I wanted a challenge… to be taken out of my comfort zone… and boy did the Montane Spine Challenger do just that! Like most things, a pivotal point in your life can seem very innocuous to start with, and I have a feeling that this race was one for me… the full effects not yet known or even felt. Writing this up a week later, some parts have slipped into the murky depths of memory and some are still very much at the forefront, much like any major event we look forward to, plan and then experience. So how did it go and just what kind of challenge did the event provide?
I travelled up two days beforehand as, given the propensity of our railway system for delays, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t late for any kit checks and race briefings, plus I wanted to attend the pre-race Masterclass held by Ranger Ultras. I also had masses of luggage with me. I duly arrived in Castleton where I was staying (a 15 minute drive from Edale), sorted out lots of kit and then my friends arrived. They had originally been coming over just for dinner as a chance to catch up as we live quite some distance from each other, but wanted to see us off over the start line, so changed their plans to stay and do that! A fantastic emotional and mental boost to start with 🙂
Friday morning dawned and once I’d managed to re-arrange and sort most of my stuff which had, as usual, exploded throughout the whole room, we had a wander about and some pre-race celebratory cake. Now I hadn’t realised quite how far Edale was at this point, so a huge thanks to Helen and Len for ferrying me about! We drove over to Edale, they dropped me off for race registration and kit check while they went to check into a different venue for their second night. Here I caught up with with Harriet, Karl and Kate whom I had originally met at the Spine training weekend: Harriet had passed on some extremely helpful tips for kit over the past couple of months so I passed over some homemade cookies for them to have at the halfway point. I had originally thought of leaving a “positive message” for them at Hebden CP1 (Harriet and Kate were running Challenger, while Karl was crewing them) but given how people can react differently on races, changed it to cookies. I figured food is always good! I registered for the race and got my number (276) and then straight to kit check where of course I had to be the one to draw out the lucky dip number for a FULL check. Cue another explosion across the floor. Luckily I’d brought everything with me… plus a few extras! Then it was back to Castleton to dump the kit off, have a cup of tea and back over to Edale for the race briefing and then the masterclass. That finished, a few steps down the road to the traditional Spine venue of the Ramblers Inn to meet up with everyone and grab some dinner. It’s amazing how quickly the time goes. En route I spied James who had just arrived and let him know where we were. Food, a quick catch up and hello to a few people… it was then back over to Castleton again and time to make sure everything was ready for the big day. The nerves now kicked in. I had already triple-checked everything before I left home. However after chatting to a few people at the pub, I decided to pack my yaktrax instead of Kahtoola spikes as they were supposedly more suitable if Kinder was especially icy or snowy, but I couldn’t get them in. Cue yet another major explosion across the room (I’m sensing a pattern here 🙂 ) as I spent the next hour re-arranging my whole pack and ending up with the sleeping bag, liner & bivvy bag on the outside. This doesn’t sound very “major” but I was concerned given the balance of the pack and that I hadn’t trained with it lopsided in weight. Still… it was the only solution I could find and by midnight I just wanted to go to sleep.
Race morning dawned and on too little sleep (I’d managed about 4-5 hours), it was time to get up, get out the door and over to Edale. Helen and Len were lifesavers once again and the pub (Castle Inn) had very kindly agreed to let them check us out so we were able to leave all our other luggage behind, which they came back and collected for us. The sun was coming up, trackers were placed on the runners… everyone seemed to be smiling… and off we all trotted to the start line.
Photo by Racing Snakes
Sometimes it’s a good thing you don’t know what lies ahead for you!
The countdown… the cheers… trotting over the start line… James reminding me to not dash off too quickly… when we signed up, we had agreed to run this together. We were tentmates (#117) at the Marathon des Sables so I knew he was solid, someone you could absolutely and utterly trust… that if he said he would stay with you, he would… practical, kind and also generally a very positive person. Basically a great and fun big brother!
