The Spine Challenger is a 108-mile ultramarathon along the Pennine way in the glorious month of January. It starts in Edale in Derbyshire and finishes in Hawes in North Yorkshire. It is a self-sufficient race with only one official aid station in Hebden Bridge at 48 miles.
I bloody love shit weather and the exhilaration of being out in conditions when part of your mind is thinking “I’m not sure this is safe”. I have also wanted to do an event which I am not sure I can finish. The Spine seemed like a good way to satisfy both these itches.
The mandatory kit list for the Spine is a lengthy affair (25 pages!). New highlights to note this year included a poop shovel and poo bags, two pieces of kit I took great joy in demonstrating the function of to my wife Helen.
The full kit list can be seen here:
In order to travel light you can be looking at a black hole of money where shaving grams off here and there gets increasingly more expensive. Fortunately, I had accrued quite a lot of kit in many a fastpacking trip so it wasn’t too terrible.
Montane trailblazer LT 30L
Sea to Summit Spark II sleeping bag
Thermarest NeoAir sleeping mat
Mountain Warehouse bivvy bag
MSR Pocket Rocket Stove
Garmin 64s (GPS unit)
Rab Arc Eco Waterproof Jacket
Montane Minimus waterproof trousers + over mitts
Montane Prism Insulated mid layer
Montane Dry Line Pertex Shield insulated mitts
Head UltraFit Running Gloves
Inov-8 Roclite shoes
Injinji toe liner socks
SealSkin Waterproof socks.
Running around a lot with all the kit.
I had told myself that on paper that I was probably fit enough to cover the distance. But what I wasn’t sure about was whether I would have the mental fortitude to do so when shit got real at 5am in a blizzard.
I figured that I needed to ensure I was able to keep myself
3) Relatively dry
If I was could do all that then I should be able to keep my mind from going to those dark places where I don’t think I would possess the mental resilience to keep going.
So a lot of my training was based around making sure I knew how I was going to do the following:
Access food on the run without taking my pack off. This would be very important in cold weather as I realised on a night recce between Hebden and Gargrave in the snow and -4* where my body temperature plummeted as soon as I stopped and as a result avoided doing so and so I stopped eating. I bought a new pack, the Montane Trailblazer LT 30 which has two huge mesh side pockets where I kept pretty much all my food in for the race so it was easy to access it all on the move and therefore be able to keep stuffing my face silly. The trick I have found with eating a lot over a long distance is variety. So I had cheese and pickle bagels, vegetarian sausage rolls, date and nut bars, jelly babies and the king of running food; the mighty Bounty bar. Now I’ll tell you why a Bounty is the best, have you ever tried to eat a Mars bar or a Snickers that’s been kept at 2 degrees for 6 hours? It turns into ROCK. But the glorious Bounty keeps soft and delicate even at low temperatures. I also found some vegetarian bean “chorizo” in Waitrose that I highly recommend, it had that salty fatty goodness that sometimes you just crave at the business end of a race or just when you’re feeling a bit sad. I also had a couple of dehydrated meals as a last resort backup.
I tend to get very warm when I run, particularly my trunk. But my hands can get quite cold. So during training I tried out different types of glove systems. I went with a quite a thick but tight running glove. Then I had a waterproof shell mitt (Montane Minimus) which packed down very small and that I kept in the front pocket of my jacket so I could whip these out as soon as it looked like it was about to rain. I also had a more insulated waterproof pair of mittens which I had the option of wearing by themselves or over my running gloves. Or if shit really hit the fan I could wear all three!
Stay dry (ish)
I wasn’t too worried about the wet from the outside but rather the wet from the inside. I‘d spoken to a number of people who had DNF’d the Spine and a theme that came up often was temperature regulation and the danger of overheating and sweating through your inner layers. This can cause problems if you suddenly gain altitude and or it gets dark, cold and windy. Then, your damp inner layers can suddenly become dangerous and cause hypothermia. I know I run warm so I practiced running in just a base layer and my waterproof shell and using the big arm zip vents and modifying gloves and headwear to control my temperature rather than wear more inner layers. This seemed to work in training and I found it helped to pre-empt temperature changes such as taking off gloves/hats before heading up a hill rather than half way up once I’d started to sweat. I did have options of a thin microfibre fleece (a basic Trespass number) in my pack but I also had a synthetic insulating mid layer if things got rather chilly.
