Welcome to the second part of my report covering my participation in the 2017 Spine Challenger. Hopefully you have already read the first part of the adventure, if not then you may want to pause here and take a quick look at Part 1, Highs and Lows to Hebden. If, however, you are ready to continue the journey with me onto Hawes, let’s go.
Leg 4: Hebden Bridge to Crag Bottom
Back up the road I went, walking at first but breaking into a run as the gradient eased. As with the muddy path back up from the checkpoint, the climb back up the road was easier than I had feared and before I knew it I was back at the Pennine Way and heading up the hill.
Despite having passed a couple of runners on my way down towards the checkpoint, there were now no runners in sight ahead or following me. Once again I was on my own and the mental demons were nagging away, so I decided to break out my iPod to attempt to distract myself with a podcast.
As I reached the open moor the wind and rain increased slightly. I was struggling to get warm and despite running when the terrain allowed, I was unable to generate enough heat to drive the cold away. I kept pushing on, kicking myself for not putting more layers on while I was at the van.
I was also kicking myself for continuing, berating myself that I should have stopped back at the checkpoint. What was I doing out here? I was in no fit state to be doing this and really felt that I shouldn’t be continuing.
My mind went back to all the messages of support and encouragement I’d received from good friends and family in the days before the race. Certain phrases stuck in my mind. “You’re the best of us”, ” you are the most stubborn person I know and you will never give up”. I knew stopping would shatter the impressions that all these people had of me. It wasn’t a vanity thing, far from it. But these were the thoughts and opinions of people I respected. Surely if they believed in me I had to try to live up to their expectations, despite my doubts and fears?
There was also the fact that I didn’t want to be that runner. You know the ones, they’re all talk but the moment things get a bit tough they throw in the towel. I wasn’t in any physical pain and in reality the only reason I wanted to stop was because my head was telling me to do so. Yes, I missed my family after the last few weeks of travel but they were making as big a sacrifice as me, maybe even bigger this weekend, so to quit would feel like I was making a mockery of that. Above all I wanted to make them proud!
The cold was getting worse, and I finally decided to stop and get more layers on at the first shelter I found. As I headed out across the moor, no cover was forthcoming and with the snow getting harder, I decided to stop where I was and layer up. Better to do it now while I was able to than to push on and struggle later on.
I quickly removed my pack and pulled on another base layer and my insulated vest under my waterproof. Behind me I could see lights approaching in the distance and by the time I’d sorted my pack out they were nearly upon me. I stowed my iPod, happy to have some company again.
It was two of the runners who I had arrived at the checkpoint with (sorry guys I never got your names!). I had assumed they were well ahead of me when I’d finally left the van but it sounded like their motivation and drive to head back out been similar to my own, and here we were together again. As the snow fell steadily we headed on as a group of three into the night.
Shortly after another light appeared behind us and closed rapidly and we jumped aside to let them through. We’d heard rumour back in the checkpoint that the lead runner of the Mountain Rescue Challenger Race had already passed through and this was obviously the second place runner in hot pursuit. The fact this race had started four hours after ours and they were already passing us shows how fit these guys are, hats off to them all!
We shortly experienced our first of three geographical misplacements (or navigational cock-ups!) on this stretch, with a combination of both fatigue and over-confidence kicking in. The first and probably the most embarrassing saw us running down the side of Gorple Lower Reservoir. One of us had previously run the race and confidently described the route ahead and with a cursory check of the map we all followed. Fortunately I quickly discovered our miscalculation when double-checking the GPS before we’d got too far and a short diversion had us re-joining The Pennine Way and back on track.
A team error and proof that we needed to stay on top of our game. At least it was now approaching 2am and we doubted many at home would be watching us wandering off course on the tracker, although I’m sure race control probably had a good chuckle at our expense!As the hours passed the weather slowly worsened and eventually I needed to stop to get my waterproof trousers on, a tricky job with the Salomon pair I was carrying, even in the wind shadow of a passing barn. Fatigue was really setting in now and while I was warm enough with the additional layers I was once again dreaming of sleep and withdrawing from the race to satisfy my mental demons.
The weather wasn’t showing signs of getting warmer as had been forecast and as we passed over Withams Height the path turned extremely icy. We struggled on slipping and sliding our way down towards Pondon Reservoir, with some particularly spectacular falls. John’s van was now tantalisingly close, no more than a couple of miles away, and I was desperate to get to there and stop.
The ice went on and on and eventually I suggested that maybe we should stop and put our Yaktraks on. Like fools we’d been slipping around for over half an hour when we had the tools in our packs to solve the problem. Once we had them on our feet we flew down the track and, as you would have guessed, no less than 25 metres later the ice stopped. Typical!
Another navigational error saw us turn right away from Pondon Reservoir rather than left. Again the error was soon identified and we corrected ourselves, joining up with two other runners who had run down behind us.
We were all tired and struggling now and the wind and rain was getting quite strong. Our two new companions spotted an open barn and opted to stop and get out of the weather for an hour or so. I said I would continue on, as I knew John was now less than a mile away and I planned to sleep in the van. While it was sad to say goodbye I was convinced my race would be ending once I got to the van. In addition to the fatigue I was also feeling pretty sick and feared my body was starting to breakdown. Surely the sensible choice was to stop ?
I stopped for a quick comfort break and another runner suddenly appeared from nowhere, having got pretty lost coming over the top. We ran on in close proximity but I was quiet, only able to focus on getting to the van and ending my race. The other runner made up for my silence, obviously grateful for the company and together we made our way across the valley floor and up towards Crag Bottom where John should be parked.
I navigated us up through the fields and farm towards the road. On hearing I was heading for a van my companion was keen to dive in too and get out of the weather. Despite my overwhelming urge to sleep I was more than happy to share my refuge, knowing what we’d been through that night and how far there was still to go.
As we rounded the corner I saw the now familiar blue light of John’s head torch in the window of his van. Thank God, he was further up the road than I had expected. It was with grateful relief that we stopped by the van desperate to get in out of the weather.
