Well where do we start with this one?

As you may have read in my pre-race thoughts, the run into the race was less than ideal. After a great few months training leading into Christmas, where even illness failed to put me off my stride, a totally manic couple of weeks after Christmas with work had left me feeling battered and totally drained on the start line. I’d seen little of my family since the New Year and knew this was a totally selfish task that I was undertaking. For once I felt bad putting this burden upon them, I missed them and wanted to be at home.

In the days before the race I still had so much to do. I was shattered with jet lag, running on empty emotionally and the last thing I felt like doing was running a hundred miles. My experience from my first hundred miler, last years Lakeland 100, told me that mental strength was key to success. I was repeatedly telling myself, and anyone else who was willing to listen, that there was no way I could do this race. Family and friends rallied around to support and encourage me. As hard as I searched to find someone to tell me it was ok to pull out of the race, nobody was forthcoming. Phrases like, “you may as well go and give it a try” or “you’ve worked so hard to give it up now” were logical but not what I wanted to hear. I continued to question both my sanity and my ability to undertake the task before me.

Operating on autopilot, the day before the race duly arrived and John Figiel pulled up outside my house for the journey north. John had kindly volunteered to crew me for the race using his camper van and with quiet enthusiasm ushered me out of the door and north up the A1 towards The Peak District.

The drive north was uneventful. I voiced my concerns during the journey and John reassured me that I would feel better once we got to race registration and into the atmosphere. I hoped he was right.

The weather had taken a turn for the worse the day before, with heavy snow and sub zero temperatures for most of the country. The colder temperatures were set to hold through the Saturday, before warmer and wetter air moved in over Saturday night. The race plan was obvious. Make the best of the good weather before the rain and mud arrived in earnest on the Sunday.

We arrived into Edale to a wonderful wintery sight. This was the first time I’d been back in the valley for over a decade and it was great to see the familiar sights as we drove through Hathersage and on towards Edale. The car park was fairly quiet and I was soon in the queue for race registration. Everbody around me looked so serious and ready for the journey ahead. I on the other hand was still seriously lacking any energy, and had so many negative thoughts constantly running through my head. I was on automatic, convinced that I shouldn’t be there but going through the motions for my family, friends and most importantly John, who was giving up his time to support me.

The queue took a while but once at the desk, race registration was an efficient affair. I had my photo taken with my race number and my kit checked. I drew a full kit check from the pot but this again was a friendly and swift process. It was reassuring to know I had all the right stuff for the journey ahead.

Giles watching Lindley deliver the race brief, desperately trying (and failing) to get into a racing mindset. Photo courtesy of John Figiel

Giles watching Lindley deliver the race brief, desperately trying (and failing) to get into a racing mindset. Photo courtesy of John Figiel

By the time we’d finished with the registration process, we had missed the 4pm race brief, so took the chance of a wander around Edale to kill some time and visit the start of the Pennine Way proper. The next morning, with over a hundred others at the start, I would have no time to stop here, so it was good to be able to spend some time to soak up the location. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the back of Mam Tor before heading into the Edale Centre ready for the race brief at 5pm.

Lindley Chambers was taking the briefing and while John caught up with him I sat with my thoughts. The buzz I’d hoped to feel from being in Edale still wasn’t there and if anything I was questioning my decision to travel north even more. The race briefing was interesting but again did little to quell my doubts and as we drove out of the valley towards our hotel in Buxton if anything I felt worse.

Like everyone I get nervous before a race. Nerves are good, as running an ultra is no small feat. However while feeling nervous I normally also feel excited for the race ahead, looking back on my journey to the start line, keen to put the training I’ve put in to good use.

This was different. Yes the nerves would play a part but I felt emotionally and physically drained and lacked any enthusiasm for the event. This is how I would expect to feel at around mile 90 of the race, not mile zero!

All my usual tactics failed to lift my mood. Take confidence in your training; Think of why you wanted to do this race in the first place; Think how proud your family will be of you; Break the race down into small chunks and focus on those, treat it as a process rather than a single journey or effort. Hard as I tried I was unable to lift my mood and slowly I sunk deeper into myself.