It felt good on the way to Jacobs Ladder, although once we hit there, the climb up felt laborious as I’m so slow on hills… but it got done and wasn’t too icy, and then onto Kinder… my stomach dropped… pretty much a white-out… howling stinging wind… head down, goggles on… too much a repeat of the Peak South 2 North race… when we encounter similar circumstances we’ve already experienced it can trigger not just the memories of what has previously happened, but also the mental thoughts… and straight away I was worrying about whether we’d be breaking trail, falling into bogs and encountering waist deep snow.
Photo by Racing Snakes
The first challenge of the race had appeared much earlier than I had expected! Time to acknowledge that, accept it and mentally tell myself it’s just a thought and we don’t know what’s around the corner. The head game for this type of race is vital to finishing. We were trotting behind some others and that was the first mistake… don’t rely on those in front knowing where they’re going! We went about 400m off course, so then had to realise that and make our way back, with most, if not all, having gone past us. Back on track it was push on through until eventually we came to the roadhead at Snakes Pass. Luckily the white-out had eased and the snow wasn’t as deep as the previous race, so whilst we weren’t running as such, the path was easier to be seen and we were a lot quicker than I’d been last time. There were also some crazy people at the roadhead… grinning and waving… cameras in hand… I couldn’t work out who they were to start with until we got nearer… Helen and Len had decided to stop by and cheer us on… another fab boost! A quick top-up of water and off towards Bleaklow. More snow, lots of trudging although others were around so it didn’t seem too isolated. We got up to the top of Bleaklow Head although it looked different due to better weather this time, and once I realised where we were, knew we were on the descent to Torside Reservoir. A good point as we were approaching 16 miles in with Crowden on the other side. Now the descent last time had been very treacherous and technical, with lots of ice on the rocks, so this time I figured I’d try to actually run or shuffle down it. Big mistake number 2! The rocks were not runnable for me, so I opted for the grass at the side… which was very wet… and slippery. Cue a bit of a scary fall… where I actually somersaulted over a couple of times! Once I’d come to a stop I was a bit winded and couldn’t move for a few minutes. James checked to make sure I was ok but I’m pretty sure I heard a laugh or two once he knew I wasn’t injured! Luckily no major issues and just some aches as a result. Lesson number 2… don’t drop your awareness and get ahead of yourself… pride cometh before a fall, literally!
After checking in with the roadhead safety team, and a whinge about the fall… we also saw Helen and Len here, with Helen carrying a goody bag of snacks in case we needed them and both offering hugs. How wonderful to have people come all the way out and cheer you en route… the value of emotional support from others cannot be underestimated! It was time to cross over the reservoir, through some woody areas and get a shuffle on towards Wessenden. I remember telling James about seeing some wildlife here on the last race and remembering which turning to take! We then came across Matt and Ellie from Summit Films, who mentioned something along the lines of being 4th lady I think, which was a surprise, and certainly not a position I expected to stay at. I put it to the back of my head, because you don’t want to let anything derail you from your plan. Trying to push and catch others up wouldn’t be good for the main goal here, which was just to achieve a finish. Nothing much stands out in memory now for this part, apart from it being daylight and that much easier to see where we were going compared to the PS2N race and where I had got lost in the dark! We followed the correct route and just before we started the descent towards the A635, saw the most incredible colours of the sunset… absolutely stunning. We paused to take it in… this is part of the reward…
We reached the roadhead and checked in with the safety team, topped up water… 27 miles done… it felt a lot longer. Time to get a shuffle on and get down to the turning. We also met up with Paul Bridge as we shuffled around the reservoir , who I’d run (trudged) part of the PS2N with. Now the memory is rather faded but one thing that stands out is the awesome orange moon! Simply spectactular. Words cannot do it justice, and it was one of the highlights of this event! I remember eventually getting to Standedge I think it was, although I more remember a sign saying Harrop where the safety team were that we had to check in with. I topped up my water and was given a hot coffee and then heard a very familiar northern voice… Matt, another of our tentmates from MdS had driven out with his daughter to come and cheer us on! He’d also brought hot chicken noodle soup and lots of snacks! What a huge boost at nighttime!! He wouldn’t let the puppy out for a cuddle though 🙂 We spent about 15 minutes here, but as James said, it was well worth it. Having something hot to eat, hugs, chatting… well you don’t want to lose too much time on races with chatting, but at challenges like these, having a friend make the effort to come and see you, bolster you emotionally… it’s priceless. Standing around however can make you cold, and my hands were getting freezing. Just as we were about to set off again, I made the (very wise as it turned out) decision to pause so that James could get my mitts out of my pack before the next leg. We said our goodbyes and turned towards the darkness of the moor.
