Spine Challenger, 11th Jan 2014

Before sitting down to write some thoughts on my race I had a little read over some blogs from this years race and I think no one summed up the experience more accurately than Mimi Anderson who declared “shit that was hard”. I don’t think anyone who took part in the race would disagree with that. If you can’t be bothered reading on that should be your take home message

But for the rest of you, a bit of background: the Spine Race is a 268 mile non stop race along the entire length of the Pennine way. In January. For those who don’t want to spend the next 3 months recovering they also offer a shorter race: the Spine Challenger- a 108 mile race from Edale to Hawes. Exactly the same route as the Spine race, you just get the luxury of finishing at checkpoint 2 instead of pushing on to Kirk Yetholm. I like a long run but 268 miles is pushing it a bit so I went for the more sensible 108 mile Challenger option.

Me and Elsie travelled down the day before, staying at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn, which sounds delightful but was a bit shit. Thin walls and neighbours having a lively bit of rumpy pumpy didn’t make for the most restful night. And they wouldn’t give us an early breakfast either, so a quick cup of tea and porridge in a pot it was before we legged it over to Edale for an 8am start.

The weather forecast had promised a dry day, so inevitably as we gathered on the start line the heavens opened prompting a mad dash in the packs for waterproofs. I had to feel a bit sorry for the optimistic chap in compression shorts when the rain turned to first hail and then snow.

The first few hours flew by and were pretty good fun despite the unexpected snow. Navigation was pretty easy at this stage mainly because we could just follow Marcus Scotney’s big Hoka footprints in the snow. In what felt like no time we were at Torside reservoir, where I was told Marcus was going well and was 10minutes ahead in the lead. I decided I wasn’t going to try and hang on at that pace and stopped to sort out my feet which were already very wet and were getting a few hot spots. The field started to spread out at this stage and I was mainly on my own. Things were going well until I had a lapse of concentration on Castleshaw Moor where I missed a turn and went too far west. I dithered about retracing my steps, but instead decided to take the fell runner approach and straight lined it back to where the Pennine way crossed the road a short way ahead. Probably the wrong decision as I watched Daniel Hendrikson overtake me taking the correct path while I struggled through tussocks and bog getting back on track. I imagined my Bella navigation gurus Stuart and Al shaking their head at me and Brendon calling me a fanny. Despite the wee error I was still feeling in good spirits and managed to push on at a decent pace trying to make the most of the fading light. Before long it was getting dark and it was headtorch time, the thought of 15 hours in the dark wasn’t exactly filling me with glee.

I had hoped I might be able to catch a glimpse of Daniel’s headtorch in the distance but he seemed to have pulled away, so it was just a matter of grinding out the miles to the checkpoint at Hebden Bridge which turned out to be a lot further than I thought. The organisers didn’t make things easy for us -getting to the checkpoint involved a steep scramble down through some woods before popping out at a scout hut- I hope they don’t make the scouts take that route.

I didn’t hang about long at the checkpoint, just getting on some dry clothes and wolfing down some beef stew. It was great to get some proper food in me after 11 hours of gels. Apparently Marcus had left a couple of hours ago in the lead but the 2nd placed chap had stopped for a lie down so I left the checkpoint in 2nd place with another 60 miles or so to go and a long 12 hours till daylight.

The next section was pretty difficult, there were lots of slabs over the boggy moorland, but the water on the slabs had frozen making them pretty sketchy to run on. So the option was run over the icy slabs risking a fall or run alongside them going knee deep in ice cold bog. Neither option was very appealing, and my progress was pretty slow. Soon a head torch appeared in the distance behind me, I thought it was Daniel in 3rd place but it turned out to be Pavel who was leading the 268 mile race and was going at an incredible pace. We ran together for a most of the rest of the night. There wasn’t a great deal of chat – I don’t think he could understand my accent- but it was nice to have company for a bit. I was really impressed with Pavel, he was doing an extra 150 miles on top of what I was doing, yet a lot of the time it was him that was pushing the pace.

The terrain didn’t improve much, after the frozen slabs it was just bog after bog and it was really difficult to move at any speed. My feet were starting to get pretty painful too as they had been wet for the entire race. It was just a matter of holding on mentally until the mini checkpoint at Malham tarn which we hit just as it was getting light. I devoured another coffee here and finally managed to get my water bottles open which had been frozen up for the last couple of hours. The coffee and daylight gave me a big boost, I managed to up the pace a bit and so I parted from Pavel here. My slightly fuzzy brain did a few calculations and worked out that with about 30miles to go if I didn’t dawdle I could go under the old course record of 32hrs18mins. However there was still an icy scramble up Pen-y-ghent to negotiate. The coffee boost got me to the base of Pen-y-ghent, however it was starting to wear off and it was a tough scramble to the top. At the summit I got a nice surprise as Elsie and her mum & dad were waiting there to cheer me on. We had a wee stop for a hug and a photo before I carried on momentarily feeling much better.

Descending the other side I started to feel in a bad way again. My feet had swollen up, causing my toes to get badly bruised causing a build up of pressure underneath the nails. The pain had started to get so bad I doubted whether I could finish the race but the thought of the slagging I would get if I dropped out with hurty toenails made me think I’d better carry on. Weirdly the pain was worse if I walked or stopped, so I tried to run as hard as I could manage figuring I would get them sorted sooner. The feet problems probably did me a favour as I probably ran the last section faster than I would have done without the pain. The descent into Hawes seemed to go on forever, but I eventually got there to finish 2nd in 29hrs 33mins.

So, yes Mimi, I agree- shit that was hard. And I only did 108 miles. I cannot comprehend what those doing the 268mile race were going through. And I have no intention of finding out. Elsie I promise. You have that in writing.

Grant MacDonald