A return to Edale and a return to The Pennines in January. There were no scores to settle necessarily—no major failings to amend—just a desire to improve on the result of last January and iron out a few creases along the way. All assuming that conditions were similar (last year was unseasonably benign—until the last quarter of my race at least).
The Montane Spine Challenger: Edale to Hardraw, 108 miles with 5,500m of ascent.
The weeks leading up to the race had seen me wracked by doubts and niggled by, well, niggles. My shins had decided to complain since late November and so I had drastically eased off with the training runs and so I was in a cycle of feeling under-trained and injured. Well, if not injured at the start then certain that my niggly shins would only allow me to reach halfway at best. But the pull of the Spine is strong and so I found myself (in a strangely wired/relaxed mood) on trains travelling to Edale; a five-hour journey which slowly accumulated fellow Spiners (LIz, Jonathan, Antonio, Darto). Tensions eased through chat.
A smooth (and friendly) process of registration, kit checks and briefing unrolled on arrival at Edale HQ and then free until 8am the following morning. A pleasant meal with other Spiners in the Ramblers pub before a short minibus ride to the Youth Hostel to do a final sort and check of kit ready for a 5:45am alarm call. Bed, lying down, if not asleep by 10pm. Sleep was patchy and some wild weather blew through in the night but at least it wasn’t raining too hard by breakfast time. The hostel staff had laid on a very welcome early breakfast for all the racers (who made up most of their clients)—well fed and watered and off to gather kit (and wits). Drop bags were left for collection later and all else dropped down the hill to the valley road and a coach to the start.
It was still mainly dry but there was wild wind whipping round the corner of hills and tearing holes in the cloud cover to offer something of a dawn light. The bustle of the HQ was visited for tracker fitting and then an anxious twenty minutes or so of kicking heels and worrying about layers (and shins) before being invited over to the start pen in an adjacent field. And still the wind tears at the clouds as the surrounding hills slowly find definition. The penned in buzz of anticipation, excitement and nerves is eventually released with an understated announcement and countdown. At the front they run and at the back a walk; somewhere in between I am among others who jog gently and/or walk speedily through the car park and out into the lane.
The drag up to the official start of the Pennine Way (PW) is an opportunity to adjust straps and zips. The temperature is ok but it isn’t long before the race is pushing into the headwind whipping down from and around the Kinder Scout plateau. Paved paths through fields and farm tracks form a gentle introduction to the race and a chance for a gently shuffling of the pack as runners find their pace/place. After a while, so soon, it is the climb up Jacob’s Ladder and a proper introduction to the wind (to be a constant, if a little variable, companion for the rest of the race). Up and along Swine’s Back and Kinderlow the pack thins until the plateau reveals a surprising solitude (exaggerated by mist and a wind-howl that drowns all other noises). Once more along braided paths amongst gritstone boulders, blown sideways, following instinctively the main way but failing to remember the precise distance along the plateau’s edge. A small sidestream fools me into thinking it is Kinder Downfall—why have I not turned more westerly? A kilometre on and the Downfall reveals itself, today (courtesy of the wind) as an Upfall and a soaking ensues although feet stay dry as the stream itself is just a trickle to be stepped across. Now westerly.
And eventually the drop down off the plateau and the slight climb to Mill Hill and its paved path across Featherbed Moss. Feeling fine although lacking in definite reference points. Runners distant ahead and eventually the voices of chasing runners catch me up followed shortly after by the runners themselves. A brief thought of following at their pace and then a remembering of the long game. At the road crossing I’m surprised to see several of the overtakees stops for water, etc. I plough on (ten minutes ahead of last year), across Old Woman and up Devil’s Dike, a little worried that visibility isn’t at its best but confident in the path with just enough waymarkers scattered pathside to stop me from getting my GPS out.
The angle of approach to Bleaklow leaves me 30˚ or so confused through the muddle of peat hags but enough visibility remains to see the way. There are one or two other runners near me and we thread our way over the top of Bleaklow and drop down towards the Torside Clough path. A reasonable run down on eroded but forgiving paths to the head of the Clough where the path gets a little more technical and also splits at one point—runners are equally split but I am happy with my choice of the lower path. And soon enough we are rolling down towards the checkpoint. I stop for a top-up of water but no more leaving others behind who want tea or a sit down. I can’t stop so soon.
Over the dam and into the band of pine trees alongside Torside Reservoir. A couple of other runners seem confident in my navigation and trail me as I cross the A628 and turn into the valley above Crowden. I take it very easy here remembering the climb up onto the moor’s edge. I remember well initially and curse it but move ok, past the photographer in his eerie and then into the forgotten part of the climb eventually to reach the path along the plateau’s edge. Then a little slippery down to the stream and up through Red Ratcher; beside and through the stream. Feet definitively wet now but that is to be expected although a little earlier than last year. Either I picked the wrong line a couple of times or the streams are wider.
The occasional day-walkers are passed and other competitors occasionally slide into and out of contact but there is a feeling of calm for now (and despite the insistent wind). My right knee is protesting on the sharper downhills and a debate ensues as to whether I am better trotting or walking the downs … the steepest descents like those into Dean Clough just have to be gritted out. And oh, even these steep ups are not good for the knee and I transfer sole responsibility to my left side on these occasions. No Haribo at Wessenden Head but a group of race crew checking on well-being and guarding the crossing of the hell that is the A635 (the detritus of RTAs and general rubbish do not cast this place in a good light and I am happy to be away from it). As per last year I still can’t seem to run down the hill away from Wessenden Head; at least this year I am aware that I am not running. Two or three runners leave me behind here and I begin to enter a bit of a low—exacerbated by the fact that it definitely isn’t going to get any brighter today.
The low is holistic and I seem to lack any get up and go as I grind my way up towards Black Moss in black mood. But looking forwards to hot drinks at one of the upcoming road crossings. The wind throws sizeable waves at the shore of Black Moss Reservoir—a visible record of the wind in case my hearing had switched off to its audible presence and my motion had given in to its presence and permanently adopted a lean. Towards the A62 and a lone race supporter wishes me luck. The car park at the road is apparently empty of race personnel and so I just get on with things recalling my hot chocolate/soup of last year. A quick check of the map to make sure I catch the turn of the PW path up onto Standedge and onwards. Mind and mist were beginning to coalesce here, a haziness entered my progress and the combined (cumulative) chill of the wind and damp were increasingly penetrating my clothes. Mitted hands remained warm but were definitely wet. Any stop, no matter how brief, was unpleasantly chilling. Movement as necessity as light and visibility dwindled to remove any distraction from the race-task.
The sense of loneliness became stronger with the dwindling of light and energy. Keep eating, keep moving. Cross the A640 and nod/wave to the race crew wisely sat in his car at the roadside. Not far to the M62 now and rumour of a Mountain Rescue Support point. These kilometres have mainly seeped from my memory. The car park held no apparent offers of food, anyway, I just wanted to keep moving. More affirmative nods to race/safety crew as I pick my way through the debris and detritus of another moorland road crossing and then brace myself. I hate the pedestrian bridge motorway crossing and in the diffused misty light it frightened me more. Vertigo levels cranked up. Face ahead and keep walking (far worse than any mountain climb … apart from maybe the Inn Pin!).
More merging of drab greys and browns and a final realisation that I must stop and excavate my headtorch. A low stone shelter on Blackstone Edge provided the protection from the wind but almost sapped every last degree of warmth. Get moving to get warm. Two runners caught me up here, one with a faulty/broken headtorch. We fall into step as the GPS-holder leads the way, I check with map and memory. The drop down the Roman Road is found but I help with a call back to the right turn for the White House. I then partially undo this helpful call by believing we stay high nearer the road. A minor mistake and soon mended. We are soon enough at the Mountain Rescue support point on the A58. I stopped for a while here last year but this year I need to keep warm so a cup of hot drink is poured and I use the team’s van to add an extra layer or two of clothing. The guy in the van is a little concerned at my shivering but I just need to get moving again and he seems convinced.
A short walk up the road and left onto water board tracks—fairly easy navigation although always good to keep checking. Accompanying headtorches to fore and aft seem to confirm right decisions. Last year there was a diversion into the moorland away from Warland reservoir; this year the track is followed. Waves on water. Onto Warland Drain and soon approaching Stoodley Pike. The paths here confound and confuse and of course it is dark by now so no view towards the Pike. And the wind. It has cranked up further and on the ridge towards the monument I am relentlessly buffeted and pushed over sideways. Not quite blown over but a steadying hand is placed to the ground often enough. At the monument the wind is ripping through the darkness; I turn right and am unceremoniously pushed along towards the descent.
Amongst the fields above Rough Head I reach a fellow Spiner, and another joins us soon after. We group up to navigate through the trees down to Charlestown. My memory of the way here is reassuringly intact and we are soon down near the road crossing and another check-in with race safety crew. Then the joltingly stiff climb up amongst houses and gardens and over the top before the smaller down and up to Colden where we gratefully turn towards the main Checkpoint of the race at Hebden Hey below Slack.