The first full evening… cold temperatures and no clear path… the moor felt very creepy and I have, thankfully, shelved most of this bit to as far into my distant memory as possible. I think this was where it was wet, wet, wet… boggy ground… basically lots of streams that you tried not to have to walk through else you’d kill your feet. I lost sight of James for a short while (he had to speed up so as not to get cold) and every bit I could see looked the same as the rest. Trying to hop onto bits of grass but sinking into yet more water. Icy parts too so you couldn’t rush too much. As I’m not used to the terrain this meant I slowed down even more. Fear kicked in big time here and I could feel signs of anxiety start to rise: racing heart, dry mouth and the feeling of sheer panic… I felt a complete and utter wuss, and yelled out to James who unfortunately couldn’t hear me. So this was the next mental challenge… how do you cope when you want to dissolve into a heap of fear? Thanking my CBT training I paused, got some sugary snacks out, swilled some water round and took stock of the situation logically. I wasn’t on my own and knew James would be waiting. I had my GPS which I got out and checked… I’d veered a bit too much right… this wasn’t forever and it would end… plus I had all the safety gear I needed in an emergency. Suck it up and get moving! Literally a few minutes later I found some slabs as I moved towards the left! And then shortly afterwards caught up with James. Eventually the horror disappeared in our rear view and we made our way to Stoodley Pike… chatting to other racers as they passed by… I think it was around here (if not before) that the first MRT Challenger passed us even though he’d started 4 hours after us! My apologies to the other runner that was with us at this point but I’ve forgotten who it was… as we came off Stoodley we started to go too far left and had to hack back up to get on track… this was now on the “home run” to Checkpoint 1… the only major one we had in the whole 108 miles where we could access our drop bags, have a change of clothes and also hot food indoors! As for thoughts of running on the lovely descent through Callas Woods… unfortunately that had to be shelved due to the amount of ice underfoot… skidding and sliding instead felt to be the norm. Still we hit the bottom and then started on the up to CP1… only we seemed to get a bit lost, and I didn’t recognise the “main” type of road we were supposed to be on… checking the GPS it seemed we were following a parallel road and finally ended up on the correct one, but a bit further along… a nice little shuffle down to the turning and then carefully going over the very slippery, boggy, muddy route into checkpoint.
Volunteers… the help you get from these wonderful people cannot be appreciated enough… races would not exist with them! At Hebden when they know you’re approaching, someone will be already waiting outside for you with your drop bag… the rule here is get out of the wind into the entrance, take off your disgustingly wet, boggy, mud covered, stinky shoes (and everyone’s will be!)… put your poles in a corner and then shuffle indoors. Kit bags go into the far end room where they stay! No going into the kitchen… make your way to the racers room on the other side where some very smiley, happy, friendly volunteers offer you hot cups of tea, coffee and juice… profer hot food and make sure there are plenty of snacks. Turnaround time is crucial on a race… as is knowing what will benefit you the most. James went straight in, had food and went to crash. We landed around 0100 hours and agreed to set the alarm for 0430. Remember all those kit explosions… it kinda happened here too 🙂 … instead of sleeping, I chose to have a hot shower and a complete change of kit and was glad I did: I felt a huge boost mentally, physically and emotionally. Time then to grab hot food, several hot drinks and then try for sleep. As I was so tired, when I tried to sort my kit out ready for getting started on the second leg, I could not think coherently and ending up faffing. Recognising this I figured there was no point wasting more time, so grabbed the spare sleeping from my drop bag and headed to my assigned dorm. Thankfully no snorers!!! Eye mask on, ear plugs in. I managed about 20 minutes sleep before someone’s alarm at 0400 woke me. I laid there for 10 minutes, debating the benefits of trying to get another 10 minutes sleep but gave up, telling myself I’d had just under 2 hours “rest” even though I hadn’t really slept. I also knew James would be up and ready quickly so got up in order to sort my kit bag out, re-tape my feet and have more hot drinks. We were out the door at 0505 hours.
