A mini birthday escape

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It was my birthday last Saturday, and so Johan and I escaped up to Scotland for a long weekend of relaxed celebrations. Due to his competing in the OMM 2015, Johan was entered into a prize draw to win a stay at the Hearthstanes Estate  self catering cottages. Luckily, his name was drawn out of the hat (so to speak), he’s so jammy! And so, we used the opportunity for a birthday getaway.

We had planned on getting out as much as possible and exploring the local area in more detail, rather than running around the place as Johan had previously done. We bought the relevant maps and packed an assortment of outdoor gear, ready to hit the surrounding hills and trails. However, I soon learnt that I was in dire need of a rest and so my mind and body decided to shut down and demand that I take things easy. Patchy internet access and lack of a TV allowed us to embrace the peace and quiet, and so we read and chilled out in our lovely little 1-bed cottage. It was so cosy and comfortable, and I found myself drifting off into naps periodically – I must have needed it!

We did go for a couple of wanders around the valley surrounding the estate and enjoyed a nighttime romp up a hill opposite our accommodation.

On the way home, we took a drive through the Tweedsmuir Hills and gawped at the snow-capped mountains; it was truly beautiful. I would definitely recommend staying in the cottages at Hearthstanes, especially if you are looking for a ‘getting away from it all’ break.

The Spine Challenger

I hurt. Mostly my right lower leg, but I hurt. And I only made it to Malham Tarn.

It’s difficult to sum up the Challenger because there’s so much of it, but I’ll do my best.

First and foremost, a huge thank you must be extended to the MRT members, safety teams, doctors, check point teams, HQ team and any other volunteers and staff involved who make the race as enjoyable as a long run up the Pennines could ever be! Wherever we pitched up, there was a smile, banter, and the ever important hot tea ready and waiting. Especially the teams we ran into late at night; I can’t imagine dealing with a group of tired, wet, barely coherent runners is the greatest thrill in the world, but from our point of view I can guarantee it’s very much appreciated!

I was lucky enough this year to have a lift down to Edale, plus accommodation for the night before, with Jim. Due to Jim’s marshalling duties however, that also meant that we were in Edale by mid Friday morning which meant that I managed to get registered and kit-checked nice and early, leaving me the rest of Friday to chill out. Usually this would be great, but The Challenger was such a large undertaking that sitting still with my thoughts was pretty much the least relaxing thing I could do.

I therefore elected to go for a run along the edge between Mam Tor and Lose Hill – from the event centre this would be an ovoid loop of about 10km – which actually did wonders for my mood. However, and I would seriously feel the ramifications of this later on, I found a nice gritstone shelf which I thought would provide a small amount of safe rock climbing (in the form of a single mantel shelf manoeuvre). It did, but I banged my right shin on the way up whilst using it as a counterweight.

This kind of injury was fairly common when I used to rock climb, and after a minute of swearing and rubbing my shin, I thought nothing of it, so continued my run back to the event centre, enjoying the sun and crisp air.

The rest of Friday passed in restless anticipation. Much of it was spent back up in the room reading either my bible of the last couple of months – Damian Hall’s Pennine Way guide (it’s excellent by the way) – or “A day to die for”, an account of the ’96 Everest disaster. My friends Ali and Lisa also popped over for a visit in the evening, which was a very welcome distraction; it was helpful to spend a couple of hours chatting about physics, cats and climbing, rather than the 108 miles ahead.

All too soon it was time to head back up to the room to prepare my sandwiches for the next couple of days. Listening to Genesis, AC/DC and Steve ‘n’ Seagulls, whilst making cheese/marmite and jam/peanut butter sandwiches at a small desk in a hotel room, was one of my more bizarre experiences of the weekend. A quick shower followed and it was time to do a final bag check and get into bed. Sleep was broken but reasonable and all too soon it was time to get up and start metaphorically shuffling towards the start line.

Saturday started dim and grey, in stark contrast to the blue skies forecast. Standing on the start line, it was a little nippy and I couldn’t wait to get shifting and raise my body temperature. En-route to Kinder Scout it started to snow, and by the time we were up to about 400m, there was a decent blanket of snow across pretty much everything. At this point I was moving in a group of about 6. A slight detour from the track left us checking GPS units quickly, but it didn’t take long to get back on track, floundering through snow-covered rocks towards Snake Pass.

Pretty quickly, the group strung out, and I ended up moving at the back at my own pace. Coming down Mill Hill, it looked obvious where the flags of the path were, but this was not entirely the case. I ventured about 20cm to the right at one point and was rewarded with an exciting trip to knee deep bog. Such fun!

An MRT van was waiting at the Snake Pass with tea, cake and sweets, and I stopped briefly to add a fleece to my layering before heading out onto Bleaklow (possibly the worst section of the Challenger).

Almost as soon as I stepped off of the Snake Pass, the weather changed from grey and snowy to glorious blue skies and sunshine. This was one of the high points of the entire race and I really don’t have words to describe it. Pretty soon though, I was at a standstill; if you’ve ever been over Bleaklow, you’ll know that it’s practically featureless, or rather, far too feature-full; another chap turned up pretty quickly however who had a nice GPS trace, and I ran out with him to Torside Reservoir.

