It’s the middle of the night, about 1am. Totally pitch black. It’s blowing a gale strong enough that I have to make sure an occasional gust doesn’t blow me over: the weather forecast said the wind would reach 50mph tonight, which would bring a wind chill of -15°. It feels that cold. It’s raining/sleeting/snowing, horizontally, but thankfully coming from behind me. Visibility is very low: I can see the ground for about 1 metre in whatever direction I point my head torch, but if I look up, there’s a wall of sleet/snow/mist and it all looks identical.
I can’t find the path I should be on, and I’m telling myself not to worry.
I’ve been awake since the previous night, when I had a restless single hours sleep in a dorm room with 5 other blokes. That has been my only sleep since 5am Saturday – today is 1am Monday, 40 hours ago. I’m probably not really lost, just confused, but I simply cannot work out which way to go.
I have been going along a long track called Cam Road, which is at about 600m altitude, high enough for the rain I was in an hour ago to have turned to snow and sleet. I’ve been steadily getting slower since my last stop at 9pm, and am at my most tired and sleepy. My GPS device is telling me that I need to take a simple left-hand fork off my current route, but it isn’t here. The footsteps in the snow I’ve been following since getting high enough for snow are equally confused, showing how they walked in circles looking for the same route.
I decide to walk in a square, 5 paces in each direction, which should bring me across any new route. After walking 4 squares, I realise that the circling footprints I’ve been following are probably my own. Shit.
I’ve slowed down in my confusion. Slow means cold, as I’m not generating the heat needed to fend off the wintery conditions. Every time I turn into the wind I am reminded how lucky I’ve been for the last few hours, keeping the conditions blowing behind me. Walking into that wind and sleet is mentally and physically shattering. Going back the way I had come is not an option.
I thought: Can’t go forwards. Can’t go backwards. Mustn’t get cold.
What you’ve just read isn’t made up, or exaggerated for effect.
There’s a good reason the Spine Race and its smaller ‘fun run’ partner Spine Challenger are marketed as Britain’s Most Brutal Race. The full Spine Race covers 278 miles up the Pennine Way, and sets off 24 hours after the Spine Challenger which is just a mere 108 miles up the Pennine Way. They are not true ‘ultra races’ in the traditional sense, but more ‘expedition races’ that happen to cover an ultra distance.
The typical sort of people that start the longer Spine race are hardcore mountain experts, used to winter conditions and looking after themselves against some serious adversity. They are the people that Bear Grylls admires and wants to be when he grows up.
The sort of people that start the Spine Challenger (my event) are those that want to attempt the full Spine at some point in the future, but are far too intimidated (terrified) to go straight for the hardest race in Britain. The Spine Challenger is known as the hardest 100 mile race in the country. Having also completed its closest competitor, the Arc of Attrition (race report HERE) I would happily say that it wins that particular accolade easily.
Why? Why is it so hard? OK, the route is rough trail, very hilly (5600m of ascent…that’s about 5½ times up Snowden) and very open on high ground for changeable weather conditions. The Pennine Way is deserted and desolate, perhaps crossing a road every 6 or more miles; there isn’t a welcoming pub or village every few miles to stop and rest. It’s wet and boggy for long sections, to the extent that some stretches have had a long path of stone slabs put on as the ground is too treacherous.
A typical 100 mile event has 4 or 5 checkpoints, with hot food and drinks, access to a drop bag full of spare kit, and a friendly face. The Spine Challenger has one checkpoint, at Hebden Bridge, after 45 miles. (You can stop at the few pubs or cafes you find on the route however, which is very necessary).
A typical 100 mile race asks you to carry water and a waterproof jacket as mandatory kit. The Spine Challenger has a mandatory kit list that includes a sleeping bag effective to -6°, a bivvy bag (basically a big bin-liner made from tent-material to get into in your sleeping bag and stay dry), goggles to protect eyes from strong winds, 3000 kcal of food, a full set of maps covering the route, and lots more emergency equipment. All of this weighs a lot, and that means that every gram counts…I became slightly obsessed with keeping the weight down, and I even snapped my spork in half to save perhaps 3 grams. I will write a lot more about the kit I used HERE, for future entrants of this race.
The Spine Challenger has a cut-off of 60 hours, which means you are likely to be outside in the elements for a minumum of 48 hours unless you plan to win. If it rains, you get wet, very wet, with no way of getting dry.
Because it’s January, the sun comes up about 8am and it’s getting dark by about 4-5pm. That means you have 8 or 9 hours of daylight, and then 15 or 16 hours of inky darkness. It’s very hard to push through the night on any race, but the depression you feel when you know that you will see the sun for the last time at 4pm is very real and it makes the dark night last forever.
And finally, a typical 100 mile event will allow your friendly support crew to meet you every few miles with a supportive hug and hot food. The Spine Challenger, for the first time this year, allowed no support outside the race-provided checkpoint or local pubs & shops. This meant that you felt truly on your own in the wilderness.
