'The Pennine Way is Shit'

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

So, Jasmin Paris absolutely kicked ass at the Spine last week, smashing the course record and becoming first overall female winner. Super cool and composed she touched that wall at the end of the race and seemingly her first thought was to that of her recently born baby.

In lesser news, but news for me, I managed to complete the Spine Challenger. The ‘fun run’, 108 (actual 111) mile younger sibling of the main event. I didn’t beat any records and nor did my thoughts on finishing turn to anything selfless such as other individuals, instead I selfishly shed a few tears, and promptly turned my attention to food, shower and of course, a massive glass of red wine.

From the outset let me be very clear that I am immensely proud of myself for completing the Challenger, despite my blatant jealousy of Jasmin’s achievements and abilities. That may sound self-indulgent, and it probably is, but we all have our personal achievements, whether that’s a 5km park run, the Spine Challenger or even the full Spine race itself. For me, the Spine Challenger has been on my bucket list for quite some time, around 9 years in fact, but in all honesty, I never thought I’d be ‘good enough’ to complete it. I signed up around spring last year – maybe Apr time and promptly settled into the ‘fuck it, I’ve got ages’ mentality you get when you enter a race that doesn’t start until the year after. A change in jobs and 2 house moves later meant that training didn’t start properly until Sep/Oct but we did a plan and we stuck to it (more or less), and Lee (partner in life and partner for the Challenger) was hell bent on making me run with increasingly heavy rucksacks every weekend…..

We entered Lakes in a Day, Ullswater Way Challenge and Tour de Helvellyn (TdH) as 3 organised training events but due to illness Lakes in a Day came and went. The Ullswater Way was a brilliant confidence booster and we did it in full kit in just over 5 hours (knocking 12 mins off my 2017 time when I’d run without any weight). Next up was TdH but unfortunately the weather had other ideas. The wind chill of -22C and some very dangerous looking mountain weather forecasts saw the event shortened by 10 miles to 28 miles. Still an excellent event, very tough and challenging and that weather certainly taught us even more about kit choices and not waiting til it’s too late to get warm and put waterproof gear on.

We didn’t ‘run’ longer than the 28 miles with full kit but we were consistent with training so that helped. Soon enough the race date came around and we registered on the Friday afternoon. There was some minor kit faff as the organisers decided Lee’s goggles weren’t good enough, but a kind volunteer lent him his pair – fortunate really as we’d have been fucked otherwise. Race brief was painless and nothing we didn’t know and then it was straight to the pub to meet our friend James who was also running. We stayed at the Ramblers Inn which certainly made life and admin easy. A couple of glasses of wine and a fantastic burger with chips later, we were soon tucked up watching Dodgeball readying ourselves for the next day. I weirdly slept well, and we got our shit together pretty promptly, ready to drop the drop bags off and get issued with our trackers. Typically, I fell over on my way to the start line, cutting my knees and bruising my hands. Not ideal, but not the last time I’d fall either. Next thing you knew, we’d started and were mooching our way through Edale to the start of the Pennine Way. It was all very calm, and the atmosphere was really nice and friendly. Suddenly Jacob’s Ladder was upon us and off we went. The next section was lovely – surprisingly so. Undulating but varied and interesting, technical in parts but ultimately enjoyable. We just cracked on, kept moving forward and had some chats and then we did our first major road crossing before Bleaklow. We opted to change into Paramo jackets at this point (not on the kit list but worth their weight in gold) and didn’t take them off for the rest of the race. Not long after that the MRT were at Torpoint reservoir with a most welcome cup of coffee where we ate some pre-made cheese and pickle sandwiches, had a quick chat and then pushed on again. We had discussed strategies and all that good stuff but both of us are pretty flexible so just decided that we needed to keep moving and in terms of sleeping and feeding, we’d see how we felt. As said, the main thing was to keep moving.