From here it’s an uphill slog onto Black Hill. I’m going to try and avoid tedious route description here; if you want that, I covered it reasonably well in my recce write-ups. On the way up to Laddow Rocks, I was feeling far from 100%. But what was going on? I’d been moving at a nice pace, I’d been eating, what the hell?

Finally, it clicked.

Dehydration.

I stopped for a couple of minutes, drained both my bottles, and immediately felt better. Shifting on, I passed a couple of lads who were looking a little worse for wear, probably needing to eat and drink as well.

Approaching Wessenden Head, I started to bump into guys I didn’t expect to see again. In particular, I ended up chatting to Iain on the way from the final river up to the road and giving a little encouragement as he seemed on a low ebb. As it was, we ended up running together all the way to Lothersdale, where Iain stopped for a nap. Thanks for your company Iain, it was good craic, and it helped a lot with the dark and the cold which is really the best help you can get on the Challenger.

All the way to the M62 passed without incident, and more importantly, in the daylight. Another brew-stop just before White Hill provided welcome hydration, and the butty van at the M62 provided a welcome bacon butty. From here, it was onwards along the blowy moor side of Robin Hood’s Seat down to the next stretch of reservoirs (more tea here). Reservoir paths gave rapid way to the lumpy ground before Stoodley Pike, followed by a pleasant descent into Charlestown. Those of us who had recce’d the route knew the climb back up that was waiting… Hurray!

Eventually , CP1 hove into view, for a sit-down, a sock change and a hot meal. We spent about an hour ensconced at CP1 before deciding it was time to get a shift on. Erik had been running with Iain and myself since somewhere around Standedge, but was taking a little longer to get everything pulled together so we set off without. As it was, he would catch us back up with us just after Withins Top and stay with us until Lothersdale.

Coming out of CP1, my right shin started to feel a little tight, but I thought nothing of it. By the time we were at Walshaw Dean reservoirs however, it was starting to feel pretty sharp, so I removed my right calf-warmer to try and take strain off it. I was also starting to move a little more slowly as high impact steps were getting painful.

The next few hours pass in a dark, painful blur. Leaving Cowling was especially painful – I almost quit at the MRT van there. We stopped briefly on Ickornshaw Moor at the stone hut to layer up a little more,  before dropping into Lothersdale where Iain stopped for a sleep. Erik and I continued on for a couple of miles together, but he was obviously becoming frustrated with my reduced pace. On the way up to Elslack Moor he pulled away, and I decided to drop back a little to run with Sarah Davies into Thornton in Craven.

The weather over Elslack Moor was awful, and I was glad to see the trig point appear, followed shortly by the road. Heading downhill towards Thornton, I was keeping my eye out for the track off to the left which the Pennine Way follows. Oddly, Sarah’s Harvey’s map didn’t show the road and track split; in fact the road didn’t show anywhere beyond the track, and so Sarah almost head off down the road rather than down the track. I have wondered whether this was the source of Pavel and Eugeni’s misadventure, although I would have thought that Pav at least would know the route by now.

By this time, running was becoming really quite painful. A diet of paracetamol and ibuprofen managed to get me through to Gargrave without any serious issue. It had become light again around the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and although the morning had turned up grim and grey yet again, it was nice to be able to see.

Sarah stopped with our other running companion, Oriol, (who we’d met heading back up onto Elslack Moor from the wrong side) in Gargrave for food and a toilet break, and I decided to press on at a rapid hobble, worrying that a stop would mean seizing and dropping out. I’m fairly certain I spied Erik on the horizon as I entered the joyous fields North of Gargrave, but he was well away, and I was moving slowly.

The journey to Malham became an exercise in coordinated hobbling. Will Green positively bounded past me just prior to Hanlith Hall, but despite my obvious slow pace I was feeling almost upbeat when I arrived in the town. On the journey through Malham Cove however, Sarah and Oriol passed me again, and even commented on how it looked as though I was hurting. My right shin and ankle were just sucking all the joy out of the experience at this point, but I staggered up the side of the cove, had a slip on the limestone pavement, and made my way through the gorge before dropping to the tarn car park.

Perching on a rock in the car park, one of the MRT guys ran past to his car before spotting me and asking how things were going. “Aye, not so bad, but my right shin is really painful, I think I bruised it.” “Yeah, it won’t like that. Get on up to the Field Centre and John will sort you out with teas and stories”. Cool. A resting point was in site. At this point I was just looking forward to a sit down, but I think the idea of stopping was in the back of my mind.

The path around Malham Tarn seemed to last forever; it was with mixed feelings that I hobbled into CP 1.5 to be ordered to take a seat, and to be instantly plied with hot drinks and questions.

As soon as I sat down, I knew it was over. The fun had gone from the event, and I knew another 25 miles of running would do nothing more than hurt me further. Sarah and Oriol were still having a brew as I arrived, but left shortly after. I wished them all the best, and as far as I can tell, all went smoothly for them to the end. I hope this is the case. It was a pleasure to have shared their company for at least part of the journey.

The staff at Malham were excellent, and I have to extend a special thanks for their help and hospitality. The medic had a look at my leg, and she was fairly certain that it was soft tissue damage only. Teas, coffees and hot chocolates were provided in a near-constant flow, and my “emergency” dehydrated food was put to good use. All in all it was a very pleasurable couple of hours. Many familiar faces passed through and I was able to wish them all safe journeys. I think John Bamber got a photo of me falling asleep in my chair; I’d like to see that one!

