I don’t know what made me enter the Spine Challenger, I would like to think that it was for reasons of personal growth or as part of some spiritual journey. It is more likely that it was due to too much beer and the words ‘most brutal race’ with my misguided personality trait of taking on crazy challenges. The Spine challenger is a 108 mile race up the Pennine way, it starts in the Derbyshire peak district at Edale and finishes in the Yorkshire dales in Hawes and it took place on Saturday 11th January. This is the third year of this event and according to previous results only a handful have completed this challenge in the cut off of 60 hours.
Before the run there is the kit to sort out, the essential kit list that needed to be carried at all time seemed larger than the sports section in Amazon! It included sleeping bag, bivvy/tent, stove and fuel, roll mat, two days food, spare clothes, GPS, maps ............................. etc. After a lot of searching on the internet and a dent in the bank balance I gathered all of the kit together, in the meantime James from NDRR (the bare chested one) told me about the ultimate direction running vest. This is a great piece of kit that looks as if an apple would fill it but it is like a Tardis and all of my kit fitted into it with pockets to spare.
We (my wife and I) travelled to Edale the day before as registration was on the Friday evening and in true pre-race tradition we went for a beer and my last ‘proper’ meal for a couple of days. In the pub two guys sat down near us and one of them (Dave) asked, “what are you doing tomorrow” I said that I was doing the spine challenger, he confirmed that he was as well but he wasn’t going to run with his friend (Dan) as he was going to go off too quick and as it transpired we both had similar times in mind to complete the race.
Suitably refreshed we went to the village hall for the pre-race talk, the atmosphere was nervy and as I sat down the person next to me asked “you haven’t got all your kit in that pack have you”? (I was to hear this many times over the next couple of days). The next part was a bit of a blur as there seemed to be endless people standing up in front of us telling us all of the different ways that we were going to die. Now even more apprehensive I accepted the offer to have my kit checked that night, on approaching the marshal he said “you haven’t got all of your kit in that have you”? (told you). He made me get all of the kit out and he agreed it was all there, 10 minutes later after packing it all away another marshal approached me and said “you haven’t ....................... you get the drift! I had to get it all out again and he went over it with a fine toothed comb, he also agreed it was all there and said “well done, make me proud” (I will hopefully, I thought). The relief of having the kit pass the check was immense and as a result I slept like a baby that night.
The race was due to start at 8pm and the forecast was for a largely dry and sunny but cold day, as we were waiting at the start line it started to sleet and hail. I saw Dave (from the pub) in the crowd and suggested that we run together for a while, he agreed and at 8.20pm we set off.
As we climbed to the first peak, Kinder Scout, the sleet turned to snow and the wind increased turning it into a full blown blizzard with virtually no visibility, welcome to the Pennines I thought to myself, maybe they weren’t kidding when they talked about dying up here? The snow was relentless as was the hill and it was starting to drift on the top, running with Dave I discovered that he lived locally and had either run or walked the Pennines over the years and his local knowledge was invaluable as the path disappeared in amongst the rocks and peat that we were running over. There was a tricky descent off Kinder Scout and at the bottom we saw a guy hobbling and on enquiring on his welfare discovered he fell coming down the snow covered rocks and had torn his cartilage.
My wife Lorraine was supporting me on the run and was tasked with finding me on the different roads we crossed, as we got to snake pass, marshals were present and said that there was a woman looking for me, sure enough in amongst the snow I saw Lorraine her smile, encouragement gave me a lift and the meat pie and coffee was very welcome. Off we went into the snow and gloom over endless peat bogs and boulders for mile after mile up to Bleaklow head (it was bleak) however as we started to descend it stopped snowing and the sun came out and we were treated to fantastic views over Torside reservoir. Our spirits were now high and we were making good progress gradually overtaking people along the way. There was now a long climb up to Saddleworth moor, at the top it was just a bleak expanse of open moor with ever present peat bogs.
At the top of the moor I could hear dogs howling in the distance and as we continued on our run we could constantly hear them – quite spooky! As we were approaching the road we saw a huntsman followed by a pack of hounds, relieved we then headed to the road, we saw another guy hobbling and it turned out he had slipped on the boulders and had cracked his hip but had help at the road he was approaching. We saw Lorraine for the third time at the road and with food and drink inside us our spirits lifted once more and off we went again. Dave was excellent company and it transpired that we had similar outlooks in life and relished these crazy adventures, our pace was very even and we continued to eat up the miles whilst we could in the light. The sun came down over a lake on Black Moss, it was a fantastic sunset but this also heralded the onset of hours of darkness (it was about 4.15). We were still in a positive frame of mind and continued at a reasonable pace mindful that the underfoot conditions were made trickier by the darkness.
Dave had been in touch with his girlfriend (Ally) and she had promised a bowl of chips when we met them at the next water station in the meantime we had a motorway and boulder field to navigate. It was surreal crossing the M62 in all of our gear with drivers below us oblivious to the two mad men running over the walkway. As we approached Blackstone edge the fog came down and the path disappeared in amongst the rocks and boulders, however I had put a cycle light in my pack which had a beam like a car headlight, this proved extremely useful as I could light up the area in order that we could pick our way through. With this and our GPS we navigated this area and plodded on to meet Lorraine and Ally. It was great to see them and although they had just met they seemed to be getting on really well and were also chatting to other women supporting their partners.
