Obsession is a strong word to use about a race. However, once this race has you in its grip, its pull is inexorable.
My first experience of this race was at the 2017 Challenger. That was a race that ended in abject failure; a crushing DNF amongst the mud, ice and rapidly thawing snow at Ponden reservoir just below Oakworth moor. I was left to rue a series of mistakes on my part that had contributed to the outcome but was more determined than ever to come back and compete the race. I got my opportunity just five months later at the inaugural Spine Flare (which is essentially an identical race to the Challenger just run in the summer rather than winter). You can read about my experiences at that race here too.
Having completed the Flare, I believed for a long-time that I now had closure on my 2017 DNF. However, dot watching the 2018 race online at home was enough to convince me that I still had unfinished business with the more brutal winter version of this race.
The Spine Challenger/Flare follows the first 108 miles of the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Hardraw in Yorkshire. It’s the “baby” sister of the Spine/Spine Fusion which follows the full Pennine way for its 268 mile length to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.
That was how I found myself on the start line of the Challenger race on a gloomy Saturday morning in Edale. Having caught up with some friends (Helen who I ran the majority of the 2017 Flare with and Rob who I’d met the previous autumn in Wales at the Snowdon 100) and said good bye to my wife, Caroline, telling her that I would see her in North Yorkshire at the finish.
Start to Checkpoint 1
The first mile or so was fast as racers snaked through Edale to the Pennine Way trailhead by the Old Nags Head pub. The course goes over and down through some fields and past the tiny outpost of Upper Booth. Running through the valley towards Kinder Scout, the tops of the hills on my left were shrouded in cloud. Whilst conditions in Edale were relatively mild, I could see it was going to be a different story up on Kinder Scout.
The climb up Kinder Scout via Jacob’s Ladder was relatively uneventful on fresh legs. As I’d anticipated, the weather got worse the higher we went. Up on top, I put my hood up to protect my head from the howling winds. There’s little sign of the valley of Edale below, hidden by the fog and cloud.
The plateau is a mixture of terrain; runnable in places but with enough rocks to negotiate to drop the pace. Kinder’s famous waterfall, Kinder Downfall was in full “Kinder Upfall” mode of operation today as I got soaked from the water being blown up the waterfall. Fortunately, as there hadn’t been huge amounts of rain the preceding weeks, the stream feeding the waterfall was negotiated with a simple jump and didn’t require fording. My feet were still dry and warm, and I was keen to keep them that way for a little longer!
A little further along, we began our descent from Kinder. I whooped and yelled with joy at a lovely runnable grass section. It did occur to me that I couldn’t remember such a runnable decent from Kinder. There was good reason I couldn’t remember this section as it dawned on me that I’d come off the Pennine Way and was now heading down towards Kinder reservoir and Hayfield beyond. I’d been blindly following some runners in front. We traversed the steep slope and climbed back up onto the Pennine Way. That was my first (though by no means last) mistake of the day but I’d learnt my lesson.
The Pennine Way is a waymarked for its 268 mile length. However, some of the finger posts are sporadic at best in places; Kinder Scout being a good example of a blackspot in markings where runners need to be mindful of navigation.
A Scottish lady stops to tell me that my race number (pinned to my pack) is about to be blown off by the howling wind. I stop to put my race number under the mesh of my pack; I’d later discover that many racers last their race numbers to the winds.
Down off Kinder, the wind has dropped a little and I decide to pick up the pace on the paving slabs over the moors. As I crossed Snake Pass, there isno sign of the snow that so often closes this road each winter.
The climb up towards Bleaklow Head is steady on a broad path at first and later through a narrow chasm cut out from the surrounding peat. It’s muddy and uneven underfoot slowing my pace. The weather has also picked up as I stop to put on my waterproof trousers – little did I realise these would now stay on for the duration of the race. The navigation here is straight forward, in contrast to two years ago where the path became lost under the snow.
After running across Kinder bunched up close to other runners, the field has begun to spread, and I found myself alone traversing the top of a steep valley above Torside clough.
Having dropped down to Torside reservoir, a mountain rescue team as set up an impromptu gazebo. It’s around midday, so I decided to take advantage of the access to hot water and have the pot noddle that I’ve been carrying in my backpack. I chat a little to Jon, who’d I met at the Flare in 2017 and who is now volunteering on one of the Spine Safety teams.
Leaving Torside behind, the weather steadily got worse; the howling wind and driving rain would now be a constant companion until Sunday morning. The navigational here was again relatively straight forward. In an attempt to keep my feet dry, I hopped and jumped over the first couple of streams. However, the streams get progressively wider and deeper and eventually I resign myself to wet feet as I wade through the icy cold water.
