Montane Spine Challenger, Edale To Hawes, Saturday, January 11, 2020

108miles, 17000ft elevation, 60 hours cut off

Elaine Bisson


The Spine Challenger – ‘A non stop 108 mile race between Edale and Hawes…This challenging and technical section of the Pennine Way is a physically and psychologically demanding route that demands concentration, good physical fitness, resolve and respect.’

Where to start? I feel shell shocked, overwhelmed and as if the last few days have all been a very strange dream verging at times on a nightmare! But then I look down at my elephant feet and I realise it was more than just a dream.

I’m standing on the start line of one of Britain’s iconic races, ‘Britain’s second most Brutal race’, absolutely petrified. Frantically trying to open my poles and spot where my family have gone. The start has caught up on me way before I feel ready….

If I take a deep breath, I know that’s not entirely true, my own training plan I have followed to the letter, despite struggling round one of the long runs, The Tour of Helvellyn, with flu…what doesn’t kill you and all that! Strength and conditioning, done. All of my kit has been weighed, checked, packed on training runs and used. Although somehow, I didn’t quite anticipate such a heavy bag, the kit list is huge including sleeping bag and stove, all in all its just shy of 10kg. My big let down is my recceing, I managed two recces, the other planned days were taken over by illness or other commitments. I’ve studied the maps. I know if I take my time, I’ll be fine. I just have to believe.

I travelled down on Friday to get my kit checked and register, a pretty stressful event in itself. The race briefing is the scariest one I’ve ever been to. We are warned about the weather…’gusts that WILL blow you off your feet. Constant rain’. We’ve been told to wear our goggles, too many last year fell victim to wind blindness and had to retire…wind blindness, really????

Registration done, we drive 10 minutes to the cottage I have for one night, my family for the weekend. Aptly called Happy Feet, it’s beautiful and I wish I hadn’t found such a gorgeous one, to make it easier to leave.

Back to the start line, Stuart nudges me, pointing at Jen Scotney, he believes she is my only worry. Standing there, my only worry is whether I’ll make it to the other side!

The valley is gorgeous with the rolling grassy fells flanking its sides, the sun has only just decided to rise, the wind is already making itself known. We wind our way up towards Jacobs Ladder, I know this is where I’ll potentially see my rivals…I’m always good at climbing, even when my legs are shot. I reach the top in first lady position and am briefly interviewed whilst on the run. I tell them I’m looking forward to the adventure…

The landscape becomes increasingly wild and absolutely stunning. Huge boulders everywhere, the sky glowing pink, the wind blowing a hoolie and trying its best to knock me over…which it does, quite a few times. I feel alive! We traverse Kinder Scout, the tiny lights of Glossop still twinkling as the dawn breaks. We make our way to what is surprisingly called Kinder Downfall. It certainly wasn’t falling down today as spray curls upwards soaking everything nearby, myself included. Crossing on to Mill Hill, I’m getting increasingly more confident, absorbed in the moment and the landscape.

Despite a little line of runners leading the way, the man in front has already managed to take 3 wrong turns…whilst on a pretty big trail or flagstone path. I quietly giggle to myself.

On to Bleaklow, the path is quite sheltered, being cut away and almost sunken in the landscape. This does mean I can’t see any other runners, but I’ve got my map. I’m attentive to any other turns, of which there aren’t any, and continue on. Soon enough I’m out of the dip and views stretch across to Torside Reservoir. We circuit the steep side of Torside Clough and descend onto a large track to the first mini Mountain Rescue checkpoint. I spot my family in the car, just arriving on the road, they all stick their heads out and shout ‘we love you, well done!’ It always amazes me how such a brief meeting can cheer you up for miles.

Joined by my daughter

I’m pleased to be offered tea and biscuits which I stop to enjoy, dunking custard creams into my tea. Stuart catches me up, then the second lady. She’s polite but I sense the competitiveness as she refuses any nourishment and quickly disappears along the track. Not long after, I catch and pass her on the way up to Blackchew Head. I feel happier as I manage to increase the lead by gaining more ground on the climbs.

