*Warning* Very long post ahead! Make a cup of tea.
The MRT Spine Challenge is a British winter ultramarathon along the southern half of the Pennine Way. Every year is a very different race as the weather conditions always radically up the challenge for racers, from snow to torrential rain to wind, and often a little of all three. This year, thanks to flooding and course diversions, the route would be around 110 miles with 18,000 feet of elevation gain.
I’ve started the Spine MRT Challenge twice before – in 2017 it was my first 100 miler, it was a slightly different race in that support crews were allowed (and I had an absolutely amazing support crew that kept me going), and I finished pretty narrowly before the cut off in 58 hours 18. This gave me the indisputable accolade of last finisher as well as winner, being the only female finisher.
I came back in 2019 after a great year of running hoping to improve- and had to retire around the halfway mark with wind blindness due to inadequate self-care in very high wind conditions. In hindsight, I always wondered if I could have rested up in the checkpoint for the maximum allowable time (probably another 8+ hours) as my vision may have improved pretty quickly. Regardless, it left me with a strong draw back for 2020 (cue pun about my visual acuity this year?) and determination not to be left with regrets this year.
This is inevitably going to be a really long write-up, so I’m going to divide it into three parts:
- Race report
- How I prepared
- Kit, what went well, what went badly
On to the race report!
The Montane Spine MRT Challenge 2020 race
Lining up on the start line, I was less nervous than I expected to be. There’s this restful apprehension I have where I know I’m guaranteed to experience some pain and real psychological lows in the coming challenge, but I’ve accepted it as the price to pay for the experience. I went into this race with three purposes, more than goals, and wrote them on my hand, saying to my brother, “I know they’ll rub off, I just hope they sink in!”
Don’t get me wrong- I do ultras because I enjoy them and I love that they give me the incentive to go running most days, which makes me happier and healthier. But at 3am out in the rain when you feel like throwing up, sometimes there needs to be a bigger ‘why’ not to just throw in the towel then and there. These were my 3am whys.
- PR or ER
- I didn’t mean it quite literally, but I was determined that the only reasons I would DNF this race were injury, timing out, or completion. That decision is already made, so 3am Me, you may as well keep running ‘cause that’ll get you to the finish sooner.
- Who do you want to be?
- I feel like these races make me stronger, tougher, more resilient. It’s hard for a reason, that’s the whole point.
- Who are you?
- And I also feel like the total commitment of ultras helps me unmask myself and learn more about who I am. After 30+ hours of physical exertion and discomfort, there isn’t a lot of energy for pretences and I have come to cherish the moments where I feel pared down to the barest essence of who I am. Push through the lows and find out who you really are.
With those personal goals in mind, as well as the less lofty ones of enjoying the beautiful Pennines and getting to know some of my fellow runners, I set off with the rest of the mountain rescue runners to the friendly blip of a siren.
So as not to panic and run straight back to my bunk, I didn’t let myself contemplate the entire distance at any point. At all times, the only distance I could think about was to the next place written on a tiny scribbled piece of paper I had tucked behind my compass that divided it into non-panic-worthy sized chunks of 5-10 miles. I also broke the race up into hours, with the plan of eating a 200kcal snack at the top of each hour. More on that later.
At the start with Isi, my Hebrides mountain rescue team mate
Start to Snake Pass (10 miles, 2 hours 46)
The run over to Snake Pass goes up and over Kinder Scout, which was “a bit breezy” by Hebridean standards- around 50mph wind with gusts that could knock you off your stride. After last year’s fiasco I was quick to put my goggles on but otherwise the conditions didn’t bother me too much as I’ve trained in plenty of the same. The main disadvantage of the high wind is the risk of dropping kit and extra effort getting anything in or out of bags. It was also pretty fun, though, and so long as I can find my footing the sensation of being thrown around by the wind makes me laugh. Coming down off Kinder, I passed my first person from the main Challenger, a slight lady who’d had her confidence battered a bit by the winds and was struggling to keep her feet. There were several MRT runners who were backwards and forwards with me to chat with.
