The Spine Challenger: Part 2 Into the Dales

You can read the first part of my Spine Challenger account here.

Hebden Hey to Ponden Reservoir (11 miles)

The climb out of the checkpoint was far easier than expected and I felt really refreshed for the short sleep. I hadn’t been able to fit waterproof socks on with the change of shoes, so crossing Heptonstall Moor my feet were immersed in the freezing cold bogs for the first time which came as a bit of a shock! The navigation is straightforward around Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and up to Top Withens and I led a small group, setting a strong pace (one of them may have described it as a route march, but I’m taking that as a compliment!). We came down to Ponden Reservoir as dawn broke and were treated to a fabulous sight; a local café had set up a small stall down by the reservoir with chairs and a fire pit. I sat by the fire and had a cup of coffee, along with some more of my brioche – a brilliant start to the day!

Ponden Reservoir to Lothersdale (8 miles)

I hadn’t been looking forward to the sharp climb up onto Ickornshaw Moor, but was in such a good mood after Ponden that it passed in a flash. Just before the gate onto the moor I passed someone asleep in their bivvy bag; I wasn’t sure if I ought to check on them, but all their kit looked in good order and I figured they probably wouldn’t thank me for waking them so left them in peace.

I may be the only person, but I absolutely love Ickornshaw Moor! I pushed on happily on my own, mixing fast walking with a bit of running and enjoying the solitude of the moor in the morning gloom with only the grouse for company. Coming down to Cowling I knew that we were required to take a long diversion off the Pennine Way but was slightly confused as it was not signed. I took it anyway, but then was irritated later on to discover that some runners hadn’t bothered and had taken the much shorter direct route on the Pennine Way itself.

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Bogs on Ickornshaw Moor

I had expected a Mountain Rescue water point in Cowling, but there was nobody there; it didn’t matter though as it was only another couple of miles to Lothersdale and the legendary Hare and Hounds pub.

The fields across to Lothersdale passed quickly, but I was now in need of some hot food and was delighted to reach the sanctuary of the Hare and Hounds pub. The pub is currently being refurbished, but they had brought in outside catering to feed hungry Spine racers. I asked for a sausage, only to receive 3 or 4 of them in a burger bun, and had a big mug of coffee. There was a fabulous atmosphere in the pub; it was warm and cosy and the landlord had the live tracking up on a screen and was busy putting names and faces to dots!

I also used the stop to record a birthday message for my son, Isaac. It was his 7th birthday and he had been brilliantly supportive about me missing his birthday to run this race. The thought of what all of my family were sacrificing for me to be here certainly added an extra layer to my determination to finish.

Lothersdale to Gargrave (8 miles)

Buoyed up again by the atmosphere in the pub I headed up the road, passing the local mole catcher armed with a fearsome looking trap (only in Yorkshire…). He looked at me in a very bemused manner and commented “And you’ve all paid to do this?!!” which only made me smile more. Approaching Pinhaw Beacon I met a racer who seemed to be going through a bad patch and was looking very despondent; thankfully some 500m further on I also met a member of the Spine Safety Team on their way out to check on them. It was a good reminder that although this race at times makes you feel as though you are alone in the wilderness, there is fantastic safety back-up there when you need it.

I enjoyed crossing Pinhaw Beacon, but the next section of the Pennine Way is frankly dire, an endless series of muddy cattle fields and muddier farms. I was struggling to motivate myself to push the pace and was getting slower and slower. I stopped by the canal in East Marton to add more layers and thicker gloves as I was starting to feel cold with the slower pace; this helped me feel better, but I still wasn’t managing to go much faster.P1070228

I had been looking forward to the diversion onto the road approaching Gargrave, but the hard surface jarred my legs and shoulders and my pack felt heavy for the first time. I had planned to just nip into the Co-op in Gargrave for food, but I saw that the Dalesman café was still open and decided that I needed to have a proper sit down and sort myself out. The Spine Safety Team in Gargrave came over for a chat to see how I was and warned me that the forecast overnight storms would be arriving earlier and were now expected from about 9pm. As I sat eating a big plate of beans on toast and drinking yet another coffee, I tried to think through my current bad patch and work out what was causing it.

