Spine Challenger 2017 – Scary, Sublime and Surreal

23/01/2017

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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.

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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.

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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!!!

cowlingPhoto 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…

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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 🙂
Michelle

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Out of the Comfort Zone – Spine Challenger

11/01/2017

Within anything there can come a time when you wonder “what next”. That can apply to your job, your home, your relationships… we get comfortable where we are, we feel safe… the parameters are pretty much “known”. It can be good to stay here to absorb everything we’ve learnt in life, to enjoy, to rest… but what about if you want “more”… if you want to challenge what you’ve become accustomed to, want to grow… well beyond that “known”… that’s when you go out of your comfort zone.

Change … It’s scary

Out of the comfort zone is not supposed to feel warm and snuggly and known. It’s most likely going to feel uncomfortable, hard… awkward… it’s going to trigger a whole heap of negativity as well. It can trigger self-doubt, anxiety, fear (whether that be emotional, mental, physical)… it makes you question what you’re doing, why you’re doing it… and all of this can mean we can set ourselves up to “fail”… it’s too hard, too scary… the goal might not be achievable… it’s easier to stay where we are… it’s where we feel strong and not weak, safe and not vulnerable…

And so it was that I decided to sign up for another race which would be a challenge. After all, if that’s what clients can do as I sit alongside them as their counsellor on their personal journeys… how can I not challenge myself from time to time, albeit in my own way? Walk my talk as it were… and in this case, it’s going to be quite literally! I’ve run in a bit of heat, and I’ve run (ok there was a lot of walking 😀 ) some long distances over the past few years. It’s been quite a journey. To go out of my “known” zone now, I need to do something I’ve not done before, and aim for something that may not be possible. After all, you can’t know what you don’t know (thank you Tom Jones for that little gem!).

I now find myself facing the very daunting task of setting foot on the start line of The Spine Challenger this weekend – have a look at http://thespinerace.com/msc/.

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For those that haven’t heard of this, it’s the first 108 miles of the Pennine Way, in the UK. In winter. It’s the “smaller” aka baby version of the main “Spine Race” which is the full Pennine Way of 268 miles. Now that’s a crazy race!! This should be sane by comparison right? I don’t do cold. I don’t like being cold. I’m one of the first to get the scarf and gloves out and layer up for the commute to work and one of the last to let them go. To willingly go into a cold race where risks include hypothermia (very common), ice burns on skin and frozen corneas (yep one guy was medically removed from the race for this I believe), where the temperatures are going to drop below freezing, where you could be wading or falling waist deep in snow… and do all that over 108 miles… it sounds pretty terrifying. An attritional hike is how one friend described it. And that’s without the sleep deprivation! You get 60 hours to complete the race, and that sounds way more than enough. It’s not. People DNF on the cut-offs due to the terrain, and the risks already mentioned. I’ve heard for the main Spine Race, one winner didn’t sleep for 2-3 days. How is that even possible?

The stats for Spine Challenger are:

Distance: 172km
Ascent: 5637m
Descent: 5636m
Max elevation: 695m (Pen y Ghent)

There is one checkpoint at 73.9km in. You have to run with a pack with a lot of mandatory equipment, which is due to the safety requirements (I’m dreaming of around 6kg at the moment) – haven’t dared weigh my pack properly because I know it’s likely to be much heavier, and am just praying I can get everything in. I may have to sit on it as I did with my suitcase for the dropbag stuff. I’m not even sure if there are a couple of points for water… the streams are going to come in handy, as is the water filter I rapidly bought – there’s a lot of sheep out on those hills.

Did I mention the route marking? There is none. This is a national trail and you have to navigate, map and compass. Handheld GPS is also required, and often needed due to the fact you could be on a whiteout on some of the “hills” and can’t see the occasional flagstones or “trail path”… or pretty much anything to be honest!

Kinder Scout – Peak District South 2 North, Ranger Ultras
Photo credit: Peter Owen

A lot of runners who enter this race have either years of running experience or a background of being outdoors, hiking, mountaineering, love the cold etc… so how does a townie with only a few years of running prepare for something they know nothing about? I take you back to the post about accessing your tool box or “kit list” (which can be found here). So in this case it’s:

Physical:
Training – sessions with my coach and following my training schedule that he writes for me
Testing kit – there’s a lot of kit, and then there’s even more. You need to test what you’re going to be using in as similar conditions as possible
Recce – checking the route you will be running, although it could look a lot different depending on the weather conditions

Pyschological:
Goal – you have to know what you’re aiming for and set a realistic goal
Expectations – modifying these as you learn
Self-awareness – know your weaknesses and strengths and how to minimise/utilise to your best advantage

Knowledge:
Past experience – use what you already have as a foundation
Learn – get help where you feel you have weaknesses