Eventually, Christian and Christina arrived to pick me up and take me up to Hawes. Christian had unfortunately dropped out at Ponden and the drive round to Hawes was complete with pleasant conversation about the race and prior races.

Landing in Hawes, Lucy was waiting for me at the CP along with Brenda and Jim (Jim was in charge of running Hawes CP). Getting sat down, I was plied with more tea and soup and asked by other medics if I was alright. I replied in the affirmative; it was just a bruise turned nasty (it’s still pretty nasty now, over one week on!).

Wouter appeared pretty shortly after (or at least I think it was shortly after; forget travelling near the speed of light, running the Spine has weird time-dilating properties) which let me congratulate him on his excellent 4th place. I also chatted with a few familiar faces, although I was starting to struggle with where I knew folk from. If I see you out and about in the future and I look a little confused, that’s probably why.

Eventually, we piled into Brenda’s car, and set off on the journey back to the Toon. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that tired before, and I don’t think it was long until I was asleep in the back of the car. The rest of the evening is a bit of a confused blur, as well as the next day in honesty – all I know is I spent most of it either on the sofa, or hobbling slowly around our flat and swearing at my leg. Standard.

So final thoughts:

I really enjoyed the Challenger (until my leg really started hurting). I’ll be back to finish it off, and most likely graduate to the full Spine in time. The camaraderie is excellent, and I hope to see many of the folks I spent time with again.

Brynje base layers are awesome.

Cold malt loaf is bad – so is cold Pepperami, and cheese sandwiches. Next time, I’m going for peanut butter and jam and the odd, but effective, marmite and jam sandwiches. Oh, and nice fatty salami.

I need a decent GPS trace to get over Bleaklow and Elslack Moor.

Fair play to all who finished – now rest!

Once again, thank you for reading if you got this far. It got a little rambling towards the end, but I hope it gave an impression of the “run”. For now, I’ve got to rest and sort this damn leg out – if only I could apply a sensibility filter to my activities, but then I guess I wouldn’t have entered in the first place if I worked that way.

So ‘til next time… Take care!

Happy New Year – The Four Passes

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First and foremost – Happy New Year to everyone reading this! (And to everyone not reading this.)

Now on to business.

I’ll start with a bit of background – January is set to be a busy month with The Spine Challenger as the main event of the month, and possibly even the year. Added on to this, Chris (of Kong Adventure fame) and I were thinking of running the Marmot Dark Mountains at the end of the month, but a little more on that later.

After a number of communication problems (Chris just moved over the valley and changed his landline, which I didn’t have), we managed to finally organise a training run with Chris suggesting The Four Passes as a good day route. The Four Passes is a round, traditionally started from the Rosthwaite Hotel in Borrowdale, which takes in four Lakeland valleys by crossing over four iconic passes.

Briefly, (we elected to shave off a couple of road miles and start in the Seathwaite valley) the route heads up Styhead Gill to Styhead Tarn before skirting round Great Gable down to Wasdale Head. From Wasdale Head, the route turns immediately north and uphill over Black Sail Pass, depositing you at the famous Blacksail Hut. You then get to enjoy all of about 100 meters of flat running before heading over the most gentle (haha!) pass of the day – Scarth Gap – which drops you down at the head of picturesque Buttermere. Finally, the longest climb of the day brings you up and around the southern flank of Fleetwith Pike, depositing you at the Honister Slate Mines before a final rolling descent back down to Seatoller and then on to Seathwaite.

The day started out for me with a windy, but reasonably rapid drive from Newcastle to Threlkeld, depositing Lucy just outside work on the way. Arriving at Chris’ at about 10, we embarked on the usual catching up and faffing; coffee, toast, exciting developments and packing kit, before hitting the road just before 11am.

The run started much as it was to continue; grey and drizzly, but mild on the valley floor. I’d elected to go for full sex mesh (Brynje string) base layers to double check them before The Spine, layering the tights with OMM ¾ tights and the top with my trusty Arc’teryx Alpha SL pull-on (no longer made which is a shame as it’s one of the best bits of outdoor kit I’ve ever seen or used in my opinion). Starting out, I felt a bit Christmassy if you know what I mean. Chris said that he was also a little unfit, but I’m not sure Chris knows what unfit means.

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Heading uphill, my poles gave me a bit of an advantage, pretty much the only one I’d get all day. Styhead Tarn soon hove into view and we pressed on into the cold and wind round the side of Gable. The path down to Wasdale gave a “nice” picky descent, with faster sections of loose rocky path. Hitting the bottom, we got one of maybe three flat km of running on the whole loop before pausing briefly for a cheese before heading up Black Sail Pass.

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As we were ascending, it felt as though the weather was starting to clear, and Mosedale opened out below us. It’s often all too easy for me to forget the beauty and drama of Lakeland scenery, and heading up towards Ennerdale (along with most of the rest of the run) made me wish that there was a decent physics department in the Lake District, but you can’t have it all now can you.

 

Dropping to Black Sail Hut, the weather remained almost clement, although the wind became a little more noticeable. We both agreed at this point that it was lunch time, and so we nestled behind the hostel to enjoy our “Huw Special” sandwiches – jam and marmite – which were surprisingly good, or I was surprisingly hungry.

