept that this is not (for mere mortals) a running race, it’s an expedition and that the weather will surprise you in every way, and remember that EVERYTHING on the Pennine Way is trying to kill you be that obstacle course stiles (with the arse-smacking silly gates at the top), barbed wire trip hazards, bottomless bogs, missing flagstones etc., then you are prepared for the challenges of the route.  It is the Spine Race’s superpower to find new and unusual ways to take you out of your comfort zone. When you add all this together with the long distance, and the short hours of daylight, foot care challenges, cumulative injuries, and sleep deprivation it does become a battle of endurance. We focused on completion not competition, and that’s an important distinction in the Spine Race. Decisions made on the first leg can end your race two or three days later so you need to know what your objectives really are and make good choices.

This is where coming into the race as an existing partnership really helps. We know each other and our strengths and weaknesses, and together are stronger than we are individually. But it’s a double edged sword as temporary partnerships of convenience made with relative strangers out on the trail can be brought to an end with a simple sentence. Bit harder to dump my husband when he was starting to struggle! 

The biggest challenge, and the one that challenged us most as a couple, was when Karl started to really struggle. Although sleep is a bit of a luxury anyway on the Spine Race, for various reasons he didn’t manage to sleep at all at the first three checkpoints, so basically from Sunday morning through to Thursday afternoon on our timings. This wasn’t great and he went a bit manic, started hallucinating badly, seeing double, and generally talking more nonsense than he normally does. This is a race of thin margins – you need every bit of your strength for yourself and your own well being. If you get stuck with a stranger who is struggling (and it’s safe to leave them) you would have to consider leaving them as otherwise your own race could be at risk.  When it’s your husband it’s harder to do that and it’s got the added emotional pain of seeing someone you love struggling so much.  As a result I needed to put a lot more of myself into caring for two, navigating for two, thinking for two, and worrying for two.  It meant that some of the sections were very slow, especially as about this time the weather decided to treat us to some zero visibility fog when you could barely see your own feet.  But he had ups and downs, and when he was functional he was his usual self and I was really glad to have him with me. After the fact, discussing it together (and sharing some thoughts we didn’t share at the time), I may have had a faster finish time had we agreed to part ways at checkpoint one, but over the full race, taking the highs and the lows, we had a better more enjoyable race together than we would have had separately.

Overall, what were the high points for you?

Harriet: The highpoint for both of us was our bivi out on the Cheviots on the final night.  Partly it was great to use the safety gear we had carried all the way so far for its actual purpose. By some trees, under the stars, we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags and got a wonderfully luxurious two hours of quality sleep. As we got going again we got treated to a fantastic dawn over the Cheviot range.  A wonderful start to our final day on the trail as we closed in on Kirk Yetholm.

We hope you’re both recovering well from the race – how’s the recovery process been for you, and is there anything that you look back on from the race that you might have done differently (or wish had gone differently?

Harriet: Recovery is now well underway, thank you! It took us a week for sleep patterns and physical injuries to sort themselves out. Then a week of feeling ok… unless you tried to do anything more strenuous than a short stroll, which then required a long nap to recover from! We are now, three weeks on, starting to get back to “normal” and resuming our training but it will be weeks before we have the miles fully out of our legs (and the peat out of our toes).

The Spine is a race that rewards experience (experience of what works, what doesn’t, what to eat and not eat, what to carry, what to wear and when) so if we started again tomorrow it would be in the same gear as we started the race.  We would have rather had the normal route instead of the detoured route (though it was 95% the same), but it was unavoidable, and why worry about something you cannot change? The thing about the Spine Race is there is ALWAYS something unexpected around the corner, both good and bad. You’ve got to deal with the bad and welcome the good wherever you find it.  In the middle of the night, in Slaggyford (a little village on the route north of Alston) we were welcomed by a lady who had been dot watching and came out to greet us with coffee and a slice of the best cake ever.  Little moments of human kindness like that, combined with seemingly endless support from the race volunteers are what makes participating in the Spine Race such an amazing experience.

Would you do it again? Or have any advice for others thinking of setting out on a similar challenge together?

Karl: We have both learnt not to say never where the Spine Race is concerned. No immediate plans or need to do the full race again, but to be honest, that could change by the end of this week when the 2023 entries open!

The “together” aspect of this is interesting. This is a race that takes no prisoners. You need to have that internal confidence individually that you can do this solo. Especially as you never know if an injury or mishap could put your partner out of the race early.  But together, it’s good to know your relative strengths and how you work well as a team.  We would have also said if you had asked us before or during that absolute honesty and good communication was essential. That was our plan and our agreement with each other in advance – if we were together we would communicate effectively how we were feeling.  But in discussing it together frankly after the race, it appears that both of us lied to each other or omitted certain truths, generally speaking about how we were truly feeling. Our motives were good at least!!

Finally, what’s the next adventure for you?

We did the Northern Traverse, Wainwright’s Coast to Coast route together as an “ultra-holiday” back in 2018. We enjoyed it so much we signed up for the 2020 edition which was then cancelled twice and so it’s finally (hopefully!!) happening this April.  We think we hold the course record for the most hours spent asleep and eating on this race, and look forward to extending our record this time!

Sounds like you’ll have a great time – best of luck with it and we’ll look forward to seeing how you get on!

Well, that was an absolutely fascinating insight into Harriet and Karl’s Spine Race experience – we hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we did. Interestingly, there are many parallels with our recent outing at the Lady Anne’s Way 100 … and we’ll be telling you all about that in another blog post soon!

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