The Spine Challenger ultramarathon – Race Report


“I’ve got pneumonia”, announced Martin.

“Christ” I thought, doubled over coughing and wheezing, “so have I”.

Cold, icy and slippery

Cold, icy and slippery

6:30am on Sunday morning, 67 miles into a 106 mile race, somewhere in Yorkshire:  We were both so tired that the muddy verge next to the canal looked like a great place for a quick lie down.  Cold and confusion hadn’t fully taken hold though (the briefing on hypothermia was firmly stuck in my head), but there was little enthusiasm for getting cold muddy bodies into sleeping bags.

Quietly we were both wondering what the hell we were doing here, why we’d signed up for such a daft race, (it would have been hard in the summer, but winter! Completely, utterly, ridiculous), and throwing in the towel meant sleep and warmth, the only important things in life right now.

This was the lowest point of the race.

The Spine Race

I got more than one "bloody hell you're not going camping are you?" comment

I got more than one “bloody hell you’re not going camping are you?” comment

The full race takes on the entire 268 miles of the Pennine Way.  Starting in Edale village in the Peak District, it winds its way over moor, mountain and dale, before finishing in Kirk Yetholm, just over the Scottish border.

Described as “Britians most brutal race”, competitors have 7 days to complete the course, with checkpoints (most including bunks) few and far between (every 50 miles or so).

I didn’t do that.

The baby version goes from Edale to Hawes in Yorshshire, and covers a paltry 106 miles of the trail.  This seemed a more manageable distance, and anyway, for my first 100 mile race was more than tough enough.

Build Up

"Ready" to go

“Ready” to go

The weeks leading up to the race followed the usual pattern, or a pattern I now recognise. Worry about illness and injury (real and imagined), anxiety (about the mandatory kit list), eating a lot (awesome), and a complete lack of anything resembling actually looking at the course or really working out how much food I’d need.

Once I finally bought everything on the list, I felt much happier and relaxed. Then it was just a case of getting me and my overloaded bags up north.

Spotting a similarly heavily laden fellow on the funny little trans Pennine express, we struck up a pseudo English/French conversation which helped to take my mind off the enormous task ahead.IMG_9219

I hadn’t even checked where I was staying (my companion didn’t actually have anywhere booked, so I was one up on him at least), assuming Edale would be ablaze with Montane Spine signs and banners.  A tiresome dark, damp trudge up and down the village was reluctantly undertaken before we found both the peak center and the village hall (obviously right by the station).  Apparently they don’t turn on the light by their sign because nearly everyone arrives in big groups and knows where they’re going.  Clearly they cater to more organised types. Not the best start to the weekend.

The briefing was brief but very informative, the organisers obviously knew what they were doing, and the focus was very much on keeping us alive, which was quite a sobering thought when I’d spent quite a lot of time talking down the dangers to my wife.

Back to the hostel and met up with Martin Wilcock and Sam Robson, who I’d arranged to share a room with and hopefully tag along with on the race.  They were already in bed and weren’t budging, despite repeated mentions of pints of lager (obviously more experienced at this sort of thing than me!).

Sadly I found that there was a kitchen but no food, and I’d missed the food at the pub too. First dip into my cold sausage and potato stash then. Decent bit of faffing moving stuff between my pack and my drop bag, and back again. Managed to find a couple of people carrying as much as me, which made me feel slightly less of a clueless nubie.

Off to the pub then, to be honest I couldn’t help it, it’s become a sort of tradition, plus I thought it might help me sleep. When you’re sharing a very small room with three other blokes, earplugs aren’t going to cut it alone.  The 6am alarm came round far far too quickly.

Race Morning

IMG_9211More cold sausages and potatoes – of course I hadn’t thought about breakfast – far superior to the gels I saw some sucking down, too early for that. Martin kindly gave me one of his marmalade sandwiches, Paddington Bear style, which went down very well.

Back down to the village hall for a quick and successful kit check and to get my GPS tracker attached (provided by opentracking, really handy for friends and family), picked up a state of the art cotton spine t-shirt and commenced hanging around in the drizzle waiting for the start.

Warwick was looking sadly at his GPS and said that he’d somehow managed to delete all the race waypoints, and would have to rely on the OS map and just follow the marked Pennine way trail.

“How to make a hard thing harder eh”, I wryly noted to myself.  Then found that whilst I had all the waypoints, I’d managed to join them together into a 3,000 mile road route, so it was next to useless.  What a complete Tool.  Martin and I had planned to run together anyway, but at this point I was almost prepared to physically attach myself to him just in case he was feeling particularly fast.

The race started slightly late, in a very muddy field to very little fanfare.  Those of us who set off at a run were grumpily berated.  I was so glad to be moving I couldn’t help but run, and also needed to warm up as the promised sunshine had been replaced by driving sleet and hail.