Being a caffeine addict I have realised that it is very important to keep a steady stream of caffeine in your system to stave off those bad thoughts. I remember when I first started running longer distances I would really start to struggle perhaps 6-8 hours into a run until I had the epiphany that on a normal day I would have had three coffees within that time. I now carry an little re-purposed spice jar in which I place some espresso strong enough to wake the dead, to chug at the point that I’m feeling a bit naff.
I hoped that if I nailed the above issues then I could keep in a good enough headspace that I could keep putting one foot in front of the other without having any major tantrums.
- Spend the first 70 miles looking after myself and take it easy.
- As per preparation stay warm, dry and eat to the point of nausea and keep yourself there.
- At 70-ish miles look at the tracking and then perhaps think about racing (if that’s even possible at 70 miles?).
The Big Day
Wet. Dark. 6 degrees. 7am. Minimal sleep the night before because I was like a kid the night before Christmas, too excited to sleep. And we were off to some brief applause before all the supporters sensibly ran back to their cars to go back to bed.
Normally ultras are very social affairs and there is a lot of chat and banter but heavy rain forced everyone’s hoods up and eyes to the floor so it was a bit of an anti-climax if I’m honest.
We trudged over the fields at the bottom of the Edale valley as the dawn broke. I was concentrating on not getting over-excited and steaming into first climb up Jacob’s Ladder to Kinder Scout where we met a stark reality check which was the 50 mph westerly which tore into us as we reached the Kinder plateau.
Even If I wanted to talk to anyone around me they wouldn’t have been able to hear me as the wind was overwhelming. The first 10 miles were just head down and grinding out the steps, trying to stay roughly moving in a straight line. The only highlight was Kinder downfall which had turned into an upfall, a water up, or water climb, whatever the opposite of a waterfall is, it was blowing straight back up the hill like a geyser.
Snake Pass was where I saw my lovely crew for the first time. This was my mum and dad who had driven up from Devon and my wife Helen who was only there because I had booked a fancy room at a pub at both the start and the finish and sold the idea to her as a “lovely holiday”. The look on her face as the wind and rain was tearing her piece of A4 paper with “Go Alex” written on it to shreds spoke volumes about how much she regretted agreeing to this.
Side note: the Spine is an “unsupported event” so I was not allowed to take any assistance from Helen or my parents unless it was given to every runner in the race. My mum took this as an opportunity to hug and kiss every single participant who went past much to her amusement.
Next came the climb to Bleaklow Head during which I spoke to a German fellow named Roland who comes over to England regularly to partake in long arduous bleak races such as the Spine and Hardmoors events. Apparently there is little to no ultra or trail running scene in Germany. I was also sad to hear that he DNF’d later in the race. We had a lot of fun failing to keep our feet dry navigating the path-cum-river that led up Bleaklow.
Fortunately, as we dropped towards Torside reservoir the rain lifted and I started being able to see more than 20 meters ahead of me and could lift my hood. The views, the wind in my hair and having my peripheral vision back felt excellent and I hared down the descent to the reservoir leaving the group I had been running with. This gave me some time to pet the pigs at the farm at the bottom of the hill which lifted my spirits even further. I was now 15 miles in and feeling good, eating well and moving nicely.
Back up the other side, halfway towards the top of Black Hill where I encountered a man pushing a drop-bar hybrid bike down the footpath, a good two miles from the nearest cycle-able path. He met my amused and inquisitive questions with a stormy face and a grump. I still wonder how on earth he got that bike up there in the first place.
I caught up a jolly fellow named Dan who told me how he enjoyed not running with poles then proceeded to eat his words as the path crossed a river no less than 10 times within half a klick. My poles offered me a nice vault over the water but Dan had to make do with a wade, a splash and a dunk. We found a good stride together and we ended up spending the next 22 hours with each other. A real 0-100 relationship.