Emotional:
Support – ensure you have the right support around you, from those you learn from to those in your inner circle as it were
Positivity – if you’re around people who bring you down, how will that help you? Be around those who encourage, want the best for you
Drive – call it what you will… the human spirit… a yearning… a chest-thumping feeling in the very heart of your self… that call to adventure… it’s what can carry you through some of the dark parts…

My coach has been fantastic with numerous pep talks and encouragement, and he (alongside others) have also reminded me about the positive skills I have from the past (basic navigation and first aid (should the worst happen) from the Army, albeit a few decades ago), just over 3.5 years of running, 3 stage races… numerous other ultras/challenges… I’ve also finished two Centurion Running 100 milers now so it’s only (ha!) another 6ish miles longer than my longest race. I’m also hoping to run this alongside one of my tentmates from the Marathon des Sables (he couldn’t get time off to do the full one, crazy man!). I have the experience of few severe “hills” from a recent race which I didn’t finish: the CCC (more on that in another post).

The Spine Race also hosts a training weekend so I trotted along to the Peak District for that, where I met some really great people for the first time and got the chance to catch up with another MdS tentmate who’s doing the full race. They had various speakers (Richard Lendon in particular stuck in my head – “it’s not a race” complete with pictures of several full Spine Race starts where he’s flying over the start line!) over the weekend, plus the chance to get out on a nearby training loop, and where they test you on a variety of skills (such as bivvying out, distance & timing, the use of your stove – I think I nearly blew mine up – first time I’d used it *oops*). The coordinator for the Spine safety team (Stu Westfield) also hosts races, training, and guides expeditions, see here for his website. His courses includes Spine specific ones. Due to my nervousness and lack of experience especially around navigation, I wanted to attend these, but unfortunately time and travel didn’t allow. However there’s usually a second option, and in this case I booked Stu for a 1-2-1 over two days up in the Peak District. This was very good and I can’t recommend highly enough for anyone considering doing the same. Usually you’d go away after a day of full on navigation and absorb before going back and putting into practice, but I didn’t have that option. So the second day out, the aim was to move and navigate a lot faster. Which it was. Although compared to most, I’m probably still extremely snail-like 😀 But that, combined with Stu’s everlasting patience, meant that I got the train home feeling more confident, and meant some of the more “negative voices” were being drowned out. Every little helps!

Fast forward two weeks, and there was a race to be used as a “training run” – the Peak District South 2 North, which is a 100k self-navigational race over two days. A local running friend who has also signed up for Challenger had highlighted this to me a while back, so I agreed to run the second day (Dark Peak Challenge) with him as it was on most of the route for Challenger. However two days before the race, he had to pull out due to injury, so I trotted off on my own. Daunting was an understatement. It was an utter and complete wake-up call, plus the weather was so bad that they had to abandon the wilderness sections and we followed just the Pennine Way. Over 13 hours to get through less than 29 miles, lack of visibility, waist deep snow in parts, icy rocks, windy, not much to run on and no lovely flagstones in sight. See the picture above for the beginning up on Kinder! There was also lots of falling over, breaking new trail, sliding down parts on my backside for safety and at one point in the dark we got lost and ended up on the edge of what appeared an abyss… looking down into a sheer drop of blackness. I refused to go down for fear of injury and never getting back up! Thanks to the navigation skills of the guys I was with, we ended up contouring round and got to where we needed to be. When I say huge wake-up call, what I really mean is had I done this before signing up to Challenger… I wouldn’t be hitting the start line on Saturday because I would never have signed up for it! So for anyone who wants a “taster” be sure to try Stu’s race first!

Another tool that was due to be added into my “toolbox” was a recce on course, however the person I was meant to be going with, and who would be driving, dropped out. Extortionate train fares (everyone in the UK would probably nod their heads in agreement at that description)… meant I then had to forgo this, so instead I figured some more nav awareness would be key. Luckily the director of a race I did only a month earlier, and who coincidentally is also on the Spine safety team, lives not too far a distance from me. If you’re in the Essex area you have probably already come across, or heard of, Lindley Chambers of Challenge Running. Lindley came down and helped me to work out how to use my handheld GPS, how to load up the gpx files, and how to plot some of my own basic courses. Highly recommend his tuition, which can be booked via his website. Unfortunately I’ve not had much time to practice with it, but again… every little helps and you have to start somewhere!

