Kit used on the 2020 Spine MRT Challenge

Just a heads up – this post may be a little dry (unlike the race conditions!) for anyone not looking to prep for their own Spine or other British winter adventure. Again, I feel like I’ve benefited from lots of other people’s race reports and kit lists in the past and want to pay it forward, and I also feel like my kit worked extremely well for me this year. This isn’t a full list of what I carried- for example, my sleep set-up could have been far lighter if I’d wanted to buy a new bag, my cook kit was never used, and I had lots of extra spare layers of everything.

I’m not sponsored by anyone and didn’t get any kit for free. If you want to give me kit in return for an honest review, I wouldn’t say no! (Goretex- you surely couldn’t get better test conditions than the Outer Hebrides!)

Another FYI – I run really cold. If I go for a group run, I’m generally wearing one or two layers more than everyone else. Take this into account in measuring how much I wore against how much you might need!

In general through the race, I was wearing: Brinje short sleeve string vest, long sleeve merino base layer top, thin fleece midlayer, winter running tights, and waterproof socks.

I won’t go into detail on my tops and tights as they were a hodge podge of gear I already had and were chosen by being my favourites to run in bad weather over the last year or two. A lot of it was about specific fit to my shape and love of thumb loops. I’m not too sure how much difference the Brinje makes to warmth, but I will say it makes me feel like my next base layer dries out quicker and seems to reduce that horrible feeling of cold back sweat when you put a pack back on after a kit faff. I was also honestly surprised to hear some people were DNF’ing with hypothermia, so I guess my kit was doing something right for me.

Shoes

I wore Altra Lone Peak 4s in a half size bigger than my ‘normal’ size. I fell over twice on steep downhill muddy fields, gripped flagstones comfortably, and had no trouble in the peat. A couple of blisters that were toe-on-toe rubbing and nothing to do with the shoes. Love them, would wear the same again.

Waterproofs

My favourite piece of gear this race was my waterproof jacket. I took a bit of a risk and went with this Goretex Shakedry jacket. I only got this for Christmas so just had one long run left to test it and didn’t want to wear it on most of my training runs as I usually run with my dog on a waist-belt lead and didn’t want to risk damaging the new jacket. It’s a relatively new type of waterproof so I couldn’t find any reviews out there that could tell me its durability and waterproofing in Spine conditions – 30+ hours of potentially continuous rain, high wind, working up a sweat inside it if you’re not careful, and carrying a big pack that pins layers close in to the body.

Since there aren’t many reviews out there on it, in terms of sizing I got it in EU 38 and it fit perfectly over base layer + thin fleece, but would not have fit over anything padded or bulky. I’m roughly a size 10 UK.

It was fantastic. I did carry a spare, heavy duty North Face waterproof (ancient, not made for running, thick mesh-lined type job) because the forecast was bad, and I put that on for the most exposed section of wind and rain before Stoodley Pike. However, up until that point, I was toasty warm and dry as a bone inside my Shakedry jacket, and I was still dry in every layer when I got changed at CP1.

Besides it keeping me dry and warm, the other features I loved were the soft material lining the inner face of the top of the zip, so when done up all the way I didn’t have cold wet plastic against my face. The hood fit snugly and didn’t block my vision too much or flap in the wind. There’s the same soft material lining for one side of the end of the sleeve, which are a little stretchy at the ends instead of having adjustable flap or cinch things. The shape works really well for me, with enough stretch to pull my hands inside when it was wet but I didn’t want/need gloves, but shaped enough to keep wind out and warmth in.

The main downside to the jacket besides the price is that it is supposedly not a very durable material. I can’t see any sign of wear from the mesh backing of my decently full, 6kg pack at all, so it’s certainly held up through around 30 miles of training runs plus the full race. Given where I live, it will get plenty more testing to discover its true durability!

For trousers, I had Rab Fuse ‘pants’, whose durability I can attest to. This was their third Spine and I wear them constantly for dog walks and runs all year round. I periodically re-waterproof them and I have a tiny tear in one shin from a disagreement with a barbed wire fence. They’re a great extra layer on days with serious windchill but still light enough not to feel like you’re running in a Mr Blobby suit. I switched over to some heavier duty cheap waterproofs from Hebden and regretted it – they were a few inches too long for me even worn right up around my waist and I was constantly trying to hike them back up (eventually safety pinning them to my fleece, which was completely ineffectual and made weeing a big palaver, but seemed worthwhile at the time because they were annoying me so much). Next time, I’d keep the Rab ones the whole way.

I was fastidious to the point of tedium about putting waterproof layers on for rain (including Kinder Upfall) and taking them off if I was getting too hot. This let me dry quickly in the wind when I was working up a sweat any time the rain held off and let the inner layers of my waterproofs evaporate dry too.