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Heading back out into the wind, and body temperatures dropped quickly. On this round that’s not much of an issue however, as you’re pretty much always going either up or down, and we were just about to start the 3rd of our four passes, thus raising both our elevation and body temperature again.

The ascent over Scarth Gap was probably the wettest of the day. In all fairness, we had it easy for January, but it was a bit claggy and damp up there. The path also petered out slightly, or I just stopped paying attention and blindly followed Chris, until he met with the only serious bog of the whole round, at which point I danced off to the left to avoid a good calf-wetting.

Coming over the crest of Scarth Gap, we began the penultimate descent to Buttermere down another picky, rocky track. My lack of recent fell running was definitely becoming apparent, and I was a little disappointed with how slowly I descended. This wasn’t helped by my periodic musing, which caused me to basically stop in my tracks, but being out in the hills tends to do that to me once I’ve settled in a little. Where better to contemplate ones thoughts and plans other than surrounded by some of the best scenery to be had?

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Finally, we dropped past the High Crag wall into Buttermere, and cruised along to the start of our final climb by Warnscale Beck. It’s up this climb that the Warnscale Bothy (or the Room With a View) is found, and Chris casually pointed it out as we made our ascent. It looks like a lovely spot to spend the night, although, as with many of these things, I’d be surprised to find it vacant other than in the low season; one for this new year perhaps?

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We’d also spotted a couple of walkers making their way up the pass, and as it is with fell runners our first comment was “right, lets catch them”. And catch them we did, although at this point my right calf decided that it was time to start cramping. Chris was adamant that it was due to the cold on my muscles, but I’m still more inclined to go with I needed to eat more. I’ll happily raise my hand and admit that I’m not in my best shape right now, and that I need to re-fat-adapt rather quickly for The Spine.

Finally passing Honister Mine, with Buckstone How to our left (oh it feels like home!), we took the rolling C2C bridleway down to Seatoller and turned right up the lane to Seathwaite. That final km back to the car was the hardest of the day, but arriving back at the car, my dreams of food which had been plaguing me since the top of Scarth Gap were almost fulfilled. A quick drive back up Borrowdale and out to Chris’ new house (which is amazing), and we were tucking into fried eggs, coffee, tea, flapjack and crumpets to round off an excellent day.

So now I sit back at home, writing, with sore quads from all the ascent and descent; a happy man, feeling just a little more prepared, but also a little more scared for the race ahead. We also had a quick chat about the Dark Mountains, and decided that ultimately, if we were going to enter we wanted to be competitive, which isn’t going to happen with 108 miles of Pennine Way recently put into my legs. No Dark Mountains this year…

I also have to attest, once again, to the incredible performance of Brynje baselayers. Just incredible. Not too warm, not cold, kept my skin almost dry the whole way around. All you have to do is wear something which looks a little bondagey/hillbilly, but if you’re running, who cares?

So thank you once again for reading. I’d thoroughly recommend the four passes as a day out, either for running or walking, and until next time, take care.

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 3

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The final day of the recce dawned, and after a tasty full English breakfast at The Old Stone Trough, we headed straight up to Thornton in Craven to pick up the trail where we left off. I’ll admit that we drove a small way up Cam Lane before getting out of the car; after running up and down the final lane the night before, I didn’t feel too bad about it.

I also popped a paracetamol to start the day, as various aches were really starting to come through, but in hindsight I should have taken it a little earlier. Psychologically though, this was the easiest day to start. I knew that in 26 miles, the running would be done (on race day there’s obviously a further 16 miles to come) and there would be a pint and a hot meal to get my chops around.

Out of Thornton, you’re straight back into joyous farmland, but the field boundaries are a little closer together, and there are significantly fewer gullies to get lost in. Navigation is reasonably straightforward in the daytime, but I also feel that it’s going to be a little easier in the dark than the way into Thornton. I think I’m going to go through the whole area and insert bearing values for quick reference just in case.

Frustratingly I was about 10 minutes into running, heading down a hill, and one of the poles (which I’d borrowed from Lucy) managed to unscrew itself slightly, and then broke – dumping me on, and down, the hill. Hurray! Next set will have flick locks.

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For a period of time, you get the pleasure of joining the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The greatest highlight of this little stretch is a curious double-arched bridge with one arch built on top of another; apparently this happened because one canal bridge was built, then a road was built but the bridge was too low, so they built another bridge on top of the first one! Awesome!

Back into fields and Gargrave is just a short step away. As well as the excellent Dalesman Cafe – I’m hoping that they’ll be open when we’re passing through, to grab a brew and a butty of some description. I also popped another paracetamol to take the edge off the bruising – 70 miles of running gets pretty painful – and handed the broken pole over to Jim.

Back out of Gargrave, and the Pennine Way takes a road past a picturesque country estate before cutting North West back into more fields and dropping to join the river Aire. This is the river which will ultimately lead to Malham and the magnificent Malham Cove. The running beside the Aire is pleasant and quick, and the locals seemed really quite friendly.

Unfortunately, crossing a small footbridge, my legs had a slight mutiny, which resulted in me shouting at myself “F*** OFF!” I thought I was alone, but turning I saw a couple of walkers that had just appeared over the side of the hill to the left, a couple of hundred metres away. They then seemed to turn around quickly, and walk away again. Oops, sorry, it wasn’t you – if you’re reading this now, it was my legs, not you.