The cloud lifted high enough on the top of Black Hill to give us a cracking view of the West Riding from the ‘fax to Emley Moor tower and even Ferry bridge power station in the distance. I bloody love this bit of Yorkshire.
The beauty was short-lived as we made our way past Wessenden Head Reservoir where we got a dose of hail to the face. It seemed to be directly in our faces no matter which direction we were running in! Fortunately, the sporadic hail flurries were short-lived at least so I didn’t have to fish out the clear goggles from my pack (another mandatory piece of kit). I now fully understood why we had to carry them. I could not have tolerated face hail for much longer without them.
I bonded with my new companion Dan over our shared experience at Leeds Uni. He also took his degree as a vocation and went from English into theatre and now is a freelance playwright and producer. With Boff Whalley, he has written and performed a show called “The Hills are Ours”, about running and land ownership.Likely right up a lot of your streets, NLFR.
Dusk started approaching as we made our way up Standage . Miraculously the sun made a distant appearance on the horizon casting an ethereal glow over the valleys that dropped down the western slopes of the Pennines. The majesty of this seemed an antidote to the murky silhouette of the skyline of Manchester in the distance. It was breath-taking.
It was refreshing not having my phone to hand to ruin the moment by trying to take a picture as it was buried deep in my bag and had been off the entire day.
As the sun went down I felt the inevitable creep of fatigue, but fortunately we quickly happened upon Nicky’s food bar. This consists of an unassuming shipping container/lorry cafe placed on a muddy truck stop next to the M62 whose owner opened for 48 hours straight to supply the Spiners with much-needed nourishment. One large burger, a Fanta lemon and a coffee later I felt bloody marvellous. My experience there was only slightly tainted by the American gentleman who has his bare foot on the table and was aggressively sanding his soles and applying copious talc with a little foot brush.
The next section is flattish and quite runnable along the side of the reservoirs and towards Stoodley Pike. However a belly-full of burger made the running part of this slightly challenging. We seemed to get every kind of weather along this section. Hail, rain, snow and lightning all in rather wild but brief episodes as the wind whipped away the weather as quickly as it arrived. Approaching Stoodley Pike we were rewarded with our own personal firework display from a house in the valley in Todmorden. It was a unique experience witnessing fireworks from above.
A easy descent into Hebden Bridge then up and over into the Calder Valley then over again into Hardcastle Crags and Hebden Hey Scout camp, our first and only checkpoint. I was feeling OK at this point considering we had covered 48 miles. I had been enjoying the experience of moving without the stress of thinking of it as a race and the time seemed to be flying.
As soon as we entered the checkpoint I was taken to a seat, I was swarmed by volunteers who helped me out of my soaking wet shoes and put them next to the fire. I placed my watch on charge and headed to get double helpings of lentil pie with a side of crisps and malt loaf. After eating way too much I was shepherded back to my belongings for some faffing, getting dry socks and base layer on from my drop bag and filling up on food and drink. The staff at the checkpoint were remarkable and each person was waited upon as if they were a professional athlete.
Despite the 20 minutes of rest and a good meal I couldn’t get back into a rhythm when we started back again. I felt quite rough and very bloated. The next two hours up to Top Withens I felt tired, crap and I couldn’t even think about eating. I was a bit worried and I started wondering how on earth I was going to finish the next 50 miles feeling like I did. Dan kept up the stream of encouraging words which helped drag my ass up the hill.
I took my pack off at Top Withens to get at my medical pack to pop an anti-sickness tablet and out of nowhere I released a colossal fart and felt some immediate relief. More copious flatulence on the way down toward Haworth and I felt better and better. Thank Christ.
I suspect that the drastic physiological and environmental change between running in the zero degree temperatures to being sat still in a very hot room then back to freezing running had sent my digestive system into a state of shock and it has stopped functioning temporarily. The double helping of pie and three coffees had been sitting in my stomach unabsorbed for a whole two hours since the checkpoint until the downhill movement and gaseous release triggered it to be dumped into my small intestine. I was back in business.
The next 18 miles were in quite non-specific and undulating terrain and passed the towns of Ickornshaw and Lothersdale. We were very pleased to receive some cold rice pudding and some hot water for a dehydrated meal at Lothersdale courtesy of the tri club there. We were informed that the race leader had already made it to Malham tarn, 16 miles ahead of where we were at that point, which was staggering!
