Angela White took on the Spine Challenger North in January 2024 and, at 64 years young, continues to prove that age is just a number! Angela kindly answered a few questions for us and shares her experience of the event.
How did you prepare for the Spine Challenger North?
I’d tried for a place on the full Spine but was unsuccessful. Then an email in November advised that Spine Challenger North had openings. My initial response was “no chance in eight weeks”! Yet, the allure persisted, and I found myself signing up to avoid another year of dot watching.
Venturing into the Cheviots in December with Antonio for a snowy recce and falling multiple times through delicate ice to frozen bogs below, the challenging 26 miles confirmed the Spine commitment. My fitness wasn’t ideal, I’d been doing multisport for the past year, not hill endurance but it’d be a hike, not a run. I’d also had an unexplained series of joint issues. However, it seemed like a do-able event until early December when a near miss with a car speeding along a local lane left me awkwardly in a hedge, damaging the knee I’d spent months rehabbing.
I wasn’t quite back to square one but it limited what training I could do. The weather wasn’t helpful either. Most of my reccies are solo and it simply wasn’t sensible for me to head up high alone with strong winds and apocalyptic rainstorms.
Why do it? I was concerned that the joint problems I was starting to experience might put an end to my ultra participation so this may possibly be my last ultra. Rather than grumpily wondering, I chose to be on the start line, enjoying the experience. I’d rather be out there seeing what was possible than sitting at home and wondering about it.
Going into the event late on and knowing I was undertrained and taking on a course I didn’t know meant I had no expectations and felt under no pressure. I don’t think I’ve been more relaxed in the days prior to an event. My objectives were to experience the event and to keep dry and warm. Finishing it would have been a bonus.
How did you fuel and hydrate ‘on the go’?
For multi day events I prefer to keep my main diet to normal food and I bake pizza, fruit loaf, peanut butter brownies and also take bagels and mixed nuts – all high density calories.
For the last six years I have used VOOM products for hydration, energy boosts when needed and for recovery. I find it difficult to drink cold fluid in cold weather so on this occasion I used the VOOM Hydrate Smart with hot water in flasks. This worked really well, in fact the flask was so good at keeping it hot that it was too hot to drink for the first hour. The Hydrate Smart is a hypotonic fluid with electrolytes but also has a cognition mix that helps keep me focused. I carry a selection of VOOM pocket rockets, each of which is the equivalent of two gels in terms of calories, but without the sticky mess of gels. These are great as each bar breaks into four chunks and they dissolve in the mouth and provide just the boost you need to help you up the next hill. There are two caffeinated bars which are useful for the sleepy dip in the early hours if needed.
I was also pleased to have with me VOOM's new Vegan Recovery Fudge. I’d added chunks of this to my mixed nut and sweetie pick and mix. Each chunk has around 4g protein that along with the protein from the nuts, gave me confidence I was getting enough of that macronutrient to aid recovery as I went along.
Finally, although I wasn’t out long enough to use them I had some high carb VOOM fusion powder with me, really helpful to get those calories in when you don’t feel like eating, and some Sparta Fuel which is a savoury energy drink for when you’re fed up with sweet stuff.
All in all I’ve learned to trust the VOOM products over the years and I certainly wouldn’t have had the success I’ve had this year in multisport without them fuelling my efforts.
What was your most enjoyable aspect?
That’s difficult to answer as I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, especially being out in such challenging weathers with each of the two days a contrast to each other. I had lots of balance practice on the ice too.
If I had to pick one thing, it would be the last ten miles on the first night before the checkpoint at Langdon Beck Youth Hostel and the privilege of being out on the section along the river and past the waterfalls on my own. The ground was frozen and crunched crisply with every step; noise of the river crescendo’d and fell as my path meandered closer and then away from its course. Rustlings on either side spoke of the small animals scurrying from place to place. A short way along I passed through a tawny owl’s territory, its distinctive hooting audible for a mile or so. To my left flocks of sheep declared themselves, making me smile as I looked at dozens of pairs of floating green-yellow eyes reflecting from my head torch beam.
I was dry and warm at all times and ate and drank my way along. I gained confidence in my ability to manage myself for an extended period in sub-zero temperatures and met some lovely people along the way.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during the Spine Challenger North?
Staying warm was possibly the biggest challenge during this year’s event. The photo belies the Baltic temperature as the windchill on Great Shunner Fell gave a ‘feels like’ temperature of minus 18C. During the first evening I was with a couple of chaps and we stopped a few times. At one stop I kept going alone as I was starting to feel the cold with each stop and I needed to keep generating heat. All those layers I wear serve purely to keep that heat in.
What forced you to retire from The Spine?
One of my knees became problematic and started to swell quite badly to the point it was getting uncomfortable to flex it; weirdly the patella also felt bruised yet I hadn’t knocked it. My decision to stop at Dufton was due to safety considerations. Weather conditions were deteriorating rapidly for the ascent up to Cross Fell, although I really wanted to go up there. However, was my knee to worsen and slow me down further then I might not be moving fast enough to generate sufficient heat to keep me warm. Should I get into difficulties, although I certainly had kit to look after myself it might necessitate others coming out to find and retrieve me. The hills and the race and the lure of John Bamber’s famous welcome at Gregg’s Hut will still be there next year.
Thank you too all the Spine volunteers who do a sterling job of looking after everyone throughout the event. And, thank you to those lovely people with whom I shared some miles on the trail – always a pleasure.
I’ve since had a scan of my knee and consulted with a specialist. It appears that I have a form of inflammatory arthritis causing the multiple joint problems I’ve been experiencing, and accounting for my knee swelling during the Spine. I’m going to have more tests to determine what treatment might help. I don’t know how long that’s all going to take but you can be sure I’m not going to let this stop me. Problems are simply opportunities to find solutions.
My message is to do whatever we can to keep active as we age and indeed to get more active for each additional candle on our birthday cake.
Images are used with permission, subject to copyright, thanks to Andy Hendry.