Perhaps I can explain in a more simple way. Come with me on a journey…
I can run 100 miles, and I have quite a few times. It’s always hard, but it gets easier as you know what to expect. I suspect you can drive, and if I asked you to drive from Manchester to London, you’d say “OK, no problem”. It’s about 4 hours driving, 200 miles, so it would take you a few hours and you might be quite stiff at the end, but you would cope with it, wouldn’t you? Ah, I have a few conditions for you. I want you to drive in January, and the windows of your car are stuck down & the heating is broken, so it will be cold and windy in the car, but I’ll let you wear whatever thick coats you want.
I will not allow you to take smooth easy motorways, but twisty lanes that are covered in potholes, and take much much longer. You cannot have your satnav, and there are no signposts on these back roads, but the good news is that you have a compass, a 1988 AA road atlas, and a small GPS unit that sometimes points the way to go.
Oh yes, last couple of things: you can stop only once for hot food, and I require you to tow a caravan (the equivalent of carrying my massive rucksack) just in case the worst happens and you need to stop and shelter. And these back roads are very hilly, which means that your poor car will really struggle to get up them with the damn caravan you’re pulling.
It all sounds a bit rubbish now!
I should add at this point, I’m not a super-fit athlete, smashing out miles of running in between hard sessions at the gym. I run a bit, work a lot, eat rubbish food, and listen to some awful music. I’ve done a few longish ultras, but generally can only manage one or two per year because I take a while to recover (both mentally and physically). On the positive side, I’m stubborn and I like to finish what I start, which puts me in a good place for putting up with some discomfort.
And what brought me to the Challenger? As usual, a bit of escalating banter with a running buddy John Hunt, coupled with an “I wonder if I could do it???” attitude, saw me applying for a place shortly after entries opened in February 2017. Common sense then made me made me let my place lapse, as there was clearly no way I could attempt this monster. Then, a few months later in May, something else made me email the organisers to say that I had bottled it, and could I get back in the race. And they said yes!
I then spent August to November reading up about the types of kit required for the likely weather conditions, buying lots, and cramming it into a rucksack. November saw me manage to squeeze 3 days off work (Sun-Tue) to recce some of the route, and understand the likely terrain. I was struck by the isolation and bleakness of the route…there really was no sign of life (human or animal) on majority of the route. Because there was no grass there’s no wildlife, only endless bog and heather. The recce also involved sleeping out in my bivvy bag, which was a good test, and carrying full race kit, which weighed a whopping 9kg and ruined my back by the end of the first day. Back to the drawing board for what to pack.
November also saw me spend every Sunday morning driving to the nearest good training hills, the cliffs at nearby Folkestone, and going up and down them for 7 hours. I think I did this 4 or 5 times in November before I ran out of time and put all my training on the back burner while Xmas monopolised my time in December (I work in retail). Although I started running again on Boxing Day, my mileage in the 6 weeks before the race was a measly 110 miles in total. Not great preparation!
The last few weeks were spent packing and repacking to try to minimise the weight of whatever I could. Also sorting out transport arrangements, due to a train strike on Friday 12th January scuppering my journey that had been booked for 6 months. And the other big task of the weeks before the race was trying to get my head around the fear I was feeling. It is normal to feel a little apprehensive before a big ultra, but I was deep in the fear zone, being all too aware my lack of experience in winter conditions and the terrain. Perhaps more significantly, I simply didn’t know what to expect: the weather forecast was changing daily, detailing winds and heavy rain that no one would choose to go outside in. And most importantly, I’ve spent the last 30 years living in the South: this means we avoid rain/mud/hills, and I’ve not seen more than a few centimetres of snow in the last 15 years. The threat of snow triggers Southerners to panic buy bottled water at my supermarket, whereas the north simply gets on with daily life. I was well aware how unprepared I was for this.
On that cheerful note, I set off on Friday morning, with my rucksack and a gigantic drop bag of spare kit. I’d packed some cheese rolls, and had quite a nice journey snoozing the miles away from Kent to London to Sheffield, where my train journey stopped due to the train strike. I’d managed to arrange to share a taxi to race registration with another couple of runners, Stuart Mugridge and Lizzie Rosewell, which meant a slightly less stressful arrival even despite a taxi driver chattering away happily to me with such a strong accent that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The three of us made an interesting group: Stuart had done much of the Dragons Back race last year, a hugely tough mountain race in Wales, and he was clearly a very good runner, but perhaps he wouldn’t be able to run much in boggy terrain with a heavy rucksack. Lizzie had recce’d a lot of the course and was a strong orienteer and long-distance runner. I was just out of my depth, but clearly I had the biggest drop bag, so I had something going for me.
Arriving at the village hall for registration at about 3pm, the first Montane flags in the car park brought home the realisation that I was actually about to do this thing. Cue faster heart beat and more deep breathing. Calm down!
Registration was surprisingly quick, and I got lucky in the mandatory kit check, only needing to show 3 items rather than the full kit check I saw some others have. There were a number of well known faces there (hello Lindley), who would be forming different Spine Safety Teams that would be on the course for the Challenger and full Spine (as well as the standard Mountain Rescue Teams) in case of difficulties.
A swift race briefing followed in another local hall, which was fairly routine until the head medic stood up, introduced herself, and then proceeded to explain how dangerous this race was. Excellent news.
