Saturday 18 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 2: In Soviet Russia, Spine Cracks You!

I woke to the sound of my alarm an hour later, feeling groggy and not at all well-rested. In hindsight, I wish I had slept a little more at this stage, but I wanted to just crack on. In general I was feeling good. My feet were blister-free, and my legs were surprisingly not utterly trashed from the hills of the previous day. I seem to do surprisingly well with hills considering that I live in one of the flattest areas of the country. The closest I get to hill training is running upstairs when my daughter starts to cry. I was glad to have gotten myself clean and dry, and felt ready and raring to go.

The next section was going to be longer than the first, with about 60 miles to CP2 at Hawes. This would be the finish for runners on the Challenger, but less than halfway for those on the full Spine Race. Race Director Scott Gilmour told me that the forecast for the next day was going to be wet, windy and cold, so I should be prepared with all of my best gear. I wasn't going to make the same mistake as I made at the start, and got suited up from the beginning with several layers including my warm Montane Fireball Smock. Toasty warm! There would be no faffing with clothing once I headed out, no siree.

So you can imagine my annoyance when half an hour later, heading back up the winding forest path to the road, I found myself sweltering like a whore in a butchers shop. It was about 1:30 am and was actually a really pleasant night. The sky was clear and the stars were out in force, and whilst there was a crisp chill in the air, it wasn't nearly chilly enough to necessitate 4 arctic condition layers of clothing. Sigh.

After faffing to remove some unnecessary insulation, I was back on track, and quickly found my way back onto the Pennine Way. I was back running on my own, with my mad navigation skillz to get me through.

Sorry, bad navigation skillz. Stupid auto-correct.

Within about 5 minutes of leaving the road, I found that I had taken the wrong path in the dark and was the wrong side of a large stone wall from where I needed to be. As before, it didn't feel quite right, so I stopped to check the map and was able to quickly put myself back on track. Mistake number two, but again only a tiny error. Still not too bad for 18 hours of running. But hey, there was still time to run off a cliff by accident.

I have somewhat of a reputation when it comes to navigation. Or lack thereof. Apparently there was a sweepstake about how off course I would go. Whilst only doing the shorter 105 mile Spine Challenger, the smart money was on me accidentally running more than the full 268 mile length of the full Spine. However, the issue isn't with my navigation; I'm fine at map reading. I know how to take a bearing. I know how to take a slope aspect. I can triangulate my position. Handrailing? Attack points? Aiming off? Catching features? All fine. I don't claim to be an expert, but really the problem comes when I don't navigate, usually because I'm trying not to waste time looking at the map. However, here I was being careful to follow the route as I went, and it seemed to be going well.

The next section was pretty easy going, following more flagstones through Heptonstall Moor. In cold weather, these flagstones become very slippery, but at least the moorland is crisp and dry. We had the worst of both worlds, as it was cold enough for ice to form on the stones but not cold enough to prevent us sinking deep into the mud if we took a wrong step. So much for my lovely dry socks. Ah well, it's not like they were going to get any wetter.

After descending down towards yet another set of reservoirs, I hit a dirt road. I came to a signpost and saw a sign for the Pennine Way pointing straight on, so on I went. However, when I reached Widdop reservoir I knew that something was wrong. The path I was on was actually the Pennine Bridleway - close but no cigar. I backtracked to the signpost and saw that the sign did indeed say Bridleway, but it was difficult to see in the dark. There was another sign pointing off right for the Pennine Way, so I got myself back on track. Mistake number 3, and a little longer this time (maybe a mile or so), but an easy mistake to make.

Back on track now, I was faced with even more reservoirs. What is the collective noun for reservoirs? A murder of reservoirs? A swarm of reservoirs? A pack of reservoirs? Until today, I have to say the question has never come up. I'm going to go with a f*cktonne of reservoirs I think. It was easy going through her, allowing me to pick up a little speed. I was even able to catch up to another couple of runners and make my way to the climb up the Withins. My legs and feet were still feeling pretty good, but boy was I tired. I was really starting to regret not having a longer sleep at CP1, especially as I would be unlikely to get a chance now until the end. On the climb, I found myself drifting off on my feet, which wasn't ideal given the icy conditions.