The moors feel lonely and desolate at times and I shiver as I remember Saddleworth moor was the resting place for the moors murders victims.
From the top of Black Hill, it is a lovely runnable descent down before a short pull to reach the road at Wessenden Head. Along this section, I’d been reminiscing about my 2017 Flare race and how I was able to stop here for a bacon sandwich and a coke. I’m delighted to see the snack van is here again as I stop for a repeat order. Even stopping for two minutes in the icy wind as made me start to shiver uncontrollably so I take my bacon sarnie with me on the next section. Two years ago on the Challenger, it has begun to get dark at this point in the race. I look at my watch and am heartened to see that I have another two hours or so of daylight left.
The trail descends steeply to cross a stream before ascending equally steeply on the other say and continue across moorland, crossing a few roads. As I pick my way along Standedge in the failing light, I eventually give in and turn my headtorch on. I’m reminded of dusk during the UTMB race, where my headtorch did little to light my path, simply picking out the water particles in the air. As the remaining light disappears from the sky and darkness falls more completely, my vision improves as my headtorch now more effectively provides a contrast against the night.
Conditions got steadily worse as I crossed the M62, and I hope a gust of wind wouldn’t blow me of the bridge onto the motorway far below. Visibility dropped to a metre or so as I picked my way amongst the rocks at Blackstone edge. The path disappears amongst the rocks and so I team up with another competitor as we follow the GPS to ensure we stay on course. As we headed down of the hill towards the White House pub, the fog clears a little. There is another mountain rescue stop in the pub car park and I gratefully accepted a cup of coffee whilst helping myself from an absolutely giant sack of flap jacks that the mountain rescue team has brought along.
The trail next snakes past several reservoirs along mostly flat paths. On a clear day, Stoodley Pike would by visible from some distance away. However, I realised that in this weather and darkness, I wouldn’t see the famous monument until I was right on top of it.
A small group of us are now running close together, bunched up for safety. The wind is too loud to allow any real conversation beyond yelling at anyone who looks like they are heading off course (including me at one point). The lady in front of me gets blown off her feet on the approach to Stoodley Pike. We drop down again from the hills into the valley to reach Charle Town. At the bottom of the valley, the air is relatively still, protected from the winds by the steep sides of the valley.
My gloves are soaked through and my hands are beginning to get very cold. I peel the sodden gloves off my hands and replace them with my dry waterproof gloves from my pack. My thoughts now turn to Checkpoint 1 which is only a couple of miles away.
A stiff climb up the other side of the valley and a slog across some more fields brings me out at the village of Colden. This is the only real diversion off the Pennine Way as I head down the road initially and then down a steep muddy track to Hebden Hey Scout centre which serves as our first (and in fact only) Checkpoint on the race.
It’s around 9pm as I reach the checkpoint, safe in the knowledge that the cut off is 8am the following morning. Two years ago, I’d got here at 4am so I know I’m well ahead of where I was in that disastrous race. I’m shown to the kit room which is a giant stone room with a large wood fire burning away in the corner. I’m reunited with my drop bag and I gratefully take my wet cloths off and replace them with dry fresh clothes from my bag. The fire has become an impromptu glove drying appliance as lots of people have left their soaked gloves in front of it in the hope of drying them a little. One runner does, howver, find his glove has been melted by flying sparks from the fire.
There’s plenty of banter and chat in the dining room, but I’m happy to sit quietly, tuck into the rice and chicken and think about the next stage of the race. I realise that temperatures are likely to drop further overnight and that my pace will also fall. I decide to wear three layers on my legs (base layer, hiking trousers and waterproofs) and four on my upper body. I also decide to change my shoes. My Hoka Speedgoat 2s (my go-to mountain ultra shoes) have served me very well for the first 45 miles but are now soaked through. I elect to tackle the next portion of the course in Hoka Tors, which are a hiking boot/trail shoe hybrid. These still provide the cushioning synonymous with Hoka products but also give a bit more support and stability like a hiking boot. I’d tackled 25 miles of the Pennine Way on a recce run before Christmas in the Hoka Tors and so knew that I could also run in them. There are, however, 65 miles remaining and I’ve never done that distance in them before. It’s a bit of a risk given that there’s no further opportunities to change shoes before the finish, but I decide to take it.