We quickly dumped our packs, clambered in and John made us all a warm drink. I was practically drifting off as I sat leaning against the side of the van, so while John and our new companion did most of the talking, I tried to slowly take layers off in the cramped space.
After 15 minutes or so our companion was keen to move on and he bid his farewells and dived out into the night. With space to stretch out I slumped back onto the bed behind me, which John had already folded out. I mumbled briefly about needing to let race control know I was stopping to sleep but John reassured me that he had already let them know my plan was to get a couple of hours rest here when I arrived. What a star!
With mumbled thanks I rolled over and closed my eyes. It took a while to get comfortable and I was concerned I would seize up. However, it was great to be stationary and out of the weather after over 21 hours and nearly 90km of travelling along The Pennines. At this point I was convinced that my race was over and I knew that I needed to explain as much to John, but I was struggling to string two words together. I lay there with my thoughts, not sure how to put the way I felt into words, and before I could make sense of it, I drifted off to sleep.
Leg 5: Crag Bottom to Lothersdale.
I awoke to the sound of John saying “Right that’s a couple of hours, time to get up!”. I opened my eyes and my first reaction was one of panic, it was broad daylight! Despite all that had gone before, my racing mindset kicked in before my doubts had chance to resurface, and all I could think was that I must be at the back of the race now for sure! Why had I stopped??
My feeling of panic was immediately joined by sickness as I realised it hadn’t been a dream and I was still here on The Pennines but now at least 2 hours down on everyone else.
As my earlier doubts flooded back, I groaned and slowly sat up. My thoughts from the previous night overwhelmed me, and with my head in my hands defeat spilled out of my mouth and I mumbled about not wanting to go on. John took it all in his stride, telling me calmly that I wasn’t at the back of the field as runners were still coming past. He also told me to head out and give the next stretch to Lothersdale a go. He reassured me that, if at that point I still felt like stopping we could take it from there (I was aware of his careful choice of words!).
I felt racked with guilt, as John had obviously sat there for a couple of hours while I slept. It would have been extremely selfish to then wake up, click my fingers and say “home James!”. I owed it to him to at least get out and give it a go. Besides, John’s plan made perfect sense. I knew he was doing his job, breaking the race down into manageable chunks, encouraging me forward and trying to draw out the voice of reason that I was incapable of finding myself. I, however, was still convinced that I was beaten, but felt that heading on to Lothersdale and pulling out there was both a respectable course of action and would also would ease my guilt towards John.
I resigned myself to going on and slowly started to pull my shoes on. My feet had swelled overnight, so they were quite a tight fit. Fortunately I had planned for this and had packed a larger pair of shoes. Ultra running rule number 2 was about to be broken, running a race in a brand new pair of shoes. I had history on this one and had got away with it before, so hoped it would work out okay again.
Now that I was up and moving my stomach kicked in and I urgently need some private time behind a wall somewhere. This helped focus my mind and I quickly pulled on the remainder of my clothes and stepped out of the van. I took the opportunity to switch to my heavier set of mountain waterproofs, as my others were still damp from previous night and the weather forecast was for more rain this morning.
I was pleasantly surprised at how refreshed I felt after just a couple of hours of sleep. The expected stiffness wasn’t apparent either and as I pulled on my pack I physically felt pretty good, grumbling guts aside. I quickly gathered my stuff and with some final encouragement from John I headed up the road to find the path junction.
Once away from the road I was soon out on the open moor. No sign of any chance of a discreet group of trees or similar for my comfort break! Ahead the path headed up away into the distance and into the mist. A gate appeared on the left which offered some shelter behind a wall and I dived through.
Looking back down the path I could see a group of other runners approaching behind me. My initial joy at the realisation that I wasn’t at the back of the race was quickly replaced with dread as I knew I would now have to wait for them to pass before I could get some privacy.
The first runner approached, head down and obviously intent on making forward progress. I recognised him as Richard Martin, who’d I’d met 8 hours earlier on the dark slippery approach to checkpoint one. We exchanged greetings as he passed and I asked how he was. “Terrible” was the short reply. “You?” he asked. “Likewise” was my reply, “I’ll catch you later and we can compare sob stories”. Richard continued on his way and I waited patiently for the others to pass too. Eventually the coast was clear and I took my break before heading back up the path.
Only a single runner was visible ahead of me by the time I broke away from the wall and headed out across Ickornshaw Moor towards Cowling. I soon caught and passed this runner and was out on my own, picking my way through the mist, the path dropping in and out of view beneath the snow, which was rapidly turning into mud.
I was walking at a brisk pace, making good progress and feeling better now that I was moving again. I was sipping some Morning Fuel that John had thoughtfully prepared the night before, which seemed to be sitting well in my stomach. Despite pulling away from the runner I had just passed, no other runners were visible in front of me and I drove on, lost in my thoughts.
As I climbed I was getting warmer despite the mist, so grabbed the opportunity to shelter behind a barn and shed a layer or two. I was soon back on the move, heading down out of the mist towards Cowling, past the shooting huts and back into the walled fields.
Ahead I could finally see other runners and this spurred me on. Despite myself, I was getting back into a racing mindset and although still feeling pretty shattered, the dangling carrot of another runner ahead, gave me something positive to focus on.
I climbed up and through Lower Summer House Farm and began my descent towards the main road at Cowling, when all of a sudden a familiar face appeared, climbing towards me. It was Andy Haworth, who I had ran last year’s Lakeland 100 and Fellsman with. In my pit of self pity I had completely forgotten that this was the area he had said he would try and meet me if he could. He could not have appeared at a better time, a friendly face was just what I needed.
After a quick embrace we walked together towards the road where there was a mountain rescue checkpoint. Andy asked how I was getting on and I spilled out all my doubts and woes. He listened and sympathised, which was nice, telling me about a friend of his who was also struggling. Although unfortunate for his friend, I admit it was also good to hear. At least I was not the only one.
We arrived at the checkpoint where the team provided me with hot sweet tea as I stood chatting to Andy. Inside the tent I could see Richard Martin, who didn’t look like he was in a good state.
