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Thoughts on the Montane Spine Challenger 2020

Now I’m looking back at this extraordinary experience, there seem to be two moments in particular that emerge first. The two poles of my Spine Challenger, perhaps, with everything else fitting somewhere in between.

At one pole – the positive one – the reflected light from the moon, now two days post-full, is shimmering and distorted through a mist that suddenly materialised on the descent from Fountains Fell. A muddy descent that saw me flat on my back more times than I care to remember. Now approaching Pen-y-Ghent, the light burns hard enough, despite the mist, to be of useful support to our head torches as the path starts its long climb, gentle at first and then, seemingly from nowhere, much more steeply. It has been foot in front of foot for so long now that it is something of a shock to find myself putting my hands on rocks and pulling myself up.

But it feels good, this change in routine, now using different muscles, different limbs, and I find myself easing into the ascent, enjoying the challenge and banishing tiredness, this despite now having more than 90 miles in the legs and moving steadily into a second night without any sleep. And I thought: isn’t it amazing what the human body – and mind – can do when pushed well beyond any self-imposed limits. It can do incredible things and it can also take you into the most beautiful and unusual situations. I know that this memory – visual, bodily and more – will never leave me. I found an almost magical level of energy, all things considered, that made getting to the top seem as smooth as in a flying dream.

(The descent, however, was a different matter: suddenly earthward-bound and drained of – almost – everything, I needed the food and rest at the checkpoint in Horton more than oxygen.)

The second pole – let’s call it the negative one – was over 24 hours earlier. Just past the White House pub; just past a warm cup of tea at a Mountain Rescue Team station; just past all light leaving the sky for the first time in the late winter afternoon ahead of 16 hours of darkness. The storm, which had been long been announcing its imminent arrival with intense winds, suddenly breaks and icy horizontal rain sheers across the landscape into my face. I knew it was coming – weather warnings were delivered at the previous day’s race briefing – and had confidence in my clothing. But what I can’t solve, as a glasses wearer, is how to deal with intense and relentless precipitation on the lenses. So within seconds I am reduced to virtually zero visibility. I then start to lose sight of any other head torches in the vicinity and quite quickly find myself off course, unsure of the direction. I snap one of my hiking poles in the thick mud. Because of this continual stopping, starting, falling and picking myself up, combined with the sudden drop in temperature, I find myself getting cold alarmingly quickly. I become a little concerned, frightened even, and start to think about what my criteria for pushing the emergency button on the GPS tracker are. What else (anything?) would need to happen before I follow that race-ending process?

As hard as I think about it now, I just cannot recall how I righted myself. But I did. I must have. I somehow got myself back on course and moving in the right direction, despite the rain and the visibility. The next few miles to the Hebden Bridge checkpoint are similarly shadowy in my memory. I’m guessing it wasn’t pleasant (the rain did not ease for some time) but some part of my mind clearly took over and got me to a place where I could get some recovery time, change clothes and get my head together.

So, two poles. One almost race ending, but overcoming it enabled me to reach the second, which will stay with me forever. And everything else falls in between. What a huge range of experience is contained within the 48 hours I spent at this incredible event – one I feel very privileged to have been able to take part in. All of it was worth it, all of it valuable – good and bad:

Bleaklow Head is still well named and I don’t really want to cross the glum Ickornshaw Moor again, day or night, but there is a lot of beauty up in the Pennines. Climbing up and over the limestone of Malham Cove in the late afternoon sun was special. (If the weather on day was apocalyptic at times, then we were rewarded on the Sunday with a much calmer, occasionally sunny, winter’s day.) Kinder Downfall being blown upwards by the strong winds was quite a sight (and a bit damp when passing). Running the ridges above Torside and along Kinder Scout afforded some stunning views, Malham Tarn is a marvel. The valleys in the Yorkshire Dales were frequently lovely (but so muddy). Gargrave – and its cafe – provided much needed and appreciated warmth and calories. And much much more.