I cadged a lift up to the Youth Hostel I was staying at from a fellow runner, and checked into my room. I spent about an hour of faffing with kit, and double checking I knew where everything was before going down to dinner. I had originally intended to go back into Edale for a meal, but it was a few miles that I was happy not to cover again, so I ate 2 main meals (lasagne and sausages & mash, if you’re interested) and chatted to a northern farmer called Dan who looked very relaxed. The previous summer he had completed a Bob Graham Round (a circuit in the Lake District that takes in 77 peaks) in just under 24 hours, which is an amazing achievement. After we’d chatted about nothing in particular for a while, he proceeded to check the mountain weather forecast, which would probably be accurate by now: no rain, but 45 mph winds moving the temperature of 0° to a wind chill of -12°. Not really what I wanted to hear!
After stretching out the evening as it clearly felt too early to go to bed, I went upstairs at about 8pm, and finished packing all my bags, ready for an early start in the morning. A quick chat with the wife, and it was off to bed. Obviously not to sleep, that would be too easy, but it felt like I lay there for 8 hours with my mind racing about what was to come.
I was up before the alarm at 5.30am to get ready for the race start of 8am. I’d stupidly not planned anything for breakfast, and the YHA breakfast didn’t start until 7am, so I resorted to some of my race food…there may be worse things to eat in the morning than coffee, a tin of mackerel and a rehydrated chicken curry but I’m not sure I know what they are…..however, they were calories, which is what I needed.
I checked in my massive drop bag, which weighed in at an impressive 18kg (the limit was 20kg, so I just squeaked it in!), and got the minibus back to the village hall which was the starting point. My tracker was quickly fitted and confirmed working, which was good, as it also contained my SOS button if required (especially in places where the mobile signal is non-existent).
Interestingly, there was no queue for the toilets, which is unusual, but clearly goes to show how everyone else was taking it in their stride and I was sh*tting myself (in a very real and physical way).
As I sat in the hall, waiting for the start, it was a chance to watch everyone else around me, and inspect the varieties of backpack everyone had, from unbelievably small to extremely heavy. I even saw one bloke who had his spare batteries still in their cardboard packaging, which must have added at least 5 grams to his pack – outrageous.
A quick note on my pack…while weight wasn’t the only consideration when deciding what to take, I was very aware that my appalling lack of strength would cause me problems the longer I went on if my pack was too heavy. While an extra 200 g may not sound much, if I packed 4 or 5 extra things (like a bag of boiled sweets or a few warm tops) I would soon be adding serious amounts of weight, and that would slow me down and tire me out.
And then the shout went up to make our way to the start…it was just about light outside and the familiar metal gantry (securely strapped down in case of the inevitable winds) was standing proudly in the gloom. I had time to snap a quick picture (naturally) and then get to my customary position at the rear of the pack.
Note from Bob:
Congratulations reader!! You’ve made it to the start of the race, about 3000 words in. Feel free to get up, have a walk around, and make a cup of tea. It all gets (even more) tedious & painful from here.
From where I started at the back, it was quite slow going. I was happy to settle in gently, and take it easy. The first serious climb was a few miles in, and on the way there I started chatting to Mal Smith, who I knew vaguely from a few ultras in my native Kent, organised by a great RD Mike Inkster. Mal (who is not a spring chicken any more) used to drag a tyre around the 6 mile looped course that I would run round, and has done some of the Yukon Ultra series, so it was great to hear some stories of his adventures (but not the ones where he kept seeing wolf tracks around him).
At the bottom of Jacobs’s ladder, the first big ascent, I went ahead and felt good all the way up. About halfway up, ultra-legend Damian Green was wishing everyone luck, which was great. The difficult thing (for me) on these long ascents is trying not to sweat too much, as I found while training that once sweaty, my merino wool base layers would transport the water away from my skin, but over time they would become damp unless I vented them (i.e. unzipped everything) to release the moisture.
The moisture would simply sit under my jacket until I stopped climbing, and would then make me cold. So I spent a lot of my time zipping and unzipping my various layers, putting on and taking off my hat and gloves, ultimately doing everything I could to keep my temperature cool or cold, rather than warm.
A long stretch past Kinder Downfall and through to Snake Pass (the first road crossing, at about mile 10) was my first proper taste of the wind. I was high up (over 500m) on very flat terrain and the wind just whistled through your clothes, really biting into any exposed skin. There was a couple of mountain rescue vehicles at the Snake Pass road crossing, with fresh water, and at that point I remember thinking that everything was going pretty much according to plan. I was trying to keep my water intake to a minimum, having learnt on previous ultras how easily I can drink too much and overload my stomach. I’d rather suffer with a bit of thirst, than be vomiting all over the floor by mile 50.
After Snake Pass was a long boggy stretch over Bleak Low, where I got chatting to a lady called Jo Barrett, who agreed with me about how bleak and desolate the surroundings were. She was clearly very prepared for the Challenger, having recce’d pretty much the whole course and was moving through the boggy sections very quickly. We chatted about lots of things, including her dog, my new puppy (Golden Retriever if you’re interested, being collected next week), and families.
It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, and again I found myself moving on ahead when the terrain flattened out…I may be rubbish at ascending or descending, but by god I can move quickly on nice flat stone slabs (some might say, like pavement).