Andy I chatted outside for a few minutes, catching up and discussing plans for our return to Lakeland 100 in July to attempt a sub 30-hour finish. Eventually I realised I was putting off the inevitable and as nice as it was to see Andy, I needed to push on if I wanted to get to Lothersdale and meet John.
We said our goodbyes and Andy headed off on his own run. I was sad to see him go. Before I departed I decided to pop into the tent and see how Richard was. He was sitting at the back with some of the team around him, looking a little better but still obviously not in a happy place. I do not know what made me say it, whether it was sympathy with a kindred spirit or just a basic desire for some company but with my most enthusiastic voice I said “Hi Richard! Right, you are coming with me!”. Fortunately, his response was positive, he quickly got to his feet and after a final sort of kit we made our way out into the fields towards Lothersdale.
To be honest I do not recall much of the detail of the next few miles, other than walking through field after field of mud, chatting as we walked and comparing war wounds. Our race experience had been fairly similar, although Richard had probably been more positive at Hebden Bridge than I had. After an hours sleep there, Richard had departed in high spirits. However when I saw him just after Crag Bottom he was physically and emotionally low and admitted he’d been a bit of a mess on arriving at Cowling.
A rehydrated meal prescribed by the mountain rescue team had lifted his spirits a little but as we traipsed through the fields we both agreed that we felt like we had bitten off more than we could chew with this race and that it was impossible for us to finish.
One immediate benefit of being with Richard, apart from the good company, was that he had reccied the entire route and was extremely familiar with the way The Pennine Way twisted and turned through the farmland. I will be honest, the section that lay ahead to Malham was probably the bit that concerned me the most, having heard horror stories of mud and navigational complexities through fields from previous racers.Richard seemed to have an inbuilt GPS, could spot the route field to field and I was grateful to just let him take the lead as we slowly closed on Lothersdale. Our navigational issues from the night before didn’t allow me to switch off entirely though and I was occasionally checking my GPS to keep my eye on where we were and make sure we hadn’t drifted off inadvertently.
I needn’t have worried though and eventually Lothersdale appeared in the valley beneath us. Ahead lay the Hare and Hounds Pub and their infamous Spine Special, which they lay on every year during the race. Although I didn’t feel hungry at that point, the chance to sit down and have some warm food was overwhelming as we dropped down into the village.
When I left Crag Bottom I had been convinced I would stop when I arrived here but as we approached it was no longer at the forefront of my mind. No, I was not enjoying myself. Yes, I felt it was beyond me to get to the finish, but even so some stubborn part of me buried deep inside seemed reluctant to allow me to stop. Maybe it was the thought of what my wife, sons and wider family and friends would think of me? Maybe it was the desire to give John the crew experience he deserved after all the effort he had put in? Or maybe it was just my own unspoken desire to finish. Whatever it was, as I arrived in Lothersdale I knew this wasn’t the end.
Ahead we saw John standing outside the pub and he ushered us into the bar. I had read about how the landlord would always cover half the pub in cling film to protect it from muddy Spiners but was still stunned to see it in reality. A suitably protected comfy sofa by the fire beckoned, and after removing my pack and jacket I slumped into it.
Food was quickly ordered, cottage pie and a mug of tea for me. As we waited we chatted with other racers and support crews also in the pub. The food arrived quickly and even though I did not feel hungry I literally inhaled it and immediately felt like eating the same again. I opted for pudding instead and John, the ever attentive crew, went off in search of the menu. Pudding was ordered and again quickly arrived, and once more I set about setting some eating speed records. Well at least I am quick at something!
It felt strange to be sitting in a pub during a race but eventually, at Richard’s prompting, we started to gather our kit and get ready to leave. The pub landlord had the race tracker on an iPad sat on the bar, and the full Spine race had started a few hours earlier, so after a quick check to see how friends were getting on, we headed back outside.
Next stop Gargrave!
Leg 6: Lothersdale to Malham
We felt like new men as we headed back out into the fields of mud. The negativity and fatigue that I had felt as we had arrived in Lothersdale was replaced by a new found energy and sense of optimism. It is amazing what a rest and a meal can do for you and I remembered how our stop at Dalemain on last years Lakeland 100 had had a similar effect.
Ahead lay a short trudge across Elslack Moor before a descent into Thorton Craven. More fields would follow before joining the Leeds and Liverpool Canal for a short while. There would then be more muddy fields over Moorber Hill before our final descent into Gargrave, some 13km away.
Shortly after leaving Lothersdale we passed through the 100km mark, an important psychological milestone and proof that we were definitely on the homeward leg. We had not set any land speed records for the distance and I for one hadn’t run much since leaving Hebden Bridge but we were still moving forward at a good steady pace, tapping out 20 minute mile after 20 minute mile though the mud.We arrived at the road crossing on Elslack Moor to see John parked up to cheer us through. My negativity was obviously causing some concern and I guess he was keen to give us a quick boost, which was most welcome, but after a quick chat we pushed on.
The ground was pretty boggy and muddy underfoot, something that was to be a constant for the next 8 hours or so. About 4 miles after leaving Lothersdale the fatigue returned but we dug in and kept the 20 minute miles rolling past.
Richard was like my personal GPS, constantly picking out the direction across fields and pointing out the route ahead across the hills. While the ground underfoot was tricky, this really took some of the mental pressure off this section of the race and while I would still occasionally check my map and GPS for my own peace of mind, I was comfortable to let Richard take the lead on the navigation.
Despite being well over half way now, we still believed that reaching the finish was an impossible task. During our discussions we came to a loose agreement that we would keep going until nightfall and see where we were then. After all, two full days and a night of trudging onwards under our own steam was still an honourable achievement, right?
The sun was burning through and slowly the skies started to clear. We were both still encased in full waterproofs, a heavier set for me as I had been expecting the worst from the weather that morning. As we hit the canal and with the skies now clear I called a quick stop so that I could remove my waterproofs, concerned about overheating. Despite managing to get dog mess on my shoes and then pack – blooming lazy dog owners – we were soon back on our way after a quick clean up of my pack with some grass. The mud ahead would take care of my shoes! After a mile or so we left the canal and a brief stretch of road followed, before we were back into the fields for the final pull to Gargrave.