The side of the ridge of Laddow Rocks drops precipitously to my right. I’m concerned as with the height we’ve gained the wind has picked up and is again trying its best to push me over the side. I use my sticks to fix me to the ground and feel relief when we finally drop down onto stone slabs. I’m still with Stuart and we chat away, its quite a bleak run towards Wessenden head MR point. Here, we’re told in no uncertain terms to put on our goggles or risk missing the race. I stop briefly to locate them and then I’m off on a wide track to Wessenden. It’s a pleasant downhill run around the reservoirs, then off up a steep muddy trail and across Wessenden Moor. The wind is ferocious now. We are reduced to a walk as we fight to gain ground. It’s blowing big waves across the tiny reservoir. At the A62 junction my family, to my surprise, have stopped again and my daughter has run to meet us. She tells me how cold she is in the wind, as if I don’t know! I get a few brief cuddles, shouts of ‘we love you mum’ and I’m gone. Leaving Stuart behind as he tops up fluids.

It’s strange passing over the M62, all of those people in warm cars, speeding along, miles passing in minutes. While I’m up on the footbridge, being buffeted and threatened by everything mother nature can hurl at me. I’m soon aware that I’ll have to stop as the rain and darkness threatens to fall. When the man in front sees his opportunity, I too stop and get my waterproof trousers and mitts on. I stuff my headtorch into my pocket. Stuart passes, already fully waterproofed and I work hard to catch him up again.

Weather ready

Just before Chelbourn Moor, we drop down to another MR point. Someone is holding the gate open and shouting my name. To my delight I realise it’s Kerry and her daughter, who I’d met at the coaching course. I stop again briefly, hiding in the MR van and have another tea with numerous biscuits until I brace myself and exit, back into the wild. Darkness has engulfed everything and the weather is horrific. I’ve not witnessed anything so scary and I’ve been out in all sorts. Soon we’re submerged into hell. The light from our headtorches bouncing back off the mixture of fog and horizontal rain as it lashes us this way and that. The wind howls and gusts. We can barely stay upright nor see our feet, never mind discern the track we’re supposed to be following. Thankfully we are a party of three and we stick together, one clutching his GPS like his life depends upon it. I keep telling Stuart how scared I am. Stuart then suggests one of us keep our headtorch on and follows the others without their headtorches switched on, allowing the others to see better. It works a treat and we take turns until it improves.

Soon enough it lifts and we’re onto Warland Drain and briefly on water laden flags until the boggy bits before Stoodley Pike. I’m quite excited to be there. I’ve seen it from the valleys but have never run up to it. It’s a welcome sight, even in the rain and gloom.

There’s a light up here and I think its attached to a building until I see it move and realise it’s Max. I cheer up no end. To have ventured out to greet us on a dark, extremely windy and rainy night, means a lot. He’s careful to run behind us so that we can’t be accused of cheating. Soon he turns off back to his car and we head down a good track to Hebden Bridge. By now I’m starting to feel the cold. The bogs have slowed my progress and the wind is strong. I pick up speed on the descent, eager to get warm again. Somewhere along the road, Stuart drops back and I don’t see him again until the checkpoint.

I’ve picked up another runner. We work our way to Hebden Hey, me spotting signs and him check, check, checking against his GPS and map. We make our way up a tiny little lane, rising steeply from Hebden Bridge and wade through the quagmire.

Slightly Soggy!

We pass up a little lane by a house and I’m pleased I have company. The lane is lined with odd gnomes, one of which is a clown and surely would feature in a horror movie. It’s still raining, although not so heavily. Soon we’re on the main road of Slack and drop down steps, ankle deep in mud and debris with a newly formed stream gushing over everything. This is where I’ll have to retrace my steps after the checkpoint. Those new dry socks I’d been so looking forward to will immediately be soaked and covered in mud.

