Anaesthetist Tom Hollins surprise winner of 'Britain's most brutal race'

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 01/02/2017
The Montane Spine Race winners. Photo: Mick Kenyon
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There were dramatic twists, nail-biting competition and record-breaking Brits in this year's Spine Race, which takes in the entirety of Britain's oldest national trail, the 268-mile Pennine Way. Competitors slugged it out over a week, stumbling around sleep-deprived in the snow and bogs. Sarah Stirling reports.

When the first ever Spine Race took place back in 2012, there were only 11 entrants, and only three of those managed to cross the finish line in Kirk Yetholm, Scotland. In 2017, 260 competitors lined up at the start of an event that has bred into three races. As usual, many dropped out. 

Against high competition from overseas, Brits claimed all the highest podium places in all three races. A Yorkshireman anaesthetist who had banked more sleep than the competition was the surprise tortoise of the full Spine race, while a nurse who is well-accustomed to making decisions when sleep deprived took the female first place. 

SATURDAY

The baby version of this race, known as the Spine Challenger, is a gruelling 108-miler from Edale in the Peak District to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales, which runners aim to complete in less than 60 hours. It began at 8am on Saturday in snow, winds, and sub-zero temperatures. At midday, round two kicked off: the same course, but this race is only open to Mountain Rescue Team personnel.

WATCH: Brutal conditions in the Spine Challenger

Brits smashed all the top podium places: British-born, US-based Dominic Layfield won, and broke the Challenger course record by over an hour, getting round in an impressive 28 hours. Alasdair Cowell, meanwhile, won the MRT Challenger version in 33:40. The first woman home was Sarah Davies in 37:53, and the fastest female MRT member was Ella Corrick in 58:18.

SUNDAY  the full Spine Race begins in Edale, Peak District

The full Spine Race, along the entire 268-mile Pennine Way, began in warmer but much wetter conditions, with three previous winners battling for the lead: 2016 winner and course record holder Eoin Keith (IRL), 2014 and 2015 winner Pavel Paloncý (CZH), and 2013 winner Eugeni Rosello Sole (ESP). Eoin Keith fell behind in the first two hours. Would the Irishman manage to close the gap?

MONDAY  competitors reach Hawes, Yorkshire Dales

Keith was often only 1-2km behind them during the night, but as dawn broke on Monday morning he was suffering from the sleep monsters as he climbed Pen-y-ghent (694m) in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and the gap opened wider.

In a dramatic twist, though, when Paloncý and Rosello Sole arrived at Hawes, they were served a time penalty for inadvertently shortcutting the course during the night: a 30-minute time sanction (20 minutes that they gained from the shortcut plus a 10 minute penalty). Despite the setback, the pair retained their lead into a second night.

Meanwhile Carol Morgan (IRL), who has previously won the Lakeland 100 and the Fellsman ultramarathons, was in full throttle as the first female.

WATCH: Night two of the brutal Spine Race

TUESDAY — the competition hots up in Alston, Cumbria

After 180 miles, Paloncý and Roselló Solé were still in the lead, and the latter had whittled his two-hour gap behind Paloncý down to just 10 minutes by the time they reached Alston. Taking advantage of their time penalty, Keith was closing in on the pair of them.

In the women's race, Carol Morgan continued to extend her lead over Helene Dumais (CAN) to more than 40km. Morgan, who as a nurse is accustomed to making decisions when sleep deprived, moved up to joint fifth overall, with Paul Nelson (GBR).

WATCH: The sleep-deprived race leaders battle it out

WEDNESDAY  battle over Hadrian's Wall, Bellingham, Northumberland

Paloncý and Roselló Solé battled each other for most of the day, as the two traversed World-Heritage-listed Hadrian's Wall before turning north again towards the Scottish Borders. After neither could gain an advantage, the regular Spine foes agreed to run together to the fifth and final CP in Bellingham, 43 miles from the finish in Kirk Yetholm.

In Bellingham the two runners, who've battled each other for podium spots in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Spine Races rested for around three hours. As they slept however, Tom Hollins, a Yorkshire anaesthetist who won the Spine Challenger in 2016, caught them up out of nowhere.

Unlike the other two, he was a supported runner, meaning a crew can meet him with a campervan whenever the trail crosses a road, an option open to all Spine Race competitors.

Meanwhile Keith, who had initially carried on despite a fractured rib from a fall, decided to retire when Hollins passed him.

In the women's race, Carol Morgan (IRL) continued to extend her lead over Helene Dumais (CAN), to now more than 50km, looking like she might set a course record.

WATCH: As the race nears the finale

THURSDAY  surprise finale in Kirk Yeotham, Scotland

Tom Hollins stole the race in 99 hours and 25 minutes: the second fastest time ever recorded on the course, after Eoin Keith's 2016 record of 95:17. Hollins is the first Briton to win the race since the inaugural event in 2012.

Where the Pennine Way meets Hadrian's Wall, 200 miles into the race, Hollins was five hours behind Paloncý and Roselló Solé. But the Yorkshireman who won the 108-mile Spine Challenger in 2016 had sagely banked more sleep earlier in the race, which paid dividends later on.

All three ran together for around an hour before Hollins broke away. He had planned to sleep before the challenging, long final section over the Cheviots, but decided to press his advantage.

By daylight he was reduced to a walk into the finish at the Border Hotel, Kirk Yetholm, Scotland, at 12:01pm. He was sound asleep almost as soon as he sat on a sofa. Hollins has never run this distance before and the two races he entered this year to practice sleep tactics both ended in DNFs.

During the race Hollins totalled around nine hours' sleep to Paloncý's five and Roselló Solé's seven. “He does like his sleep,” confirmed partner Sara Keogh. “He planned to have eight hours' sleep in Thwaite, but I told him if he wanted to do well he had to have nearer six at most!”

FRIDAY – Carol Morgan (IRL) broke the women's course record for the Spine Race

“I had four targets before the race,” she said. “One, to finish. Two, to be first woman. Three, to be top 10 overall. And four, to finish under four and a half days – which I didn't quite do!”

WATCH: Final day and night of the Spine Race

In the numbers: Spine Race Stats

Spine Race
Distance: 420.1KM

Ascent: 13,135m

Descent: 13,255m

Max Elevation: 892m (Cross Fell)
Time Limit: 168hrs


Spine Challenger/ MRT Challenge

Distance: 172KM

Ascent: 5,637m

Descent: 5,636m

Max Elevation: 694m (Pen y Ghent)
Time Limit: 60hrs


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