Now I’m not sure how it happened but we got lost… before we’d even made it out of the climb to the road! Somehow we ended up higher and following a fence and then through a field until we found a road. Checking the GPS and then navigating back, we had gone way too far to the left and had then had to turn back before finally reaching the turn we’d originally taken to descend to the checkpoint. I reckon we lost about half an hour easily here. And it was cold. And raining. Not a great start to the second leg. Off we trotted only to miss the turn back onto the Pennine Way… were we really that tired? Probably!
Another moor… another cold and yucky wet wet wet boggy foggy dreary cold and icy hell… oh how I longed for the warmth of Hebden… I think it was here that we bumped into Paul again… and I think it was on this section that I took my second nasty fall, only this time there was no laughing or as James described it… not so dramatic! There were slabs on and off across this section and most were covered in ice… some moved… a lot were underwater… I stepped on one I thought was there to find it didn’t exist… my right foot plunged straight down into knee-height water, my shoes filling with water (thank god for knee high waterproof socks)… with the result that I slipped and instead of my left foot landing on the next concrete slab, my left knee did, with my whole body falling fully flat! Pain flooded through my leg and I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to sit, cry and give up. Shaking, the lads helped me up and after taking a minute to get my mental state back together, we carried on. I was beginning to really hate the wet moors areas!
However, it was now daytime and that meant energy levels rose a fair bit. Onto Cowling and in and out of the safety team check. I was very happy to see these as they carried some water which we could top up with. I originally expected none to be available so had packed a Sawyer filter to be on the safe side. Well those streams have sheep nearby… can’t be too careful regardless of how much peat there is to filter stuff out of it! We came out of the Cowling point and headed downhill… to another one of the best points in the race! Our lovely friend Mike (who was also an MdS tentmate) had driven over with his wife Zoe to come along and give us a hug. They’d also brought loads of snacks! As James said, it almost felt as if we were supported with a crew. We must have stopped for about 10-15 minutes and by the time we left, our emotional “tanks” had been filled up 🙂 Happy days! Thank you guys!!!
Photo by Mike Fetherstone
It was then onto Lothersdale where the fabulous Hare & Hounds pub had put plastic sheeting downstairs on their carpet so that Spiners could pop in and get drinks and food if they wanted. They were also kind enough to allow me to use their facilities upstairs. Thanks folks, much appreciated. We were still with Paul who was being crewed, so we stopped when he met Ste who then very kindly gave us some cuppa soup… before we all pushed on to Gargrave together. Paul had mentioned that there was a fish and chip shop so as we got nearer and nearer, I didn’t eat as much as I should have as I planned on a hot meal there. I remember passing Maxine when we were beside the canal who looked to be in really good spirits, albeit she was having problems with her feet… she had one spare pair of socks but was holding onto them as it was boggy going up to Malham. I had been planning on changing my socks too, but after hearing that, decided to push on and change once we got that far. Anyway, we reached Gargrave to find Helen and Len had come out again. Helen has since said she was really worried about me because I was shaking so much. It had gotten much warmer on the second day, so I didn’t have my insulating layer on. This also meant I had a layer less to protect my shoulders from the pack weight… so much so that I was in agony just walking and they had to help me off with it. We walked around trying to find the fish & chip shop, forgetting it was a Sunday evening and therefore closed! My heart sank. I’d been so looking forward to that. Food is energy and hot food even more so going into night hours when you’re so cold. Anyway, nothing to do but put the insulating layer on, get sorted and get going. We had also decided by this point that we needed to try and get some sleep so would push to Malham and bivvy out before heading for the CP1.5 at Malham Tarn. Now while we had encountered lots of muddy soul sucking squelching mud that was more than ankle deep (the wet conditions and rain had been more than helpful in this regard)… what was to come was absolutely draining. No wonder Maxine hadn’t wanted to change her socks! It was a different version of hell, horror… extremely slow going… how anyone can run in that stuff is beyond me! It felt to take forever… and probably did!