I get a lovely welcome from the volunteers who cheer and clap and quickly and efficiently lead me through. I take my trainers off and they’re labelled and put near a radiator, not that it’ll do much good. My bag is already on a table. It seems surprisingly quiet, there are only a handful or so runners there already. They tell me food is available in a different room. I ask to see a medic. I’ve been religiously applying Vaseline to my back, where I know my pack rubs, but it’s beginning to feel sore. I change into a full set of clean dry clothes. It’s heaven.

Clean, dry and smiling.

I hang my coat near the fire hoping it’ll dry while I’m eating food. In another room, I’m welcomed by the giddy staff cheering me in as first woman. I am offered four different meal options. I opt for a vegetarian pasta then a lovely rice pudding with a heap of strawberry jam. I have two cups of tea then go through to see the medic. She quickly and expertly puts pads and then Ktape across my lower back. She says I’ve probably caught it in time.

Then I’m back to sort my supplies. I’ve given myself 30 minutes grace and want to use it efficiently. I left myself a checklist on top of my bag so that I wouldn’t forget anything. It’s another 62 miles to the finish, with very little support on route. I happily go through everything and only faff a bit choosing extra layers. I’m told the rain that had been forecast to stop at 2am is now set to stay. I opt for lots of layers, putting on my baselayer, primaloft top, primaloft jacket and Paramo jacket. I stuff another fleece into my bag and get my spare gloves, hat and buff on. I’m ready, sort of. On my way out, feeling refreshed, I pass the second and third women. This gives me a boost, they certainly do not look fresh!

When I go to leave, the interviewer asks who I’m buddying up with for the night. I shrug. He tells me the man I came in with, has only just left. He’s on the Mountain Rescue Team race and would be great for nav and pacing. I try my best to catch up with him. We stay together over Heptonstall Moor. Everything by now is waterlogged. The paving slabs all sit below inches of water. My headtorch creates these amazing waves across the long grass in the bogs, it seems to dart lazers along the stems. It’s quite beautiful.

We weave our way round the Walshaw reservoirs. I’m enjoying his company. We don’t talk too much, but keep each other going at a good pace and on the right track. On toward Withins Height. It’s with huge disappointment that I realise his pace is dropping. He soon tells me he’s struggling with shin splints and urges me to push on. The trail across the moor is reasonable but I soon see a light ahead and try harder to speed up. Just above Ponden I catch up with Gary Chapman. He’s a Spine and Spine Challenger veteran, in fact he’s local, living near Ponden. My luck is in! He knows all of the direct lines across what are now swamp fields and he chats incessantly. It’s lovely company and reassuring that I won’t lose time or waste energy covering any extra miles by getting lost! The rain has by now subsided and I start to think daylight is nearing, only to realise the full moon is lighting up the tracks.

A brief rest.

We stop briefly at Lothersdale MR point. Gary’s club has put on a non-official checkpoint for the last few years, offering food, drink and shelter. His friends are all marshalling and they run up the track taking orders via a walkie talkie, so hot drinks and soup are all ready when we arrive. It’s a first class service and much needed escape from the elements as we’re wrapped in warm blankets and fussed over. Chris soon arrives, although I haven’t met him yet…

Gary had planned a longer stop, but his friends tell us we are unbelievably in 6th and 7th position. I easily persuade him to reduce it significantly. He’s never been so high up or so quick with his splits. Happily, he accompanies me out of the door and up onto mud sucking fields. Each and every field tries it’s best to pull our trainers off whilst simultaneously draining our legs of all energy. I don’t enjoy the next few miles. It’s flat and on a good dry day you could skip over these fields but today every step is a huge effort, pulling against the mud and wading through sodden fields. By now Chris has caught us up.