A slither down the muddy path to the welcoming lights of CP1 far below. Wonderfully helpful staff guide me to my kit and a warming room to get sorted in. Last year I stopped for four hours here but this year I was determined to stop for less time. After changing out of wet kit it is straight to food and warming drinks which fairly quickly improves my condition although I still feel quite tired (the wind has been all-consuming). I get my left eye checked out as it is cloudy, possibly the result of a scratch from a holly branch on the descent to the CP—I had removed my glasses several hours before as I could see better without them. I then decide on a brief sleep. There is already a runner dozing in the bunkroom I am allotted and his snooze alarms do a good job of not letting me drift into too deep a sleep. But then he gets up and leaves and I briefly sleep deeply; and awake with a dribble and ajolt. I leap to my feet and get back to my kit to get on my way again.
I leave soon after another runner and catch up with her (Milly) on my way up the climb out of the valley. We chat and agree to team up[ for a while through the dark hours although she worries that I may want to move a little quicker. The pace is good for now and on Heptonstall Moor we are joined by another runner. The Moor feels long and I’m keen for the right turn and suggest an option with an inviting looking gate but it proves too early. After what feels like too long (to me at least) we finally reach the fences/wall combination that signals to my companion that we are almost at the right turn. We then drop down to the valley and the point where I got a bit muddled last year—the crossing of two streams and a sharp turn or two confused me and I got my bearings 180˚ out (luckily last year my then companion had pointed out the error of my ways)—this year I remembered the junction and was happy with which way to turn.
We climbed up to the road and at the junction we were met by another member of the safety crew checking on our well-being. All good. Solid progress then along tarmac roads and then down to Lower Walshaw Reservoir and along its eastern side before transferring onto a narrow path between the Middle Reservoir and its leat—vertigo once more kicking in as the strong wind pushed me insistently towards the steep drop into the leat. I had pulled imperceptibly ahead of my companions here and developed a gap that never closed again. Leaving the Reservoir I was feeling good on the climb to Withins Height and I pushed a bit harder; renewed by the food and rest of CP1.
Top Withins seemed deserted as I passed by, conurbation lights glowing in the cloud towards the northern horizon provided a false sense of dawn. Strangely, it was easier to see in this darkness of cloud-reflected light at 1am in the morning than it was in the murky 4pm gloom of Blackstone Edge. I gathered up another runner or two here, monosyllabic greetings were exchanged but each of us in our own separate race. Round by Ponden Reservoir I felt a little low again; possibly daunted by the upcoming short sharp climb towards Crag Bottom and Bare Hill. Up from the road it’s actually a steady climb and once more I found a good rhythm. Down the other side and past the curious beeping sheds (what is in there) of Ickornshaw Moor.
Then into a new section for me. Last year we had been diverted via roads and tracks through Lumb to Cowling; this year we were to stick to the PW. Approaching the road I could see the headtorch of another runner moving uncertainly too and fro at a fence. There was a gate that seemed the obvious way but an advertising sign for a campsite seemingly suggested this to be a private path. We went through. All was fine. Then a wiggle through the village and onto another ‘new’ bit of path. A couple of runners had got the wrong side of a fence here and were correcting their error. At the lane at Gill another race crew member was checking on well-being; a few words exchanged and onwards. There is a draggy climb from the stream here that went on longer than it should have done; the map scale was playing tricks.
A little more lane then the drop down to Surgill Beck. I was looking forward to a bit of a break at Lothersdale and I managed to get a good line down to the stream and through the fields here before dropping sharply down to the village. A local triathlon club had set up an ad-hoc support point here in lieu of the pub that is closed due to building works. Last year I had been too early for the pub’s offerings (which started after daylight hours) but this year the Lothersdale crew had been in place since the early hours and I was presented with a very welcome offer of rice pudding and hot chocolate (and a seat! … a dangerous thing a seat, I perhaps stayed longer than I should have). I was feeling quite empty again and a bit shivery so this support was most welcome and the team here were so friendly and helpful. Stars. Other runners came and went and one was having a good power nap. For their efforts they were accepting donations towards Mountain Rescue.
I somewhat reluctantly got on my way again and got straight into the climb up towards Pinhaw Beacon. Like last year this felt hard work. I could see some headtorches in the distance and above me but these became more fleeting as the height gain pulled me into the mist. There was a good path to follow but it was beginning to feel a little too far. Surely I should have reached the trig point by now? Just as major doubts were setting in the bright white pillar appeared through the mist. With map in hand I set off a bit too confidently and was soon off piste in a short scrub of heather. Time for the GPS. Impatiently I waited for the satellites to be discovered and then headed back to the trail. That’s better. Down I go, away from the summit and on towards Cowling. But no. Another runner came towards me. We both wondered what was wrong with the other. But he assured me he knew this area very well and it was I who was going the wrong way.
I was in disbelief but he assured me once more and I tucked in behind him and started going ‘back’ the way I had come. Sure enough we passed the trig point again and then dropped down the south-west side of the hill towards the road. I have no idea what I did there but am so grateful to the other runner who saved me from going too far back towards Lothersdale! I wonder at what point I would have realised if he hadn’t come past?
We briefly carried on together, past another set of race crew at the road junction but he suggested I should go on ahead as he was taking it easy for a while. I didn’t feel like I had the energy to leave him but eventually a gap appeared and as I turned off the road onto the path I left the other runner behind. Down towards Brown House farm the boardwalk sections were treacherously wet and it really took quite an effort to stay upright. It was reluctantly starting to get light by now; perhaps that should be, starting to get less dark. Through the quagmire that defends the farm and into the farmyard. The farmer came out of a barn, we exchanged greetings and he held an electric fence down for me to step over. He asked how many runners were likely to come through in the next couple of hours as he had cows to move I think, and then I was on along the track to Thornton.
Crossing the main road and onto the lane to Langber. Once more a member of the race crew was monitoring progress. As last year there was as small diversion to avoid a couple of fields here and then up over the little hill to the canal and a well-earned firm and level kilometre of going … I couldn’t really bring myself to a run though. Leaving the canal for a road I then somehow decided that the wrong field looked like the way I had gone last year. It was a field horribly churned up by horses and I just could not find the stile that I knew should be there.
Back to the lane and another runner (Antonio) who was having some nav issues here. Sure enough, just round the corner was the obvious, signed, route of the PW. We ran together for a while through the horribly slippy grass/mud fields (that had been avoided last year with a diversion); his GPS insisted that we were on the wrong side of the little stream here but solved that little doubt and kept on through. Approaching the railway line I eased away and turned right to cross the last couple of fields before the village of Gargrave. Another race crew check and then onto the toilet facilities before a raid of the delights of the Co-Op.
I wasn’t feeling very hungry though but finally opted for a chicken pasty and a milkshake. I also had another requirement—at some point since CP1 I had realised that I had forgotten to pick up my map for the last section from Horton to the finish. My mind was going through a cycle of disqualification or getting lost. I had a few options to buy a new map and Gargrave was the first but I was too early for any shop apart from the Co-Op and they no longer sold maps. Hmmm, a little more stress before Malham gave me another opportunity to make amends. A quick phone call home to report on my condition and then off through the streets trying to eat a puff pastry pasty that just made me wretch. Not the best purchase. I struggled some down and put the rest in my bag for later.
I assumed that Antonio must be ahead of me by now and just kept pushing on although this next stretch to Malham village just felt like wading through treacle (in fact, I think some of the fields here were made of treacle). Like last year, I was feeling as though I was making little progress and the thought of how much further to the finish kept intruding. Countering this I kept thinking of the immediate route ahead, although the climb up Malham Cove was becoming difficult to budge from my thinking (as was the annoying little climb at Hanlith).
The wind was still blowing but the lower elevation had taken the edge off it for now and the day was even beginning to improve albeit through a cycle of heavy showers, rainbows and clear spells. Eventually the clear weather won out and the stretch near Airton was even type-2 pleasant. I hauled myself up the steep road at Hanlith and lurched back into the fields. I spotted another runner ahead and this gave me a little lift as did the fact that there was not another hill to go over before Malham village (I’m sure I remember one from last year). The light was beautiful here. The other runner was struggling with a low patch, he didn’t seem to be aware of the climb before the next CP either.
We dropped down to the craziness of Malham, the honeypot was buzzing today. Us Spine racers must have added a zombie tone to proceedings but nobody really seemed to take much notice. Along the main street and I diverted into the outdoor gear shop. My worries were to be settled as a rack of glossy local maps presented themselves. For some reason I bought the two OS 1:25,000 maps rather than check if they had the Harveys; anyway, my kit was back up to spec for the last section now. I forged on through the village and onto the Cove path before dragging myself up the steps; they went on for far too long but I knew that once up these it was not a bad stretch to the CP. I opted, like last year, to cross the pavement but immediately regretted it. This was madness and surely a broken ankle would result. Carefully I veered a little further north and found a more grassy line between the treacherous limestone.