There is also the possibility of sleeping here at Hebden Hey as they have bunk beds. I’d decided in advance that unless I arrived here in a terrible state, I would not stop to sleep and instead push on. As there are no real opportunities for sleep later on in the course (aside from a wild bivvy if you get desperate), this would undoubtedly mean two consecutive nights without sleep. I have done this before (at UTMB) though now in winter the nights are much longer.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 1.5
Retracing my steps up the muddy track to the road, I soon get hot in my multiple layers. However, once I’m back on the wind-swept moorlands, I’m grateful for the extra layers. Heading up towards Top Withins, I start feeling the first effects of sleepiness. I wonder if I’m suffering from hallucinations already as I see footpath signs in Japanese – until I remember that there are actual Japanese signs here (presumably on account of Japanese visitors to Top Withins, which has slightly dubious connection with the Bronte sisters).
I pass Ponden reservoir, the site of my DNF two years ago. Whilst I’m tired, I’m nowhere close to the state I was in then. Next is a steep climb up to Oakworth moor. I recced this section in November 2016 at night when it was covered in knee deep snow. With the path covered by snow, I got hopelessly lost. Today, the path is reasonably clear, even in the dark. After a while I see the lights of the road at Cowling below me. I feel heartened at I must only be about 10 minutes away from Cowling. However, 10 minutes later, the road is no closer. Neither does another 10 minutes bring the road any closer. The path zig zags along, at one moment seemingly heading straight for the road and at other times turning away. Eventually the road comes closer before revealing a valley tin the way that must be descended and then ascended before I finally arrive at Cowling. I find a deserted bus shelter and rest for a couple of minutes.
Between here and Gargrave, the Pennine Way passes several villages. It’s not difficult or remote terrain but the navigation is fiddly in places and it’s not the most inspiring section of the trail. My plan is to try and reach Gargrave around dawn. I’d run the Gargrave to Horton section a few weeks previously and so felt that on arriving at Gargrave, I would be back on home turf.
The weather again takes a turn for the worse and a couple of other runners catch up with me as we head into Lothersdale. Here, there is another mountain rescue gazebo. They usher us in, close the flap and precede to ply us with hot drinks, soups and chocolates. This is an unexpected treat and I resist the temptation to overstay my welcome. The others surge on ahead and somewhere between Lothersdale and Thornton in Craven, I find myself on my own again. After a while, the path disappears below my feet and a quick check of my GPS shows that I’ve come off course again. The first light of morning appears in the sky and it’s dawn by the time I reach Thornton. I stop for a few minutes to chat to two Spine volunteers, who tell me I’m doing fantastically. I feel anything but fantastic but am thankful for the sentiment.
There’s a short section along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal as I pass the woods where I bivvied out on a recce in 2016. From here, it’s a series of fields to Garsdale. In the final field before Garsdale Jon, who had been stationed with the Spine Safety Team in the village centre, came out to meet me and we chat as we walk together into the village. Pyschologically, this is a turning point in the race. It’s around 25 miles from here to Horton in Ribblesdale, over terrain that I know well and enjoy. From Horton it’s then another 15 to the finish. Whilst 40 miles hardly classifies as “almost there”, this is the point where my mind slowly becomes to fathom how a finish might actually be possible.
I gratefully accept a few Haribo before continuing on my way. I’d ideally have liked to have arrived here when it was still dark; I’ve missed that deadline by a couple of hours but on the plus side I’m able to stop for some snacks at the local Co-op which is now open. I had a huge amount of spare batteries in my drop bag at Checkpoint 1 and I’d picked some up for my race pack but now have no idea where I’d put them. Back into the co-op I go to buy yet more batteries; I can’t afford to get caught out with lights or nav on Cam fell later tonight!
Initial progress is painfully slow across the fields immediately after Gargrave. I sit for a minute or two by a stream to try and regroup.
The pep talk walks and I pick up the pace and soon drop down into Malham.
This is my favourite section of the race. Gone is the moorland of the Dark Peak and the fields of the Aire Gap. Malham marks the start of the Yorkshire Dales proper and the rolling green hills are replaced by dramatic limestone landscapes.
In the centre of Malham, I spy a tempting looking bench and sit down for a minute or two. As I’m sitting with my head in my hands trying to refocus, a lady approaches me. “Are you Christian?” she asks.
Initially, I think she’s another race volunteer but no, she is just a local Malham resident who’s been dot watching online and has watched my dot arrive into the village. She thought she would come and see if she could spot me in person! I imagine I’m distinguishable from the other walkers around the village being the only person who could pass for an extra from zombie apocalypse movie. I feel spurred on by this; as well as by friends and family at home, there are now random strangers watching my dot too.