Just before Hanlith Hall, I stopped and had a chat for a while with a man who suggested that I have a look at the Dalesman race. He also mentioned that there was a lass up ahead moving at a fair pace; the chase for the mystery Speedcross stud marks was on!

Dropping into Malham, Jim presented me with a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot cup of tea. Just the ticket for the half way mark of the day. For me, psychologically this was the crux of the day; everything from here kind of felt like mentally going downhill, whilst ironically I had the bulk of the actual ascent and descent left to cover in the afternoon.

Back on the road, and heading north out of Malham a short incline is encountered which slows you down until a short drop to the bottom of Malham Cove gives you five minutes of shifting (whilst trying to dodge tourists who seem utterly bewildered by your outfit and pace). Malham Cove really is spectacular, and as a (currently) inactive climber, it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts. There were only two climbers out which I found surprising considering the mild and dry conditions, but then again I was moving faster and generating more heat.

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The climb up the side of the cove is short and sharp, but enjoyable in a masochistic kind of way. One friendly guy remarked that “it’s easier going up than going down”, so I informed him that I didn’t plan on heading back down, but back down was definitely easier than my option of going to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Surprisingly, I didn’t really get a response to that…

Up on to the top, and it took a couple of minutes to work out where I was meant to be heading to get back on to the Pennine Way. Happily, it was necessary to head east across the top of the Cove on the famous limestone pavement, and having grown up in sunny Lancaster, limestone pavements feel like home. Its then a sharp left turn to head north again toward Malham Tarn, passing by a docile highland cow (not a permanent fixture I assume), and into the small rocky gorge at the very top of the shallow ravine.

I’d ended up having a chat with another guy moving fairly quickly. He wasn’t part of the Spine contingent however, and was heading down to Settle. I’d walked up with him, apparently slightly off the Pennine Way during our conversation, which meant that I’d exited the gorge earlier than I should have done, and missed Jim who was lying in wait for a photo opportunity after parking up at Malham Tarn.

As I passed through the car park, I saw Jim’s car, and wondered where he’d gone. Assuming that he’d probably gone up to the tarn for some photo opportunities, I pushed on, resolving to phone him if I couldn’t find him before peeling off the tarnside path. As it was, I couldn’t find him anywhere, so tried to phone him to let him know what was going on at the foot of Great Close Hill. Signal was patchy, and we had about five different calls where I think we managed to exchange about three words, before I gave up and just sent a couple of texts to explain what was going on.

No problems there; once the message got through I picked the pace back up and wolfed down a couple of shot blocks for good measure. Passing the Field Centre, and just about to head up the Way toward Fountains Fell, a couple stopped me and asked if I knew if they could walk all the way round the tarn. “I dunno guys, but I’ll have a look… Erm… well you can, but there’ll be a lot of road”. “Oh thank you very much, we think we’ll just go back the way we came then”. Righto! No bother, ‘but why didn’t you check your own map?’ I wondered internally. Nowt so queer as folk eh? But then again, most people would say that about anyone voluntarily running the best part of 100 miles over three days.

From here, for me, the Way takes on a friendly feeling. I just love limestone Pennine country; it feels like home, and I kept a good pace whilst enjoying the sights, smells and general ambiance of the area. I stopped briefly at the bottom of Fountains Fell for a Mars Bar and a couple of en-route photos, before ploughing on. I also noticed the re-appearance of what looked like Speedcross stud marks, and wondered how far ahead the wearer was.

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About 2/3rds of the way up the Fell I came across a couple hunkering down for a bit of scran, and asked if they were out having a look in preparation for the spine. The man said he wasn’t, but he was obviously aware of what the Spine Race was. “I’d take my hat off to you if it wasn’t so cold”. One of the aspects I most enjoyed about the whole recce was the random meetings with total strangers who were almost invariably good, friendly company.

Passing over the top of Fountains Fell, there’s a collection of cairns which almost look like some bizarre meeting of folk. I also noticed someone moving quickly, and thought “haha, got you at last!”

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A quick stop for a couple of photos of the excellent scenery, and it was time to pick the pace up. I could see the figure in the middle distance, moving fast, but stopping every now and again. So I took the breaks off as best you can at the end of 85 miles, and began a rapid descent to catch up.

I’ve become better at descending over the past couple of years, but this was a tough chase. Eventually Ella (she turned out to be an MRT member) stopped enough times, and moved slowly enough for me to catch up. We descended to the road together, but I then slowed to eat and Ella moved off. Shortly however, Ella bumped into Jim, and I caught up again. We all wandered along the road for half a click or so, discussing Spine Challenger strategy and kit before reaching Jim’s car. Ella dashed off, and I halted to have a quick water refill and brew before tackling the final obstacle – Pen-y-Ghent.

It would be a lie to say that Pen-y-Ghent was easy; it’s a sharp climb no matter how you look at it, but I kept the pace reasonable, and ate as much as I could before hitting the gritstone-festooned capping slopes. From here on in it becomes more of a scramble, albeit a really easy one, and eating is not an option. It also felt as though I’d almost caught Ella once more (I’m not competitive, honest), so I pushed for the top.

