Written by Christian Maleedy - https://runningchristian.wordpress.com
It’s the final leg of this journey. We have climbed out of Horton in Ribblesdale and are now on Cam fell. It is late evening and the June sun hangs low in the sky peering over the distant hills. Despite the blinding light in my eyes, I’m desperate for the sun to stay up a little longer. I know that as soon as the sun dips behind the Pennines, it will signal the start of a second consecutive night without sleep. I’d struggled with the sleep deprivation earlier in the day and knew that with darkness, it would return again. There’s still around 10 miles to the finish in Hardraw; it may as well be 10,000 miles at this stage.
Part 1 – Edale and the Dark Peak
The race started 37 hours earlier in the picturesque village of Edale. This is the official start of the Pennine Way (PW) and we’re now minutes away from the start of the first ever Spine Flare and Fusion races. These are the inaugural summer equivalent races of the more famous January races, the Challenger and the Spine. Like the winter races, the Flare is around 110 miles from Edale to Hardraw, whilst the Fusion consists of the entire Pennine Way, 268 miles from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.
As I wait for the race to begin, I think back to my attempt at the Challenger this January just past. My overall memories of that race were of snow, mud, bog, ice and the crushing disappointment of not making it to the finish. Whilst the conditions were bad, it is my own mistakes before and during that race that disappoint me the most and I’m determined not to repeat them again.
The race begins. These summer races are much smaller in terms of competitors than the traditional winter ones and it doesn’t take long for the field to fragment. I haven’t run since Monday and I get caught up in the euphoria of the start. A small lead group of three runners immediately breaks away and for the first couple of miles over Upper Booth on the way to Kinder Scout, I stay close behind them. I quickly realise that there is no way I should be anywhere near the lead group and so ease my pace off. This is fairly easily achieved as I’m now at the foot of Jacob’s ladder, one of the most significant climbs in the race. The ascent seems easier than it was in January; certainly the lack of snow underfoot helps as does the specific hill training that I’ve done in preparation.
It’s misty on Kinder Plateau as I pick may way amongst the rocks. The path of the Pennine Way isn’t always clear here, a fact compounded by a complete lack of National Trail signs on the Plateau. However, I find my way with no problems, remembering to hug the edge of the Plateau. Past Kinder downfall, I descend the other side of Kinder taking care on the slippery rocks.
The next few miles are relatively flat and fast along moorland flagstones (the first of many along the PW). Before too long, I’m able to enjoy the ethereal sight of cars in the distance seemingly floating across the distant moors. This is not (yet!) sleep-deprivation induced hallucinations – it is just the Snake Pass road which famously cuts across the moors.
I cross the Snake Pass in good time, ahead of my schedule and feeling positive. As I traverse the next section towards Bleaklow, the path begins to trend upwards. A drone buzzs overhead filming the race. It follows me and another runner for a few hundred meters before turning around and heading back towards Snake Pass. For a moment, a thought enters my head, completely uninvited – there’s still over 100 miles to go. I quickly banish that thought. My absolute golden rule is not to think about the distance remaining until I am close to the end; instead I try and focus on breaking the race into small sections and reaching the next landmark. Somewhere along this section, I chat to Charl, a gregarious South African doing the full Fusion race. Over the course of the next two days, our paths would cross many times and we would run several miles together. Charl pushes on and I’m by myself again. At this point, I become aware of another runner behind me. This I would soon discover is Helen. Only later would I realise that our races were to be inextricably linked. For the time being, Helen, Charl and I spend the next few miles at times running along and at times in twos and threes. After Bleaklow, the PW becomes a narrow single track alongside a steep sided valley, before finally dropping down to Torside reservoir. Here we’re able to refill our water bottles from a support vehicle before beginning the climb up to Black Hill. Despite being a remote scenic section, this always feels like a slog. Somewhere along here, I feel the first hunger pangs. My plan is to keep the calories coming in as consistently as possible. I know that there is often a snack van located at the next road crossing, so I decide to push on for that rather than dipping into my food stash that I’m carrying. From Black Hill there is a perfect downhill section. I do enjoy a good runnable downhill and so attempt my best Kilian Jornet impression by hammering this part.
I reach the snack van just as the lady is beginning to pack away. I can honestly say that collapsed in a plastic chair by the side of the road, I would not have exchanged my bacon bap and coke for the finest Michelin started cuisine in Paris; it was just perfect in every way. Charl soon joins me and is quickly expounding the virtues of the pork scratchings that he is enjoying. We leave together and begin the next section.
