Photographing the World’s Toughest Foot Race | Along the Spine - Outdoors Magic

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Photographing the World’s Toughest Foot Race | Along the Spine

8 incredible moments from this year's Montane Spine Race

It was tweeted about by Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary, talked about on BBC Breakfast and written about it in the FT, the Guardian – even over in the States by the likes of Outside Magazine.

Jasmin Paris’s achievement this year on the 268-mile Montane Spine Race really caused a stir. And quite rightly. Becoming the first woman to win the race, that’s something. Laying down the fastest ever race time, that’s something else.

There to capture the brutal foot race along the Pennine Way, ‘the spine of England’, was Harsharn Gill. A previous competitor himself, this year he chose to head there with his camera instead of his trail running shoes. But capturing the competitors is no easy task either, with mountains to climb, brutal conditions to sit through, and relentless runners to keep up with, both day and night.

Competitor Colin Green. Photo: Harsharn Gill.

“The challenge initially was trying to keep up with the front runners as they really don’t hang about,” Harsharn told us. “In the end there were three photographers: myself, Mick Kenyon and Yann Besrest-Butler. We spread ourselves out in order to cover as much of the race as possible.”

The radar station on Great Dunn Fell. Photo: Harsharn Gill.
Shelli Gordon, 2nd female finisher in the Spine. Photo: Harsharn Gill
The Tan Hill Inn, England's highest pub. Photo: Harsharn Gill.

The Pennines offer up interesting weather at the best of times, let alone in the middle of winter. Last year, competitors were thigh deep in snow at times. This year, there were other challenges.

“I’d say the first couple of days were very Spine-like, gale force winds, cold and moist, but above freezing,” said Hasharn. “I’ve heard it referred to more than once as the ‘Windy and Moist year’. Many runners suffered from wind abrasions of the cornea which are indicative of exposure to the strong cross winds on the course whilst not wearing protective goggles. Their races ended as early as the first checkpoint.

“After the first couple of days, high pressure took hold and the temperature dropped, the ground froze which made it good for quicker times, better efficiency, but harder on the feet.”

“I didn’t really encounter anyone on the trail that looked completely beaten. They’re a hardy lot…”

“I did the race in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and finished only the last two years. It wasn’t as tough in my opinion conditions-wise and that is reflective of the finish times. The same chap I finished with last year, finished in 132 hours this year compared to 153 hours the year before – so almost a day quicker.

“You can maybe attribute a 5-10% faster time due to a change in strategy and increase in fitness, but largely the times are reflective of the conditions. That said, anyone who puts themselves on the start line does so in the full knowledge that they are taking on the race regardless of what the weather throws at them, so with that in mind I don’t think you can take anything away from anyone in any given year. It will be what it will be.”

Cow Green Reservoir. Photo: Harsharn Gill.
This year's race saw all kinds of conditions. Photo: Harsharn Gill.
Race winner Jasmin Paris at Tan Hill for a 15 minute stop. Photo: Harsharn Gill.
Jim Mann, winner of the Spine Race Challenger. Photo: Harsharn Gill.

Despite the miles, the hills, the conditions and their sleep deprivation, Harsharn found most of the runners in good spirits when they passed him.

“It was actually really good fun, not just being involved in the race, but interacting with the racers,” he told told us, “especially in the latter stages and in remote areas where they just appreciate seeing someone and having a conversation which helps boosts morale. I didn’t really encounter anyone on the trail that looked completely beaten. They’re a hardy lot…”

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