Martin, Sam and I jogged along chattily, remarking on the sad lack of scenery but keeping a good pace.

IMG_9220The sleet gained intensity and waterproofs were needed within half an hour, we lost Sam around this point and assumed he’d rocketed on ahead (we later found out he was helping an injured runner off the mountain).  As we climbed we were quickly covered in snow and greeted by amazing views of a snowy Peak District.  Not the anticipated weather, but a real treat nonetheless.

Hammering along windy streams in snowy gullies was great fun and the snow helped traction on the underlying mud nicely.

At this point I discovered my new Sealskinz mittens were soaking wet!  My hands were warm, but this was a huge disappointment so early on.  Thankfully the combination of 1000 mile liners and Sealskinz knee high socks were working properly and my feet were toasty.

Eventually we dropped down from the hills to Torside reservoir, this was about 16 miles in and the sun came out.  The roadside checkpoint was very basic, so basic in fact all they had was a pen and paper.  This wasn’t unexpected, but still a little surprising.  No mollycoddling here.

I thought I’d stop for a quick water refill from my backup supply, move some food around and text home.  My super quick, highly efficient pit stop was met with “fucking epic faff mate” from Martin when I caught up with him again.  I think sharing one of my peanut butter, nutella and banana sandwiches helped to distract him from my slowness, at least for a bit.

Straight up some hill, then we wound our way along a huge flagstoned path through the moor.  Around here we saw number 9, who had fallen and (his words) “smashed his hip”.  He wasn’t moving very well and was intending on pulling out at the next road crossing, roughly 23 miles in.  Gutted for him, all that training and planning, thrown away on a single slippery stone.  Given how often Martin fell over, I had real concerns about one of us doing some damage too.

The next 12 miles were fairly uneventful – a pretty straightforward run over the moors, broken up with an introduction to bacon and vegetable cake (surprisingly good) and a stunning sunset.

We stopped in a slight hollow to put extra base layers on, extract head torches and reshuffle food.  I didn’t think I was suffering in any way, but kept forgetting what I was doing and dropping things on the ground.  When I eventually set off again my hands were so cold I couldn’t even unclip my mittens from my pack.  Figuring the best thing was just to keep moving I shoved them into my pockets and trailed Martin into the darkness.

Hooray! a cup of tea!

Dropping down to the A58 by the Blackstone Edge reservoir (mile 35) we were greeted by some very cheery ladies who made tea and tried to ply us with mince pies.  I wasn’t really generating enough saliva at this point to deal with pastry, but the thought was lovely and warmed by the friendliness and tea, we headed off into the mist counting down the miles to checkpoint 1 and hot food.

A lovely crisp Sunday morning

A lovely crisp Sunday morning

We dropped down into somewhere called Charlestown at mile 43 and I was convinced the checkpoint must be here, so was somewhat dismayed to hear from a road marshall that it was “a tough, uphill 5K, not far really”.

Somehow we took a wrong turn near some houses, fields and maze of paths (both on phones to home, so they shouldered all the blame), but found our way again after a decent time walking in circles.  Up up up we went, and found another road marshall who directed us off the Pennine way and into a village “look for the montane sign and don’t miss it”.  Where was this checkpoint!

I went sailing past the sign, obviously.  Backtracked and then down a steep muddy track into some woods.  Where on earth were we going?  Eventually we found it, there must have been road access but this was a very well hidden place, don’t know what it was for, maybe something to do with scouts.

46 miles in, not even half way!

Chastened by earlier faffage I had a dry top and dry socks on, fresh batteries in my garmin and headtorch and was eating beef goulash before Martin had even taken his shoes off.  Not quite, but I won this pit stop (everything’s a race, isn’t it?)

Total turnaround time was 50 minutes, 20 minutes longer than planned but not too bad.  Putting wet muddy shoes on was the worst part, but it was nice to have dry clothes and socks on.

Back up the cursed steep muddy path and before long we were back on the moor.  It was now about 10pm.

Long, Icy, Cold, Dark

I honestly don’t remember much about the next 6-7 hours and 30odd miles.  There was a lot of ice, it was very dark and a huge amount of effort went into staying upright (something some people managed better than others, but if you will wear slippers then you will slip).

IMG_9221It was getting really hard now, sleep deprivation was slowing thoughts and taking over.  22 hours on the go and all I could think about was lying down and sleeping.

The talk on hypothermia did pop into my head a few times though, and I knew it would be foolish at best to stop without getting into a sleeping bag (and bivvy bag), but that seemed like a momentous effort.

Martin had said that his mate might pop up with his van to give him a bit of support, but this seemed like such a far fetched notion to my sleep addled mind that I pretty much dismissed it.

