This week I had my first experience of running on the Pennine Way, covering just over 50 miles with 2 nights’ wild camping in preparation for the Spine Challenger race that I will be undertaking in January. This section from Edale to Hebden Bridge is just under half of the race, ending at the only significant checkpoint at Hebden Bridge.
Day 1: Edale to Oaken Clough (near Crowden)
I had decided to use public transport to get to and from the Pennine Way as there are convenient stations at both Edale and Hebden Bridge. Unfortunately, a late train meant I missed my connection and didn’t reach Edale until 3pm. I was feeling tired after a day of travelling, but as soon as I set out up the road towards the Pennine Way my spirits lifted and I started to look forward to the adventures ahead.
I headed past the Old Nag’s Head Pub which marks the start of the Pennine Way, and then across the fields towards Upper Booth Farm, meeting lots of walkers heading down to Edale after a day out in the hills. I enjoyed passing Upper Booth Farm which is one of my favourite campsites and then pressed on up towards Kinder Scout. I was carrying a very heavy pack as I had three days’ worth of supplies for both me and my dog, but I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable my new OMM Classic 32 rucksack felt and despite carrying around 12kg I was still able to manage a steady jog on any flat or downhill sections.
It was still very warm and I was sweating buckets as I tackled the steep climb up Jacob’s Ladder and up to the top of Kinder Scout. The views from the top were beautiful and I made good progress across to Kinder Downfall on the bouldery path and then around towards Bleaklow. I was drinking lots and was very glad to have brought a Sawyer Water Filter with me, which allowed me to filter safe drinking water from the very peaty streams. The midges were now out in force on a humid evening, but as long as I kept moving I avoided getting bitten.
The climb up to Bleaklow follows a sunken dyke, which provides respite from the exposed moorland, but also makes it difficult to tell when you are close to reaching the top. The climb itself is not particularly arduous and there are several Pennine Way marker stones to keep you on track, so I had soon reached Bleaklow Head and began to make my way down to Torside Reservoir. I had looked forward to picking up the pace on the long descent, but actually this section involved narrow tracks through the heather, with plenty of hidden rocks doing their best to trip me up, and was probably slower going than the ascent! I was feeling tired as I came down to the reservoir, although a brief run in with a startled cow in a rhododendron bush got the adrenaline flowing and woke me up again!
It was now getting late and I decided to push on past Crowden and then find somewhere to camp for the night. I had some idea of the terrain after Crowden as I had run in this area for the New Chew Fell Race and I thought that I should be able to find a suitable wild camping spot here. Although it was still a glorious evening, I knew that the weather was due to turn and wanted to find a spot that would be reasonably sheltered from the forecast rain and high winds. Thankfully I found a perfect spot on the way up to Laddow Rocks and was able to pitch my tent for a well earned rest having covered 19 miles on the first day.
Day 2: Oaken Clough to Hebden Hey
When I woke in the morning the weather was transformed from the day before and I was greeted by low cloud and strong winds. Fortunately my chosen camp site was very sheltered and I was able to pack up the tent without any issues.
Once I set out on the climb up to Laddow Rocks and then around to Black Hill I discovered that there was a strong and cold wind blowing and I had to pick my way carefully along the bouldery single track to avoid being blown over. The next section to Black Hill was wet and boggy, but felt properly wild and I felt a sense of exhilaration to be out on the remote moorland in some pretty wild weather!
I crossed the A635 at Wessenden Head and then enjoyed the descent on good tracks past the reservoirs, before tackling the steep climb up Blakely Clough to Black Moss Reservoir. I was now feeling hungry and the wet and windy weather made it difficult to stop for any length of time on the moors, so I decided to take around a mile detour off the Pennine Way to the Carriage House pub near Redbrook Reservoir. However, to my annoyance, I reached the pub only to discover that it is not open on Tuesdays; a completely wasted detour.