The mud was pretty thick here and as we approached the village I could barely see my shoes on my feet. Not wanting to make more of a mess of John’s van than I had already, I took the opportunity to quickly clean them in a stream as we descended down a lane towards him.
A slight ‘oversight’ on our part saw us miss the path junction that cut across a field and we continued down the lane. It was the longer route around but did avoid the final field of mud, so probably was for the best in the end.
Gargrave is a fairly large village, the largest we had passed through so far, with the exception of Hebden Bridge which we’d barely gone into. As we entered I realised that we had never really arranged where to meet John. As my route card had the grid reference in the centre we decided to head there. That was where The Co-op was and Richard was keen to test out their hot pie counter, another famous Spine eatery.
As we entered the village we started to see other support crews who applauded and congratulated us as we passed. We turned left and headed towards the centre and there on the far side of the bridge I could see John waiting for us. Despite it being great to see him and tick another point off the route card, for the first time I was so tired that I really struggled to even lift a smile as he took the photo of us.I was keen to sit down, hoping this would act as an energy boost. I was also craving a sandwich, not sure why especially as we’d had a decent meal a few hours before. As a precaution I decided to take the time to change my socks. I had been experiencing some rubbing on both heels and while my feet weren’t wet it seemed wise to apply some more tape and put some dry socks on just in case.
Once my feet were sorted I quickly checked and cleaned my bag after the dog mess incident, again conscious that I didn’t want to make a mess of John’s van later in the race. While Richard headed off to find The Co-op I dashed to public toilets to wash my hands and also apply some much needed lubricant to some areas of friction I’d been experiencing.
As I left the loos I was pleasantly surprised and a little embarrassed to practically run into Andy Haworth again, with his partner Rachel, who had been following us on the tracker and had made the trip out again to cheer us on – thanks guys! Why embarrassed, you ask? Because coming out of a public toilet with a tube of lube in your hand is not exactly the situation you want to be discovered in only to then have to make polite conversation! 🙂 Nevertheless it was fantastic to see them and they walked back to the van with me catching up on how we were feeling and voicing their encouragement. I voiced my concerns about whether we’d make it to the finish and they listened politely and with sympathy.
Richard was back with his hot pie and also a choice of sandwiches which was much appreciated. As I pulled my kit back together I tucked enthusiastically into a BLT and drank some coke which John had picked up for us earlier. It was great to be there with everybody and not be walking through mud. However the clock was ticking and at Richard’s suggestion I resigned myself to heading back out once more and onto Malham.
Goodbyes were made, avoiding too much close contact as a shower was definitely starting to be a real priority. We agreed to meet John at Malham and we crossed the road. I was immediately called back for my watch, which I’d put on to charge when we stopped, and my gloves. Idiot!!
It was at this point that I made a mental turning point in my attitude towards the race. As I left once again, John, Rachel and Andy wished us luck. Andy however had one final piece of advice. He looked me squarely in the eyes and with a smile said “Just make sure you go and f$$king finish it!”. His words really hit home. Until now Andy had been supportive and sympathetic to my moans and whines. With that single comment he turned the tables back on me and got straight to the point. And he was right! I smiled back, assured him that I would ‘bloody well try’ and jogged across the road to join Richard who was waiting for me.
We took the road out of the village that John had pointed out to us, doing a great job as crew and checking out the lay of the land to help us on our way. Dusk was approaching fast and with the light fading we re-entered the fields and started our next leg to Malham. I was churning over the ground that lay ahead in my head and with renewed enthusiasm we talked for the first time about finishing the race. It was really more of a begrudging admission that we had come this far and didn’t want to have to come back and do it again. Regardless, we had now switched from a mindset of failure to one of finishers.
Ahead of us lay a final 10km mudfest to Malham. From there it would be a short hop up through Malham Cove and around the tarn to checkpoint 1.5 at the outdoor centre. After this we needed to climb Fountains Fell before descending to the valley and heading straight back up Pen-y-ghent, one of The Yorkshire Three Peaks. A looping route down into Horton in Ribblesdale would see us at the Pen-y-ghent Cafe, another legendary food stop on the Spine race which was open 24-hours during the event for racers and support crews. After this there was just the small matter of a 10 mile haul up the Cam High Road before a final flying descent into Hawes and the finish.
As we walked we formulated a plan. We knew from past experience that while feeling on top of the world now, in 3-4 miles the lethargy would return and it would start to feel like a death march.
Originally I had assumed I would take a dehydrated meal pack to checkpoint 1.5 where I could get access to hot water. However, on reflection, we decided that another pub stop in Malham may be more beneficial for morale and should hopefully, with the added bonus of CP1.5, give us the energy needed to get up and over Fountains Fell.
We’d both been amazed at how a short sleep the night before had recharged energy levels. Concerned that Pen-y-ghent may push our fatigue levels over the edge, we decided a short break for a sleep after coming off Fountains Fell would be wise before we tackled PYG. A stop for a full English breakfast in the cafe in Horton should then give us one final morale boost to see us up Cam High Road and home!
Our ultra run was turning into a Sunday pub crawl but strategically this seemed like both the most logical and safest way to approach to remainder of the course. A finish was all that was on our mind at this point, we certainly weren’t looking for bonus marks for style. We just told ourselves that it was all about ensuring we never ever had to come back and do this race again!
The light soon faded to darkness and we pulled our head torches on. My Petzl Nao had successfully made it through the first night with at least half power remaining. I had a spare battery but was keen to see how long the existing one would last, so continued with that as we trudged on towards Malham. Again Richard, or my walking GPS as I was now calling him, proved invaluable at safely plotting our route through the fields. We had one quick stop to check maps and GPS to confirm exactly where the exit point was on the far side of the field but otherwise he kept us well on track – thanks Richard!
After the initial climb over Crag Laithe, this section of the race was pretty low lying, mainly following the valley floor and river as we weaved through trees and fields on towards Malham. Lights appeared ahead of us and we caught and passed a French runner who seemed pretty tired and after a quick chat soon dropped away behind us.