More slipping and sliding up through Ing Scar and the short climb before the right turn. Reasonable path now and better progress. A large group out walking were coming the other way and one of them peeled away to ask me about the race as he had heard about it and was considering entering it in future. He wished me best of luck and I was on my way again. Some grassy running now for a kilometre or two now before the track up to Malham Tarn House and CP1.5. The wind was howling across the Tarn and throwing waves at the shore. I caught up with two further runners (one of whom was Carsten) just short of the CP and we entered the warmth and friendly air of the CP together. Last year the CP had been in a small, cold stable room around the back but this time we were in some sort of field studies room.
Carsten was really struggling with a knee problem and the medics got to work on him right away. I was having a few minor niggles with my toes and decided to get them checked out rather than let them get too bad. A medic kindly put some tape on some sore spots and generally checked my feet over while I ate some food and enjoyed a hot drink. My feet were definitely in much better condition than last year which was good to see. I also took the opportunity to put some dry socks on. During our stay we were informed that Pen-y-ghent was too dangerous to cross due to the wind and that it would be closed with a diversion west just before the steep section—I have to admit, I wasn’t too saddened by this as I was struggling on the steep climbs (besides, I had been over it last year before it was closed to racers). After a longer than expected stop I was on my way again. I had intended to get my poles out at the CP but forgot so seeing somebody out for a walk I asked if they could get them out from the side of my pack; which they kindly did.
There is a lovely grassy path for a couple of kilometres here and I made good progress pushing on with the poles. But soon enough I was on the track up to Tennant Gill farm. I got my line a little wide across the field here and as I traced the wall back for a hundred yards Carsten caught up with me although he then seemed to disappear as we entered into the scrubby section before the open ground proper of Fountains Fell. For my part, I felt like I was too far west and Carsten’s ‘disappearance’ added to this uncertainty. Eventually though, the path swung round and finally picked up the gravel path that continues most of the way over the Fell’s shoulder. The gradient isn’t too severe on the whole although steeper ramps kept me working hard and I was pleased to reach the summit plateau.
The light was gorgeous now though and over the top of Fountains Fell Pen-y-ghent could be seen in all its craggy, stepped ferocity. Talking of ferocity, the wind was once more in inconvenient mode and what should have been a good trundle down ended up being a bit of a fight. Then, once on the valley road the low winter light was bouncing blindingly off the tarmac. Such problems! There was nobody much around at Dale Head and I plodded on along the level of the valley before it morphed seamlessly into the drag up on the track and path towards P-y-g. From quite a distance the big yellow diversion arrow could be seen but my eyes were tricking me into thinking that it pointed on and up to the summit. I was ever so slowly catching another runner ahead of me and at the diversion I could see him fiddling with the gate for what seemed like an age. Once I was there I found out why. The wind was blowing so violently that it was almost impossible to open the gate to the diversion route!
The diversion path although downhill was a frustrating mix of slippery grass/mud and little (slippery) limestone steps. I was glad to get to the road at Bracken Bottom. Through the village and I finally caught up with the other runner (Doug) and we entered the support point at the Pen-y-ghent Café together. Cartsen appeared very soon after. I had been uncertain about stopping for long here but eventually decided to get some food and drink. We were also to have a mini kit check for goggles, bivvy bag, sleeping bag and mat. A necessary inconvenience. I found a quiet spot at the back of the café and ordered some food—it was very good and much-needed. The food would set me up for the longer term and a bottle of coke gave me a quicker hit of energy.
Cartsen, then Doug, left the café before me but I soon caught Doug as we headed up the rough track away from the road towards Birkwith Moor. After last year’s nav disasters over the coming terrain I entered this section with a sense of trepidation. And although I was well up on last year’s time it was a section still to be undertaken in the dark. I shared my worries with Doug! And I kept my GPS firmly in hand here. Sell Gill Hole was confidently navigated without a random loop up onto the fell. Result! But as I eased ahead of Doug I got muddled with my gates (eager, I think, to reach the distinct left turn towards Old Ing) and a gate just by a ford saw me heading bizarrely into the rough ground as I had been dissuaded from the gate by a no access to walkers sign (it in fact symbolised that this was not open access land). Returning to the track and to Doug I realised that we were one boundary wall too early for the left turn—no wonder it didn’t look right!
Once more I eased ahead of Doug but was once more a little hesitant; t hadn’t been a major error but was enough to unsettle me. The weather was also much clearer this year and a good strong moon was shining intermittently from between fast-moving clouds, lighting up the fells and revealing a lot of terrain new to my eyes. My confidence was rising again by now and I started to rattle on along the tracks towards Ling Gill. Details and features were so much more plentiful than last year; it was almost enjoyable! At Ling Gill I found Carsten coming back towards me, he was having trouble matching the GPS trail to the ground but I knew this section and confidently led him to and over the old stone bridge and onto the track up towards Cam End. Carsten was still struggling with his knee, despite the efforts of the medics at CP1.5, and he’d left his poles back at the P-y-g Café. I offered him my poles as by now I had grown tired of them and stowed them away but he didn’t want to be seen as taking outside assistance. I was too tired to summon any logic to argue and he insisted that I push on.
The chicken casserole/coke combo were working magic by now and I powered (all things are relative) up the track to Cam End and onto the High Road. I was desperate to observe the location of my second nav error last year but the road seemed to go on forever. Somewhere along here I passed another runner who seemed ok but was moving more cautiously than me. Apart from feeling unending this section passed without event; the gradient was gentle enough that I kept a good pace. Finally I passed the tricky gates and for a while thought another runner had made my mistake of last year as I saw a ‘headtorch’ moving around ahead and below me—it turned out to be lights from Cam House. The fell was offering some shelter from the wind here but once up onto the tarmac section conditions roughened up again.
Now just to find the left turn onto West Cam Road and avoid the final blunder of last year. I had passed three runners since I left Horton and was obsessed with keeping ahead of them. My mania was augmented by the wind up here. I think this was the worst section. I found the turn ok but the side/head-wind was phenomenal. At first the walls at the side of the track offered some shelter but further on these peeled away giving three kilometres of very exposed going. Underfoot the track was rutted and/or rocky and this combined with the wind meant that progress was made in a stumbling, leaning, 45˚ gait with the occasional hand down to stop a complete fall. This really was a cruel finale, although, in hindsight, it was good not to have the snow of last year … I could see more than a couple of feet in front of me!
I was still navigating by GPS here to make sure I picked up the path over Ten End which had been diverted around last year … a little more uncertainty to feed my wind-wracked and doubt-riddled mind-body. An eternity was taken to find the path and its slippery, muddy slope down towards Gaudy Lane and Gayle. I had given up worrying about boggy sections and just ploughed on in the most direct line I could, eventually reaching dry land and Gayle’s maze of lanes and paths. An initial field section threw me before I realised that we were still in last year’s diverted section.
Into Gayle and things started to look more familiar although a section around a sports field seemed unfamiliar and my direction of approach muddled me a little, enough to check with a passer-by where the PW was. Right there next to me of course. Then on through the alleys and across the flagged path by the creamery and into Hawes. Now there were event direction signs posted although I still kept a check of my GPS. Much more familiar now and onto the road out of Hawes but still not mustering anything more than a fast walk. Crossing the River Ure I could see a headtorch approaching me rapidly from behind. Damn, I was going to be overtaken so near the finish and I just didn’t have the energy to put up a fight (I mumbled apologies to my wife who was surely watching this dot-fight unfold).
As the runner passed me I wished him ‘well done’ but it turned out it was a local out for an evening run and he told me not to worry. Oh yeah, he didn’t have a big Spine pack—that should have been a clue! He easily left me standing as he ran smoothly up the little hill away from the river. I crept up it. And, oh so gratefully, turned off left into the field paths for the last kilometre to Hardraw. Although empty I was so much happier than last year—then I had been really annoyed with myself for all the nav errors and I was physically in a worse state. This year I would finish with a smile! The fields were a little tedious, mainly because it was difficult to see any distance and I couldn’t quite remember how many there were but finally the lights and voices of the finish came into view. Through the gate, a short stretch of track and left onto the road for a quick sprint (ha, ha) to the line and the congratulations of those present. I had arrived in a quiet spell and so was able to enjoy much unhurried help and care from the team (I’m sure they were always helpful and caring, but I had the attention undiluted!).
Once stopped I was rather dazed—maybe it was just strange not to have the raging wind blowing through my head—but felt so much better than twelve months previously and had finished so much quicker (about 6.5 hours quicker). The weather (mostly the wind) had been more continuously tough this year and the fight needed to push through and brace against the wind had been all-encompassing.
