Many players will slip into the comfort zone following retirement, but that’s certainly not the case for David Barnes. Having spent over a decade with Bath Rugby and making over 250 appearances, the front rower certainly hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal since hanging his boots up in 2011.
Only a few weeks ago, Barnes embarked on the toughest challenge of his career – The Montane Spine Race. A non-stop ultra-distance race over 268 miles, Barnes tackled some of the most challenging terrain in the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales with the finish line on the Scottish Borders. After succumbing to the extreme weather conditions at the 200 mile mark in 2018, there was unfinished business going into this year’s event.
Crossing the finish line wasn’t remotely about Barnes, but for a cause very close to his heart. This was about thanking those who gave his nephew a new lease of life after his battle with Leukaemia. Over 156 hours later (no this is not a typo), Barnes crossed that finish line and conquered one of the UK’s most unforgiving courses.
“I wanted to do something that was a bit more than just a normal marathon,” Barnes explains. “So last year we signed up for The Spine Race, unfortunately we got caught in the snow last year and didn’t quite make it, we got just under 200 miles in, so we spent a year, agonising and trying to understand what we did wrong and thankfully we went back this year and finished the full course.
“My little nephew was unfortunately diagnosed with Leukaemia a couple of years ago and spent a lot of time in Bristol Hospital, which was the trigger for taking on this challenge. He was in isolation for a long, long time, the work they do at the Bristol Children’s Hospital is absolutely fabulous, so to help the Grand Appeal with some fundraising and to push through was nothing compared to what everyone else goes through in that hospital. Thankfully he’s no longer in the hospital and he is back at home.”
Despite suffering the obvious physical impacts that come with an excursion like this one, it was the psychological side that proved to be the most challenging part of the six days.
“The mental side of it plays a huge part, obviously physically you need to be at a certain level but it’s going through the night knowing that you want to go to sleep but you have to keep going. You’re seeing all these various hallucinations and animals, but you are just trying to push through. I was very lucky that a Season Ticket Holder, Stuart Doughty, who I do several events with, ran with me. When one of us was low the other guy would pull the other one along, so that was a major part of getting through.
“With a lot of the multi-stage races you go a set distance and stop, whereas we had to choose where we got some rest. I think over the week we averaged under two hours sleep every night and it ranged from anything from bus stops, underpasses, public toilets and our tents. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, I’m still not walking properly nearly ten days afterwards. I have serious blisters and infections in my feet and various tendon overuse injuries. I thought at the time that I could just keep going but looking back I probably didn’t have much left in me at the end of that race.”
We could marvel at Barnes’ accomplishment for the whole issue, but it would be only fitting to talk about his time in the Blue, Black and White where he created a number of lifelong memories and friends.
“I was lucky - I came to Bath in a bit of a transition period. Andy Robinson had just resigned the summer that I joined. We had a great first year, got to the final against Leicester, which was followed by a couple of fallow years before John Connolly came. I think we played in five different finals during my career at Bath and I was lucky enough to be part of some really good teams. We won the Challenge Cup, but we were also consistently strong throughout a number of those years.
“I think the beauty about Bath is the proximity to the City and what rugby means to the City, the heritage of the Club. I think Bath holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts and the great thing about being so close to the City is people live and breathe rugby, so I think that’s what makes Bath such a special place to play, it’s pretty unique in that aspect.
“I would call Bath home now even though I was born away from the City and I try to get down to the Rec whenever I can get back.”
Barnes swapped the pressure of the front row for a role with the RFU as Head of Discipline after spending previously spending time working for the Rugby Players’ Association. It’s been a change which he has thoroughly enjoyed in a game which is constantly evolving with player welfare paramount to his current profession.
“Near the end of my career and just after I finished playing I did a lot of work from the RPA (Rugby Players Association), I worked full time for them for a few years after retiring. Then after a brief stint in the financial services sector I have been at the RFU for 18 months as Head of Discipline.
“In terms of transition for sportspeople, it’s very hard, one career ends and you have to start a new career. Being able to transition first to the RPA and then on to the on-field discipline side has been really good. It keeps me connected to the game, and it’s something I love. It does make it interesting when I am disciplining people I used to play with, but at the end of the day players accept that discipline is an important part of the game they just want to know that there is consistency and that’s what I’m looking to bring to the role.
“Earlier on in my career, fights would be very common on the fields and the players would get nothing more than a bit of a telling off from the referee. Nowadays, we are a lot more aware of the long-term impacts around concussion, and there have been a lot of efforts to clean up the game. Very rarely now do we see insidious acts of foul play, it tends to be mistakes, like tip tackles or people get timing wrong.”
Barnes has high hopes for his former side heading into the second half of the season and believes that the squad will be buoyed by a number of returning players.
“It’s been an interesting season, not just for Bath but across the whole Premiership, your top two have pulled away and everyone else is fighting it out. I think there is an opportunity now for Bath to put some wins together. They have shown some good form in the last few weeks and given the way the table is, it’s certainly achievable to be climbing back up into that top four position.
“You’ve got some class players coming back, there have also been a number of players re-signing which is good for the stability of the squad. I think Bath are almost going to be a new team as it were with some of the players coming back. I think it’s looking really positive heading into the second part of the season, and it will add some real impetus with these guys coming back in.”
To sponsor David and Stuart for their Montane Spine Race, click here.
David will be part of Legends Day at the Rec on Saturday 16th February, as Bath Rugby host Newcastle Falcons. To book your place in hospitality, click here