The entry route to CP1 at Hebden Bridge is a short but very technical slippy trail followed by a steeper section of slippy rocky steps. People have fallen and broken limbs here in the past. To get back out onto the Pennine Way proper this must be reversed uphill. I had now created a gap. I had to be careful and controlled not to let it get to my head and rush out too fast, particularly on such high-energy technical ground. It was still very early in the race. The race couldn’t be won here, but it could easily have been lost. I was way ahead of my exit time from CP1 last year, when I stupidly tried to get some sleep here (big mistake, effectively throwing time away).
I overtook a few Challenger racers in the muddy section here who had left a few minutes before me, and powered away towards the track end. A kilometre or so of road climb takes us back to the Pennine Way again. I found myself able to run steadily up this road, effectively floating up. All was going really well. I had made a few navigation mistakes here last year, so I didn’t want a repeat of that. Jinxed! I managed to miss the right turn onto the Pennine Way and overran the junction. Luckily I figured this out within about 100 meters and reversed back quickly. Unfortunately I could see a pair of head torches heading rapidly for me, which of course was Pavel being followed by Eugeni. Still, I reckoned they must have worked hard to get back so quickly.
A short steep climb takes us up the ridgeline above, which I steadily “pole” up at cruise speed, not worrying about the gap. My 2 chasers close right up behind me. Now at this point I wandered around for a bit last year before heading off on a big obvious, but incorrect, track. This year I skipped the wandering around but still managed to head off on exactly the same incorrect track. If the other two called me back I didn’t hear it (and if they didn’t that was fine too… we were racing after all).
I looked behind after a few hundred meters and could see that nobody was following me…uh oh. So I fired up the GPS which I had on a lanyard around hanging on my neck and used it to make a quick location check. I’m normally used to racing in events where GPS devices are banned, and I’m a big fan of navigating using the traditional tools of a map and compass (which were also hanging around my neck instantly accessible). However a full proper GPS is mandatory gear for the Spine. If I’m going to be carrying a tool as useful as this with me then I’m definitely going to use it when its quickest tool at my disposal.
The speed and accuracy of the Garmin continued to impress me (I have found on this race that they can be used to fine tune pathfinding to within a meter or two in real world conditions). I was high of the path running roughly parallel to it. So I turned downhill and fought my way through the scrubby stumpy ground as best I could, aided by the fact I was descending. A minute or two later I was back on the proper track. I could see Pavel and Eugeni’s torches heading away in the distance. In the space of about 10 minutes I had managed to completely invert a small gap from a lead to a deficit. Cool, no panic! I’ll just carry on from here at my own pace and see how it works out.
I ran on at a comfortable pace. The gap varied by distance over time, but that was probably more down to the ups and downs of the terrain we were crossing. For a few periods I couldn’t see the 2 lads ahead at all. No worries. This is still very early in the race.
As I crossed the road after traversing around Ponden Reservoir I could suddenly see 2 headtorches not too far ahead up the hill. I followed the PW signposts along the road for a few meters before climbing a style taking me over a wall and ….arrgh!!… a pretty well flooded piece of land. Oh well… onwards and splashdown into the temporary pond beyond knee level. Definitely no dry shoes and socks now.
I was really feeling like I was moving noticeably faster than last year as I climbed the hill up from the pond, and if anything it was taking less effort to do so. As I hit the open mountain again for the long shallow climb up Oakworth Moor I could clearly see the two lads up a few hundred meters ahead. Before the climb was finished, and within about 5 or ten minutes, I had closed the gap completely to rejoin them, again doing so at my own natural pace.
We naturally began working together again, with Pavel or myself making most of the nav calls, and Eugeni being occasionally asked to check his GPS to see were we on track. There were one or two small deviations, but we collectively corrected them very quickly. This settled in as the pattern again and took us all the way through Gargrave (which we passed through at too ungodly an hour of the morning to have a hope of taking advantage of the local shops), and onwards towards Malham.
On the long flatish riverside run approaching Malham we worked really well to ensure we were all safe, as by now the rain was appallingly heavy and the temperatures had dropped through the night, eventually turning the rain to snow. I was extremely comfortable wearing my waterproof down jacket under my Outdry Extreme Shell, with not a trace of dampness developing on my base layers. However I had delayed putting my gloves on for a little bit too long, and was glad to have Pavel’s help jamming them on over my now frozen hands. Pavel’s super navigation took us right on course over the now snow-obliterated tracks. A quick confirmation on my GPS led us over onto the track taking us to the bridges leading through Malham.
Conditions were really wintry now, with the village being a lovely winter wonderland. We were making fresh tracks in the snow, as of course there was no-one else around. Visibility had become pretty poor too, making accurate navigation even more necessary. The journey up past the cliffs at Malham was steep and hard, but rewarding. As we worked our way towards “cp 1.5” at Malham Tarn Field Centre we could detect the early stages of dawn approaching.
A warm welcome greeted us from the staff at CP 1.5, and we all took advantage of the facilities to have a warm drink. Eugeni also got out a sandwich for himself from his pack. I satisfied myself with a piece or two of Kendal mint cake which was provided here by tradition it would seem. The CP crew let us know that there were only 4 challenger racers ahead of us on the course. I didn’t want to get too comfortable here and we didn’t stay too long. We stuck together as a group heading off again into the emerging daylight.