Socks

I used a variety of brands in training and the race (changed twice, at CP1 and at Horton) and they seemed equally good. Sealskinz were nice and dry in training but the ones I had felt a bit clumsily thick. The ones I used in the race were all the thinnest each brand did; I think it was two calf-high Dexshell options and a pair of ankle high Verjari ones. The Verjari have the advantage of being so flexible and near normal thickness that I wear them without a liner, which gives you more feel for the ground on normal runs and gave me more room in my shoes for swollen feet towards the end of the race. They do seem to already be losing waterproofing on training runs since, however.

Pack

I ran with one of the new(ish) UD Fastpack 35s, which seemed a very popular choice this year. I’ve previously used a Fastpack 25 and I love these packs. They seem particularly useful for women as the two chest straps can be adjusted up and down to rest comfortably despite boobs, unlike many packs, though I think if you have a very large chest then the lowest position may still not be low enough. The Fastpack 35 has an additional waist belt, which makes it feel like a hiking pack when you put it on, but is really useful for reducing sway and keeping the bottom of the pack from sliding up as I run.

I used all the front pockets for snacks and navigation aids, putting water bottles in the stretchy side pockets (I didn’t buy fancy water bottles, just used the kind you’d buy water in petrol stations etc with the sports style squirty top- I’m much too malco-ordinated to drink from a normal bottle while walking). These were admittedly a little awkward to reach back for, but it worked well for leaving maximum useful little pockets and minimum bulk at the front. The side pockets still had plenty of room for stashing hats and gloves, which I had on and off over and over again to keep my temperature steady. The back stretchy mesh pocket I used for maps, kit I wanted available at short notice but didn’t expect to need (Yaktrax), extra snacks, and waterproofs. Stuffing the waterproofs in loosely at the top seemed to leave them enough air to dry out.

Everything else went into the main roll-top compartment and all the mandatory kit fit easily, despite my carrying several extra layers above the minimum and a bit of a flabby sleeping bag.

My favourite upgrade on the Fastpack 35 was they’ve now made the material of the main compartment waterproof. I still had my emergency layers in a dry bag to be on the safe side, but it honestly didn’t seem necessary. The only kit that got wet was from when I lazily put wet gloves in the main section during a kit change. I’d definitely recommend this pack for multi-day adventures as well as races with big kit lists.

Food & fuel

This one is hugely personal and my ability to eat through the race wasn’t great, so not sure I should be giving tips!

My one fuel success from this race was using Caffeine Bullets for my caffeine intake. They’re mint flavoured sweets and even when I felt pretty nauseated, I quite enjoyed them. I started feeling sick before I took my first, so I can’t blame the caffeine there, and I felt they helped me get up and get going after my laps by taking one beforehand. Looking forward to having these on hand for my Last One Standing event next week!

Summary

At the end of the day, most of my kit decisions were down to having had plenty of practice in “interesting” weather conditions and learning the little things that did or didn’t work for me. Although I risked it a bit with my waterproof, everything else was tried and tested. Kit is obviously a very personal choice and I learned what I wanted just so (e.g. fit of base layers, squirty top water bottles) and what I could basically wing on the day (e.g. choice of buff/hats).

I hope this might be of use to someone planning their own Spine or other colourfully weathered adventure. Now I’m off to write my packing list for my next no doubt weatherful adventure in six days 😀

Preparing for the MRT Spine Challenge

In the run up to my first Spine race, I devoured other people’s blogs to try to work out what to buy, how to train, and how to plan for my race. I’m hoping other people might find it useful to hear what worked for me- but I’m not claiming by any means that there’s any one recipe for success. I’m also aware I’m not the fastest finisher out there- but this year was a huge improvement for me and preparation was a big part of that.

The first and major change I made was in paying for a running coach. This is certainly not essential, but I am lucky I was able to do it and it made my running life much more fun as I could trust my coach to work out what mileage or workout I needed to be doing and I could just get up and do my run. Definitely a privilege but I see it as my main expenditure on myself and hobbies outside work.

My coach is Liza Howard of Sherman Ultra coaching and I would 100% recommend her to anyone. As well as guiding me in my running, Liza was someone I could bounce kit, foot, and sleep ideas around with and she also helped me with my mental attitude and psychological approach to the inevitable lows. We noticed I had terrible discipline in managing my kit when I knew I could “get away with it” and she helped come up with a strategy to train myself out of those bad habits (see below), which I think was an important part of why I was warm and dry despite hypothermia-inducing conditions for many on race day.

