The Montane Summer Spine Challenger Report

Header image: Adam Jacobs Wild Aperture Photography

It’s 7.30am Saturday June 18th. I’m at Edale Village Hall and the pre-race nerves are in full flow! It’s the weekend of the Montane Spine race. I’m doing the 108 mile Spine Challenger, which goes to Hardraw. The proper brutal race starts the next day and covers the full 268 miles of the Pennine Way. There is also a shorter race known as the Sprint which starts at 12.00pm and is a 48 mile introduction to the Spine races.

I’ve been here before and I’m fully aware of what’s to come. I seek out friends and fellow racers Lizzie Sturley and Hannah Neale who are also feeling the pre-race jitters; a few hugs and photos and I decide I need another wee! 

There’s a great atmosphere though and everyone is so warm and friendly, so I go on a bit of an expedition seeking out friends I’ve met through volunteering on races who I know are here as part of the Spine crew. It’s good to see Mike Churchyard, Nige Burke, June Maw and Liz Burke and after a hug and a few words of encouragement I feel a bit better.

Group of people at the start of a race
Photo credit Suzanne Roebuck

A tannoy! Its start time already…. 

My first marathon was an LDWA event with some 6000ft of ascent, I was terribly sick on it (the story of my life) but I was hooked on the challenge. Like most of us do, I progressed up to 30 milers, then 50. I’m never a podium finisher I’m a mid-pack plodder but for me its always been about the challenge I set myself. I’ve always had a bit of a tendency to think I’m inadequate and not very good at much, so by setting myself the challenge of and completing an ultra-marathon, I could beat those voices in my head that tell me I’m useless. 

A big birthday was looming (my 50th) and I’d always fancied having a go at a 100 miler. The Spine Race had been on my radar after doing a Rangers Ultra race and meeting Stu Westfield who at the time was in charge of the safety team. Covid came along and plans were put on hold but I toed the line in 2021 and completed the Montane Summer Spine Challenger in just over 40 hours; 8th lady and around 31st place. 

I was pretty broken at the end of it, I had suffered with a very painful knee from Malham (with 26 miles to go) and sleep deprivation had got to me on the Cam Road, slowing me down greatly. At the time I said I’d never do it again, but here I was a year later nervously waiting at the start line. My hopes this time around were to execute the race better/more efficiently, to try to get under 40 hours and not be so sick! 

Woman walking up a hill
Photo credit: Adam Jacobs Wild Aperture Photography

And so here I am in Edale about to set off up the Pennine Way with my 7kg rucksack on my back (it was soooo heavy!). Only 110 miles and around 18000ft ascent (stats vary depending on who you ask and what watch they used) and we’re off. I’m glad to be getting going at last, I always dread the start line. I’m very conscious of trying to stick to my happy zone pace and not go off too fast, especially on this first section as we leave Edale and make our way towards Jacobs Ladder and Kinder Scout. 

The weather is ideal a nice breeze and dry underfoot. I make good progress to Snake Pass and manage to keep a nice steady plod along the flagstones. Next is Bleaklowhead and Torside. I find this section very technical and take my time making sure not to trip or stumble. Last year I saw a couple of runners fall here and have to DNF, I didn’t want my race to be over after only 15 miles. I get down to Torside in around 3 hours 50. An hour up on the previous year which surprised me. 

There was a safety team at the bottom and it was great to see Mike Churchyard and Tony Clapham. They had a bit of water so I topped up my bottle and pushed on towards Black Hill. I’m not a fan of this next bit and feel myself slowing as I anticipate the climb up to Laddow Rocks. Conscious of eating, I’ve been having malt loaf and energy jellies so far so I decide to treat myself to some party ring biscuits before the climb. 

woman running along a path
Photo credit: Adam Jacobs Wild Aperture Photography

There are a few runners about on this section as we all slow down for the climb up and its nice just to chat and say hi. The Black Hill trig is a welcome sight and now there’s a lovely runnable downhill section on flagstones to Wessenden Head. I start to run but try not to mash up my feet or my knees doing so, the weight of my rucksack is also making my shoulders and back sore as I run. It’s around 2pm when I get to Wessenden Head, I had allowed myself 7.5 hours to get to this point, and again I’m surprised I’ve got there in 6 hours instead. 

My husband Scott is here parked by the butty van. I’m shocked and its lovely to see him, I hadn’t expected to see him till tomorrow.  I eat my cheese sandwich as I walk and chat and I wave bye thinking the next time I see him hopefully will be at the finish.

There’s a short sharp climb up out of the valley and then another nice section towards Black Moss reservoir and Brun Clough. Here I bump into Sergio and his wife Helen who I met this year while I was supporting the Rangers Ultra Pennine Bridleway Trail Challenge. It’s great to see them and lovely that they have come out to support all the runners it gives me a nice boost. The miles are passing; nothing hurts too much and the weather is great! 