Sunset over Edale, next stop Race Day!

Sunset over Edale, next stop Race Day!

We arrived at the hotel and while John popped out for a quick run I got my race and kit bags sorted for the morning. With such little time to prepare I had pretty much brought all the kit I owned, a major benefit of being a supported runner. However to assist John I broke the kit down into my race kit (which I would carry myself throughout the race), and the kit I would need ready access to when I saw John (socks, gloves, battery packs, change of gloves etc). The remainder was stuffed into the large holdall for when/if the wheels totally came off.

A separate box of food was already sorted. Unlike many other ultras, this race would only have one checkpoint where nutrition would be supplied by the race organisers, namely checkpoint 1, Hebden Bridge at mile 45. There would be various Mountain Rescue safety points along the way, where there may be some drink and food available but largely we were to fend for ourselves. The second half of the race gave opportunities to use some pubs and shops as we passed through villages but largely I had to either carry it myself or pick food up from John as I saw him.

We had a planned schedule of where we would meet, which we had initially drawn up on New Years Eve and I had further refined on my transatlantic flight earlier in the month to try and get the distances a little more even. As John would have the van, these would of course largely be based around where the route crossed a road and should be easy for him to park. I was conscious that John would be on his own and would need rest but it was also good to know where and when we would meet, so I could latch onto those in my mind.

Over dinner we discussed final plans and agreed a 06:30 departure in the morning to give us time to get back to Edale ready for race start at 08:00. A final call home, where I again voiced my concerns and fears, then I dropped myself into bed, where sleep eventually quietened the voices of doubt in my mind.

Race morning

The alarm went off just before 05:30 and the pre-race routine kicked in. A quick shower, the last until I returned to Cambridge, and foot prep began. While away in the States I had annoyingly developed a blister on each big toe, so I quickly taped these as a precaution. A final fiddle with my kit, a bowl of porridge and we were out the door and on the road back towards Edale.

Overnight had been cold but it didn’t look as if it had frozen badly or any fresh snow of significance had fallen. The drive back to Edale was pretty uneventful and we pulled into the car park just after 07:00.

First order of business was to get my GPS tracker fitted and after the queues for registration the day before, I was concerned this could take some time. I had no need to worry though and was swiftly through the system, with the small black box and its flashing green light securely attached to the shoulder strap of my rucksack.

The hall was warm and rammed full of people so I headed back outside, keen to remain acclimatised to the weather and wanting to get away from the pre-race chat. My mindset hadn’t improved overnight and whereas normally I’d be relishing the prospect of getting the race underway, this morning I looked upon it with total dread.

I had one final kit choice to make and that was my choice of gaiter for the day ahead. I opted for the middle ground and went with the Montane Alpine Pro gaiter, hopeful this would provide me sufficient protection from the snow and mud I was likely to encounter over the coming hours. At this point I was well aware I was breaking the cardinal sin of ultra running by trying something new for the first time during the race, and I spent a few minutes adjusting and tweaking them to get the fit just right.

At 07:45 I headed across the car park for one final loo stop, only to be confronted by other racers piling out of the village hall and heading across the car park towards me. Blimey, they were heading for the start! I rushed into the loo and back to the van to quickly get my jacket and pack on ready for the off.

The expected blue skies had not appeared and it was overcast above us as dawn broke. There was no snow in the air, so rather than my waterproof I opted to stick with my Rab Vapour-rise jacket, hopeful this would provide enough protection from the wind, cold and any light snow we should encounter.

With my kit on and a last mouthful of banana and slug of electrolytes, we rushed towards the start. “Five minutes to go” a marshal warned me as I quickly shook John’s hand and stepped over the tape along the edge of the starting funnel.

Memories of a friend telling me to go for a sprint start from the front were quickly forgotten as I joined the back of the hundred or so other athletes in the race.