Slogging through the early hours we made it to Gargrave (68 miles) at about 4am. I felt Gargrave was a bit of a milestone in my head as I knew the following section really well. As I had promised myself I turned my phone on for the first time here and looked at the tracking. Dan and I were in 8th and 9th place which we were very pleased with. However 7th place was an hour and a half ahead of us which took any pressure off me to race as I felt that that was an unattainable gap to cover.
So we set off towards Malham and were quickly blindsided by some torrential rain and serious wind which we had not expected considering we weren’t too high up. This led to some miserable slogging through very wet muddy fields, eyes down on our GPS’s as the paths were barely visible. I could feel myself getting cold but there was no shelter from the weather where I could get another layer on. We started picking up the pace to keep warm but it was difficult getting through the mud while also trying to keep on the right route in the dark. I was getting worried that if we didn’t manage to get some shelter things were going to go south but fortunately we came across a wood as we dropped down towards the river. I managed to get my fleece on and went for triple glove power. Phew.
We found out later on that while we were battling that weather on Eshton Moor at 150m altitude, the race leader Rory Harris was tackling the same weather but on Pen-Y-Gent, and the weather was winning. The visibility was so bad that he was having to use his headtorch and a hand torch pointed directly downwards just to see the floor and his progress was so slow that he became dangerously hypothermic and spent 1.5 hours in Horton at the cavers’ volunteer rest stop just trying to warm up. Fortunately for him he had built up such a lead that he still won with a four hour cushion over second place.
The section along the river Aire toward Malham was wet. There was water literally everywhere. It wasn’t clear a lot of the time where the river ended and the flood plain begun. It was a slow wade. Climbing up towards Malham Tarn Dan had begun to slow a little and seemed to be struggling. I hadn’t noticed him eat in a while and he confessed he just couldn’t face eating anything. I wasn’t having any of that and got my emergency back-up calorie dump which was three soft flasks with 400kcal of Tailwind powder in each. I filled one up with water from the tarn run off and demanded he finished the lot. Which, hats off to him, he did! We made it to the Malham Tarn activity centre which was a “mini-checkpoint” and sat down for a cup of coffee. Surprisingly there was a runner in there who said he’d been there for about 20 minutes already. He looked very comfortable and didn’t look like he was going anywhere very quickly. He told me that 6th place had left the checkpoint only 10 minutes previously.
I was galvanised.
We had somehow made up an hour and a half to catch 7th place and 6th was only 10 minutes ahead.
But Dan had taken his shoes off and said he was going to need some time to collect himself before heading on. I felt conflicted because me and Dan had spent 22 hours together at this point. It had been such a team effort especially when I thought we were long behind everyone else. And we had said that we would finish this thing together. However, I was moving well and I now knew that 5th place wasn’t too far ahead and it was Rob Greenwood no less. I’d met Rob running in the Cheviot Goat race in 2021 and had passed him in the last section of the race. So the thought of doing that again was amusing. I decided I had to push on. I gave Dan all of my Tailwind and made him promise me he’d get to the finish.
I was off. The return of daylight, more coffee and 6th place in my sights and I felt better than I had in 12 hours! The snow up Fountains Fell made it slow going and it wasn’t until halfway up that my sleep-deprived brain remembered that I had Yak-traks in my bag. They made an impressive difference, now I wasn’t sliding back with each step and my progress improved. I even found the energy to run down the back of Fountains Fell into the valley.
Seeing Helen and her parents on the Silverdale road waiting to support me brought a tear to my eye and they weren’t able to escape a muddy and snotty hug.
This gave me another boost and I managed to catch 6th place on the ascent to Pen-Y -Gent, but wait, there wasn’t just one runner but three! 4,5 and 6th! Bagged three in one! What a result. They weren’t moving very well and said they had been death marching since Gargrave. It was certainly nice to see Rob and tease him for being caught by me for the second time.
