Monday, 6 February 2017

The Montane Spine Challenger - Part 1 - All the way to Hebden Bridge

OK so the Spine wow……  The Montane Spine Challenger is the first 108 miles of the Pennine Way from Edale to Hawes it is a non stop ultra race, which you have 60 hours to complete and its tag line is Britain’s most brutal race. Which for a race that you can complete by going at less than 2 miles per hour that perhaps seams a little over hyped.
But now factor in there is little support on route only 1 checkpoint at 47 miles and 1 mini checkpoint where you many or may not be allowed in at 82 miles. It’s January there are 16 hours of darkness and the weather could do anything (I almost panic brought snow shoes. I kid you not). You have to lug an extensive amount of kit and food with you and, that the course record is closer to the cut off time of most other 100 milers than their winning times. Add to that a finish rate of less than 50% and at the start of the race this year less than 100 people have ever finished it over 5 editions of the event. You can see that this is one brutal event. Why am I doing this?

This is where my ultra running obsession started. It has fascinated me each January (Spinuary) for the last 4 years, watching the dots and reading racers blogs and seeing “them” at events with full packs standing out among the race vest clad. I’ve come along way to be here. It’s a bit of a shock meeting the people who were those dots and wrote those blogs. But, it wasn’t until the start of the Hardmoors Roseberry Marathon in December when a runner came up to me and asked me if I was doing the Spine race that it came home to me that I was now one of “Them” conspicuous with my full bag amongst the race vest clad.

Preparations had gone well and by the beginning of January the route has been recced in full. Kit brought more kit panic brought. Training is done. Do I feel prepared? No. I am Nervous about this event and I can feel the tendrils for self doubt creeping in to my head which is hindering my final preparations, I am putting things off. I haven’t felt anything like this since my first Lakeland 50 nearly 3 years ago. I have the Thursday before off work to pack and do the final prep and checks but this is cut down by a very long funeral. I am left packing later than I would like on the Thursday and left with things to do on the Friday and with a drop bag I need to sit on to close. I am not happy.

My pet bit of pre race paranoia is not being able to get to the start of a race and as I wake up to snow on Friday morning and with heavy snow that has been reported, of course Sally traffic cheerily announces the A57 Snake pass is closed! And the sub zero temperatures forecast I feel a little panicked if it’s like that here what the hell is it like in Edale? My Dad is driving me to Edale so I head to his and we travel up to the Peak. I am calmed slightly by the melting snow on the way and we actually arrive with out issue and it’s actually a lovely drive on a glorious sunny day.  

We park up and I head off to register. Joining the queue for registration behind the Spines very own Facebook celebrity Chris Worton we exchange a few nervous words, soon we’re moving forward and called to kit check I have 4 Items chosen at random for inspection by the one and only Tom Jones. I pass on to registration, then once armed with number, T-Shirt and race patch it is on to the Mug shot. It was quite entertaining to see Chris Worton whip off his waterproof jacket to reveal a bow tie and DJ. Few people realise the slightly sinister motive behind these shots thinking that there just for your tracker page but actually they are what will be give to the police when you go missing!

Next up is race briefing and I complete the first navigational challenge, finding the hall at the Peak Centre. I meet Ben Tyas and Gary Marlow who I met at Stu Westfields Training in December more nervous words exchanged. Stu then does the comforting thing of talking about all the things that could go wrong at once. Along with the look after the place, close gates, where support will be, and addresses some of the issues the overseas guys and girls will not be familiar with like which side of the road to run on.

Once briefed its back to Hathersage for a brew and to check in to the Scotsman’s Pack. Then a bit of last minute food shopping and a bit more kit shopping. I try to relax as I pack my kit making last minute changes to contents of pack and drop bag throwing out a lot of kit. Once sorted we have a nice meal then there is time for more kit repacking and its time for bed sleep doesn’t come easily but a few odd dreams make me think that I have had some sleep. 