And then there’s support: well as I mentioned earlier, I’m planning on doing this challenge with my tentmate from MdS, James (front of picture)… and there will also be two others doing the full Spine (Lee (behind me) and Gwynn (number 501)) so hopefully we will get the chance to catch up pre-race…

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Charity stage – 30th Marathon Des Sables 2015
Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

… and The Spine is up North… not too far from where a certain incorrigible person lives, who helped to start me on this whole ultra running lark. Had I not had Helen’s support in Sierra Leone (and encouragement to switch races), who knows whether I’d have moved up to ultras at all! She and her other half are coming down to see us off the start line, and (hopefully) over the finish line. Then there’s all the others who have helped and encouraged along the way, fellow competitors who have emailed and offered advice and help… this race creates a family where everyone wants everyone else to do their best, and do not hesitate to look after each other (and rescue them *eek*) when things get bad!

So now race day approaches rapidly. Reality is kicking in especially when it comes to expectations. Doing the PS2N means I am being very realistic about chasing cut-offs yet again, the wake-up call regarding terrain was much needed however as we are now only days away, there isn’t much more that can be added into the toolbox. The weather is predicted to be snowy, wet, gale force winds, black ice, gnarly, boggy and with plummeting temperatures… aka a nasty start. Winter on the Pennines… why would you expect anything else 😉

For anyone that wants to track some sane (Challenger) and crazy (Full Spine) racers, check out http://spine.opentracking.co.uk/race/ – it starts with the Challenger on Saturday at 0800 hours, and the full Spine on Sunday! I’ve already started carb-loading… or as one friend literally said to me this afternoon when she read my draft post… “Have you ever stopped!”… how rude 😀

When it comes to goals… to challenges…

Dare to dream it, plan it… learn, grow… you never know where one decision may take you… just who you might inspire… who might think that “because she or he can “do it”, so could I”.

Challenger start line… here I come! Please don’t be too cold…

Wishing you a great week ahead 🙂
Michelle


Grand2Grand Ultra – Rest, Regret and the last half of the race

01/04/2015

The best bit after the Long Stage? You’d think it would be sleep… after all, if you’ve been going over 24 hours without any, most people think sleep would be easy. Not so… not when it’s daylight, the camp is awake and runners are still coming in, especially when it’s your tent mates… and it’s the only day you’re actually back in time to hit the comms tent!

There were also treats… I thought it a rumour but no… lo and behold a treasure… not something I usually drink but after days in the middle of nowhere, it’s like nectar…

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and we were even treated to some live music… right there in the middle of nowhere… there were a lot of happy campers as you can imagine!

There had been more drop outs by this time and unfortunately this included one of our tent 😦 … Steve had got soaked in the torrential rain and hail storm on Day 1… including his trainers which, I believe, did not dry out properly before the start of the next day… what I hadn’t realised was just how much pain he had been in on the Long Stage… his feet were totally and utterly shredded.  How he managed to push through is unbelievable… because of this…

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Blistered, macerated, bleeding, infected… by now he could barely hobble… so after returning from a trip to the medics, he gave out his food to be divided amongst those of us who wanted it and made the choice to go back to Kanab, when he would eventually meet up with us in Vegas at the after party. A sombre mood descended.

Feet. They make or break your race…

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And so the next day dawned, not much sleep gained… you think you’d be so tired that not even the devil would be able to rouse you.  This just doesn’t happen… not for me anyway. A couple of hours, a bit of catnapping… and before you knew it, the music started up… and the question… what time is it? a tent would yell… 3 songs past 6, another would reply!

Memories…

Yuri dashed by… stuck his head in the tent and reminded me to pop by the medic tent again to check my hip… angel in disguise! My leg felt somewhat better, I wasn’t limping as much and the piriformis hadn’t cramped… that little bit of rest had helped tremendously, aided hugely by Yuri’s help and I actually felt ok… I knew I was deterioriating… you don’t do this kind of event without getting drained… lack of energy, speed, hydration, calories… you’re pushing through a deficit each and every day… but today there were more downhills… much better for me… I could run… well, there was still huffing and puffing up the hills, but more downs = more running or shuffling 😉 … and I took advantage of that… no matter how tired or aching I was… I took the choice to tell myself I would run the downs…

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The scenery was amazing… huge cliffs, trees so high they looked tiny… huge boulders to navigate down, rocks carved out by the weather over many years, by rains and floods… and in some parts it looks like we were running on a moonscape… it was also baking hot. So much so that as I ran I kept a very watchful eye out for any water, desperate to try and lower my temperature… the riverbeds crossed were dry… a few muddy puddles, a couple that had a little bit of water in… but how to get at it? Balance very carefully, put your cap on the end of your trekking pole and dangle it just enough to wet it slightly. It was that hot I certainly wasn’t worried about whether the water was clean, it was wet and that was enough. And then there appeared a mirage… a properly flowing river… stream may be a better description but at that point it felt like a full blown river!