Living in the Outer Hebrides meant popping down for recces was going to take a bit too long, so while recces are a very important part of many people’s race prep, they weren’t an option for me. However, we do have plenty of weather to train in, and I did my best to take advantage of bad weather conditions to test kit and train myself in the self-discipline of using kit properly. Getting up in the early hours to drag myself out into 40mph wind and hail made me grumble on occasion, but I had plenty of practise with running in the dark and trying different numbers and types of layers for the weather.

Deep-down I’m actually kinda lazy, despite what appearances of doing ultras for fun might suggest to people. If I start getting too hot, hungry, thirsty, wet on a run, but I know I’ll be finished in half an hour or so, I am literally too lazy to make myself more comfortable and will let myself run in discomfort. That’s fine and dandy when the run finishes in half an hour with a shower, change into dry clothes, and whatever food or drink you need. It’s no good in the middle of a 100 miler in challenging conditions and any of those minor discomforts could lead to DNF level issues further down the line. Liza and I were trying to work out how to combat my natural tendency here and decided I would have to rate how well I had managed self-care stuff during long runs so that I had an incentive to do it properly even if it was ‘only’ 20 miles and I knew I’d be safe even if I got cold/hungry/wet. This worked like a charm for my gamefication-happy brain and also I’m a goody two-shoes so once I had to admit if I’d been lazy, that was suddenly enough incentive not to be so lazy. Practising self-care properly helped me fine-tune layers, where to keep snacks, how much water to carry, etc., and also ingrained good habits for race day.

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More selfie practice needed…

I won’t be too detailed about my running schedule, because I don’t think there’s any one formula that works. In general, my training didn’t look too different to marathon training, except with less speed/tempo work and extra hiking and weighted work in the later, more race specific phase. There was still a bit of speedwork and hill repeats throughout, and more so in the earlier phase. Because I have time during the week where I can fit in a quick gym session but not run, and I enjoy it, I also did weight-lifting two or three times a week.

I certainly ran more miles than last year – roughly 50 miles/week as the average for the peak few weeks, which is nothing for some fast runners but as a slower paced runner with a full-time job it takes a fair amount of time and I was happy with the mileage. My longest long run in training was a 30 mile run, which I really enjoyed, and again was helpful for practising strategy things like kit, pacing, and eating. As the race day got closer, one or two ‘runs’ a week were intentionally hikes, aiming to get my hiking pace up, since inevitably the Spine is more walking than running for most of us normal humans. I added a weighted pack to the hikes initially, then to long runs, to get my back and legs used to having something to carry (I can recommend dog food and lentils as decent weights to add to your pack; I do not recommend medical textbooks).

Probably unusually for a trail runner, I’m also a fan of treadmills. Winter in the Outer Hebrides means a lot of running in the dark, in horizontal rain, and on boggy ground. Sometimes getting up at 5am is just a little bit easier when you can run in the dry on a treadmill and watch TV! My coach had me doing 15% incline treadmill hikes with my pack, which were good opportunities to catch up on Netflix, and I also found the treadmill handy for intervals that could be a bit tricky when the ground got icy.

In the absence of recces, I made sure to refresh my memory of the route on the maps and marked my maps up with this year’s diversions despite planning to primarily use my GPS for navigation. I also dug out a card I made the first year I ran with short (5-7 mile) interval landmarks that I could aim for rather than having nothing but the 46 mile checkpoint to be thinking of from the start, and then another 62 miles to think of ’til the finish! These helped me keep a sense of progress and avoid letting the whole distance loom over me during the race.

Finally I packed and repacked my kit, wanting to be sure I knew where to find every little thing once I was sleep-deprived. I sorted my food out into a packet of 3000kcal to start, and another of the same to pick up at the halfway checkpoint, with a good variety of foods to try to appeal to myself across the way.

Actually, not quite finally. The last thing I did was sit down a few nights before the race and think of my 3am Whys mentioned at the head of my race report. I’d done all the hard work and didn’t want myself to throw it away in a fit of pique during a low point of the race.

Credit should also, of course, go to Captain Dog- my number one training companion (sorry Isi), excellent trainer in how-to-stop-suddenly-to-avoid-flipping-over-a-dog and expert at looking cheerful to be out on a run in galeforce rain.

The Montane Spine MRT Challenge 2020

*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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

The West Highland Way Race 2019

One year on, a completely different experience.

I recently read a race report from a runner who won a Last Man Standing race; he’s a good runner who podiums at races now and again, and who certainly experiences the “pointy end” of races. He described in his report how it was a novel experience to be chasing cut-offs during a race, as he’s never had to worry about DNF-by-sweeper before. It made me think how different various runners’ experiences of the same race can be – likewise, I’ve never experienced the unique pressures at the front of the race, the mind games, strategy, and competitive camaraderie front runners race with.