As I reached Withins Height, I saw a small bench and felt like I needed to sit down. I lay my map case down to sit on so that I didn't get my bum wet, and took a seat. 10 minutes later I woke with a start. Huh. I probably shouldn't fall asleep on a freezing cold stone seat with no thermals on in the middle of the night on a cold January morning on an exposed mountaintop in the north of England...

The sun started to rise as I made my way down towards (sigh) another bloody reservoir. The sunrise was beautiful, lighting the surrounding hills with a bright orangey red glow. As usual, I felt a renewed sense of energy with the start of a new day, which was lucky as I was seriously worried I might have to actually bivvy down for a kip. I have noticed in my last few races this year that I have suffered much more with fatigue and tiredness than I did last year. If only I could put my finger on what could have happened in the last year to make me feel so tired all of the time...

For some reason this got my thinking of my baby girl, so I called Jen to say good morning to them both. I let Jen know about the small setback at the start, but that everything was going well. I could hear Lottie shouting "Dada" in the background, so she was obviously missing me. Or just repeatedly saying the only sound she knows how to make. But I'm going with the former.

It was a beautiful clear blue morning, not at all what was forecast - again. Why the hell I had decided to trust the forecast again I don't know. I'm just too gullible. The section through Ickornshaw Moor was nice and easy, with a clear path marked out by more flagstones on a very gentle gradient. After passing through Ickornshaw village, I passed the Spine runner's mother who had kindly pointed me towards CP1 walking in the other direction. It took me a while to realise, but I gave her a slightly confused smile and said good morning. I later found out that her daughter had kicked her out of the car so that she could have a rest, and she was walking the Pennine Way for a couple of hours to keep warm. Blimey, now that's commitment!

The next section was relatively unexciting, passing through several small villages using county lanes and easily navigable paths through fields. As I approached Pinhaw Beacon, I was caught by a runner who was moving very well (Tristan I think was his name). I had slowed down a bit recently due to some arse chaffing (hey, nobody said ultra running was pretty), and was walking a lot more than I would have liked given the nice runnable terrain that we were on. Still, this was I think the first person to pass me on the route since I had dropped to the back helping Paul at the start, so I wasn't moving too badly. An extra coating of Lanacane didn't seem to be helping much unfortunately, so I was just going to have to grin and bear it. A friend of mine has experimented with using Kinesio tape as a kind of buffer to prevent chaffing in the undercarriage - perhaps this was something to consider for future races. Or, y'know, a Saturday night in. As we descended from Pinhaw, I told Tristan to head off as he was moving really well and I didn't want to hold him up.

As I headed down towards the road crossing at Thronton-in-Craven, I was hailed once again by a familiar face - it was the parents who I seemed to keep running into throughout the day. I ended up stopping to chat with them for a while, having a pleasant conversation about how awesome my little girl is, and about all of the crewing they do for their daughter. If Lottie decides to do anything like this in the future, you can bet I'll be doing the same. Mummy will probably not be so keen mind.

As I descended towards the Leeds and Liverpool canal, I was caught from behind (ooh er) by another runner. We got chatting, but he looked quite sprightly so I told him to head on. "Good luck!" I said. He looked confused and then realised my mistake. It turns out he was just out for a run, and had done about 60 miles less than me. I didn't feel quite so inadequate!

I had been prewarned that the village of Gargreaves would be my last real sign of civilisation until the end of the race. We were about halfway through the final leg now, with about 30 miles left to go. It had taken me about 12 hours to cover the last 30 miles, which was pretty slow going by any measure. The chaffing wasn't helping my desire to run, and I was feeling absolutely shattered again. I really needed to sleep.

I came into the village at about 2 pm - just in time for lunch! I wanted to stop off at the Co-op to stock up my supplies before the last push to Hawes, and saw Neil Bryant, Charles Sproson and Andrew Burton just leaving. I was half tempted to join them and push on, but they mentioned they had sat in the cafe for an hour eating bacon and getting warm - it sounded heavenly, so I decided to do the same. Feeling a little self-conscious, I grabbed a table, ordered a full English, and proceeded to stuff my face with bacon and eggs. A quick look on Facebook showed me that, rather terrifyingly, the Challenger leader Marcus Scotney had already finished. Sweet Jeezoid! 29 hours may not seem quick for 105 miles, but over that terrain and in these conditions it was flying. By this point I was struggling to keep my eyes open, and realised that the soporific effect of the lovely warm fire was not conducive to making it to the end. Alright Sam, suck it up and get back out there.