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Sorting myself out mentally as well as physically in the Dalesman café

I realised that I had spent the last few hours worrying about whether I should sleep at Malham Tarn checkpoint and how this would be impacted by the bad weather; this had led to me thinking too much about the race as a whole and I had simply got overwhelmed. I formulated a new strategy; I would make sure I focused on one small section at a time and wouldn’t allow myself to think about the whole race. Feeling more positive, I got my headtorch out as it would soon be dark and got ready to leave.

Gargrave to Malham Tarn (10 miles)

Feeling more positive was all well and good, but not much use on discovering that I now couldn’t walk very well. The blisters on my heels had been numb while I was moving, but now I had stopped the nerves had come back to life and were on fire. Thankfully, once I got going the pain numbed again and returned to bearable levels, but for the rest of the race every major stop would then involve around a mile of agony while my brain re-adapted to the pain of walking.

I put my new plan into action. The village of Airton was around 3 miles away; I would focus on getting there and then reward myself with a quick snack stop. I was moving well across the heavily churned up fields and teamed up with another racer as we headed up onto Eshton Moor. Time for navigation error number 2 – had I learned nothing from the previous night?! I knew that we needed to head across the field and then down to the gate by the road. My fellow racer had his GPS out and was checking the line across the field – foolishly I trusted him. It wasn’t until we reached a gate that didn’t seem right that I took matters into my own hands and checked the grid reference on my watch against the map. We hadn’t gone too far astray, but we were certainly not on the Pennine Way trace! A good reminder not to rely on others and to stick to doing my own navigation.

The road diversion into Airton was very quiet in the dark. This marked the end of my mini stage and there was a conveniently placed bench on the village green so I sat down for a moment and enjoyed a handful of sweets before marching on. Mentally I was back in control.

I set my next mini target for Malham, another 3 miles further on. Along the river to Hanlith there were quite a few racers around and headtorches going in all directions. Even though the route here should just be a case of following the river, it is difficult to stay on the correct path in the dark because of the boggy ground. Similarly, crossing the fields to Malham in the daylight is easy navigation, but much trickier in the dark to locate the gates in the fences. I took it steadily and got a big confidence boost from hitting all the gates spot on.

As I came down into Malham I was relieved to find that the public toilets were still open; the wind was now picking up and I needed a few minutes respite from the dark and cold. I ate another snack and warmed up, before setting my sights on checkpoint 1.5 at Malham Tarn.

I marched up the road towards Malham Cove with snow and sleet now starting to fall intermittently. As I followed the track down towards the cove a couple of dancing lights in the sky indicated other racers winding their way up the steep steps. Climbing up the side of the cove I entertained myself with the new game of composing an A to Z of the Spine Race and this made the climb pass surprisingly quickly. I picked my way through the limestone paving at the top and managed to follow the perfect line; it seemed so simple that I doubted myself and had to get my GPS out and double check that I had indeed reached the right gate.

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Malham Cove (taken in daylight on my recce)

The snow had now turned to sleet and rain and was getting heavier, so I sat on a rock to put on my waterproof trousers. I was glad to have got through the cove before the rain made the limestone too slippery. Heading round to Malham Tarn the rain got progressively heavier and the visibility was worsening. By the time I reached Malham Tarn I couldn’t see the tarn or more than about a metre in front of me. I got my GPS out and tried to stick to the correct path as best I could. Once the route joins the main hard track around the tarn it became easier to follow, although I still couldn’t see a thing. I was willing the gate into the woods to appear, which would hopefully then provide a little shelter and would mean I was nearly at the checkpoint.

Then the woods appeared, and not much later there were lights, and then I was into a very steamy checkpoint in a small building at the back of the field centre. This was what is known in Spine parlance as a ‘half’ checkpoint; we could stay inside here for 30 minutes, were provided with hot water and could bivvy outside if we wanted. I was feeling wide awake and decided to push on. I took advantage of the available hot water to eat a high calorie dehydrated meal to give me an energy boost for what was to come and then got well wrapped up with yet another layer (I was now up to 5 layers on my top half) and my heavy duty waterproof gloves. Another Challenger called Andy was preparing to leave at the same time and suggested that given the conditions we should team up for the next leg over Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent; this seemed a very sensible plan and so we gritted our teeth and headed back out into the rain and wind.