The chips went down a treat as did the encouragement from Lorraine and Ally who said that lots of people have been tracking us (these trackers were supplied by the organisation and proved to be excellent for anyone to track us on line). Off we went into the darkness and by now the temperature had dropped to below freezing with the main official checkpoint being the next target at Hebden Bridge. Before we got there we had steep climbs and descents to overcome, yes and more peat bogs and boulders! We arrived at the checkpoint to find that some other people had been forced to retire for various reasons we also talked to some really crazy guys that were going on to do the whole spine race (268 miles). Dave and I had decided that we wouldn’t hang around there too long so with some great food inside us and a change of clothes we were refreshed and ready for the next 60 odd miles! Leaving Hebden Bridge checkpoint at midnight our conversation turned to ice – ie neither of fancied the mixture of black ice and tricky, slabs, boulders etc therefore when we got to the top of Heppenstall Moor I took the decision to but on my Yaktrax. This was a schoolboy error as I hadn’t tried them before and whilst they were fantastic for gripping the ice I noticed that my Achilles tendons were starting to get a bit sore. Having seen several people having to withdraw due to slipping and falling I decided to persevere with the Yaktrax and put up with the Achilles.
Dave’s local knowledge came to the fore again as he pointed out as we went over Withins Height the fictional Heathcliffs home (a derelict barn). Between 4am and 8am our spirits were low and the conversation had dried up as we were both fed up with the seemingly endless darkness. We hadn’t seen anyone for ages and we were both fed up with the food we were carrying but there was no prospect of hot drink or food until we reached Gargrave unless we got our stoves out which we didn’t want to do as we wanted to keep going. However as we were coming off the moor on to farmland we were treated to an amazing sunrise with the most fantastic array of colours.
Our spirits lifted and our hunger subsided as we were travelling in the sun over frosted fields heading for the lure of hot food and drink. Lorraine had a restless night in a youth hostel and unbeknown to us had been trying to track us down since 4am. We eventually met up with Lorraine and Ally in Gargrave at 10am where the bacon butty and coffee went down a treat, they were both extremely encouraging still by telling us of all the people still tracking us and they also said that we had moved up to about 17th place in the challenger.
Refreshed in food and spirit off we went through the valley to Malham Cove, we were hoping to meet Lorraine and Ally again but we had missed each other and as we went on I could see the steps ahead out of the cove and guessed that was where we were heading. Mallam cove was every bit as stunning as Dave promised it would be and the top was like a moonscape. With the promise of the unofficial checkpoint 1.5 ahead we made good progress to Malham Tarn, it was great to see the marshals and volunteers and they were very supportive and encouraging.
Not long after Malham tarn we came across another runner sorting his kit out, it turned out to be Damian Hall who I had met at the Cotswold challenge in September (where he came 3rd) Damian was entered in the full spine race so he still had nearly 200 miles to go. Damian stayed with us as we ascented Fountains fell and during the ascent he gave us some of his lemon drizzle cake (thanks Mr Lemon Drizzle man)! but near the top he went off ahead of us. As we started the descent of this fell a group of walkers gave us some great encouragement and shared their wonderful oat cakes with us (as you can guess we were fed up with our own food supplies). Luckily we had enough daylight for the tricky/icy descent of Fountains fell and continued on to the foot of Pen-y-ghent, we caught up with Damian again at this point as he had taken a slight detour so we vowed to stay together until we got to Hawes.
With our headtorches back on we started the ascent of Pen-y-ghent, I didn’t realise that we would have to be doing some climbing/scrambling but there was no other way up and it was interesting to say the least scrambling in the dark with black ice and a howling wind. They had forecast heavy rain later in the day but we were lucky that it held off until we started to come off Pen-y-ghent but when it came it was relentless. The next section to Hawes had a section of 4 miles of continuous gradual ascent which was mind numbing in the rain and wind whilst trying to navigate across the ice. When we got to the top of this peak two volunteers had created an impromptu check point which was very welcome before we descended to Hawes. The descent went on for ages and Hawes seemed to take forever to come into sight but when it did.................... what a beautiful sight.
We had taken the wrong lane coming off the top which meant a slight detour and we had to navigate our way through the town to find the checkpoint. As we approached the check point we were greeted by Lorraine and Ally running down the road to meet us – we had made it, 108 miles of everything thing the Pennines could throw at us in 38 hours 29 minutes. Sitting down in the comfort of a warm hall with Lorraine by my side emotions got the better of me and I cried with shear relief and a sense of pride in completing this monster race. This pride increased later when I found out that we came in joint 10th place and only 20 out of the 48 starters completed the race. Thanks go especially to Lorraine for her support, for driving miles in the ice and snow in tracking me down and for her constant encouragement and nourishment.
Thanks goes to Dave for his local knowledge, great company and endless supplies of interesting stories (I have found another true friend). Also thanks to everyone that tracked me through the race and for the encouraging comments. As well as a medal and a T’shirt the other reward was finding out a few days later that I have a place in the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc), this is a 104 mile race around the mountains surrounding Mont Blanc in August, so the training continues..............................