Spine Challenger 2017

My last blog post, 3 years ago, was about my DNF at this very race. In fact, there was also a second DNF two years ago that I didn’t even bother writing up. After a year off the itch needed to be scratched and the autumn has been spent yomping around the hills, including a 3 day 80 mile hike along the Dales Way, the Dusk ’til Dawn 50 mile night time ultra and two 45 mile weekends with full kit and overnight bivvys. Kit has been refined and lightened, lessons have been learned about layering and how bloody slow it is breaking trail through snow.

(For anyone who doesn’t know the Spine Challenger is the 108 mile “fun run” companion to the main Spine Race, which is a 7 day ultramarathon the length of the Pennine Way from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, a distance of 260 miles. The Challenger ends in Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales and you have 2.5 days to get there.)

Of course, there’s always time for one last curve-ball, and as I was on the train to Edale on Friday afternoon I felt a scratch in my throat; surely I can’t be coming down with a cold now? But yes I was! Oh well, nothing to be done but get on with it.

The forecast for the weekend was cold and clear on Saturday, then mild and wet on Sunday. But walking to the race start early Saturday morning the cloud had come in and it really wasn’t that cold at all, so a quick change and dumped a layer back into my drop bag. Got my GPS tracker attached to my bag and soon it was time for the start at 8am. A steady start over snowy fields and soon it was raining too, and I knew this would be snow on Kinder. Up an icy Jacob’s Ladder into the cloud, past Swine’s Back then at the cairn everyone in front was going the wrong way, towards Crowden! Shouted back those in earshot but this still left about ten people following each other off route, but nothing more I could do. Crossing Kinder in the cloud and snow was great fun, and nowhere near as hard as it had been on a snowy recce back in November; basic rule of travelling on foot in snow is don’t be first!


The weather had started to clear by the time I was crossing the slabs towards the Snake, but route finding over Bleaklow in the snow is always tricky and I lost the path a couple of times, but then further up I was only the second set of footprints on the correct route. Feeling pretty chipper at this point with snowy hills and great views, although Bleaklow Head to Torside always seems to take an age. Heading towards Crowden the sun was out and it was warm enough to go down to base-layers, although not everyone agreed as a Frenchman jogged past in full waterproofs, balaclava and goggles. Past the film crew Ellie and Matt, the drone was flying but I didn’t make the cut for that day’s film.

Heading towards Black Hill my left heel was starting to rub a little so I stopped briefly to make some running repairs with tape, then pushed on up to get warm again (according to my thermometer it was 0C here at about 3pm and was the coldest it was for the whole race, it really was mild conditions). Heading towards Wessenden head I was met by Rob a colleague from work and it was good to have a natter for a few minutes.


Apparently it was around here that my tracker stopped working for a while, and I must have been “stationary” for a fair time as I even got a phone call from race HQ checking I was OK! I met Yann coming back up the trail at Wessenden as he wasn’t sure of the route but I soon set him straight; we met a couple more times in similar circumstances and he was always pleased to see me, in his words “you always know where you are going”! My knowledge of the route is a huge advantage and I didn’t look at a map once, relying upon memory and checking the GPS for confirmation.

A cup of hot squash from a Mountain Rescue team at Standedge then soup and bread roll just before the M62 kept me going, although I was aware that I maybe hadn’t kept on top of my food and drink as well as I should have. On to the reservoirs and there was a beautiful orange moon just above the horizon. Stoodley Pike was a long time coming and I had a couple of minutes sit down here before the final stretch to CP1. The haul out of the Calder Valley was as tough as ever then there is a second valley to cross before heading down to the checkpoint (of course a down you have to come back up to regain the Pennine Way at the start of the next leg). It was 11:30pm and it was just starting rain lightly; 46 miles had taken 15hrs 30mins.


Decided to have some food then get a couple of hours sleep; which in reality was two and a half hours of lying down but only an hour of actual sleep. Better than nothing. Took an age to get away again, faffing with kit in a crowded room full of other people doing the same. Had a pack of porridge before leaving and changed my shoes. Back out into the night at 4:30am.