Lizzie (from the taxi) caught me up before the long slow descent to Torside reservoir, and was moving really smoothly. I think I complimented her on how good she was at skipping down the rocks, while I picked my way down like a geriatric goat terrified for his life. At the reservoir there was another Mountain Rescue team, this time with a gazebo, and hot drinks. I had a quick coffee, and one of the cheese rolls I’d been carrying. I had made my mind up to eat a small amount about every 2 hours, to keep my stomach & digestive system working while I moved. It would be important not to stop eating or I have found that my stomach simply stops wanting anything, and the ensuing exhaustion is not pretty.
Leaving Lizzie at the mountain rescue gazebo, I moved quickly through Crowden, remembering that it had taken me 6 hours to get there in November, and today it had only taken 5 hours (albeit with a lighter pack and dryer conditions underfoot). The long climb up Oaken Clough was just as hard as in November, and again, I was getting hot on
the way up and having to make sure I didn’t sweat too much.
The next section included a stream crossing that in previous years had been a knee deep wade-through job…not good news to get your feet that wet at such an early stage. I was wearing quality waterproof socks (as well as 2 pairs of liner socks under them) and gore-tex gaiters, but nothing was going to keep the water out if it was that deep. Luckily, this year was a small splashy crossing, and I skipped through it easily. Phew!
Another fill up with water at Wessenden reservoir, and onwards towards where my recce had ended in November. Beyond this I was going to be hoping my navigation and GPS would keep me on track. It was just starting to get dark, and I took this picture
in the last of the sunlight for 15 hours, at Black Moss reservoir. It was about 4pm at this point, and I managed to restrain myself from switching on my head torch until 4.55pm, when it was properly dark. The weather was still being kind, with constant strong wind, but no rain. The temperature dropped quickly as it got dark and I became slightly used to existing in my little bubble of light. It was rather like being on a treadmill, as there was no sign of any distance travelled, the terrain stayed very similar and I could see nothing in the distance. Time seemed to stand still and I had no idea of how far I’d gone.
Which was when I got to the M62-crossing burger van.
Let me explain. It was suggested on Facebook a few weeks beforehand, that it was quite likely there would be a burger van at the point we crossed the M62, perhaps about 30 miles in. The thought of hot food, at a perfect time (about 6pm I think) was just too good, and I think I had purposely not depended on it in case it wasn’t there. So imagine my surprise to descend a hill and come across this picture:
There was a group of about 10 runners there, some already eating, and a surprisingly reasonable service being run by a very stressed burger-van-technician. He could probably have charged £20 per burger and we would all have thrown money at him, but as it was he was only asking for £2 or £3 for a single or double burger. He did ask, as I got to the front of the queue, whether we had the correct money, as he was running out of change, clearly not realising that we all would have given crisp £20 notes for a burger at that point.
I had a double burger and a can of coke, and it felt fantastic. (OK, to be fair, I was expecting it to be the best food I had ever tasted, and it wasn’t as I was missing onions, mustard and all those things, but on that dark evening it was an excellent start to the long night.)
With that inside me, I didn’t hang around, and set off into the dark.
The footbridge over the M62 was bizarre, with loads of bright cars whizzing underneath, but once it was behind me everything became the same kind of dark treadmill, and I had no perception of distance being travelled. I followed a long diversion at Warland reservoir and then set off cross country towards the monument at Stoodley Pike.
I caught up with a husband and wife team, who were quite chatty as we made our way through the night. He had almost finished the full Spine twice and was full of good stories about catastrophic things that had happened in previous races. It was quite an eye opener and made the time pass quickly. I was lucky to have met them as the navigation over that part felt quite complicated, but as we dropped off the heights, and back to better paths, I moved off by myself again.
As we were very near to Hedben Bridge, the site of the first (and only) checkpoint I was feeling tired but not exhausted, having been on the go for about 13 hours (it was about 9pm.) The weather had behaved itself and I was counting myself lucky to have got through the first day relatively unscathed. I dropped down to the level of the canal and railway that run through the centre of Hebden Bridge, and then started an hour of constant steep climbing and descending. It turns out there is two massive hills to go over between Hebden Bridge and the checkpoint, and although it was not far in mileage, it was the last thing I wanted.
After the two massive climbs, the checkpoint was signposted off the Pennine Way and down a long road, and then one more steep descent, covered in thick thick mud. It wasn’t as if I was worried about my shoes getting muddier, but the thought of coming out of the checkpoint in nice clean clothes and boots and having to go straight up this climb was very depressing. In fact, the climb wasn’t bad at all when the time came to do it.
And then I was there! It was about 10pm, so not late exactly, but the next few hours would decide totally how the next 65 miles of the race went. I had expected to arrive much later, nearer 3am, so I was keen not to waste any time at the checkpoint, but also I knew I had a decent bit of time in hand.
The whole operation at the checkpoint was very slick, with muddy boots coming off before you left the entrance hall, and then drop bags being worked through in a different room. There was hot food available, hot showers (which a surprising number of people were using) and even a bunkroom for getting some sleep. I had a checklist to follow to ensure I didn’t forget anything, and numerous bin liners for dirty stuff, to be replaced by clean everything! After plugging everything electronic in, and changing clothes, I had a meal of chicken and rice (with loads of salt) and lots to drink. I gave myself an hour to sleep, although I wasn’t sure I would be able to, and in the bunkroom I tossed and turned, listening to the snoring of a number of tired blokes. Probably not the easiest place to sleep! I didn’t bother to set an alarm (and I thought it would wake everyone in the room too) but I returned to consciousness after exactly an hour, and made my way back downstairs. It was amazing the difference in my legs between stiffly going up the staircase to sleep and then bouncing down them an hour later.