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And this is my only other real regret from the whole race…

As I was shuffling along the road I noticed some other runners ahead rejoining the road… I’d seen the river but figured it was too far off course… as I reached the point I had seen them at… I decided to take a few minutes and see how near I could get. It was so hot and my head felt like it was on fire… heaven… you could go right up to it. So that’s what I did.  Took off my arm sleeves and hat and soaked them in the water… I turned around and noticed another runner go past so hurried up to get back on track.  Only a few minutes ahead was the next checkpoint. I could have left my pack there and gone in the water. I wish I had. Later that night, when everyone had returned, some of my tent mates told us what they’d done… they’d stopped, taken their packs and shoes off, and had actually laid down in it… how I wish I had done that. Laughter, fun, friends… surely that’s worth losing a bit of time for in a race instead of pushing through?

Anyway, that was not the choice I had made at the time… instead I pushed on through the rest of the course encountering some pretty evil inclines: looking back at some of the photos, it looks like we were crawling up.  I hit a few low points especially when hitting some long stretches until I caught up to Danny and we leapfrogged each other until we got to camp. I probably wouldn’t have run as much of the last leg if it hadn’t been for him. We hadn’t had much chance to chat up to that point as he was always well ahead of me but while we had this opportunity to talk, he shared how he found the race, the highs and lows to date and that he had been aching a lot and, like a lot of us, had found it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag that morning, was tired and missing home but since he knew I had just completed a similar type of event in Madagascar, he thought if I could get up each day and do this, then so could he. A truly humbling moment and I don’t think he is aware of how much that meant to me. It kept my spirits up, helped me keep running and we eventually reached camp at the same time. I felt very happy with how I’d done overall that day; top half, position 37  or thereabouts… just a shame about the river…

Stage 4 survived: 7 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds

Stage 5

As so the last full day dawned… today was slot canyon day. I think everyone was looking forward to this… we’d seen all the photos from previous years and I naively assumed it would mean a lot of flat.

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There was, but to get to it you had to go down… and part of that meant, for me, holding onto tree branches as I slithered down scarily high inclines… yelps included! I also knew there would be climbing down over rocks a bit in those canyons but what I hadn’t expected was a very high ladder… the choice, just go for it and pray I wouldn’t fall or use a harness that had been provided. Sod the time, go for the harness… it just looked too damn high. Afterwards I heard a snake had been relocated not long beforehand so I definitely made the right choice… what if I’d got there and seen a snake… you’d have heard the screams for miles!

And of course, given we are generally getting higher each day, for all those wonderful downs, there is going to be a lot of ups. Again. Crazy painful ups… I doubt I will ever view local hills in the same way!

Eventually we reached flatter ground, although that did still have an incline to it… it just wasn’t as obvious. There were also rain clouds gathering and I have to say, at that point because it was so hot and the air so still, as I saw some dark clouds approaching, I prayed it would cover me with rain. It didn’t… it stayed tantalisingly just out of reach… and I couldn’t catch it! I passed a field of cows… my poles tip tapping the ground as I walked this part… and then I realised I was being watched! There were a lot of cows. There were bulls too. It was a bull that watched me. I averted my gaze and then snuck a sideways glance… it was still watching me… I held my poles off the ground and still it watched me, it’s tail flicking from side to side and then it moved… a few steps toward the road, no fence in sight… I tried to walk with a lighter footstep, holding my breath… and eventually, thankfully, I was sufficiently past that it turned back to its herd, and I could breathe again!

What I wasn’t aware of was that this was the area that my tent mate Lee had had a close encounter on. Not with a bull but a moose. Apparently a moose had mown him down into a hedge. I kid you not… read his write-up in GQ Magazine!  Killer moose, watchful bulls, sneaky snakes… what is this? Next there would be zombies… oh and don’t forget the tarantulas and scorpion holes…

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I continued up the winding road… on and on, just where was the camp? It seemed to take forever and much longer than the previous day until eventually it came into sight… with pools on the other side of the fence… pools of water which looked so inviting… however given the previous cow incident, yours truly was not taking any chances… I didn’t want to be potentially ambushed and trampled so near to the finish of the race! Wise choice indeed as I found out that those were probably pasture water for the horses and cows… and given experiences to date, it would be just my luck that the horses were not that friendly despite outward appearances!