The night and its long hours of darkness (16 per night in this case) always seem to bring an unusual emotional dimension, which I imagine is only heightened when tired. Strange things happen. Strange conversations and strange sights. On the second night, up on Cam High Road, I became convinced for long periods that I was moving down a street full of small, cosy cottages with warm, inviting light beaming out from their windows. As often as I reminded myself that it was only the glare of the headtorch reflecting in the corners of my glasses, my mind would lapse back almost immediately. This went on for hours. At other times, the occasional puma skulked out of the dark, something I suppose I’d now need to attribute to large piles of dark earth around the path. But aside from hallucinations, fun/disturbing though they may be, one of the draws (for me) of these longer endurance events is the emotional availability that seems to emerge among participants the longer they get into the race. The sun goes down and people open up and befriend each other, sharing sometimes very personal things. Somehow it seems easier to say things, even to strangers. Perhaps it’s just the release on my natural introversion that I find refreshing: a bit like being drunk, but without the fogginess, but a real sense of camaraderie often emerges between people who run together, particularly through the night sections.

And people I met along the way were fantastic – Jonathan, who I teamed up with for much of the second half, the other competitors who I fell in and out of step with, staff and volunteers, including Matt whose moral support and encouragement was so invaluable. All were, in turn, inspiring, comforting, motivating and caring.

I never need to see the bleak Cam High Road again, although perhaps with some proper sleep it wouldn’t have been such a drudgery. Nor the muddy fields on the descent into Hawes. In fact, a period of my life without any mud at all would be welcome right now. A ten minute bivvy kip just a few miles from the finish provided just enough to keep moving at a slow but steady pace, and to keep from making any disastrous navigational mistakes.

The finish was a long time coming – a long time coming down from the hills through many muddy and waterlogged fields on the lead in to Hawes and at least one significant wrong turn (so close to the end!). But, once through the bogginess, the town section seemed to melt quickly away and I found suddenly myself trying to answer questions from a Spine media person whilst shuffle-jogging the final stretch. At the finish line I talked to people without later remembering I had done so (there’s video evidence) and repeated myself endlessly, like I’d had some kind of trauma (well…). Things improved for me once I wolfed down some amazing vegetarian cottage pie and I was able to have some pictures taken, receive the medal and beautiful map-certificate, and generally appreciate the fact that I no longer had to move my feet, which was a huge relief. It is only later – quite a few days later – that I’m able to fully appreciate and enjoy the fact I completed this very tough assignment – one that has been in the diary for the best part of a year. That feels good. But, if I’m honest, not having to think about it constantly is a little strange at the moment.

I’ve been asked several times, before and after, whether I’ll do the full Spine in the future. Beforehand my feeling was that the full race wasn’t for me. I’m a runner primarily and, although I do enjoy hiking, I’m not sure I want to do it continually for 5, 6, 7 days. At least not in the northern winter. In the Challenger, I ran as much as possible on day 1 (70:30?). I hiked most of the night, mainly due to visibility, and most of day 2 (20:80?). I hiked all of the second night, apart from that awkward but joyful shuffle along the road to the finish line. I can just about handle those sorts of ratios. However, I might be wrong but my feeling is that the full Spine will shift that balance too far for my interests. For most people (unless you’re someone like Jasmin Paris or John Kelly), the Spine seems to be mainly a long distance walking race.

And afterwards? I don’t think that’s changed. And, although I’m so pleased to have completed this incredible race, at this point I’m also not sure what I’d add to my life by doing the Challenger again (although there are many people who return to the Spine year after year). But I reserve the right to change my mind on that at some point! I also am not sure I’m finished with the Pennine Way and can see myself returning, perhaps to paths further north. But perhaps not in the winter.

There are many other things I want to do and something like the Spine – even the Challenger – takes a huge amount of physical, mental, logistics, kit and skills preparation. I found it an undertaking that came dangerously close to taking over my life at times. There is an obvious impact on the family – from the months of preparation to their understandable anxiety about my being out there on the course in the wild winter weather and darkness. It doesn’t feel like the sort of thing I could do very often whilst also balancing other aspects of life.

So, I’m happy to leave my Spine journey there. I think. (At least for now.)

The Spine Challenger brings to an end a 12 month period packed (at least by my standards) with long races – 3 marathons and 5 ultramarathons. Next year will definitely be lighter. But first I am going to take a bit of time out to rest and let things heal, spend some time with family and friends, and eat a lot of good food.

Not that anything of these things seemed important – then or now – but, for the record, I finished 18th overall (14th male) in just under 48 hours and 30 minutes. The fact that there were over 70 retirements shows, I think, the difficulty of the race and the nature of this year’s conditions. I am delighted to have finished.

Finally, if anyone reading this is interested in having a go themselves in the future, and wants to discuss things like navigation, kit, preparation etc, then do get in touch. A couple of people were kind enough to sit down with me beforehand and share their experience. I’d be happy to do the same.

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