The Spine Race is billed as the most brutal race in Britain and the Challenger is the ‘shorter’ version at 108 miles. It’s ran along the Pennine Way in the middle of winter. I’d first heard of it in 2013 and had been drawn to the event and had entered last year with Darren but we had to retire close to Thornton. This year, I’d be running alone as Darren was part of the Mountain Safety Team so as part of my strategy, I’d spent some time recceing the route and working out my kit to maximise my chance of success.
Wishing each other luck before the start. Marcus Scotney, last year’s winner of the Challenger.
Photo courtesy of Jen Regan
The Challenger started in the dark . The atmosphere was convivial with runners chatting away before the start taking their minds off the journey ahead. In typical Spine style the weather changed from dry at our arrival in Edale to heavy rain at the start. Once underway and across the fields to Upper Booth, torrential rain turned to hail and with the strong winds blowing it horizontally into our faces it was painful and difficult to see. Great!
Heading out of Edale at the start
We climbed Jacob’s Ladder towards the Kinder plateau and I was struggling to stay on my feet as the gusts of wind were so strong. At one point, I was blown completely off the paved path and into a knee deep bog at the side. Let the battle commence, I thought, it will take more than that to beat me! Onwards towards Kinder Downfall or should I say Upfall, I got drenched by the waterfall blowing back up. Having to cross the stream, I thought it was time to take out my trekking poles as a safety precaution as the stream was quite deep and fast flowing and I didn’t want to lose my footing.
Onwards I went across Bleaklow dropping down to Torside Reservoir. At this point we had a little respite from the wind (little did I know this would be the only sheltered patch during the day) as we continued through the trees and up the valley before climbing up towards Black Hill. This seemed to take forever as we followed the river initially then having to make crossing after crossing as the river snaked around, I was glad of my trekking poles as it was knee deep at times. Onto the paving slabs, I was able to get a steady pace going. I was spotted by Darren’s mate, Gavin, who had kindly driven out to meet me, to give some friendly encouragement and support.
‘If Bleaklow is a beast in bad weather Black Hill is a brute in any weather’
The little bit of road section at Wessenden was menacing. I got blown into the middle of the road just as a silver sports car was trying to overtake! A quick stop at the roadside checkpoint where the friendly faces of Ally and Paul greeted me and I headed down past the reservoirs where I was able to run again.
From here the route climbed out of the valley over Wessenden Moor and crossed the road to head over Standedge. The light began to fade as I headed across the moors towards the M62 and by the time I passed the trig point at White Hill it was completely dark. Two guys were cheering me on as I made my way past. I asked them if there were any cars at the next road crossing as I was getting a little cold and felt I needed to add another layer. I thought I would cheekily ask to sit in a car out of the wind so that I could put my fleece on. As it turns out there was a number of supporters cars and a camper van around so I asked a lady also called Claire who was supporting her husband and she kindly let me sit in her camper van. I was soon on my way again, over the M62 bridge feeling a lot warmer and over Blackstone Edge. This section to the White House pub I hadn’t recced so I was a little apprehensive as there was snow on the ground and the path was a little uneasy to follow through the jumble of rocks.
Just before the White House pub I missed the track down to the road and ended up jumping over the fence. Here Paweł and the other lead runners of the Spine Race overtook me. They were certainly going at some pace. I checked in with the Marshalls and was offered a delicious cake, which I ate as I jogged down beside the reservoir.
Around the top of the reservoirs, Peter and Sarah caught me up. We started to chat and I was glad of the conversation as we headed towards the shadowy monument of Stoodley Pike. Little did I know that I would spend the rest of my race with Peter and Sarah for company…and what a great team we made, supporting each other through the bad patches and boosting each other’s morale.
We arrived at CP1 just outside Hebden Bridge , I had planned to stay here for 4 hours and we agreed to leave around . It was a nice surprise to be greeted by my friend, David, whose enthusiast smile made us feel very welcome. He checked us in and carried our drop bags upstairs for us. As part of my preparations, I had made myself a checklist of things to do incase brain fog kicked in. I got my rucksack ready to go, ate some of the amazing veggie chilli that was on offer and then went to bed for a couple of hours. I don’t remember whether I got any sleep but I was certainly thankful for the rest and as I lay there all I could feel my face glowing from the wind! I got up and ordered some porridge for breakfast. I had a couple of hot spots on both of my little toes and had these taped by the medics so that they wouldn’t get any worse…then we were out and on our way again.
