Like hundreds of others, for the last few years a week of early January has been devoted to watching a series of dots moving slowly northwards on a map of the UK, while avidly checking Facebook for updates on the amazing athletes making the real progress on the ground in the Spine Race and Challenger. In all honesty I initially thought they were totally mad to want to be out on the rough and boggy ground of the Pennine Way in the worst of UK winter weather. But, this is a race that somehow grabs you by the heartstrings and draws you in. Over a couple of years I started to wonder whether I too had the capability to toe that start line and deal with everything the Spine could throw at me and once I had completed my first 100 mile race at the Lakeland 100 I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the Spine had me in its grip and wasn’t letting go.
For those who have not come across it before, the Spine Challenger is very different to your average ultra marathon; covering the first 110 miles of the Pennine Way from Edale to Hardraw (near Hawes) it is more expedition challenge than standard running race. Competitors have 60 hours to cover the 110 miles and have to deal with rough and difficult terrain, long hours of darkness and extremes of winter weather, as well as carrying enough kit to be pretty much self sufficient on the route (the kit list includes a sleeping bag, stove and a minimum of 3,000kcals of food!). The Spine Challenger is the younger sibling of the Spine Race, reserved for the truly hardcore only, which starts a day later and requires racers to cover the full 268 miles of the Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in 7 days.
My preparations for the Spine Challenger had gone brilliantly until the end of November; I had recced the full route, wild camping along the way and testing my kit and my fitness was building nicely. And then things began to go wrong…
First I lost a week of training through a nasty cold, no big deal, but a slight annoyance at this stage. I got back to running just in time for a fantastic holiday to Australia for my sister’s wedding. However, after a couple of days on holiday disaster struck. I was playing in the park with my children when out of the blue my Achilles started to feel sore. It was better later, but when I ran the following morning it was very tight and grumbly. I rested for a couple of days and after no improvement decided that if I were to avoid spending the rest of the holiday being a grumpy (not) running bore then I needed to seek professional help. I managed to get an appointment with an Australian sports therapist who diagnosed Achilles tendinopathy and tight calves; a sports massage helped matters, but the Achilles was still puffy and stiff. I spent the rest of the holiday resting and doing heel drops on every set of stairs available!
On returning to the UK with 9 days to go to the start of the race I saw my own physio, who subjected me to an hour of extremely painful treatment. By the weekend things seemed to be improving and I tentatively began to make plans to be on the start line. I had another hour of treatment on the Tuesday before the race and the verdict was good, the thickening of the tendon was reducing. I finally committed to making the start line, packed my kit and made plans to deal with the train strike that was making it an undertaking in itself just to get to Edale for the start. I hadn’t run properly for 6 weeks, but figured I wouldn’t be doing much running in this race anyway and it was time to just get on with it!
I arrived in Edale on the Friday afternoon, having shared a taxi (complete with very bemused taxi driver) and a chat with fellow Challengers, Stuart and Bob. The village hall was a hive of efficient activity, with registration, start photos and kit check all taking place in a fairly confined space. I felt reasonably calm, but when I unpacked items for the kit check I noticed my hands were shaking a bit – the adrenaline was clearly starting to kick in. My kit was checked by a lovely lady called Katy who put me at my ease; she was to become quite a feature of my race as she also looked after me further down the course!
The rest of the day passed in a whirlwind of race briefing, dinner at the Ramblers pub and Challenger Masterclass, before I retired to my room at the YHA and attempted to get an early night.
The following morning saw me arriving early to a dark Edale ready for the start at 8am. Once I had my tracker fitted to my rucksack it seemed no time at all before we were being shepherded through to the muddy field ready for the start. I spent a long time debating whether to wear my jacket; it was quite mild, but there was already a strong and cold wind blowing and I knew that this would quickly feel colder as we climbed onto the exposed plateau of Kinder Scout. The wind chill was forecast to be -12 deg C and so I opted to wear the jacket and take it steady in the early stages to avoid sweating.