Part 2 – Into the South Pennines
We start the descent from the road down to Wessenden Head Reservoir. This was the section in January’s race when the bad chaffing began (due to some bad clothing choices) and I got the first inkling that it really wasn’t going to be my day. Today, however, the going is good. The Pennine Way drops into a narrow valley crossing a stream before rising immediately again on the other side. I stop to fix the chest straps on my backpack(the first of a few kit malfunctions) and Charl, Helen and Raj (another Fusion runner) push on ahead. I recall running this section in the darkness completely alone in January with no sign of any other runners. Today a combination of being so close to the summer solstice and also being significantly up on my January time mean that I still have many hours of daylight left. I decide to make the most of them and push on. As I cross the new stone slabs stretching across the otherwise desolate moorland, I recall seeing these same slabs being brought in by helicopter during a run over these moors the previous October.
A light but steady rain begins to fall. I catch up with Raj and Charl who have stopped to put on their waterproofs and I join them. The three of us pass a few enjoyable moors across the moors. The wet weather makes the race feel a bit more “Spine-y”. We stop at another moorland car park where a support vehicle has left water for us. As we fill our bottles, I feel invigorated by the rain. I look across at Raj and see the look of euphoria on his face. This is living and we both realise it in that moment.
As we continue along Stanedge, I experience a vivid flash back to January. This point was one of the (precious few) highlights from that race – a huge full moon rising into the inky black night sky. It is, of course, still daylight today and there is to be no full moon when darkness does finally set in. I push on the pace along as I feel Check Point 1 (CP1), beckoning me onwards. The next few miles pass by quickly. The top of Blackstone Edge is rocky and adds some rugged beauty to the otherwise grassy moorland.
I pass the White House pub, once a regular haunt of Spine racers past. Unsure if we are still persona non grata, I continue past towards Warland reservoir. Here the PW has been rerouted to go anticlockwise around the reservoir rather than the usual clockwise direction. The alternative route feels more remote and I’m a little surprised to see a small tent that has been erected in the middle of the trail. I squeeze past trying to avoid disturbing whoever is inside.
The sight of Stoodley Pike in the distance lifts my spirits as I know it’s around 5 miles from there to the checkpoint, a hot meal and a sit down. Once again in January, this section was a low point. I’d lost the path (such as it is) beneath the snowdrifts and was forced to find my own route through thigh deep snow hiding rocks, bogs and grass. Stoodley Pike is famous for appearing in the distance, teasing PW hikers in the distance but seemingly never getting any closer no matter how much progress is made. That was my January experience (or it would have been had I been able to see the tower in the dark and the mist). But today is different; the path is dry and clear and the Pike grows steadily in size as I approach.
I eventually catch up to Helen who is resting by the side of the trail. We agree to traverse this section to CP1 together. We stop for a few minutes at the Pike and empty our shoes of bits of trail that have found its way in. From Stoodley Pike, the PW turns downhill first across fields, then past farm buildings and eventually down an access road before coming out on a bridge across the River Calder. No sooner do you reach the bottom before you have to climb back up the other side of the valley, initially along a narrow stone path between houses. With CP1 now close, I suggest to Helen that we try and leave the Check Point together. It will be dusk by the time we leave and some company during the night crossing of the moors seems appealing to us both. I also discover that Helen is an A&E doctor. She could possibly could be a good person to have around, though I hope not to have to call on her expertise!
My feet are starting to suffer and I can feel blisters developing. I look forward to having these taped up at the Check Point. before too long, the PW comes out in the village of Colden. Sadly CP1 is a non-trivial diversion off the PW, so we leave the trail for the time being to follow the road past quaintly pennine stone terraced houses. The path down to CP1 from the road is steep and narrow passing through woods. Eventually CP1 (Hebden Hey scout hut) appears as if from nowhere out of the trees. Outside, we are swarmed by midges so hurry inside. I make a beeline to the dining area and enjoy a steaming hot bowl of chicken stew. I’d planned on a complete change of clothes here and feel like a new man after a quick shower. There are bunk beds available here and many racers are planning on a short sleep. My pre-race plan was to push through and complete the race with no sleep as preparation for UTMB later in the summer. In any case, I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through me and had I tried to lie down, sleep would certainly have alluded me. Up in the medical room, the medics do a fantastic job on my feet. Helen has previously volunteered as a medic on previous winter Spine races and is treated (quite rightly) as a returning hero by the other medics. Fed, rested and patched up, we head for the door. At this point, I realise that one of my hiking poles has broken. It looks fixable but not without tools. This is a setback as the poles have been useful but I put this quickly out of mind. A positive mental attitude is my greatest asset. Setbacks like this have to be expected and I can’t let it affect me unduly. I stick the broken pole in my pack and continue out the door with the single pole.
