Spine Challenger Recce – Day 3

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

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