Conditions were now very different from the nice crisp snow that had been underfoot for most of the previous day; rain and rising temperature had turned the snow into water and slush, and melting ice on top of flagstones was a treacherous surface. Reached Top Withins just before dawn and it took a good whack with my shoulder to get the door of the bothy open to have a quick break inside. Bare Hill and Ickornshaw Moor were as wet as I’ve ever known them, a real slog to Cowling. Reached Lothersdale at about 11:30am just in time for lunch at the Hare and Hounds who again were extending fantastic hospitality to Spiners. Lancashire Hotpot in a Yorkshire Pud was tasty and I even managed to eat most of it!

The on and off rain was mostly off by now and to make the next few miles across soggy fields go a bit quicker I put on some tunes courtesy of my £7 eBay MP3 player; have to say the debut album from the Magic Numbers definitely needs re-assessing, perfect uplifting indie pop. Had to stop at East Marton for 10 minutes to scrape mud out of my shoes and off my socks, despite DexShell “waterproof” socks my feet were wet for most of the day. More fields to Gargrave and into the Co-Op. As usual, nothing seemed that appetising and I just got a bottle of smoothie (craving some vitamins!), a houmous and falafal wrap, an apple danish and a four pack of Snickers bars, which were increasingly becoming the most reliable thing I was able to eat.

It was about 4pm leaving Gargrave and I stopped again briefly a mile further on to do some more footcare before it got dark. The next few miles to Malham were grim, slogging through fields of slop in the dark. The final insult was slipping on literally the last few metres of muddy descent and bum slid getting covered in muck; some expletives may have left my mouth. At least reaching Malham you know that the worst of this is over and the rest of the way to Hawes is more interesting and less filthy. Quite a haul up the steps to the top of the Cove, but I felt strong, in marked contrast to three years ago when I’d blown my doors off by this point and had to have a rest every few steps. It was very dark, quiet and lonely heading across to Malham Tarn, but I realised that I had now got further than either of my previous attempts and there was no obvious reason why I wouldn’t get to the end!

Checkpoint 1.5 at Malham Tarn Field Centre is an “intermediate” checkpoint, so no access to your drop bag and no beds to sleep in, but friendly faces, hot water and somewhere to sit down inside. Felt glorious pulling off my wet socks and giving my feet some air. It was 8:30pm (37.5 miles covered in 16 hours since leaving CP1) and I spent about an hour sorting myself out and having a freeze dried meal before getting my head down in my bivvy on a covered veranda outside the CP. Had a good 3 hours sleep and was up again at 12:30am and back on the trail at 01:30am after a pack of freeze dried porridge.

Beginning the climb of Fountains Fell a couple of guys came back down the hill having struggled to find the path, they were happy for me to show them the way and we chatted for a while before I pulled away up the hill; I was feeling pretty strong at this point. It was foggy and damp but not at all cold. A tricky descent and on the way down I met and passed Yann again. The climb up Pen y Ghent was longer than I remembered but I enjoyed the scrambling sections and made the top for a five minute sit down in the summit shelter. The descent to Horton was rocky and very hard on the feet and it was a relief to get to the road and the cafe at 6am. Really wasn’t feeling too clever by this point but managed to get a plate of beans on toast down me.

I left Horton half an hour later and the next hour was the toughest for me of the whole race, feeling sleepy and a bit nauseous. Eventually I just lay down and curled up on a grassy bank – I didn’t even take my rucsac off! – closed my eyes and slept for maybe five minutes. This did me the world of good and I felt so much better when I set off again. Soon the day broke and I sang my sunrise song – I saw the light, I saw the light, no more darkness, no more night.

All through the race I had been very unlike my normal, (over) analytical, self; I rarely knew what time it was or how far I had come, and never checked what pace I was doing. I just concentrated on breaking it down into small chunks and only worrying about the current chunk. Look after all the little pictures and the big picture will look after itself. That was particularly true now. Get to where the three peaks route joins the PW. Then get to where you turn left off the track towards Old Ing. Then get to the bridge across Ling Gill. And repeat.