Malham Tarn to Horton in Ribblesdale (11 miles)

I again found it hard to get going after the stop, but was starting to move better as we reached the turn off the field centre driveway. Inconveniently my headtorch batteries chose this moment to run out only about 10 minutes from the checkpoint, but we quickly got them changed and decided it was better to happen here than on Fountains Fell!

As we began to climb the weather was fierce, with strong winds blowing me sideways, torrential rain and thick fog. The Fountains Fell path is fairly easy to follow, but it is a long climb at the best of times and with zero visibility and no points of reference it went on forever. Andy led the way and for the next hour or so my view remained the same, Andy silhouetted in the light of our headtorches as we marched on and on… and on and on and on…

I knew there was a sign warning of mine workings just before the summit and was willing it to appear. Finally it emerged from the gloom, then we were at the top and there was just the small obstacle of the large stepped stile in the summit wall to negotiate. My right leg had seized up from bracing against the wind and Andy was struggling with pain in his knees, so we looked more like geriatrics than ultra-runners, but we both struggled over inelegantly and began the treacherous descent. Patches of ice, sections of sloppy, slithery mud, rocks, limestone and boggy fellside; Fountains Fell was doing its best to make conditions as perilous as it could. We were now facing straight into the wind and rain; I tried putting on my goggles to protect my eyes, but with the thick fog as well I couldn’t see a thing and had to just put up with being lashed by the rain. I remembered this as a relatively short descent, but it took us forever. Andy was descending better than me, but was a total gentleman and stuck to my pace and we finally reached the road before Pen-y-Ghent.

From here we had around a mile on the road to Dale Head and the conditions if anything got worse. Sleet and rain were being driven straight into our faces by the strong wind and we couldn’t hear each other speak. We dived behind a wall for a quick bite to eat but instantly started shivering with cold and knew we had to just keep moving.

We reached the turn off for Pen-y-Ghent at Dale Head and were met by a Safety Team who told us that there was a diversion in place as conditions were just too dangerous to go over the summit of Pen-y-Ghent; I can’t say I was too disappointed! On we marched, thoughts of the warm café at Horton starting to loom large in our minds. The diversion took us up the flank of Pen-y-Ghent, before following the Yorkshire Three Peaks path down to Brackenbottom and round into Horton. I have been up Pen-y-Ghent from Dale Head several times, but couldn’t recognise a thing in the thick fog and driving rain. We couldn’t see the right hand bend in the track and continued following the path round to the left before quickly realising our error and searching out the correct route.

On we climbed, still unable to see a thing, until our eye was suddenly caught by something bright and yellow. An enormous temporary race sign pointed through the gate in the wall, marking the start of the diversion down to Horton. We picked up the Three Peaks route, which is nice and easy going up, but a monstrosity of a path to follow down. Hundreds of slippery steps were only interspersed with limestone escarpments, with a safe route through proving difficult to spot in the poor visibility. Andy and I both skidded badly on the limestone, but miraculously stayed on our feet. As we reached the bottom of the path we were shown how to do it by Spine Race leader Jim Mann, who came flying down the hillside looking completely balanced and composed.

We seemed to march through Horton for ages, willing the café to appear, but at last there were lights and people and we had made it.

Entering the café Andy caused great amusement by apologising for dripping water on the floor. The hospitality here was again amazing; I was spoilt for choice, but chose a breakfast of bean and vegetable stew, a pint of squash and a huge mug of coffee. It was nearly 6am and would soon be light; I felt good and was looking forward to attacking the last 16 miles to the finish at Hardraw.

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About to leave the Pen-y-Ghent café in Horton (photo by Racing Snakes)

Horton to Finish (16 miles)

I set out on my own (although Andy would later pass me to finish strongly). I was very sore and hobbled slowly out of the café; the race photographer took my photo and commented that he didn’t need to worry about me blurring the shot! My GPS had now died and I had run out of replacement batteries, having completely underestimated how long they would last in the cold and wet conditions. Thankfully I knew the route was straightforward from here to the finish. Dawn broke as I reached the section shared between the Pennine Way and the 3 Peaks route. The visibility had now improved, but the rain continued to fall. The ground was sodden and the rivers were in spate; I had to negotiate several tricky river crossings, including one up to my thighs.

