After entering The Spine Challenger nine months ago, I was subsequently tempted by the West Highland Way. Back then three weeks seemed a sufficiently good recovery time. Three weeks post WHW, with a tapering club tour to Snowdonia the weekend before (brilliant weekend thanks to Geoff and George), I was thinking perhaps I’d embarked on too much. I was, however, committed and so began my Pennine Way adventure.
The Montane Summer Spine and Summer Spine Challenger are the summer versions of the classic Montane Spine and Spine Challenger held in January. As I didn’t think I was up to racing 268 miles non-stop, I elected for the Challenger event – a 110 mile race along the most iconic national trail in Britain – the Pennine Way.
The MSS Challenger traverses the moorland of the Kinder Plateau, numerous National Parks, Malham Cove and Pen-y-Ghent to name a few. All three Spine races (there is also a sprint distance of 42 miles). Edale is only a small village, so virtually all of the participants stayed at the Youth Hostel the night prior to the race.
Despite having done quite a few ultras, I felt very much like an amateur talking to several people on the Friday night. Everyone I spoke to was from the Midlands/North and they had all recced the route to some extent. Even the lady from the States had numerous Spine races under her belt. A whole community of runners has obviously grown up around the Spine races with people alternating between events year on year.
The route is exposed and the weather can change suddenly. As a result there is an extensive mandatory kit. Annoyingly all this kit didn’t fit into my favoured Saloman race pack. Consequently I used an Ultimate Direction 20L pack, which I now hate! Although I’d run 30 miles with it, after 110 my shoulders were in agony. It just doesn’t fit as snugly and is more difficult to run with.
After the scorching temperatures of Friday, Saturday was perfect running weather. It was also a beautiful, clear day in which to experience the Pennines for the first time. The race started at 8:00am and quickly became a steep climb taking in Jacob’s Ladder. Up on the plateau the views were stunning. The first 20 miles take in the most significant climbs – including a section with the devil’s name (never a good sign).
As the race is billed as not only the UK’s most brutal event, but also as a self sufficient evernt there are only two check points on the route. One at 75km, where you can get a hot meal and access your drop bag (also get a few hours sleep if you want) and another at 137km where you can fill up water and get a hot drink. Other than that you are on your own, although you are free to use whatever resources are en route so long as they are permissible to everyone.
After the climbs, there was a beautiful stretch of moorland, bringing to mind Wuthering Heights. Then 52km into the race was Nicki’s van. Situated on a flyover on the M62, this comprises of a storage unit with a cooking area at one end and tables and chairs at the other. I often struggle in the early stages of an ultra and this an was a pure oasis – the best bacon butty and can of coke I have ever tasted. The cameraderie inside the van was incredible.
After stopping there for 10 minutes, I felt invigorated and the remaining 20+km to Hebdon Bridge past quickly. The woodland descent into the check point was a midge fest and I got severely biten. I never really spend much time in aid stations, adopting the mindset that relentless forward progress is the way to go. Latterly, however, I’ve been rethinking this. The volunteers were great – efficient and helpful. I recharged my watch, changed my socks, refuelled race pack, ate a hot meal and 45 minutes later set out on the night section. Not being able to navigate my way out of the check point was needless to say a little disspiriting!
The night section passed in a bit of a blur. I had to really concentrate to pick up the path as it was a little indistinct in the torchlight. At one stage I found myself on top of what looked like a ha-ha and had to clamber down a rocky wall to pick up the path. The temperature dropped dramatically and it was particularly cold and bleak on the top of Ickornshaw Moor. Coming off the moor, however, was a lovely man Gary who, together with his running club mates, had set up a tent complete with chairs and blankets and was serving food and hot drinks in exchange of a donation to his chosen charity. It was 4:00am when I got there, so his hospitality was particularly welcome.
From there it seemed like an interminable stretch to Malham Tarn. ‘Malhams the place where the highlights start to appear,’ wrote Wainwright – the dramatic start of limestone country. It was certainly most impressive, as I made my way up 420 steps – I thought counting would distract me from the pain in my legs (it being too early for paracetamol) – and then had to scramble over monstrous looking boulders at the top. After 130km!
From Check point 1.5, there was only 44km to the finish. Just over a marathon! First was the climb up Fountains Fell, athough I loved the runnable grassy descent. Then came the more difficult ascent up Pen-y-Ghent. At one point I was really struggling to scramble up some of the bigger rocks. All I could think was that at least it was light and dry. Two factors for which I was particularly grateful, especially after speaking to a guy afterwards who was forced to press the emergency button on his tracker after coming a cropper in the same place in the dark.
At the descent, a mere 30km to go. The remainder of the route takes in an old packhorse route and Roman roads. Here all you can see are endless hills and sheep. It certainly felt lonely and exposed as I progressed up the long, gentle ascent. I stress long – whilst I lost track of time I’m talking hours.
The final descent coming off the moors was brilliant – really runnable with the valley below swathed in sunshine.
It was an incredible experience. The weather was perfect and the Pennines looked truly magnificent. I met lots of great people. As with all these events, the volunteers were so kind. Not having any idea when I’d finish (there is a 60 hour cut off, so I was thinking early Monday morning), I hadn’t booked any accommodation. A lady rang a few pubs for me but they were fully booked and then someone suggested allowing me use of a tent (put up for the benefit of the participants of the full Spine). I had a mat and sleeping bag and so was able to get a few hours sleep.
My finishing time was36:53:14 10th lady and 36th overall. Winning male and female times were 23:06:47 and 30:04:31 respectively. Given I didn’t speak with anyone who hadn’t recced the route to some extent, I was well pleased. Certainly reckon I can all myself a Spiner.
Certainly ranks as one of the hardest events I’ve ever completed. I’ve never before been out on a course for the best part of 37 hours! Although a little sore and broken today, I’m already researching what to do next.