Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Montane Spine Challenger - Part 2 – Britain’s Most Brutal Pub Crawl

The Epic Report continues if you haven’t seen part one

Please have a look at that here  to hear tales of Nerves, Snow and Spam Sandwiches

 After an Hour and a half’s sort of sleep at Checkpoint One I feel rested and get suited & booted. I have Breakfast and I am ready to go at 4:15 am.  I’m asked about my feet by a medic which are fine my sock combo has worked perfectly, and why I haven’t got my waterproof trousers on its too warm! I joked about being the first Spine racer to DNF with heat exhaustion. No one mentioned I didn’t have my head torch on which I discover as I walk out to find its dark! Surprise! I really shouldn’t be allowed out at times.

Gosh its warm. I splash up the horrid climb back to the Slack Road trying desperately not to melt.  Once at the top it’s on with the waterproof trousers, and I am off in to the night. Back up the Slack Road I swap congratulations with incoming Spiners and get straight back in to the groove legs feel good, now lets go! Out on to Hepenstall Moor its raining and with the strong head wind its rather refreshing, what was I saying about being hot? The path has been striped of any snow and is now very wet and Icy so there is a fair amount of mincing around before the decent to Grople cottage which is an absolute river. This trend continues all the way up to Top Withins. There is no sign of Cathy or Heathcliff not surprising I suppose as the sign say this isn’t what Emily Bronte of thinking about when she wrote Wuthering Heights. I don’t hang about and over take a small group of racers and then fall flat on my arse as I allow my concentration to drop and stand on some Ice and then repeat the trick 100 meters further on. No damage done but I think this got in to my head a little. I had been going well but having a little bit of a negative niggle just in the back of my mind since I started to feel the chill on Hepenstall moor wondering if I have made the right kit choices at CP1 and I now realise I hadn’t eaten either for about 4 hours as I had my waterproof mitts on and it was hosing it down …….. oh dear in the words of captain Mannering “Stupid Boy”.  But all was Just about OK for now……….

When Spine Races Go Bad! Well a bit wobbly,

On arriving at Pondon there are some support crews and I am suddenly acutely aware of feeling very alone. This was about 4 and Half hours after leaving Hebdon and I hadn’t really seen anyone for any length of time, the few racers I had passed I was quicker than so we don’t really interact beyond the usual greetings. Looking back perhaps I was feeling abandoned a little bit after yesterday, where there was a friendly face every few miles offering coffee and kind works. Today there had been no one. I start to feel very emotional and can hear my voice crack when asked if I need anything by one of the support crew parked up. All of a sudden I am feeling very negative and have a few tears rounding Pondon Reservoir. Some where here I start to consider pulling out at Lothersdale. As I climb up toward Crag Bottom I have a brief chat with a French competitor amusingly confusing his English in my head. (Still streets ahead of my French I have to admit) He was trying to say this is Tough but I manage to through most T words including actually suggesting toast? (See hadn’t been eating) with out that one, he changes tack and declares “This is ‘ard” oh Tough I am with you! Feeling like Basil Faulty I continue on. There are couple of people outside the cottages at Crag Bottom wishing us well which starts the bottom lip again shortly after on the climb to the moor proper I pass Giles I am a bit confused to see him I has assumed he’d be well up on me as we passed at the Checkpoint not knowing he was supported so he was only just a head of me about 40 mins by his reckoning, we compare woes. He’s having a rough time too but promises to try and catch me up and cheer me up.