All of a sudden I heard the Race Director announce ninety seconds to go. Crikey, that felt like a quick 3.5 minutes! One last check of my kit, poles adjusted correctly, watch ready to go and with a three, two, one, we were off!

Leg 1: Edale to Crowden

The rush to the start line probably did me good as it gave me little time to dwell on my fears and negative thoughts before we were running out of the field, across the car park and up the road into Edale. I managed a quick high five with John as I ran past him, with my best non-impressed face for his video, and my race was underway.

Managing a smile on the climb up Jacobs Ladder, Edale

Managing a smile on the climb up Jacobs Ladder, Edale – Original photo courtesy of Racing Snakes

Ahead lay 27km up and across Kinder Scout, crossing Snake Pass and ascending Bleaklow, before descending to Crowden and my first meet-up with John. What ever happened I was going 27km before I could stop, so I told myself I may as well get my head down and get on with it.

We soon reached the start of the Pennine Way that we’d visited the night before and grateful to be leaving the tarmac we headed off across the fields towards Barber Booth and the climb up Jacobs Ladder onto Kinder.

The ground underfoot was a little slippery with snow and mud and the runners soon stretched out as we moved from field to field along the valley, running where we could but walking in the main. I was towards the back of the field but was comfortable with that. It was not like I had any chance of finishing after all!

The snow had started falling but it was a fine light snow and didn’t disturb our rhythm as we turned and started our climb up Jacobs ladder. The higher we climbed though, the more it fell and before long I was considering a change of jacket. There was no sign that it would clear and if anything it looked set to get worse, so I opted to stop and switch from my vapour rise jacket tomy waterproof, to provide more protection from the elements.

Climbing over Kinder Scout, towards Kinder Downfall on the 2017 Spine Challenger

Climbing over Kinder Scout, towards Kinder Downfall on the 2017 Spine Challenger

Jackets changed and I was soon back on the trail and catching those I’d been running with out of Edale. I seemed to be moving strongly but this still didn’t lift my spirits as we started the steep climb up onto Kinder Scout.

The film and camera crews were all around us and encouraging us on as we climbed. As we hit the top of the climb the snow was coming down quite strongly, so after grabbing a quick photo I swung north. Next stop, Kinder Downfall.

What followed was a march through the snow, hunkered down in jackets and gloves, trying to keep warm. The snow was falling quite heavily as we hit Kinder Downfall and my running glasses were getting covered, making it difficult for me to see. At this point it seemed wiser to remove them, as I could see marginally better without. Once I’d done this my face was fully exposed to the biting snow and stories of snow and wind blindness on previous Spine races played in my head. I hoped I wouldn’t regret my choice.

The summit of Mill Hill arrived and we took a 90 degree turn for the descent to Snake Pass, where we hoped we’d meet our first mountain rescue safety control for a little morale boost.

As we dropped the path opened up a little and became quite runnable. The sun was burning through and blue sky finally started to appear. As we approached the road we were greeted with cheery hellos and after a short coffee with the mountain rescue team I was on my way, climbing up towards Bleaklow.

The sun was burning quite strongly now and it was incredibly warm as we began our climb up and away from the road. However, when we eventually entered the cloud once again the temperature plummeted and I was grateful I hadn’t removed any layers.

Heading up into the cloud and onto Bleaklow

Heading up into the cloud and onto Bleaklow

The path weaved its way back and forth through the lumps and bumps of the moor side. With the snow cover it was impossible to identify the path itself, apart from the odd marker and we soon found ourselves following the steady stream of footprints in front of us.

At this point I had my first navigational error as we suddenly found ourselves standing above a sharp drop to a stream. At the bottom trying to cross were three women, who kindly informed us that this wasn’t the Pennine Way and that it was a few minutes back to the east. Doh! Time to focus!

We thanked them and beat our way back across the moor before eventually finding a large volume of tracks heading upwards. We rejoined these and after a while the summit cairn finally came into view from the cloud.