I finished off with my kit while drinking a coffee, remembering this would be the last access I had to my drop bag for the rest of the race. I swapped my thin gloves for thicker mittens (as I expected it to get colder) and still carried my waterproof rubber gloves (£4.99 from Screwfix if you’re interested) in case the rain started early. I had a full new set of clothes on, except my hard-shell jacket, and felt like a new man!
At 1.15am, as I was leaving the CP, I met up with Stuart, who had been in the checkpoint a full hour longer than me, and we teamed up for the next leg. He had had a similar rest to me and felt well refreshed, although we both were very aware that we weren’t even half way yet.
Stuart was an expert map reader, having done a lot of walking in Scotland, and his map skills coupled with my GPS “skill” made for some interesting confusions, as we discussed exactly where we were. It would probably have been easier to follow one or other, map or GPS, but we muddled through somehow.
We passed Top Withins bothy, a shelter at the top of one of the fells that I’d marked on my maps as a shelter if the weather was poor. It was just a stone hut, but in quite an exposed place and was nice to know that it was there. Apparently, Stuart told me, it had been some of the inspiration for the location of a house in Wuthering Heights. Very impressive in daylight I suspect, in the darkness it was just a ruined farmhouse.
Oh dear….in the excitement of leaving Hebden Bridge checkpoint I had stupidly forgotten to fill my water bottle, and only had about half a litre of water with me. I knew there was water available to the next village, Ponden, but even more stupidly didn’t ask Stuart to remind me when we got there, so only realised we’d gone past it about a half mile past. Stupid stupid. I wasn’t dying of dehydration, but I was thirsty, and too proud to ask my companion to borrow some of his water just because I was a bloody idiot. I unzipped everything to cool me down and reduce any sweating possible, and got my head down to the task in hand.
And somewhere shortly after Ponden, we met Mr X. This is going to take a bit of explaining, so I’ll go slowly. Stuart and I met up with 2 other blokes, one of whom was Mr X, and as we went over Ickornshaw Moor Stuart and friend moved ahead, leaving me with Mr X. He then proceeded to stop every 5 minutes or so, shouting his friends name as loudly as possible (and remember, it was totally quiet, being the middle of the night) in the vain hope that his friend would come back for him. Mr X wasn’t very good on the rough terrain, and every time he made a small slip on the mud or rocks, he would let out a yell at the top of his voice, sounding like he was falling to his death. After the first few times of this, it became really annoying. Mr X wasn’t navigating at all, obviously having been following his friend, so now was following me and making no attempt to get a map out or look at his GPS, except asking every few minutes if we were on the right track.
I am a generally quite chatty person, but Mr X really got me cross, to the extent that I wanted to have a proper go at him, that if he couldn’t navigate he shouldn’t be trying to do this event, and would he please stop relying on me to keep us on track. In the end, I held my temper, but put my headphones in and tried to zone him out. This was coupled with being bloody thirsty by this point, and stupidly not eating anything since leaving the checkpoint which had been a few hours, and my stomach was starting to turn over when I thought of eating. I was generally in a bit of a low, and was getting quite cross (can you tell?) at everything.
At the next village, Cowling, I luckily managed to find an outside tap on a house, and snuck through their back gate to drink about a litre of freezing cold water and fill up my bottle. I did trigger the security light though in the back garden, which gave me a hell of a shock, but I hope I didn’t wake the household.
Naturally, shortly after finding this water source, we came across a pub in Lotherdale, who had put water outside for runners, and later on would be bbq’ing for runners going past. I was gutted to miss that!
Daylight arrived about 8am, and it was great to feel that the night was behind me. I got a bit of energy going and picked up the pace a little. I still couldn’t eat anything, but felt like I was making good progress. A couple of small navigation errors had us climbing over fences to get to the right side of a field, but nothing serious.
I took a full frontal tumble into some bog, which was quite memorable by virtue of the bog getting into every nook and cranny on my front. I caught my foot in some grass, slipped and fell forwards, and was basically lying flat on my front with my forearms being submerged and everything on my front under water. I was lucky to keep my face out of the bog, and got up bloody quickly before the water soaked into my clothes. I was angry rather than feeling sorry for myself, but as I tried to brush the mud off it just spread the watery mud more all over me. I philosophically thought I’d just let it dry and then would be able to brush it off, but that damn bog got everywhere. Even as I write this report in my living room a few days later, I have bog on my maps which were sealed in a Velcro-fastened map holder. The damn bog!
It was approaching mid-morning, and I was starting to consider that I needed to eat or I would not get too much further. I still hadn’t eaten since 1am, and was feeling tired and sore. I only take painkillers with food, and so not eating prevented me from lessening the discomfort I was starting to suffer.
