I was feeling relaxed and quite energetic heading out and away from CP1 at Hebden. After the initial technical climb and muck traverse I was able to get running at a nice trotting pace heading once I hit the road heading uphill back towards the Pennine way proper. I had a look out to my right as I went to see if there was any sign of the chasing pack, but couldn’t pick out any likely moving headtorches in the landscape (Visibility was excellent here… it was varying a lot through the night).
In the last 2 years I had managed to make at least one if not more navigation mistakes here re-establishing my route back on the Pennine way, so I took extra care this year and made sure to nail it! Getting onto the trail through the open ground traverse along Heptondstall Moor I got sight of a headtorch in the distance ahead… that must be Eugene. That’s the first time I’ve had a following sightline to one of the pair ahead since they made their push. Not long afterwards the weather reverted back to fog and mist again, and I found myself yet again only able to see one or two footsteps ahead.
From all the buzzing activity of CP1 I was now back out very much alone and isolated on the moors, fully responsible for looking after myself. Quite a contrast in a short space of time. I was very sure of my memory of this section, but even though was occasionally using the GPS to verify that I was correct. Better safe than sorry.
The next few maneuvers, off the moors, down into a river valley (dropping out of the mist again), then up onto a minor road, then a nice road running interval over to more reservoirs, seemed to flow much quicker than previous years. Looking down from the road across the valley at the route ahead beside the water of the reservoirs I could see a headtorch light. Eugene was checking the gap! It was probably about 6 minutes or so.
After crossing the initial damn and then turning to run along beside the reservoirs I could see the valley ahead, and knew the track climbed out to the right. I could see a headtorch looking back whilst climbing out… Pavel was also checking gaps! A few minutes later I could see Eugene’s headtorch heading up out of the valley. He had probably closed in a bit on Pavel.
By the time I was climbing out myself they were well over the brow of the hill, so I had lost the long sightlines and wasn’t able to see any trace of them ahead. Back to the running in isolation again, but at least I could see more than a few meters since the I was still below the mist.
A steep descent took me down to Ponden Reservoir. In previous years there would generally be a safety check here, but no sign of anyone this night. I wasn’t at all worried about that, just slightly missed having someone to say hello to at this point!
after some more steady running I hit the short road section before the steep climb out from the Ponden area. I caught sight of a headtorch above and ahead looking back… possibly slightly closer. There’s still virtually nothing in this, and I’m happy knocking out my own steady pace and holding the gap reasonably steady, even though I’m behind.
The next section is a long shallow climb up bare hill. It’s another classic moorland landscape, and it was no reals surprise to have the mist return as I climbed up, yet again ensuring that I had to keep concentration up to ensure accurate navigation. Yet again, the long shallow descent off this hill was had lots of slippy slabs mixed in with tufty bog, with visibility mostly down to a meter or two.
Once off the moors and dropping back out of the mist it was back to running through farmland before reaching the outskirts of the village of Cowling. This time the memory of a safety team from prior years didn’t disappoint, as I was greeted onto the road by offers of a hot drink and some mars bars. Both were accepted gratefully! I noted to myself that I was much less thirsty than I had been at this point last year, which was good. Of course I checked on the gaps. It turned out to be a singular gap, as the the 2 ahead were back to running as a pair again. They were 5 or 10 minutes ahead.
After leaving the safety check and running through the farmlands ahead I caught sight of the headtorches ahead heading up the next climb. They were probably kilometer or two ahead. Still close. Still steady. Still racing! The next 2 or 3 kilometers covers lots of undulating farmland, with one or two short sections of less than obvious routing, which I mostly was able to navigate from memory.
A sharp descent lead into the village of Lothersdale. I recognise the name from discussions on the various Spine internet groups. I think there might be some Spine-friendly pub here serving food. But the only sign of any life I have ever seen in this village on any year is Pavel and Eugene. Same again this year. It must be well past closing time. Not that I was paying any attention to the real world time. Once I’m in race mode time becomes daylight, nighttime, and gaps ahead and behind.
