Spine challenger

(photo by John Bamber)
108 miles from Edale to Hawes along the Pennine Way, the tamer younger sibling of the 268 mile Spine Race covering the full Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

With all my recceing and kit checking I felt I was fairly well prepared for this, but the weather was the big uncontrollable variable. My plan was to treat it like the first ~2 days of the full race and arrive in Hawes feeling like I could continue (for another day at least).

The weather in Edale was pretty mild, but on top of Kinder Scout it was cold and windy. I initially thought I could ‘gut it out’ keeping moving fast, but it quickly became clear that extra layers were needed. Windproof gloves and trousers were necessary, in retrospect the extra upper body layer probably wasn’t. I was very cautious on the slabs after my previous fall, walking gingerly rather than trying to run. At the start a lot of the field hared off into the distance at high speed as usual. I’m used to being at the back at the start of ultras, but was a bit perturbed that I could only occasionally see one person ~10 minutes in front of me (although I later discovered there was actually someone else behind me). Unlike my numerous Bleaklow recces, the sky was clear, the views were stunning and the navigation was straight-forward.

I eventually caught the guy in front on the descent down into Crowden. The weather had warmed up a bit and I should have stopped to remove a layer, but I was rattled by how far off the back of the field I was (and randomly paranoid that the organisers would pull me from the race for being too slow). So I plugged on, and soaked my upper body layers with sweat.  I had dry clothes waiting at checkpoint 1 and the RAB meco baselayers lived up to the ‘warm when wet’ hype, but this could have been a bad mistake.

I caught the next person just as dark was falling at Wessenden lodge. And then a pair of head-torches appeared on the moors just ahead, and I set about hauling them in. Not long after dark the mist came down and I worried about missing a junction where the Pennine Way turns right off the ‘main path’. After a bit of faffing I got my GPS out and pretty much walked straight into the marker stone. The head-torches in front had disappeared but I eventually caught them just after the M62 crossing. When I’d recced the next bit I’d started descending too much after the Blackstone Edge summit. I resisted the temptation a bit longer this time but then made the same mistake and had to use the GPS to climb back up and find the wall crossing.

At the next support point I was surprised to be told that there was a lot of people stopped in the pub just ahead. Feeling fine and with checkpoint 1 only 10 (albeit slow) miles away I kept going. I ran a fair bit of the tracks around the reservoirs. Soon lots of headtorches appeared behind me, one group of three, plus a larger group. I expected them to stream past me. In fact it took until Stoodley Pike (which appeared out of nowhere from the mist) for the first 3 to catch me. And then with the aid of my ‘local’ knowledge I led the way down to Callis Bridge and up the other side of the valley. With a bit of uncertainty about exactly where the checkpoint was I pulled away again (but only took the left turn down to the checkpoint thanks to a supporter waiting for another runner pointing it out for me).

At the checkpoint I wolfed down a meal (I usually struggle to eat during and immediately after ultras, but here the slower pace seemed to make it much easier), changed into dry clothes and settled down for a few hours sleep. I wasn’t feeling tired (I’m used to running through a single night), but I wanted to stick to the ‘take it easy, treat it like the first 2 days of the full thing’ plan, and also this was the only indoor checkpoint before the finish. I must have got to sleep at some point, because I didn’t notice the occupants of some of the bunkbeds leaving and being replaced by serial, synchronised snoring. I really can’t sleep through snoring and after an hour of tossing and turning I decided to cut my losses and head off again.

Heptonstall moor was as wet as usual, but I just avoided going into the bog above the tops of my waterproof socks.
Shortly afterwards I started catching another headtorch, but they took a wrong turn and disappeared. At the point they turned off I wasn’t 100% sure they were wrong and even if they were they could’ve easily corrected it by doing ‘the other 2 sides of a rectangle’. However in retrospect I probably should have tried to shout them back. One of my shoulders had been becoming increasing sore, I’d lubed it up with Sudocream at CP1 however it was now reaching the verge of pain. On closer inspection my bra strap had folded up under my rucksack strap. A quick rearrangement of straps and a tightening of the rucksack straps fixed the problem for good though.