Snake Pass to Wessenden reservoir (26 miles, 7 hours 3)
There’s a lovely bit of trail over to Torside reservoir- narrow paths winding along the hillsides that are just great fun to run along, and no massive climbs to take the wind out of your sails. The reservoir suddenly pops into view ahead and beneath the trail, inviting a run down to it. I was gradually overtaking Challenger runners here and there, which was a boost to morale, and I was still feeling good and eating well. Another runner, Jon, ended up matching pace with me for a while and we trotted down into Torside chatting happily. I went through the MRT tent for a quick water refill and hiked some of the woods chatting to a guy in the main Challenger I’d met on the train down the day before, Alex, who was taking it steady.
Black Hill is a deceptive little climb with some short sharp bits. My legs felt great hiking up and I overtook a few, but my stomach started some warning grumbles and the beginnings of nausea hit here. Still, I could eat and enjoyed the varied terrain. Most importantly, I didn’t let myself get into my own head and worry about it being like this for another 70 miles (which was true) and kept living in the moment. After the hill, the moor is flatter and I could see a few groups spread out that I could judge my pace by. I’d look up ahead for them, settle into my pace, check again and hope to be a bit closer, eventually passing them and aiming for the next. This kept me ticking along and entertained to Wessenden.
Wessenden to M62 crossing (33 miles, 10 hours 3)
I made it along the runnable section by the reservoirs to put my light on as I climbed down the steps to climb back up out and onto the moor. I was using a lightbelt, a waistbelt light, which meant one extra strap to deal with when changing layers but meant I could have hats on and off for warmth easily enough, no headache, and a much better view of the ground than any headtorch I’ve owned. It also gives a nice wide beam, which helped with picking a path through the boggy bits, and boggy bits were coming up!
The wind was back in force over the exposed moorland and in the darkness it felt pretty bleak. At this point, I intentionally paired up with other runners- it’s a part of the course where people start struggling mentally and physically, so running with others is safer as well as providing welcome company and distraction. I was joined again by Jon from earlier, and his running buddy David. David was beginning to feel the cold and slow down, leaving Jon in the difficult position of trying to judge how much to cajole him along for warmth and progress versus risking pushing too hard and tiring out. We were caught by a pair of Challenger runners, Estelle and Jude, and with Jon and David’s understanding I pushed on with their slightly quicker pace.
We reached a safety stop at a road crossing where race official safety teams were checking on everyone’s condition and giving help where it was needed. Steph – the MRT lady course record holder, who has become a friend of mine through the Spine – was one of these and I was delighted to see her. There’s a special lift of the spirits to be had from a friendly and familiar face on a cold, dark night. She told us racers were dropping like flies with hypothermia and advised to get any spare layers on that we had. Goggles were also mandatory for the next section. I was genuinely surprised as I was warm and dry in my layers, being lucky enough to have great kit for these exact conditions (thanks to near identical training conditions) and sacrificing the few minutes it took to faff with waterproofs on and off whenever it started raining or there was an opportunity to dry off, but I saw Estelle and Jude were struggling with cold more than I’d realised while we were moving. I decided to add an extra windproof layer I was carrying since we had even more exposed miles ahead, and we set off again.
M62 to Hebden checkpoint (46 miles, 15 hours, 50)
Jon soon caught up and explained David had decided to stay longer at the safety point as he was struggling. Unsurprisingly since it’s so hard to get warm once you get past that dangerous tipping point, we later found out he had retired there. We made good headway to Stoodley Pike monument, a cheering landmark not too far from the first and only proper checkpoint in the race at Hebden Bridge. We did lots of fantastic and terrible, loud singing into the wind (and I still haven’t got my voice back at the time of writing).
Shortly after this, I made a stupid and annoying navigation error, handrailing along a reservoir on our left when it should have been on our right. We went over a mile in the wrong direction before Jon realised he didn’t recognise the area and we turned back. I had been being careful to the point of paranoid with an attitude of “trust but verify” for navigation travelling with others up to this point so I was furious with myself for being the cause of the mistake and not regularly checking. I did my best not to waste energy on annoyance and funnel it into a decent pace.
By this time I was definitely feeling sick and in the pouring rain it was easy to ignore the time passing when I was overdue to eat. I decided I could afford to wait ‘til the checkpoint, where there would be hot food and a chance to rest and digest. My race plan had been for an hour’s sleep at Hebden and I was very glad of it.