As I left, I bumped into Rob again and asked if he minded me tagging along with him. He was moving at a march, but by this point the chaffing was making running pretty difficult, so that was fine by me. The next section was along to a mini checkpoint up near Malham Tarn, and was only about 6 miles. However, the going was slow and involved a lot of wading through mud around the River Aire. As we came into the small village of Malham, Rob spied his wife who was driving their van around crewing for him. He decided to head off for a sleep before pushing on, and I really wished that I could do the same. By this point, there were probably nearly 30 miles remaining of the race, but it was already dark again. My original plan had been to finish at around 8pm ish, maybe midnight if the going was slow. At this rate I was going to be lucky to finish before morning.

Actually, shit, that's a good point. I only really had one thing that I was aiming for, and that was my taxi that was booked for 7 am. At this rate, I would be lucky to get back in time to catch it, never mind have a shower and a sleep beforehand. The idea of negotiating 5 trains, 1 bus and a 2 mile walk with two giant bags after 48 hours of virtually no sleep and 105 miles of mountain running wasn't that appealing. I had to really think about this.

It was about 5 pm and it would realistically be another hour or so to the checkpoint, then another 25 miles or more to the finish. That could easily take me another 12 hours, getting me in at about 6 am. And that was if I didn't get lost. It was dark and starting to rain, so the chances of making errors was pretty high. So it was looking like I might not make my train if I carried on. As I was contemplating what to do, I once again bumped into the parents who I seemed destined to bump into all day. I really should have gotten their names. Let's call them Bob and Gil. Their daughter was due in soon, and I spent so long faffing and trying to decide what to do that I was able to see her come through. She was running with Dave, who I had been sharing a room with on Friday night, and had been struggling a little with fatigue. They decided to stop off in the pub for a drink in the warm, so I joined them. Sitting by the fire with my head propped up on the table, I fell asleep snoring for 10 minutes with my eyes open and woke to find that I had missed all of the chips.

However, I did feel much better bizarrely. Dave was planning on heading out on his own, and said that he knew the route well. I decided that I would take a risk and just go for it, figuring that if I wasn't alone at least I wouldn't need to worry so much about falling off a cliff or something. Dave was convinced that we were only about 17 miles from the end, but I didn't think that seemed right. Don't get me wrong, I would have loved for it to be the case, but it didn't match with my calculations. Not that my calculations are ever very good of course. I figured that I would make it to the checkpoint, and make the decision there whether or not to continue.

As we set off, a small band of competitors were coming through, including Mimi and Javed. We set off together up the relatively steep path, hopping over boulders and climbing over rocks as we went. The rain was starting to come down hard now, as the weather we had been promised earlier in the day finally hit. We were in good spirits though, and Javed and I ploughed on ahead singing at the tops of our voices. For some reason the rest of the runners weren't keen to keep up with us. Well my daughter enjoys my singing...

We reached the tent at CP1.5 at around 6:30 pm to find Charlie Sharpe sitting in the corner looking a little the worse for wear. He had been going well, but had been put on an enforced break as he was suffering from hallucinations. The break did him good however, as he ended up finishing in 151 hours. I still hadn't decided what I was going to do. Estimates of the remaining distance were about 27 miles, so it was possible that I would not be able to make my taxi if I carried on. This would involve extra expense, would mean that I would be travelling home without having an opportunity to sleep or shower first, and would mean I would get home late, possibly missing my little girl before bed time. Since this would be the last opportunity to easily retire, I was very close to stopping there and then.

Let me be clear though - I was not overly worried that I might have to pull out. My aim for this weekend was to have an adventure. By this point I had been going for 35 hours and had enjoyed myself thoroughly. I was well and truly out of my comfort zone, but that is what I love. If I couldn't manage the last few hours I wouldn't be missing too much. Obviously I wouldn't get a medal, but to be honest I'm really not overly fussed by medals. They just go in a box under my bed and I never really look at them again. This blog acts as a better reminder to me of the adventures that I have had than a piece of metal ever will.

Obviously I never want to pull out if I can help it though, and I had done well so far at battling through the fatigue and the weather to get this far. It would be a shame to miss out on the finish just because of logistics. A group of people were congregating to leave, and were planning on sticking together until the end. I decided I would give it a go. I figured that as long as we kept up the pace, I might still be able to reach the end before 7 am, and having a group of people to lead the way wouldn't hurt my chances. 