The Sun rose just before Top Withins to another beautiful clear, but cold day. Soon after I started feeling a bit tired, but 400 calories of food soon sorted that out. At the next support point I was amazed to hear that a significant fraction of the field were now behind me, and I crossed Ickornshaw moor with a big smile on my face.

The sections either side Gargrave aren’t my favourite, lots of boring boggy fields. Coming down from Pinshaw it clouded over and the temperature dropped. Keen to avoid yesterday’s overheating mistake I delayed stopping to put another layer on, but the descent was boggy and slow and this was another (small) mistake, and it took some determined power walking to warm up again.

After Gargrave it started snowing, making the navigation across the boggy fields tricky and I did a bit of backing and forthing trying to find gates and styles. I was never more than ~20m off route, but it certainly wasn’t efficient navigation. Along the way I caught another runner, we chatted for a bit, but he was struggling a bit and I  pulled ahead.

Bivvying at some point was in my provisional plan, and the CP1.5 tent at Malham tarn was the obvious place. The continuing snow sealed the decision, I really didn’t fancy going over Pen-y-ghent on my own, in the dark in snow having not slept for ~24 hours. And the fact I’d started making silly mistakes, not just the navigation, but also dropping a glove (thankfully my foot prints in the snow allowed me to back track and retrieve it) sealed the decision.
I hatched a plan to leave CP1.5 in time to reach Pen Y Ghent for dawn. In which case I had time to stop in Malham for a meal at the pub. Felt a bit strange being there in my running gear in the midst of the Sunday night crowds and the veg lasagne was too hot to eat quickly, but it was definitely worth stopping.

Back out into the trackless snow I made a couple of minor navigation snafus, initially missing the turn up to the top of Malham cove and then taking a somewhat non-standard route across the Limestone pavement at the top. The deep gaps between the stones freaked me out a bit and I sat down and put my spikes on before inching onwards. I’ve done a lot of work on my balance in the last couple of years and it’s much improved, but there are still circumstances where my brain freaks out.  I think I need to build some elevated planks in the garden and practice.

The climb up to the tarn took forever, and I started getting paranoid that the race would be suspended due to the (actually not particularly heavy) snow and I’d have to drop out to get back to work in time for the exam for my cosmology course on Tuesday. When I reached the CP1.5 tent at Malham tarn it was business as usual. The guy I’d passed earlier was having his feet dressed and I had a cup of tea before setting up my bivy. I got a few hours sleep, waking up occasionally as other people entered and/or passed through the CP (including a minor commotion as, what I later discovered was the police, delivered a dropped out participant to the CP). At one point I was desperate for the loo (note to self: always go before climbing into bivy bag), but with some contortions managed to go while keeping my feet in the bag (removing the need to put my boots back on). By this point a small cluster of tents and bivy bags had appeared.

I’d originally planned to leave at ~3.45, but at 2.30 I was wide awake so packed up to leave. The one problem I had was batteries. The cold temperatures were reducing their lifetime, and both my headtorch and GPS were running low. I had 5 AA batteries, 2 sets for my GPS and 1 for my emergency charger (the headtorch should theoretically have lasted both nights on one set). This should in fact have been enough for both the headtorch and the GPS, but the battery in the phone charger was flat (I don’t know if it was a dud or whether the charger had run it down unconnected). I really didn’t want to ask the CP staff if they had a spare battery (and admit my mistake) but it was better than setting out and risking my GPS running out. So I swallowed my pride, and fortunately one of them did and kindly gave it to me. Lesson learnt: carry more than enough batteries and/or change them at each CP even if their lifetime seems OK.

As I was leaving what I thought was the other woman in the Challenger event (there were 4 women in the full spine race)  was arriving and setting up camp. In the past year I’d managed 3rd woman in the LDWA 100 and 2nd in Run24, but I’d never, ever won anything athletic (apart from, I think, the 3 legged race at primary school). 1st out of 2 isn’t exactly a triumph, but I’d had it at the back of my mind from the outset that this might be my chance to officially win something. And now it looked like a case of ‘just’ keeping going and not doing anything silly.