The climb down to the checkpoint is like a helter-skelter of deep, soft mud hiding randomly placed rocks and it demands attention. I don’t think there can be many people going down it 46 miles into the race without gritted teeth, but the lights of the checkpoint below drew me on at the best pace I could manage safely. Once in the warm, bright lights, with incredibly enthusiastic volunteers helping with whatever they could, the tiredness and pains faded into the background. I changed into a dry set of clothes, put electronics on to charge and went round to the unbelievably well catered canteen for two bowls of pasta and a cup of tea. The weather forecast was improving but I decided I’d rather carry a bit of extra weight than risk running out of something on the last legs and added some spare layers to my pack and switched into heavier duty waterproof trousers (which did keep me warm but proved a bit of a hindrance later).
Feeling as if I could fall asleep upright, I ate a caffeine bullet, set an alarm for an hour and lay down in a bunk, only for both my hips, the only parts of my legs not hurting at all on the move, to instantly fill with a sick hot pain that only seemed to get worse changing positions. After a while, I heard Estelle and Jude come in and agree to set a 20 minute timer, then I heard their alarm go off, then mine. I’m sure I slept at some point but it can’t have been for long. Unfortunately, Estelle had to retire shortly after, having been unable to get the energy to warm up after getting cold over the moor.
One mercy was that my nausea had gone – until I tried eating a bag of salty crisps, when it came straight back. I headed downstairs meeting Jon en route, we pulled our wet, muddy shoes back on and went back out into the dark.
Hebden to Gargrave (28 hours 45, 80 miles)
Suffice to say that the stretch from Hebden to Malham is not my favourite part of the Pennine Way. The majority of it is made up of field crossings, which in a British winter are guaranteed to be quagmire by the time the middle of the pack of the race reach them. After the heavy rain (and with more showers), they were splashing wet and comically slippery. I had one excellent comedy arse over elbows fall and lots of skidding. Jon and I chatted and strode along as best we could, running on the flats and downs when it was safe, and our spirits were high but the mud was hugely energy-sapping. The extra miles of several road diversions around flooded sections were more than worthwhile avoiding more mud.
The pattern of nausea, a growing awareness of my need to eat, eventual forced eating and redoubling of nausea was now a background challenge for me. This did result in one particularly graceful fall when I had a chocolate bar in one hand, water bottle in the other (I was swigging chewed food down like swallowing tablets, it was so unappetising and my mouth so dry) walking along some submerged flagstones. I failed to notice the missing flagstone, put my foot down in deep mud and face planted into half a foot of muddy water, chocolate bar halfway to my mouth. I’m pretty sure I sprayed half the contents of my water bottle over myself as I landed, and smushed the chocolate bar into my jaw. I came up spluttering and Jon and a few Challengers we were with at the time hurried to check I was OK, far too polite to still be laughing – by the time I surfaced anyway. I shoved the mud-dripping remains of the chocolate bar into a pocket of my pack accusingly and kept going!
There was a tent hosted by Craven Energy Triathlon Club in a little village called Lothersdale, where we were again greeted by lovely madly enthusiastic volunteers. I sat down for a quick bowl of soup, which magically was delicious and not nauseating, while Jon stood to eat his as he said if his feet had a rest they had to be broken in all over again. There was a cosy interior that I didn’t dare even look inside and we moved on quickly, again cheered up by the incredible community and atmosphere that the Spine creates around it.
Gargrave was an exciting landmark to aim for as from there on I can count on one hand the obstacles left between me and the finish. The climb up Malham Cove; Fountains Fell, a long, long hill with seemingly endless false summits; Pen y Ghent, a steep hill with rock clambering at the top followed by a knee-grinding descent; finally, the Cam High Road- not so steep but miles of uphill, some deceptive ups and downs, and at last the downhill to Hawes and the finish. Friends of Jon’s were in Gargrave to cheer him in and I felt buoyant. We each bought a pastry (actually, I still owe Jon for mine…) and like the soup, this went down an absolute treat.
I found out from texts from family that Isi had had to retire with a knee injury at Hebden. They assured me she was OK and would be getting a lift to Hawes to be looked after by my brother and his girlfriend (Isie and Inger).
Gargrave to Horton (97 miles, 39 hours 20)
It was only a few more mud-fest fields to Malham, where it got dark as we climbed up the side of Malham Cove. The weather was unbelievably beautiful for this section- the stars and near full moon were coming out, so the white limestone of the cove was glowing in the dark. I giraffe-walked awkwardly across the limestone pavement, my balance trashed by the fatigue and stiffness in my legs, and we hiked up to the top, where the Tarn shone in the darkness. Another friend of Jon’s was waiting here and they chattered happily as we headed into checkpoint 1.5 (no drop bag or food, maximum 30min stay indoors allowed) where Steph appeared again. She filmed a little interview with me and after a quick cup of tea we were on our way again.