I certainly wasn’t at the pointy end of the WHW this year, but I had a new experience of genuinely racing an ultra. I was running not just to finish, but wanting to run it well. Rather than setting out slow and hanging on, I wanted to be mindful of the right pace, not just the easiest pace, from the start. My time last year was 32:26 and training this year went so well that I had my eye on a sub-28 goal and hoped I might be capable of better. But there was also that lurking fear that anything can happen over nearly a hundred miles, and fitness isn’t everything.

Here’s how it went.

 

Milngavie to Balmaha (0 miles, 01:00 Saturday morning)

With the race starting at 1am, I did my best to sleep for a few hours in the evening and completely failed. Still, I tried to appreciate the luxury of lying down with eyes closed and feet up. If all went to plan, it was going to be quite a long time until I got to enjoy that again.

At 11pm, I gave up the ghost and went to get myself registered then sat with my crew chatting over a cup of tea and tried not to waste energy on nerves. “Que será  será” was stuck in my head and turned out to be my mantra all race.

WHW43

After briefings, silence for missed friends, and the promise of weather, we set off into the not-quite-dark of Scottish midsummer. I had a huge grin on my face through streets of Milngavie, determined to enjoy the beautiful route more than last year and to find out what hard work could earn me.

Most people are guilty of starting out too fast, but I’m pretty good at starting slow. If anything, I’m happy to mosey along and wanted to make sure I was keeping an ‘honest’ pace from the start. That’s a difficult thing to gauge at 1am in the dark but I ambled along happily enough, taking the cue from others for when a hill was hilly enough to hike.

My only mistake on this section was that I chose to carry just one 500ml bottle and not to ask my crew to meet me at Drymen. Well before dawn, the day was becoming warm and muggy and to be honest, even on a cool day 500ml for 19 miles is pushing it at my pace. On the bright side, this was the first opportunity to practise my mental strategy for the day – relax, enjoy it, que será será. I accepted that I’d run out a little before Balmaha and I did.

WHW2

The schlep up Conic Hill was brightened by a stunning pre-dawn sky and I had my torch off well before then. I enjoyed the slightly tricky footing on the way down and ran into Balmaha pretty much on schedule and happy.

The plan was to minimise time in CPs, as I had sat down, however briefly, in every one last year. Tom met me with Captain, the team dog, and walked with me through the checkpoint. I passed a good number of people in each CP this way, although some would catch me over the next section. I refilled my bottle and drank half another bottle, then jogged back out, Captain Dog making loudly known how much he disapproved of me going for a run without him.

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Balmaha to Auchtertyre (19 mi, 05:58 Saturday morning)

The next section would be a long one before I saw my crew again, but there were 3 points with drop bags- Rowardennan, Inversnaid and Beinglas Farm. My drop-bags were very simple- I had a sandwich bag of food prepacked for every CP, crewed or otherwise, with 100kcal snacks per 3ish miles of the next section, eating 100kcal every half an hour when my watch beeped. It kept the calories trickling steadily in and took decision-making responsibilities away from my running brain.

I enjoy the technical lochside section, although must admit I was finding the slow pace frustrating at times. I’ve since read a fantastic quotation from Fiona Rennie (legend and 15 time finisher of WHW), “If you fight it, it bites you”. It’s totally futile fighting the lochside, you just have to play along and get through.

The volunteers were heroically cheerful at midgie-infested lochside checkpoints and I had my bottle refilled, food bags swapped, and was on my way without any faff.

It felt good to stretch my legs off the lochside and once through Beinglas farm I was getting excited to see my crew. About halfway along this 10 mile section though, I started feeling very woozy and peculiar. I was struggling to focus my vision, feeling light-headed and stumbling. I felt much better running than walking, but was struggling with motivation to run on the flat. I decided it was lack of sleep and tried to get chatting to a woman who was of a pace with me, but she was struggling with stomach cramp and not in the mood for my admittedly shit chat.

Luckily, at this point another runner, Alasdair, caught me up and was very much in a chatting mood. Kept awake by talking, I was suddenly motivated to run to keep up with him, and the two of us kept ourselves going at an honest clip by not wanting to be the first one to slow to a walk or last to start running again. We went through Crianlarich gate much happier and I texted my crew to let them know I was close, before the twists and turns of the forest reminded me just how deceptive those last couple of miles in can feel.

Methini met me in Auchtertyre with food and drink but no van, explaining I was a full hour ahead of expected time and Robin would meet me at Tyndrum if I needed anything else. I drank plenty of water and asked for an ice lolly at Tyndrum, as I was feeling hot and sticky, and trotted off.