To flatter myself I can say I came 9th … out of 43 male finishers, but more precisely (we all raced the same course after all) I came 16th out of 67 finishers (115 starters)—this includes the ‘separate’ Mountain Rescue Team event that starts an hour later.
from 8am Saturday 12th January 2019
Where to begin? It’s half three on a January morning, obviously dark, blowing a gale, snowing hard, the cloud is down and visibility is a handful of metres (at best) as the light of my headtorch bounces back at me from the enfolding cloud and assorted precipitation. I don’t know where I am (apart from somewhere on the edge of Dodd Fell on part of the Cam Road) and my compass and GPS seem to be conspiring against me. And where is my sense of humour? Quitting isn’t an option tempting though it may be to push that button on the tracker—concentration is required (some loud cursing is used for initial impetus).
It had taken a lot to get to this point. How far should I go back? That south to north night crossing of Dartmoor many years ago when I was about twenty? Completed too quickly, leaving me in Okehampton at around midnight and grateful to a milk tanker driver for a lift back to Exeter. Or maybe the dabbling with orienteering (day and night versions)? Or maybe before that, those long night hikes with the scouts? Anyway, the walking, hiking and hill/mountain walking have continued in various forms (including a slow attack on the Munros) and eventually fused with the ‘short’ distance running of 10k and half marathon road races and the occasional cross-country over the last seven years leading to a taste for something longer and more challenging. May 2017 and I was in The Dragon’s Back Race, a deep-end step into the world of ‘ultra running’. That race wasn’t a complete success but neither was it absolute failure. (I bailed on Day 3 but went back in as non-competitive for the back half of Day 4 and the whole of Day 5). Some lessons learned and I decided to enter The Spine Challenger. One lesson being that I needed to find events where the terrain took the edge off the runner’s speed. I’m not really a runner, just a fast walker; at least, my running is very erratic and, generously punctuated with lots of fast walking.
In basic numbers The Spine Challenger course runs for about 175km from Edale in Derbyshire along the Pennine Way to Hawes/Hardraw in North Yorkshire (with some 4,000m of ascent); competitors are given 60 hours to complete the course. The Spine Challenger is the shorter race run in conjunction with The Spine Race that takes in the full 429km (and goodness knows how much ascent) of the Pennine Way, all the way to Kirk Yetholm (racers get 168 hours for this one—it will be won in four and a bit days though). Neither race can be summed up by the numbers though.
Following The Dragon’s Back experience, I’d had a couple of months off running before slowly getting back into things through August; getting distance back up but not going beyond three runs a week (one longer one, one ‘speed’ session and one ‘recovery’ run). I also had a solid three days walking in the Scottish Mountains in September to add to my ‘time on feet’. There was also a lot of homework done on gear as the Spine is a serious winter undertaking and needs serious kit (just to meet the compulsory minimum, before then adding personal ‘luxuries’ to taste). I also spent a fair amount of time getting to know the route as best as I could without actually making recces on the ground (I pored over the maps and explored it on Google Earth, marking up any suspicious looking path junctions to be added to my GPS). There are also quite a few race blogs from past editions of the races, which offer varying amounts of useful information on route, kit (I’ll go through my kit in a little more detail at the end of this post) and mental preparedness.
On the subject of mental state there had been some comments pre-race about knowing why you were running the race … if you know the ‘why’ then it would really help in those dark moments the reasoning went. I never did quite fathom out the why question but in retrospect would probably mumble something about the challenge, but really it is just about being with the landscape in all moods … and the joy of exertion.
Through autumn and early winter, training went well and long day runs were increased to 50km, frequently undertaken in the pathless bogs and hills of mid-Wales. I began to ease down the training from Christmas week; then the doubts came to visit. I’d been doubtful of my ability before now of course but now they came in multiple forms; they came as various aches and niggles, or as proto-infections. I was having serious pre-race hypochondria and this didn’t help my mind. I was becoming an irritable, caged-beast kind of gibbering wreck; at once praying for the race to start and for it all to be over (or to not even start). Great excitement was in a constant dance with breathtaking apprehension. Not helped by the announcement of a rail strike that would affect the line between Sheffield and Edale.
Somehow, I got my doubt-ridden self to Edale on the 12th January for race registration, kit check and briefings (via a shared taxi from Sheffield with two other runners, Bob and Lizzie—thanks for booking the taxi Bob). Chatting to fellow runners took my mind off myself and I was able to relax a little, heading off to my B&B in good time to undertake some faffing with kit and drop bag before climbing into bed at a slightly-later-than-hoped 10pm. I drifted off to sleep worrying that my alarm wouldn’t work or that my drop bag was too heavy. The drop bag carries replacement kit, etc. for access at checkpoints and is limited to 20kg. It also had to hold all the clothes, etc. that I had needed to get to the race start.
I didn’t sleep too badly but from about 4am sleep became very patchy and I was almost awake to receive the alarm at 5:45. I got up and finished faffing ready for breakfast at 6:30. Some cereal and fruit was followed by salmon and scrambled egg, and toast. Gathering up all my gear I stepped out into the darkness of the morning and walked the half-mile to the race start. I handed in my drop bag (only 15kg, phew!) and my hill pack was fitted with a transmitter (this would track my progress for race organisers and public alike via the excellent Open Tracking service). It was 7:30 by now, with the race starting at 8 there was quite a buzz building; a focussed if slightly nervous buzz. The toilets were busy.
At about ten to eight competitors started making their way to the start field with its large ‘start’ arch. Lightness was coming into the landscape and the surrounding hills showed cloud higher up, but it wasn’t raining. The forecast suggested that it would be generally dry, with temperatures hovering near zero but feeling much colder in a strong wind. A southerly wind though which would thus be on our backs as we essentially headed north. A low-key countdown saw us off promptly at eight and we jogged through the small assembled crowd and out onto the road up through Edale village. Up a small path by a stream and we were then out into the fields. Calm seemed to descend as each runner found their place in the line of competitors moving across the flag path that contoured westwards. There wasn’t the pressure to rush like in other races (unless you are at the pointy end of things I suppose) with many hours ahead to pass and be passed by others. Inevitably the field became strung out but not through any sense of excessive exertion. Through quiet farmyards and up the Noe valley and then the first big climb.
Jacob’s Ladder comes early on in the course and sneaks the best part of 100m height gain into under a kilometre. It’s not a monster but equally it was important not to overdo things. The stepped climb was ok and delivered us up to the Swine’s Back where a northerly turn took us up to Kinder Low. We reached the cloud and colours became leached, bleached. The light took on a smoked quality as we trundled along amongst peat hags and rocky outcrops with hazy views down to our left. The path was braided but navigation wasn’t an issue and maps were left almost unchecked. Kinder Downfall was soon reached but was utterly undramatic as a waterfall although the crags dramatically framed the valley below. I was feeling comfortable with the pace and was not thinking too far ahead. Veering north-west we kept to the edge of the Kinder Scout plateau before a sharp downhill which surprised my knees, and the walkers coming the other way who disbelievingly received the details of how far we were running. Up onto Mill Hill and then a long section of flagstoned path.
I dropped in behind a couple of other guys as a dozen or so runners passed by—I was very keen to conserve my energy for this voyage into the unknown and used the two in front as a stopper on any excessive energy I may have. The wind could be felt on this section, strong and chilly as it blew from the south. At the Snake Road we rushed across the busy road and out onto the Bleaklow section. A chap I was near announced this section as his least favourite. An initial stretch along a ‘dike’ sheltered us from the wind before we were spat out into the haggy meanderings of Alport Low and then Bleaklow itself. This place-name makes me think of OMD’s Stanlow—not unsympathetic atmospheres I think. Visibility remained good with still only the occasional check of the map required; more out of duty than necessity. Dropping down off Bleaklow the path then followed the western lip of the dramatic Torside Clough before dropping down to Reaps.
On this descent I compared bad knees with another runner (he ‘won’ having had several operations) as the grassy slope gave way to a broken tarmac track. Across a road and it was the first of the official water stations run by the friendly faces of a local Mountain Rescue team. I refilled my soft bottle and paused briefly for a chat before continuing on across the Torside Reservoir dam. Along a footpath through a line of trees I was feeling a little weary, but tried not to panic and made sure to keep eating a little and often. Across another road, along a track where another competitor struggled to overtake me running as I walked! Then left and back onto paths, now up the valley of Crowden Great Brook. The hills on the path ahead looked daunting but they came and went comfortably and I was able to gain some ground on others as we reached the upper valley. The path twisted along beside the stream, passing the enigmatically named Red Ratcher (a relic of the mining industry with its exposed rocks at the stream’s side?). The landscape opened up now as the route climbed up onto Black Hill with its sizeable cairn, Soldier’s Lump.
Then good paths running down and across to Wessenden Head via a crossing of the fortunately placid Dean Clough. Another timing point here and another fast road to cross—brute intrusions of fast metal, rubbish and animal carcasses when set in contrast to the open calm of the moors—before picking up the track that drops down to the reservoirs. Runners passed me here and reminded me I needed to move a bit quicker. On past Wessenden farm and its clump of trees before a sharp left, steeply down and then steeply up (for longer though). I let a faster runner pass but he was happy with my pace setting and was a little disappointed I had let him pass! I spent the next couple of kilometres chatting to him when I was near, he would then run ahead a little and I would wind him back in. This was Mike and he called his run/walk the Fawcett fartlek—it turned out that several years previously I had run a fell race that Mike organises down on the border of Herefordshire and Wales (Darrens Dash—worth a look if you are in the area in June/July). Eventually Mike broke the elastic and ran off as we caught up with another runner.
