Unfinished Business

Challenger South 2022

The Montane Spine Challenger South 2022

Edale to Hawes

108 Miles

 

The challenges of this year's Spine began on registration day. Just getting to Edale on Friday became an exercise in route finding to avoid the closed roads due to heavy snow. Walking up to the centre and seeing the team was amazing, it finally started to feel real. Kit check was good, personally I find I reassuring that so much attention is given to the mandatory items and the safety of the racers. 

 

Then we left Edale to head to Glossop where we planned to stay…… 

After a few miles, some very sketchy back roads and 2 attempts to find an A road which wasn't blocked, a check of the AA website showed that all roads in and around Buxton were buggered. We were potentially looking at 3 or 4 hours just to get to Glossop and no guarantee that it would be any better the next morning.

 

This event is all about resilience and overcoming problems, so a quick google and a hotel in Bakewell was booked, first world problem solved. Lovely meal, couple of pints and an early night.

 

Race day began early, waking up convinced I'd slept through my alarm and discovering it was only 3am. A common affliction I have no doubt. Snoozed until 4.30 and then got up to start the essential prep of stuffing in calories to give them time to digest and be on the start line feeling full but not sick. VERY gently woke up my lovely wife and handed her a brew for extra safety.

 

Quick check of the facebook group to see if there were any issues with getting to Edale and meet with Peter Gold's fabulously motivational thread of DNF rate predictions, cheers for that one Peter ;-)

 

As it turned out, overnight there had been a good thaw and the roads were in pretty much normal condition again, making for a much easier journey to Edale.

 

The earlier start and system in place for getting your tracker meant that it was going to be quite dark as the race began, dark enough in fact for me to completely lose my friend in the car park and not find them again before having to head into the field and wait for Kevin's dulcet tones to count us down.

 

3,2,1 GO! ACTUALLY BLOODY RACING AGAIN!

 

I'd discovered that I was standing next to an old friend, Daragh, at the start and the 2 of us quickly found a nice rhythm to get out of the traffic and up on towards Jacob's Ladder.

 

The climb up was a sign of what was waiting for us, requiring a good amount of focus and caution to not have a race-ending slip. Good laughs within a small group that had formed, including my mate Carl who had caught me up and explained that he realised at the very last second that he'd left his poles in his van and had to go get them.

 

Reaching the plateau of Kinder was a bit like stepping into an alien world, in the countless times I've been up there I've never seen it like that.

 

The down/upfall arrived in what felt like no time, always my first mental tick to make. Smiled for the photographer who was a fetching shade of blue by that point, standing still right in the teeth of a particularly bitter wind just to take pictures of us idiots.

 

As we approached the turning for the first section of slabs, the MRT leaders came past moving with fantastic ease and looking very strong.

 

This section is a bit of a dull one really, meandering along to Snake Pass and just having to focus on not binning it. I do remember being quite glad of the thaw because covered completely in snow this would be a tricky bit of nav.

 

As now appears to be tradition, at Snake Pass my mum & stepdad were waiting to give me & Carl a cheer as we passed through and headed up to Bleaklow.

 

This climb was another set of conditions that I'd never seen before, mainly the path turning into a river! The weather was really giving it some at this point too, and conscious of not wanting to get cold I kept a good steady pace following one of the MRT racers, working together on nav occasionally with trail sign language (point with your pole). At some point I moved ahead of Carl and couldn't seem him when I had a moment to turn around and look, so pushed on expecting him to catch me again.

 

The descent to Torside involved the first challenging river crossing of the day, and it was here I met AJ and Kendra as we helped each other across. Heading into the station manned by the magnificent mountain rescue, I asked if they were ok with sticking together going up Black Hill as I knew there were going to be some real issues with the rivers. Happily they both agreed as they were both much much faster than me.