 

Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy (51 miles, 13:24 Saturday lunchtime)

I promptly rejected the ice lolly at Tyndrum. I certainly enjoyed the run to Bridge of Orchy more than last year, when I was in a sulk and walking far more than I should, but the sleepy dizziness restarted after a while and was quite annoying. I started reciting “The Jabberwocky” out loud to keep myself awake, with occasional enactment of taking one’s vorpal sword in hand (but luckily not of resting by a tumtum tree), which was all very well but clearly not entirely effective as my pace over this section was a bit slow compared to the field.

Luckily, a runner and his very chipper support runner caught up to me and let me tag along with them and their cheerful chat. I asked them their names several times and have still forgotten, but they were hugely helpful and got me running at a better pace once we were together, banishing the sleep demons – for now.

I had my first brief sit down in a chair at Bridge of Orchy swapping water for coca cola in the hope of driving away the drowsiness and changing into a dry shirt for the evening. The low patch was passing, I had caffeine, and I was feeling good.

WHW26.jpeg

 

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (61 miles, 16:08 Saturday afternoon)

I’m genuinely proud of this section. It was my best of the race by far, and a total transformation compared to last year. I distinctly remember harbouring a dread of the Rannoch Moor by the time I left it last year. I crossed it at a shuffle, tired and grumbling about every false summit, unable to believe how long it went on and insisting that the rocky track was essentially unrunnable.

This year, I felt completely different. My attitude was intentional and started out as “fake it ‘til you make it”, transforming quickly into my real attitude. Que será será. An odd philosophy vaguely based on that song and a very loose understanding of proper physicists’ explanations about time being just another dimension of space had popped fully formed into my increasingly peculiar brain. The moor wasn’t going anywhere, so I may as well run, and at some point in the future I’m already off it, so it’s a done deal and I should just accept that right now this is what life is.

I ran some of it with a few men who were all very experienced Scottish hill runners and ultrarunners, enjoying some easy conversation, but gradually I pulled away ahead, running the flats and downs, hiking the ups with purpose.

This year, I could enjoy the stunning scenery and my immense fortune in being able to be out there running in it. Glencoe CP came into sight and I ran full pelt up the hill to it, truly excited. In my head, Glencoe is where I can start picturing the finish – Devil’s staircase to Kinlochleven, then just the matter of a 15 mile trundle to the finish.

In my excitement, I started gabbing very enthusiastically to Stacey Holloway, a volunteer at the CP who I met very briefly on the Lairig Mor last year in her lowest low patch and who was featured on John Kynaston’s fantastic blog such that I completely forgot she didn’t actually know me. She humoured me very well and I only realised this with a jolt after a good sleep on Sunday…

WHW39

 

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (71 miles, 18:59 Saturday afternoon)

Methini and I had a good chat as we made our way along the sneakily hilly approach to the base of the Devil’s Staircase. Here is where I made my only real mistake of the race. I started feeling sick as we climbed and the plan had been – if I feel sick, accept it as inevitable, swtich to just water, hike until it passes. But I had only brought coca cola with me from the CP. I had also not eaten yet in the hour or so since we left Glencoe. I decided to try a piece of fudge and continue sipping coke and instantly knew I needed to puke.

For all that it was a mistake and I was feeling fairly sorry for myself- to put it in context, last year this section took me over 5 hours, feeling sick and awful almost the whole way. This year, it took me just under 3.5 hours because I kept hiking and we were over the top by the time things got their worst. Seeing as we had just passed the highest water on the hill, I emptied my coke out and asked Methini to fill it from the stream while I started hiking down. She dutifully, midway through her second ever marathon distance run, climbed back up the part we’d already descended, checked on a runner with a leg injury and stayed with him ‘til he started moving again, then ran and caught me up. Legend!

WHW24.jpeg

The descent into Kinlochleven was miles better too, not least because it was still daylight. We jogged most it and were back to chatting – mildly worried that I would weigh-in underweight having now eaten nothing and drunk very little since Glencoe, plus throwing up and a toilet stop.

Luckily, I weighed in at exactly the lowest allowable weight (4% weight loss, I think it is). I had my longest sit down, enjoying chatting with Robin while I got a packet of hula hoops in, emptied half the Devil’s staircase out of my shoes and socks, and watched other runners with their crews and the volunteers. I was trying to do maths to work out what time I could aim for, but it was too hard. I knew it would be over 24 hours and, barring disaster, under 30, but that was about it.

 

Kinlochleven to Fort William (81 miles, 22:23 Saturday night)

The hill out of Kinlochleven doesn’t seem to upset me as much as others. It’s a big old hill, but it’s easy underfoot and by this stage I think I’m quite glad of any excuse not to run. We passed a runner and his support runner having a rest (but in very good spirits) halfway up then set out onto the Lairig Mor.