A quick chat with a mountain rescue team who had arrived just behind us and we were off north and then west for the long descent to Crowden. On the climb up I had been experiencing some rubbing on my heels and rather than have to dig my first aid kit out of my pack, I took the opportunity to quickly send John a text and ask him to bring some Zinc tape when we meet.

Again this stretch was very runnable and I was catching and passing runners, chatting with them briefly, sharing past adventures and future race plans. It was amazing the different back stories they had. Some were veterans of the race back for their second, third or even fourth attempt. Others were new to the event like me and one person admitted this was even their first ultra all together!

We’d soon dropped back below the cloud and beneath us I could see Torside Reservoir, with Black Hill and Wessenden Head Moor beyond, the afternoon’s objectives.

Whether it was the sun, the fact I was running, the familiar terrain that lay ahead or the thought of meeting a friendly face I don’t know but for the first time I was actually enjoying myself. I started to think about what lay ahead and even though I wasn’t sure of the current time, I wondered if I could make it across The M62 before nightfall.

Descending towards Torside Resevoir, Crowden and the first meet-up with John. Photo courtesy of John Figiel.

Descending towards Torside Resevoir, Crowden and the first meet-up with John. Photo courtesy of John Figiel.

In the final descent into the valley I could see the road below. This was the one occasion where John was going to park away from the route at the Crowden car park. As I was keen to not have to waste time leaving the route to go to the van, John had kindly offered to walk out to meet me. I had expected to see him on the far side of the valley but below I could see a number of vans parked on the side of the road. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see John standing at the gate cheering me in. I even managed a smile for his photo.

A quick change of water bottles and nutrition and we turned our attention to my feet. A gate made a good foot rest as I quickly pulled my socks down to inspect the damage. No blisters or friction points to be seen but we applied some tape just to be on the safe side. My socks where moist from sweat, but not damp, so I opted to stick with them and save the time a sock change could have taken.

I did take the opportunity to dump my Rab vapour-rise jacket which I had worn at the start of the race. As it wasn’t an essential item on the kit list and I had other warm layers in my bag, it seemed pointless to carry it further, so I passed it to John to keep in the van and save a few grams on my shoulders. I realised I may as well take advantage of being a supported runner!

Another quick handshake and route explanation across the valley from John and I was on my way. The next stretch was familiar to me, having run along it a couple of years ago. I therefore left the checkpoint in high spirits, keen to get back on the moors and up to Black Hill.

Leg 2: Crowden to The M62

I initially walked across the dam at the end of Torside Reservoir, before admonishing myself about how far I had left to go and breaking into a run. A short steep flight of steeps up to the roadside soon brought an end to this, before a nice runnable stretch through the woods had me running again.

I waited a while for a gap to safely cross the main road and as I was heading up towards the path junction to start the climb up towards Black Hill, John caught me. We walked and chatted for a while before a downhill stretch to the junction had me running once more.

The sun was glaring down, I was getting quite warm and was wondering whether I should shed a few layers. A runner in front had similar ideas and had stopped at the next stile to remove their jacket. After my experiences on Bleakhow I knew it would get cold as soon as I was out of the sun, so opted to leave my jacket on, ease back the effort levels and opened all my zips to try and regulate my temperature.

A lovely undulating run followed up the valley before the short steep pull up onto Laddow Rocks. It was wet underfoot but not too bad and ahead I could see a number of runners making the climb, an incentive to keep pushing forwards.

As I reached the climb I was plunged into the shade and was glad I’d kept my jacket on as the temperature dropped. I got my head down, focussed on tapping out my alpine climbing rhythm and before I knew it I was cresting the climb and could see Black Hill away on the horizon.

Looking back towards Crowden and Bleakhow on the ascent to Black Hill

Looking back towards Crowden and Bleakhow on the ascent to Black Hill

The views were fantastic as we ran along the edge and I stopped to take a number of photographs. There was plenty of snow cover on the ground but generally it was fairly runnable and I was slowing catching and passing both walkers out for the day and also other Challengers, which was good for morale.