I headed for the rear of the start pen in an effort not to get caught up in the mad rush at the start and found myself next to Jo Barrett and Vicky Hart. I had last run with Vicky at the Lakeland 100, while I knew of Jo from the Hardmoors race series and had randomly met her in person on a train from Horton to Hebden Bridge when we were both out doing recces. The Challenger was the next step up the ultra ladder for all of us and it felt great to be setting out alongside them.
Start to Snake Pass (9 miles)
On the stroke of 8am we were off. I was chomping at the bit to get going, but restrained myself to a gentle jog through the village as most of the field charged off over the horizon. As we crossed the fields towards Upper Booth I settled into my rhythm and it felt great to finally be out there. I got my poles out as I approached the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder; I was feeling apprehensive about whether my untested Achilles would be able to cope with the climb, but although it was a bit grumbly there was no pain and I started to feel more confident.
The visibility on the top of Kinder Scout was poor and it was windy enough to require concentration (I later learned that Vicky had been blown off her feet by a strong gust up here). I settled into an easy rhythm and it seemed like no time before I was descending from Kinder and picking my way across the flagstones over Mill Hill towards Snake Pass. We were even more exposed to the wind here and it was exhilarating! I popped my hood up to protect my face and happily jogged down towards the road; it made me smile to think about all the people watching my dot back at home and that I was actually here – a part of the famous Spine Race!
Snake Pass to Torside Reservoir (8 miles)
Other than a quick greeting, I went straight through the Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) water point at Snake Pass and carried on up Bleaklow. The climb is mostly within a sunken dyke which provided good shelter from the wind, as well as making the navigation straightforward. I was surprised to find that conditions were actually less boggy than on my summer recce and made good progress up to the summit, winding my way through several large family groups out for a weekend walk.
Once over the top I had prepared myself for both difficult navigation and tricky terrain on the descent and so made my way carefully down towards Torside reservoir. I was moving well, but the descent here really does go on for ever and the terrain is rough and taxing all the way down to the last small section of road at the reservoir. By the time I reached the MRT tent it was a very welcome sight and it was great to have a quick chat with the MRT guys, top up my bottles with Mountain Fuel and retrieve a brie and cranberry roll from my pack as I was starting to feel very hungry.
Torside Reservoir to Wessenden (7 miles)
It took me a long while to get going again after the checkpoint; whether it was the effort of the big descent or digesting my food, my legs felt sluggish and I couldn’t get back into my rhythm. On the steep climb up to Laddow Rocks my Achilles was grumbling again, but it had stopped by the time I reached the top and would cause me no further problems during the race.
I enjoyed the wild and exposed section along the top of Laddow Rocks and up to Black Hill, although I did take care on the narrow path having been warned that somebody had managed to take a tumble off the side here the previous year! Descending from Black Hill I could see the road at Wessenden Head for some time, although it never seemed to get any closer. Finally I made it though and it was worth it for the treat of some Haribo Tangfastics from the Spine Safety Team at the road crossing!
Wessenden to Brun Clough (5 miles)
I had spent much of this first section of the race yo-yoing with Jo Barrett and we set off down the path along the reservoirs together before she pulled away running strongly (and stormed to a fantastic finish). I jogged most of the way down on the easy path, but was starting to get some pain on the front of my left ankle so kept the pace steady and attempted to let it ease off. I kept my eyes peeled for the tricky turn off to head up Blakely Clough and then huffed and puffed my way up the steep climb out of the gully, before joining the more gentle track up to Black Moss Reservoir.
I started to feel hungry again and decided to stop for a couple of minutes to have some food (brioche with lemon curd this time) and get my headtorch out ready for the impending night section. I found a relatively mud free patch and for a glorious few moments I sat in complete silence enjoying the total isolation of the wild moors. It was moments like this that I had hoped to get from the Spine Race and it was perfect!
I couldn’t stop for long though, the clock was ticking after all and the night air was getting colder. With Buff and headtorch now on I picked my way around Black Moss Reservoir; I left the torch off as long as possible, enjoying the darkness, but needed to turn it on for the descent towards Redbrook Reservoir, before I plodded my way along to the road and another water top up from the Mountain Rescue team.
