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!

4 thoughts on “The Spine Challenger

  1. yeah not worth doing major damage my recovery time for our last run was 6 months and included a two week period where I couldn’t walk properly.

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