When you cross the open moor towards Black Hill in the summer there is a lovely slabbed path to follow for large stretches and I remembered flying down this on my previous visit here a couple of years before. With the snow cover this was tricky to identify and while at times you could feel it under your feet, you could quickly veer off it and find yourself climbing through thick snow and grass.

Good progress was still possible and eventually, having forgotten quite what a drag it was across the moor to the summit cairn, I arrived on Black Hill. I chatted briefly to a couple of other runners there while I pulled out my map and compass to take a bearing and make sure I was headed down using the correct path. Once this was confirmed, I stowed my compass and set off, keen to get down to Wessenden Head and my next planned meet with John.

The sun was dipping towards the horizon and I was keen to get as close as I could to The M62 before dark. My GPS had just died and I would need to change the batteries at my next stop and check the settings to ensure the screen saver would automatically come on. School boy error number 1!

At this point I was having loads of fun and I really enjoyed the run down and around the hill side through the snow. Ahead of me I could see a long row of cars and vans parked on the road, obviously many support crews meeting runners here. That sight spurred me on towards them in the final pull up to the road.

A quick chat with the mountain rescue team and I headed down the road towards a couple of camper vans, one of which I assumed was John. My assumption proved correct as he quickly jumped out to grab a photo of my arrival. The look on my face says it all. I’d gone from hating this race to actually enjoying it, although deep down I really still didn’t expect to finish.

When I’d spoken to my wife the night before I had expressed my concerns about how I felt both mentally and physically and my doubts about my ability to cope with a hundred mile race in my current state. Her take had been for me to still race, as I would kick myself afterwards if I didn’t. She had also said that at the very least I should enjoy a good day out running in the hillls. If after that I still felt like I wanted to come home then so be it, at least I would have had some fun in the meantime.

Arriving at Wessenden Head and feeling pretty good. Photo courtesy of John Figiel.

Arriving at Wessenden Head and feeling pretty good. Photo courtesy of John Figiel.

I guess this was the mindset I was adopting. Just go and have some fun, running for the day in an environment you love and don’t worry about actually doing the whole race. The fact is, and this would be a recurring theme of my mental games throughout the race, I never actually defined where my ‘end’ would be. So on I went happy in the knowledge that I wasn’t going all the way to Hawes but never quite knowing how far I would get.

All of this was an internal dialogue and I didn’t share this detail with John – in fact he may just be discovering this from reading this report, sorry John if that is the case! Truth be told I felt a debt to John which I had to honour. He had willingly given his time up to come and enthusiastically support me on this race and I felt a responsibility to at least give him something in return. To throw in the towel would also mean ending his race experience as well, taking it from being a decision I could make selfishly and in isolation to one which would impact others. Along with my mental mind games of never accurately defining an end point for my race, it was this debt of gratitude which drove me on and ultimately got me [spoiler alert!] to the finish in Hawes!

I jumped into the van and enjoyed a quick cup of coffee and some of John’s wife’s lovely flapjack while I quickly changed the batteries in my GPS. A quick check of the settings and I found the battery saving option I should have enabled from the start. Water bottles changed and nutrition re-loaded and I was out the door, across the road and on my way, keen to make the most of the light and good weather while it lasted.

The forecast for the day was that slightly warmer and wetter weather was expected to arrive in the early hours of Sunday morning. Before that it seemed wise to try and make the best of the conditions and with The M62 dangling like a carrot on the distant horizon, I set off down the track towards Wessenden Resevoir. With the light fading fast, there was no way I was going to be able to cross the M62 before it got dark, the question now was how close I could get to it.

Crossing Black Moss with the light fading fast

Crossing Black Moss with the light fading fast

I caught and ran with some other runners before a quick steep climb saw the moor open out before us and ahead the Black Moss and Swellands Reservoirs could be seen in the distance. Even with the light fading, the path was pretty runnable and we made good progress across and around the reservoirs before hitting the track up towards the main road and the Brun Clough car park, where I had next arranged to meet John.

I pulled away from the other runners and as I descended down the track in the fading light, the lights of Greater Manchester stretched out before me. Ahead I could hear the generators of the mountain rescue team purring away as I dropped down the steps into the car park.