Going up Fountains Fell, the sleep deprivation started telling again and I felt pretty glum. We sang Disney songs to cheer up and keep the pace up. Nearing the top, I was surprised to catch up to somebody – it had been hours since we had seen anyone else. Jen Scotney told us she was having chaffing problems from letting her trousers get and stay wet and it seemed to be agony for her just to walk a few paces. We tried to encourage her to come with us but she couldn’t walk. I asked if she’d tried taping over the worst parts and the idea seemed to be a relief to her – she told us to go on ahead so she could do that and we set off again, a little worried that she’d soon get cold up here if she stayed still much longer. Thankfully, shortly afterwards a member of the safety team came past and we let him know to check on her (he was actually en route to check somebody else), and a little after that Marcus Scotney was passing us at speed too, obviously having been tracking Jen and seen her dot crawl to a stop.
My low continued when we descended onto the road and despite the good ground, walked to the base of Pen y Ghent. I felt so sick but simultaneously empty and decided I had to eat before the climb. It took me an hour to eat a tiny cereal bar while we walked, washing every tiny bite down with water. The only positive about this low was that I had insight into it – I knew it was just the sleep and calorie deprivation talking, and just telling myself that would be enough to dispel it for a few minutes, before it would creep back in like a fog.
Starting the climb up Pen y Ghent, my eyes started playing tricks on me. They weren’t nearly so bad as my 2017 Spine, when I occasionally struggled to tell imagination from reality. In fact, this time they made me smile as I was glad of the entertainment, seeing every rock had a face or peculiar creature grinning out at me. If I looked properly, I could see it was just a damp patch or a shadow. Eyes seemed to peer out at me from both sides. Fortunately, perhaps because I still felt physically capable and safe, there was no creepy or unpleasant atmosphere.
I said in my post-race interview that I didn’t trust myself on the climb over Pen y Ghent, but I meant I couldn’t trust myself to clamber it the way I would fresh on a hill day. It’s a shame, as Pen y Ghent is a really fun ascent. I told Jon I needed a minute’s breather before tackling the clamber, wanting to be able to climb to the summit in a single go. There wasn’t much point in a long rest, though – the only real way to recover was to get over it and down to Horton, where we’d agreed we would both have an hour’s sleep for our second night.
I was exhausted and my feet were so sore that I couldn’t feel the terrain under them properly, so I practically crawled up the climb. At the start, I briefly wondered if I could do this, and laughed to myself- there really wasn’t any question. I was doing it. I started talking aloud, “Left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot”. Boulder by boulder, step by step, I followed Jon up to the summit, where the wind was back and neither of us even paused to celebrate, pushing quickly on to get off the exposed top and start down into the village.
The steep stone cut steps down were almost worse than the ascent. They finally spilled us into the lane and we walked in silence for a while, until I suggested playing some music to give us a rhythm to hike quicker to. We could only play it for a while until we got closer to the residential areas but it gave me a much needed lift. I was deep, deep in my worst low of the race at this point, mentally rehearsing how I would ask to speak to a medic in a side room when we got to Horton, because I was so sure I would burst into tears and didn’t want to do it in front of everyone. Of course, when we arrived to the brightly lit building full of energetic and friendly faces, the pall hanging over me vanished and I regained the perspective I needed. It’s just a race – a long, dark one, but a race. And there are all these people helping us.
I made myself eat a packet of hula hoops while a lovely ICU reg taped up my feet. There was a moment of adrenaline when I asked where the next MRT lady was and someone checked the trackers and said she was just coming down off Pen y Ghent. All credit to Jon and our newly forged team- I looked across at him and he said, “We’ll do whatever you need to do, mate.” As I started trying to mentally gear up to set aside the hour’s sleep and just get back out, the volunteer realised she’d looked at the wrong dot and in fact I had almost 18 miles on the next MRT lady. I relaxed. The hour’s sleep was back on.