Malham arrived like a beacon of life… Paul directed us to where we could bivvy and be out of the rain… not wanting to waste time, we got our stuff out and settled down to sleep… with a local dog nearby howling. A lot! The rain had soaked through my thermarest so I couldn’t put it inside my bivvy, which I think contributed to a lack of heat. There was a bit of a breeze and it felt really cold, so I got my little hotties hand warmers out of my gloves and stuck them in the sleeping bag with me, wrapping everything up but one small gap to breath through. About two hours later, and after what must have been only 20-40 minutes of sleep max, it was time to get up, have some food and get going again. There were some toilet facilities there with a mirror… I don’t know if it was as a result of side winds during the previous section, or whether it was where the cold had got into the bivvy bag, but my right eye had swelled up very badly… I looked like I’d been punched 😦 … nothing to be done but ignore it.. time to change socks, layers were put on, water was heated (my coleman gas wasn’t brilliant but did work), some rehydrated food eaten and then we were off… homeward bound! We reached the CP1.5 where the lovely John Bamber greeted us and gave us a very welcome hot drink, checking to make sure we were all ok. Two guys came in while we were there, but unfortunately they weren’t going any further. It was lovely and cosy indoors but we needed to crack on… spirits were high as we went through a wooded area… and then it was onto Malham Tarn… climbing, steps… going up, limestone… hard on feet that had already been tenderised like pieces of steak… darkness, fog… I pretty much followed Paul and James for this section… how on earth they made the navigation look so easy is beyond me. Had I been on my own I would have taken ages and been micro-navving with my GPS! Next up was Fountains Fell which seemed to go on forever. Luckily although it was cold, it wasn’t icy enough that I needed my spikes especially as I’d forgotten to swap out my yaktrax for microspikes! And then it was onto the horror of all horrors. I really don’t do heights, have a fear of them… I get physically shaky and nauseous… so I don’t usually climb up mountains! Or big hills! Ladders either if I can help it. I had also wondered what John Bamber meant when he’d asked if I’d been up Pen-y-Ghent before. He must have been either inwardly chuckling or thinking what a daft fool when I said No!
Now I have no idea what it looks in the daytime… but in the nighttime all I could see what a dark outline to my left and right, big rocks to be used as some kind of steps going straight up… and drops to either side that would mean you die. Paul went up ahead, and I think there were a couple of others around too… James was very kind and stayed behind me, encouraging me each step of the way like you would a child. At one point it felt so steep I couldn’t even lever myself up on my feet, but ended up with both knees on a slab thinking I was going to throw up. However… what are the options when you get stuck? Go back down, quit and whimper and wait for hours for someone to rescue you… or suck it up, and (very very slowly) follow someone’s direction, someone who you trust so you just keep going? I obviously chose the latter, and eventually got to the top. I’m very glad that James didn’t tell me he’s taken his youngest up there in the daytime… I’d have felt even more of a wimp! I’m also very very glad we didn’t have bad weather… apparently previous Spine editions have had 50mph winds gusting and black ice on the rocks while they’ve scrambled over. Was the horror now over? Nope… now we had to navigate down without falling down the side! By this time it was Monday morning, but we were high up and there was so much fog and mist it still felt like night! Eventually we started on the descent, and at one point we almost got lost again with the lads ending up climbing over a wall… I think it was on this section but my memory could be wrong… and I went back to the road I thought we should take… to see Pavel and Eugenie pass by… they’d set off 24 hours after us and were going to be going all week. Amazing! Eventually we descended towards Horton… and there was some really good terrain that would normally be runnable… however at this point, on less than an hour’s sleep it was more a stumble. I’ve never really had hallucinations before, but kept thinking I was seeing Spine support crew because there appeared to be a moving blue object… until we almost reached said blue item to find it was a huge wheelie bin 😀 … good job it was then that we came upon the Pen-y-Ghent cafe! Absolute stars… hot bacon, fried egg and ketchup sandwiches and mugs of tea ordered, nothing has ever tasted so good… I also needed to change. I had expected it to be cold going up Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent so had added a pair of RAB polartec powerstretch over my leggings and under my waterproofs. This had meant that although I was warm enough in the night on the climb, for the rest of the time I had over-heated… given the gaiters and shoes were clad in mud too, it was rather a messy change over… luckily the toilet facilities in the car park had running water to wash hands before eating!