Before I know it, I’ve reached Nickys Food Bar at the M62 bridge. I’m not feeling massively hungry and I’d had to force my cheese sandwich down earlier, but I venture inside to see how big the queue is. It’s very busy, full of runners waiting for a brew and a bacon butty. This was a mistake, and before I know it the strong smell of food brings on a big wave of nausea and I begin to feel very sick. Out in the fresh air it passes but as I try to run towards the bridge, I feel sick again. 

So I decide to walk for a bit and nibble on a bit of cheese sandwich as I make the climb up onto Blackstone Edge. I start running again and reach the Whitehouse pub. There’s a safety team van here and I say a quick hello to Mike Churchyard again and Darren Hunt. This next bit of the course is really runnable, and I plod onwards past White Holme Reservoir and Warland reservoir towards Stoodley Pike in the distance. I’m still managing a trot/walk scenario which is good. As I reach Stoodley Pike I begin to slowly jog the downhill towards Hebden Bridge and this is when the wheels begin to fall off. 

Woman standing in the dark in a field
Photo credit: Gary Chapman

I start to feel really sick. I slow down and walk for a minute, then try again. It’s no good I immediately feel sick again and dizzy as well now. I reach the road crossing at Charlestown and begin the steep climb up out of the valley and towards Slack Top and the Hebden Hey checkpoint. I’m being sick now and not feeling good. 

In fact I’m miserable, I slow down and try to keep my breathing lower as I climb, not letting myself get too hot. Its slow and it feels like I’m barely walking and I’ve still got about three miles to get to CP1. I’m feeling so miserable, I start to cry a bit and think about a DNF at Hebden, willing the sickness to pass and trying to sip water as I go. 

I reach the top of the climb eventually and there’s a nice breeze which feels good. I’m on the road now going down towards CP1 and a couple of messages come through on my phone. They are from my friends and my daughter wishing me well and telling me how awesome I am and how well I’m doing. I have another cry, as I certainly don’t feel awesome or that I’m doing well. I make it to the Checkpoint saying hi to Lauren Johnson as she was leaving to go back out (she eventually went on to be first lady and set a new women’s course record – well done Lauren!). 

I think they can tell something’s amiss, and I’m sent to go for a lie down in the medic’s room. The CP volunteers are wonderful and they can’t do enough to help me. Mike Churchyard appears then and he can see I’m having a wobble and offers me some fabulous advice. “You are not DNFing.”

I can’t face anything to eat but I have Mountain Fuel recovery sachets in my drop bag and I have one of these mixed with hot water (chocolate flavour). I’ve used these very successfully before and I’m hoping they will settle my nausea and it definitely goes down easier than food. I’m beginning to feel like my race may not be over any more, so start to get back into checkpoint-faff mode! 

A scenic hill in the distance
Photo credit: Suzanne Roebuck

Change socks and check feet (all good no blisters or hot spots). I have a quick wash with a wet cloth and put warmer, clean kit on ready for the night section. Wow I can’t believe it, I’m already thinking about going back out and cracking on! I also manage a bit of semolina (thank you Nicky for making it) and some plain crisps. Race head back on I check my bag, refill with food and drinks and get my kit checked before venturing back out! 

I must say if it hadn’t been for the wonderful help and attention from the medics and volunteers at the check point my race may well have been over. Thank you so much! I head back out waving goodbye and its another uphill out along the road and then onto Heptonstall Moor, I usually love this section and run it all but I don’t want to tempt fate and start my stomach off again, so a brisk walk it is. 

Its dark now and I put my headtorch on at Gorple Cottages, I soon notice bobbing lights in the distance and some behind me as fellow racers make their way across the moor. I usually love the night sections but I’m still feeling pretty miserable and even a beautiful full moon and a clear night isn’t helping. I decide to play a bit of music and retreat into myself a bit, pounding out the miles slowly thinking about the next section after Ponden reservoir. 

As I approach Top Withins I catch a couple of runners and we say hi briefly, it’s a nice downhill now and I try my legs to see if they still work. They do and I manage a nice run down to Ponden reservoir and the next section up onto Ickornshaw Moor. I’m struggling a bit again as sleep deprivation is kicking in. I’m wobbling and staggering a bit and trying to stay focussed, as this section is easy to get lost on and I have no GPX helping me. 

Thankfully I find the flagstones that signal the descent off the moor and the next thing that spurs me on is the thought of the unofficial feed station at Cowling less than a couple of miles away. Before I know it, I can see the tents and lights and Gary Chapman is greeting me. He’s a bit of a Spine legend, having completed numerous winter and summer Spines over the years. 

Cairn of stones plus finger post
Photo credit: Suzanne Roebuck

Gary and his team are wonderful and ask if I want a bacon butty! I decide to pass and have another Mountain Fuel recovery drink as the last one has managed to stay down and not make a reappearance and I still don’t think I could stomach any real food. 