The 3 of us had made a small mess of exiting this village last year, so I paid attention to making sure to hit the correct track out and up into the fields up and ahead. Once I was on more shallow ground I was able to mix in steady marching with slow running.
About 10 minutes later I found myself being “walled out” as I reached the top of a field only to be surrounded by wall boundaries blocking the route ahead without obvious crossing points. A GPS check revealed I was only slightly off course, but nevertheless on the wrong side of the wall to my right. After a few quick checks for easy alternatives I reckoned the quickest thing to do was to just scramble over the thing.
I headed into the corner and climbed up. Just as I was about to cross over the top I had small slip (everything was still very wet) and went crashing back to ground, landing on front side down. Nothing particularly unusual there. However I had my GPS hanging around my neck on a lanyard, and I landed on this. That bloody hurt! I checked the GPS, and it was unscathed, thankfully. It’s a useful tool for quick navigation confirmation checks (as well as being mandatory race gear). The second attempt was less dramatic and more successful, bringing me back on route.
More climbing through farmland took me up to another section of moorland at Elslack moor, where I was yet again enveloped in mist for the traverse across the small boggy peak and back down to a road section. I knew from memory that there was 5 or 10 minutes of easy road running here, before a slight left turn leads off the road for a long off road descending section on mixed ground, including lethally slippy wooden sections.
My route memory proved to be be extremely accurate. The descent pops out into farmland and then backroads into the village of Thornton, where there was of course no sign of life. After a road section out of here the route goes over undulating farmland which is very boggy and draggy. I always hate this section. It always turns out less runnable than it looks. A short steep climb then pops out onto a dead flat section running alongside a canal.
After leaving the canal there is another long undulating section through low farmland which leads towards Gargrave village. This is another section which always seems to go slower than it looks like it should on paper. Last year there had been a safety check on the outskirts of Gargrave, but there was no sign of anyone this year. I would happily have pounced on an offer of a hot drink here, but not to be.
Heading out of the village there was a lone race supporter in his car. I checked the gap with him, and he reckoned it was about 30 minutes…what!! how did that happen. I didn’t think I was ran all that slow over the last while. Even allowing for variability in people’s estimations that was a big change. However I was starting to feel pretty tired at this point. I asked if he had any coke or fanta (you don’t ask, you don’t get!). He hadn’t, but he offered some water, which I was grateful for. Better than grabbing it from a stream in farmland.
I ate some of my homemade energy balls and eventually converted my trudge along the road back into a run, though not a particularly fast run. I was definitely feeling more tired than I expected to at this point. I was breathing much more heavily than I thought I should be considering the relatively slow speed I was making. It was a bit unexpedly early in the race to be feeling like this.
Soon the track headed off road again. Back into the slidey stuff! Soon I caught site of someone’s headtorch making their way a few hundred meters ahead on the trail. Surely this couldn’t be one of the pair ahead? About 10 minutes later I caught up and discovered it was someone from race safety out making their way along the trail. I tried not get distracted , so pushed on, trying to make a good pace on the downhill open ground ahead.
The end of this descent reaches a river, which the Pennine way follows upstream 6or 7 kilometers up to Mahlam. This entire section, being reasonably flat, was definitely one where I had to try to keep my pace up, and not let my fatigue be an excuse to slow down too much. Definitely hard work, requiring concentration. At least navigation was mostly straightforward, though I did manage to loose the path for a few minutes at one point and had to double track to hit a bridge crossing a small stream.
The relatively straightforward running finished approaching the little hamlet of Hanlith, where the ground was so mucky and cut up by vehicle tracks that it was too energy sapping to attempt to run. There was relief of sorts after a few minutes of this, hitting the road through the hamlet, but that was tempered by having to follow the road right and steeply uphill for a few minutes. I ran very little of this. On the plus side, most of this climbing section was efficiently done on road. Back onto off road tracks leaving the hamlet the ground levelled off, with views of the river valley below.
A few minutes later, and starting the descent back towards the river again, I caught site of a pair of people about a kilometer or so ahead heading up the Pennine Way. Again, surely this couldn’t be Pavel and Eugene ahead. They looked to be hardly making any forward progress. I carried on at my own pace. About 5 minutes later I was back down on the tracks beside the river, heading onto more solid ground leading into Mahlam village.