Up ahead was a reasonably sized village called Gargrave, where there would be places to shop and eat. Mr X was starting to suggest we stop for something to eat, but I was so cross with him by this point I really didn’t want to have him shadow me through a cup of tea and then all the way to the finish line. Reading this back, I think I maybe sound really unreasonable, but unfortunately at the time I was so pissed off at this guy and his ‘mannerisms’ and lack of nav.
Anyway, I ducked into a tearoom at Gargrave to ask if they could do me a cup of soup or something to take with me (as I couldn’t sit down in there, being covered in bog) and who should be in there but Stuart!
And he was just finishing off a clean plate of food. After he said hello (actually he took one look at me, and asked what on earth had happened to me, being covered in bog), I asked what he’d just eaten, as it looked great, and he said that he had a full English breakfast. Wow! That was all it took for me to sit down and order a pot of tea and the same breakfast. I really think that accidentally going into the same tearoom as him, and being prompted to have a sit down and eat changed the course of the day for me.
(Mr X hung around for a couple of minutes, before carrying on with another runner that came along. I refuse to feel bad about my shitty treatment of him. If he finished, I’ll allow that he may have covered the distance but didn’t complete the event by following the person ahead of him for 108 miles. Absolutely not.)
Stuart didn’t stick around, so I made myself comfortable, went to the toilet, called my wife and basically sorted myself out. It looked like about another three hours to the last bit of civilisation at Malham Tarn before a big climb a Pen-y-Ghent, the tallest and most challenging climb of the whole route.
I didn’t finish the breakfast, but ate most of it, and more importantly took some paracetamol, which just took the edge off the soreness for the next few hours. My stomach woke up and I started to feel a bit human again. It was 11am, and the bad weather “heavy rain” was predicted to hit at 9pm. It was now all about getting as far as possible, as quickly as possible, before the weather hit.
Leaving the café, apologising for the mess it’d left on the floor, I felt like a new man.
I don’t remember much about the next few hours. I bought an ice cream in a little shop in Airton or Malham, which tasted like nectar, even if I was getting strange looks from everyone else walking up the street on Sunday afternoon.
I got to a park called Malham Cove where there were lots of families out for a pleasant Sunday afternoon walk. I was moving well at that point, and could feel the miles passing.
Unfortunately I found that there was what felt like a huge set of steps up to the top of the cliff, before some rather dicey skipping over some bare limestone rocks. Apparently, most people take a slightly longer route to avoid going over these limestone rocks, as one slip would be race over, but in my naïve way I assumed it was all part of the fun. It was quite a bizarre place, and I wish I’d done a bit more homework to know what to expect in this latter section.
It was starting to get noticeably cold, and a bit gloomy, so I stopped to get kitted up in my warm gloves, neck buff, and warm hat for the final trek into Malham Tarn Field Centre, the last place to get anything warm before nightfall. The facilities were actually a bit better than I expected, as it had been described as a “half-checkpoint”….which meant medics to look at feet, hot drinks, but no access to drop bags and a maximum stay of only 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, there were only 5 seats, all taken, which actually made me even determined to get in and out quickly. I squatted on the floor (yes, I could still squat with my legs stiffening up) and spent a quick 20 minutes sorting my kit for this last push. I had a couple of cup-a-soups that I’d brought with me, and put on my waterproof trousers for the oncoming rain. I managed to eat a cheese roll (yes, I was still carrying cheese rolls, but for emergency use only) and take a couple of ibuprofen, to keep the general tightness I was feeling at bay.
The next, final, section was going to go over Pen-y-Ghent, which, at 694 metres, would be the highest point of the whole route. I’d read only enough about this climb to be worried about it as it is quite challenging in summer daylight, but in January winter darkness it would be very tough. Little did I know just how tough!
Have a very quick look at this video and skip forward to 1 minute 43 seconds, to give you a little idea on what I had in store.
I had hoped to leave Malham Tarn with someone that knew the route well, but in the end I left with a guy called Michael who was having trouble with his feet. We kept each other company for the first few miles, before he said he was going to stop and rest his feet for a few minutes to prevent the pain getting out of hand. It was quite a brave strategy, and showed some real commitment to getting to the end in one piece (which he did). To stop and rest meant getting cold, and that’s quite a sacrifice at night when the weather is closing in.
So on I went, not being too phased by the cold and wind, but really feeling that I was getting the job done and that once I had got Pen-y-Ghent out of the way I would be on the home straight.
The route became steeper, and turned into steeply climbing large steps of rocks. The wind was picking up quite a lot, and I could see nothing in front (above) or behind (below) that gave me any indication or how far I’d travelled. It was tiring work, but was just a matter of getting one step done at a time. I could see little tracks of ice starting to appear on the rocks, and made sure I stayed well clear of them. But it was hard hard work, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled by the constant difficult (dangerous) climbing.
At about halfway up this climb I was lucky enough to get a call from Derek, one of the coaches at my running club. Derek is a superstar, and ever since I’ve been doing ultras he has been willing to call me at various times for a quick pep talk and to find out how I’m doing. Often he’ll call in the middle of the night just to check I’m OK, which is massively beyond the call of duty, and on one memorable run when I was suffering a bit he called me every 40 minutes to keep me going. He’s quite a guy.