 This section was going to be one of the mental crux’s of the route for me, the path is indistinct in places and will be boggy. When an area in central Yorkshire is marked on the map as “The Sea” it dose not bode well.  But I cross Ickornshaw moor with out issues, my peak district bog hopping skills  keeping me in good stead as many people have describe going up to their knees or worse here. Descending in to Cowling there is finally some support in the shape of a mountain rescue post. I take my bag off and burst in to tears when someone asks how I am. I’m whisked in to the tent given a cup of tea and told to eat.  The Spine Safety Team (SST) guy gets me to eat the Dehydrated meal I have been carrying. I alternatively hug it as a Hot Water Bottle and sniffle in to it. When I have pulled myself together abit he tells me that he was in this state here last year and he went on to go much, much further and instructs me to get a Pint of Guinness and a Hot Pot down me at Lowthersdale. I didn’t catch your name, but I definitely owe you a pint of Guinness or 4! Giles has arrived after being given his own boost having a surprise visit from a running buddy, and sticks his head in to the tent and tells me I am going with him. I was keen to latch on to any friendly face at this point and he doesn’t have to tell me twice. The wise words of John Vernon ringing in my ears “Never Give up at a checkpoint always leave” I have a image at these times similar to that of Patches O’Houlihan in Dodgeball giving advice from a little cloud.  We team up for the next leg.

Britain’s Most Brutal Pub Crawl

Giles said in his blog he didn’t remember much of the leg to Lothersdale apart for field after field of mud. Well there is a reason for that! That’s all there was and it set the tone for the next 20 miles. We arrive at Lothersdale and meet up with Giles support crew John.

In to the Hare & Hounds a bit of a Spine must do! The landlord sheets down half the pub for Spine Racers, and offers the “Spine Special” in my case Lancashire Hot Pot in a giant Yorkshire pudding and a Brew. It was also an opportunity to check the race phone which had been beeping away steadily with messages letting me know that people where looking at the dots back home. As we eat, the French racer ( I now know to be Yann L’Hostis) from earlier arrives and appears completely flummoxed by a combination of sleep deprivation, unfamiliar food and strong Yorkshire accents but finally ends up with food. Hare & Hounds is an interesting place I cant workout weather the landlord sees this as an enormous inconvenience but a good business opportunity or has Spine Fever like the rest of us but is determined not to show it, as he stands at the bar tracking people in on his iPad complaining about the cost of plastic covering. Which ever it is I am very grateful for his efforts. I didn’t realise this but my race has just been saved. After a good rest and with no real decision to carry on we saddle up and head off.

Over this next stage I am keen to keep Giles going as long as possible I was in a strange place mentally at this point. I knew I wasn’t going to finish this but I didn’t want to pull out and was enjoying the company. We hatch a plan to maintain maximum dignity from our impending failure.  We’ll crack on till night fall and then bin it 2 days and a night that’s respectable right? John meets us just over Pinshaw Beacon and takes a photo of us me looking like a serial killer on a particular bad day. Giles jumps in to the van for a quick sort out. We’re both still a bit down. John tells us were doing well and moving at a good pace still hitting 3 miles an hour. Yes we are still moving at a good pace. Now, hold that thought. Waterproofs finally come off which helps my mood and the day starts to brighten literally and possibly mentally to, and over the next section the sun comes out and we don’t die on the duck boards we just slip, slide & splash through the mud.

People tell you about the Wind, People tell you about the Snow, people tell you about the horizontal rain and the ice, they never mention them mud. I Recced this 6 weeks ago you would think I might have remembered! Spinenisa they call it.

By the time we reach the Leeds Liverpool canal I am starting to feel more positive, Giles has a route card with short hop distances and this is probably breaking the route up in a way I had been failing to. The sun also out and the Co Op in Gargrave with its pies beckons. I voice my thoughts that this could be our best change to finish this race. Giles having just dropped his rucksack in dog poo I think is yet to be convinced.

John has got the kettle on when we arrive in Gargrave and I gratefully accept a brew, before I nip off to The Co-Op. This is a place of Spine Legend or more to the point its hot pie stand is, I indulge in a chicken slice and return with sandwiches which, duly devoured will power us on to Malham. We sort out some personal admin, John reminds Giles that he will finish and that he has been since he got out the van this morning. Giles running Buddy from earlier has also arrived and gives him a bit of a peep talk as we leave and were we are still moving well.  