Part 3 – Bronte country
We step out into the cool dusk as the light begins to fail. We thank the volunteers and they wish us well as we begin the ascent back the way we came towards Colden village. The tree cover on the way up blocks out what little daylight remains and we turn on our head torches.
Helen switches on her GPS which happily beeps away marking each mile we cover from the Check Point. After a little rest, the miles pass quickly and before I know it, we have traversed Heptonstall Moor. We pick up our pace along a short road section as we head towards the Walshaw reservoirs. Darkness has fully taken hold now and there is little sign of any other racers. We begin the ascent up to Withins Height. This is Bronte country and the inspiration for literature’s most famous of sisters. We reach the ruins of Top Withins, so famously linked with Wuthering Heights and take shelter from the cool night for a few minutes in an old bothy next door. I take out my phone and show Helen where we are on the race trackers; as suspected there are no other racers anywhere near us.
I start to shiver as we get going again – even stopping for a few minutes has caused my body temperature to drop. We make our way down to the village of Ponden which is completely deserted. As we cross the road past the reservoir, I point out the spot to Helen where my January challenger race came to its ignominious end. Completely disheartened by miles of chaffing, blisters, mud, ice and snowmelt, the race had got inside my head and I’d called my wife Caroline (who had been crewing for me) to pick me up and put the race out of its misery. There are no such thoughts in my head today and I’m completely focussed on getting to the end. In any case, even if I did want to drop out, short of mountain rescue in an emergency, there is no-one for me to call and no one would be coming to rescue me!
After a steep uphill section, we reach the start of Ickornshaw Moor. My preference would have been to tackle this section in daylight but that always seemed unlikely. My only prior experience here was also in the dark the previous November when I had attempted it in the snow. Even with GPS, I had lost the path and ended up far off course waist deep in snow and unable to get back onto the PW due to the bogs hidden under the snow. Tonight the path is easier to follow though we check our maps and GPS a couple of times. At this point, we see the first runner for several hours – eventual joint winner of the longer Fusion race, Olivier passes by us. This section of moorland is rough going and takes a long time and I feel my spirits falling. After what seems like an eternity, we come out at the road crossing in Cowling where a very committed race official is waiting at a bus shelter to take our numbers. This section of the race is my least favourite of the race. Lacking the desolate beauty of the Peak District or the stunning Limestone scenery of the Yorkshire Dales, it feels very uninspiring consisting of slogging between muddy fields and small villages. Perhaps I’m being unfair in my assessment, but this is how I feel.
It’s the early hours of the morning now and I look forward to sunrise to lift our spirits. Just as the first signs of light appear in the sky, the rain clouds roll in and we have a few hours of soaking rain to dampen our spirits further. At this point, I feel the first signs of extreme fatigue and begin to fantasise about climbing into my sleeping bag (which is lovely and warm as it was bought with the Winter Spine in mind), passing out and forgetting all about the race for a few hours. I quickly realise this line of thought will quickly spiral out of control if I allow it to. Instead I turn to Helen and we have a good conversation about our favourite foods/drinks/TV/places to visit – anything to take our minds off the wet muddy trail that seems to stretch inexorably onwards before us. The conversation gives me a boost and I start to feel a bit more awake. We discuss breakfast plans – we talk about finding a pub open at 6am on a Sunday with a roaring fire, full English and hot coffees just waiting for us. Unsuprising this proves to be optimistic and ultimately we have to make do with breakfast from the Co-op in Gargrave. As we sit outside the Co-op, we are joined by a Fusion racer. We try to encourage him to come with us to the CP1.5 in Malham, but I can see from his eyes that his race is over. We wish him the best and continue towards Malham.
Part 4 – The Yorkshire Dales
Gargrave marks the start of the Yorkshire Dales. The section between Gargrave and Malham is fairly flat and gentle, running beside gentle streams and through quaint villages. At Malham, there is a dramatic step change in the scenery – gone is the gentle rolling green countryside. In its place is dramatic limestone cliffs, tarns and waterfalls.