The day just flew by, and with something at every road crossing (people with homemade cookies, a random girl just cheering near the M62, and the very kind MRT personnel) we were soon at Stooley Pike. That was officially vile. The weather had taken a significant turn for the worse and we were being blown about like crazy. We both got blown over numerous times and took short refuge in the pike at the top. Realising I needed to eat something substantial this seemed like as good a place as any for some cold sausage and beans. The weather was getting worse, so we had no choice but to push on again but knowing we were close to CP1 at Hebden Hey made everything bearable. That is, until you get to the road crossing at the bottom of the hill. You think you’re nearly there, you know it’s probably another 2/3 miles but the optimist in you is saying, it’ll be close, you’re nearly there now, and suddenly, the mother of all shitty hill climbs is upon you. Don’t get me wrong – on reflection, doing this before CP1 as opposed to first thing after CP1 was a good thing, but fuck me, I lost my shit and my sense of humour. Steps, mud, shitty fields and stiles…..and it was nearing midnight. I was tired and hungry, and that CP felt like it took forever to get there, especially as we overshot the entrance, ended up in someone’s garden and then had to negotiate one hell of a muddy downhill into the scout centre.

As to be expected the CP was well organised with kit rooms segregated from sleeping and eating areas. There were toilets (with loads of loo roll – fortunate as I had the shits by this point), showers, beds and a whole lot of hot and lovely food. We decided to spend 4 hours there – an hour of eating and admin, 2 hours to sleep and then an hour of eating/admin before setting back out as close to 0400 as we could on Sun morning. My feet were starting to suffer so after food and a restless nap, I spent some time with the amazing Exile Medics who popped blisters, taped up toes and gave me coffee and biscuits whilst they were doing it. We ate as much as we could, replenished the ruck sacks from the drop bag food supplies and did a complete kit change including trainers.

A chap called Matt asked to set off with us as we were leaving so we set off as a band of 3 at that point. Lee was suffering with indigestion and nausea, but he took the lead and we all pushed on through the dawn and into the first light of the day. I fell over again at one point, we chatted about dogs and jobs and life styles but soon Matt dropped back, and Lee and I pushed on once more. We were making good progress and Lee was starting to feel brighter which was good. We crossed flagstones, fields, moor land, some fields and some more fields. I developed a serious dislike for the Pennine Way and that remains. Outside a pub there were some volunteers with a small tent making soup. We had a sit down for around 10 mins and regrouped with around 6 other participants who we then spent the rest of the race pepper potting and seeing at checkpoints and cafes. The soup was amazing as was the lemon drizzle cake and taking the rucksack off was a welcome relief as backs and shoulders were getting fatigued. I don’t remember huge amounts of the rest of the daylight, we just pushed on and kept moving. We got to Garsdale and the Co-op there was amazing! I’ve never had a better tasting Chicken and Sweetcorn sandwich in my life. There was a café there where some people had stopped but we both knew that getting too warm and stopping for too long would just making going again harder. I do remember losing my shit for the second time around Malham. Well, not around Malham – in the fields on the way to Malham. It was flat which was fine but just took forever and ever. I knew the that CP1.5 was around 3-4 miles after Malham but I swear Garsdale to Malham was a solid 100 miles on its own. We got to Malham and people made ‘encouraging’ comments like ‘not too far to the check point now’….. Oh fucking really?!! It was bastarding miles – and up these evil steps which I just hadn’t seen coming…..

It was dark and a solid 90 mins after leaving Malham until we arrived at CP1.5. I cried. It was just a bit overwhelming and I am emotional at the best of times, let alone when tired and hungry! Again, the amazing Exile Medics fixed up my skanky feet which were now looking pretty awful. We ate our dehydrated meals, drank more tea/coffee and resolved to get back out there for the last push to the finish. With somewhere around 28 miles to go, we left CP1.5 around 6.45pm in fairly good spirits (I’d got over my little cry) and determined to just get it done.

