Chancing my luck on Britains Most Brutal race

By Kate Allen

This is the nickname given to the Montane Spine Race. Two versions are run along Britain’s first National Trail, which runs along the “Spine” of mountains and hills that run up the central part of England into Scotland. There is the full length, 268 mile version or the shorter Challenger version, run over the first 108 miles.

I never had much interest in either race to be honest. The 108 mile Challenger I considered too difficult as I wasn’t fast enough and good enough over the terrain, nor did I particularly enjoy the boggy terrain either. And the longer one… well that was just silly.

But I am different now and we live in different times. There are several reasons I have decided to face this challenge.

The seed was planted that perhaps it was possible for me to do the Challenger when a mate entered and completed it 3 years ago, despite having done no training whatsoever. He was a proper hard northerner and hiked it. I remember tracking him, watching his dot move painfully slowly over the terrain. I kept wondering how on earth he managed to keep going when his progress was so painfully slow. Why didn’t he give up? What was the point of doing a race at that pace? It took him over two days. I was amazed.

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Will it be like this? Having fun training in the snow, just in case

Now that I am painfully slow naturally, I can appreciate the possibility more as mentally I am in a different place. As we all know, 90% of any race is in the head.

Another good motivation arose in October; I was accepted to join the Buxton Mountain Rescue Team. Anyone who spends any time in the mountains and hills knows what a crucial job these volunteers do. They are extremely skilled – it will take me nearly two years of training to become competent enough to be a full member of the team. Even in the little time I’ve joined, my understanding has grown of the time commitment and care this team, and every other team like it in the world, gives to people freely to help them in times of trouble.

Because of the restrictions caused by Covid, fundraising in traditional ways has been totally wiped out and has meant far less has been raised this year. So, I’m hoping by running the Spine and asking my family and friends to support me this will help fundraise a small amount to go towards my new team.

Ever since I worked in outdoor retail, I’ve loved all outdoor gear. Whether it was the latest waterproof coat, the best packable stove or the smallest and lightest tent, my colleagues and I would spend hours debating which brand, which type of fabric, which features were the best. I love this stuff and considering the best options out of the kit I have for the mandatory kit, and using it in action, gives me great pleasure.

Finally, in these mad times, it is even more important to me that you must not put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Carpe Diem and all that. Who knows when I will ever get this opportunity again?

I put myself on the waiting list back in the summer and over 2020 watched as lockdown restrictions came and went and came back again; my thoughts regarding the race ebbing and flowing depending on how brave or how flush I was feeling at any given time. Then, in November, I was invited to take a place.

After months and months of thinking about it, suddenly I was panicked. I couldn’t possibly justify the money to enter. I wasn’t ready physically. Not only was it expensive to enter but I still needed to spend money on some crucial, but expensive, pieces of kit. That’s a long mandatory kit list and I carry the kitchen sink at the best of times.

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Final recce near Walshaw Dean Reservoirs. This is why we do it, right?

But the more I thought about it (well, for one night) I realised that I mustn’t pass up the opportunity. Over the past few months, I realised how much I have been affected mentally by lockdown and restrictions and who knows what will happen next year. We all had our races deferred to 2021, and back in the summer I assumed that come January everything will be back to normal. But now I realise nothing may ever be “normal” ever again.

This race is considered “brutal” because you are expected to be largely self-sufficient as you travel alone, in remote hills and fells in the middle of winter. There is one main checkpoint where you can have a drop bag, and one subsidiary one where you are allowed to spend no longer than 30 minutes. And being self-sufficient in January, in the coldest and harshest terrain in the north of the country, means you need to carry a lot of gear.

  • Backpack
  • Compass
  • Maps
  • Knife
  • GPS Device (not a watch)
  • Whistle
  • Goggles
  • Head torch
  • Waterproof Jacket
  • Waterproof Trousers
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Spare socks
  • Neck gaiter
  • Spare baselayer top
  • Spare baselayer bottoms
  • Appropriate footwear
  • Ice spikes
  • Medical kit (including further mandatory items)
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping mat
  • Waterproof bivvy*
  • Cooking stove with ability to heat minimum 400ml water**
  • Waterproof/windproof lighter
  • Spork
  • Mug
  • 2l water capacity
  • 3000 calories of food
  • Mobile phone

* Waterproofness has been added this year because of being unable to offer sleeping space indoors at the checkpoint due to Covid
** Larger capacity to allow for the fact we are more likely to need to cook food for ourselves because of Covid restrictions in the checkpoint

My mate Allan has kindly offered to lend me two crucial bits of kit; the GPS unit and a sleeping bag. I have a sleeping bag, and it’s a great one. But it weighs 1kg and takes up a lot of room. And the GPS unit is a proper navigational tool that can cope with the weather and temperature. I am reluctant to spend a lot of money on two pieces of kit I need for this one occasion but am unlikely to ever need again so I am very grateful to be able to borrow these items.

Everything else, however, being a lover of kit, I have already. I used to spend loads of time in the shop, playing around with mini stoves and fitting them into cookware and trying to put together the smallest system (when there were no customers of course!).

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This isn’t even everything….

To me good kit is all about being fit for purpose. There’s no point having the smallest or lightest of something if it doesn’t actually help you. However, over the course of the last few weeks I have had to focus on weight and space. I can’t afford to buy a racing weight backpack, so my 30L hiking Lowe Alpine will do. I also know it well which is a benefit that can’t be under-estimated. Everything needs to fit in that. I would even sacrifice weight, if it meant I could fit it in.

Along with all the kit, I’m aware of the need to know how to use it in anger. Many times, I’ve seen others buy all the right kit, but not know how to use it or bury it so deep in their packs they never get it out when they need it. So, in training I’ve been taking most of my kit out in the last few weeks, even on the short runs. Getting used to running with it, learning where’s the best place to put things for easy access when I want them.

This too is partly one of the reasons I wanted to join Buxton Mountain Rescue. I want to learn as much as possible about being on the hills and mountains and be able to pass that on to others. In learning to cope with the terrain, you learn to respect your surroundings and appreciate the beauty of our landscape. Helping others is, to me, one of the best ways of giving back to my community.

I have now covered the first 57 miles which I am happy with. From the start it will help me mentally to tick off those 5, 6 and 7 mile sections until I get to Hebden Bridge. To me it’s important to get my head around the fact Hebden will not be halfway. But now I know where the halfway point is so I will focus on getting through Hebden as quickly as possible in order to reach that point.

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Hebden Bridge

A tip I stole from the Facebook group is marking features off the map in smaller distances, which I think will be good mentally for the second half. Navigating unknown terrain in the second half will also help keep me going and focussed – something I’ve learned in the past that helps me to fight sleep. My two biggest challenges will be sleep and cold and I’m hoping that experience will allow me to beat them.

There’s no doubt that having the Challenger has helped me tremendously. So much is still uncertain however. Whether the race will even be able to go ahead because of restrictions; what will the weather do? Everyone is capable of doing this race but so much depends on how you feel on the day; the weather and your mental condition. For me, the thought of being able to start 2021 with a bang, doing some good by fundraising at the same time, gives me something to look forward to and a goal I’m determined to succeed at.

If you would like to make a donation, please visit the website here THANK YOU!!

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If it’s not raining, it’s not training!

"in these mad times, it is even more important to me that you must not put off until tomorrow what you can do today"

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