The Montane Spine Challenger


This race had been on my radar for a couple of years after I had tracked Damien Hall & Pavel Paloncy in the Spine Race in 2015, later the same year I met the Summit Fever team (Ellie & Matt) who filmed the Official Film during that race & they kindly gave me a copy of their DVD. As soon as I watched it I knew it was for me, the conditions appeared torturous and the whole experience looked set to test me to the absolute limits. I just HAD to do this.

I attended a screening of the film hosted by Like the Wind Magazine in London before the final push, when I met Damien at the Imber Ultra in March 2016 & during a brief chat with him at the finish he convinced me that anyone could take it on successfully, so I applied later that month.

I was on the waiting list, finally finding out I had a place at the end of September 2016.

The next couple of months were filled with sporadic training and intensive kit research, both being ramped up in the final few weeks to a frenzy of last minute panic buying and Insanity workouts. I even managed to test my Alpkit Pipedream 400, Hunka Bivvy & Rig 3.5 Tarp shelter combination successfully during surprisingly cold conditions in Malta the weekend before the race, with news reports coming from Britain of horrendous ‘thundersnow’ storms being forecast for race weekend.

Things were looking good.

I flew to the UK from Malta on Thursday and landed to heavy snowfall in Manchester and then alighted the train in  Cumbria to heavy snowfall. There was a pattern forming here. The next day me & my support crew (My Dad) drove to Edale for registration, I flew through kit check, getting just 3 simple items in their lottery system, and then queued for registration. Whilst waiting Ellie & Matt arrived and they interviewed me for the daily films. Once done at registration & briefing, Dad & I retired to Castleton to enjoy a decent meal and discuss final race pace, meeting points & strategy.

I got next to no sleep on Friday night as my nerves got hold of me and the associated stomach knots made eating breakfast difficult but I forced what I could down. We headed to the start to be fitted with the GPS & after saying hi to Damian again to pick up some Camphor Spray & a quick word with Ellie we were ushered to the start line.

All too soon we were off.

We made reasonable progress over hard packed & icy trails & despite having a big fall on the first decent I bounced well and wasn’t hurt, but it had got my attention. It wasn’t long before we reached Jacobs Ladder the first big ascent and the weather closed in. Heavy snow was whipped around us by strong winds, visibility was poor and temperatures plummeted.


Looking towards Bleaklow from Snake Pass

Conditions were terrible.

I loved it.

As I climbed up I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I felt right at home.

I was enjoying myself & making good time as we headed past the first safety check at Snake Pass and on to Bleaklow Hill. The top here was difficult to navigate as it was featureless and trails appeared to criss-cross everywhere, after losing the Pennine Way I ended up waist deep in snowdrifts & plunging knee deep into bogs. Getting back on track took a good 20 mins and a huge amount of energy and I slowed for a while until I eked out the stamina to move on again.

I’d latched onto the back of 2 guys and was feeling strong again as we finally started to descend towards Torside Reservoir and my first support stop about 16miles in. I forced down some soup & tea but couldn’t manage much of either and I headed off after a few minutes. I was struggling to get back into any sort of rhythm when Damien, Ellie & Matt came heading down towards me, I gave another brief interview and made my way onwards.


The only sunshine of the weekend at Torside Reservoir

And as it turned out upwards and the wheels fell off.

The short sharp climb up Laddows Rocks completely drained my reserves and I felt terrible, it was now a long drag over moors towards Black Hill and I got slower and slower as the lack of fuel I’d been able to consume started to take its toll and my feet were cramping. It probably should have been quite enjoyable, but felt never ending and I was glad to finally reach the safety point at the A635 road crossing about 23miles done.


It was freezing cold & exposed here so I took advantage of the marshals to help me get my headtorch ready for the imposing darkness and the element I’d been dreading, night time navigation. I was given a warning that weather condition were forecast to deteriorate and we’d be facing gale force winds, hail & rain in the upcoming hours. Sounded like fun.

I was alone.

It was dark and it was raining.

The Pennine Way crossed barren & isolated moorland.

It wound up hidden hills and down into black vales.

The trail was unsigned and difficult to follow.

I felt comfortable.

I knew I was safe.