Arriving at Pen-y-Ghent summit, I could see that I’d almost caught up, but Ella was now descending with speed towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I was bonking a little, so crammed all the readily available food into my mouth, exchanged pleasantries with a couple of guys on the summit and began my own, somewhat slower descent.

I’m reasonably familiar with the northern/western descent off of Pen-y-Ghent, having walked the Three Peaks a couple of times, and the characteristic snow field was very much in residence. It was here that I was glad for a pole and almost thought about donning micro-spikes, but for a 200m traverse it wasn’t really worth it. Once the main steep section was passed, it became possible to ramp up the pace a little – less energy had to be used on preventing a runaway descent – and the final fingerpost towards Horton was a welcome sight.

The final track is fairly nice; a gentle descent without too rough a surface, although there are a couple of sections where an ankle could be turned if due care wasn’t taken. A most annoying prospect if the trip had been the race proper.

In the dimming pre-dusk, I met Jim just outside of Horton, and we ambled down to the car to finish at 4pm; 27 hours of moving time after starting on Thursday. A quick change in the car park (Brynje vests develop a very interesting aroma over three days), and we popped down to the pub to try and get some food. Unfortunately, food wasn’t on until 6pm, so we packed up and headed on to Hawes for a chippy tea. One of the best meals I’ve had for a long time, and I really hope they’re open for finishing on the race.

Eventually, it was time to head home; what a great “weekend” of running. I’d scoped out some of the more tricky sections on the route, gotten lost on some others, and generally got a handle on the distance and pace required for the race. I know I’ve said it before, but if I can pull this out of the bag again on the race, I’ll be a happy man!

So that’s it. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading. I hope my account has been as enjoyable to read as it has been to recall.

Once again, a huge thank you to Jim Imber who made this recce possible; thank you to Lucy who has been massively supportive with regards to my training and nerding out before the event; and thank you to Rhodri Lewis from Nordic Life for his excellent customer service and efforts to get the Brynje baselayers to me in time for the recce.

I’ll be posting another blog about my thoughts a week or so on (and possibly some GPS data if I can work out how to get it shared), so until then, take care and have fun :D.

Johan

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 2

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After stopping for the night at the Carriage House, we made our way back up to where the Pennine Way crosses the A672 (SD 983 142 for any interested enough) to pick up where we left off. The mist had cleared overnight, giving us a good view of the surrounding landscape.  My legs were feeling stiff after day one but started to loosen up as I made my way over the M62, to join a trail of flagstones up and over (hurray) Robin Hood’s Bed.

Blackstone Edge Reservoir quickly hove into view, and the Pennine Way dropped down to meet the Roman Road (most of the stones actually date from Medieval Times) and the Aiggin Stone – an old way marker for travelers.

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For the next few miles it pretty much becomes reservoir central; this is no bad thing though, as the ground is flat and makes for rapid movement. It gets even better when Stoodley Pike appears on the horizon – having spent a couple of New Years at Mankinholes Youth Hostel, it’s like seeing an old friend. At this point I met a guy walking to Hebden Bridge, and spent a few minutes chatting away before speeding up and heading on.

For a while, Stoodley Pike seems to stand still in the distance. The drag across the moor side here isn’t too bad really, but the stationary monument both encourages you on whilst paradoxically grinding you down mentally (although I doubt this will be an issue in the dark). Eventually, upon reaching Stoodley Pike, the Pennine Way takes a sharp turn east before descending north through Callis Wood. The way down to Hebden Bridge is a nice quick bridleway, and gives a welcome boost of speed. Although to really enjoy it you have to put out of your mind that you’ve got the whole way to come back up the other side.

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Jim was waiting at the P.W./A646 crossing point just outside of Hebden Bridge, where we had a quick chat and a water refill. During the race, CP one is just up the hill from here (well, up and down and up the hill from here), so whilst the bank up through Charlestown is a proper grind, psychologically it isn’t too bad. There’ll be hot food and a warm dry spot not far away!

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Reaching Colden and heading onto the moorside above, I slowed down a little to really nail the nav through this section. As the field boundaries here are very close together it’s easy to become a little disorientated, and so I took a few minutes to double check my exact location with the GPS, and have a Boost chocolate bar. Mmmm…

Following a fairly well worn in track northish across the moor, I enjoyed a rolling descent towards Gorple Lower Reservoir. It’s nice to have these little sections of softer ground, and by this point my feet were starting to complain. 40 odd miles of running will do that I guess.

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Finally approaching the next rendezvous point, the path drops you into a small but incredibly picturesque gorge. A quick grind back up toward the metalled road, and I made my first tiny navigational mistake by taking the first path to the road rather than the second. I doubt this would result in penalisation on the event as it adds distance to the route, but you never know, and it’s been duly noted for next time around.

Meeting Jim at the layby under Clough Foot, I was rewarded with a cup of tea and a surprisingly good cheese and ham sandwich. My feet, and particularly my right foot, had been bothering me from just after Hebden Bridge, so we talked it through and I decided to take a paracetamol to try and take the edge off and allow me to move with my natural gait again. I have to add in here that I usually try to avoid using pain killers, and don’t think I’ve ever used them for an “athletic” endeavour in the past. However, the paracetamol did the trick, and as I continued on to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs my feet were feeling much more comfortable, allowing me to move more fluidly and thus more rapidly.