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Another stage finished and surprisingly only 4 and a half minutes slower than the previous day, around position 33 or something, so top half again and a very happy bunny 🙂

Stage 5 survived: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 56 seconds

Stage 6

The weather had been getting cooler, natural I thought given the ascension of course profile. However that night another storm hit, bad enough to keep us awake all night long with only little catnaps until one of the poles collapsed due to the strength of the wind and we thought the whole tent was going to come down. Those amazing sturdy volunteers came once again to the rescue  and were out in that weather checking everyone was ok and hammering down tent pegs, poles and anything else that could potentially go flying off into the night! I’m not a fan of being cold and the thought at that time of even getting out of my sleeping bag, let alone run in winds which sounded like something from the Wizard of Oz… well…

And at 5am Race Director Colin made his rounds – they were checking in to see how much worse it would get, how safe it would be up to get up to the Grand Staircase. Around 6ish, he made another round… they’d been informed it was just too dangerous and they couldn’t risk flooding especially due to parts being single track (if I’m remembering correctly). Safety is paramount and in those conditions there was a real possibility of people being swept away or falling… so while there was obvious disappointment in not reaching the full 273km, there was also a lot of very happy people staying in their sleeping bags just that little bit longer.  To ensure we had a Stage 6 and to fit in with the expected torrents, the organisers arranged for an “out and back” couple of miles, and everyone would get the same time recorded. A very fitting end for the team spirit and camaraderie that had built up over the past week. Our surviving tent:

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I’d made it and got my buckle!

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It was then time to grab some pizza… do you think they had ordered enough? There was another full table out of view of this 🙂

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The race organisers had timed it perfectly.  Just as the buses arrived and we headed off, the heavens opened. By the time we got to Kanab for a lunch they had also organised for us… just stepping off the bus and walking 5 steps to cover had us drenched. The highway to Vegas had been closed due to landslides and the torrential rain, but thankfully had opened up by the time we left.

And then it was Vegas bound… to meet loved ones, to celebrate, to sleep in a proper bed and eat non-rehydrated food.

And of course to Party! I’m not sure how many people stayed up all night but some did…

What an experience, what memories… what friendships made… it was tough without a doubt. My legs were completely shredded, more than I realised at the time, my achilles was bad and a huge swollen lump had grown by this time, walking was painful (and that wasn’t just because I’d insisted on wearing heels at the after party 😉 )

But…

Was it possible
to go from zero to a double-stage runner in only 18 months?

* Yes it was *

Go sign up… you know you want to 😉
http://www.g2gultra.com

Now what shall I do next…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne


Grand2Grand Ultra – Stages 2 & 3

31/03/2015

Stage 2

And so the second day dawned… music blaring in the darkness and the camp stirring to life.  I huddled down into my sleeping bag a little deeper and wondered if I would ever be able to move without pain again… but I’d finished Stage 1 so I wasn’t going to miss being on the start line for Stage 2.  I figured if I wasn’t going to finish then it wouldn’t be of my choosing, I’d have to be pulled out by the medical team!

The tactic: start walking.  Try and shuffle if possible.  Walk it all if need be. As the saying goes, you don’t eat an elephant in one go. Where did that saying come from? Who would want to eat an elephant 😦 … magnificent creatures… anyway, make it into bitesize chunks aka checkpoint to checkpoint survival.  Head down and churn those steps out… I had wanted a challenge and I’d certainly got one!

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And so the day passed and, as for the first day, the racers eventually drifted apart the longer we were out there. Eventually I happened across an American racer called Arthur and we stuck together from Checkpoint 4, keeping each other entertained with stories about what was going on in our lives… he was pretty excited due to planning his proposal to his girlfriend and every time he spoke about the ideas he had, his face lit up and a huge smile beamed across his face, his energy infectious and the chatting meant the time passed a lot easier than had I been on my own, added to which we had expected the temperature to turn the notch down a tad… even going from full on “oven baked” to a little “fan assisted” might have helped but no… no respite until we hit the finish line where waiting for us was a momentary piece of heaven… Lisa, one of the volunteers, was ready with a bottle of cold water to spray over us! Absolute bliss. A moment to savour… you certainly appreciate the small things on adventures like this!

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Stage 2 survived: 10 hours, 8 minutes, 34 seconds

Stage 3

The Long Stage… dum dum dum!

It started well… what a sunrise to wake up to…

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Now you can dress things up however you like in your mind… you can practice positive mindfulness until the cows come home, you can meditate all night long… there are many many things you can do to bring the happy stuff into your life, change your perspectives and become a happier and more contented person. But I doubt you will ever eradicate fear in all its totality from your brain nor the accompanying negative thoughts that pop up from time to time. We are human beings and fear is actually a great tool at our disposal which alerts us to keep ourselves safe and to survive as a species. You know, back in the old days of sabre tooth tigers wanting to eat us. Or bears. Someone kept joking about bears. There were lots of trees on this race… what if a bear was hiding behind one. I kid you not… someone actually joked about this as they hotfooted it up a very steep incline while I shuffled behind them… a long way behind them… was that a tactic, was I being left as bear food while they dashed to safety? The trees rustled as I pondered this… I tried to shuffle a little quicker…

Anyway, the long stage… the hip was still hurting although Yuri had been an absolute hero the previous evening and helped release more of the pain that had accumulated throughout the second day, so how to tackle this? Go it alone and try to push myself, risking further injury or worse, not finishing… or stay with friends who were planning on sticking together as a group due to the length and technical difficulty of the day and walk it all? I wanted to push, I was frustrated at having mainly walked the previous day, but at the same time how great would it be for the Group to stick together and cheer each other on.