And this time Derek had called at just the right time, as I was beginning to feel I may be on the wrong route as the climbing was getting harder and steeper. I had a sit and a chat for 5 minutes, as the wind was whistling past me, and it helped enormously to settle me down and re-focus me. Just talking about how I was doing and where I was stopped the (slight) rising panic at how difficult this was getting.
After talking to Derek, I stood back up, and took a proper look upwards at my route, but it was just steps of rock disappearing into the distance and absolutely no use to understand which way to go. It was going to be much more difficult to go down if I went wrong, as it would have been shuffling downwards on my bottom like a toddler, so upwards was the only way.
As I got to nearer the top, although I didn’t realise it was the top, I was faced with the complete loss of route, and basically climbed near-vertically moving one hand, one foot, another hand, another foot, to keep as anchored as possible all the way up. Apparently they call it “scrambling”. The wind was pulling at my rucksack, which was the only part of me sticking out as the rest of me was plastered to the rock. I knew there was nothing soft beneath me if I fell, and I remember thinking as I climbed that my wife would kill me if she saw what I was doing.
I’m hoping this isn’t sounding too exaggerated, as it’s not meant to be. It may be the case that in daylight I would have known I was safe, and the drop just felt exaggerated in the dark, but I genuinely felt like I was risking life and limb.
I got to the grassy top and basically rolled myself onto it, feeling very grateful to still be in one piece. The wind at the top was very strong indeed, and very cold. The grass was iced up and there was a stone wall at the top that was completely covered in front (I wish I had taken a picture, as I’d like to know if it was the same as I remember, but I was suffering from far too much trauma from the climb to even think of it.)
There was no obvious sign of a path at the top, and my way of getting moving was to simply move in the direction that my GPS suggested and hope for the best. As ridiculous as it sounds, I didn’t have the facilities at that point to get my map out and try to work out the required direction, so I just pointed and walked in the (hopefully) right direction and not off a cliff. Sure enough, I soon came upon a line of stone slabs that marked the route, and I was off on my merry way.
The slabs turned into lovely shallow steps that took me down the side of the hill, and as I walked it slowly dawned on me that I’d just completed the toughest part of the route. I got to a signpost that stated Horton in 1.5 miles, which meant I could expect a café, or something similar (I didn’t know what exactly) and some warmth and light.
(I didn’t know until I finished, but there was a diversion put in place around Pen-y-Ghent due to the conditions shortly after I came down, and I was one of the last people to go over it. I’m not sure whether to be gutted that I had to go through it, or chuffed that I got the full experience!)
Sure enough, 20 minutes later, I entered this glorious friendly café, with three volunteers sitting around a table, and hot food and drink available. I asked, as you do, whether I had definitely just gone over Pen-y-Ghent, and it was now definitely behind me…and it was! I was just slightly excited at this news and even happier when some of the other volunteers there said it was easy going from now on (which didn’t turn out to be the case at all, unfortunately).
I had a cup of beef goulash soup, which was wonderful, and refilled my water. I texted a few friends to tell them I had just done the most dangerous thing I could imagine, but I don’t think they believed me. I called my wife, and then I realised that Stuart was sitting on the other side of the dividing wall, and we had a bit of a chat about what a nightmare the last section had been. He was eating, again, and looked pooped (like I probably did).
Without too much faffing, I got going again, leaving before Stuart to get this last section done and finish this damn thing. The checkpoint team had said the last section was an easy 15 miles, and because it was on a diversion called Cam Road, I thought it would actually be a proper road – but no such luck.
Leaving Horton was also easy as I was expecting a strong 15 miles, which would take me 5 slow hours, but it was 9pm at that point and the weather was spitting rain but nothing more than that. I’d be finished by about 2am and in a hot shower 15 minutes later. Magic. I was feeling great, and called a friend to chat as I walked up the next hill. He said I sounded ‘excited’.
Famous last words. The next 6.5 hours were the roughest, most challenging I’ve ever had outdoors, and while they didn’t contain the (perceived) danger of Pen-y-Ghent, I will remember them as being the very spirit of the Spine race, with proper spine weather!
The heavy rain began properly after 30 minutes, as I climbed out of Horton, and I stopped to put a plastic poncho on over my waterproof jacket, with my rucksack on top to hold the flapping plastic down. I knew the poncho would keep the water out to some degree, but I didn’t realise how much would be blown up the sleeves and down the neck. Luckily, my jacket then took over and kept me pretty much dry (on the inside). As I went higher, the wind got stronger, temperatures got colder and the rain turned to sleet and then to snow on the ground. It was all coming from behind me luckily and that made the weather more bearable, except that every so often there would be a gust that would come from the side and sting the side of my face.
As the route got wetter underfoot there started to be puddles of slush, that became indistinguishable fro m the ground until you stepped in one and your foot was covered with icy water. My waterproof socks were struggling, understandably, and my feet were getting wetter and colder.
I was able to follow footprints of others that had gone ahead of me, and that made the isolation I was feeling slightly better, as I knew there were some humans around. Visibility was very poor, only really allowing me to see a metre of ground in any direction, but nothing beyond that. I was only feeling the cold on my hands and feet, but the wind behind me would have made that a different story if I turned around.
And that was when I lost the route, which I explained at the very start of this huge monstrosity (both this story and race).
I was walking in a square, 5 paces in each direction, looking for my missing left-hand turn. Of course I found it in the end, after a bit of fretting.