If the Rannoch Moor was my best section, this was definitely my worst. Blaming sleep deprivation is easy, but I guess it’s also that I let my firm hold on my positive attitude slip. I resented every water crossing (there were many), fell back into old habits of claiming the rocky terrain was too risky to run in the dark, paranoid that we were going the wrong way, and became jumpy and distracted by mild hallucinations of big cats and men looming at the side of the road, a tank in the middle of the track, and other bits and bobs.

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I’m smiling but I’m just pretending. Photo credit to Jeff Smith.

Methini was unbelievably patient with me and we managed to chat about normal things in between my whinging. The mountain rescue fizzy juice station was visible from miles away but simultaneously seemed to appear out of nowhere and I claimed a little sit down on the side while Methini got a drink. After several declarations that Lundavra checkpoint didn’t exist, and the admission that it isn’t visible until you’re right on top of it, we heard cowbells and cheering ringing through the darkness towards us. Even that wasn’t enough to get me to run until we rounded the last corner and their lights came into sight. It was a huge lift, not quite enough to make me happy, but it switched my sulk into anger at my own dillydallying and determination to pick my feet up.

After posing for a photo in the incongruous photobooth we decided to turn on my phone’s tracking so that it would announce every half mile travelled, for the boost of positive progress. I set off running up the short hill, announcing I was getting the hell off this moor. Possibly in slightly stronger language.

The path to and through the forestry had been mildly confusing in daylight last year and I was full of fear that I would take a wrong turn now. Hesitating at a fork, we were passed by a runner (possibly Rowena?) and her support runner who had recce’d it recently and was sure of the way. She was moving incredibly strongly and ran off into the night. I decided I needed to keep up with them or I would definitely get lost and probably die in the forest. It was the kind of pointless stupidity that makes a lot of sense after 24 hours of running.

I was pushing as hard as I could, legging it down hills and marching up them, trying to keep up with this pair as they inexorably pulled further and further away. My certainty of foresty doom if I lost them had lit a fire under me, though, and I was moving as fast as I could – however unimpressive that pace is objectively when I look at it now!

Unsurprisingly, my fears were misplaced and the path was clearly marked by arrows. At last, we were at the top of the long downhill to Braveheart car park and looking at my watch, I saw that I had around 45 minutes to get in under 27 hours. I couldn’t remember if it was 4 miles to the road (and then 1.5mi to the finish) or in total, so I started running as hard as I could. I passed the runner I had been chasing, then a couple of men walking, and kept running.

It was magical, actually.

After 25+ hours on my feet, several hours of walking and crying and begging for a nap by the side of the track, I was running and I felt amazing. Not good, obviously. It hurt. But my breathing was steady and my legs were moving. It felt wonderful.

Methini shouted to me that I should go ahead – a sprint finish wasn’t what her legs had in mind after a weekend of crewing, a marathon spent looking after my every whim and an extra jaunt back up the Devil’s Staircase. At first I wanted her to come with me, but I quickly realised I was being a bit too demanding to expect another couple of miles out of her just so she could see me finish. I phoned Tom to let him know I was coming into the finish and to ask him to get Robin to pick up Methini, and kept running.

The last comedic twist was to come as I ran into town. I knew the way to the old finish, and that the new finish was some way past it and around a bend, but I wasn’t quite sure where. I was pushing hard, still not sure how much time I had to my arbitrary new time goal, looking frantically around for signs to the new finish. A fluorescent yellow arrow pointed straight past the old finish and I ran on. Another pointed left a little while later, but I could see runners straight ahead and tape hanging from lamp-posts.

“Which way is the finish?” I called as I ran to them.

“Follow the arrows and tape!”

A chalk arrow pointed straight ahead on the road. Another yellow arrow was across the road from me, pointing away towards what looked like a residential street. I slowed down, staring at it, and it dissolved into nothing before my eyes.

I was hallucinating arrows!

This was unhelpful, but at least now I knew not to trust my senses!

I kept running and approached another pair of runners.

“Which way!?” I called.

“Follow the arrows!”

“I’m hallucinating arrows!”

They laughed and shouted directions, and I kept running. I realised I could trust the chalk arrows and concentrated on the ground. Finally, the Nevis Centre came into sight. The old tradition was to touch the front door of the leisure centre at the finish and I ran in to do that only to be urged to keep moving into the centre and across the finish line with a time of 26:44:43.

 

Fort William, 96 miles 03:44am Sunday morning

I dibbed my dobber, sat down, and promptly burst into happy, exhausted tears.