I said hello to the two walkers as I passed. They looked like racers alright, but weren’t Pavel and Eugene (unfortunately…but that would have been too easy), so I reckoned that they must be Challenger competitors. In Mahlam village I came across a support car waiting, which turned out to be an Irish crew. Wayhey! They asked if I had seen their runners, so I let them know they were nearly here (I hadn’t realised they were fellow paddies when I passed them a few minutes ago… I would have been a bit more raucous had I known). I took up their offer of some goodies, grabbing a bit of Coke and some jellies.
Of course I asked how far in front the other 2 were. They reckoned that they were about 15 minutes ahead. I was surprised at that, it would mean I had made up some ground on a section where I didn’t think I had been moving particularly quickly at all. I thanked the lads, wished them luck, and headed on.
The road out of Malam start to climb after a few hundred meters, then goes off road with a steeper short climb. The spectacular Mahlam Cove was ahead. I could make out the headtorches of Pavel and Eugene on the top heading away. I definitely had made up some ground. But it was far from an easy straight line run between them and me.
It’s a nice run down into the base of Mahlam Cove. This is followed by a brutal long steep stone stepped climb out left and over the top of the cliffs. I put my head down and tried my best to march up this section at as good a speed as I could muster. I was definitely getting at least a mental boost from my recent Coke fuelling.
I love the section beyond Mahlam Cove through Ing Scarr, a wonderful naturally cut valley which cerves between surrounding rock walls. I couldn’t see any sign of the the pair ahead after coming over the top of Mahlam Cove, so I wasn’t that close to them. I tried to enjoy this section as much as possible, before it climbed up towards Mahlam Tarn (lake).
The Irish support crew were parked at the road crossing before the lake. Their latest update wasn’t such good news though… they reckoned the 2 lads were about 35 minutes ahead. I didn’t think I had been that slow since last seeing them. Hopefully their estimate was long, but they seemed pretty certain.
I was approaching CP 1.5 at Mahlam Tarn. It’s fairly flat from here in. One last push required before a brief interlude to come. Thankfully this section seemed to go reasonably quickly in my mind. I was keeping an eye for headtorches ahead. I could see moving lights near where I expected the CP to be located, but the pattern didn’t look quite right. Sure enough, it turned out to be camera lights.
I arrived into the bright lights of the room in Mahlam Tarn House which is where the safety check[point of CP 1.5 is located, and was greeted by 5 or 6 race staff. This isn’t a full CP, but hot drinks were offered, and I happily accepted a coffee. One of the marshalls was keeping track of arrival times, so he let me know I was about 20 minutes behind the other pair, who were still together. They had spent about 8 minutes here. That was now set as my maximum time to top here. Since I had no major maintenance requirements (Just consuming a hot drink for energy and taking a short sit-down), I was able to get out in about 7 minutes.
I ran out with both still and video camera operators for company for a hundred or two meters up the road, and then I was back into the darkness. My headtorch now flashed and cut-out, indicating that batteries were low. However there was a trace of the coming daybreak in the sky, so I turned it back on again and hoped I might make it all the way on the current battery until there was enough usable light in the dawn.
About 10 or 15 minutes out from CP 1.5 the track dips down into a river valley before heading back up to a road on the other side, and then heading uphill towards Fountains Fell. The light was increasing, but headtorches were still required. There was a long sightline before this dip, and I could see the headtorches of the other pair climbing about a kilometer ahead or so ahead. The gap was still negligible. For this stage of the race. Seeing them ahead was good positive motivation though, especially since I had been very much running my own pace.
The climb up to the Fountains Fell plateau is deceptively long, with lots of false tops along the way. But I knew this, so was mentally prepared for the long climb. There was now enough light to dispense with my headtorch. A lot of the upper sections of the climb had hardcore gravel sections laid down. Unlike last year, there was no snow covering the tracks, so I was able to make quicker progress as a result. It was still a long climb!
Crossing the the plateau of Fountains Fell gives a chance to look across the valley and see Pen-y-ghent looming in the distance. The weather is still pretty poor though, so I can’t see the full peak. Not good for any photographers hanging around over there… pity.