At Gargrave,  a lovely lady who has driven to Mcdonalds at some silly time in the morning, waits at the roadside with 3 teas for us to enjoy! She’s been busy tracking us through the night and has arrived in perfect time. We happily accept her kind offer and shelter briefly in a bus stop.

I start to feel incredibly tired, its been nearly 16 hours of darkness and it’s starting to take it’s toll. I’m relieved when the sky lightens around Airton. There are a few diversions in place to avoid the worst of the waterlogged fields.

I enjoy the track toward Malham Cove. Leaving the monotonous water drenched fields behind, is a relief. The landscape at last opens up in front of us and is stunning. I do wonder whether someone has been up painting images of sheep onto the face of Malham cove, but keep quiet, quite sure it’s just my sleep fogged brain playing tricks on me. On the steps up to Malham Cove, we leave Gary behind, he’s eager now that we push on. I stay with Chris and follow his lead as he goes across the limestone. Moss and huge cracks, threaten to twist or break our ankles. He slips and falls breaking one of his poles. With our daft route choice, we’ve lost time and arrive back on the Pennine Way only to realise Gary has pushed quite far ahead by taking a higher, easier path.

I start to feel quite cold, my pace has dropped off with the awkward, rock strewn path. I’m getting quite low in spirits (I really wish I’d brought more gin). Thankfully, just before Malham Tarn, Max appears again with his cheery smile despite the inclement weather and my moody face. By the checkpoint I’m really cold and quite concerned. I’m wearing almost everything and look like a Michelin woman. I warm up with a lovely hot chocolate and somehow manage to persuade Chris to join me back on the trail. ‘Let’s get this finished’, I urge. By now he’s 3rd male and desperately wants to cling on to it and I’m still maintaining first lady position. He’s also feeling the cold and getting increasingly fed up. We start to run to warm up on the easier tracks and continue towards the end, run/walking and encouraging each other on. He’s perfect company.

Lets get this finished.

Fountains Fell seems a never-ending climb. It’s pleasant and easy enough but the higher we climb the more cold, windy and foggy it gets. I’m trying to orientate myself and chivvy myself on. Desperately searching the skyline for glimpses of Pen-y-ghent, our next big climb. Its hidden in cloud. Dropping down to the road Chris pushes ahead. My knee is beginning to hurt on the descents.

On the road I’m stopped twice. Firstly, offered a tray of cookies and when I decline, saying they look gorgeous but I would struggle to swallow them, the man races back to his car and brings out a handful of gels! A few hundred metres further on, an old man jogs up and asks for a drink order, he then races back to his car and presents me with a lovely sweet coffee. It’s part of The Spine magic, I’m not sure if they realise just how touching these wonderful gestures are. They even know my name as they have been tracking me.

We’ve got this.

Heading up to Pen-y-ghent, Chris has waited to make the climb together. I struggle with tired legs and the wind that is trying to detach us as we scramble/crawl up the rocks with our huge packs. There are a few moments when I fear I’ll be blown off. The other side is even worse, descending on the God-awful slab steps. Chris, again, pulls away.

Surprisingly, Max is again waiting up the lane and he chats briefly trying his best to reassure me that the second lady is not gaining, despite my slower pace. Problem is, I think he’s just being kind. Panic rises as I start to think that after 90 miles of being first, I’m going to drop my position. Arriving at the MR checkpoint, I’ve just about had enough despite the kindness of the staff, who bring me soup and bread. I’m entering into quite a dark place. I sit with Chris, who looks equally crestfallen. Two rather sprightly men pass through and we both think our places are dropping. I urge him to get up and head on out before him.

Leaving for the final push

I spend a while faffing on the road in Horton, my brain is muddled and I can’t make head nor tail of the simple map. The more I look the more I get in a pickle. It is ridiculous, its daylight, the sun has even decided to make a brief appearance, I’m on a large road in Horton. It’s quite obvious where I am and I can’t remember the way nor see it on the map! Thankfully, Chris catches me up, calms me down and I’m back on it. Map in hand, I’m determined not to lose any places by getting lost on this final stretch. I know the route, I’ve covered the ground numerous times before, my confidence is increasing again.

