Damian Hall and Hannah Rickman on the Spine Race 2023

spine race 2023 second place female finisher hannah rickman
Damian Hall and Hannah Rickman discuss the Spine

British ultrarunner Damian Hall stormed his way to victory at this year's infamously brutal Spine Race – the UK's 268-mile ultra along the entirety of the Pennine Way, from Edale to Kirk Yeltholm.

He crossed the line alongside fellow inov-8 athlete Jack Scott, but was awarded victory due to the 48-minute time penalty Scott had to incur due to a navigational error.

Hall finished in three days, 12 hours, 36 minutes and 24 seconds. During that time, he allowed himself less than three hours sleep.

While Hall’s time is inside the previous men’s record, it is still a long way behind the overall course record, set by female ultrarunner Jasmin Paris in 2019. She ran the race in three days, 11 hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds, while expressing milk for her young son at various checkpoints.

The first female finisher this year was Claire Bannwarth. The French ultrarunner reached the finish in a time of four days, one hour, 39 minutes and 58 seconds.

Completing the female podium were Britons Hannah Rickman and Edwina Sutton, who finished in second and third respectively.

<span class="caption">Claire Bannarth marches to victory </span><span class="photo-credit">Mick Kenyon</span>
Claire Bannarth marches to victory Mick Kenyon

This year's event lived up to its billing of being "Britain’s most brutal race”. Runners had to deal with sub-zero temperatures, knee-high snow and strong winds, all while self-navigating along the National Trail. Several pictures published on the Spine’s various social media pages laid bare the brutal nature of the challenge, with runners pictured covered in snow and ice.

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The brainchild of Arctic expedition guides Scott Gilmour and Phil Hayday-Brown, the first edition of the Spine was run in 2012. There were only three finishers from a small field of 11 competitors. There are now more than 100 starters, although the organisers understandably require every successful applicant to be able to provide an extensive CV of endurance-running challenges.

The route has approximately 13,300 metres (43,600ft) of elevation and runners are allowed to choose where, and for how long, they sleep. Participants are given seven days (168hrs) to complete the route.

Runner’s World caught up with this year’s male winner Damian Hall and second-placed female Hannah Rickman to found out what it takes to break the Spine...

Runner’s World [RW]: Hannah, can you tell us a bit about your running history, as your achievements to date have flown slightly under the radar?

Hannah Rickman [HR]: I got into ultrarunning about four years ago. I’ve just done the usual thing where you run a 50K, and that's quite fun. And so you try a 50-miler, and that was still good. From there, it’s been a slippery slope that seems to have ended up with this fine race.

I did do the Spine Challenger North last year [she finished second female and fifth overall], and had an amazing time doing that. And then, yeah, decided I wanted to come back and try the whole thing this winter.

I’d never really run at a school, although I did a lot of team sports. And I think my enjoyment of running increased a lot when I realised that it was okay to go slower and further, instead of having to, you know, be nailing a 5K every single time.

<span class="caption">Hannah Rickman tackles another uphill during this year’s Spine Race</span><span class="photo-credit">Mick Kenyon</span>
Hannah Rickman tackles another uphill during this year’s Spine RaceMick Kenyon

RW: Damian, what is it about the Spine that makes it such an epic race and one you come back to year after year?

Damian Hall [DH]: I think it's a few things. Firstly, it's kind of the madness of it, you know, the insanity of the idea. I do still remember first reading about it in a magazine. It was just a little news story saying 'there’s gonna be this crazy race on the Pennines in winter.' I was new to running, but I had recently hiked the Pennine Way. It took me about 16 days, and it was exhausting. I think my knee had buckled under me at one point, and this was in the summer. And I just remember thinking, 'This race sounds insane. That can't work.' And so I followed it avidly for a couple of years. And a few people were getting to the end.

And then when you go and do it, that huge sense of achievement when you get it done is almost life changing. It's mind-blowing. It's wonderful. But also, there's this incredible sense of community around the race, which is partly thanks to the volunteers and the staff, who are just super helpful and encouraging and lovely. Also, the other runners as well. I mean, you make great friends, you make friends for life. I've been to two weddings of people I've met at the Spine. And actually the godfather of my son is someone I met at the Spine.

But there are also strangers who turn up in the middle of nowhere with cups of tea or a bit of Haribo or just to ring a cowbell. It can be the darkest, most miserable weather, the most miserable place, and people are just there to cheer you on, and it’s hard to explain but it's wonderful.