Since Horton is not an official checkpoint there are no real places to sleep. I blew up my roll mat and lay under a table to block some of the light. Again, instantly my hips were full of a nasty needling pain. I put an arm over my eyes and told myself that just lying still would do me some good. This time I definitely slept as my alarm woke me with a jolt. The temptation to turn it off and go back to sleep was almost unbearable. I had plenty of time ahead of second place after all… But that wouldn’t have been running the race I wanted to run. I wanted it to be an honest, all-out effort. I rolled onto my hands and knees, wrestled my roll mat back into its bag and hobbled back over to the main room. Jon sleepily waved from a corner and we got ourselves ready. “Just” the Cam High Road to go.
Horton to the finish
Sleep is a magical thing. My low had vanished and I could think clearly again. I still couldn’t eat, but with just 14 miles to go, I knew that would no longer be a deciding factor in my finish. Of course, an hour lying down is a little rest but a lot of staying still, so it was also very painful to get moving again, feet burning and my right leg struggling to straighten all the way.
We were both much more capable of conversation again and went back to playing games to keep alert. Still, two hours of sleep in two nights isn’t quite enough and I wouldn’t have said we were at our smartest. We played ‘word association’ and the long pauses after each word as each of us tried to think of a single related word would have been pretty funny to a fully awake listener. There was lots of, “Stone.” “Rock.” “Stone.” “No, we’ve had that.” “Oh. Er… rock… er… um… hill?”
Jon put his watch onto tracking so we could tick off the miles and the sense of relentless progress was wonderful. I started being able to picture the finish and occasionally was just hiking along beaming to myself. The wind came back to batter us around for a bit, but we must not have been fun targets as it settled after a while and the only on-going battle was against the slippery wet and my nausea. I had now started to have crampy pain too and kept stopping to see if a call of nature would help – it only made my bum cold and required enormous faff every time, as I had (in a move that made 100% sense at the time) safety pinned my overly loose waterproof trousers to my midlayer to hold them up and minimise any extra flapping making my legs work harder). Every toilet stop involved gloves off, waterproof off, undo safety pin, two layers of trousers down, nope, don’t need to go, layers back on safety pin and all, catch up to Jon.
We passed two small groups of other runners, seeing their headtorches off on incorrect side tracks and trying to shout and wave to show them the right path. After hours that only feel short in hindsight, we were descending towards Hawes and I was injected with new energy as absolute elation filled me. We reached the road and I convinced myself there was just half a mile to go and started run/walking with gradually increasing stretches of running as the muscles warmed up to it again. There was in fact about a mile and a half to go, as I soon realised, but it was just after 7.45 when we hit the road and I decided to push to try to get in before 8. Jon was game and we pulled each other along with false promises: “Run to the gate? … Actually, let’s get to those bins… Or to the corner…”
We turned onto the high street and a Spine official popped up. “You’re going to make it!” I put on what felt like a sprint finish at the time, happy-crying and trying to wipe snot from my face as the Spine guy had a camera on me. Isie, Inger, and Isi were waiting at the finish line as we ran in, Jon sending me ahead of him. Strangely, during that ‘sprint finish’ nothing hurt at all. Over the finish line and I hugged Jon then my friends and family, then sat down in the chair I’d been looking forward to for 110 miles.
The finish: 110 miles, 46 hours 54.
I finished with a massive 10+ hour PB, first woman in the MRT Spine Challenge, 5th overall in the MRT Challenge, and with a time that would have made me 21st overall out of 64 finishers combining both the main and MRT Challengers, with 71 other racers having retired from the race.
I’m so thankful to the organisers and volunteers who make the race so special, and make it safe to go out and give it your all, knowing that you can really give it everything. Huge thanks to Isie and Inger for meeting me at the finish, the promise of seeing family at the end was a huge boost, and to everyone who dot-watched or sent me encouraging messages throughout, as it feels really special out there knowing someone is watching your progress and willing you on.
I’m still absorbing everything about this race almost a week later. I usually consider myself a back-of-the-pack runner, so winning is a novel experience and a fun one. I’m trying to resist deprecating it with the reality that there were only 2 finishers in a small field to begin with, because while that’s true, that’s the race I entered and the race I won. The fact that 53% of the field DNF’d says something for the challenge too. But even more than my finishing position, my happiness with this race is because I feel like I achieved the three goals I set out to achieve- I committed whole-heartedly to finishing, worked hard to race it like the person I’d like to be, and hard enough to spend some of the race feeling like I was getting a real glimpse of myself.