Difficult one this….. It’s all to easy to start off by saying that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But each and every challenge has it’s own hurdle to jump and that seems to be what has happened to me this far. I do a race and there is always one thing that stands out as a bit of a hurdle to get over during it. For example, if it’s a hilly race then there is usually a nice steep ascent or descent towards the end when your legs are screaming for mercy and feel like they’re made from rubber (not expensive rubber I might add but the cheap stuff that drops to pieces easily). These however, are usually the result of a sadistic Race Director who giggles uncontrollably when race route planning and delights in seeing athletes crossing the finish line with the said ‘cheap rubber legs’. So what happens if you take an already challenging route, The Pennine Way, plan a linear race along it in the depths of winter and let mother nature take care of placing some more hurdles whenever she feels like it?
Well, you end up with a race that is so difficult that usually over half of the racers either don’t finish or have to retire due a wide variety of injuries from hypothermia to cartilages popping out of their knees. Welcome to the ‘Spine Race’. From the mind of Scott Gilmour (Race Director) it is a race of two parts along the Pennine Way in the depths of winter. One long and one shorter. The long race is the ‘Full Spine’ – 268 miles from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in 7 days and the shorter race ‘The Spine Challenger’ is 108 miles in 60 hours starting in Edale and finishing in Hawes. Both races follow the route of the Pennine Way and have their own challenges be it either distance or tight timings, together of course with everything else mother nature decides to test you with.
My choice of race was the Spine Challenger. Partly down to work commitments and partly due to a bit of fact finding before jumping in at the deep end. I’ve divided the race into 2 legs as it’s easier to explain than day by day as I really can’t remember what day was what during the race! ( I hope you’ve got a brew as it’s a long one)
Leg One: Edale to Hebden Bridge (Checkpoint one)
After a somewhat uneasy nights sleep at the Edale youth hostel all of us racing in the Challenger made our way down to the start line for a 06:30 start. The previous afternoon / evening had been taken up with safety briefings, mandatory kit checks, documentation etc to validate our entry and check we were suitable to start. This in itself is a rather chaotic process but all adds to the experience nevertheless. I’d had a pretty straight forward journey on the train to Edale and had bumped into a few other fellow racers including Eoin Keith and ‘Spine Racer’ Dave Lee. A veteran of the race and he told me about the delights that we could expect on our journey. As I looked around the train it was apparent that many of us where indeed heading for Edale. There was a huge pile of bags and each of us clung to a small lightweight pack like it was the last thing we’d ever hold. Anyway back to the story. With the weather forecast of wet and windy or should I say gale force winds and heavy rain we all made our way down to the start line in a muddy field next to the village hall. As if by magic the wind and rain upped their game a bit more just as we set off at a slightly delayed start of about 0643. It was pitch black as we started and the weather was doing as much as it could to discourage us (Mother Nature and her hurdles). But with all of us looking like we had just come out of a chapter from Ernest Shackletons diary set off into the darkness we did without regard. Our start time was 3 hours before the long race start but unbeknown to us they had to postpone their start due to bad weather!!! The train of racers moved swiftly up through the village of Edale and onto the start of the Pennine Way. Just over a week earlier we had been staying in Derbyshire and walked this part of the route and it was snow covered and icy. Today it was a muddy bog with winds blowing so strongly it was taking people off their feet. We battled on and at one point the wind took my hood off and nearly my headtorch with it. It was hell! It seemed like an eternity until we made the foot of the first big climb up Jacobs Ladder onto the Kinder Plateau. There was some respite from the wind on the climb but nearing the top going past Edale rocks it began to blow like nothing I’ve experienced before. The visibility was really poor and I was focusing my mind on making sure that I didn’t veer off course by checking the map and gps constantly. I’d caught two other racers up (John & David) whom I’d had the pleasure of chatting with on Friday night. They where here for their second go after an unsuccessful attempt the previous year. We approached Kinder Downfall. Now as you’d expect by the name it’s one huge waterfall and it is very impressive in full flow. But I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! The water was actually not going over the water fall but being blown back up and into the sky!!!! The noise was deafening and the spray off it was unbelievable. We had to find a river crossing point quite a way from it just so that we didn’t get blown over into the water and swept off into oblivion. The three of us trudged on towards Snake Pass on what seemed to be a never ending path of the all to familiar slightly submerged famous Pennine Way stone slabs. They are notorious for being slippery as we all found out at one point or another along the way and those that dare step off them risk disappearing forever into a deep brown gloop of a bog! Surprisingly the wind subsided for a short time and the sun even came out! I took the opportunity to take off my Gore-Tex over mitts, empty the water out, turn them inside out and hang them off me to dry. I’d been reluctant to remove them earlier as the water inside had warmed up and was keeping my hands warm.