Brun Clough to White House Pub (7 miles)
The ground along Millstone Edge was a miserable jumble of boulders, mud and peat bogs. It was thoroughly frustrating to pick your way through in the dark and I then worsened my mood by making a careless navigation mistake. I was not paying enough attention and missed the right turn that the Pennine Way takes here – not helped by the fact that my GPS chose this moment for the batteries to die! I soon realised and retraced my steps, pretty furious with myself and resolving to take more care with the navigation in the dark.
I made my way over White Hill and then down to the M62 crossing. The Moor Snacks van was still there, but I decided to press on to the MRT point at the White House pub. I struggled to stay on the correct route through the wasteland leading down to the M62 and did wonder if I was going to end up going round in circles in the scrubland, but thankfully soon spotted the bridge over the motorway. The M62 provided a surreal burst of light, illuminated cars flashing by beneath me as I crossed the narrow bridge, before immediately plunging back into darkness on the far side. I enjoyed the climb up onto Blackstone Edge and it passed quickly, but I started to tire as I came down towards the White House and it was nice to be caught by another runner and enjoy a good chat as we made our way down to the car park of the pub.
The White House provided another brief reminder of the world going on outside the Spine bubble, with diners chatting over their meals in the warmth of the pub and groups coming and going enjoying their Saturday night out. The Mountain Rescue Team here could not do enough to look after me, making endless cups of hot chocolate and plying me with cake and biscuits. It was an effort to drag myself away from their hospitality, but the checkpoint of Hebden Hey was within touching distance and it was time to push on.
White House to Hebden Hey (13 miles)
The next section was very exposed and cold, but follows an easy track around the reservoirs which allowed for good progress. I marched on, enjoying watching a fireworks display taking place in the town below! All too soon though, we had to follow a diversion around Warland Reservoir because of building work on the reservoir itself and the easy track was quickly replaced by a muddy boggy mess. I picked my way through as best I could, but it was slow going and I was greatly relieved to finally rejoin the main track a mile or so later.
As I followed the flagstone path around to Stoodley Pike I started to realise that I was getting hot spots on both heels. I debated stopping to tape them, but decided that it was too cold and exposed to stop for long and that I would be better pressing on to the checkpoint in Hebden (in hindsight probably a mistake!). As I came down to the road in Hebden Bridge my heels were really starting to feel quite sore. Having been on my own on the moors for some time, it was bizarre to suddenly have quite a few people around, with fellow racers appearing and disappearing from all directions as they struggled to find the route through the maze of back streets and fields (to be fair the Pennine Way is not even very clear on the map here, let alone on the ground).
The descent to the checkpoint was as unpleasantly muddy and slippery as I had anticipated, but this was more than compensated by the great welcome from the checkpoint team. I had been in two minds about whether to stop for a sleep here, but once I took off my shoes and saw the state of my heels, I decided to allow myself the time to get them properly dealt with by the medics and have an hour’s sleep. It was great to experience the warmth, light and friendly faces in the oasis of the checkpoint after a lot of time spent on my own in the cold and dark. Olivia, Katy (from kit check) and Kim all looked after me brilliantly, while the Exile Medics team only inflicted a small amount of pain in cleaning and patching up the large raw patches of skin on my heels!
After an hour’s sleep I felt really refreshed and ready to attack the rest of the race, but first I needed to improve the situation with my feet. I had started the race wearing La Sportiva Akashas, which had been fine up to 30 miles on my recces, but were now causing me too many problems. Thankfully I had put my trusty Mizuno Wave Kazan trail shoes in my drop bag and put these on instead; although they don’t really have enough grip for a race like this I decided that the most important thing was to try and make my heels more comfortable. With shoes and gaiters on I tentatively stood up ready to leave. My heels were still sore, but the pain was manageable. 48 miles done, 62 to go…
Read Part 2 of my Spine Challenger story here.