We allow ourselves to believe that Malham represents “the beginning of the end”, though in reality it is still at least 30 miles from the finish. Having missed out on our full English, we decide to stop for coffee and cake in Malham and enjoy a good hypothetical discussion about what kind of cake we would have if we could have any. By now the weather has cleared up and it is warm and sunny. As we enter the tearooms, there is another race sitting outside at a table gently dozing in the warm June sunshine. Coffee and cake is nice but without the adrenaline of the race, I feel the fatigue returning.
My wife has promised to give me text updates on that other great event in the Ultrarunning calendar happening this weekend, Western States 100. I’m shocked to read that Jim Walmsley has imploaded for the second year in a row when all the talk was of him crushing the course record. However, I’m very happy for the eventual winner, the South African, Ryan Sandes. Ryan is one of my favourite elite runners to follow and he’s had some bad luck at Western States in the past with injuries and illnesses, so I know this will mean a lot.
It’s now a warm sunny Sunday morning and there are quite a few “normal people” completely oblivious to our race out and about enjoying Malham Cove (which is only half a mile or so from the village). We climb to the top of the cove past the hoards, over the spectacular limestone pavement and follow a narrow valley towards Malham tarn. Helen points out a couple of caves in the side of the valley that she had previously scouted out as possible spots to bivvy out. Our plan is still to push onto the finish without sleep. We are bullish about being able to survive the day without sleep. We know Sunday night will be tough but are hopeful that by that stage we will be close enough to the finish that the adrenaline will get us through.
We reach Malham Tarn, there is a lovely breeze across the water and the spray on my skin makes me feel like I’m beside the sea.
Around the Tarn and before too long we reach Checkpoint1.5 at the old manor house. This is not a full checkpoint (meaning there’s no hot food available or access to drop bags), but there is water and medics. We sit down at a wooden table outside and chat a little with the medics and a couple of other competitors. I find some hot water for my pot noodle which I’ve been carrying in my backpack since CP1.5.
Whenever I set race goals for myself, these are usually around finishing the race or finishing the race in a particular time. I never set goals like “finish in the top x%” on the basis that I can control (to some degree) my own performance but I can’t control anyone else’s. However, Helen and I had realised quite early on that we currently in around 8th place in the Flare race. In fact Helen was the second placed lady. Although we both just wanted to finish, the thought of a top 10 finish was tantalising. We knew from the trackers that there was no other Flare runners anywhere near us. However, whenever we see another racer, this doesn’t stop us peering round at their race number to check that they were a Fusion rather than a Flare runner! I’m not sure where this competitive side has come from, but I really don’t want to give up my top 10 spot!
From CP1.5, we begin the very hilly section of the course. Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent are both significant climbs and stand between us and the town of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Fountains Fell is a long steady (if not particularly steep) climb. At some point on this climb, I fall asleep on my feet and start dreaming about work. Helen asks if I’m ok and I wake with a fright to realise that I’m halfway up a mountain and not at work at all! As we reach the top of Fountains Fell, the wind really picks up and is threatening to blow us off the mountain.
I pick up the pace on the descent down off Fountains Fell. Down at the bottom, we stop for a few minutes out of the wind to have some more food before tackling Pen-y-Ghent. This is the highest point on the course and although it’s a steep climb, it is over relatively quickly. I enjoy using my hands on the scrabble to reach the top.
From the top, it’s a long descent down into the town of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The traditional start point of the Yorkshire Three Peaks, signs of the famous route are everywhere and I promise myself that I’ll be back to do the three peaks sometime soon. Horton-in-Ribblesdale is the final bit of civilisation that we’ll see before the finish so we make the most of the stop by filling up bottles and having some more food. We toy with the idea of a pub dinner here but instead opted to push on for the finish. However, as we leave Horton we bump into Charl coming out of a pub. He enthusiastically tells us all about his steak pie, chips and gravy that he has been enjoying and I wonder enviously whether we made the right choice in foregoing the pub grub!
Part 5 – Cam fell and the finish
The final 15 miles between Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Hardraw is the only section of the course that I am not familiar with. I’m grateful to Helen who has recced this very recently. It’s a long steady climb up out of Horton and the miles pass slowly.
Helen is suffering with her knees and I’m struggling with my feet. Despite that, we are still working well together.