Mentally (for me) the next point to reach was a café in some village which is always open for Spine support. Lee was feeling nauseous again but managed to get some beans and toast down. I blame myself for his sickness as I had suggested he start on the ProPlus – and for someone who rarely drinks caffeine I think the ‘hit’ was a bit too much. Sorry Lee! I on the other hand was smashing ProPlus quite happily and had a pint of coffee at the cafe which always helps! Again we saw many of the same faces we’d seen at the pub tent thing and again at CP1.5. A Belgian guy, Tim I think, then joined us from the café onto the Cam Road. He was explaining that it was his fourth attempt and he’d never got this far before. Lee and I took one look at each other and silently promised that we’d get him to the finish line this time – no matter what. We dropped behind at one point as I was faffing about being too hot and then too cold. Lee put some Greatest Showman soundtrack on his phone for some tunes and then we saw Tim sat on a fence smoking a cigarette! Encouraging him up, and to stick with us again, we trudged on, in companionable silence. The occasional ‘you ok?’ being passed amongst us but otherwise, we were steadfastly quiet in our determination to just get it done. The Cam Road is dog shit. It was dark, and we were plodding along around 0400 on a Mon morning in Jan so maybe, just maybe, it isn’t dog shit on a sunny Sat afternoon when you can see the views and you’re going to the pub after but trust me, I think it was dog shit and I’m sticking with that. However, in the dog shit hierarchy, the decent into Hawes trumps the Cam Road every time. It was muddy, uneven underfoot, and the lights of the town are just taunting you. It went on and on and on. We left Tim around 4km from the finish on the condition that he’d follow on after a can of coke and making a call to his wife to tell her how he was getting on. So the it was back to Lee and I. Lee navigated us down the hill, through the town and then onto the fields to Hardraw. We both realised we needed the loo and couldn’t make it to the finish line without going so found separate corners in a small field. Looking around, the town was coming to life with people getting up and heading out on their commutes to work. That was very surreal and probably one of the most vivid moments I can recall from the whole thing. We were going to make it – and within 48 hours, as that realisation sank in, it occurred to me that this was probably one of the first long races I’d done where I’d never doubted that we’d finish sine we’d crossed that start line. It was like a pact between Lee and I that, pending injury or death, we were just going to get there, and we almost had. It was a fantastic feeling but as with all these things, it never feels quite real until sometime later. Another mile (or probably less but it felt long) we turned a corner to see a photographer guiding us to the finish line. And that was it. It was over. The medals were round our necks and we were drinking tea in a lovely warm bunk room. Done. 46 hour and 47 minutes and we’d done it. My dream had been sub-48 but I honestly didn’t think it was doable so to be well (ish) under that was amazing.

We showered, we slept, we woke, we tried to drink prosecco but failed, so we ate some more, and then tried to drink red wine, failed at that so slept again and then woke on Tue morning ready to get the train home to Penrith. Testament to how knackered I was being the fact I couldn’t even manage 2 glasses of red on the Mon night. Sad times. We stayed at Simonstone Hall which is less than 1 mile from the finish line which was fantastic, and highly recommended. A very kind volunteer also gave us a lift there with our bags, which was also most welcome. Whilst the walk to the hotel was seemingly insignificant I think I’d have vomited had I had to walk there.

So, favourite bits – Jacobs ladder and onto Snake Pass was oddly fun, Lee shouting at me not to watch him poo, the Garsdale Co-op and the Hoisin Duck wraps I had the foresight to buy for the slog between the café and the finish, and of course getting to finish the event having taken every single step with Lee. I cannot tell you how much a partner for a race like this helped. Doing it alone has got to be 100 times harder. But don’t just pick anyone – you need someone who knows you inside out, and who you know inside out, someone you trust and someone with who companionable silence is worth a million words.

Shitty bits – mile 45 to CP1, Malham to CP1.5 and the descent from Cam Road into Hawes. But as always, it’ll be another week or 2 and I’ll have forgotten the shitty bits. I can honestly say though – that’s not one I’d repeat. I loved it, despite the occasional shit-losing, I did better than I hoped, and I wouldn’t change anything regarding strategy (except I wouldn’t force feed Lee ProPlus) but that’s done now. Bucket list Spine Challenger race – done.

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