There are a few racers here, some sleeping in chairs and some refuelling and enjoying a chat. The sky is beginning to brighten, and as the first signs of Sunday morning are beginning to appear I actually begin to think I can make it to Hardraw and the finish. I bid a farewell to Gary and his team and have a slow jog down into Cowling as the sun comes up. I manage a bit of running and walking as I make my way to Lothersdale, then the uphill to Pinhaw Beacon and down into Thornton in Craven.

I’m managing to run a bit more now and am catching a few runners up along the way. It’s about 8am and I stop for supplies at the Co-op in Gargrave. I decide on Lucozade and ginger bread biscuits and malt loaf, feeling I might be able to stomach them. It’s not far to Malham now and I push on knowing I’m well over halfway to the finish. 

I grit my teeth and begin the slow climb up the steps of Malham Cove and onwards towards another check point and monitoring station at Malham Tarn. Here I’m greeted by John Bamber and Tony Clapham, they have hot water here so I have another Mountain fuel recovery drink, a quick toilet break and I bid them farewell. Its only 26 miles to the finish now and I always feel weirdly like this is the home stretch (probably a bit premature with a marathon still to go). 

I break it down into three sections or humps: Fountains Fell; Pen Y Ghent and Cam Road. Off I go feeling oddly optimistic, until I begin the climb up Fountains Fell and remember what a never-ending slog it is! There’s another runner in front of me and he’s moving well so I try to keep up with him and not lose my motivation and pace. I catch him near the summit, and we say a brief hello. The descent off is a bit tricky and I take it very steady so as not to trip and then I’m down and on the road to Pen Y Ghent and hump number two. 

I slow a bit here, I think I’m losing motivation and belief in myself, the runner I just passed catches me and goes in front. I trudge on and upwards trying to keep motivated and begin the crawl up to the summit. I’m very slow but take my time knowing there’s a nice descent off and into Horton in Ribblesdale. I manage to run a lot of the section into Horton and as I get onto the road I’m greeted by my husband. 

He’s come to say a quick hello before he waits for me at the finish. Its lovely to see him and it gives me a boost to get this thing finished. There’s about 15 miles to go now: the last big hump but they are not forgiving or easy miles at all. The Cam road goes on and on and on! Unforgiving on tired swollen blistered feet, a long steady ascent of 10 miles to Kidhow and then a descent down into Hardraw and the finish. 

Two women smiling at camera in a field
Photo credit: Suzanne Roebuck

I’m lucky my feet feel pretty good. They are sore and swollen but I don’t have any blisters and so the rocks and stones don’t slow me as much as they could have done. I tick off Ling Gill and Cam Beck, next Cam End and the last push up to Kidhow. It’s a clear day and I can see straight up the track some two miles away to a white vehicle parked up. 

I’m thinking this could be a safety team vehicle so I push on a bit and dig in my walking poles and push on faster. I’m listening to the Artic Monkeys on my phone, and they are taking my mind off this never-ending uphill climb. I’m beginning to enjoy myself a bit now! I reach Kidhow and realise its Sean Sturley with his white camper van, it’s great to see him and he asks if I need water. I’m fine but enquire how far he thinks it is to the finish?  Its “just a 10k” he says. 

This is the best news I’ve had in over 24hrs! My mind suddenly races – its nearly over; I’m nearly there; it’s nearly all downhill too! I begin to get a bit of a wiggle on walking and running as much as I can, I get to Ten End and I’m really loving life now. It’s a lovely grassy section to run on and I’ve managed to catch a few runners up as well. I can see the finish in the distance; there’s tents up in the fields behind the pub. 

I’ve still got 3 miles at least to go but my legs feel great and I’m actually running. I look at my watch for the first time in hours, I can’t believe it, if I keep moving I might come in under 35 hours ! I make it to Hawes and pray I don’t run out of steam, it’s not too busy thankfully as its 6.30pm on a Sunday evening and I can run along the pavement without knocking people flying. 

There’s a bit of road and a few fields to go and I’m so overjoyed when I see the banners and the finish line. I’m given my medal and a round of applause and cheers by the lovely Spine check point team. Its lovely to see Liz Burke and Paul Lee amongst them (who I met volunteering on the Winter Spine). My hubby Scott is there to see my finish too! I’m so relieved and grateful to have finished, there were times when I didn’t think I would. So much can go wrong on a long non-stop race such as this .To have finished as well as I did fuelled on ginger bread biscuits, Mountain Fuel recovery drinks and Lucozade baffles me. 

My official time was 34hrs 52 mins and I was 5th female and 27th overall. There were some amazing times recorded this year on the Spine races. All course records were broken on the Spine Challenger and The Spine Race in both male and female categories. I’ve learned lots from this race, mostly to believe in myself more than I do and perhaps push a bit harder when I’m afraid to go out of my comfort zone. Thank you to all the Spine family for your hard work and dedication in putting these amazing races on x

Woman at the finish line of a race
Photo credit: The Spine

"I’ve learned lots from this race, mostly to believe in myself more than I do and perhaps push a bit harder when I’m afraid to go out of my comfort zone."

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