5 Minutes later, we were already lost. Glad to know it's not just me! Somewhere along the way, coming down from Malham Tarn towards the road, we had taken a wrong turn. We could hear the road, but it was the other side of a valley. We ran down the valley, climbed over a barbed wire fence, and made our way to get back on track.

I had noticed since leaving the checkpoint that the top of my left foot was aching a little. Salomon shoes are pretty tight across the mid foot, so I tend to wear mine quite loose, particularly over long runs. Obviously today they weren't loose enough. Unfortunately no amount of rearranging the toggles on the laces was helping as the damage had been done. I would just have to grit my teeth and bear it. 

The next section was a lot of fun, and was the kind of terrain that I was hoping to come across. It was wet, windy, icy, rocky and steep up towards Fountains Fell. Fantastic! We made our way up in single file, slipping and sliding our way up the steep ascent. It was nice to be with other people, although I noticed that most people (even Mimi and Javed) were quite quiet. To be fair, it's not like we could hear much over the wind and rain anyway. As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped and we had to watch out for ice - particularly with the rather frightening looking drop to either side. 

The descent was similarly precarious, and Javed and Mimi held back to avoid any issues. It was going well, until suddenly it wasn't. The pain in my foot was affecting my foot placement, and unfortunately I rolled my ankle on the descent. It was nothing too serious, but I ended up hobbling slightly and having real issues controlling my descent. We hit the road and I limped my way along until we came to a series of cars where they were taking our race numbers. And when we got there, I retired. 

The thing is, I could have carried on, but it would have involved another 7 hours of running and I likely would have caused more damage. I don't really go for the "death before DNF" approach anymore, as I would rather quit and be able to run day to day than continue and put myself out of running for he next few months. That's exactly what happened last year at Transvulcania, and I payed the price. Most of the rest of my races that year were ruined by my decision to push on with an injury, and I didn't want a repeat of that this year. Combined with the fact that the steep climb of Pen-Y-Ghent was coming up and this might be last chance to easily drop out, and I still had the worry of making my taxi playing on my mind, I just thought I would cut my losses. 

This probably sounds odd to some people, but the finish was never the important thing for me. Just being out there was. At 40 hours in, I had easily gotten my money's worth, and what would I get for 7 hours of hobbling? Another medal and no running for 3 months? As it happens, my ankle hurts like hell at the moment anyway, so I've no regrets about pulling the plug. But it could have been much worse. 

I waited wrapped in my emergency blanket, then hopped on the minibus with a couple of French runners who seemed to be suffering from hypothermia, and unfortunately found that Charles and Andrew had retired. I was already wearing all of my clothes, and was wet through, so had to strip off and climb into my sleeping bag. I got a few funny looks from the Hen Party in the pub across the road when I got out in my gold and silver dress with giant blue boob-tube ensemble. 

I finally arrived into the Hawes aid station at about 11:30 pm, but not quite in the way that I had anticipated. But at least I could shower, eat and have a sleep before braving the joys of the National Rail service. Or not. There were no showers, so I had to get as clean as possible in the tiny sink in the toilet. Boy did I feel sorry for anybody that was going to be sharing a carriage with me later. 

In part 3, I'll talk in length about my journey home.

Nah, just kidding. But I will do a third post on the equipment that I used for this race in case anybody is interested.

So that was the end of my little adventure. Another DNF, but I'm not worried about that. This was an experience not a race, but I have plenty of races come up which I aim to complete - and complete well. But for others the race was still ongoing, and it was fantastic following along from home. The tracking system used on this event generally worked really well, and watching the runners as they made their way north in real-time was a lot of fun. Huge congratulations to the 30 hardy soles who made their way to the finish of the Spine, including Pavel Paloncey who won in a time of 110 hrs 45 mins - taking almost a day off the previous record. 

It was another fantastic race, so now I guess the only question is whether I go back again next year. And if so, do I fancy the full version? Well we'll have to wait and see I guess! At least I know what to expect now.


  1. Good effort, Sam. You might have a DNF but what you did was still an amazing achievement.

    1. Thanks Alan! I had a blast out there so I'm not too bothered about the DNF. Plenty of events coming up, so I'm glad that I haven't got a persistent injury to worry about. Plus it's a good excuse to have another crack at it!

  2. Good effort, Sam. You might have a DNF, but what you did was still an amazing achievement.


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