After a quick chat, I politely refused their offer of tea and as the others arrived behind me I went into the car park to find John. He was easy to spot with his blue headtorch, a conscious choice he’d made for just that reason and in the coming hours of darkness would be a like a beacon drawing me in.

I pulled my headtorch on and after a quick chat and change of bottles, I was once more heading out onto the moors but this time on my own and in the dark. A quick check of the map and into the darkness I plunged!

A couple of snowmen gave some light relief as I headed up the track away from the road. It was now pitch black around me but as far as the eye could see to the south and west stretched the lights of Greater Manchester. It was strange to think that so many people were so near to where I stood at that very moment but could also feel so far away.

The route to the next checkpoint was fairly straight forward. Initially following Standedge above Oldham, before heading out across Close Moor and Moss Moor towards the motorway. Behind me I could see lights leaving the checkpoint and ahead I could see a single set of lights in the distance making their way up onto White Hill.

The lights of Greater Manchester. Company so near but so far!

The lights of Greater Manchester. Company so near but so far!

It was exhilarating to be out on my own, using my navigation skills to move me safely from point to point. I’ve always thought of myself as a good navigator by map and compass and I guess with my Winter and International Mountain Leader qualifications, I have the paperwork to prove it. However it’s been many years since I have effectively put this to good use and one of my main questions coming into the race was how rusty would I be. The answer seemed to be not very and I was quickly making progress over the ground, plotting my route safely and effectively. I had a massive grin on my face and was really enjoying it!

As I’d left John he suggested we should look to get some proper food inside me at some point, as I’d been snacking on hot cross buns, bananas and various bars since the start this morning. As I ran I thought this through. At The M62 there was going to be the burger van which many racers would stop at, as this was the only easily accessible source of food between the start and Hebden Bridge. Initially I’d thought I would wait and eat at Hebden Bridge, but with many people probably planning to eat at The M62, I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to do so as well.

While I didn’t feel particularly hungry and had been steadily getting food down since Kinder Scout, I texted ahead to John and asked for some warm food to be waiting when I arrived.

I left Standedge and the lights of Greater Manchester behind and headed out up onto the moor. The light ahead of me seemed to be getting closer but also seemed to be bearing away towards the east. It looked as though the runner had taken the wrong turn but this was just a trick of my eyes and soon I was following them up towards the road crossing and onto Moss Moor.

Ahead I could hear the rumble of the motorway and after ten minutes or so running it finally appeared and I began my descent towards it. It seemed strange to see a road that has played such an important part in my life stretched out below me. Hundreds and hundreds of times I have used this to fly across The Pennines in our mad dash from our home in South East England to The Lake District. Many times I’ve looked up at these hills and moors, wondering what lay beyond them and here I now was running across them, finding out at last.

Before I knew it the road arrived and John’s now familiar blue headtorch could be seen in his campervan. A quick check in with the mountain rescue team and I was diving into the van for some beans, sausages and a cup of coffee.

It was now 6pm, not quite the 5pm I’d been hoping for but not that far behind. I had made my first mental tick of reaching The M62. Ahead lay a long cold night, with worsening weather and the mental demons began to quietly chatter once again!

Leg 3: M62 to Hebden Bridge

A quick check of text messages and I was pulling my jacket back on to head out into the night once more. John was feeding back all the amazing support I was getting through Facebook, in response to the updates he was posting every time we met. Huge thanks to everybody who took the time to follow and post encouragement, your messages meant a lot and it was great to know people were out there following my slow moving dot northwards on the tracker.

As I passed the burger van I expected to see a few people gathered there but found it deserted. By the looks of it most people had grabbed their food and moved on and while I was now playing catch-up, I hoped the short break would be beneficial in the long run.

Some warm food and a catch-up on text messages in the van before pushing on across the M62. Photo courtesy of John Figiel.

Some warm food and a catch-up on text messages in the van before pushing on across the M62. Photo courtesy of John Figiel.

