Spine Challenger (DNF)

After witnessing first hand Brian’s amazing exploits on the Spine last year I found myself in front of my computer early on a Sunday morning in February entering the Spine Challenger, the shorter version that goes from Edale to Hawes over 106 miles. I then largely put it out of my mind whilst doing my Sprint triathlon thing for the next 7 months! But come September there was no avoiding it any more and it was time to do some plodding. To be honest training didn’t go that well; I had to DNS from the Dusk Til Dawn 50 mile night-time ultra with an injured calf, and then the next weekend I managed to sprain my right ankle in a freak “stepping off a stile straight onto a metal bar sticking up out of the ground” accident. The longest I did in training were two 28/29 mile walks and my left knee had been sore since the start of December. But on the plus side I had been able to recce the crucial section of the course between Wessenden Head and Gargrave that I’d be doing in the dark.

After most of a day packing and faffing on the Friday it was time to get the train to Edale. People heading to the race were fairly conspicuous and I chatted to a guy called John on the way there who was doing the full race. I headed upto the Peak Centre where I had booked in to stay the night and then went for some tea at the Ramblers Inn with fellow Spiners Debbie, Paul and Ben. Back for more kit faffing then to the 8pm race briefing. I was given the cherished “118” race number, sadly I’ve not really got the hair to carry it off!


Briefing over back to the Peak Centre for a bit more faffing then to bed for, frankly, a terrible night’s sleep – not what you really want before something like this. Anyway, up at 6am for breakfast, final kit faffing, feet taping and then down to the village hall for kit check. On the way down I met Harsh coming the other way looking for me – I think he thought I’d overslept! Kit check was done for me by Spine legend Annabel which was nice.


Made some last minute kit changes too which turned out to be good calls. Swapped out of my thick Powerstretch base-layer for a thinner one and also ditched my trail running gaiters which make getting to your laces too much of a faff. Finally there was nothing left to do but wait for the start. Had a quick chat with Dave a friend of Viv’s who I know from us both having done the Rab MM a few years ago. A few minutes before 8am it started to rain quite heavily so on went the waterproofs. Then it almost stopped but I decided to leave waterproof top and bottoms on. We were escorted to the start line and after a few words from the organizers off we went at 8:20am.


Initially we headed up the road through Edale to the start of the Pennine Way proper in a long line of walkers (the runners were already long gone). As we were crossing the fields towards Jacobs Ladder first it hailed and then turned into thick wet snow blowing straight into our faces! The optimists who had started in shorts (!) were soon finding shelter to put on more layers and every few minutes I was having to sweep accumulations of snow off my front pack. By the time we were climbing up onto Kinder the snow had eased off but was quite thick on the ground, which was a help actually as we could follow footprints through the mist. I had said to friends beforehand that I would be disappointed if there wasn’t any snow so that was that ticked off anyway. Past Kinder Downfall I came across Paul from the night before who had hurt his knee and was struggling to move. With some more runners catching us from behind I carried on to let the race crew at the Snake Pass know that he was going to need some help, and bumped into a mountain rescue team on the way telling them of the situation too. At the Snake I saw Harsh who took a couple of photos, I checked in with the race crew then headed off onto a foggy Bleaklow.

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Bleaklow was fairly uneventful, the only issue being that my feet were absolutely soaking wet and cold from slush and bogs, and the Sealskinz “waterproof” socks I was wearing were about as much use as wet teabags. On the plus side the weather was starting to clear up and after descending to Torside off came the waterproofs at last. The next section up to Black Hill was one of the only bits I’d never been on before and it was quite pleasant, walking up a valley before a steep climb out of it then more gradually to Black Hill summit itself. The descent was another matter on treacherous damp flagstones; I passed a casualty of these who had fallen and hurt his hip, checked he was OK as I passed but I think he retired from his injuries.


From Wessenden Head (23 miles) to CP1 was now all known ground, and also easier terrain than had gone before. Shortly after 3pm I stopped briefly to get ready for the coming night; swapped thin baselayer for thick, gloves for mitts and put on my hat before plodding on scoffing a couple of bits of pizza. There was quite a pretty sunset, and this heralded another quick stop to put the headtorch on.


Onwards into the dusk and from my recce I knew there was a slightly tricky path junction to get the right route towards the A640. I know people have missed this in the past and the same was true today as I saw headtorches come back across the moor to pick up the correct route. Over the M62 (I was wondering what people in their cars were thinking of these little lights crossing the footbridge!) to the section across Blackstone Edge which I knew was going to be a bit tricky in the dark, and this was compounded by a light mist rolling in which caused headtorch beams to scatter and reflect back into your eyes, not ideal. With a bit of luck and some educated guesswork I picked the right route and realised I had a 5 strong train in my wake. Once we’d cleared the tricky section I was a little miffed when 4 of them ran straight past me without so much as a word of thanks! I had the last laugh though as they missed the turning down towards the pub on the A58 and the last I saw of them was their headtorches up on the moor.

Quick top up of water from the checkpoint crew then off on the good trails round the reservoirs towards Stoodley Pike. Still misty but eventually I remembered that in such conditions a headtorch works much better if you hand hold it down by your waist which sorted that problem. Stoodley Pike is 40 miles in with just 6 to go until CP1, but a cruel sting in the tail with two steep valleys to cross first. On the second of these I slipped on a steep grass descent and tweaked my right knee when all my weight went onto it trying to arrest the slide. This was a worry as my right knee is my “good” knee and I rely upon it on steep descents. But thankfully it eased off and actually my left knee that had been sore for last few weeks was feeling OK anyway.