Just like last year there was plenty of wind around as we traversed around Fountains fell and onwards towards one of the big climbs of the race, Pen-Y-Ghent (PYG). The winds had caused us to be diverted around PYG last year. Given that they were still quite high as we approached, and there was fresh snow covering the ground I wondered would the same happen again. But no, there was no safety crew at the base to divert us. We could see a collection of people at the top waiting for our approach though.
The very steep technical ground had us all taking this at our own natural pace. Eugeni surged forward and powered up the hill. I had to put both walking poles in one hand so that I could climb more effectively using my free hand for additional balance, as we were still being buffeted by quite strong winds on this exposed section. A collection of photographers greeted us at the top of the steep climb, and a short easy running climb took us to actual peak. Eugeni’s effort of powering up the hill didn’t gain him anything of course, as he waited here for one of us to come up and navigate off the mountain.
As had become the pattern we eventually all closed up again and ran most of the descent into Horton as a group, with the weather getting better as we descended off the exposed mountain top. In Horton one of the race safety crews had set-up a mini aid station at their van. We took advantage of their hospitality to grab some quick hot drinks and a few little snacks, along with a nice chat of course!
And the wide double track leading out from here Pavel made a little surge on one of the first climbs, but we all rolled back together again soon enough. I had encountered very heavy rain (driven by exceptionally high winds) on this section last year, so it seemed quite pleasant in comparison this year, as I only occasionally needed to flick my hood over my head as the odd shower rolled by. I made sure to look around every now and again to take in the views, including a classic English scene of a large stone arched railway viaduct crossing the landscape in the distance.
As we ascended the long road gentle road climb up the Cam Fell road I felt like the other two might be playing games, as they spoke in spanish to each other and then one would then put on a bit of speed to lead up the hill. I just tracked each move and let them at it, putting in the odd running spurt myself. I reckoned that it was equally possible that everyone was thinking the other two were ready to work against them! Lovely little mind games.
We turned off onto the muddy double track past Dodd Fell, with Eugeni making more frequent surges to lead us along. A group of about 5 motorbike scramblers passed us going the other way, leaving plenty of churned mud in their wake. Two or three land rovers followed not long afterwards, leaving even deeper ruts behind. Towards the end of this path we caught and passed one more challenger runner, leaving only the podium placers from that race in front of us.
Pavel was surprisingly slow on the descent into CP2 at Hawes, with Eugeni and myself occasionally waiting for him to rejoin us. Thankfully when we hit Hawes village itself there were separate signs directing the challenger finishers and the Spine racers to their respective aid stations for this CP (or finish in the case of the Challengers), so we didn’t have to do a big loop around the town.
Last year I had grabbed a couple of hours sleep here before being timed out as I went to leave. However we had been much much faster getting here this year, and it was still the afternoon. Plenty of usable daylight left. I wasn’t feeling sleepy either, so I wasn’t going to stop here for sleep. I still had a few jobs to do here. I wanted to switch around some of the clothes I was racing on, so that I had a more cold-weather oriented set-up, and switch from having a spare base layer in my rucksack to having my waterproof down jacket as my cold emergency spare layer (A little heavier and bulkier, but far easier to get on and actually use should the need arise). I also needed to do some standard replacements, such as switching maps, and swapping out batteries for my GPS and active head-torch.
Of course, this being a CP, the fun and games were likely to kick off here again. No doubt Pavel would try a move here. But I was going to do what I needed to do at my own pace and let the dice roll from there. We arrived in and all began taking off our mud-soaked shoes and leggings. Pavel nabbed the only chair in this outer room, but one of the race marshals quickly grabbed another few for us when I had a little whine! As ever, the marshalls were their usual helpful and friendly selves.
To my delight I established that the hot food available here was chicken curry. No way was I going to pass that up, even if I wasn’t particularly hungry. There were large bottles of coke nearby (A new innovation this year), so I grabbed one of those and brought to the table where I was eating. Eugeni and Pavel joined me at the table, and we ate away quickly enough without too much banter. This was definitely a racing stop!
As we finished up our food and began to prepare to leave things were hotting up and getting spicier than the freshly digesting chicken curry. Pavel had a photographer meeting him around the course, and she was here helping him with his exit preparations. He was definitely in the mood to get out first. Eugeni was moving fast, as no doubt he wanted to stick with Pavel at any cost. I was getting things done as fast as possible, but at the same time ensuring that I didn’t forget to complete any of my little tasks.
Pavel burst out the door and could be seen running off heading down the village. Race on! within a minute Eugeni was hurrying out the door after him. He was looking panicked as he flew off after Pavel. It felt like an age was passing as I was putting my shoes, gators and rain – leggings back on after completing all of my other changes (Change of base layer leggings, adding a fleece mid-layer, and changing socks). But I kept to my own pace, and eventually I was off again, heading down through Hawes village.
This time the split was 3-way, so the race was definitely back on again after a prolonged period over working together and watching out for each other. How we would each pace out from here would be very interesting indeed, as after a day and half of racing, heading for the 2nd night of the race, we had effectively been going non-stop and were all bound to be dealing with the building fatigue in different ways. Sleep deprivation was bound to start to become a factor with the approaching loss of daylight. We now had gaps to build and close as well. And to top all that immediately in front of us was one of the big sustained climbs of the race… about 6km of steady, potentially runnable, ascent to the peak of Great Shunner Fell.