There is something reassuring knowing you’re carrying everything you need to survive and you have the navigation tools to show you the way. Normally on ultra’s you might have a route description and if you lose the trail you have no way of identifying where you are to get back on track. In the Challenger I had a map, compass and GPS and despite going the wrong way a couple times I am comfortable using a map to get back on track… which I had to do at least once. So I soon gained confidence in my abilities.

I had arranged to meet my Dad at the A672 road crossing, just prior to the M62. I had already realised that the gap between stops was too big and we should have arranged to meet at the A635 and this leg was long. It felt like it went on forever. It wasn’t helped by the fact you could see the next road crossing from some distance, but it never got any closer… and then when it did there was always a sharp descent before a climb to the road!

After the original road there were more moors and more hills. Lots of them.

It was dark and I was alone. I actually enjoyed this for most of the time as it made it MY adventure, MY achievment. But did become a bit tedious at times.

I eventually reached the A62 which was the first of 3 roads in comparatively quick succession which I remembered from our map survey on Friday, there was a safety point here offering hot drinks but I abstained wanting to reach my support as soon as possible as I knew he’s been waiting ages. I should have stopped.

I continued on, having to stop several times to check my location & ensure I was following the correct paths. I wasn’t eating enough and was feeling sick, although I was still plodding forwards on the flats the ascents were difficult and the required exertion exacerbated the nausea. I could hear the M62 buzzing for what felt like hours but it dragged on for an eternity. Eventually I saw the dancing lights shining in my direction from the safety crew & I wobbled down from White Hill 35miles in.

Once arriving I immediately slumped in the back seat and stripped off a lot of kit. At first I wasn’t sure I’d continue as I felt terrible. After a couple black tea’s & a tin of beef & ale soup I felt a bit better. I put on my Nike Aeroloft Down Gilet under my jacket, put on my Sealskinz waterproof hat & Montane Mitts before stepping out of the car to face the elements again. I’d been stationary for at least 30mins, but it had been necessary.

I left the lay-by slowly & a little unsteadily but eventually got into a rhythm and even started to feel pretty good again. I was navigating pretty well and starting to feel quite confident, then I got to a cross roads, misread my GPS and took the Roman Road the wrong way. I didn’t realise until very near the bottom and a long way off route, I checked the map & realised I could follow the road up to where it meets the PW  no major drama but probably added at least hour to an already long day. There was a safety check at the road crossing where it intersected with the PW so I had a cup of tea. The trail now followed the Rochdale Way and the Todmorden Centenary Way, a good track alongside Warland and Light Hazzles Reservoirs and was BORING, I was almost grateful to switch back to moorland… but then almost immediately ended up going off-piste following another Spiner, got completely turned around & disorientated among a warren of footpaths. Thankfully Rob (ended up last finisher) arrived after a couple of minutes and helped guide me past Stoodley Pike Monument and down the other side.

I’d had it in my head that CP1 was at 43 miles, I was now beyond this & it was nowhere near.  I was still struggling to consume enough food to fuel me and I was feeling sick all the time, the only thing I was able to stomach were Ella’s Kitchen smoothies and I had now used my entire supply. On the steep ascent from Charlestown on the A646 my legs went completely and I had to stop regularly. I lost touch with Rob and just wobbled forward on my own. I’d been concerned about navigating the final stretch to CP1 but in reality it was signed and pretty straight forward, unfortunately it took me ages in the state I’d got myself in to. I finally reached the road and saw a sign directing us off the Pennine Way, I tried to memorise the area to rejoin the PW coming the opposite direction and staggered down the road. It felt like a very long way before the arrows took me down the steep muddy footpath to the CP, I was stumbling and falling repeatedly with no energy & was dry heaving before the bottom. But did eventually make it.

Inside I wasn’t functioning properly & everything took me far too long. I did finally get myself stripped and showered, then after failing to be able to eat went to bed. Thinking my race was over I didn’t even set my alarm.

I woke after about 2 hours sleep and felt a lot better, I still couldn’t eat much but managed to force down some Alpro Desert, soup and fruit. I was now pushing my luck to get out before cut-off but after rushing around taping my feet, changing, stripping out all non-essentials from my vest and repacking I got out of CP1 at 8.00am.

I was dead last on the road.