 

 

Reflections

I have a lot of reflections on this race, particularly on what changes I made that gave me an almost 6 hour PB, but this report is already long enough so I’ll save them for another time.

The West Highland Way Race is a spectacular race – not only is the scenery unremittingly stunning, the atmosphere of the event is unsurpassable and epitomised by the celebration at the prize-giving and huge cheer as the last finisher was presented with his goblet by the winner of the race. I definitely want to come back and run again, but I think next year I’d like to give back by being on the other side of the race as crew or volunteer along the way. I know I devoured others’ blogs for race inspiration and preparation so hopefully this rambling report might help another runner that I may see along the way next year!

The Inaugural 50 Mile Half Marathon

The what?

I’m training for my second go at the West Highland Way this summer and it’s not too uncommon for training plans to include a 50 mile tune-up race. As most people know, there’s some evidence training runs over 3 hours long have diminishing fitness returns for higher injury risk, but many people also find for ultras that they need practice at that time on feet, eating strategies, and all the rest, enough to justify the longer long runs. I’ve finished two hundred milers before without 50 mile training runs, but wanted to try it this time.

Only problem is, I live on an island that doesn’t host any ultras and is pretty expensive and time-consuming to travel from. Plus, I couldn’t really justify taking time off work for a training run. However! There is a half marathon on the island, and by coincidence it fell exactly on the weekend I wanted my longest training run. A plan formed.

I figured it would be more fun to finish with people than finish a race with friends and then toddle off on my own, so decided I could just fit in a slightly longer than usual warm-up for the half, then join the race and finish with company for the last few miles and a celebratory finish line.

The West Highland Way starts at 1am, so I also decided this was the ideal opportunity to test my night running kit, how my stomach felt taking fuel in the early hours, and everything in between. Perfect!

Now, some might argue this is a training run report not a race report, but it finished with a race, so this is my warm-up run and race report for the Inaugural 50 Mile Half Marathon. I’m hoping my experience might be slightly useful for anyone else wanting to do something similar for themselves.

Training

Training has been going really well. For the first time, I signed up with a coach (distance coaching because island) and have had the most consistent and focussed training I’ve ever done for an ultra. I’m generally a back-of-the-pack runner so the only person I’m racing is myself, and I’ve never run particularly big mileage.

Starting in February, I’ve built up to around 50 miles/week, peaked at 67, and done several 20-22 mile training runs back-to-back with ~10 miles the next day. A new thing in my plan was also treadmill incline hiking, which has made a noticeable difference to my uphill walking pace, a very important part of a slower ultra-runner’s race day plan! It’s also been a good chance to escape some atrocious weather and catch up on rubbish TV, so I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I might.

Pre-race

My race was going to start at 1am on Saturday. I managed to have an hour’s nap at in the afternoon after work, had a bowl of pasta and went to bed at 8pm with an alarm set for midnight. I set out my running clothes for the “morning”, with a change of clothes for the half marathon (mainly because I didn’t want to alarm and confuse people when I turned up at the start line looking battered and exhausted).

I decided to run the warm-up as 5 mile loops of a trail I know well that’s a mile from the start of the half. It meant I could pass my van at regular intervals, I wouldn’t get lost in the dark, and it has enough variation underfoot to use different muscles and gears.

Running snacks got packed in portions that correspond to when I’ll be able to get food during the West Highland Way- the checkpoints are very unevenly spread and it’s crew-supported rather than aid stations, so I wanted to test what I will be packing for the big day. In the first 50 miles, I’ll be able to access crew or drop bags at 19, 27 34, and 51 miles, so I filled sandwich bags labelled 1, 2, and 3 and picked them up in order during my warm-up run from my van as I ran past it. Some may notice the checkpoints and distances I would pass the van don’t line up – this very simple problem occupied a lot of my tiny, confused long-run brain as I figured out on which loop to pick up the next “checkpoint” pack.

I woke up half an hour before my alarm and nervously snoozed, checking the time every five minutes. Eventually, I got up, apologised to the dog for not taking him with me despite the running clothes, and got out the door.

Warm-up run: Miles [0] to [37]

After some putting-off-the-inevitable fiddling with my phone, I started. It was cloudy and pitch black in the wooded parts of the trail, with a short section that was lit by streetlamps towards the end of each loop. I ran the first loop with a headtorch – despite fresh batteries, it kept dimming and blinking and was pretty lame, but gave a small puddle of light that was plenty for smooth bits of the trail and only mildly inadequate for the rocky sections.

I have to admit I was a bit jumpy for the first loop. I’ve done night running in training and in races before, but rarely at this time of night or along a trail where there might be people (usually out in the wilderness where I know I’m on my own). I decided not to wear headphones while it was dark and ended up really enjoying the night sounds – except when a deer came crashing out of the trees, made me scream and put my heart rate into zone 5.