Similar happened again. I wasn’t moving quick enough to overtake the runner and so spent the next few kilometres lurking behind them at various distances, she would run ahead for a while and then ease off and my walking would return me to her wake. (My wife later told me that the runner I had shadowed was Jen Scotney). Another road crossing brought another MRT and an offer of soup and hot chocolate—welcomely accepted. Next, a comfortably level section along the crest of a scarp above Castleshaw as the light began to wane. I was pleased to be this far before nightfall though. Across another road and over White Hill here I passed the other runner (who I now know to be Jen Scotney) as she dug out her headtorch for the approaching night, I decided to put off that moment for a while longer and continued down the hill and through the scattered rubbish of a car park (ignoring its resident burger van that I had thought I would use to refuel) and down to cross the bridge over the M62. Gripped by vertigo I focussed on the far side, unsure if I was glad that it was still light. Gratefully I reached the far ‘shore’ and continued on to Blackstone Edge, eventually digging out my headtorch before the left turn onto the Roman Road (briefly) and right along the leat to White House. More lights, more runners, were around here and we descended en-masse to the checkpoint in the pub car park. I lingered longer, taking advantage of a bench to rest a while and enjoy a hot drink and something to eat.
Properly dark now but the going was good along water company tracks for two kilometres until a floodlit construction site signalled a diversion onto muddy single track along the opposite shore of Warlands Reservoir. Underfoot it was not as bad as we had been led to believe. The path was regained at Warland Drain. The lights of one or two other runners were bobbling along ahead of me but I didn’t quite catch up with anybody here. Soon we were up onto the ridge leading to Stoodley Pike and I increased my awareness to path junctions as I knew from reading blogs that things get a little complicated around here. I seemed to be a little way behind another runner but over to the right were a number of other lights—I’m not sure if they were in the race or out for their own night adventures. The silhouette of the Pike eventually appeared, a slight darkening vertical against the smudged lights glowing from the surrounding valleys.
Here the way turned east briefly, before turning back to a more northerly direction. An endless stream of MRT folks seemed to be making their way up to the Pike and they all had very, very bright headtorches. But down past their vehicles and on to farm tracks there was nobody much around again. More careful navigation through the tracks and steep slippery paths of Callis Wood’s birch trees brought me into valley number one before the checkpoint. Spat out oddly onto an urban road with its sulphur lighting I soon found my nocturnal way between houses up a small cobbled alley, that climbed dramatically up out the other side of the valley. My maps failed me here as an uncharted track tempted me into a dead-end. Turn back and try again a bit further up, only a handful of minutes wasted in Nav Error #1. The path continued on steeply, easing a little as it crested a road and then dropped down into valley number two. This one wasn’t so deep and the climb out the other side was fine. Around some houses and then out onto the road that would take me down towards Checkpoint 1 at Hebden Hey.
I located the path entrance easily before I entered the path of doom. This path attracts much comment from Spine veterans, in fact it almost seems to lay claim to the worst part of the whole race (even the 268mile version). It was probably after this billing that it didn’t actually seem quite as bad as I had expected, although I do think my shoes picked up more mud in these few hundred metres than they had done in the preceding 57km! I reached Checkpoint 1 at about 8:45pm. This was way earlier than I could have hoped and so I decided that I would take things really easy and get a good rest, etc. as the next section would be moving properly into the unknown for me.
I showered and changed into clean dry clothes, ate a good meal and tried to drink well, I also had a massage as I had a few niggles developing and didn’t want them to take hold. I then had a lie down for about an hour and a half (of which probably about twenty minutes was genuine sleep), but I felt surprisingly rested. From here I had my feet checked over by the excellent Exile Medics crew and had a couple of spots taped up before sorting my kit and getting a clean pair of shoes on. My stop had been a luxury, a luxury that underlined my uncertainty about how I would deal with the rest of the course. As I finished my faffing ready to leave Bob appeared. He had only had a brief pit stop (compared to me at least). We agreed to set out into the night together.
Once more the path of doom was covered surprisingly easily (given its reputation) and we were back up to the road and retracing our steps to where we had left the Pennine Way. It was still there. At least, if we hadn’t have been nattering we would have noticed it, but in fact we overshot the turn by a hundred metres and had to turn back to find the path entrance (let’s call that Nav Error #1.5). We soon got into our strides, Bob navigating with the trace on his GPS and me keeping an eye on the map, although I was still having a bit of an issue with the whole map scale/distance-travelled-at-night-compared-to-day thing. Anyway, we were getting along fine, talking about all sorts; life stories, that sort of thing.
Until somewhere near Gorple Reservoir. I just couldn’t get the map to make sense! Fortunately Bob overruled my dithering with his GPS trace. A quiet few kilometres followed, along roads and reservoir access tracks. The night was chilly but not unpleasant; I had added a t-shirt over the top of my long-sleeved top to address such eventualities but with my waterproof over the top it was quite warm at times. I had kept my waterproof on since the start and had regulated my temperature via the various zips and this had worked very well. Hats and gloves also came and went according to the moment and were stowed in my front pack when not in use.
Eventually we climbed up onto Withins Height and then down past Top Withins—supposedly partial inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I had started reading Wuthering Heights as scene-setting for my Spine experience and was glad I had company on this night section! There seemed to be a few more runners around here, and I think some had rested at the bothy just behind the ruined farmhouse. Some seemed to be just having a mooch about.
From Top Withins we dropped down to Ponden (Ponden Hall being the inspiration for another key location in Wuthering Heights). We caught up with another couple of runners around here but a couple of short stiff climbs (they really were unpleasant) saw the other pair disappear ahead. We climbed on over Ickornshaw Moor and on the descent caught another couple of runners (the same pair as on the preceding hills?). It was somewhere down through the ensuing descent that Bob and I drifted apart. Earlier Bob had been moving well and I was having to put in some effort to keep up with him, but suddenly I was ahead of him, I’m not sure why. Bob was befriended by one of the runners while I ran ahead with the other. This front-runner soon disappeared ahead though and I was on my own.
A little further on from here there was an official route diversion and so followed a couple of kilometres of tarmac, a sort of relief for a brief while but odd. Beyond Cowling I regained the path and twisted and turned on towards Lothersdale. There were some dreadfully muddy areas around Surgill Beck, stirred up by cattle. A pleasant stream crossing followed, then a climb up and drop down brought me to the village of Lothersdale. I was feeling a bit flat here, struggling a bit and needed something to eat. I was becoming fed up with the food I was carrying and had disappointingly arrived a couple of hours early for the Lothersdale pub breakfast bar! A van of MRT folks offered a few goodies but I was feeling fussy and turned down their kind offers (although I think I had some hot chocolate). I set out after a brief pause with Steph, the leading MRT woman, and her companion Mike. They left me trailing on the climb out of the village but light was coming into the landscape now, which gave me a bit of a lift—I gratefully turned out my torch. The day was dawning cloudy and a little murky but was remaining dry.
Over Pinhaw and a few more runners seemed to be about now, or was it just they could be seen in the daylight? Dropping down across Elslack Moor on the road I was wary that we needed to keep an eye out for a left turn bearing gently off the road. It was easy to locate as several runners ahead could be seen taking the turn. But they were going the wrong way. Steph and Mike had slowed up a little and I passed them around this area and briefly started to follow the other runners disappearing into the distance before realising they were taking the wrong line. I looked back and Steph and Mike were in agreement that the others were going the wrong way (but they were beyond shouting range) and I rejoined them on the correct path. It was wet going underfoot here but I took the opportunity to phone home and update my wife on progress and condition.
Through Brown House farm and onto hard surface for a while through Thornton in Craven and out the other side. I was still just about in contact with Steph and Mike and caught up with them through a small diversion near Langber Farm. I chatted to Steph, she seemed very awake and enthusiastic (compared to me at least!) and told me she was keen to keep well ahead of her next rival in the MRT women’s race (she needn’t have worried as she was the only female finished in that particular competition). Across a couple of fields and we joined the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. This was probably the flattest kilometre of the whole race as we followed the towpath to a little way beyond the curious double bridge at East Marton (basically, one bridge built on top of another).
Up briefly onto a country lane and then a path across pocked, rutted and muddy horse fields and then another diversion. We were to miss out the fear-inducing muddy fields of Gargrave and roll more comfortably along farm tracks and country lanes for a few kilometres. People were beginning to get out and about, groups of cyclists bowled past shouting encouragement. I arrived in Gargrave at about 10:15 and promptly and gratefully visited the public toilets before heading across the road to the Dalesman Café for a full English breakfast and a hot chocolate. I was just finishing my meal when Bob entered. At first he didn’t see me as he asked for a soup to take away but on seeing me he had a change of plan and ordered the same.