The next section was relatively straight forward as I’d recced it in November so it passed in a bit of a blur. We then headed around some reservoirs and started the long climb up to Withans Height. I was beginning to get a little cold as the wind was biting. I knew there was a bothy at Top Withan’s, where Emily Bronte had famously set her novel Wuthering Heights and at this point all that was going around in my mind was the song by Kate Bush! We found the bothy but dissappointingly it was locked. Hmm, no shelter there then!
Out on the wiley, windy moors,
We’d roll and fall in green.
We continued to push onwards and I warmed up. It started to get light just as we approached Ponden. There were several supporters cars dotted on the roads around here so it was nice to get some encouagement from them with offers of food and water.
Over Cowling Moor (or, as Darren and I had delightfully named it poo path, after having to step over some human excrement in the middle of the slabs last year, yuk!). I was glad it was light as I crossed this year but felt disheartened as it was bleak, featureless and boggy. Then Sarah was greeted by her mate Kate, who’d ran up to meet her unexpectedly. As we descended into Cowling, Kate had parked her camper van at the side of the road and invited us in for tea and some lovely leek and potato soup. What a star! Replenished and back in good spirits, after Sarah and Peter had fixed their feet, we were on our way again heading across the muddy fields towards Lothersdale.
The climb up over Pinhaw was again very windy. There was no time to stop and admire the normally fantastic views as we headed towards the road crossing where we were met by a Marshall who took our numbers and wished us on our way. This was where Darren and I had retired last year , cold and wet because we were going slow as Darren had twisted his knee. It was a psychological boost to go past this particular milestone in the race and to head down the hill towards Thornton in Craven.
Onwards towards Gargrave, I went through a bad patch just as we pulled off the canal. Feeling tired, I felt low but fortunately, Sarah’s family were waiting in their camper van to greet us and we jumped in to shelter. Sarah’s husband made us hot chocolate and gave us crisps and a pasty, which was fantastic and made me feel better.
On our way again, we stopped in Gargrave to use the toilet facilities and also the Co-op shop to buy some supplies which we ate in the shelter before setting off again. It was now dusk and none of us were familiar with this section heading along the river to Malham…and oh my, what a section it was…lots of fields and lots of mud! At one point, we were accosted by some ponies in the dark, who were so inquisitive they wouldn’t leave us alone and allow us to get past. A little nervous we stuck together and eventually they got bored and let us through.
On arrival in Malham, we headed into the pub and had a cup of tea. The friendly locals were amazed at what we were doing whilst also thinking we were mad. Soon on our way again, we headed up towards Malham Cove. Sarah was familiar with this area and competantly navigated our way around the cove, through the karst landscape, which looked incredible in the torch light as it caught sight of the cliffs and the limestone pavement. I was toasty here with the ascent but as soon as we reached the road, it was to be a different matter as we skirted around the edge of the tarn to reach Checkpoint 1.5 at the Research Centre. The lights of the centre didn’t seem to get any closer as we were buffeted and blasted by the winds with the waves lashing at the shore of the tarn.
By the time we got to the Centre, I was cold and shivery and it was nice to be greeted by John who provided us with a cup of hot tea. Thankfully it didn’t take me long to warm up. My original plans were to only spend an hour here and make myself some hot food before carrying on. However, because of the atrocious weather conditions all of my best laid plans had gone out of the window. It was more important to stay warm and safe and to get to the end rather than worry about a particular time.
We decided we would get some rest here but there was no indoor sleeping available so although I had my bivi bag, Sarah kindly agreed to let me share her tent, which was fun putting it up in the gales. We had two hours rest but I didnt sleep well as I only had my rucksack padding as my sleeping mat which protected my core but my legs got cold. We surfaced , and went back into the centre. I was faffing about getting myself ready and I couldn’t find one of my leg gaiters eventually settling to go without it only to find it around my ankle anyway! Oh what sleep deprivation does to the mind!
The climb up Fountains Fell was navigationally straightforward but the heavy driving rain and winds were horrendous. With the dark and my head down, it was difficult to estimate how far we had got left to climb particularly when you couldn’t see the numerous cairns on the summit to see what you were aiming for. All of a sudden we were at the wall and I gave a little squeal of joy to be at the summit only to realise that now the fun was about to begin as we got the full force of the rain and the gale force winds on the descent, which was tricky at the best of times.