I pick up the pace uphill towards Malham Cove. The weather has cleared, and I can even see the sun peeking through the sky. As a result, there are quite a few walkers and tourists out and about around the Cove.
I must look a horrific sight with my dishevelled looks and mud splattered waterproofs charging up the hill with a slightly deranged smile on my face. Most of the visitors opt to give me a wide berth, understandably. “Not too close to the crazy man”, I can imagine the parents warning their children.
I slog my way up the steps alongside the limestone cliff. Rather than stopping at the limestone pavements itself, I opt to continue a little higher, thus avoiding having to bound across the gaps in the rock and bypassing the pavement itself.
There are three main factors that make this winter race far more challenging than the summer equivalent; the weather/ground conditions, the far more comprehensive kit list and the far more limited daylight hours. It is this last factor that is now occupying my thoughts.
It feels like it has only just got light, but I only really have another hour or two left of daylight. From my experiences on UTMB and the Snowdon 100, I know that it is the onset of the second night that is going to bring the real challenges. I pick up the pace towards Malham Tarn, location of Checkpoint 1.5.
This isn’t a full Checkpoint, just a monitoring station where you are permitted to stop for a maximum of 30 minutes. A medic comes out to me and we walk together into the checkpoint, located at the large country house which now serves as a field centre.
I opt for a coffee and some hot water for another pot noodle which I picked up at Checkpoint 1. I chat to two girls who were following a friend around in the race and a medic who I remember from the Spine Flare in 2017. Another medic asks if they can do anything for me. I ask about the availability of psychological trauma counselling. This suggestion is laughed off, which I take as a “no”.
Checkpoint 1.5 to the Finish
There is now very little light left in the day, so I start with a (relatively speaking) blistering pace, keen to at least get started on my ascent of Fountain’s Fell before nightfall.
It is dusk as I reach the farm at the bottom which marks the start of the ascent of Fountain’s Fell. I pass a tractor with a trailer. I do a double take. In the back of the trailer, is sat a large-scale model of Danny de Vito as the Penguin from Batman Returns, compete with top hat, pale make up and a pointy nose! I stop and stare for about 30 seconds, initially unsure whether this is a hallucination or not. I’ve just concluded that as strange as it seems, it must be real, when before my eyes the image swirls, turning back into splashes of mud on the side of the trailer! I think this pips my hallucinated Stormtroopers from the Spine Flare! Little did I realise, this was only the start of the hallucinations; it was going to be a long night.
The ascent of Fountain’s Fell is long but gentle (at least compared to other climbs along the way) and so it suits the fast Nordic walking technique that I’ve now adopted with my walking poles. Although the top of Fountain’s Fell is not a classic mountain summit (unlike Pen y Ghent), it feels very exposed and there is a bracing wind all the way down the other side.
As I traverse the access road between Fountain’s Fell and Pen y Ghent, I visualise the next part of the course. I was told at Malham tarn by the volunteers that the organisers have put a diversion in place. We won’t ascend all the way to the summit of Pen y Ghent due to the high winds and danger of being blown off the mountain in the final rocky scramble. I don’t mind this, I’ve done Pen y Ghent many times and am happy to give it a miss.
We still do the bulk of the climb but just before the final scramble for the summit, we take the path off to the left dropping down into Horton in Ribblesdale. There’s now a few of us travelling together as we descend the mountainside guided by the lights of Horton in Ribblesdale below.
Horton has been the end point for many of my hikes and runs in these hills and it feels like I should be approaching the finish of my race. I try hard to shift this idea from my mind; reaching Horton does feel like the end but in reality, there are another 15 tough miles across the fells to go until the finish.
The Yorkshire stone walls catch in my headtorch and are turned by my sleep-deprived mind into hikers with backpacks staring out into the night. I know what I’m seeing isn’t real but it takes a monumental effort to turn the imaginary hikers back into stone walls.
At the bottom, it’s a fair trek along the road to Horton itself and the Pen y Ghent café that has opened for us especially. Some Spine volunteers are stationed at the café and are carrying out impromptu kit checks. I fish through my pack and show the volunteer the required items.
The Kit list for the Spine is extensive demanding that you carry a sleeping bag, roll mat, bivvy bag, stove, gas, pot, GPS, maps, goggles, ice spikes, knife as well as a host of clothing, medical kit and other assorted items. This is all needed for good reason, but my aching shoulders are testament to the fact that I’ve carried my heavy pack around for almost 100 miles and in reality, not touched 90% of the items in there. Of course, in an emergency, the kit in my pack could be the difference between life and death. Most of the people I’m with decide to stop for hot food at the café. I’m not particularly hungry having had my pot noodle at Malham Tarn. I force down a pork pie from my pack and decide to continue on with the next section of the course.