The descent is quite rocky and technical to begin with. In fact in the wet conditions it was technical all the way down to the road. The upper sections are primarily rocky and steep, requiring careful concentration to ensure good foot placement. Avoiding the stumpy rocks requires risking slippy grassy/muddy ground. Potentially faster, but with a higher chance of going for an unscheduled slide! I was still running well, and made good speed here.
I could see someone in the distance on the track near the road. After a a few glances I figured out they were heading in the same direction, so more likely to be a racer than enthusiastic early morning media crew.
A little right turn at the bottom of the steep section leaves a shallower very grassy trail towards the road. Having made it down the most technical section without a hitch I managed to go for slide on the wet grass about halfway along this section, but it was a fairly harmless splashdown onto wet grassy ground, and I was quickly up and running again, slightly more cautiously.
As I hit the road I had nearly caught up with the runner I had seen ahead, who I could now see was a challenger runner. I set off along the road, aiming to hit a steady cruise pace, and soon overtook him to mutual cheery morning greetings. The kilometer or two along the road here went smoothly, and I distracted myself by looking up at the ridgeline approach to Pen-y-ghent which I would soon find myself on, seeing if I could see any trace of the pair ahead.
A right turn took me back off road again onto the big double-track gravel road which was the easy start to the long climb up towards Pen-y-ghent. I reckoned I might be able to see the Pavel and Eugene a kilometer or two ahead up the trail, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
I decided I’d grab a quick snack here, as I was on easy ground just before the beginning of the more strenuous climbing ahead. I slowed from running to walking to get the eating out of the way as fast as possible, slightly wasting the easy ground. However, after putting the wrapping way I found that rather than being energised I was now hit by a huge feeling of general fatigue. I couldn’t really get going properly running again, and could only manage to march up the little bit of shallow climb before it started to get steep.
This was very weird, and very worrying. No way should I be feeling this feeble at this point in the race, only about 24 hours in. It just didn’t make sense. I started wondering what the hell was going wrong. I thought about the days and weeks leading up to the race, thinking of anything I could have really messed up to cause this, but there wasn’t. My approach this year was almost exactly the same as last year.
Now motivation was rapidly disappearing. I did manage to get a run going when the ground flattened out again, with some boardwalk sections to take away any excuse for going slowly. But the steeper section leading onto the ridgeline soon brought the general malaise back. I couldn’t see the 2 ahead, so I wasn’t able to latch onto them to give me something to chase. The thoughts of chasing anyone were starting to disappear now anyway. I was starting to think that making it over Pen-y-ghent in any sort of reasonable time was going to be a big enough challenge in itself.
Approaching the foot of the steep technical climb of Pen-y-ghent itself some of the media team were waiting, including Ellie from Summit Media, and Damian Hall. They naturally enough asked how I was doing, so I let them know I was feeling absolutely drained, and reckoned I’d be fairly awfully slow heading the climb. Damian followed for a while, taking some shots, which was nice company to have and was a welcome distraction.
The climb did indeed seem to take an age. Even after the very steep section there was another 5 or 10 minutes of slow running across the top of the ridge to get to the final peak…. and that bit was nearly worse! But at least I had managed to get through the climb.
Heading off the peak I knew there was a few kilometers of extremely runnable downhill running next. But now I was having to work hard to run any kind of reasonable pace, even with the slope heading in the right direction. About 10 or 15 minutes into the descent I could see two runners ahead, but soon figured out it wasn’t Pavel and Eugene. The bigger rucksacks, if nothing else, were a definite give-away that it was challenger competitors. Greetings were exchanged as I eventually passed them in sequence.
I knew the descent finished at the village of Horton, so I mentally focused on just making it to there. There was a safety check there last year, and also a cafe which welcomes spine racers. As it was now daytime, the cafe was likely to be open. I thought things through approaching the village, and decided that I would take what for me was quite a radical decision. I was going to stop at the cafe and see if I could re-energise myself. Normally I would expect to run straight through here in race mode. But now I was closer to survival mode.