The sun eventually dips behind the distant hills and we immediately feel colder. We stop and add several layers. The combination of hunger and extreme fatigue has contributed to me feeling the cold much more. As day turns to dusk turns to night, we eventually give in and turn on our head torches. This is a very remote section of the course and there really is no sign of anyone around.
The sleep deprivation has us both in its firm grip and the hallucinations begin. Having largely avoided them in the first night, it seems the second night will more than make up for it. My head torch catches various objects in its partial light and my sleep-deprived mind interprets them in any way it sees fit. Sheep in fields become people, trees become tents and at one point I see a Star Wars storm trooper sitting beside the side of the road! Of course I don’t believe it’s a real storm trooper (that would indeed be strange), I merely assume that an eager race volunteer has hiked the 10+ miles up from the finish to sit on a remote piece of trail in the cold and the dark dressed in fancy dress as a storm trooper! Of course this makes no sense either. As I get closer, I realise that my head torch has reflected off a small pool of water and my mind has done the rest.
We continue, past Cam End and eventually onto the old Roman road, Cam High Road. We turn onto the West Cam Road (nb this is not a “road” in any way that I understand the word, more a rocky track) and I know ether is another turning off this track coming up. This turning takes an absolute age to come and I’m convinced we must have missed it. However, the GPS confirms that we are on the right track and we still have further to go.
Around this point, Helen turns to me and says “I just a shooting star. It looked like a child was playing with it in the sky.” I frown to myself, this doesn’t sound good. I’ve been worrying about my own rationality deserting me and now I worry about Helen’s too. I look up in the sky and sure enough there are lights dancing around the night sky. We begin an enthusiastic discussion about whether these are indeed shooting stars on some crazy trajectory in defiance of all known laws of physics or perhaps some kind of UFO phenomenon. Perhaps the little green men in flying saucers have come to beam up the crazy ultrarunners! Helen eventually points out that all the stars in the sky are behaving in this way and so we conclude that sleep deprivation is causing our vision to blur the lights. We agree to put socialising to one side and to both listen to our ipods in an effort to stay awake.
Eventually the turning appears and the track starts to trend downhill towards Hawes. National trail signs have all but disappeared and the path beneath our feet is non-existent. We are stopping at regular intervals to take bearings and check against the map. Eventually lights appear in the distance – this is the Wensleydale creamery and will guide us down off the moors into Hawes. Far behind us we see headtorches but they appear to be going off on erratic impossible angles. We’ve no idea where those runners are heading but there isn’t much we can do about it. Rocky path turns to moorland, which turns to field and eventually to country lane as we approach Hawes. It still seems an impossibly long time before we hit Hawes itself. It’s now around 2am and the town is absolutely deserted. We stare longingly at the building used for the finish of the Winter Challenger race in the knowledge that we still have another or mile or two to go to our finish. I look at my phone and have texts from Caroline and also my running buddy, Amy, urging me onto the finish.
More fields and lanes appear and disappear before we eventually see race signage indicating the way to the finish. An arrow points left next to a church yard. We enter the church yard – there is no sign of any volunteers or tents. Just a lot of graves – what on earth are the race organisers trying to tell us? Realising our mistake, we leave the graveyard and instead run down the access road towards the camp site. Two volunteers wait for us by the entrance. The race is over. 110 miles. 42 hours and 47 minutes, good enough for joint 8th place. A normal 100 miler would normally take me 25 hours+, but words like “normal” don’t really have much meaning anymore.
I’m enormously grateful to Helen for the miles (specifically around 75 of them) that we shared over the last couple of days. Undoubtedly there were moments when one of us was feeling stronger than the other and could have forged on ahead alone. However, had we done that I feel certain that we would not have reached the finish as quickly as we did. We’d achieved more together than we would have done individually and that of course is practically the definition of a team.
I hobble to the communal tent where we are given some hot food and our medals. Helen’s boyfriend Jon has kindly left her a finisher’s bag consisting of beers and a hipflask. I’d meet Jon too over the course of the weekend. He’d been enormously supportive of Helen doing this and I could see from his eyes that he’d been inspired to do this event too. Helen kindly shares the hipflask with me – the smoky peaty whisky immediately warms me up from the inside. I grab my tent from the drop bag, manage somehow to set it up before crawling into my sleeping bag. Before surrendering to oblivion completely, I reflect back on the last couple of days. This race has been everything I’d hoped for and more. Wild, rugged and beautiful. Awe-inspiring and life-affirming. But for now, it’s time to sleep.