RW: Hannah, how did you train for the Spine? You’re based in Malawi, close to the equator, so it must have been a challenge to train for a mid-winter race on the Pennines…

HR: Yeah, it's a bit different. There's no bog, there's no snow. But there are a lot of hills and mountains. It's a really beautiful country with lots of great places to explore. And I've got a nice group of friends there. So we did a lot of long weekends out hiking and running in the mountains. And, you know, I guess there's less organised races and events, but there's more opportunities to find an adventure and choose a route. But yeah, I sort of parked the bog and the snow and just got down to doing lots of running.

I then came back to the UK for Christmas and managed to drag my mum and my sister on a recce of a bit of the course as a 'family-bonding experience'. And then they ditched me and went to the pub!

It was 35 degrees when I left the Malawi, and it was -5 degrees when I landed in Heathrow. So there definitely a bit of acclimatisation that had to take place.

RW: Damian, you’re a stalwart of this race. How did you prepare for it this year?

DH: I was doing very well in the race last year, but picked up a groin injury just after halfway so didn’t finish. So the main thing was, I didn't want that to happen again. So I was doing sort of extra strength work around those around those delicate key areas – and just extra strength work in general.

Even the lightest packs are going to be around 5kg, which is fine for a few hours, but when you’re running for days, it’s quite a lot. And we've seen some very good runners cross the finish line with sort of muscular back problems, partly from carrying the kit.

Other than that, I actually think a lot of people get it slightly wrong when training for The Spine. They do lots of long runs with a big heavy pack on. Now, there is some value to that, but if you do that, lots and lots, you'll just sort of become good at being a slow runner. Really, I'd encourage people to get as fit as possible and as fast as possible before you stick the pack on and slow yourself down. I didn't do that many runs with a pack on, and with it very fully loaded.

Obviously, you need to do it sometimes, otherwise it's a bit of a shock, but I think people can overdo that aspect of it.

RW: Hannah, how much running with a pack did you do before the race?

HR: Not a tonne. I did lots of running and then building in the pack a bit towards the end. But I did lots of hiking with the pack. I had a few days going around the city I live in in Malawi in 35-degree heat carrying a down sleeping bag, spork and poo shovel – it felt a bit ridiculous so I couldn’t do it too much!

RW: Can we talk about the role that sleep – or a lack of sleep – plays in the Spine?

HR: I think I probably got about six or seven hours sleep in total. I had several really sloppy nights of hallucinating, wandering around in circles and feeling pretty rubbish. So yeah, I found the sleep side of things really hard.

I think I'd forgotten just how rubbish it is being sleep deprived. It’s like being drunk, but with none of the fun stuff. I just felt really useless and depleted, and everything felt hard. So yeah, I mean, I'd love to hear from Damian about how he handles it, because it really felt like something that was a big struggle for me….

DH: I would say, most of us can run through one night without too many issues. But it's the second night that the problems tend to start.

I found the number one thing is to make sure you're eating enough. It sounds really obvious, but when you've been running for 30-40 hours, nearly always you're not eating enough. So as soon as you feel start to feel tired or sleepy, eat something, drink something. And quite often then you’re okay, for another hour or two.

Caffeine affects people differently, but it can be quite useful. But you've got to be quite careful as it's like a sugar spike, isn't it? You sort of get a caffeine spike and then come off the back of it a little bit later. So you've got to get it going in consistently.

Power naps are really effective, too. I didn't take one on the trail this year, but just laying down for 10-20 minutes, if you're not too cold, perks you up for a few hours.

But some nights, you're going to have to have a proper lie down. I didn't do it perfectly; I could have maybe done things better. But on the third night, I did have a full two hours or so. And I was much quicker after that.

RW: Let’s talk about hallucinations. Hannah, did you get any this year?

HR: [With hallucinations] you know they're not real, but they can be quite convincing. Last year on the Spine Challenger North, I saw a whole load of little tigers driving miniature cars and wearing sunglasses. They were driving around my ankles. And I stopped and had a really good look at them, because I knew they weren’t real, yet they were right there. This year, I was mostly hallucinating beds with lovely pillows.

RW: The Spine is tagged “Britain’s most brutal race”. Damian, do you think that’s accurate? Or is something like the Dragon’s Back even tougher?

DH: It's interesting. I once did the Dragon’s Back and The Spine in the same year. The Dragon’s Back is definitely a tough race but, because it's a multistage race where you stop, you can sleep all night. You really can get that recovery and chance to refuel. When it's single-stage race, like the Spine, you’re just continuously going. You just don't really recover. You just keep going.

But it was interesting that that year, some people completed the Spine and then couldn't complete the Dragon’s back, because you have to move relatively quickly on some tough terrain. And it is certainly more rocky mountainous terrain than on the Spine. So they're both incredibly tough, but actually quite different.

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