 

Up and over Laddow Rocks went smoothly, always forget what a steep grind that is though. Then down to the river where a depth test with a pole suggested waist to chest high fast flowing cold water…..nope! We took the higher ground to skirt the part where the path crossed the river repeatedly, and met a family out for a walk (who goes out walking in those conditions??) with a little lad who was enjoying jumping the streams. When we got to the point that a crossing of the river was now not a choice, a quick search confirmed that it was going to be a deep wade or a fairly big jump. I went first, not sure why on reflection, and was relieved to land on firm ground. AJ and Kendra followed, then we had a moment as we watched the little lad not be quite so keen on taking that jump on, just making sure that they all made it safely.

 

The rest of the climb was quite easy, only punctuated by a brief waist deep visit into a bog when trying to avoid icy slabs.

 

Coming down the conversation was around Deans Clough and whether we'd be diverted. As it turned out we were, and what a horror of a diversion that is. A 24-carat bastard of a slog back up that left me feeling wobbly at the road.

 

AJ and Kendra moved ahead at this point as I took a few minutes to eat, hydrate and get my headtorch out. Last time I got here on the race it was just getting dark, so I was clearly moving faster than previously.

 

Coming down into the little gorge after the reservoirs, just before that other horrible grindy bastard of a climb, Kris Cressy caught me up. We've known each other through the race and it was a nice lift to see a friendly face. AJ was also down by the bridge sorting out his headtorch, Kendra had powered on like the machine she is.

 

Going over towards the M62 is very familiar ground for me, and while I was moving fairly well my stomach wasn't feeling all that great so I watched as Kris and AJ steadily disappeared. Being alone on the moors at night is something I really treasure, so I had a great time ambling along ticking off the miles and saying a heartfelt thanks to each MR team at the road crossings.

 

As far as I can remember, I'm sure I could smell the burgers before I could see Nicky's magic van, and even stomach issues were pushed aside at the prospect of hot food and a brew. Then out of nowhere, quite literally, one of my oldest friends appeared in front of me. He'd been driving home over the M62 and seen my dot was close, so took a detour with his family to say hello and tell me what a crazy bastard I was. Personally I think standing out in the wind and hail at night mid-January with your wife & kids waiting to say hi to someone is pretty crazy, but given the circumstances my opinion isn't all that valid.

 

The delicious burger and brew were good, but the spirit lift from this encounter was magical.

 

From Nicky's to Hebden I teamed up with Kris Cressy, we made steady progress to White House and another quick brew with the MR team there. 

Heading away from the White House we were soon overtaken by the eventual Sprint winner who was absolutely flying and had a massive lead. Fair play to cover that course that fast in those conditions!

As we reached the end of reservoir and headed towards Stoodley Pike the weather went bonkers, full on batshit mental. Howling winds and hailstone combined to create whiteout conditions, navigating became challenging and just walking in a straight line became difficult.

These are the conditions that make the race what it is, Britain's Most Brutal! 

Eventually out of the driving hail and wind we made it to the monument and into the shelter of its bulk. A couple of minutes to eat, drink, catch breath and then share a glance which spoke volumes, "fuck it" can't get any worse.

 

Mankinkholes to Slack Bottom - the usual slog but comparatively lovely after the battering we'd just taken.

 

Hebden! The oasis. Familiar faces (Lisa, Alan, Anne-Marie) and the joys of being able to sit and drink tea. Chris went for a sleep and the temptation to do the same was strong. However, my plan had always been to be as efficient as possible, so I worked through my checklist and stuck to my plan to be out within 2 hours tops. Saw Kendra again as she prepared to head off, looking very determined and in great shape. She ended up winning in some style, so her claims to "not be all that great a runner" should be ignored by anyone that hears them in the future. She is absolutely badass.

 

 As I headed back up the hill into the dark I felt very proud of getting back out there alone and not succumbing to the comforts and delights.

 

Walking up the road I met Ian from MRT race and struck up a bit of conversation, I was grateful for the company and hopefully didn't annoy him too much! We stuck with together to top withins, which is always further that I remember. The sleep monsters had caught me so I decided to bivvy and was delighted to find the bothy empty, what a result! Ian wasn't for stopping so we said our goodbyes and off he went to eventually finish third with a magnificent performance.