On the climb up to Cam High Road I overtook a guy who was struggling with his right foot, my feet were pretty sore now too and I was seeking out softer ground whenever possible. This is another section that always seems to go on forever, gradually climbing on a straight, wide track up into the cloud and fog. Past where the Dales Way comes up from Wharfedale, it had been a clear day when last I was up here on the Dales Way in October. Finally the turn off the Cam Road is reached and half an hour later you can see Hawes beneath you – the end in sight! All downhill from here and even jogged a bit, off the fell, along the road, across a couple of fields and into Hawes. The last hundred metres up the high street to the Market Hall, it was midday (so 52 hours since the start) and I was pretty happy, a 3 year old monkey off my back at last!



Kit List

I’ve done quite a lot of work to get my pack weight down, it really does make a difference! Purposefully choosing a small rucsac is a good start as with a bigger bag it’s very tempting to keep adding stuff “just in case”. I reckon I was carrying 4-5 kg before food and water.

Bags- Lowe Alpine LiteFlite 25 (Really good bag, simple and light and quite short which I found much better for my back. Huge mesh pockets on the sides for storing extra food.). Raidlight frontpack (4l capacity with bottle holders either side, 2 * OMM bottles). Alpkit lightweight drybags

Sleep system – Rab Summit 300 Alpine (Not the lightest bag at 900g but I can’t really justify spending hundreds of pounds on a new one!). Rab Moonlite bivi (Very light, not sure I’d want to use it in anger in heavy rain though!). Klymit Inertia X Lite Short Mat. (Lightest mat out there at 175g, and actually surprisingly comfortable).

Cooking – Alpkit Kraku Stove (45g), 100g gas can, Alpkit MyTiMug 650 (80g), Alpkit Lhfoon titanium spork (23g). Gas can and stove fit perfectly inside the mug along with a lighter. Unused apart from the spork.

Nav – Garmin ETrex 30 (plus Tempe thermometer), 2 * Harveys PW maps (second picked up at CP1, neither used at all), Silva compass (unused)

Lighting  – Alpkit Arc (great headtorch but now discontinued, batteries are loaded into cartridges and can be changed in the dark without even taking the torch of your head), Petzl Tikka (back up light, never used)

Poles – Black Diamond Distance Z 130cm (I’m a latecomer to poles having done all my training without but to my surprise I used them every step of the way)

Feet – Injinji coolmax liner socks inside DexShell Thermlite waterproof socks. Inov8 Race Ultra 290 GTX (start to CP1); Montrail Badrock (CP1 to end). Montane trail gaiters (with garden wire understraps which broke after about 65 miles!). Yaxtrax (unused)

Legs – Rab Powerstretch tights, Alpkit Parallax pants (soft stretchy fabric but a bit thin, worn about 80% of the time)

Upper – Brynje Super Thermo “string vest”, Alpkit Laika midweight baselayer, Alpkit Balance shell (I really rate this, great piece of kit and very good value. Worn for all but about 5 miles on the first day), Berghaus Vapourlight Hypertherm smock (worn several times for extra warmth, but mostly in the bag, super-light yet warm). Montane Fireball jacket (unused).

Hands – Montane Extreme Mitts (start to CP1), North Face Apex softshell gloves (CP1 to end), Decathlon 60% silk liner gloves, Extremities Top Bag over-mitts (worn when raining days 2 and 3 to stop gloves from wetting out, very light but not sure they’re that waterproof. Did the job though), Montane Prism Mitts (unused)

Head – 2 * buff (most of the way I wore just one of these folded into a headband), fleece hat (can’t remember if I used this or not), clear skydiving goggles (only worn on Kinder, very light but fog up a bit too easily)

Spares – Baselayer top and bottoms (unused), socks (2 spare pairs – unused – plus Injinji/DexShell from CP1 allowing for complete change at CP1.5)

Odds and sods – dumb-phone, blister kit, first aid kit, tiny Swiss army knife (with scissors for cutting tape), spare batteries, MP3 player and headphones.


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