The light starts to fade as we crack on up the road out of Gargarve and as we hit more sludgy fields head torches go on for the second time. Its dark and we’re still in the race. This section is a bit of a maze and I am glad of my recce to find the twists and turns through the fields to a hideous little road climb and finally Malham, I think I may have suggested going to the Pub. We see Johns Van but no John who right on queue appears as we make ourselves look as respectable as two blokes who have just dragged them selves through 30 miles of mud can before entering the pub.

New plans are now a foot there is talk of checkpoint 1.5 and fountains fell and beyond as we Perouse the menu Bangers and Mash? Don’t mind if I do.

To Malham Tarn and Beyond

We now are feeling much more positive. We have survived the mud and the hills beckon and you only drop out after Malham if you’re injured.  
Our plan is from Malham to Checkpoint 1.5 Brew and then crack on over Fountains Fell. 2 hours kip at limekiln pasture and then Pen-y-Gent and breakfast in the PYG café leaving us 13 miles to Hawes for Tea and Medals. Simples.
Giles mentions the F word on the way out the pub, finishing that is. We are both back in the Game. My Rose tinted specs have descended firmly now and from this point on and while I remember being tiered and slightly sore footed everything seems relatively positive although I do recall being a bit melodramatic about the possibility of Biving at Checkpoint 1.5.
So stage one was the pull up to Malham Tarn. Even in the Dark you can feel the scale and grandeur of Malham cove as your torch beam fails to illuminate the vast space as we glance a cross during the climb up the steps. Arriving at the top I manage to pick an efficient line at the top getting across the leg swallowing limestone pavement, its been made greasy by the damp night and it’s a relief to be off it as quickly as possible to the section where it become merely a trip hazard.  Bizarrely on the way we found a towel laid out in a gap complete with resident teddy strange, Giles checks with me that this isn’t an hallucination. We head in to the valley behind the cove, were making steady progress again and negotiate the twists and turns  and are soon approaching the road and car park at Malham Tarn the lights of camper vans look close and could draw the unwary in to the direct line and in the morras rather than following the looping route round. the lights of the field centre are clear on the other side of the tarn I comment that we’ll be playing the “Why aren’t those lights getting any nearer” game but the trip round the tarn doesn’t seam to take too long I’ve been lucky in this race so far the bits I thought would be long drags have on the whole passed well.
Signs appear and then the buildings and the friendly light of Checkpoint 1.5. There are 3 other races and the Famous John Bamber owner of one of the spines most impressive beards who provides us with tea and tall tales. We have a rest and make use of the facilities. All too soon its time to crack on and we head in to the night as a group of 4 with Ashley Ward and Wijnand Jager. We then make the classic post checkpoint mistake of loosing focus and chatting past the turn off, we soon realise our mistake and are back on track after adding only a few 100 meters. Little known to us John Wroth who didn’t leave with us has shot out of the checkpoint to catch us up and missed us. Fountains fell beckons and we wind our way up though the fields and then on to the farm at the bottom of the climb proper on the open fell it’s a long drag. I am at the front of the train as we go up and up and up I am sure this is higher than it was last time. I had an Idea it was 2 miles from the farm to the summit but that passes and despite low visibility I can make out higher ground to the left, finally the sign warning of shake holes appears out of the mist and the trail flattens out and we begin the decent

Visibility continues to get worse. I really felt in a bubble at this point although there were 4 of us in the space of maybe 5 - 10 meters but I felt a million miles away until someone spoke and we all came back together in my head, only to disappear back in to the bubble again as the talking ended. Once off the rocky track and on to the grass section we are lost to the world. I picked my way onwards with some more human GPS Voodoo and with small bits of track or the odd stone slab over a beck as comfort that were continuing on the right track until we hit the wall, which seems to pop a layer of bubble I warn everyone the next bit is a shitty mess but then somehow manage to pick the best line I ever have though here to the road. Ah tarmac. POP! The bubble burst and we’re back as a 4 chatting down the road. The places your head goes at times is odd.  

