Spine Challenger

175 kilometres in 60 hours, across the bogs and moors of the Pennine Way and in the depths of winter, Tim Budd tackles the Spine Challenger.  Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.

Although I’m generally comfortable covering decent distances on the fells, really long ultras have never really appealed. At least, they hadn’t until I was given the opportunity to raise funds for my Mountain Rescue Team by running in the inaugural Spine Mountain Rescue Challenger event. Run at the same time as the Spine Challenger, a race with five years of pedigree, 175km of the Pennine way in January with more than 5000m of ascent and the promise of changeable weather conditions piqued my interest for a bit of adventure close to home. Getting to Hawes from Edale in the 60 hour time limit shouldn’t be a problem, but doing it as fast as possible, fighting weather, sleep deprivation and fatigue would be a great way to start the year.

I’d had a pretty good 2015 and was upping my mileage in preparation for the Challenger. However, in November I trained too heavy, too far, too soon. My long distance training was massively curtailed by the resulting achilles tendinopathy. For those final two months I ran no further than 15km at any one time. Rehab was the name of the game and it was touch and go as to just how far up the Pennine Way I might get.

The Spine Challenger

It’s close to 7am, it’s January, it’s dark and there’s 150 of us standing in a field 1km south of where the Pennine Way starts. We’re all in race gear and ready to run, there’s nervous anticipation to get going and the announcement that the start is delayed by 10 mins is met with groans. Soon enough though the countdown is called and, in a flash of headlights lights, we run out of the field, trying to get feet and limbs warmed up. The Spine Challenger, and all that a winter race promises lies ahead of us.

In less than an hour we are at the bottom of Jacobs ladder, as we climb to the fog-encased top of Kinder, daylight is breaking. A few racers around me are breathing pretty hard and I wonder if we might have gone out a bit fast. I get out my poles and propel myself up the incline at a decent clip, making sure I stay well within my comfort zone, monitoring my breathing.

Across the tops, my local stomping ground, and I overtake the leaders down Kinder corner. From here it’s easy running all the way to Wessenden and beyond. My shoes grip the flagstones, my head clears and the enjoyment of just being out on a cold January day takes over. I haven’t run properly in a couple of months and my legs just go. No sense in slowing them down as I feel on top of the world. Could I possibly keep this speed up all the way to Hawes? Probably not but I’ll keep it up as far as I can and deal with the fallout later.

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After the M62 I’m overtaken by three people, putting me in 4th position. Legs are a little tired now and not as springy as they had been over home turf. I see the leaders striding off ahead of me and know that I cannot keep up with their pace. The flat landscape across the reservoirs and the slog to Stoodley pike takes its toll and I battle gamely to get to the checkpoint at Hebden Bridge before nightfall.

In Checkpoint 1 socks get changed and I catch up with the leaders who are already getting ready to head back out into the night. A couple of cups of tea and with the weather changing into torrents of rain I realise why Hebden Bridge is a hard place to leave. You go into the night knowing that you aren’t even halfway and from here the terrain changes to moorland and farmland. Within half an hour I battle back up thoroughly waterlogged footpaths to the Pennine Way.

Into the dark and the rain I head, but all thoughts of running have pretty much deserted me. My running fitness is spent and all I’ve got left is my trudging gear. The rain hammers down and each new pair of mitts I put on is soon sodden and cold. I slosh my way through ankle and knee deep mud as the Pennine Way snakes its way through badly drained farmland. Still the rain falls and my entire raison d’etre is distilled into ploughing one foot in front of the other to get from one road head to another where my fantastic support crew, Lynne, plies me with coffee, food and spare gloves.

Going up through Malham the rain appears to be turning white, or is it a trick of my head torch? No, as I reached Malham tarn the white rain is most definitely snow and heavy snow at that. I make my way to the field centre at Malham tarn checkpoint, for a quick brew, put on my thermal leggings, eat some Kendal Mint Cake and turn towards the worst part of the journey, Fountains Fell.

It’s now 5am, two hours from dawn, snow is drifting to a foot deep, there’s no discernible path, hands and feet are frozen, 6km from the last checkpoint, is it wise to keep going? Should I turn back? This is perhaps the lowest point of the whole race, the point where my inner monologue really kicks in and slaps me around the face. It would be easy to turn around, it would be easy to give up but that’s not the point is it? I dig in, grit my teeth and figure the best place to be is on the other side of the hill, and the quickest way to be there, get over it!

Sunrise comes as I top out on Fountains and I bash my way through snow and slush to Dale head and Pen y Ghent. With a rising wind from the left I force my way up the hill and fight the headwind on the way down. The walk off Pen y Ghent seems to take forever as fatigue really begins to take its toll.