 

Woke up feeling fresher but also sick, couldn’t face eating anything. Started packing up just as Daragh arrived, he was in good spirits and looking forward to a nice quiet nap.

 

Headed off and almost immediately stacked it on the ice just outside the bothy, very ungraceful but nobody saw.

 

At Ponden I had a minor nav-moment when I somehow had my GPS set as north-up rather than track-up, but figured it out and ended up on familiar territory again.

 

Probably the most beautiful moment of my race was climbing up Ickornshaw on my own as the sun rose, peaceful and stunning.

 

Over to Lothersdale, looking forward to the incredible hospitality provided by the Craven Energy angels. My biggest hope was that they would have soup, maybe that would fix my stomach? As I made it to the last little stream, having made it safely across all the rivers, this was where I decided to slip and end up with a glove totally immersed in cold water. Quicky popped my overmitt on for a bit of warmth and hoofed up the hill and down the other side to be greeted by smiling faces and a seat with blankets.

 

Made the decision to sit down for 1 hour to give my digestive system a chance, a delicious mushroom soup goes down well and everything wakes up. A bacon sandwich and 2 large cups of tea followed. From here on in the stomach problems vanished entirely, so I can pretty much thank the Craven Energy team for getting me all the way to the finish.

 

The angels also somehow worked a miracle to get my gloves dry in the space of an hour, so I could keep my spares in my pack in case they were needed later.

  

It was here that I first met Nick and David, not knowing that we would be spending a lot of time together from now on. David was wobbling a little, so I suggested the 2 of us just plod together and see what happens, nice to have company. He agreed, we decided on a time to leave and then he got covered in blankets for a quick sleep which seemed to do him the world of good. Nick went on ahead, wanting to make the most of the daylight and his energy.

 

To Pinhaw went well, we met a nice couple at the trig point who were enthusiastic fans of the race.

 

This section to Gargrave is definitely easier with the new slabs and less mud through the farm, the weather was positively summery with a beaut of a sunset, but the endless road diversion was a stone-cold killer on sore feet. Being told by a local lady that there are a pair of otters in the river was cool, but the co-op was calling.

 

We reach the co-op only to find the hot food stand EMPTY. Kill me now.

 

Gargrave to Malham - the less said about that sticky, muddy, hilly bastard of a few miles the better.

 

The Malham bivvy - those who know, know. Dry, quiet, an open toilet block AND a drinking water tap. Nick was there already in his bag, he and David said they were going to have 2 hours sleep, I felt like I'd only need/want 1. Head down, insta-sleep and what felt like 7 seconds later my 1 hour timer beeped at me. Would I like another? You bet your ass I would. The problem with warm, cosy down sleeping bags is that they're a bitch to want to get out of.

 

Wake up round 2, this time Nick & David are also awake. Sit up, immediately light stove for a coffee, may as well take advantage of lugging it along. Hear a voice in the dark, a lovely soft Irish twang, it's Steph & Mike! They'd driven out to see us, realised we were sleeping and were just about to drive off when they spotted our head torches.

 

It's such a massive boost to see friendly faces, especially from people who really do know what you're going through. They told us that Damo & Kim were only a few kms from Malham, which gave me a bit of a boost because I at least wanted to be on Fountains Fell before they caught us.

 

Walking in to the cove, we could only just make out the inky black outline of that majestic limestone amphitheatre. David, who had never been before, was particularly entranced by the beauty of everything he couldn't see. 5/5 would recommend.

 

To the pavement, where some tiredness and devices showing different things meant we didn't quite find the best line, but at least we avoided the worst one.

 

Had a surprising encounter with a rather large cow a few hundred meters along the trail, no idea how it got down there or what it made of all the headtorches disturbing its sleep.