Bob had become rather bothered by ‘Mr. X’ for the last few hours and was both a bit hungry and seeking sanctuary (i.e. hiding) for a few minutes. He was happy to join me. However, I had pretty much finished my meal and so rudely left him to it. I stepped out and bumped into Joshua and Rupert Lee (I had also seen them briefly at the Hebden Hey checkpoint), I sort of ran with them for a while as we left Gargrave but they were moving better than me and left me behind soon after we entered the fields to the north of the town. These fields were grim, it was almost impossible to get any traction and the size of the fields became dispiriting. It was a slow lonely slog over to the next road. Still, the landscape round here was distracting enough—gently rolling hills crowned with clumps of trees, all draped in a misty light.
The breakfast didn’t supply the kick I had hoped for and I struggled through the section to Malham. There was an unfortunate diversion onto roads (due to erosion) through Airton. The roads were busy with daytrippers and twisty enough that it required maximum attention to avoid being clipped. Dropping back to the proper path beyond Airton I got confused between the original path and how the diversion rejoined. I wrongly crossed a bridge and stood and scratched my head for a while before realising my error (Nav Error #1.75?). Along by the Aire should have been pleasant but I felt weary and flat. Reaching the bridge at Hanlith I climbed onto the road and struggled up the short sharp climb past the Hall to rejoin the path above the river. I contoured along above the river before dropping down to enter Malham village.
I had promised myself a cake here (pudding to my breakfast in Gargrave) but in the end didn’t really fancy it. I should have had the rice pudding and jam back in Gargrave. In honesty, I was feeling a bit daunted by the upcoming climb of Malham Cove so bought a small bottle of Pepsi from a little shop in the middle of the village. I saw no other racers here and I felt so incongruous among the casually dressed sightseers. “Daddy, that man’s got a number on.” I didn’t stop for long as my legs were seizing up. I joined the flow of people heading for the Cove. I was still plodding and struggling to overtake the tourists but I soon found myself at the foot of the Cove and the flight of steps that runs up the left side.
Some folks were doing activities with a rope stretched across the centre of the Cove but I ignored them and got on with my own exertions. I kept to the right-hand side of the steps and used the rocks of the hill as a handrail to help pull myself up. It was slow going but not as hard as feared. I felt like saying to those around me how far I had travelled … but what would they care? Up at the top I had a choice to make. Originally I had thought that I may be here in darkness or very bad weather and was going to take the option of the grass shelf that runs diagonally across to the Ing Scar path but on the spur of the moment I chose to stick to the Pennine Way proper and stepped carefully across the limestone pavement above the Cove. In fact I moved quite quickly across it despite still feeling weary. However, with all the concentration on foot placement I don’t feel that I fully appreciated the views out from the Cove. It was busy up there too. But as soon as I reached the Ing Scar path the crowds dwindled.
I found the path a bit frustrating here as I was beginning to get some niggles and I really just wanted to walk on soft smooth grass! Higher up my wish was granted as the path reached towards Water Sinks. Across the road and towards Malham Tarn I suddenly felt quite chilly. I don’t think I was moving quickly enough especially as the wind was getting up. Onto the track round the back of the Tarn I met a couple of ladies walking out from the Checkpoint, they promised it wasn’t far and that the kettle was on. I asked if they could fish my poles out of the side pocket of my rucksack—this helped me move on a bit quicker. I had mixed feelings about this Checkpoint, I knew that I was limited to 30minutes stopping indoors but I needed a rest. I had also originally imagined that it would be dark here and that I would sleep in my bivvy for an hour. But plans had changed, I was here earlier than anticipated and not feeling too bad all things considered.
I got my feet looked at—they weren’t too bad but needed a couple of potential blisters taping up—and had a meal rehydrated, although I couldn’t bear to eat much of it. I apologise (again) here to the lady that I sat next to who was struggling with stomach issues as I’m sure the smell of my meal can’t have helped her, there just wasn’t a lot of room to sit anywhere else. Sorry. Despite the warmth of the welcome the checkpoint room was cold and not very relaxing as it was small and busy. It was a good way to keep people moving! With a warning of deteriorating weather I was keen to get moving so I added an extra top layer and put my overtrousers on to cut out the wind. I also got my fleecy hat and winter gloves out and prepared my headtorch for the darkness that would arrive in an hour. I kept the poles out too.
I walked cautiously away from the Checkpoint a little refreshed but still a little flat of spirit. However, as I turned off the road and onto the path up the valley towards Fountains Fell my spirits lifted a little. It was a pleasant little valley and gentle underfoot too! I was a little apprehensive about the two upcoming fells that added a good chunk of ascent to this back end of the race, but I was also optimistic that I would get a fair way up Fountains Fell before darkness. Through Tenant Gill Farm and I got stuck into the climb, very slowly. First up along grassy paths but soon a new surfaced path was picked up and all but made the GPS waypoints I had set redundant (and the map for that matter)! At somewhere around the 525m contour darkness necessitated the turning on of the headtorch and the rest of the climb became quite unremarkable—apart from that strange stretching of distance brought on by darkness. The cloud was also coming down higher up and there was the hint of some precipitation.
Over onto the northern side of Fountains Fell and on the descent care was needed as the path had begun to ice up and there were still some patches of snow left from a recent snowfall, nothing that couldn’t be avoided though. The descent felt like it took forever but the valley road was reached eventually. One bump ticked off, another to go. I turned left on the road. There were a few race supporters out and about but I could see little evidence of any other runners … possibly some headtorches up on Pen-y-ghent out to my right. Towards Dale Head there were a lot more race supporters and one couple generously offered me fruit, cake and coffee—all gratefully received, and I really think this helped on the ascent. They left me to my own devices at the car park and I climbed on alone. A little further up two chaps were descending, they offered encouragement and some advice for navigation at the summit. It was thirty years since I had last been here (as a teenage scout we had renamed the fell Pen-y-bastard) and that was in daylight so my memory of the climb was slight.
At the right turn I picked up the new path and followed this up as far as the limestone rock step (this was one feature I did know about). The first ‘step’ passed relatively easily and I was happy with the line I had taken but at the second one (gritstone) I felt I had been pushed a little too far to the right and so zagged back a little. A couple of tough little pulls and pauses for breath and I was up and pretty much spot on for the summit path. Excellent. The gradient seemed to drag on for a bit further though before I was greeted by the summit furniture. It was cold up here, everything frost-coated but slightly damp so potential for a slip if care wasn’t taken. I headed off on the right bearing and comfortably picked up the rope handrail I had been told about which led into the steps down. I found these steps really annoying, just the wrong size for my stride. And once more the descent seemed to go on forever. It was also more slippery than the descent from Fountains Fell.
I wasn’t looking forward to the Horton Scar track as I had convinced myself that it was an ankle-breaking boulder field. It turned out it wasn’t too bad (the ankle-breaking boulder field track would come later) and I moved relatively comfortably down it, zig-zagging from side to side to take advantage of the grassier sections. I had Horton in Ribblesdale as a major milestone in my race as the Pen-y-ghent Café would be open 24hours with food—I was looking forward to something substantial to eat and maybe having a bit of a rest.
On the descent the precipitation had become a little more obvious, it wasn’t a problem though and in fact the little sparkles in the headtorch were quite distracting (in a good way). Over a couple of last lumps and bumps and suddenly I was spat out onto the high street, a right turn and I soon found myself in the warm embrace of the café. Checked in, I was soon found by the café owner and I readily accepted the first food item he suggested—beef stew—along with a large raspberry milkshake. Classy. (NB raspberry milkshake can be mistaken for pina colada and so you may not be taken seriously as a racer, whereas raspberry milkshake is, of course, the drink of champions (mid-pack champions)). I chatted a while to a lady who was awaiting her husband to pass through—she had sensibly come armed with a book to read.
As I was finishing off my fine repast Bob appeared. I think he had arrived shortly after me but we were hidden from each other by a wall. Bob was amused to see me eating again and informed me that he had finished his refreshments and was about to head back out. He tried to encourage me to leave with him but I still had food to finish and I still thought I might have a rest. Bob left. I finished my food and discounted the idea of a rest, opting instead for getting this thing finished off. I arrogantly assumed that I would catch Bob up but conditions would conspire against me (and quite possibly Bob was moving quicker than me). Leaving the café it was evident that the weather was closing in—all hoods and hats available were put on, buffs pulled up and zips done up tight. I hobbled out into the night, along the high street and then right onto the track towards Birkwith Moor. The surface was agony for my tender feet and I cursed my way onwards. The discomfort eased as time passed but it still wasn’t fun.