The alarm goes off at 5. I get sorted and looking out the window seeing that there hasn’t been the hard frost that was forecast getting to the start won’t be a problem I relax a tiny bit I make some last minute changes to my drop bag and we leave.
Arriving at Edale, I collect my new Spine Jacket adding it to the drop bag before leaving it to be collected, visit the loo. Have my tracker fitted visit the loo, and then return to the car to nervously nibble on flap jacks and sip electrolytes, trying not to get emotional. I am generally outwardly very unemotional, very British you might say, stiff upper lip and all that. But with my nerves and with my Dad there I was beginning to get decidedly wobbly finally it was time for the start and we all pile round to the gantry for the off. Thank goodness  

We have the usual pre race stuff over a slightly in effective PA and were off. Now relax were off I wont say my nerves evaporate but now with something to focus on they are only at the back of my mind.

Oh it’s such a not so perfect, then perfect day.

We head off across the car park and up through the village to the start of the Pennine Way proper. I see Mark Roberts shoot past as I find my rhythm and start to focus on the task at hand, namely the 10 miles to Snake pass. We stretch out up the valley the promised freezing temps and blue sky aren’t going to arrive and it’s a damp gray morning.  It starts to rain after 40 minutes or so, waterproofs go on. At the same time 2 other runners are doing the same, one asks the other the name of his mascot. It doesn’t have a name yet he reply’s. Its Chris Worton so I mischievously suggest “Surely it has to be called Lindley?”  Chris had drawn the Ire of Lindley Chambers on the Facebook group but all seemed to have been smoothed over by the time of the race.

I plod up Jacobs Ladder determined not to get hot and by the top the Rain had stopped so its off with the waterproofs and back on with the windproof. As I do this a Camera woman comes over for an Interview “surely you’re not going to film me taking my trousers off?” I ask, she laughs as and I hum “the Entertainer” as I undo the zip, I am such a comedian……….  There’s a quick interview and I head off up the rest of the hill, as we get to Edale Rocks it starts to snow……….. Well this wasn’t in the plan……. But this is the spine race and these are classic spine conditions. There is a little navigational uncertainty as we make our way to Kinderlow in thickening snow but no drama and our train makes it way round to the downfall and out towards Sandy Hays. I “team up” with Harriet Shields a fellow Hardmoors runner who I met at Roseberry, we chat away as were going along in the train until they all decide to stop at a bend, this being my back yard I just carry on and Harriet comes with me checking that I know where I am going before committing. Droping the group as they stop to dig out GPS and maps, we then have the trail to our selves all the way over to Mill hill and across featherbed moss. This section was amazing the snow stops and were on a path about 18 inches wide of compacted snow right in the middle of the flag stones, its perfect and we’re treated to some spectacularly ethereal scenes with the sun coming through the fog as the clouds lift reviling races strung out behind and in front. Giving one of those moments when you really have to just have to stop and take it all in. I am now in the grove and this is fun.

As we cross the Snake, Glossop Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) are giving out coffee we have a quick brew and carry on again in to the cloud to Bleaklow. Devils dike passes easily enough but with the snow we loose the best line through Hern clough and my GPS decides to die. We quickly sort out where we are using Harriet’s GPS and my local knowledge, we are soon back on track picking up Emily on the way we have one more Minor detour again leaving us one grough out so soon correct that with local knowledge again. The Summit  stones are soon reached and we head off straight on to the path down to Torside clough earning my self the nick name of the human GPS J the decent passes with out incident despite the best efforts of someone’s spaniel to trip me up and we arrive to a camper van village as this is the first point for support team to get to their racers.  Harriet & husband Karl kindly donate me some water and she heads to the comfort of her van while I change my GPS batteries have a quick sort out say good bye and crack on.