By now, my quads are in agony, my legs work but I have to ignore the pain. I tell myself over and over ‘pain is temporary, victory lasts forever’…something on a motivational video Stuart has filled my head with, although I later realise the ending is somewhat different. I like mine better! It works and I continue to walk the hills and sort of run the flats and downs. Chris is lagging behind until we pass a photographer. He tells Chris he is in fact third male, the other two who had passed were MRT challenger racers. We work together pushing onwards to Cam End. By Cam Road he’s had enough of the panic that has risen in him. He stops to check his tracker. Catching me up he reassures me the second lady is way behind, maybe 4-5 miles. However, he says the next male is about 2 miles away. He calculates and recalculates our pace and time. We move as fast as we can. Unfortunately, I struggle to keep up and its disappointing to see his red jacket pull further away into the increasing darkness. By West Cam Road, I really need to put my headtorch on, but I know if someone is not far behind it might just be the thing they need to give them a spurt of energy. I still don’t believe anyone about my lead over the second woman! I keep it off until a high wall when I’m out of sight. I have to stop again to get my goggles out. The wind has picked up, a few times I’m blown and stumble to the side and my eyes are stinging with its ferocity.

I search and search for the signpost onto the last boggy section to drop across the fields into Hawes. Aaron had warned me before my recce that it was easy to miss, so I’m on high alert not to miss it today. Finding it, I start to panic as there are two tracks and for a minute I can’t remember which one is correct. Taking stock, I calm myself down and choose the right track but take my GPS out just to make sure. I’m too close to risk it now. Soon I see the familiar red jacket again, Chris has waited to run into Hawes with me. He said he’d tried to wait on Cam Road but the wind had been horrendous, so he’d pushed on.

It’s a wonderful feeling being a team again and seeing those longed-for lights of Hawes. It’s just a shame it seems to take an age to make them any bigger! Chris is still on high alert, he keeps checking behind to see if a light is catching us. We slowly make our way down into Hawes, taking another diversion that has been put in place to avoid the worst of the muddy fields. We gladly follow the road and soon we’re passing through the houses, along the tiny lanes, through a gate and we’re again being interviewed as we make the final push to the finish. I hear cowbells and my daughter appears, mad as a hatter. Chris’ pace increases and increases, somehow I keep up and it’s with relief and extreme happiness that we pass through the finish line together. Unbelievably, I am joint 3rd overall and 1st lady.

We did it!

Afterwards, I sit with my family, Fiona and Max who have come to cheer me in. I eat soup and drink tea, I’m transported to the YHA to shower and clean up (the best shower ever!)I have my photo taken with a trophy, mine will be engraved and sent on. I’m awkwardly interviewed. Then going out of the door I’m told my ‘prize’ is free entry into next year’s Spine Challenger. ‘Oh hell!’, I think.

Over the next few days I eat everything in sight and I’m still hungry. I stumble around, my feet belong to an elephant and I have no shoes that fit. I have managed to survive relatively unscathed, minimal blisters, a few toenails due to fall off, but pretty well considering. I’m totally overwhelmed with the messages I’ve received. I never imagined that while out in the wilderness, at times feeling very alone and scared, that so many people would be watching my tiny dot progress.

Strangely, it doesn’t take me long to start thinking about how I can improve for next year…Britain’s most Brutal certainly is an apt tag line. It has been the biggest adventure and challenge of my running life and yet I did it. I vowed never again…but perhaps ‘never’ is a word I shouldn’t utter!

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3 thoughts on “Montane Spine Challenger

  1. Best report yet Elaine! Your writing style is wonderful and you capture the adventure beautifully. Congratulations on your achievements and looking forward to your installment of inspiration.

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