About a kilometre and a half out of Horton in Ribblesdale I became confused by a kink in the track. I now know this to be quite a definite kink around Sell Gill Holes, but at the time I could not make out much more than a bend in the track on my Harvey’s 1:40,000 map. I could just not get the terrain to match my map. I did a couple of circuits of the potholes which became more sinister and threatening each time I passed. I then decided that the gateway over to the left offered the best option but the track seemed to be leaving it on the wrong bearing for what I wanted. So I then somewhat inexplicably set off uphill into tussocky grass in search of the ‘right’ track. This wasn’t working and didn’t feel right so I began to circle rightward. Sense snapped in and I used my GPS to take me back to where I had started the little loop (which exists visually on Open Tracking as evidence of my folly). Unfortunately this involved a tussle with a wire fence and some sneaking back past those sinister potholes. Back to what was now evidently a sort of junction of tracks. (quite definitely this is a nav error in its own right: Nav Error #2) Fortunately another runner, Mike, arrived and I employed his GPS trace to help me fathom out the conundrum of the kink and we continued on together.
Mike though was having a lot of trouble with his feet and wished to stop to rest them. Unfortunately I had got quite chilled with the slow motion nav error work and the last thing I wanted to do was stop. We turned off the main track and onto the track to Old Ing. Mike stopped to attempt a rest for his feet but I continued to maintain warmth. I don’t think Mike stopped for long as his light was soon bobbling along behind me. It seemed to take an age of twisty-turny, uppy-downy track before the bridge at Ling Gill was reached. It was good to get this little landmark under the belt and I was looking forward to getting up onto the Cam Road (fool!). The kilometre or so from Ling Gill Bridge also seemed to go on forever and the weather was by now pretty unpleasant, visibility was decreasing with each metre of ascent and the outside world essentially began to vanish. I was running in my own head. I was really surprised how claustrophobic it could be out of doors! Hoods up, headtorch on and reflecting back off the cloud it was almost suffocating. I had the endless sensation that there was something next to me, a house or some sort of feature that I could latch onto, but no, just the full void of night, cloud and reflected light. I don’t think these were hallucinations more a deep desire to be able to see something other than the snow on my glasses and light reflected off cloud.
I reached the ridge at Cam End and swung right onto what I thought would be easier going, but no. Still rough underfoot and, of course, the conditions continued to deteriorate. A kilometre on I passed through a gateway and was then immediately confronted by a locked gate (this should have been the alarm bell but it wasn’t … enter Nav Error #3). The Harvey’s map doesn’t have a track junction here (but it can be clearly seen on the OS mapping I have subsequently discovered). A track slips off away from the main track at about 30 degrees. In the conditions this wasn’t quite enough of an angle for me to sense error—the next fact should have rung alarm bells though. Strangely this track sloped downhill and the map was certain that I should still be climbing. I did a very good job of making the map match what I wanted to see, inverting contours to turn hills into dips and so I continued downwards and wrong. I just could not fathom it out (obviously not helped by the tracks not being on the map). I swore very loudly … at the sky, at myself, at the void. I continued into error. There was then another track junction where the direction was definitely wrong so I retraced my steps and rejoined the original wrong track (rather than the wrong wrong track). By now, the bearing of this wrong track had shifted to match the bearing of the Road I should have been on, I was just lower down the hill. Apart from the grid reference things were making sense now.
Until I reached another junction! What the hell was going on? More swearing at the void. There was even tarmac underfoot here but nothing seemed to be going in the right direction. I tried turning right but that went steeply downhill and was definitely wrong so I eventually settled on left and uphill, although that didn’t seem quite right, but was more right than wrong and seemed to be working with the unfolding of the grid refs on my GPS. After about 300 metres I reached more tarmac and a road sign. The Cam High Road. Hu-bloody-rah! And there were footsteps in the slushy snow. This gave me a lift. After all, who else is likely to have been out here in these conditions at this time of night … err, morning, for it was after 1am by now. Talk about throwing it all away. Are we done yet? Err, no, Nav Error #4 was waiting a few hundred metres away.
Over a cattle grid and past a Pennine way sign willing me on but a bit further along the footsteps disappeared, lost in a maze of car tyre tracks. Still I was on firm ground and happy. As I continued I convinced my eyes that there were footprints in the snow amongst the tyre tracks, but as time went on it was beginning to unnerve me that the ground seemed to be rising to my left. It should have been dropping away. Visibility was still poor so it was difficult to confirm this; I carried on, once more convincing myself that all would work out. I gave up on this thought after about 600m when the GPS grid ref had me going along the wrong side of Dodd Fell. I retraced my footsteps to the Pennine Way sign, my last certain location, but could not work out where I had missed a track bearing off to the left. More cursing at the void. I gave myself a stiff talking to and found shelter in the lee of a wall to get my act together (and replace my GPS batteries—why didn’t I do this in the café as a preventative action?). I realised that I must have been almost on the junction at this point (Kidhow Gate) and so plunged into the void and just beyond the mess of car tyre tracks I picked up the track, complete with footprints!
I then rapidly wished that I had not found this track and had continued merrily on down the road, albeit the wrong road! This track, West Cam Road, was the most miserable few kilometres of the whole undertaking. Ok, the track went downhill but that was its sole plus point. It was an ankle-breaking boulder field, deep in slush and freezing water, or else it was just a full-on stream; a stream running strong enough to shift the boulders in its path. This was all interspersed with some deep muddy sections. And the weather was still doing a good impression of Spine weather®. I hobbled, limped and cursed my way down here.
As an aside, and Spiners may like to laugh at this, Wainwright described this section of the Pennine Way as “a lovely ‘green road’.” Oh, how times (tracks) change. Somewhere near Backsides(!) and on another route diversion now (by the way, the little pink flags of the diversion, were quite uplifting at this point … in these situations you take anything to get a boost) I spied a headtorch over to my left, slightly away from the track. Was that somebody stretching, or resting? It was Mike again. He had obviously overtaken me during my nav errors but was sidelined again with his feet. We mumbled acknowledgment and went on ‘together’ through more boulder field. After an eternity we got down to valley level and although the track remained a little rough for a while, lights began to appear in the surrounding darkness, evidence that visibility was better, even if the rain/snow was still lashing down. Round to High Bands farm and we were on the terra firma of tarmac.
Mike started to run ahead, I struggled to keep up but just about kept him in sight as we twisted and turned through Gayle. I finally lost sight of him near the slabbed path through to Hawes. Popping out in the town centre I turned right in search of the road to Hardraw. On the bridge over the Gayle Beck I could hear the water thundering underneath. I found the Hardraw road but then forgot the little short cut the Pennine Way takes to cut off a corner of the road. And then just beyond here was the world’s biggest puddle. It was difficult to make out what was road and what was water in the light of the headtorch. I started to wade in, got to knee-deep and thought better of it. Spotting a break in the wall to my right and a raised path beside the road! This was a good way round the puddle! Back down onto the road and over the bridge I peeped over the wall to look at the water below and was disturbed to see the water not below but almost level with the road. Keep walking, there’s a hill up ahead, that would see me safe from the sinister River Ure!
I hadn’t committed to memory the fact that it was about a kilometre across fields from the road to the finish at Hardraw. Fields that although they had a paved path were still beginning to become submerged. This home straight took longer than hoped, with each field covered there seemed to be another one to cross. Eventually tarmac was regained and I easily found the bunkhouse finish. A small group clapped me in and I was presented with my medal. I mumbled apologies about the fact that they were probably laughing at me drawing various strange shapes via the tracking. After just over 44 and a half hours my journey was over. I was very tired and the nav errors had put me in a low mood so I probably seemed rather underwhelmed at the finish line. And vacant. I was very vacant. I went from a state of full alertness to please-look-after-this-bear in seconds.
I sat shivering for a while as the kind and helpful folks tried to help me get sorted out, but in my haze I was struggling with the limited space to understand my kit. After a cup of tea I opted for a shower. This turned out to be the worst experience of the whole race (yes, worse than the Cam Road). Only one shower seemed to work, and this was at low pressure with lukewarm water in a cold room and the mats were designed to pierce skin, or press further into already pierced skin. Add to this that my towel was already wet and I was very pleased to regain the comfort of the main room. I ate a little and had my feet checked over before dozing off under my sleeping bag next to the wood burner that had gone out due to lack of fuel! I was content though and dozed off, happily seizing up.
I came round at about 8am. I was very stiff but heard somebody talking about transport to the train station. I was keen to get a morning train if possible and so sprung into action (I wish). I just about managed to reach the massage table for a quick freshen up and then got my kit sorted with the help of the volunteers and a fellow racer who, having finished almost a day earlier was nice and fresh. My feet were swelling up but just about fit in my shoes. I was ready for the shuttle back to reality (via the picturesque Settle-Carlisle railway.
Kit: I wore my Montane Spine waterproof jacket the whole time, initially as a windproof and then in the last six hours as an actual waterproof! it worked well but may not have been so good if the whole race had been wet (I did have a spare waterproof in my drop bag). A Montane primino 220 zip neck top served really well as my main top layer under the waterproof. After Hebden bridge I added a RAB technical t-shirt and from Malham Tarn I also added a Montane verso smock. N.B. I’m not sponsored by Montane! On my legs I wore some midweight Ronhill tights with Ronhill cargo shorts over the top for modesty. On my feet I wore Roclite 305s (see below) with Bridgedale liners and Inov8 merino ankle socks over the top. On my hands I mostly wore lightweight Montane primino liner gloves and then some heavyweight ski gloves beyond Malham. On my head I started with a Salomon lightweight cap and mixed this up with a buff but after Malham I wore a fleecy goretex peaked cap, buff and had the waterproof hood up.