After a quick tea stop in a Mountain Rescue van in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, I begin the long trudge to Hawes. The walk to Cam high road takes such a long time I wonder if I’ve gone the wrong way, hallucinations begin to occur and the ten people I see ahead out me turn out to just be two. Eventually the path to Ten End appears and with it, wave upon wave of hail batters me from the south. By this time I’m surviving on willpower alone. I’ve no desire to eat or drink, I just walking zombie like towards the finish.

Stumbling into Hawes I’m thoroughly broken. I have gone beyond shivering and am generally in a bit of a mess. I’ve been tired after races before, but never broken and incapable. I’m plied with food and tea, and after being checked over by a medic, am allowed to get some sleep. Standing is a bit of a challenge, and walking is nigh on impossible, however, the knowledge that I have finished in 32 hours and 10 mins is fantastic. The winner was less than three hours ahead of me, I was 4th and 1st Mountain Rescue Personnel, the next runner came in about 6 hours later.

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EQUIPMENT

Shoes

They need to be comfortable but also have to be able to grip on a variety of surfaces. Bog, flagstones,

wooden bridges, slippy limestone, farmland, you name it, it needs to grip. I used Inov8 Orocs,  good rubber with metal dobs in them. I sacrificed some comfort for that excellent grip, but was very glad of the compromise.

Headtorch

It needs to be bright, but not insanely so. I used a Silva Runner headtorch on its lowest setting through the night. I wasn’t going fast enough to need to turn it up to high. Not only that, but I pretty much knew where I was going and the torch was just there to light where my feet needed to go, rather than to work out where I needed to go next.

GPS

Part of the mandatory kit for the race. But don’t just have a GPS because it says you need one. Get one, work out how to use it, and then work out how to use it in the dark, in the snow, in gloves while under pressure to find the right way. It’s not just having the kit that is important, but being able to use it.

Gloves

I must have gone through about 6-7 pairs of mitts throughout the night. I get cold hands and having new, dry ones to put on was invaluable. If you think you have enough gloves, think again, and go out and get some more.

Support Team

You don’t need one, indeed, some of the racers didn’t have a support team, but I can definitely say that without Lynne in the van, providing much needed moral support, coffee and fresh glove supplies I really would have struggled to finish. I didn’t think I’d really need her all that much, but as the night wore on she soon became the reason I didn’t quit.

Try it for yourself

If you are interested in doing this for yourself, the Spine Challenger is open to everyone with appropriate experience. The challenge of a non-stop race up the Pennine Way in January, in what is known as Britain’s most brutal race, is a hard one to top. Entries are open now, and there is plenty of time to get your kit together and recce runs done.

The entry fee gets you a superbly supported event, with food at checkpoints 1 and 2, a tracking system which means you can be tracked by friends and family online.

If 175 kilometres in 60 hours isn’t enough of a challenge, there is always the Full Spine, all 430 kilometres of the Pennine Way, starting on the same day, but continuing until the final cut off, 168 hours later.

Entries are now open for the Spine Race and Spine Challenger 2017, which will take place from the 15th January, go to www.thespinerace.com

Tips from the top

For Javed Bhatti, one Spine just wasn’t enough. He ran the Spine, all 430 kilometres of it only to turn around and run back to Edale, becoming the first person to do the Pennine Way double in Winter.

  1. Strength and Stamina. Develop the physical strength and stamina to be able to walk briskly on broken boggy ground for 18 hours a day for 7 consecutive days in winter. There is no substitute for spending long days in the hills, ideally on the route, in all weathers.
  1. Skills. Acquire or fine tune the skills required to be safe and efficient on the route. These will be different for the 4 day elite athlete to the 7 day completer. Key amongst these are navigation, personal admin, efficient running and effective checkpoint negotiation.
  1. Kit. Select and practice with appropriate kit until it becomes second nature, and take spares of anything that is mission critical. I carry two head torches and two pairs of gloves for the mountains. Arrange for snow shoes to be sent to Middleton CP. If it snows heavily you will need these for Cross Fell and again on the Cheviots.
  1. Plan. Make an honest appraisal of your capabilities and construct a realistic race plan. It helps if you hang out with people who make the above look easy or those that work in a coaching /professional capacity.
  1. Mental attitude. Much of the prep regardless of what kind of athlete you are (elite or beginner) needs to be done on the mental landscape. Most people in this event will DNF and it will often be due to poor foot care, insufficient skills, limiting physical capabilities, which have usually been triggered by poor understanding of their own mental landscapes. So really understand why you want to do this, how you might sabotage a potential finish and how to prevent that.

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This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.

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