So that’s what I chose.

Plus I was slower than everyone else hobbling away at the back.

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We started off in almost a party mood, and as we ventured along the way, locals came out and cheered us on: such support from the local community was heart-warming and at that time it felt as if we were just going out for a day’s adventure! Until we reached the end of the flat track and it was time to cross a main road and head towards the elevation.  It was at the end of the road in the picture above that we came across Mo Foustok.  Mo had withdrawn from the race but had come out to encourage everyone else along. Another wonderful example of the camaraderie and kindness I have witnessed within the ultrarunning and racing community.

And then it was up, up, up… with minimal downs to compensate. The pace: slow, very slow. Did I mention I don’t like hills. I like heights even less. I really don’t like sides of mountains where I could slither down, fall off and die. Now I know the organisers are very careful and you’re not going to be somewhere that you have to get crampons and picks out to haul yourself up, but this felt like that to me.  This wasn’t FEAR (false evidence appearing real) but aarrrgghhh FEAR (dear God it’s real and that’s bloody high).

Sometimes naivete is a good thing… it certainly was for me in this event.  I knew there was a little climb.  I’d seen the pictures of a rope and people hauling themselves up it.  I had been reassured on reading the road book we’d been given that it wasn’t as long as I’d thought.  What hadn’t been mentioned was what I actually encountered. I scaled the first bit thanks to one of my amazing tent mates, Lee, helping me up and the amazing Yvonne keeping me going with encouragement behind me.

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I heaved a huge sigh of relief only to realise after going round a corner and along a little flat that there was another one! One felt so bad that after slithering my way up (thank god for my poles is all I can say) with shale and rocks sliding away under my feet, I was so relieved and happy it was over, that three of us jumped for joy. Literally. Until I saw the next one.

130131But what a view… no matter that it’s a race, that you are being timed… at points you just have to stop and take some photos, of the views and of the people who are there supporting you each step of the way…

Can we say tough?  I can honestly say that reaching Checkpoint 2 on that day was a highlight of sheer relief. Oh yes, that was all before CP2, many more to go.

And so the day continued… our main group breaking off into twos and threes, chatting away at times, being silent at others… pushing through the terrain, the elevation… minutes and then hours passing and catching up at the checkpoints: where we took the time to fill up on water, salt tablets and see to the feet… and have a laugh… (fab photobomb!)

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…before the night started to draw down just as we were heading towards the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary… bit eerie going through with animals howling… and seeing some fantastic colours in the sky as the sun set:

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Darkness arrived and we hadn’t even reached the checkpoint before the dunes.  Debate ensued – do we push on through the night, do we stop and sleep… we were all getting exhausted and still had so far to go. Would we have enough energy to tackle the dunes without rest? We’ve all heard the saying: when the going gets tough, the tough get going… well this was a pure example of that.  On the road to the checkpoint which never seemed to appear, nerve endings in the feet being bashed with every step, tiredness, general aches and pains, sandy tracks, darkness and plenty of “are we there yet”… we were accompanied by none other than the now infamous Mr Jerky: a tough, funny, very kind copper (policeman) and race director who hails from New York.  He was injured and in a lot of pain, yet on he pushed, worrying about everyone else instead of himself, whether he was holding anyone back (he wasn’t), staying cheerful and helping to keep everyone’s spirits up. Amazing guy… and if you want to check out some great trail races he organises, go visit his facebook page here!

We eventually reached CP6 which I have to say was one of the hardest parts to a checkpoint I have ever done. We stopped, got hot water and refueled, huddled around a fire that the volunteers had going and tried to warm up.  The temperature had dropped considerably.  Unfortunately Matt (Mr Jerky) decided against pushing through the dunes as his leg was so bad.  Once we had all got ourselves sorted out and had had about an hour’s rest, we decided to push on.

Dune time.

Looking back it’s hard to recall every moment… it was certainly memorable… having never encountered dunes before there was a certain amount of trepidation.  Thankfully due to the sheer amount of elevation and climbing during the day, my piriformis had been well and truly stretched out so I wasn’t in too much pain or getting much cramping… but still, dunes! Added to which we had heard that the race director(s) had set out to make this section as hard as possible. It proved to be true.