Crossing the Dam at Torside Res I grab a couple of photos and cross the A628 meeting up with a couple of civilians who ask how far I have to go and are unsurprisingly a bit shocked when I say 82 miles. Having explained the race they wish me well and promise to follow the trackers. I hate the Path up to Black Hill, for the most part initially boggy and awkward then exposed over Laddow Rocks, I’m not a fan of exposed places and then its just chossy up until the flags up to Soldiers Lump. The snow improves things a bit and I start to pass other runners along this stretch starting with a chap who is obviously suffering with his feet already (he would arrive at CP1 as I was leaving which means I put 4 and half hours in to the poor lad over the next 30 miles) and finally a bloke with an fantastic hipster beard. Starting the last pull up Black Hill the skies are clearing and there is the most fantastic sun set building. I clear the top make my only check of the map and enjoy the Jog down. I am caught by Emily again and we chat about this and that as we descend to Wessenden Head. Oldham MRT are there with Water and a weather forecast, warning of impending rain or sleet as black clouds roll in from the west.

I am soon off and heading down through the Wessenden Reservoirs to the slippery decent and sharp climb out to the Swellands Reservoirs. 

Originally built to feed the Huddersfield Narrow Canal they are frozen over when we arrive in the fading light, there is a strange sight as there looks to be strongly illuminated mist over them its all looking very war of the worlds. After some time wondering what this is and going through various options from check point lights to aliens it turns out to be an optical allusion. There is a break in the clouds being lit buy the setting sun perfectly aligned with the horizon as I see it. We decent towards the road closing at Harrop dale Emily pulls away as head torches finally go on and I fall in with Andy and Peter. There is a brew in the Holme Valley MRT tent at the car park before setting off with another weather forecast promising a largely clear cold night with lighten winds but rain in the early morning.

We headed off on to Standedge in to a bit of a train which included Emily again I think a girl called Ann and Andy and Paul and possibly a few others. We made quick work of the next section where the MRT Challenger Leader caught and pasted us, arriving at the M62 crossing we find that the promised burger van is here! Moor Snacks are now highly recommended! A quick round of teas and a Spam Butty to fuel the leg over Blackstone edge. With the clearing skies the most amazing moon was rising to the east an enormous blood moon being reflected of the Reservoirs below was stunningly beautiful another moment to take in the views. Emily pulls away from us here not to be seen again by us but finishes as second lady! We arrive at the White House Pub where MRT are again providing coffee, biscuits and kind words before the last leg to check point one.

We skirt the reservoir system and head over towards Stoodley pike monument. It’s a beautiful night and every thing is feeling good. The paths to the monument are a bit of a jumble in the dark, we have a quick gps check before picking the route Passing the huge stone monument we head down in to the valley and towards Charlestown. As we pass the first farm where greeted by 2 shot gun blasts gulp. There are some fox prints in the snow. We hope/assume that must have been the target and not errant Spiners! We finally reach the canal via a treacherous icy track and here get over taken by the second MRT challenger. The route from here to the checkpoint is a bit of a nightmare and I am very glad of my recce its first very steep, complicated and then very muddy with and in and out of Hebdon Dale before we hit the Slack Road and then we have “the decent” a slippery chossy muddy mess down to the checkpoint I spot Giles Thurston coming the other way his distinctive orange spec’s giving him a way I have met Giles at a couple of races in the past having run most of the Cumbria way with is mate John. We exchange pleasantries before heading in our respective directions. Me thinking blimey he must have 4 hour on me!

Check Point one was busy but not too chaotic. the team there were very efficient Andy & Sarah Norman among others were marshalling racers about, Ryan Wood was bouncing round like a Puppy on speed he is a man with ridiculous amounts of energy and infectious enthusiasm. Once my shoes are off and labelled, because one pair of muddy Speedcross look very much like another and Kit bag located I’m off to get sorted. I have my plan in the words of Eccles I've got it written down 'ere on a piece of paper, Kit sorting, Drinking showering and sleeping follow with a few opportunities to catch up with people. I have a chat with Mark Roberts Who I have sat and eat pasta with at the end of the last 3 Lakeland 50’s joking that this is becoming a tradition as we sit and eat pasta. And get chance to catch up with Andy about his up coming Hardmoors 200! Time for a bit of kip

Part 2 to follow

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