The descent that had seemed so technical the night before was easy… although even muddier & I felt far better as I reached the road. I ploughed on into the driving rain and promptly walked straight past the only arrow the race organisers have on the route. After 2 miles or so I realised and turned round… and after checking my phone received a message from Race HQ telling me I should’ve done that 40mins ago!

I’m not ashamed to say I threw a tantrum at the side of the road & considered returning to CP1 and retiring, after a call to my Dad who told me that I was showing as retired on the tracker I contacted HQ and had a chat. They assured my I was NOT retired and they were relieved to hear I’d decided to join the Pennine Way., I spent some time sorting out my GPS & finally (for the 1st time all weekend) got the right setting on it.

Amazing how much better it was to navigate from now on!

Heading up onto the first of many moors my spirits actually lifted, I was really proud of myself for getting out again in the morning and despite the driving rain and wind I was enjoying myself. I’d opted for boots leaving CP1 and was glad I had as the heavy rain overnight combining with the melted snow the Pennine Way was now either a river or a quagmire. But this is all part of the ‘fun’ of the Spine.

I made reasonable progress over Clough Head Hill and down past Gorple Lower Reservoir, I had a minor navigation error to reach the road but then it was easy going past Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and out to more open moors. I was up and down, both literally & figuratively. Generally I was OK once up on the moors, but struggled for energy to climb up to them, I was able to eat more now but still struggling to consume enough and the deficit from Saturday was taking it’s toll. Doubts of a finish were already setting in. Despite this I was still making ‘relentless forward progress’ and actually passed 3 people on the road.

As I dropped down to skirt around Ponden Reservoir a couple people were walking towards me smiling, one said my name but it still took a few moments to realise it was Gav who had come down to support. It was an incredible lift to see him and I’m so appreciative of the support.

After leaving Gav I headed up towards Ickenshaw Moor and then finally after a very long day to meet Dad in Cowling. I arrived thinking I was going to drop. The ascents were so slow I couldn’t see me continuing, but after some food, tea and tough love from a member of the safety team & Dad (who lied telling me the next stretch was on good tracks) I made my way onwards again.

This part essentially crossed continuous hills. To get to the top of these hills I had to cross lots of very muddy fields and because my legs were shot to pieces and I had no energy left I fell over in this mud. A lot. I passed Lothersdale and although the Spine special was tempting I carried on past to start the ascent to Pinhaw. On the descent down towards Thornton I was all over the place, stiles became a life & death gamble as being 6feet in the air on one foot with zero control over your own body was scary.

I walked up the road to Thornton met my Dad and retired.

I’m sure I could still have made the finish, but was concerned that I falling over so often it was only a matter of time before I hurt myself and there’s a small matter of a run in the desert later this year. I was disappointed but oddly content that I had done so much.

This event is truly brutal.

Everything about it is tough.

I would go as far as say it is a horrible race.

Set in January you face inclement weather and it’s dark for 16hours of the day, making navigation that much more difficult. As a non-stop event, you will lose sleep and the Pennine Way itself is not a nice trail, not only is it undulating continuously, ascending a number of big hills along its route it also traverses numerous moors with their bogs that will drain what little energy you have left as they attempt to suck your footwear off your feet. If you’re not knee deep in stinking mire then you’re probably sliding around in mud churned up by the competitors ahead of you.

It’s awful out there and it chews you up and spits you out.

But I loved it.

I can not wait to go back & do it properly and next time THIS will be my ‘A’ race

I realised that I was comfortable doing it. From all my years hiking in the mountains I understood the kit requirements, had all the right gear and I was as warm & dry as you can be in the circumstances. Navigating wasn’t a problem, although I made it one. Being able to use your GPS (and all kit) is invaluable, but the main thing is keeping an eye on your location, particularly at night. It is incredibly well organised, this is a foot race on an extreme level and although isolated and alone for long periods of time, in reality you’re never to far away from support or a safety team… and as I discovered Race HQ keep an eye on your progress to ensure you’re going the right way too.

Physically it damaged me more than anything else I’ve ever done.

At time of writing, a week after the start I have a big lump on my right shoulder accompanied by a rather angry rash, my quads are still numb but occasional bouts of pins and needles under weight are recurring, my feet continually swell up & 2 toenails have come off but I’m not ‘injured’and have started running again already.

I will be back at the Spine.

And next time, I KNOW I WILL finish it.

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