There was nothing for it but to press on, and after a brief stop for a bit of food and to empty the various bits of moorland detritus from my shoes, I made my way along Millstone Edge and over White Hill. This part of the Pennine Way felt slightly strange, as although still crossing mostly exposed and wild moorland, it was at times very close to some quite built up areas. This was then further emphasised as I came to the crossing of the M62. With the strong winds and fast moving traffic it was not a very pleasant experience crossing the high footbridge and I kept my eyes resolutely fixed on the far side until I was safely across!
I had a nice run along Blackstone Edge, but was now feeling rather tired and a bit battered from the wind and rain, so was looking forward to a stop off at the White House pub at Blackstone Edge reservoir. No such luck! I arrived at the pub to discover that not only do they not allow dogs, they were also just closing (at 3pm). I felt pretty fed up at this point, but after a brief sit down on a bench outside the pub I pulled myself together and got going again.
The next section was rather odd, as the Pennine Way has currently been diverted to allow work to Warland Reservoir and workmen were also working high up on the massive pylon line that crosses the Way here. It was bizarre to see such a hive of activity after the quiet and isolation of the moors; it was a relief to return to peace and quiet as I headed around to Stoodley Pike!
I had been looking forward to passing this iconic monument and despite the low cloud and poor visibility it did not disappoint, looming into view and then refusing to appear any closer for several miles. I had hoped to be able to find a wild camping spot up on the moors, but with the rather wild weather decided that I needed to be lower down. However, I was now on the approach to Hebden Bridge and it was going to prove difficult to find anywhere to camp. I pressed on through the farmland and continued to follow the Pennine Way as it passes through the outskirts of Hebden Bridge. The Spine Race checkpoint is actually some way north of Hebden Bridge at the Scout Hut at Hebden Hey and the last few miles to approach this are tough going, with some deceptively tricky descents and short but steep climbs to cross the River Calder and Colden Clough, before a diversion from the Pennine Way and another awkward path takes you down to the Scout Hut.
Thankfully I was able to find a spot to camp as I approached the Scout Hut, but the midges were out in force, necessitating some very rapid organisation before I retreated safely inside my tent, satisfied at having covered another 30 miles and with just a short plod to the station required in the morning to complete my adventure.
Thoughts for the Spine Challenger
It was great to get out on the Pennine Way with around 6 months to go to the race; it has really clarified the factors I need to consider to be successful in the race itself. These were the three most significant factors identified on my recce:
1. The terrain is relentless
Although there are constant ascents and descents on the Pennine Way, the more significant difficulty seems to be the nature of the terrain. This section was particularly notable for its bouldery and rocky paths, which make it difficult to get into any sort of rhythm as you pick your way through. Although navigation was straightforward in daylight, I imagine it will also be tricky to pick out the path in the dark, or in bad visibility. There were also some boggy sections (and no doubt plenty more in January), as well as single track trods, all of which make for slow going.
2. The weight is significant
Although I was probably carrying more kit on my recce than I will on the actual race (enough to be self sufficient for me and my dog), the kit requirements mean that I will be carrying considerably more weight than on a standard ultra race. I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable my OMM Classic 32 pack felt, but getting out and training with the weight will be crucial.
3. Food and water are scarce
This section does not provide any real opportunities to replenish food or water, which is a significant factor for someone who struggles with both eating and drinking while running.
I was very glad to have taken my Sawyer Water Filter with me, as my only source of water top ups was from peaty streams. This will be less of an issue during the race as the organisers provide some water top ups at road crossings; however I will need to consider how I can make the water more palatable, rather than drinking a lot of coke and squash as I normally would in a race. On my recce I used Mountain Fuel, with half a sachet per 600ml bottle; this worked well, but I need to try out some alternatives to give me other options (as I am prone to going off the taste of things during a race).
With little chance to replenish food before Hebden Bridge, I will also need to carry everything I need for the first half of the race from the start. On the second day of my recce I had a significant dip as I approached Hebden Bridge as a result of a lack of calories (in particular substantial real food). I need to try out lots of calorie dense foods that are easy to transport and consume.
With 6 months to go, addressing these areas will significantly increase my chances of finishing the race.