Arriving at the road crossing at Snake Pass we were asked if everything was ok by some of the safety team and told that the weather was about to change. Again as if by magic and on demand a flurry of snow fell that quickly turned into sideways hailstones that threatened to blast any exposed skin off your bones. Now we were heading towards Bleaklow along the ‘Devils Dike’. This is probably my least favourite section as for miles and miles you trudge relentlessly along a stream that winds its way up onto the Bleaklow and Shining Clough Moss. I started to have a real down patch and began slipping behind John and David and eventually let them go on ahead. After the ascent up Devils Dike there is a really unpleasant descent towards Torside Clough. I was now having a really hard time of it. Being alone didn’t bother me, neither did the navigation as I’d done a reccy of this, and that was the problem! Several weeks earlier back in November I’d done this exact route and on the descent I’d gone over on my left ankle severely damaging a lateral ligament, leaving me on crutches and almost having to withdraw from this race. The demons had arrived early! As it happened the weather lifted and yet again the sun came out lifting my spirit and allowing me to push on again. So I did. Down to Torside reservoir I wondered just how I’d made it down there weeks earlier with my ankle in bits as it was a treacherous route at the best of times. Eventually I found John and David having a brew at the side of the reservoir (Needless to say being Yorkshire men they didn’t offer me one, hah!) so I joined them briefly before they departed leaving me to sort myself out and have a breather. That done I pressed on once more up towards Wessenden Head. I’d now caught up with another group of racers and joined them for the next part. I’d also met a couple who were out for a bit of a stroll and asked me why what we were all doing. I tried to explain in easy terms but I might have confused them even more when they replied with comments of ‘you’re doing what to where, and how far away?’
Anyway I joined the pair of racers. This time it was Emiko and Dominic. I tagged along behind for several miles just generally chatting and moving forward. These guys had been on the pre race training weekend and had done some of the route I didn’t know but I had said that I knew the route from Blackstone Edge all the way to Hawes so I knew if we worked together we’d be in for a finish. We made good progress along down towards Wessenden Head and we were joined by Andy who had not been able to start the race but had also been on the training weekend and knew Emiko. He had joined us for the section around the reservoirs. Prior to us meeting Andy we had a bit of a moment along the slabs around Wessenden Head Moor when Emiko had stepped off to the side and disappeared waist deep into the bog. Fortunately myself and Dominic grabbed hold of her and pulled her back out again! Pressing on again we parted from Andy when he left us in a layby to make our way towards the M62 footbridge. The weather was becoming increasingly colder and flurries of snow began to fall again. It seemed to take forever to reach footbridge over the M62. Many times have I passed underneath this iconic bridge and always wondered what it would be like to cross it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be in a winter race going over it. Looking down it was strange to see everyone going about their business in their warm cars not even noticing 3 head torches trotting across the bridge back into the pitch dark bitter night.