As we traipsed down the road towards the entrance, one of the gang suggested we all turn out lights off… standing in darkness by the side of a now silent highway… looking up at the stars… hearts pounding, silence surrounded… a memory to treasure… headlights back on and quietly we walked in…

Oh My **** God! I stood at the bottom and stared upwards at what appeared to be a pure vertical line… little lights blinking somewhere god knows where in the heavens… were they stars or were they the reflective bits on the pink flags… how high was it… would I fall… how the hell was I going to get up THERE! No other option for it but to run up at it… or rather try… get the poles, stick them in the sand and shuffle through as it flowed downwards with every step… using other’s imprints as a guide. Heart in mouth, breath out of control… just get up there.

Do not try to stand up mid way through!

You will feel as if you are about to fall backwards. The pack lending itself to that too…

Reach the crest and roll yourself over… pant for breath, look up at the stars and thank god you made it…

stand up… everyone gathers… trot off trying to spot little flags in the darkness…

get to the bottom of another… try not to cry as it looks even steeper (how is this possible?)…

ignore your tent mate when he tells you that these are nothing height wise compared to another race…

try not to quake in fear when you realise he’s talking about a race you may just have signed up for already…

ignore another tent mate when he agrees with first tent mate, because they’ve both done that race…

thank your trekking poles for not breaking…

get to the next…

and the next…

and the next…

I believe it was 5.5km… it felt like more than a marathon in distance…

…and I couldn’t wait to get it done. Tired, aching, swearing… I swore I would never do anything with sand ever ever again.

Yet even then there was beauty… we came to the end and took a breather just as the sun rose…

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Time to push on, get the head down… the sun rose quickly, which meant the heat did too, on dusty trails, through shrubby areas… and most of this part is a blur… I would probably have fared much better had I taken some time to sleep, but I hadn’t… over 24 hours by this point… just wanting to get to the finish line. Which appeared in the distance… up another bloody hill. Feet, legs, hands… all swollen… hip aching, brain fuzzy… step by step to where other tent mates were waiting along with Tess and Colin…

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I told Tess when she hugged me I was never doing another race like it, I was cancelling everything else I had planned… no more.  She hugged me tighter, told me that most of these events have dunes and I would feel better after some sleep… still, it was done. I’d reached another finish line… I was still there…

Stage 3 survived: 27 hours, 38 minutes, 18 seconds

© March 2015 Michelle Payne


Grand2Grand Ultra – Stage 1

27/03/2015

And so it began…

The Grand2Grand… I was actually at the banner, the start line… the very place I had seen on the trailer a year ago. Thinking back now it still seems very surreal… did that really happen, was I there… remembering the nervousness as everyone gathered, as the British crowd decided to get a group photo and how it seemed totally right to go and get our flag from that start line 🙂

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Memories are made of this.

We gathered, the wind rustled, music played… there was dancing amid a sense of heightened anticipation… and then suddenly the countdown finished and everyone surged across… I tried to keep up, heart hammering, head down, pushing too quickly and feeling it because my pack was heavier than in Madagascar. How hard to try and hold back when you get that adrenaline surge and just want to go, to fly across the ground…

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…eventually the crowd thins out and, given the number of competitors, the distances you are covering, differences in runners’ speeds and race strategies, eventually you can find yourself on your own… and given the landscape we were running across, this could be for hours at a time!

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I adopted a walk/run strategy which worked well for what I reckon was the first half of the course that very first day… until disaster struck…

I should have expected it really but a combination of naivete, lack of running experience, living in denial and sheer stubborness to achieve what I had challenged myself to do would have a price: that being my piriformis cramping and spasming acutely. The pain was unbelievable. Every single step hurt and it was all I could do not to cry while I limped on. I knew I was well within the time cut offs even if I walked the rest of the way due to the time that had elapsed to that point, but I didn’t know if I could actually  walk that far…

Luckily I then met up with a cheeky funny Irish chap who was incredibly kind: on seeing at how much pain I was in, he decided to stay with me the rest of the way. We talked about our running experiences (mine: very little; his: 3:05 marathons and finished 100 milers) and why we had chosen to do the event. I then learnt about Team SuperGavin – several of the g2g racers had joined together with him to fundraise and help his friend’s little boy who was having treatment for Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma. For those that do not know what Rhabdomyosarcoma is, very simplistically, it’s a rare cancer that affects mostly children under 10 years of age, mainly boys, and affects the supporting tissues of the body. Gavin was a baby when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of this cancer.  Phelim was fundraising to help with his treatment – even now, reading what Gavin went through brings me to tears. I cannot begin to imagine what his family and nearest and dearest went through, and hopefully I never will.

To read more about this type of cancer, please visit the Macmillan page by clicking here.

To visit the blog of Team Gavin Glynn, please click here (and have tissues handy!).