 

Found the tarn easily enough, and Nick's solid nav skills got us on a great line to pick up the path up to the centre for our 30 minute brew stop. Walked in to find Ian sitting there, last seen at Lothersdale adamantly declaring his race to be over earlier that day (apparently the lovely folk of Craven Energy were having none of it and "encouraged" him out)

 

 Up to Fountains Fell, now looking back every few minutes to try and spot a pair of headtorches belonging to 2 unreasonably fast blokes. Fog started to thicken as we climbed, leading to regular nav checks and an agreement that we go with the direction favoured by at least 2 out of the 3 devices. Pretty soon we reached the top and started the loooooooooooong descent which came with a lovely side order of random icy spots just to keep you thinking.

 

We made it down and headed for PyG, still not seeing the torches behind us.

 

Having made a schoolboy error of walking past the turning up to the scramble, we decided to treat ourselves to a couple of minutes rest. Sitting there in the dark, looking down at the circle of light from my torch, a little fairy with green hair and green-lensed glasses (kit check fail, have a word Lindley) sat up out of the grass and gave me a wave.

 

First thought "that's kinda cool"

 

Second thought "I'm hallucinating and we've got to scramble PyG in the dark. Fuck."

 

Up we went, every step taking us closer to what in normal circumstances is a pretty simple scramble. Simple when you're not being walloped by the sleep monsters and starting to see things everywhere.

 

At the bottom of the scramble I lent on my poles and I think I said something along the lines of needing to close my eyes for a few minutes and try to reset my brain. The thought of putting hands on rock when I was seeing things that weren't there wasn't much fun. However, it's nearly 4am, there are 3 other lads with you who might be as fucked in the head as you are, so do what you need to do to get over and down to Horton.

 

When all else fails, when the night is darkest before the dawn, Haribo will be the saviour every time. Frodo would've been at Mordor in 2 days if he'd had a bag of tangfastics on him, no messing.

 

And so, up we went. On a pure sugar rush, with my brain needing to be alert to what I was doing, I found myself awake and focused, revelling in the ludicrousness of climbing PyG in the dead of night. I reached "the top", turned to face the world and yelled "we're at the fucking top of Pen y Ghent boys! WOOOOHOOOO!"

 

We weren't at the top.

 

Lesson learned, never EVER prematurely woohoo.

 

More scrambling, then a bit more, and finally up to the summit where I sat quietly and waited for the others.

 

Over the style and on to what I now consider to be the single most desolate place on the face of the earth. This may or may not be down to me crashing from all the haribo, but that fucking track down to Horton was endless. There was a brief high-point as Damo and Kim finally overtook us (seriously lads, what took you so long?) trotting down the hill as if it was a running track like the mountain-goat bastards they are.

 

The nightmarish descent into Horton was accompanied by a full symphony of hallucinations that I would imagine you'd only find when consuming amazonian tree frogs. A group of cows sleeping by the trail was just a cluster of lichen covered rocks. Houses and barns in my peripheral vision became miles and miles of fuck all when I turned my head. Every rock had a face, there were little creatures bouncing in & out of the grass, my mind was clearly elsewhere and desperate for a break.

 

Stumbling on a rock as you nod off is an effective way to wake up again, but sooner or later I knew I'd just faceplant if I didn't make it to a nice flat place. This is what you are reduced to on this race, just wanting somewhere with minimal lumps where you can have a kip and maybe a quiet cry.

 

Enter Horton and the second greatest bivvy of all time. Barely made it into my bag before I was out. Moments later (45 minutes as it turned out) and Nick shakes my shoulder to say that it's time to go. Repacking for the final leg was a crude effort, everything went in the bag though. Feet felt pretty grim and I'd decided against removing my socks in case I disturbed things too much, with only the last stretch to go I knew I could just gut it out and deal with whatever was lurking at the finish,.

 

Daylight is a wonderful thing, even more so after a restorative sleep. With the 3 of us working together and loads of time, surely even the legendary bleakness of the Cam Road can't stop us now.