I kept a careful look out for the sneaky left turn off the main track on Birkwith Moor and maintained a steady rhythm round Cave Hill and past Ling Gill, admiring the spectacular series of waterfalls cascading through the narrow gorge.

I climbed strongly up to the junction with the Dales Way and then out of nowhere I was suddenly overcome by sleepiness. In hindsight I think that this was probably the result of infection starting to kick in; 60 miles of running through muddy, boggy conditions with raw skin on my heels had led to infected blisters and it was now having a big impact on my ability to keep moving forward. Despite now being on good ground, and even tarmac on the Cam High Road, I just got slower and slower. I started to be passed by other Challengers and more of the leading Spine racers, but I still couldn’t shake the lethargy.

Coming round the flanks of Dodd Fell it was very exposed and I was getting colder and colder, but still couldn’t shake off the sleepiness and move any faster; even thoughts of the now approaching finish didn’t bring the usual burst of adrenaline. The ground became increasingly muddy and awkward, but I reassured myself that we would soon be joining the Cam Road (a diversion to prevent too much erosion through the bogs and mud of Ten End) and that the going should be easier. Oh how wrong I was! The Cam Road is about as far from a road as it is possible to be; it appeared to be truckloads of rubble, dumped within an enclosed channel. With the torrential rain this rubble now sat on a bed of loose mud and closely resembled a landslide. I picked my way gingerly down, the only saving grace being that the treacherous terrain did help to wake me up a bit.

It was a massive relief to finally reach the road in Gayle. There were a few bemused walkers and locals around and interacting with people made me start to feel more awake – although I don’t think one couple believed me when I said that we had come from Edale! I was back into a better rhythm leaving Hawes. Vicky Hart came running past managing to pick up the pace for the finish, but my heels were way too painful for any running now.

I picked my way round the flooded road on the verge and then it was the last stretch across the fields to Hardraw. The race photographer was jumping around taking pictures and making me feel like a minor celebrity! I think he was slightly surprised I had made it having seen how I was walking leaving Horton!

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Starting to smile! Crossing the fields to Hardraw (photo by Racing Snakes)

I was smiling now, knowing I had made it. Coming into Hardraw I tried to run for the line, but my body was having none of it and I only managed a couple of steps. It made no difference though, within a few steps I had reached the finish and was receiving my medal; one of the proudest moments of my life.

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At the finish

There was time for hugs all round, from my parents who had come to pick me up, and from some of the Spine team who had helped me along my journey and now felt like old friends.

I took my shoes off and hobbled inside to warm up, and then had a bit of a wobble! I was cold and started shivering, but when checked also had a high temperature. The medics examined my feet and discovered that my blisters were now infected. I was brilliantly looked after and waited on hand and foot by the medics, finish team and my long suffering parents. Having been changed into warm, dry clothes, wrapped in a sleeping bag and given copious amounts of hot food, antibiotics and paracetamol, I soon felt better. It was a wrench to tear myself away from the Spine bubble and head home, with infected areas marked up on my legs, a day’s worth of antibiotics from the medics and strict instructions to get a full course of antibiotics from my GP. (10 days on the blisters and infection have completely healed – thanks Exile Medics for the excellent treatment).

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Blistered and infected heels and ankles at the finish

Reflections on the Spine Race

Competing in the Spine Challenger is totally different to a normal ultra-marathon; this is a race where an average of 3mph will generally earn you a podium place. It is brutal and relentless; the rough, technical terrain, harsh weather, long hours of darkness (15 or 16 hours in every 24) and heavy backpack all take their toll as much as the distance itself.

But what makes the Spine races special is the community around them, from the Mountain Rescue Teams and Safety Teams on the course, to the checkpoint staff, medics, local communities and all the dot watchers back home. Every racer on the start line is swept up by the Spine family and willed on to the finish. It’s a mighty secret weapon in your personal struggle with the Pennine Way and an amazing memory that will remain with me for a long time.

 

 

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