Ahead lay a short hop to the The White House Pub, before a longer leg to Hebden Bridge and the first official checkpoint.

As I approached the footbridge across the motorway I was warned of ice by a couple of mountain rescue team members heading back towards the layby. Their warning proved useful, as even on the left where they suggested we walked, it was still quite slippery underfoot.

Once across the motorway it was a short climb up onto Blackstone Edge before swinging around to The White House Pub. By the time it came into sight, I’d caught up with a number of other runners and it was a group of five of us that arrived together into the car park. In recent years Spine runners have been welcomed into the pub, however this year we were banned. A recent change of carpets meant that a hoard of muddy travellers from The Pennine Way was not the type of clientele they were looking for on a Saturday evening.

The mountain rescue team had a tent setup in the car park offering hot tea and chocolate digestives, which more than made up for the lack of the pub. John was there again and after a quick reset of my map I was back on the road again, next stop checkpoint one!

The runners I’d arrived with had left slightly ahead of me and were now a few hundred metres in front of me. I left the road for the track towards the reservoirs beneath Langfield Common, which was quite runnable and I quickly caught the group again. I slowed into the group and we chatted as we made our way alongside the water. A blood red moon was rising over the eastern horizon, which looked amazing reflected in the water but my attempts to photograph it couldn’t do it justice.

The ground underfoot was easy going and there was just enough light for me to be able to turn my head torch off for a while. I was running with my much loved Petzl Nao, which I’d set to have around 16 hours burn time per battery. I’d never tested this in one hit and in cold weather, so the chance to save battery, however brief, was a welcome one.

We reached the end of the reservoirs and climbed up onto the moor for the run above Todmorden, along the edge to Stoodley Pike, which we could see silhouetted in the distance before us. The ground was fairly easy going and a combination of running and walking soon brought us to the foot of the final climb to the Monument. At this point the path headed left downhill and with a quick check of the map and the monument before us, we pushed on ahead through the snow.

It soon became apparent that we should have taken the lower path and after a minor course change to contour down onto the path we were back on track. Again the path swang away from the monument uphill and after stopping to quickly check the GPS track I called out that I thought we were off course again.

We were getting an unwelcome reminder of how the paths of the ground don’t necessarily match the map or GPS track. Fortunately a path appeared turning back uphill and we were soon standing beneath the large structure, with the lights of Hedben Bridge clearly visible over the hill before us.

A short stop to take on fluid and some food and I was off, leading a group off across the moor to find the descent to the main road into Hebden Bridge. As the track dropped I pulled ahead of the other runners but another moment of confusion, where the signpost said to take a right and the map clearly said to continue straight ahead saw the group reform again. Fortunately one of the others had done the Spine Training weekend in the area, so remembered the junction and after following the new path across the field we were soon back on course.

Down the track plunged, steeply into the valley. The road was icy in places but by weaving around and taking the rough centre line or grassy fringes we were able to make it to the bottom in one piece. The tortuous approach to checkpoint one was about to be revealed. We crossed the road and then we were once again climbing straight back up the hill away from the road on a steep cobbled path which almost warranted a handrail.

Up and up we went, weaving through trees and around houses until we eventually hit the open fields on top. By now I was starting to feel tired and was looking forward to a hot meal. The demons were whispering away in my head reminding me of my plan to just run for the day. It was pretty much midnight and the day was up, surely now was the time to stop?

We hit the first road and after checking the map I directed us on across more fields, down again to cross a river before climbing back up to the third road out of Hebden Bridge. Now for the real sting in the tail. It was at this point that we left The Pennine Way for the first time since we’d joined it at 08:05 that morning, to descend the road and find the checkpoint itself.

Down we ran, along the dark street, passed parked cars and quiet houses. Runners were coming back up the road towards us wishing us luck, a greeting we warmly returned. Ahead in the distance I saw the blue light of John’s head torch and finally he and the campervan appeared.