Short of a disaster, we knew we had enough time to make it although that didn’t mean loitering. It also didn’t mean going over the wrong bridge which I very nearly did, much to the amusement of Paul and James! More ascent, more fields… and eventually onto the Cam Road. Paul had dropped back a little bit and seemed to be wanting to have a moment to himself, so I hurried to catch James up. We came to the turn off and saw Karl there who said Harriet was about an hour behind. We trundled on, the road seemingly never ending… and saw a runner disappear off towards the muddy hill… we followed but there was no clear path. I then looked back and saw Harriet up above!
We must have been about 1.5 to 2 miles away from the end at this point, so James gave me a verbal kick up the backside and told me to run… have to work for it, we haven’t come this far to let anyone pass by now! Well… to coin a phrase, I pegged it down that hill like I never believed I could. It felt to be a 6.30 min mile pace (although was probably more like 8)… and my sleeping bag stuff had come off from my pack. James re-attached it but once we started running again, it came off again. Nothing for it but to tuck it into the crook of my arm, move my poles into that hand and then try to balance with my other hand as we bounced down the muddy boggy hill, trying not to fall over. I veer between dreading there being video footage of this bit as I probably looked really deranged or wanting to see it in case it looked awesome and I actually was running really fast… anyway, James had so much energy he bounded on ahead, opening up the gates for me so I could run through… and then it was onto the paths… where I saw two figures waving, iphone in hand (eek… I’ll leave you with one guess as to who they were…) before I turned onto the main road and ran up to the hall. Instead of running through a finish line triumphantly with poles aloft, instead was a gasping, red-faced, huddle of a human being hunched over. Realisation suddenly dawning… it was done… James came over and gave me a big hug and I could barely hold the tears back. Such a very surreal and sublime moment…
54 hours, 12 minutes and 13 seconds 🙂
I broke the Montane Spine Challenger… and 4th lady at that!
As for injuries after such a challenge… no real blisters anywhere, some toenails that will likely come off and a bit of a (temporary I hope) loss of feeling in a couple of toes. All expected effects of the pounding over such a distance and terrain. The only other issue I had on course really was a painful lump from that lopsided pack… the shoulder muscle on one side developed into a swelling a bit bigger than the size of a golf ball… I didn’t even have any DOMS and could walk down stairs easily the day after. Although I think I was slurring my words that evening at dinner due to the sleep deprivation *oops*.
Congratulations to all racers on Spine Challenger, the MRT Challenger and the full Spine Race, especially my other two MdS tentmates, Gwynn and Lee who I dot watched over the rest of the week once I’d left Hawes (and seen Lee into his CP2)! What an epic event (yeah I know… cheesy words… but oh so true).
A huge huge thanks to those who came out to support us en route (Helen, Len, Matt, Lucy, Mike and Zoe) as well the other racers who encouraged at different points, Paul and his support Ste, the Spine Safety Team and all volunteers who looked after us so well. And most especially to James… I certainly could not have done that without you!
A challenge like no other… the only problem now… is what do I do next!
Wishing you all a adventurous week ahead 🙂