We were making good time and our intended eta at CP1 was looking good. I would be good enough to get an hours sleep at least. Crossing Blackstone Edge I was feeling confident of our progress and I knew when we reached the Whitehouse Pub I knew pretty much all of the route to Hawes. It was bitterly cold and still lightly snowing but we were joined by the moon occasionally popping out from behind the clouds. We arrived at the pub and fell inside to feel the warmth and smell of food. After changing batteries in head torches and gps and downing several pints of coke, orange and bowls of chips we were ready to go again. Another racer ‘Basil’ asked to join us to the CP. We were now 4. Outside the pub it seemed even colder and the snow was still lingering in the air. We set off at a good pace with me leading and apart from a slight error we started to make our way sprightly towards CP1. It was an eerie feeling being out there ( the film ‘American Werewolf’ was at the forefront of my mind) being battered by the piercing wind with the moon shining an orange glow on us casting intermittent long shadows of four strangers who seemed to be totally dependant on each other to keep going. I absolutely love this and it’s something that is so hard to explain to most people, the camaraderie amongst racers is priceless . Pushing on we crossed Stoodley Pike and dropped down towards Charlsetown. We were in grasping distance of CP1 but for the hell of a climb up and then the descent down to Hebden Hey Scout / Activity centre.It was heaven to see the support staff smiling and being so helpful to us. Baked potatoes and chilli with gallons of tea was thrust upon us and anything else we needed.
Leg Two: Hebden Bridge (CP1) to Hawes (the Spine Challenger Finish) – you might need another brew at this point
Between us we had agreed to leave at 06:30 so I headed off to grab an hours sleep( I think it was nearer to 20 mins) and get my fresh shoes and kit. 06:30 came quickly but I felt fresh again, especially with a full set of new kit on. Jokingly we had decided to have a dry shoe day! ie lets try and keep our feet dry as long as possible. I think that lasted about 10 minutes! Moving along over towards Walshaw Dean, Top Withins and Oakworth it seemed to fly past. Two friends, Chris & Paul had met us before we went onto Oakworth Moor. Chris had a flask and gave me some coffee and it might as well have been a £400 bottle of champagne it tasted so good. I mentioned that we had now just about done half of the distance.
This spurred us on immensely and we headed off for Ickornshaw Moor. The terrain would change soon and we would be mainly travelling through agricultural land on footpaths. Now that sounds great until you add cattle and sheep. The ground would become increasingly wet and churned up by livestock. Navigation would become increasingly difficult going from field to field. As we passed the various road crossings and small hamlets my friend Paul kept on popping up and taking pictures of us and to be honest this was just a real boost to morale and certainly gave me more and more confidence that we would be in Hawes for Monday. Having done an extensive reccy I knew that there was another pub in Lothersdale that we could stop for food. This was turning out to be one great sadistic pub crawl!!! On reaching the pub the Landlord insisted that we come in as we were because he’d put carpet protection down on his floor for us racers. This seems to be a bit of a theme. Everyone along the way wants to help and accommodate us and make sure we keep going. So we settled for a huge meal and yet more coke, orange and hot chocolate before moving on. In the pub there was another racer tucking into a full Sunday roast. Unfortunately he was out with a knee problem and the medics were tending to him. It was a bit of a wake up as I remembered him from sharing a dorm with him in the YHA. It just goes to show that you never know when fate will deal its hand and your race is over.
Leaving the warmth of the pub it was apparent that there was a change in weather. It was really overcast and lightly raining. Little did I know that shortly this was about to nearly be my undoing for the first time. I remembered from my reccy in June that we had to cross Thornton Moor and in June it was blowing a gale and bitterly cold. I also remember thinking to myself this will be hell in January. And it Was!!! Mother Nature had carefully positioned another hurdle. I knew exactly the route and how long it would take to reach Thornton-in-Craven. On the moor the wind was unbearable the rain was exceptionally heavy and it was almost dark. My trusty ‘Buffalo’ clothing was beginning to get soaked and then I started to get cold, very cold. Because of the design of the clothing usually if you can keep moving you can generate enough heat to keep warm. I was now running and getting colder! Initially I was shivering and not too worried but then I’d started to violently shiver and also being tired I couldn’t focus on my map, gps or even my surroundings. Water was now running out of my sleeves and into my gloves. The clothing had failed and was now cooling me even further. Everything going on in my head was telling me that the inevitable onset of Hypothermia was with me and I had to get warm and dry. I’d told everyone else and my goal was to reach Thornton-in -Craven, find shelter and get into dry clothes. I only remember bits of the journey but I managed to find an archway between two houses and quickly change my top layers. Annoyed with myself my companions reassured me that it wasn’t a problem and we were ready to fight again.