Car lights approach “Well done Guys” shouts a police man in a large unmarked BMW as we approach Dale Head we pass a Land Rover Discovery which looks like it has people in side but as we’ve passed one unmarked police vehicle I think better of starring and carry on where we’re due to meet John. We reach the turn with no sign of them. After a few minutes faffing some one appears and asks what we’re doing, someone explains we’re doing a race. We all appear a little confused by this new person and the lack of vehicles, for my part I thought he was an angry farmer initially although it turns out to be John Worth wondering how we got behind him. John very handily clears up our vehicle issues, my unmarked police Land Rover is Ashley’s support and he heads off back and then explains we have discounted Johns Mazda Bongo as apparently the other Bongo that Giles was thinking about has left as it was his. Sleep Deprivation eh! Wijnand teams up with John and they continue.  It’s a little bit of conundrum accepting space in John and Giles Van, As an unsupported runner it’s a bit vague as to what help it is acceptable to accept from other runners before you become supported Some will say this makes me a supported runner, some will say I was lucky and some wont care a hoot, thoughts of points for style had long gone out the window. Next year we’re all in the same boat with no support.

Did he just say next year? He did, didn’t he?   

We quickly sort our selves out and climb in to the van which is delightfully warm and I fall asleep wedged against the back wall. 90 blissful minutes later I am a wake and have a sudden panic that we haven’t set an alarm. I have a quick shivering fit before trying to find my watch without waking everyone else up. Its OK we haven’t over laid and I lay awake waiting thinking I can feel my feet swelling and I am a little worried about getting my shoes back on. They were half a size up form my normal size at the start so hopeful they will still be ok. Soon an alarm does go off we quickly get sorted Giles tapes his feet and prepares his breakfast. And I needn’t have worried about my feet as fresh socks and shoes go on with out any issues.

Pen-y-Gent. I always think this sounds like it should be in Wales rather than Yorkshire. we set off at around 4:00am up the track to PyG visibility was down to the end of your nose but its an obvious path until the rock steps. As we approach the first turn to Horton where the 3 peaks route comes up we meet Yann again, he is clearly shattered, he was descending presumably having decided that discretion was the greater part of valour at the rock band.  On meeting us he asked if we knew the way on and could he join us.  I lead us up to the first band and manage to pick a good line through it and we pop out right on the steps. I am relieved as I don’t like steep ground especially in the dark and I am convincing myself that Yann is going to fall off in his befuddled state. But the benefit of this good line is that we hit the best line on the second band and so the line of flags to the summit. A quick photo call and we point Yann in the correct direction and then we dash down the hill with the promise of a full English drawing us onwards the decent is a long one from the initial steep plunge there is a long drag down to the village where we finally there and meet John and head for the Café.
The Pen-y-Gent Café is open 24 hours for the whole time it takes the race to go past as a Spine Safety team post. The owners having well and truly caught the spine bug. We arrive and are offered beef stew which is ready to go but fancying the Full English that has been dragging us on we opt to wait, and this with a pint of tea goes down very well. Following breakfast and some personnel admin I stock up on snacks for the final leg. We’re ready to set off as another group of racers arrive with Yann, they had picked him up after he had followed the directions of an hallucination that sent him the wrong way he’s seemed rather disorientated and the a quite word with the SST and they jump in to action to ensure that he’s OK. As we head off we get an up date that were being hunted down by Pavel & Eugeni at the Front of the full Spine Race they’re reportedly past Malham Tarn. Can they over haul our 24 hour head start before we get to Hawes?

Now for the slow climb form Horton to Cam End with a plan for John to meet us at the top. This was a section on my first ever long distance event the Oxfam Trail Trekker 3 year ago so I have fond memories of it but, it goes on and on. We discuss trying to not to get over taken, we discuss if we do how cool it would be to see these world class athletes in action.