In Colden we head away from the Pennine Way to CP1, downhill all the way which would be great but for knowing that we have to head all the way back up to regain the Pennine Way at the start of Leg 2. I reached CP1 at about 21:40, so with the slightly late start I was only 20 minutes behind my guesstimate of 13 hours for the first leg of 46.5 miles. Checked in, got my drop bag and was relieved to get the hated Sealskinz off – I’m not even going to wash them they are going straight in the bin! Cleaned up my feet and got some hot food, Beef Goulash which was nice but not as much of it as I was expecting. Although I wasn’t feeling that great eating it anyway (a portent of things to come!). Had a quick chat with Dave in the dining room, he was about 30 minutes ahead of me and heading out again straight after he’d eaten. After food the main decision was what to wear for the next layer; thick Powerstretch baselayer plus thin Montane smock (which I’d worn upto this point) or thin baselayer and thick Montane Extreme Smock. I decided to go with the former- also swapped into thicker tights – and set about taping up my feet again and getting packed and sorted. As I was in the porch about to set off it felt colder than I was expecting and I had a sudden change of heart and did a quick switch into the second (warmer) clothing option – this later turned out to be a very good decision.

Eventually headed back out into the night at 11:30pm. The slog up the hill back to the PW wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting and I passed about 10 people heading into the CP. No-one else was going my way though so it was a little lonely heading out onto Heptonstall Moor. On the plus side warm dry socks felt fantastic after 12 hours of wet feet, and I was determined to try to preserve this feeling as long as possible. This was helped by a bit of a frost which has semi-frozen the ground and I managed to keep my feet mainly dry for the first 15 miles or so. Past Top Withins there was a cluster of tents and three people stood around chatting!? My main problem was that I was finding it increasingly hard to eat; I had vast quantities of food with me but none of it was very appealing. Forced down as much as I could but knew I wasn’t really getting enough in.

Past Ponden a quick check-in with the race crew on the graveyard shift then up onto Bare Hill which I knew from my recce would probably be wet. In fact it wasn’t so much the wet that was the problem but frosty icy flagstones which were lethal. Made it into Cowling OK though. The next section to Lothersdale was over fields rather than moors which always makes nav a little bit more fiddly and contained my one navigation snafu which led to me blundering around on a steep waterlogged grass slope up to my calves in mud and rapidly losing my sense of humour. Of course I was only actually a few tens of metres from the path!


Once I’d got back on track I made it into Lothersdale OK where I met Dave who said he’d also had a few issues across the fields. We headed on towards Pinhaw together. As we crossed a road we came across another Spiner coming from completely the wrong direction and saying he wasn’t sure what he’d been doing for the last couple of hours; I guess it was between 6 and 7am at this point. We expected him to tag along with us but when we looked back again he had disappeared. Over Pinhaw to the next check-in before the long descent into Thornton in Craven. I had to stop to go to the loo so Dave pushed on (finishing a fantastic 9th place). Shortly after a misguided hop across a gap in the flagstones had me slipping on ice and smashing my left knee; it hurt but no functional damage.

The next day did dawn at some point though. From Thornton to Gargrave is only 4.2 miles and largely flat but it seemed to take an eternity. I suffered a real mental and physical low at this point with tiredness and the lack of food really starting to hit. I was feeling quite cold and generally in not too good a way. I’d tried various approaches through the night to try to get my stomach working (more food, less food, more water, less water, sweet stuff, savoury stuff) but nothing had any effect. Eventually i reached Gargrave and headed straight to the Co-op to see if some different food would turn things around. I had a meat and potato pie, a bag of crisps, a chocolate milkshake, a bottle of Coke and a banana (all eaten standing in the public toilets where it was marginally warmer than outside – classy!). At the check-in with the race crew on the way out of Gargrave I ummed and ahed about dropping there but eventually decided to carry on to CP1.5 at Malham Tarn, which would give a chance to see if the food I’d eaten would have an effect.

It’s a fairly flat walk to Malham along the River Aire, quite pleasant when I did it in the summer on a warm day but very wet in the middle of winter, although given that I’d basically decided Malham Tarn would be the end for me I wasn’t too bothered with sloshing through mud and water. I was still struggling to eat and also was starting to feel cold and shivery despite having warm clothes on and the weather being pretty good. The climb up the steps round Malham Cove was a major effort and I had to stop for a rest and catch my breath a couple of times on the way up. There was one final twist though. When I reached the Malham Tarn car park where I was expecting the checkpoint there was nothing there! I’d assumed (ahem) it would be in the same place as last year but in fact it was half a mile further on. Fortunately a chap supporting another Spiner told me this before I had the chance to panic too much! Got into the CP tent and had a cup of sugary tea but my mind was already made up, I wasn’t going on any further.

So that was that. Put on every stitch of clothes I had (and was still cold) and waited a couple of hours before getting a lift to Hawes with some of the race crew. Got myself sorted out there and was resigned to a night in the hall before getting the train home the next day when my saviours Viv and Harsh turned up to give me a lift straight home! Slept all the way back in the car, went straight to bed and slept for 10 hours straight.


Inevitably after a DNF you spend a lot of time over-analyzing things. What went wrong? Well I weighed myself the next morning and had only lost a kilogram so I suspect I got the balance of my food wrong and had too much real/complex food and not enough simple sugars. Was I just being a bit soft and should have pushed on with a few stern words to myself? Well maybe but I was feeling pretty rubbish and another 24 miles and 8-10 hours might have been do-able, but I might also have got myself into trouble with hypothermia etc – especially as the weather closed in during the afternoon and it was a filthy wet night. If I’d got any less far than I did I think I would be disappointed in myself, but 82 miles in 29-30 hours is not too shabby.

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