it was now totally dark and we had picked up some more racers and at one point there was about six or seven of us. I still knew the terrain and with a bit of careful map reading and remembering the footpaths we were well on our way to Malham. The route briefly joins the Leeds – Liverpool Canal and eventually after Gargrave joins the River Aire all of the way to Malham. The journey was straight forward but really hard going underfoot with the amount of residual water lying on the banks of the river. At one point it was knee deep! Coupled with the endless cattle fields and mud it was relentless. I made a suggestion that we should take shelter in the pub in Malham for a while and have a hot drink. This was a bit of incentive for us all to push on before closing time. I’d made a bit of distance on the others and reached Malham only to find one of the pubs in darkness! I tried the other pub and it too was closing (22:30)! Apparently Sunday hours. I had no idea what day it was let alone opening hours of pubs! Anyway with a bit of persuasion the Landlord allowed us in for half an hour and sold us cold drinks and crisps. I took advantage of this and swapped my socks to sealskinz with a pair of thin wool socks as a liner before heading out into the night once more. Heading off towards Malham Cove I mentioned that we had lots of steps and a rather tricky crossing of the rock formations on top of the cove. I had done a detailed reccy of this part and knew it well so I had a nice easy route worked out across the rocks. The wind had now picked up again and was increasingly making forward progress difficult. We reached the road crossing just short of the Tarn and started our final trek to CP1.5 at Malham Field Centre. Passing the Tarn it was unbelievable to see the water being blown over us and the size of the waves crashing against the shore of the Tarn. At last we reached CP1.5 and found respite from the rapidly deteriorating weather. Inside we were greeted by John Bamber and his crew. Instantly the kettle was on and it was hot brews all around. We had decided to stay for a couple of hours and leave just before daybreak. I had a shake down of my kit and tried to grab a few minutes sleep outside in my bivy bag. I found a bench under cover and got into my bag. I’d also put a couple of handwarmers in my jacket to take the chill off. It didn’t last long, I was back inside not knowing if I’d been to sleep or not. But the four of us had decided to leave so we donned our kit and as we signed out a message came in from the Safety Team and said that nobody should leave because of the severe weather coming in (Another one of those hurdles). In effect the race was stopped. We waited for about 3 hours until the weather had moved on and we were released from the checkpoint. After many more brews and lots to eat we were off again. For safety reasons the route had been changed to miss the summit of Pen-y-Gent so that would give the legs a little rest from the climbing up the near vertical ascent up it. Making our way up towards Fountains Fell the weather really had started to hit us hard with driving rain and high winds. I was feeling the cold now and starting to shiver again. I pushed on alone knowing that if I didn’t move faster I might be in the grips of hypothermia. This was my second warning but now I didn’t have any dry clothes, only my saturated Buffalo top. I was getting blown all over the place and getting colder. My down jacket was soaked and had no insulation whatsoever now! I knew from my reccy that on the descent there was a place near a small cliff that was sheltered from the wind. Crossing the summit of the fell I was convinced that coming towards me was a huge figure of a man, a giant even! It was difficult to see with the cloud and rain but this huge silhouette was getting closer! I had some clear glasses to put on for eye protection but my hands were so cold I couldn’t open the zips on my front pack to get them out. I realised that it wasn’t a giant at all but one of the huge cairns (piles of rocks). I knew now that I was fatigued and cold. My mind was playing tricks on me. On reaching the shelter of the cliff I took the decision to put my saturated Buffalo back on. It was a nightmare with cold hand and the uncontrollable shivering. It took my breath away putting the cold fleece next to my skin but this was my only chance. Now I had to move quickly and get out of the cloud, wind and rain. The others had now caught up and we made haste with our descent. Thankfully as we descended the rain stopped and the fierce wind was now drying me. We picked up the pace and made our way along the diverted route to Horton-in-Ribblesdale crossing the edge of Pen-y-Gent. We decided to stop at the café for a warm and food. Many more racers had the same