Shane’s Race Report – Montane Spine Challenger 2016

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Last weekend I competed in the Montane Spine Challenger, a 108 mile run over the Pennine Way from Edale to Hawes. It is the shorter of two races that started that same weekend, the other being the full Spine Race which covers 268 miles of the Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm over the Scottish border! Needless to say I was glad I was not doing the latter!

The race was due to start 7am Saturday morning, but we had to go down to Edale Friday night to register and get kit checked etc. Staying in the youth hostel I didn’t get a wink of sleep, not because it was noisy but probably just nervous excitement. This worried me a bit as I knew I was going to need as much sleep as possible for the task ahead. As we lined up on the start line Saturday morning these nerves faded a bit as my brain started to focus on the task at hand, keep running!

The Race:

The furthest I had run before this race is 60mile, so 108mile seemed a very long way to go. Instead of focusing on reaching the finish I broke it down into sections to make it more manageable: 

  • Edale to Crowden
  • Crowden to Wesseden
  • Wessenden to The White House (just outside Littleborough)
  • The White House to Hebden (which was the first official checkpoint at mile 45)

Then the second half: 

  • Hebden to Pondon
  • Pondon to Cowling
  • Cowling to Gargrave
  • Gargrave to Malham (official checkpoint 1.5)
  • Malham to Pen y Gent
  • Pen y Gent to Horton in Ribblesdale to Hawes (finish)

I ran most of the way with 2 of my running buddies (Alastair and Dave) and had 2 good friends (Chris and Fearghal) supporting me by meeting me at most of the road crossings with food, hot drinks, change of socks / layers as and when needed. This was invaluable and it would have been much more difficult without their help.

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The course was very boggy after all of the recent flooding, especially as we got further north. We pushed as fast as we could through these boggy sections and tried to make up for lost time when we got to any of the many paved slab sections of the Pennine Way. Weather wise we were lucky to start, as it was cold but dry. It stayed dry for the first couple of hours after which we started to get rain showers, followed by snow storms, followed by ice cold winds, followed by sunshine Sunday afternoon, followed by more rain and cold!

As we were coming into the first checkpoint (a brutal uphill climb) we were passed by the leaders of the main race, including Spine Legend Pavel Paloncy and last year’s 2nd place finisher, Eoin Keith from Ireland. The pace they were moving at was incredible, and as their race didn’t start until 10 they gained 3 hours on us! At the first checkpoint I stopped for 20 minutes to put on some dry clothes, socks and shoes and eat some hot food, and then it was off again.

After leaving Hebden and arriving in Pondon, sleep deprivation was really kicking in and I was moving very slowly and therefore getting cold. I decided to stop for an hour to put my head down in my sleeping bag and warm up while getting a small bit of rest while the other two carried on ahead. This turned out to be a good move as after the hour I was moving much quicker again and even managed to catch the two lads just coming out of Gargrave. Between Pondon and Gargrave it snowed heavily, and it got very difficult to navigate as everything was just white. I had to take the GPS out here and find the way back to the right path more than once!
Once we got to Malham I started to allow myself think about the finish, which was still another 30 miles away! I was still feeling pretty good at this point, taking it steady up to Malham tarn, checking in at the checkpoint then heading straight for Fountains Fell. Fountains Fell was a relentless hill, with the climb seemingly going on forever and the descent very icy. My feet were really starting to hurt at this point due to all of the boggy terrain. We continued at good pace over Pen y Gent into Horton in Ribblesdale where we met the support crew for the last time before the finish. We ate some food and set off again.

I had it in my head that the last 13 mile section was steady going and once you were into Horton you have cracked it. I was wrong! The last 13 miles were absolutely brutal, a massive climb up an icy snow covered hill that went on for a good 7 miles before descending again. Sleep deprivation was really kicking in for all 3 of us now, with hallucinations and grumpiness all taking hold! The snow had made the paths impossible to find so the GPS had to come back out to find the Pennine way into Hawes.

Finally we arrived at the Market Place which was the official finish for the challenger. We were given our finishers t-shirts and medals and hot food and drinks. We were told that we arrived there in over 43 hours and tied for 13th place. A lovely medic looked at my manky feet and lanced the blisters and gave great advice on how to treat them over the coming days. Apparently we broke the Spine, but I think it broke us too!
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Gear:

For our safety on the course there was an extensive mandatory kit list. I tried to go as light as possible while making sure I had all of the items in this list. Some of the key items listed below for anyone interested:

  • Backpack: Beghuas Hyper 22L with dry bags for gear inside
  • Maps: A-Z Adventure Series Pennine Way
  • Waterproof Jacket: Montane Minimus Smock for most of the race, Hagloffs gortex jacket for the heavier weather.
  • Waterproof Trouser: Montane Minumus Trouser
  • Kahtoola NanoSpikes for the snowy sections
  • Sleeping Bag: PHD Minim 300 down Sleeping mat: Just cut a section of foam roll mat that could fold over once and fit in the back of my pack.
  • Bivvy bag: Alpkit Hunka Bivvy Bag

Trainer wise I wore Salomon XA pros for the first section, Salomon Speedcross for most of the second section, and a pair of Salomon X Ultra GTX for the last section when we were moving much slower. I wore Injinji trail socks under waterproof SealSkinz socks, but they only kept the water out for a short time and eventually did wet out each time. I also used Mountain King Trailblazer poles which were a godsend, especially when it got snowy.

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Nutrition:

In my pack I carried Cliff bars, a mixture of nuts (cashews, brazil nuts, salted peanuts), and a bit of flapjack. I replenished this supply when I met my support crew and had them prepare me some hot food (I am now sick of ravioli and soup!) at some of the road crossings which helped give a morale boost. Due to the cold weather I made a conscious effort to drink plenty of water as your thirst mechanism tends to get suppressed with the cold. I estimate I ate about 13,000 calories!

Wrap up:

The Spine Challenger was an experience to say the least. As I sit here now soaking my sore feet in hot water I realise it was worth it, but there were definitely times when doubt crept in during the race. It is an extremely brutal, but very rewarding race. Anyone who has experience running ultras and is looking for a challenge to take them outside of their comfort zone, take a look at this race. My humble advice for anyone considering it is: 

  1. Be supported by a support crew
  2. Recce the route (makes it easier when visibility becomes poor if you know the route already)
  3. Practice running in the night time (it is dark by 4:30pm!)
  4. Practice running on no sleep (we were awake for 50+ hours by the finish!
with support crew at the finish
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