As before, our energy levels dropped off after 3-4 miles, although we were still moving along at 3mph. I didn’t feel particularly hungry but was looking forward to another break. We had already decided that if we made it to Malham then we would be going all the way to the finish, so despite the lethargy it was encouraging to be closing in on our next goal. The final fields into Malham were pretty wet as we weaved our way by through them by torchlight, trying to find the driest line. It was with an enormous sense of relief and some triumph that the lights of the village appeared before us and we arrived at our destination.
We could see John’s van but no sign of John, who we assumed was already in the pub. We headed towards it and started the process of removing our shoes and muddy kit before heading inside. John suddenly appeared at the door, as he’d been inside trying to get Wifi and find where we were on the tracker. He was pleasantly surprised to see we were standing right outside.
As we stripped off our kit I enthusiastically filled John in on our plan and for the first time since he’d picked me up from home on Friday I talked about finishing. He smiled as I pointed that out to him and he told me that from his perspective there had never been any doubt that I would finish. As is always the case, others have more confidence in me than I do in myself!
A quick scan of the menu and food and drinks orders were placed. I still didn’t feel particularly hungry but decided to take the opportunity to get some warm food in me anyway ready for the night ahead and to help me with getting over Fountains Fell. Other racers were in the pub looking equally weary. It sounded like there were plenty of others taking the chance to get some sleep in the fields around the village but this was no longer a race against others, but rather a battle against ourselves to get to the finish.
Unlike the pub back in Lothersdale, the staff here didn’t seem really aware of the race. They must have therefore thought it was pretty strange all these muddy and shattered people staggering into their bar on a Sunday evening. The food arrived and I picked my way through it, only managing to get half of it down before I ran out of steam. We made use of the pub’s Wifi to quickly check messages from friends and family and I used the opportunity to send one to my wife telling her we had a plan and may be going all the way to Hawes.
The clock was ticking and others were leaving, so we started to get ready to go. We arranged where to meet John on the other side of Fountains Fell and estimated our arrival would be just after 02:00 in the morning. Concerned that there may not be any mobile coverage in the valley, we agreed to ask at checkpoint 1.5 if they could let race control know of our plans to stop.
As we were leaving the pub our French friend arrived, who we’d passed in the fields before Malham earlier in the evening. He looked shattered and when I briefly chatted with him all he could whisper to me was “It’s so tough, very very tough!”. I wished him luck and hoped a warm meal and rest would see his spirits lifted for the push onto Malham Tarn.
The weather was still clear and warmer than the previous night. I took the opportunity to swap my heavier waterproof in my pack for my lighter Montane Spine jacket. Rather than wear my waterproof I put my Rab Vapour-Rise jacket back on, as it would provide some warmth and protection from the elements. Experience told me that I would really start to feel the cold in the second night as my energy levels dropped so I wanted to act early to try to prevent this. Also, although my Petzl Nao was still burning bright after 15 hours of use I took the chance to swap the battery out just in case. Final checks, water bottles loaded and we headed back out into the night, to experience the beauty spot that is Malham Cove by torchlight.
Leg 7: Malham to Pen-y-ghent
With renewed confidence we left Malham, for the first time focused on the finish rather than just the immediate steps in front of us. We hit the tourist path up into Malham Cove and strode into the night.
Strange shapes could be seen all around us and it was disappointing not be able to view the Cove by daylight. A couple of times we stopped to check if the shapes we saw were rocks or sheep, with some confusing advertising boards not helping us with this.
Our conversation turned to hallucinations while racing and we compared notes. Richard had had them before and while I’d wondered all year if I’d had them on Lakeland 100, Richard confirmed that there had indeed been a mini-rave going on at Blea Tarn as he passed on the Lakeland 50, so I struck that from my list of potential mind-tricks. Oh well, something to aim for in the future.
We reached the back of the Cove and began the steep climb up to the top. The popularity of this area was evident from the double gates and stiles that appeared before us. The top of the Malham Cove was another potential navigation minefield that I hadn’t been looking forward to. However as we reached the top Richard confidently said he knew the quickest route through – straight up over the first series of steps and then bear right across open ground until you reach the wall.
After a little bit of initial confusion, including me discovering a towel laid out behind a rock with a teddy bear (I checked with Richard to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating) we soon found the open ground and the wall appeared in due course.
As we headed up the valley towards the tarn we compared rock climbing stories and Richard enthused about the geographic features around us. Again I was disappointed not to be able to see them in daylight myself.
We seemed to be walking for an age but finally the road appeared before us with the distant lights of the checkpoint visible on the far side of Malham Tarn, which seemed like miles away. Through the car park and down towards the outflow from the tarn we headed, before skirting around the forest and picking up the road to the checkpoint. We knew it wouldn’t be long until we reached it now after passing a race sign, the first we’d seen throughout the race, and before we knew it the lights of the outdoor centre appeared through the trees.
We entered the checkpoint to be greeted by cheery music and staff, led by the legend that is John Bamber. A number of other racers were there, including one wearing the same Rab Vapour-Rise Jacket as myself, and friendly banter ensued with us all beginning to feel confident that we would make it to Hawes. Cups of tea were consumed as we passed our message along to the control centre about our plan to sleep before the climb up Pen-y-ghent. Then, with the weather still good and the lure of some sleep a few miles up the road we all grabbed our packs and headed out into the night although not before John Bamber dashed out and grabbed a few photos of us all. Looking at them now I can see quite how tired I was, although at that point I felt pretty good.Four of the five of us in the checkpoint headed off chatting as we walked. As had happened a number of times, chatting can prove a real distraction and we walked straight past the right hand turn, only discovering our error half a mile up the road.
We joked that race control must be keeping a scoreboard for the navigational errors that were being made and a quick count showed I was probably at the head of our group – whoops! We quickly retraced our steps and were soon back on the right path. Little did we know that the fifth runner had come blasting out of the checkpoint behind us, keen to catch us up, only to now be ahead of us somewhere on the track, probably thinking that we must be flying along – sorry!