I bought a small bottle of coke and some fruit cake in the cafe. I still had enough race-presence to go outside to consume them, so as not to get too warm on comfortable inside (which would make it even harder to restart). However I did sit down at a picnic bench, which definitely made getting out just a little bit of a bigger effort.
The was a safety marshal here as well, and he offered me a hot drink. I gratefully accepted a coffee. Everything was worth a try. I spent a good ten minutes here, which was real “dead time” in racing terms… an easy gain for the pair ahead. But I was focused on the long term now, and the focus now was simply making it to CP2, and work out how to recover there.
The restart was a huge effort, and it took a big effort to get any kind of run going along the road through the village. Soon it was back onto undulating double-track trail again. The weather was definitely a lot better now. In fact this was by far the best conditions I had encountered on this section. I wasn’t able to run any of the uphill sections, but did manage to keep some kind of trot going on the flatter sections.
Mentally I was breaking down the journey to CP2 into small sections to be tackled and focused on one at a time. My memory of the route was excellent and I had no need to consult the map or GPS. I knew pretty much every step of what lay ahead to CP2. Even though I was still exhausted, and hyperventilating when I tried to push any kind of effort, I was still managing to do some form of running along the majority of the trail. I was also starting to encounter one or two more Challenger competitors. No sign of the pair ahead though. No doubt they had opened a good gap now after my stop.
The long run up cam high road is gentle enough that under good conditions it can be mostly runnable. Conditions were good, but I wasn’t, so it felt more like a death march! Towards the top I came across Chris and Mark. I looked behind me to see that they had some super scenery in the background. Pity about the wreck in the foreground!
Not long afterwards I met Matt Neale, a competitor I knew from the last two Spine races who was sitting out this year’s race, along with his extremely lively dog having a ball running about the place. I chatted with Matt for a while until we reached his van. He offered me a coffee here. Normally I would have declined and ran on this close to CP2, but given my energy depleted state CP2 still seemed a long way away, so I was glad to fire in some more caffeine.
After a minute or two I pushed on, and forced myself to run again, off along West Cam Road. This trail can have spectacular views as it traverse high above a steep sided glacial valley. I was expecting this to be a long death march again, but surprisingly conditions were again the best I had encountered here. Most of it was runnable as a result and I made surprisingly good progress along here, overtaking a few more challenger competitors as I went. It seemed like it took an age to run this section, but I knew that I would soon be descending towards CP2.
Eventually I made to the descent. Again, the conditions were the best I had encountered here, and my memory of the route ensured the navigation was relatively straightforward. The views really opened up on the way down, and I distracted myself looking at the town of Hawes (where CP2 was located) ahead, and working out the route out and on up the climb of Great shunner Fell (Hidden in cloud) ahead. I was ensuring that mentally I was thinking of the route out, and not just collapsing into CP2.
The route to the CP at the Hostel in the Hawes seemed to take a huge loop around through the village. It took me up the main street, and past the hall where the Challenger runners finish. There was a good crowd gathered hear cheering and giving great encouragement. That was badly needed, as I knew I was nearly at CP2 and was ready to crash. Quite a few people came out from the CP to check what I needed as I approached the final short but steep climb up to the entrance.
Finally I got there. My original pre-race plan was to try to spend a minimal amount of time here, and head out without sleeping. But I knew I needed to have a big stop here. I needed to grab some sleep to see if that could re-energise me. I simply was in a totally non-competitive state at this time and needed to fix that, whatever it took.
I collapsed into the chair in the entrance porch. Everyone here was great, and helped me enormously. I was brought food and drink. The staff here even volunteered me their own supply of Fanta which I had a craving for. I was totally wrecked though. I let them know how I felt and that I would be stopping to sleep here.
With some help from the kind marshalls I got rid of my outer layers, and headed up to a nice quiet room in the hostel, having decided to take two and half hours of sleep (I couldn’t decide whether two would be enough or if I needed three!). This was a real make or break point in the race, and a big roll of the dice. It’s a lot of time to sacrifice to try to get competitive again. I guessed that I was probably being hunted down by the 4th place runner too.