Downwards we went and it was so dark, I didn’t even see the road until we were almost upon it. Peter was starting to get cold and earlier on, I’d heard two guys talking about a barn at the side, which we kept a look out for. We found it and dived in to get some shelter, where we were able to sort ourselves out before facing the wind and rain again.
At the right hand turn off the road to head up to Pen y Ghent, the Mountain Safety Team were waiting in their 4×4. We chatted to them briefly and were told that for safety reasons the route had been changed and we weren’t going over the summit of Pen y Ghent as the appalling weather conditions would make it too dangerous. We were offered some sweets but because I was wearing big mittens, I couldn’t feel anything so Robin ended up feeding them to me. Talk about eating out of his hand!
Heading upwards towards Pen y Ghent, It was very cold and the rain showed no sign of letting up. We were low so what do you do? Burst into song of course…Always Look on the Bright Side of Life…can you imagine it? 3 crazy people in the middle of the night singing! It did the job though, I had a spring in my step all the way to the gate in the wall on the shoulder of Pen y Ghent. It was here, indicated with glow-sticks that this would be where we were short-routed down to Horton for safety. A comedy moment ensued as Peter put all his effort into opening the gate which was held firmly shut with the incredibly strong winds. It was that strong that I wasn’t even able step through it as I was literally being forced back by the blast. Peter gave us a helping hand by pulling both Sarah and myself through. Never, I have I come across winds so strong that you can’t move forward, scary!
The descent down to Horton was a struggle with the driving rain lashing at my face. The path crossed through some small limestone outcrops which in the rain and the wind were trecherously slippy to scramble down. Nevertheless, we soon arrived and what more of a welcome sight was the glowing sign of the open cafe. 3 cheers to the owner who’d agreed to open up all night for us racers!
It was when we arrived and we learnt that many of the runners had been held back here since the early hours by the MST because of the bad weather. We briefly tried to dry some of our kit out over the heater whilst drinking tea, and eating a delightful bowl of red pepper soup rounded off with a mug of hot chocolate. I put my Helly Hanson Lifa base layer on underneath my thermal base layer, over that I put my thin fleece, then my primaloft jacket (which was now damp from the ingress of the rain), my windproof jacket followed by my goretex waterproof jacket. Wow, 6 layers…yes, I know I’m nesh but I feel the cold!
‘There’s no such thing as bad weather only inappopriate clothing’
Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Back out into the cold again and onto the last leg now. It felt good to have warmed up and dried out a little and to still have strength in my legs to continue. Having never been this far before, I was quietly confident that I was going to make it.
We headed up towards the Cam Road, an old Roman track, that seemed to go on forever as it steadily climbed towards Dodd Fell. It was still incredibly windy as it was so open and exposed. The back drop of Ingleborough, Whernside and the Ribblehead Viaduct was amazing. I felt my eyes getting heavy and sleepy and I pondered whether I should have a caffeine energy gel to make me more alert and then as we rounded the corner under Dodd Fell we had another battle on our hands with the wind. Just as we thought we were getting close to the end, the weather gods had come to give us a final beating! I was buffeted and blown about by the winds that were amongst the strongest we’d experienced so far. I was digging my trekking poles so hard into the ground and really fighting to maintain my balance. I was trying to stay positive, well at least it’s not raining now I told myself! Suddenly I realised with the concerted effort I was no longer tired!
- Cam Road Photos courtesy of Mick Kenyon, Racing Snakes
As we descended towards Hawes the weather improved slightly. It was nice to be met by Darren who had run up from the finish to greet me. He guided us back through the complex network of paths to arrive in the centre of Hawes and videoed us as we went into the finish in the Market Hall, where we were applauded upon our arrival. Wow, it felt so good to have arrived and I was chuffed to have made it. As it happens, Sarah and and I finished joint second ladies.
Wouldn’t be Darren without a selfie!
Thank you to Darren and everyone who provided wonderful encouragement and support throughout my Pennine Journey and in particular to Sarah and Peter who I buddied up with along the way and who helped me to stay focused and get to the end.
‘Mostly it rained – pouring rain, driving rain, rain that came down like stair-rods.’ Alfred Wainwright, Pennine Way Companion