idea and the place was awash with wet kit and tired, battered bodies. But I knew we had only around 20 ish miles to the finish and this was a definite morale boost and a milestone. Fed and watered we exited the homely, warm confines of the café for the last push. Feeling totally refreshed I explained to my fellow racers that navigation was simple and I was going to get a bit of a wiggle on.It was strange being alone but I was totally comfortable and at one with my surroundings. I knew the route and I knew I would finish. It was the first time I’d thought about what we had just done and the experiences we had all had. It was uplifting and I felt a sense of achievement just getting this far. Some people call it ‘Flow’. A time when you are out running and you are completely immersed in the experience. Well if that’s what it is then I was experiencing it. Nothing mattered I was distant from myself and before I knew it I had covered many miles and found myself on Cam High Road. A single track that is straight as an arrow crossing the fells and I knew lead me almost to the point I would descend down into Hawes. I took the opportunity to play some music and spookily one of the first tracks was ‘Highway to Hell’. Immediately I found myself standing on the start line of MdS! I reminisced about that experience and tried to compare it to what I was doing now. There was no comparison this was totally different in it’s own way. MdS was a wonderful experience and I’ve gained some great friends from it but this was ‘Brutal’ and the description of relentless is a term commonly used to descried our experience. Were as on MdS there’s time each day to regroup and rest – no such luxury here. I started to drop down off Rottenstone Hill and made my way through the many bogs. It was now pitch dark and my head torch gave a confusing impression of the ground. It made it look like it was flat and dry. In fact it was mostly knee deep bog! As I eventually reached the tarmac of Gaudy Lane I was beginning to be overwhelmed by the experience and some dust must have blown into my eyes for I knew that within a short time it would all be over. I wondered how many people had been watching my lowly tracker progress towards Hawes. I approached the paved section that lead down into Hawes and I spotted a head torch heading my way. Then I recognised the familiar voice of my friend Darren. I can’t explain just how happy I was to see him. Darren was one of the Mountain Safety Team Coordinators and had been following my progress on the tracker system and came out to meet me. We trotted along the street together and in the distance I could see my wife Liz, Henry Hound and my friend Paul. More dust blew into my eyes! I passed them by and went into the Market Hall to be greeted by a round of applause, some hand shaking, hugs and the promise of a brew. That was it, I’d done it! Unbelievable! It was a lot to take in. Everyone was so friendly and just wanted to get me some food or a hot drink. I felt like I’d just woken up from a dream and couldn’t believe what had just happened. I recognised many faces from the race and it was apparent we were all part of a very special family now. It’s totally different to anything I’ve ever experienced. By the nature of the event and it’s severity the camaraderie it develops is rather special. Part of me was wondering what it would be like to be carrying on attempting the Full Spine and part of me just wanted to fall over and sleep! Racers kept coming into the market hall and eventually my three friends – Emiko, Dominic & Basil came in to a round of applause. It was great to see them and glad they had finished successfully.
It leaves me just to say thank you to everyone who helped out on the race and kept us safe out there. Also a big thanks to all of my friends who supported me and watched my tracker making its way North and of course Paul for the photographs and Chris for the coffee. Last but not least my lovely wife Liz for putting up with my mad sport but mostly for just being there for me x
Photographs courtesy of http://www.paulbrownimages.com
I told you it would be a long one! Just like the race. Two weeks on – I’ve still not stopped smiling about it and I still can’t feel three of my toes. I’m already planning what I would do differently next time. Yes I’ll be there again for more. I saw a post online that somebody said that these races (The Spine & Challenger) are completed with three things equally – fitness, mindset, emotion. I can say that this is 100% true. They are all equally important and reliant on each other and for a race like this it’s essential to make sure that time is spent developing each one and using it to its best ability when called upon. Oh and that Mother nature sure knows how to put them hurdles in your way!