I left them on the way down towards Horton as the cloud was clearing and a sun was coming out. It was turning out to be a beautiful day. The descent to Horton is long and was tough on tired legs and carrying a backpack. I had started paying for the flurry of “speed” or should I say effort (as it wasn’t objectively speedy) from Malham tarn to this point. I hobbled into the Cave Club rest stop in Horton and was lovingly offered soup and coffee which felt bloody marvellous.
My watch had run out of battery on the way down from Horton but in my head I had about 11/12 miles left. I was very upset to hear the news that it was 14! The three chaps I had passed on Pen-Y-Gent trudged into the rest stop. One of the guys, Sam, sat down next to me with what I can only describe as a 1000 yard stare. Helen, bless her, attempted to be helpful by offering to change the batteries in my GPS and somehow managed to dislodge the memory card so for the rest of the race it was rendered useless.
The sun was shining and the views making my way out of Horton were very motivating. I decided to use some music to keep the pace up and some thumping techno was doing the trick. Unfortunately, despite moving well, I got lost in my techno daydream and managed to follow the Three Peaks route instead of the Pennine way route when they diverged. Clearly on autopilot. Frustratingly it took me over half a mile to realise. I used some choice words for myself that I should not put down in writing when trudging back to the Pennine Way. This mile detour decimated my fragile motivation and the next section up to Cam High Road was a slog.
I had spied a runner catching me but after my navigational embarrassment I just didn’t have the drive to push any harder. This drive lessened further when I realised it was my friend Rob catching me. I decided I needed some company to boost my morale.
With 6 miles to go at the top of Cam High Road Rob and I decided to run the last section together. We felt that a joint 4th and a comfortable finish was a far better outcome than a miserable race down to the finish and a possible fifth. For any dot watchers that were witnessing me and Rob passing each other as we “raced” down into Hawes I’m sorry to inform you that we trudged down dragging each other’s sorry bodies and no racing was even thought of.
We came into Hawes about 30 minutes before sunset. Ideal. I put on a brave race and even attempted a “run” along the high-street to the finish.
32 hours 14 minutes and 54 seconds.
Out of 96 starters, 46 finished
I was done.
4 pints and two meals later and I was swaying in my seat at the pub and almost falling asleep in my sticky toffee pudding. I had managed to cheer Dan in to his finish. He had taken a bit of time at Malham, got some food in him and had finished well.
But now it was time to sleep.
What followed was one of the worst night’s sleeps I’ve ever had. I could not regulate my body temperature. It felt like I was simultaneously freezing and boiling. It was like when you have a fever. The sheets were soaking with cold sweat in the morning. I suspect that my body had got used to producing so much heat and warmth from movement over the past 32 hours that it had thrown my temperature regulation completely out of whack.
The next morning with a slightly clearer head I inspected my body for issues. Naturally the muscles in my legs ached deeply but I did not have any particular joint or ligament pain. My main problem which I had discovered when I had entered the shower the night before was significant butt chafe. This had only caused mild discomfort during the run but this changed when the hot water from the shower hit it, ouch. Helen was not best pleased when I asked her to take a picture to survey the damage.
I seemed to recover surprisingly well within a few days and feeling a bit cocky I joined Will, Mattia and Jonny on a trip to Snowdonia a few weeks later. I had 12 miles of feeling great then things started going wrong and by 18 miles I felt almost as bad as I did at the end of the Spine. It felt like I’d hit the wall despite eating copiously throughout the run. I think this was my central nervous system telling me I’m and idiot and I clearly had a long way to go. Back to rest.
Reflections a month later
It’s hard to sum up an experience such as I had at the Spine Challenger. I once heard someone describe a 100-mile race as “a lifetime in a day” and I think this sums it up perfectly. Never in just 32 hours have I experienced such extremes in emotion, seen such beauty, forged such fast friendships and pushed myself as far physically.
This race was also a lovely antidote to the ever more connected, fast-paced and stressful lifestyles we lead (or at least I seem to). It was a chance to disconnect and experience life in a more simple form: you eat, you drink and you put one foot in front of the other. I think this is part of the pull I feel towards the longer unsupported events.
Would I do something like this again? Absolutely.
Would I do the full Spine? Absolutely.
Just not for a while.
Alex “Sharpy” Sharp