All runners were required to visit the checkpoint and check in. My plan was to do that immediately and grab a meal, before returning to John to change my socks and ready myself for the night ahead. I was still running in the same footwear and socks that I’d worn since we’d started and although we had been crashing through snow and bog, my feet felt great. The boot liners were obviously doing their job.

John pointed us to the path between the houses and on we went. Finally the checkpoint appeared before or rather below us. As we passed between the houses we were confronted with a steep tree lined gorge, with a muddy path down the side leading the the checkpoint at the bottom.

This was getting beyond a joke now and as we slipped and slid our way down the path all I could think of was the return climb we’d have to make back up in the not too distant future. Of our group of four, two planned to sleep at the checkpoint and myself and another runner planned to push on. However as we descended I felt the energy and will to continue drain from me and it was a tired and broken Giles that eventually arrived at the checkpoint.

Numbers were quickly taken and drop bags grabbed for the others (mine was in the van), and we were led into the lights and warmth of the checkpoint.

Sleep has never been something I have had to consider in a race before. In my previous hundred miler, The Lakeland 100, I had pushed on through and not slept at all. I had always been aware that I would probably need to sleep at some point in this race but had planned to push on as far as possible, probably to the second night, before having any. As I stood there in the entrance to the warm checkpoint however, sleep was all I could think of.

Shoes, jackets and packs were removed and I headed into the canteen for some warm food and drink. We all sat there in silence eating our food, looking drained. A runner who had just slept bounced into the room and commented on how quiet we were. All I could think of was how bad I felt and the fact we still weren’t even half way through the race.

I put it off for as long as I could but eventually realised I had to head out into the night and back up to the road. There was no kit down here for me, so at the very least I needed to get back to the van and plan from there.

Back in the kit room others were sorting and getting ready to head to the dorms for the some sleep. I quickly pulled my jacket and pack back on and went to find my shoes. Some quick banter with the checkpoint staff to delay the inevitable before I gave my farewells and dived out into the night towards the dreaded climb back out of the gorge.

I got my head down and into a rhythm, determined to get this over and done with. Half way up I met a group of runners coming down, who stepped to one side for me. As I passed the lead runner they said, “Is that Giles under there?”. It was Richard Martin, who I’d met briefly at a couple of other races and had run with a mutal friend in the Cumbria Way Ultra. God only knows how he recognised me in the dark, maybe it was my swearing and cursing at the muddy climb?

We quickly exchanged pleasantries and wished each other luck before pushing on. I was keen to get back to the road and Richard was keen to get some food and a change of clothes.

Up I went again, strangely finding it easier going up this path than down and before I knew it I was out on the road and at the van.

John was waiting for me, ready with everything I needed. First order of business was a complete change of socks, the first of the race. As I changed I voiced my concerns and doubts to John about going on. It was after midnight, the bad weather was just hours away and with over half the race still to go I had no desire to continue.

I also expressed my desire to sleep and wasn’t in any rush to head back out into the night on my own. John was calm and suggested I push onto the next meeting point and I could sleep there if need be. He also filled me in on the various messages of support I’d received through social media to try and lift my spirits.

The words went in but my mind was now split in two. One half was all for quitting, throwing in the towel. “It’s Sunday now, you said you’d run for a day and you’ve done that”. The other half was on autopilot, going through the motions and getting on with the job in hand. “You can’t quit now, its the middle of the night. It wouldn’t be fair on John to stop now and get him to drive you both home”. It was like last years Peddars Way Ultra all over again, with the mental demons having their battle in my mind.

Still just going through the motions, I shouldered my pack and kit, opened the door and stepped out into the sleety rain. A runner I’d met earlier appeared heading down the hill towards the checkpoint and looked in bits. We briefly chatted and wished each other luck, before heading our separate ways.

A quick shake of John’s hand and I was off, turning with a heavy heart back up the road and trudging off into the night. 72km ticked off, only the small matter of another 94km to go!

To be continued …

Well there you have the first half of the story, hope you enjoyed it? If you want to find out how my epic journey onto Hawes contiued, head over to Part 2, Defeat Then Victory On The Road To Hawes.