 

I had always refused to even consider a recce of the Cam, having heard all about it I saw no reason to put myself through it unless there was a medal waiting. We walked along discussing why we were idiotic enough to be doing this, what our highlights had been (incidentally all 3 of us said the weather on the Saturday was a major highlight, read into that what you will).

 

As it turned out, thanks to the excellent company and even with some pretty grim wind blowing up as we gained height, it really wasn't as bad as I was expecting and the left turn to Dodd Fell came about quite soon.

 

We turned, and had the wind behind us which made a nice change.

 

Being in what I know to be a dot blackspot after several years working on the race, I realised I didn’t actually know how far it was to Hawes, but it started to drag pretty quickly.

 

David declared that he had some running in him and scooted off into the distance. I stayed with Nick who was going through a bit of a low point but gritting his teeth to get those last miles done. We discussed which parts were hurting most, for him it was feet and for me the chafe had overtaken the feeling of walking on broken glass.

 

The closer you get, the further it seems to be, weird how the mind plays such cruel tricks when your defences are down.

 

Eventually spot David turn off the track and make the cut across to the descent off the hill. This spurred me on, and figuring that the quicker I went now, the sooner the pain would stop, I found another gear. Cresting the hill and looking down at Hawes made me burst into tears. All this effort, the amazing adventure, the tiredness, the sleep monsters, the feet and the motherlovingbastard chafe, and there it is. The actual fucking finish line!

 

A strict word with myself not to woohoo.

 

Yet another gear, actual running after all those miles! Spot a photographer and raise my arms in victory (this shot will be printed and take pride of place on my wall as a reminder that pain is fleeting but glory is forever)

 

Caught by the legend that is Eugeni who encourages me to run with him "vamos vamos" and then holds a gate open for me. I tell him to get on with his race and watch him float down the hill. I both adore and despise the way the elites make it look so damn easy.

 

Off the hill and on to the road, familiar ground and the waves of emotion start building. I'd chosen to put my phone on airplane mode for the majority of the race, wanting the outside world to stay there. At a couple of moments, Horton being one, I'd turned it on and seen a deluge of messages of support. Knowing that all these people were watching my dot make its crawl towards the finish was humbling. To each and every one of you I owe a heartfelt thank you.

 

Into the shiny metropolis that is Hawes where I'm met by Joanne from the CP and Jason who'd been cheering on Kris throughout his race and been a regular friendly face on my journey. Through the gates and those weirdly narrow gaps in the wall that you have to squeeze into, round the corner and I'm on the main street.

 

Standing by the market hall is a small group of people, but the only one I can really see is my wife, phone in hand and a huge smile on her face. I had to slow down a touch and take a moment to not start blubbing, deep breaths mate, this is your moment.

 

A very brief thought of a sprint finish, but sod that. Instead nearly fall on to the steps, give them a kiss and then get shouted at in the nicest way possible to move one more metre and go through the timing gate so I'd officially finished.

 

Sit down on the steps, every emotion in full flow, a brief moment to myself before getting the hug I'd been thinking about for almost 20 hours.

 

It's over, I've got the medal! WOOHOO!

 

Minutes later, David & Nick arrive together and the 3 of us share a hug and smiles, I fucking love you lads.

 

Getting to the lovely Exile medic (angels the lot of them) meant I could be checked for damage, and mercifully nothing that couldn't be fixed with some cream. That said, I apparently made quite the sight when I very gingerly walked out of the room after being looked at.

 

A delicious sausage sandwich and a cup of tea from the fab CP team made life feel a whole lot better.

 

Then over the road to the hardest earned pint of my life to date, getting to share it with Daragh who's been there and done it and knows my journey too. I've made friends for life being involved in this race, and each year the spine family grows, it's just magic.

 

How to end this?

 

You can do anything you set your mind to, truly.

 

I arrived in Edale hugely undercooked in training terms, but injury free and with a level of determination I've never had before. There was no way I was going to quit, no matter how bad it got or how much it hurt. That's what got me to the finish, that and being lucky enough to meet a succession of incredible people to share the journey with.

Before, during and after