Ahead of us we could see the dark shadow of Fountains Fell across the valley. Talking to the other runners, they felt that Fountains Fell was a tougher climb than Pen-y-ghent but I was feeling pretty good with a new found enthusiasm for the race.
We crossed the road and started our climb up the fell. We entered a farmyard and the two of us at the front veered right, to be directed straight ahead up what I’d originally assumed was a heap of rubble piled before us. Some steep climbing followed up a track and then we were up on the side of the fell where we veered to the right to climb slowly up its side.
The weather was slowly deteriorating as we climbed and eventually we headed into the cloud. This was playing havoc with my glasses, with a film of moisture forming on the outside. Just like in the snow on Kinder Scout back on Saturday morning, I now had the dilemma of whether I could see more with the glasses on or off. Eventually I opted to push them up on top of my head and try moving without them.
The higher we went the thicker the mist became and then the rain started to come down. Unfortunately my choice of jacket was no longer ideal and after sticking with it for ten minutes I could see that it was starting to wet out, so quickly stopped to pull my waterproof out of my pack. Despite my assurances that the others should go ahead and I would catch-up, they all stopped with me. They were either being extremely polite or they just liked the excuse to stop for a quick breather, either way it was very kind.
Waterproof now on we continued on our way. Richard was leading the way and I was checking my GPS occasionally, not so much to double check his nav but to gauge our progress up the fell side. Finally we reached our turn back to the west, the bulk of the climbing now done as we contoured along the north side of the fell before descending to the valley road below.
As we walked I reassessed our plan. We had made excellent progress and were ahead of our planned arrival time to meet John. At this stage I felt good, both mentally and physically, and didn’t really feel in need of sleep. There was some temptation to push on over Pen-y-ghent and try to reach the cafe in Horton before stopping. However, being all too aware of how quickly things can change I soon dismissed this idea. The last thing we needed was to hit the wall physically on the climb up PYG, something which could be both demoralising and unsafe. If I was racing then I’m sure my decision would have been totally different but my mind was focussed on getting to Hawes before the cut off. Our plan was the sound, if somewhat safe, approach to finishing the race and we should trust it and stick with it. Interestingly I would later discuss this with Richard and find out that he had been having exactly the same monologue with himself at that point.
The fog was soon so thick that without my glasses on I needed to up the power level on my headtorch to be able to clearly see the ground beneath my feet. We began our descent, picking our own route down beside the wall which appeared and disappeared into the fog less than ten metres away. Down and down we went, all keen to get to the road and tick off another milestone on our journey.Finally we felt tarmac beneath our feet and it was a happy group who headed down the valley towards the start of the path up Pen-y-ghent and hopefully the waiting support vehicles. A car approached up the hill and with the window wound down a police officer inside shouted his congratulations to us as we walked down the road. Ahead we could see the lights, which we hoped were cars but turned out to be a farm.
On we went, spirits lifted that we had made it across Fountains Fell in such good time. Eventually a group of cars appeared before us, with a camper van amongst them. It looked like John’s but had blinds up in the windows, something I’d not seen before. Doubt crept into my mind and I didn’t want to disturb a random strangers sleep, so we continued down to the path junction to see if he was parked there.
We arrived but there was no sign of John. One of the other runners in our group also couldn’t see his crew’s car and we discussed where they could be. A light popped up over a wall and a voice said “hello, what are you doing here?”. “We’re doing a race”, one of us quickly replied, which on reflection was a hilarious statement of the obvious, as there was little else the person who’d asked the question could be doing out here at 01:30 on a Monday morning. It turned out it was the guy from Malham Tarn who’d left just behind us trying to chase us down. We joked about the confusion caused but it then turned out he knew exactly where each of our crews were parked, although am still quite not sure how.
It turned out that the camper van that we had passed was John’s after all, and the other crew car was at least half a mile back up the road, we had walked passed them in the dark. Our group of four broke up as Richard and I headed off to find John, one of us started the long trudge back up the road to their car and the other decided to pair up with our “chaser” and push on over Pen-y-ghent.
We said our farewells and wished everyone good luck and approached John’s van. I was still nervous that it may not be John and gently tapped on the window. There was no response so there was nothing for it but to slowly open the door. Fortunately (or unfortunately for him), John was there, fast asleep in the back. Boy did I feel guilty!
John sprang into life, quickly clearing the bed and inviting us in. He was impressed with the time we’d made, as were we and we all agreed the plan. A couple of hours sleep and try and be back on the road by 5am at the very latest.
The usual faff of sorting out kit and removing footwear ensued and I took the opportunity to drink a recovery shake at the same time, to get some protein inside me. I was keen to check my feet before going to sleep, to see how the hot spots and tape were holding up. As I removed my socks the tape underneath was in a bit of a mess. My fault for using cheap Zinc tape. I decided to remove it and apply some more in the morning, which was a bit of a mistake as in my rush I managed to pull a section of skin off my heel – ouch!
Nothing I could do about it now, so I decided to leave it and allow it to dry out while I slept, so got my head down. Richard fell asleep immediately while I lay there for at least half an hour, my mind racing. Eventually my mind calmed and sleep took me, only to wake up what seemed like seconds later as John called “time to get up!”
Leg 8: Pen-y-ghent to Hawes
Unlike the last time I woke in the van, this time there was no sense of panic, probably helped by the fact it was pitch black outside. The feeling of despair that I’d also felt was now replaced by a steely determination to get the job done. We were going to the finish!
First order of business was to sort my feet out. I needed to pick off the remains of the zinc tape from the night before, which was a real chore. A quick clean of the damaged skin with a wet wipe, some compede and zinc tape applied and I was good to go.