(for my not ultra running readers as ultra trail running is such a niche sport you get every ability in pretty much each race and if it was an Olympic sport then these guys with be there. This is probably the equivalent of running Mo Farah at a 10k race having been given a 25 minute head start) 

We settle on trying to stay ahead of the Czech and Spanish machines snapping at our heels. As we approach the turn to Old Ing we speculate about the gate etiquette of the lead spine racers and joke about cable tying a few gates to slow people down as I open the next rather solid looking at least wooden gate and It comes to bits in my hands…………… opps we spend a few moments trying to fix it but this isn’t going to happen we squeeze round and carry on. It didn’t occure to me at the time but it can’t have missed my foot by much and if it hadn’t missed that I’d be now writing about a DNF at 90 odd miles with my foot in plaster. Fine margins!

We pass Old Ing and Ling Gill Bridge and with views out to the spectacular Ribblehead viaduct up and up we go, joining the Dales Way up and up, keep looking back for signs of other races up and up, John appears out of the gloom and jumps about us taking photos up and up, the rough track ends in the most incongruous pristine looking tarmac and up and up we go, the summit is at 570 meters but I cant help feeling after this long drag they left a 0 off. We reach the top and the turn off 4 miles to go! 

Giles has a quick faff in the van and were away. I remember this being a really long drag from my recce that never seems to descend! But the first level part of the path passes, Giles suggests we have a shuffle on the down hill bits I reluctantly agree but start to embrace this with more enthusiasm as we go it think this must have sparked some competitive spirit in me. There is a group a mile ahead of us that we now have in our sights. The turn off the main track arrives and we continue shuffling on the down and moving strongly on the flats and up we round Ten End and we can see Hawes below us, and now the decent begins we trot down the hill off the fells and in to the fields we catch and pass the group in front of us we exchange pleasantries and I am happy that they don’t respond in the racing sense as we move past, see its that competitive thing again and we stretch away putting my recce to good use and avoiding the worst of the muddy ground we hit the road. Giles decides to take his waterproof off and my first reaction is to check the group behind, they are still negotiating the worst part of the fields. Am I really racing the last 4 miles? The race is long and in the end its only with yourself! We trot down the road and then through the last fields and houses totter along the flags through the ally way and on to the high street and run in to the finish! Done it! 52:29.

Handshakes all round and we go in to the hall to a slightly underwhelming reception our kit bags are brought and we slump in chairs in that satisfying kind of confusion that you get when you stop at the end of a long race as you process what’s happened and coming to terms with no longer need to put one foot in front of the other and tea and medals follow.
I am never doing that again!

So that was my Spine Race an absolutely crazy experience. Not quite as I envisaged it but it was a fantastic experience and I am immensely proud to be one of less than 160 that have completed the Spine Challenger. Enormous thanks to the SST Chap at Cowling for putting me right and sending on my way. To Giles for teaming up with me at my lowest ebb and some how failing to give up at dark on Sunday, and to John for your positive thoughts and reminders that we were actually doing OK.

Post Script

We beat Pavel and Eugeni to Hawes by about and hour and hobbled out to see them come running past looking ridiculously fresh.

My final position was the 38th out of 94 starters and appropriately joint with Giles despite my quicker time and that he finished just in front of me J  

After checking in to my hotel and getting my self sorted and buying some bin bags to wrap my muddy shoes in, I went back to the Hall to collect them to find Yann had finished in 55:51 hours well done to him. I have to admit I thought he would be out at Horton. You can read his account here (In French but Google translate does a passable job on it).

Also Giles, account of the Race is here

And I am never doing that again! – Lasted approximately 12 hours, with a plan to go for the challenger in 2019. I think it was the complete stranger coming up to me in Leeds Station and asking if I was a spine race due to my Jacket that my well have tipped me in to it.  I have signed up for next years challenger this is an addictive thing!


  1. As we eat the French racer ... cracking image. And great report. See you on the trails. I've entered next year cos, you know, 2 ain't enough. Stephen Brown

  2. Haha, Eats Shoots and leaves :) I swapped my command of the English for my nav skills. Glad you enjoyed Well you have to make the most of the investment in all that kit! See you on the Trails.