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How can you not push on when you hear about something like that? How could you whimper out because of a bit of hip pain? Here was a real story of pain, determination, hope and courage. Of bravery. A child who demonstrated all these qualities and more.  A story of pure and utter LOVE.

So… the trekking pole got jammed into the muscle (thank god there were no photos of this – ok yes I’m phrasing this politely, I jammed it against my backside !!) and it was a limp shuffle onwards, interrupted slightly when the storm clouds whipped up so fiercely that the plastic ponchos we had been given had to be dug out and fought. I say fought because the wind was so fierce I managed to get my head into what appeared to be an arm sleeve and in the process nearly ended up nearly suffocating myself. Phelim helped me out of that one too! Luckily the black clouds veered to our right so we only caught a brief few minutes… others behind us were not so lucky… and later that evening there were tales of huge hailstones pelting runners!

Eventually we came into sight of what appeared to be a little hill looming ahead. Our final destination was to the right but that would have been too easy… the pink flags fluttered showing the way ahead… to where little dots moved like ants. Only 5-10 minutes, or so we thought… much later (probably around 30 minutes) we reached the base of that “little” hill… an incline so steep that especially with my hip still having a pole stuck into it, meant I had to take only a few steps then stop and breathe… and repeat: steps, stop and breathe. I’m not a fan of hills – they hurt 🙂 let alone when you chuck altitude and injury into the mix.

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See the little dot just before the hill starts – that’s a person.  Hard to gain perspective from pictures like this.  There were also numerous people going up that hill, not that you can see them on this as it needs to be magnified, a lot!

Later… much much later… and after quite a few choice words were uttered into the wind, we got to turn right… no easy trail here, avoid the sneaky cactus, don’t stumble over the uneven ground, ignore the pain from your sensitised feet and do not cry! Until up ahead fluttered the signs of camp…

The feeling of relief stepping over that finish line was amazing. One of my tentmates was waiting and helped take my pack and I hobbled over to the med tent. And there was another godsend. A runner called Yuri who was volunteering at the event, who not only works as a sport therapist but also teaches sport massage and although he hadn’t been planning to do any physical therapy at g2g, due to the amount of pain I was in, offered to help. I gladly accepted. Thanks to Yuri, the immediate pain subsided quite a bit and I was able to hobble to my tent and crack on with getting kit, food and drink sorted while the rest of my tent mates gathered.

Stage 1 done… 9 hours, 7 minutes, 20 seconds… much longer than I had expected to take… but…

I would now be on the start line in the morning no matter the pain… I just didn’t know if I’d make the end of Stage 2…

© March 2015 Michelle Payne


Affirmation of the Week

22/10/2012

“I AM SMILING”

Working within a busy city… it’s all too easy to get caught up in the trudge of the daily commute. I’m sure most people can identify with the imagery that the word commuting would bring up in our minds… the rat race, a multitude of people, the majority dressed in black or grey… dashing single-mindedly to their places of work. Almost a uniform image really… and I’m one of them, been doing the same thing for quite some years now… and at this time of year it seems to be much “harder” to get up in the morning and face that daily “trudge”.

Winter is now breathing down our necks in the Northern Hemisphere, the clocks are about to go back and darkness has descended before it’s time to leave the office for home at the end of the day. It’s getting colder, we’re wrapping up warmer, there’s less light and sometimes it feels as if a spark has gone out a wee bit with the reduced amount of sunshine… yes we do get some sunshine in the UK!

I was thinking how grey it all looks. The commuters, the weather, the buildings… and how that too can lend a more negative vibe not just to ourselves but to how we interact with other people which then has a ripple effect into our day. Yet this doesn’t mean I can’t smile… that I can’t lift my head and see light and sparkles in things I pass by on that daily journey. But how many people do I see walking past with their heads down, shoulders hunched, looking and acting miserably as if they can’t bear to be outdoors, can’t bear their everyday lives? How grey do people look when they do that? And depressed… as if they are wishing their lives away, waiting for the warmer weather to reappear again. And then I thought that I too am known to have walked like this and sometimes still do when I’m moving on automatic pilot first thing in the morning.

Yet, it comes down to choice. Behaving, looking and acting grey is a choice when instead I could be smiling. OK, I don’t mean manically all the time, like someone deranged (yeah yeah that happens normally *grin*)… or as if I’ve just stepped out wearing a Joker costume, but just generally… what is to stop me from smiling… from choosing to enjoy each step in the brisk air instead of hunching over miserably… from choosing to be happy?

Absolutely nothing.

So this week… and the following weeks as they meander into the future… I am choosing to smile.

And if you’re not smiling, I would ask why not… and hope you find a reason to choose to smile for 🙂

Wishing you a wonderful week ahead ♥

© 2012 Michelle Payne


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