I pulled on some dry socks, the final set, and pushed my feet into my shoes. Remembering the weather from earlier in the night, I dumped my Rab Vapour-Rise in the van and instead pulled on a fresh hooded top under my waterproof. I also opted to leave my waterproof trousers in my pack, confident my winter running tights should protect me from the worst of the weather. I went to change my map and Richard smiled and stopped me. “You won’t be needing that”, he said, “I’ve been up here a few times before”. Who was I to argue, although I did just check my GPS batteries to make sure they still had some juice in them. Just in case Richard, you understand 😉
Bottles reloaded and packs on our back and at 04:30 we were set and ready to go. For just 1.5 hours sleep and less than 4 since we’d started I was amazed how fresh I felt. Richard and I were soon at the path junction and our attack on Pen-y-ghent began. My legs felt good and we were striding out at a nice pace, just like we’d never stopped. Ahead we could see a torch light on the path and shortly afterwards we came upon our French friend once more, whom we’d last seen back in Malham.
He didn’t look like he was in a good way and was obviously struggling with fatigue. He mumbled about how tired he had felt and how he’d turned back from climbing up Pen-y-ghent as he didn’t trust himself. Seeing we were heading up, he asked if we could join us to the top. Concerned for his safety we slowed our pace and he dropped in with us.
Our ascent was pretty straightforward. Some careful scrambling up the two rock steps, keeping a close eye on our sleep-walking friend and we were soon into the fog and heading up onto the summit plateau. The cairn arrived before us and I checked my watch to see that we had managed to tick off the climb in just 47 minutes. Not bad with 155km in our legs!
Our colleague’s morale had lifted considerably on reaching the summit and we paused to take some photos to celebrate. In our minds it was a simple run into Hawes from here, all be it 30km and a lot of it uphill but more on that later.A quick check of the GPS and we headed off into the mist. Our friend thanked us for our assistance and encouraged us on ahead of him saying he would be slow coming down. Checking that he was sure, and happy the ground on the descent wasn’t too tricky we wished him luck and pushed on. As we descended we checked back and could see his torch slowly following us down away from the summit.
The descent itself was pretty uneventful, other than to say it was long! The route to Horton in Ribblesdale initially headed north along the plateau, before swinging west and then back south towards the village. It was rocky underfoot and our feet were taking quite a pounding but I was looking forward to the Full English Breakfast we’d promised ourselves back in the muddy fields around Gargrave yesterday. Another milestone on our journey home.
On and on the descent went and with it so did the energy in our legs. Despite the fresh feeling I’d felt on our ascent up PYG, I now felt the total opposite. Suddenly the 23km back to Hawes didn’t seem so attractive, especially seeing as we had a tendency to go from full tank to empty in just 5km.
Finally we could hear the traffic on the road below and slowly the village lights started to appear through the trees. With one final surge we marched into the village, up to the cafe and our sausage and bacon.
John was waiting outside with his familiar blue head torch and ushered us into the warmth and bright lights. On our descent from PYG we’d talked about the full Spine race which had started 24.5 hours behind us in Edale. Having followed the blogs and watched the film, I knew that in previous years the leaders had been coming through Malham Cove around dawn. This year, with better conditions, how far were they behind us and would they catch and overtake us before Hawes?
Let’s put things into perspective. Pavel, Eoin and Eugeni, who we expected would be out at the front, were all previous winners of The Spine and are phenomenal athletes. We on the other hand were having what was for me at least, probably the most traumatic and poorly executed race of my life. That said I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little embarrassed to think they might actually manage to catch and overtake us before Hawes. My mind went back to a joke I’d shared with two friends who were also running the Spine, that if they caught up with me they would have my permission to bury me as in that case I’d be having a terrible race. Was that joke about to come true!?In the cafe they had a monitor up showing the tracker and we couldn’t help but check. The leaders were not only through Malham Cove but were also out of checkpoint 1.5 and heading up Fountains Fell. Just two hills lay between us and them, we felt sure that they would catch us before we finished.
I snapped my mind back to the job in hand. I couldn’t worry about others. Yes this race was a disappointment to me and I had a lot of regrets, for a long time I had even regretted starting the race. That said, together Richard and I had dragged ourselves from our lowest points, and now, somewhere just over the distant horizon lay the finish. Tantalisingly close and certainly achievable with just over 12 hours to get there before the cut off. Our number one priority was to get to the finish. As we’d both agreed numerous times over the last few hours, we didn’t want to have to come back and do this race again to get that finishers medal!
First order of business was breakfast. Initially we were offered a stew which was available immediately. The option of the breakfast was there though but would take longer. Without a second thought we ordered breakfast, just goes to show that our racing brains were well and truly switched off.
We chatted with the handful of other runners and crew members in the cafe. A group of four were gearing up to go as we arrived and after a brief chat headed out of the door. We wished them luck and hoped to see them at the finish. More warm sweet tea was drunk and breakfast eventually arrived. I’m not normally a big fan of cooked breakfasts and I didn’t really have the appetite for this one but got it down if for no other reason than to mark the achievement of reaching this point.
Conscious of how quickly our energy had dropped on our descent from PYB we discussed with John the option of meeting us up on Cam High Road. Some pre-race photos we’d seen had shown this to be an impassable track in places, however during last years Fellsman I had briefly passed through this area and along a portion of The Pennine Way, so knew there was some good tarmac up there somewhere. A quick chat with another crew member who had also previously run the race, confirmed there was a way to get up there safely and plans were laid for a possible meeting point just 8km short of Hawes.
A ‘quick’ loo break entailed a walk up the road to the public car park and toilets there, so took longer than expected. Richard stocked up on snacks and after a bit more faff from us both and with dawn approaching fast, we finally got ready to go.
At this point our friend who we’d last seen descending from the summit of PYG arrived, stumbling in looking shattered. It was great to see him and I felt a little guilty that maybe we should have ignored his protests and stayed with him for the journey down. He was happy to be down but obviously in desperate need of sleep. Before we left we spoke to the staff who reassured us that they would take care of him. I was extremely pleased to later find out that after some food and sleep he managed to make it all the way back to Hawes and finish The Spine Challenger. Congratulations Yann L’hostis, an amazing effort. If you want to find out more about Yann’s journey (in French) then be sure to read his personal account of the race.It was an hour since our arrival in Horton and the sky was starting to get lighter. The finish wasn’t going to get any closer standing here, so for one final time we gave our farewells, grabbed our poles and headed up the road.