More moorside greeted me as I ascended and then descended over the excellently named Dick Delf Hill. Onward to Ponden, but stopping briefly on the downhill at the ruins to take in the open landscape. On blowy, clear, overcast days, there are few landscapes more atmospheric that the Pennines, and it’s always worth taking a moment or two to appreciate the wide-open valleys with their bleak but majestic appearance.

I reached the head of Ponden Reservoir at about half three, pausing for a short chat, before pushing on toward Ickornshaw Moor. As always with fell routes, what comes down must go up, and the bank out of Ponden is another good example of an uphill grind. I have a tendency, which I think is probably a legacy from my “short distance” fell running days, to push right up to the wire on uphills, and have to remind myself to dial it back. Getting up fast is no good if I burn out for everything later!

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Contouring round Crag Bottom, I met Harsharn – another chap obviously out on a recce for the Spine. We stopped for a few minutes, and it turned out that he was considering the full Spine Race having been unexpectedly timed out at Byrness last year, due to horrific conditions across the Border Ridge (the conditions had convinced the organisers to bump the cut-off forward). Harsharn seemed enthusiastic though, and I look forward to catching up with him in January. And of course, he knew Jim from last January’s Spine. The world of adventure racing is very small indeed.

Coming over Ickornshaw Moor the sun was beginning to set, providing a golden hue uncharacteristic of the rest of the trip. A typical moorland track then leads down Cowling which is distinct in the most part, but peters out slightly as you pass a building next to beck. I have to admit to having a slight panic here. In the dimming light, fine details on the map were less visible, and I began to doubt where I was. Pulling out the GPS, I confirmed where I was, and finally capitulating to use my headtorch, I noticed the details which would have kept me happy minutes before. Silly lad.

Descending quickly into Cowling though some bog which would thoroughly qualify as “goppin’”, the end felt in sight. I knew a couple more hills lay in wait, but I could almost smell Thornton-in-Craven and a pub meal.

A quick cheese and water refill, and it was time to get a shift on. Lothersdale was the next road crossing (although Jim would not be waiting here), but the way was full of fields which are notoriously difficult to deal with in the dark.

I had a serious low point around Low Windhill, having to stop, eat, and have a real talk to myself before getting on again. There was also a slightly odd, almost spicy scent around here which I found a little unsettling.

Another field and another mistake found me thrashing around in a small gully, trying to handrail my way along a fence line. Eventually giving up, I pulled out the GPS yet again to find that I was no more than 30 meters from where I should be. Dark fields, what a pain! However, I now know to stay a little right of the fence, and where the exit should be, so better on the recce than on the event.

Out of Lothersdale and over Thornton Moor progressed without any major hitches.

Until I hit more fields.

Thrashing around and worrying about timing out with regards to a pub meal, I stopped thinking properly and spent a good 10 minutes running up and down the same small stretch of field between Park House and Wood House.

GPS time again, and I finally realised my error. I’d stupidly assumed Park House was Wood House, and was getting more and more confused as my map and compass refused to match up with what I was seeing on the ground. Major lesson to be learnt here – and one I end up repeating in almost every write up: if things are going a little pear-shaped, take five, and trust the map and compass. I’m not a pigeon. My nose is not magnetic.

Finally sorting myself out, I hit the track through the fields, down past Spring Barn (who’s lights provided a useful navigational aid) and onto the final metalled road to Thornton. Setting a fair pace for the finish, Jim set his usual flashing light beacon when he saw me approach.

I found the car, but no Jim. Where was he? I ran up the road into Thornton, but found no Jim, so headed back to the car.

Still no Jim. What the hell?

A quick phone call (thank god there was signal) and Jim appeared from down the road, which was a little confusing. Discussing how we’d managed to pass each other, we got packed into the car and off to The Old Stone Trough for a well deserved pint and a rest for tomorrow’s final push.

I finished the day at 19:30, half an hour behind schedule, but never mind. Mistakes are better made on the recce, and I’ve picked up plenty of cues for navigation on the event.

As always, I’d like to thank any tenacious readers for making it this far; it’s a long write up, full of mundanities, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it non-the-less. I feel it would have been difficult to distil the experience down much further, which will always be problem with long distance running.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to Jim Imber yet again; without his willingness to help, this would not have been possible – or orders of magnitude more difficult.

And if there are any tiny specifics you want to know, give us a shout, I’ll do what I can to help.

Spine Challenger Recce – Day One

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What a day! Setting out from Edale in some serious mist, I headed towards my first ascent of Kinder Scout ever. Visibility was generally alright, making route finding easy enough, but annoyingly preventing any descent views of the surrounding landscape. Across Kinder and down to Snake Pass was all very atmospheric however, with tors of rock looming out of the clag like spectral sentries of the moorlands. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s been pretty dry recently, and Kinder Downfall was little more than a babbling brook.

From Snake Pass, the difficulties ease somewhat. There’s very little ascent or descent to speak of, and I bumped into Andy, another Spine Challengerer out on a recce. The pace down to Torside reservoir was therefore a little slower than I’d have set on my own, but it was well worth the time penalty for a good chat with another competitor to pick up some hints and tips.

Jim was waiting just south of the reservoir with a thermos of soup and freshly baked rolls. What more can a runner ask for really?