RMan and his magic van



Incredibly Martins phone went and within minutes we were sitting in a very snazzy VW van eating hot instant noodles and drinking tea.  It was completely surreal but the best possible thing that could have happened.  We allowed ourselves a 10 minute power nap (in reality 10 minutes of micro sleeps, weird dreams, twitching limbs and confusion), and trotted off into the slowly gathering sunlight.

I had no idea what 10 minutes of closed eyes combined with a bit of sunlight can do.  I was almost skipping through the frozen fields I felt so chirpy – a total transformation.  The frost covered ground and bright sunshine was an absolute treat, and seemed to more than make up for the soon forgotten darkness we’d left behind.IMG_9228

The miles trundled by and we arrived in Malham without much ado.  By this point the sun was fully up and I started to get serious doubts about whether I could continue at this pace.

We climbed up the steps at Malham Cove, and drenched in sweat had to shout ahead to Martin as he started running at the top.  I couldn’t run, my legs were ok but I was breathing hard and felt like something was missing.

Agreeing to walk for a bit (I told Martin that I would finish the race, but I wasn’t sure if I could keep up) Malham Tarn checkpoint 1.5 came round at mile 84, and we were treated to a cup of tea.  The gruff yorkshireman manning the post said “it’s not a food stop and its not supposed to be a brew stop, but I suppose we can help you out a bit, though we are running short on teabags”.  By the time we left here I was very cold and it took a while to warm up again.

Martin said that he might drop out soon as his lift home might not wait for him to finish the whole thing.  I think this gave me the kick I needed, and filled in the missing bit of determination.  The thought of getting myself, alone, along the next 20-odd miles, without nice waypoints to follow was just what I needed.  I think this counts as giving myself a stern talking to, because by the time we got to the top of Fountains Fell (1200 foot, mile 89) I was back on it and charged down the hillside.

Weather, No Shortage Of

No shortage of mud

No shortage of mud either

We’d been warned that the weather was due to turn nasty on Sunday evening, and indeed could see rain clouds in the distance.  Buffeted by strong winds as we climbed gingerly over ice and rocks up Pen-y-gent (why is there a Welsh mountain in Yorkshire?) I was very glad to be doing this in the daylight, without rain.

The longest descent followed, and then it was a happy couple of runners who hung right and took the high road to cut a couple of miles from the route by skipping Horton in Ribblesdale (an officially sanctioned shortcut I hasten to add!).

The following miles were covered on pure willpower, every slight incline was silently declared a hill and walked up, every flat or downhill was greeted with shouts of pain as sore legs, feet and shoulders creaked into a slightly faster than walking motion (calling it running is stretching things a bit).  Neither of us wanted to run, and took it in turns to make the first move, as soon as one sped up, the other had to follow.  Every second running now was one less second we’d have to spend in the rain later.  Plus, Martin had a lift to catch – we’d promised to be in Hawes by 6.

An interminably long, cold hike up Cam Fell seemed to take forever.  The wind was whipping in from the side and I was starting to get cold.  Just to make it even harder, the mist was so thick I had to hold my head torch low down to see where I was going (and try and avoid falling on more ice).

The final descent was a lot harder than I thought it would be.  My vision of a sheltered cruise was cruelly shattered and replaced by ankle deep icy mud, driving rain and a barely visible path (which meant eyes glued to GPS, which in turn meant wading through even deeper muddy puddles).

I was now officially cold.  We deployed one up front to keep an eagle eye on the path, and one behind to keep an eye on the route (those lake district runs with Nic really helped here), and without any more mishap we eventually trundled into Hawes.

The only way to get warm!

The only way to get warm!

We were greeted with a burst of clapping and a warm hall when we finally found checkpoint 2.  All I could say to Scott Gilmour (one of the organisers) as he shook my hand was “that was tough, really bloody tough.  Thanks though”.  Not sure I really meant to thank him, but I was still smiling, so the pain was obviously receding already.

34 1/2 hours, and joint 5th place.  Very pleased with that.  Of the 40 that started this race, only 20 made to the finish, it really was that hard.

I’m not sure if I’d recommend this as a first 100 miler, but if you like hills, don’t mind the cold and like a challenge, then this is for you.

No goubunku, etc.

Track Log

Strava reckons I burnt 18,000 calories, that’s nearly a weeks worth:

Notes on Kit, etc

  1. Get a pack that isn’t uncomfortable even when empty.
  2. Check the bloody route is loaded properly on your Garmin.
  3. Sealskinz socks aren’t actually waterproof (or maybe that was foot sweat, yuck), but they are warm.  Wear liner socks though, as the material is quite abrasive.
  4. Make sure your shoes are big enough to allow for swollen feet and two pairs of socks.  One of my big toes is still half numb and doesn’t look very happy.