I used the Harvey’s 1:40,000 maps (along with a few print-outs of 1:25,000 OS maps for some of the trickier sections) and had a Silva compass and a fairly old Garmin GPS unit with limited waypoints. I was pretty happy with my Petzl MYO headtorch although I still find the on/off button fiddly to operate (and all but impossible in gloves). As not generally a pole user I was happy with the Mountain King Trail Blaze poles, pretty comfortable in the hands and easily stowable.
I had all my gear packed in an OMM classic 32 pack with a Raidlight front pack attached (I had customised the fittings slightly to connect these two up). In there and unused were a RAB sleeping bag, Therm-a-rest mat and Outdoor Research bivvy bag along with an Optimus Crux Lite cookset. Stowed away were also the other items of required kit with most things in Exped waterproof liners and heavy gauge plastic sack to line the whole bag. As I had another mat I didn’t use the sleeping mat/backrest that comes with the OMM pack. I carried a camera but took few photos as I had it a bit inaccessible in my front pack. I’m happy to answer any questions about kit that readers may have but much of it is a very personal choice at the end of the day.
I carried over 3000Kcal of hill food including mini pork pies, Babybels, Eat Natural bars, Clif shot Bloks, Kendal mint cake, chocolate, malt loaves and a dehydrated meal. I carried water in a 1.5L bladder and a 500ml soft bottle stowed in my front pack.
Some lessons learned: sleep deprivation was not the major issue that I thought it would be; I still need to sort out hill food for these sorts of events (can’t always rely on cafés and pubs) as I get a bit fussy when tired—maybe I just need to get less fussy; the Roclite 305s were ok up to about 100 miles but I perhaps need something a little more cushioned for the amount of hard/rocky ground that was involved; although I enjoy navigating by map and compass I found the Harvey’s map lacking in a couple of places (especially at night and in poor visibility); a little more efficiency with personal administration could have saved me a half hour or more overall.
A few more of those numbers: with a time of 44:37:14 I placed 31st out of 76 finishers (there were 27 retirees).
And finally some thanks: a big thank you to all staff and volunteers on the race for keeping an amazing event going (and remaining cheerful and helpful throughout); thanks also to all the MRT folks out on the course for their kindness, friendliness, generosity and support; also thanks to the random strangers who offered food and drink or simply encouragement at all times of day and night. Thanks also to the other runners that I spent time with. A big ‘thank you’ to the Pennine hills. And lastly, thank you to my friends and family who dot-watched and offered support via text and, of course, thank you (and sorry) to my wife for all her suffering and sleeplessness as she dot-watched (a bit too much) and looked after the children. Apparently I am not allowed to do the full Spine Race.
Spoiler: I didn’t manage to complete the 2017 Dragon’s Back Race.
Whilst it must be remembered that Ancient Greek Cynicism did not give much value to athletic feats there are a number of Cynic principles that can be pulled in as analogues in considerations of ultra running. Primarily the concept of epimeleia is hugely relevant for ultra runners, this Foucauldian ‘care of the self’ applies personally to each individual runner prior to and during an event (from general care to avoid injury through stretching, eating correctly, selecting the correct kit and looking after feet) but this care also stretches out, in Cynic fashion, as a duty to those around the runner. The care that the runner takes over their preparation and performance creates a defence against the needs of others to compromise their own safety through having to rescue the ill-prepared runner for instance. It may also be that the runner who takes care may share their knowledge to guide and motivate others.
Further, the Cynic consideration of the two ways is relevant. Whilst ultras are by no means short they are arduous and certainly not taking the easy option. Lastly, a dose of Diogenean renunciation can come into play when the runner struggles to re-pack their kit bag for the nth time and wishes that it were a little less burdened by unnecessary items.
Day 1: 53km and 3800m of ascent. A 7am start from Conwy and once through the congestion and queues along the town walls the filed began to spread out nicely. A good day in the 3000ers of Snowdonia where my background in mountain walking levelled the playing field (metaphorically) against a few of the runners at least as the rocky ground and steep ascents/descents reduced most to walking. Navigation was simple through the first half of the day but low cloud and drizzle meant tight nav was required particularly in the crossing of Crib Goch and the descent from Snowdon. (12hours 0minutes 1second)
Day 2: 58km and 3600m of ascent. A 6:15am start. Lowish cloud meant that Cnicht and the Moelwyns required careful navigation. A couple of errors put me off the best lines and left me on a damp cliff wondering whether to go up or down at one point. No major disasters though. Back down to valley level and the day was warming up. After the support point stop and up the Roman Steps my eating wasn’t going too well and I struggled through the Rhinogs and down through the forestry to Dolgellau. Finishing quite empty and unable to eat much dinner. (13hours 58minutes 13seconds)
Day 3: 71km and 3500m of ascent (26km and 1362m of ascent). A humid and murky day, struggling from the off to do anything but walk steadily on flats, ups or downs. Seemed to have little more go on the initial road hill up towards the foot of Cadair Idris but that soon faded. Still unable to eat anything but Kendal mint cake and the little energy I had soon disappeared. Broken low cloud and military jets added an unwanted atmosphere of foreboding. I Hauled myself up and over the summit of Cadair Idris and then along its interminable ridge to Tal Y Lyn and dropped down through the mandatory section to the valley below. My heart sank looking across to the climb around the side of Bird’s Rock. I reached the road near Dolgoch as a husk. I struggle now, with a week’s hindsight, to recall just how impossible it felt to go on. I was behind the cut-off for the next summit but possibly could have got through in time for the Machynlleth one but truth was I felt utterly empty and did feel able to enter the next twenty kilometres of the Tarren’s domain knowing them well from my training runs. Gutted I (along with two others) claimed a lift back to Machynlleth with a kind couple who had been watching the race with their son. Back in Machy I found an appetite and ate lots and then collapsed at the support point to get a lift to the overnight camp. (4hours 4minutes 4seconds)
Day 4: 71km and 2400m of ascent (36km and 963m of ascent). Deciding that I would like to do the whole of Day 5 I opted to do the second half of Day 4. A frustrating hour or two at camp and then a lift to Elan Village preceded my start at about 10:30. I felt ok, had eaten a reasonable breakfast and was looking forward to a good afternoon. It was hot, very hot and I started out steadily but beautifully runnable grass above Caban-coch Reservoir couldn’t be resisted. Through Rhiwnant and along a track and then pathless moor brought me up onto the uplands and Dragyn Fawr. The ‘early’ start at Elan had left me near the front of the field. Somewhere around here Jim Mann had taken a shorter route and passed me during his bid to reclaim the race lead (a battle far from my thoughts apart from as a fan of the sport!). Down from Dragyn Fawr and onto the first long road section through Abergwesyn and then up and over a lovely little bwlch to the Llyn Brianne Reservoir road. Although all on tarmac the 9km or so down the Tywi valley was softened by the spring glory of the landscape arriving at the campsite in good time to wind down slowly and even enjoy the local pub and a bathe in the river. (5hours 9minutes 42seconds)
Day 5: 63km and 2200m of ascent. After two unexpected shorter days I was feeling much better today. I had eaten well the previous day and rested well too and was ready for the final day of the race. I was away soon after 6am into a glorious morning with barely a cloud in the sky. Our days destination of Black Mountain was clear on the horizon, again I took it fairly easily to begin with, revelling in the conditions and trying to absorb as much as possible. After about 2 and a half hours I passed through Llandovery and grabbed some food and drink—a jam doughnut for then and sandwich for later. The bottles of Ribena and Coke didn’t last long but fuelled me for the run through to the Usk Reservoir support point where ice creams also awaited us courtesy of the race organisation. Then onwards and upwards through more forestry and out onto open upland moor. I was slightly concerned about the climb up onto Fan Brycheiniog but I took it at steady pace and reached the summit with little distress. Then it was west along the ridge using some route tip-offs I had been given and an unexpected ice cream van at a high car park for further cold drinks and ice lollies. The going underfoot was tough around this section as the rocks didn’t permit easy progress although the sheep trods (once found) were a godsend. Dropping down off the end of the ridge and then up and down through farmland and tracks. Passing Carreg Cennen Castle (and another opportunity to grab a cold drink) and then the final few downhill kilometres on tarmac. Kind words of encouragement from Carol Morgan (eventual winning lady) spurred me on downwards to finish the day and race at Ffairfach. (10hours 2minutes 45seconds)
A heartfelt thank you to Ourea Events and all the staff and volunteers who presented such a succesful and entertaining event. I will be back to complete the dragon in 2019.
[I may add further detail to this text over the coming weeks]