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From here it was a long drag to Black Hill; Andy has set off on his way while I was enjoying my soup, but we expected to cross paths again in the nearish future. I had a bit of a word with myself on the steep uphill to Oaken Clough, as I was getting frustrated with the slower pace I was forced into by the gradient, and realised that I probably needed more food.

A couple of friendly walkers informed me shortly after that there was another chap just 5 minutes ahead; it had taken me a little longer to catch Andy than expected, but I soon saw him cruising along ahead. A quick “how’s it going?” and I passed by to head through the most goppin’ piece of bog I’ve had the pleasure of associating with on the way up to Black Hill. The clag was still in, and a hoolie was blowing at the summit but I needed food again. Crouching behind the raised trig point, I had as much of a Chia Bar as I could stomach, and a Baby Bel for good measure, before setting off on the descent to the next rendezvous point at Wessenden Head.

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A quick chat with Jim, and a water refill (there’s actually a good river just before Wessenden Head, so this fits quite nicely with how race planning will likely go), and I foolishly followed the map into some obviously horrible terrain. I now know to head up the road a little, and go round the metalled track, rather than bashing through deep thick grass, uneven slopes and a couple of very deep river-cuts which would make even the Scottish Borders terrain proud! Bugger that on the race!

Passing by Wessenden Head, then Wessenden reservoirs, the light was beginning to fade, and the Pennine Way drops you most kindly down to a river, then brings you back up along a stream gully. What a joy in the dusk! Although I’ll secretly admit to enjoying it an odd kind of way.

Light fading fast, I decided to hold off on using my head torch for as long as possible. This made navigation a little tricky, and after I’d stumbled for the 4th time in a minute, it was time to get the head torch out.

A couple of reservoirs later (there’s a lot of reservoirs along the Pennines), we were at the penultimate rendezvous. A friendly trucker informed me that he’d ruined his knees by running too much when he was young, which was particularly constructive at that point, but it was good craic so no harm done.

Pressing on in the dark I soon found myself within a cloud, which deadened every sound, and reduced visibility to about 30m. Not too bad really, but the sheer amount of slippery peat made for an interesting mile or so. Might have been running slightly off piste there…

One final car park before the final hill of the day – White Hill – and there was a car whose alarm seemed a little faulty, going off every couple of minutes. When I got there, the issue was explained; I’m pretty sure it was some early-evening doggers looking for some strange. Once I’d walked off up the next section of the Pennine Way, the alarm mysteriously stopped sounding…

Across White Hill, the clag really came in. Visibility was down to 10m at the most! At least the path is fairly benign at this point, and rapid time was made over and down to the end of day one. I found myself thinking that if visibility was like that on the race, and snow was on the ground, navigation would be almost impossible with a map and compass. Time to brush up on those GPS skills perhaps!

A couple of thoughts or realisations from the day:

I need gaiters. Grit in the socks isn’t great, so let’s minimise that!

Brynje mesh baselayers are awesome! I know a few of my friends have been converts for years, but you have to experience it to understand just how good it really is! Used in conjunction with a Rab Vapour-Rise jacket, I spent the whole day at pretty much the correct temperature, and with my skin almost dry whilst the outside of the jacket was soaked. Working that hard, I’d usually be dripping from mile one, but not this time. Definitely a convert.

Poles help. I know, sacrilege when you’re talking to the fell running community, and I wouldn’t use poles on a fell race. But when you know you’ve got days (or lots of hours when we’re actually on the event) to go, and you’re carrying full emergency kit, they help. A lot.

As always, thanks for reading, and I’d like to extend a special thanks to Jim Imber, without whom this experience would be much more painful and difficult.

Stay tuned for the next installment ‘Spine Challenger Recce – Day Two’…coming soon.

Spine Challenger Recce – Day 0

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Wednesday the 30th November finds Jim and I travelling down the country from Newcastle to Edale, ready to begin a full recce of the Spine Challenger course. For those of you not in the know; Jim is my girlfriend’s father, and a well known marshall on the Montane Spine series, and the Montane Spine series is a pair of races which run North up the Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District. The Spine Race covers the entire length of the Pennine Way (268 miles), whereas the shorter Spine Challenger “only” goes to Hawes (108 miles).

Jim, as always, seems thoroughly prepared and in control – I’m very lucky really. He’s sorted the accommodation, the meeting points on the route for support, the transport, and well, pretty much everything really. If you’re reading this Jim – thank you!

A fairly eventless journey down the A19, A1, and a variety of Peak District country roads deposited us in the car park of the Rambler’s Inn in Edale, where we’ve fed and watered ready for the morrow, and the start of the Recce (Glorious sunsets on the way through the Peak by the way). Plus, I can recommend the Robinson’s Trooper Stout – very tasty if you like your porters…

And now for the nerdy boring bit; we plan to cover the entire course, from Edale to Hawes, in three days. The first day will be from Edale to just shy of the M62 (32 miles), followed by kipping in the Carriage House. Day two will continue from the day one end point, up to Thornton in Craven (34 miles), and resting at the Stone Trough Inn. The final day will be from Thornton all the way to Hawes, tackling the (apparently) toughest section of navigation through Gargrave, and dealing with Malham and Pen-y-Ghent (41 miles).

So that’s all for now; I’ll leave you with some pictures of the sunset we saw, and see you on the other side.

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