In fact the thing that made the difference was starting to understand that the wind had been coming from behind me, which meant that if I stood with the wind at my back I was facing the direction I had been previously moving. Therefore, I could orient myself and start again looking for a left hand turn that had been there all the time. I felt a palpable sense of relief that I was back on my way, and not staying still any more. It had been a scary 10 minutes.
It didn’t get any easier. I started to descend, and the snow turned back into rain, but that rain had nowhere to go and was completely flooding the muddy track I was on. The wind seemed to be picking up, and was threatening to blow me over with every gust. Falling into that mud and water would have been a terrible experience, and would have destroyed any chance I had at keeping my temperature up, which I was doing OK with so far.
The descent (the final descent!!) on the Cam Road seemed to take forever, although it was probably only an hour, on the roughest rocky trail I’ve ever seen…I was hopping from rock to rock keeping my balance with my poles, and doing my best not to twist or break an ankle. It was about 2am at this point, and I was feeling very sleepy, despite the awful weather and terrain. I considered taking a caffeine tablet to wake myself up, but didn’t know what effect it would have on my stomach.
And then I started to see lights in the distance, which looked like a town that could only be Hawes, close to the finish in Hardraw.
I’d like to say I stormed the last couple of miles, but I got lost in Hawes and simply couldn’t find the way through. I even got a phone call from my wife, who was waiting at the finish, to say I was really close and she was waiting for me. At that point, I was in a public toilet, taking some shelter from the rain, and trying to sort out where I needed to go next and giving myself a proper talking to. Answering the phone reminded me that I could use Google maps to go this last couple of miles, and so that’s exactly what I did. Of course, as soon as I was moving again, everything made sense, and I met up with Jo Barrett about a mile from the end. We chatted to the finish about how appalling the last few hours had been, and how we would never come back to the Pennine Way (or maybe it was just me saying that!).
And then we finished! A couple of volunteers put our medals on, and persuaded us to get our muddy boots off before coming inside. My lovely wife appeared from the dark and we had a lovely hug. In the rain. And I had my picture taken…there is literally nothing dry in this pictures at all.
An efficient finish station sorted me out some soup as I tried to get out of my wet stuff as quickly as possible, throwing it all into yet more black bin-liners. I didn’t stick around as a hot shower back in the B&B was beckoning, and my traditional beer and Doritos. There were a few other finishers slumped in the room, but everyone was either knackered or sleeping.
Claire zoomed me back to the B&B, where we discovered that the shower wasn’t running hot water…not great news. But such is life. Hence 4am found me sweaty and smelly, wrapped in a thick jumper and two duvets, eating Doritos like it was going out of fashion, and reading messages from friends and filtering through Facebook. Job done!
And there it is! I finished in about 43 ½ hours, 24th male (68 men finished, out of a field of 95), which is far quicker than I ever expected: truthfully I was not at all sure I was going to finish, so I never really considered my target finish time. I was pretty stiff for about a day, but that passed quickly.
My feet and ankles swelled for a few days, but that passed to. I had no blisters, no sore patches, just a lot of general ache. My mind, which previously I have struggled to get back on track after an event of this magnitude, was not too bad this time, and after a couple of days dozing on the sofa I think I’m pretty back to normal. I’m still eating like a horse, but that is probably just me being really greedy.
I feel that the last 6½ hours of my race gave me the full Spine experience, with wind, rain and snow making it as memorable as anything I’ve ever done. I finished strong, quite positively and energetically, but I’m not sure how I would have felt if I’d had to go back out there again after a couple of hours.
For the few days following my race, I’ve been following the full Spine race, and the pictures of snowfall further up the course look wonderful. It was the only thing I never got to experience, breaking trail through a foot of snow, but maybe another time.
So in summary, was it as #brutal as suggested? Yes, definitely. The terrain, ascent and weather all contributed to make it harder than any 100 mile race I’ve done. My kit all worked extremely well, but I’ll go into full detail of what I used and how it worked HERE.
I’d like to thank Scott Gilmour and everyone else involved with the race for superb and smooth organisation. Every volunteer was relentlessly cheerful and helpful, which made life much easier at the various stages where you wanted help.
I think all the competitors were there for their own reasons, but it was great to meet some like-minded people on the course. Stuart finished about an hour after me, and Lizzie a few hours after that. From meeting randomly on Facebook to just share a taxi, it’s great that we all managed a finish.
And what’s next? I’ve got a couple of decent races later this year, like the Ultra-trail Snowden (but only 50 mile course!) and Lakeland 100, which will keep me busy for a while. I’ve pretty much lived and slept for the Challenger over the last 6 months, and it’s a bizarre feeling for it finally to be over, especially after it went so well. But no more races in winter (this year).
And finally, I’d like to say massive thanks to my long-suffering wife, Claire, for putting up with the anxiety of watching me do something like this. She puts up with my daft ideas with a minimum of complaining, and is really supportive of all I do. Thanks Claire, love you.
My kids, bless them, only notice I’ve done a run after I walk downstairs a bit stiffly. But thanks anyway.
And that’s it! You made it to the end (like I did!) Congratulations. Now go out for a run or something useful.
And the pics that didn’t make it, but should have…