On fresh legs and in daylight, I could probably be at the finish inside of three hours. The reality is that this will probably take me twice as long, which is a bit of a depressing prospect. Nevertheless, the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be finished.
These final 15 miles pass through remote fells and I find myself totally alone again for the next few miles. After a while, two runners power past me and I see their lights fade away into the night. In the distance, I can see them turn sharply left. As I get to the point they turned left, I realise that they have gone wrong as the correct path continues on as indicated by a PW fingerpost. For the next mile or so, I can see their headtorches attempting to course-correct across the fells rather than double back on themselves.
I am now under full assault from the sleep demons and stagger around the path like a drunk person. I sit down for a moment on a grassy verge, lean back on my rucksack and close my eyes just for a second…. I awake with a jolt. I have no idea how long I slept for, but it couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes or so. Regardless, I’m a bit shocked that I could have fallen asleep so easily and start running along the trail with a surge of adrenaline.
After a minute or so, I pass another runner coming the other way. She asks if I’m ok, which I reply yes to and continue on my way. Why would a runner be running in the opposite direction to me, I muse to myself? Until it dawned on me that perhaps I’m the one running in the wrong direction! I check my GPS and sure enough, in my sleep-deprived state, I got up from that verge and started heading back towards Horton in Ribblesdale. My senses tell me this is wrong, but the GPS can’t be lying can it? I change direction a few times to the point which I can’t even remember which direction I originally came from. I can feel the panic starting to rise up and force myself to stop and think logically. The GPS tells me to go in the opposite direction and my map and compass confirm this. Eventually, I cross the Lin Gill bridge. I’m certain I didn’t pass this way earlier and I can clearly see on the map that this is the right way to Cam End. Reassured that I’m back on track, I continue my slog upwards, eventually hitting the Cam High road. This in an old roman trading route through the fells.
Eventually the trail splinters off onto another track circumventing Dodd Fell. Apparently, the views are lovely; not that I would know given that I’ve only ever passed this way in the dead of night. This section takes an age. I resort to checking my GPS, not to check that I’m on course as the nav is now fairly easy, but more so I can see how much progress I’ve made. My dot has barely moved at all from the last time I checked. Hint: if you zoom in on the screen, it makes it look like you’ve made more progress!
Finally, the path starts to trend downhill and I can see the lights of Wensleydale Creamery far below and in the distance. I catch up to another runner and we puzzle our way through a sequence of fields together trying to find our way off the mountains and towards civilisation. I’m alone again by the time I reach the village. I assume this is Hawes and begin trying to find the road out of town towards Hardraw and the finish. I go around in circles before I realise that I’m in Gayle and not Hawes yet.
I pass a bus stop where a family is waiting with suitcases for an early morning bus to take them on holiday. Oh no, there is no family, just another stone wall and crazy hallucinations. I sit down at the bus stop trying to regather my thoughts for this last section.
I’ve made an absolute pig’s ear of this last section, but eventually find the finger post directing me through the final fields and towards Hardraw. Of course, the race wouldn’t really be complete without one final nav error on my part and I find myself stuck in the field. I can see the lights of headtorches waiting for me at the finish but I can’t reach them as there is a dairy farm in my way. I’m so frustrated I want to scream. I just want this to be over now! I clamber over a gate and eventually find my way back on the Pennine Way. A gate brings me out on the road where Caroline is waiting for me with some volunteers at the finish. They are all slightly bemused as to how it’s taken me quite so long to travel the one mile or so from Hawes to here! I was imaging the outpouring of all kinds of emotions at the finish but in the event, it’s mostly just relief I feel.
45 hours and 44 minutes (of which over 30 hours were in darkness) after having left Edale in the Peak District, my journey is over.
I’m sometimes asked what the hardest race I’ve done is. There are many factors that contribute to a race’s difficulty; distance, terrain, weather, elevation, support, cut-offs etc. Whilst the cut-offs here are relatively generous (60 hours compared to c45 for UTMB), I would say the winter conditions, the terrain, the heavy pack and the self-supported nature of the race make this the hardest race I’ve done.
Even though the last part of this course has been an ordeal, I find myself captivated by the idea of what lies beyond Hardraw on the Pennine Way; Great Shunner Fell, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell, Hadrian’s wall and the Cheviots. Crossing the finish line at Hardraw has closed a chapter of my Pennine Way story, but a small part of me feels there is still a twist or two left in this particular tale; watch this space!