We soon left the tarmac and hit the track northwards away from the village and started the long climb which would finish some 13km later at the top of Cam High Road. As we walked we talked about the prospect of being caught by the leaders of The Spine. We felt this was inevitable and actually thought it would be quite cool to see them race past out on the trail. I secretly hoped to get a photo or two.
On we walked, checking over our shoulders for the approach of the lead runners but nobody was in sight. There was a little drizzle in the air but overall it wasn’t too bad. Away to our west we could see the magnificent sight of the Ribblehead Viaduct passing across the valley between Whernside and Ingleborough (both with their heads in the cloud), which with Pen-y-ghent form the Yorkshire Three Peaks.
The climb was fairly easy going but unrelenting and apart from an incident where a five bar gate literally fell apart in our hands as we opened it, there was little of real note. Apologies to the farmer concerned but it looked like the joints had rotted clean through!Finally we reached Cam Head and turned north east for the final ascent up Cam High Road. A couple of vans came past us but otherwise we had the road to ourselves. Despite the distance completed – 173km – and fatigue we were still ticking along at 3mph, quicker at times as the finish line drew us in. I was impressed that we had managed to keep this pace up pretty much for the last 24 hours, regardless of the conditions underfoot. Its amazing what the body can do when you ask it.
We eventually headed into the cloud and as we did I could see a figure running down the road towards us. I’d recognise the multi-coloured OMM jacket anywhere and as suspected John shortly arrived, having run back down from his van to get some exercise in himself. Up we went walking and talking with John running around us, taking photos and encouraging us on. At this point we could practically smell the finish and even managed a run on a short downward stretch for John’s benefit with the camera.
The track finally turned to tarmac, good tarmac at that and I knew shortly we’d be getting to the spot that I had passed through nine months before on The Fellsman. At the time I’d stood there wandering how I would be feeling at this point in this race. If I’d known then what I know now I am sure I would have pulled my entry on the spot but now it was with a sense of pride that I thought back through the mental and physical battles we’d been through to get here.
Twenty-four hours earlier I’d been heading towards Lothersdale, convinced that going any further was totally impossible and that my race was effectively over. Now, with some gentle coaxing from John and some subconscious stubbornness from myself, here we were!
Fatigue was our constant companion under the surface and as with the tail end of Lakeland 100 last year, I wanted to take a quick break when we got to John’s van to gather myself for the finish. I got the impression Richard was all for pushing on but he kindly agreed.
Finally out of the mist the van appeared before us. A quick sit on the steps to gather my thoughts, some coke and an espresso laden coconut water and I was ready to go again. A quick check with John on The Spine race leaders showed they were in hot pursuit but if we got a move on we should beat them to Hawes. The challenge was on!
Another crew member was there who encouraged us to trot on and get some running in if we could. With the finish so close it seemed rude not to, so I suggested the idea to Richard. The look he gave me suggested he was less than keen but a compromise of only running on the flat or downhill was soon reached.
A quick mental calculation showed that a sub 52 hour finish was impossible but if we made good progress there was a chance of beating 52.5 hours, so we set that as our mini target as we walked along the track.On we pushed along the side of Dodd Fell, which we had summited on The Fellsman, towards Ten End and the start of the descent to Hawes. We ran short distances when we could, although this seemed to bring on some nausea in me and I was worried I would pay for my suggestion of running.
Eventually we left the track and swung around Ten End and began our descent. Ahead of us the group of runners who had left the cafe back in Horton as we’d arrived suddenly appeared and that, combined with the sight of Hawes in the valley below gave us a massive boost and on we ran. We weaved our way quickly through the marshy ground and as we reached the top wall in the valley we caught and passed the other runners, all of them sharing our excitement of being near Hawes and looking forward to meeting up again at the finish.
Down we headed through the fields, carefully picking the line around the worst of the mud and bogs. Richard’s previous experience and the clear visibility helped here and we were able to quickly tick off field after field. I was so grateful we were passing through here in daylight, these fields would be a nightmare in the dark. Below us in the valley we could see a couple of other runners reaching the road, tantalisingly close but probably too far away to catch before the finish as we took a long detour out into the final field before the road to avoid the mud along the wall.
A quick check over our shoulder showed the other runners a couple of fields behind us and no sign of The Spine Leaders. We were going to beat them! A tiny victory for us.
My feeling of sickness had long since passed and the run down had warmed me up nicely, so as we hit the road I stopped to quickly remove my waterproof jacket, no need for that now. Down the road we ran, hard on the feet but who cared now, before heading back into the final few fields on the edge of the village. The runners ahead were getting closer and while part of me was tempted to force the pace, starting to race at this point in proceedings seemed a pointless effort. Instead we steadily made our way down into Hawes, running when we could.
Across the final field we ran, through a housing estate and down a path towards the church. A local runner approached us from behind, enquiring about where we’d come from. He was incredulous when we explained and astounded when we pointed out that the leaders of the The Spine were due through at any moment and their final destination would be Scotland.
A race sign appeared pointing us to the left and we headed down the path, through an alleyway and suddenly popped out into the centre of Hawes. The finish was just a few hundred yards away now and as we ran down the street weaving through shoppers we congratulated one another. Ahead we could see the banners outside the market hall and with a spring in our step we finally and miraculously crossed the finishing line to the cheers of onlookers, race staff and a very happy John.
185km covered in a time of 52:31. Not quite the sub 52:30 we had hoped for but we were finishers of The 2017 Spine Challenger, a personal triumph in itself!
To be continued …
Well there is the story of the race, hope you enjoyed it?
Why to be continued? Well there are a few loose ends to tie up, such as post race thoughts, lessons learned and an in-depth look at the kit I used during the race – what worked and what didn’t. Rather than bore you with those details now and in the interest of getting the concluding account of the journey itself out, I thought I’d leave that for a third and final instalment.
If you’re are ready to read on, head right over to Part 3: Kit, Lessons and The Future. Enjoy!