On my rece, on another snowy day, I’d been lured onto a track which cut the corner of the Pennine Way rather than following the banks of the tarn. And I did exactly the same again. I tried to use my GPS to get me onto the Pennine Way, but in the boggy, snowy conditions with the GPS direction indicator reacting slowly (as I was moving very slowly...) I ended up going round in a small circle. Eventually I cut my losses, got back on the track and rejoined the Pennine Way a couple of hundred metres further on. Definitely a situation where a compass and bearing would have been better, and I’ve got to grips with doing that.

During my sleep the snow had stopped and a handful of people had left the CP leaving footprints. This still didn’t stop me making another minor error when the route crossed a field diagonally just before Fountains Fell (again I was never more than ~50m off route, and only lost a couple of minutes, but better navigation, with a compass, would have avoided this). Only 1 of the sets of footprints took the correct route through the next farm, although if I’d not been there before I wouldn’t have had the confidence to march straight through the farmyard ignoring the barking dogs either.

Crossing Fountain’s Fell was straightforward, but it became very cold on the road before Pen-y-ghent. This time I got the stopping to put extra layers on right though. Having set off early I arrived at Pen-y- ghent just before dawn, and spotted a headtorch loitering on the path just ahead. Paranoia (or, if I’m being completely honest, wish-full thinking) set in again, and I wondered if it was one of the organisers waiting to tell me that it was too snowy to climb Pen-y-ghent. It was in fact another runner, David, feeling very sleepy. I led the way up the initial steps, followed him up the two more technical bits and then pulled away a bit towards the summit (but kept looking back to check he was following). It was far, far easier than I’d been worried it would be (I’d told myself that if I got there and didn’t like the look of it I’d drop straight down into Horton, finish the route and DQ myself), but none the less I was glad to get it out of the way. At this point the sun was just coming up to a wonderful cloud inversion.

David charged off down the descent while I inched down, wishing I had some YakTraks on me (I bought some at the end of last Winter, but hadn’t had a chance to test them, so hadn’t brought them with me). We joined up again on the new short cut path which cuts-off Horton and chatted for a bit. I stopped to remove a layer and refill my (ice-slush filled) waterbottle and when I eventually recaught David he was feeling tired again and told me to go ahead.

The tracks between Horton and Hawes are tedious at the best of times. In the clouds, with snow on the ground, the never ending featureless whiteness was excruciatingly boring. But with ice under the snow and rutted tracks, concentration on foot placement was still required. And regular stops to knock the ice balls, which were forming on my laces, off. I kept looking at the horizon (which due to the cloud was actually not very far away) and mistaking tufts of grass for sheep or other features. I’ve never hallucinated (and was secretly hoping I might on this race), but I don’t think this really counts.

Eventually I reached Cam High Road where the photographers and some of the race crew were waiting. A quick chat and a top up of water and I headed off again. Several more miles of rutted tracks before the descent into Hawes. As I started jogging the descent I rapidly started closing in on another runner, with a high number on, and hence taking part in the Challenger rather than the full race.
Convinced he was going to try and repass me (in fact he was struggling with a nasty injury) I jogged all the way down to the valley and through Hawes . Where the race organisers were waiting for me with what I think (judging by the fluorescent jacket) was a policeman. I had my photo taken lots (not my favourite thing) and (after eating another big plate of food) was presented with a rather large glass trophy.

I’m really satisfied to have fulfilled my goal of finishing comfortably (even though, at 53+ hours, it was a few hours slower than I’d hoped). I’m also happy to have won something, although it feels a bit fraudulent as the leading woman in the full Spine Race (who went on to be the first woman to ever finish that) got to Hawes over an hour before me. Part of me is wondering if I would’ve got there before her if I hadn’t stopped to sleep at CP1.5. But at the end of the day I think I did the right thing. Of the 18 people who started the Challenger 12 finished, and I was 7th which isn’t bad (the first 4 racing snakes came in in 32-36 hours, the rest of us between 52 and the cut-off at 60).

The big question now is ‘do I want to enter the full race next year?’ And I’m really not sure what the answer is. I’d definitely need some more experience in winter conditions and navigation, and ideally multi-day races. And I’d need to work out how to sleep at checkpoints with snorers. Definitely need to give this some careful thought.