I already mentioned that my brain is fried by long runs, and this was no exception. I was doing my best to only let myself think about one section at a time- 50 miles is intimidating, but I know I can run 19 or 8 miles at a time. I spent the first three hours of the run trying and failing to do basic maths about loop numbers, which was a nice distraction. The dark loops were pretty uneventful, except for a short staring match with a hedgehog and two near falls. I switched to a handheld torch that was miles better than the headtorch and only mildly annoying to carry (but made eating slightly more of a palaver as I kept inadvertently blinding myself pointing it in my face while I dug around in pockets for food).

Because I always under-eat during ultras, fuelling has been a part of my training that I’ve tried to be more disciplined about this time around. I wore a cheap digital watch that beeped every 30 minutes and I would eat around 100kcal snack each time. It’s quite a nice way to break up the time, gives me a minute or two walking break every half hour, and initially was something to look forward to. After around 20 miles, I got a bit bored of eating and it became a negotiation with myself as to what I’d eat next and whether I had to wait for an uphill to walk and eat or just got to take a walking break regardless of terrain.

The pre-dawn light was enough to ditch the torch by 4am and the daylight really brightened my mood. Also, enjoyed seeing several herons and at one point got excited about seeing a seal, which turned out to be a rock (the run was along the coast in my defence, I wasn’t completely mad even by this stage). I did slow down a bit according to the splits, but that will including swapping food into my pack and refilling water bottles. I also started hiking the hills that I’d been jogging in the dark, because I’m spacially challenged and was more or less oblivious to half of them when I couldn’t see them. It started raining at some point but the temperature was perfect. It’s been hail and 50mph winds here half the time over winter, so 8 degrees and light drizzle was great!

In the third leg, with just 10 miles to go, I started getting very sleepy and was tempted to stop early to have a nap. The fact that it would mean doing extra miles after celebrating the finish of the half marathon was enough to shut down the idea, though, and I kept on plodding. I eventually finished with just over an hour to go ’til the start of the half and was chuffed. I changed into dry things, wiped myself down with wet wipes, wrapped myself up in a warm coat and moved the van to the start of the half. I also gulped down two caffeinated shotbloks and immediately felt very nauseated, so spent half the rest time going back and forth to toilets hoping I might be sick.

Half marathon: Miles [37] to [50.1]

Just a half marathon to go!

It was great to see quite a few friends at the start line. One or two knew that I’d been planning a little pre-run and quite reasonably thought I was mad. A good running friend was feeling undertrained for the half and decided she’d prefer to pace me than race, which meant I had company and motivation for the final stretch. She made a huge difference to how fun the half was, and definitely nudged my pace up.

Going from running alone in the dark to running with people all around me was surreal. I mean – don’t go picturing Boston or London, it’s still a small place, but there were a couple of hundred runners and, despite the rain, lots of friends and family outside houses to clap us past. Not wanting to look massively overenthusiastic running a half marathon with a big pack, I’d stuffed a bag of sweets in the pocket of my waterproof and shovelled a small handful into my mouth every 3 miles, just before each water station. It felt good to ditch the backpack and I think in the West Highland Way once I’m allowed a pacer I’ll switch to a waistbelt for mandatory gear and not carry so much extra kit.

The course for the half was a loop of quiet residential roads, then onto the trails I’d spent all night on. Hitting the trail for the last time I felt great. Somewhat sore knees and feet, but nothing more than I’d expect for the hours on my feet. My mood was in that weird very-long-run detached mode, but my motivation was absolutely solid. I became a bit less chatty in the last 3 miles, needing to focus on keeping moving, but the elation of a definite finish was beginning to well up inside me. The last mile felt like a sprint but was barely any faster than my baseline speed.

I’d been worried that 50 miles was too far for a training run, worried about injury, worried about needing to death march it in and inconvenience the race organisers by being last out on the course (there was no official cut-off time), but all those worries were totally dispelled in those last few miles. I ended up finishing the half in 2:19 and 9:50 overall (discounting my little rest), which is a ~30 minute 50 mile PB!

Post-race

I was pretty stiff and sore once I stopped moving, but went home for a bath, in which I promptly fell asleep, followed by pizza. Since it was raining for the best part of the last 5 hours of the run, my feet had a little early trenchfoot and I had some impressive chafing from the wet (may have done a little yelp scream as I got into the bath with that), but otherwise everything seemed intact. Just after I’d decided I was never moving again, there was a minor lamb-related emergency and I had to hobble around hefting sheep hurdles and small sheep around, which was probably much better for me than lying around anyway. The bit I’m happiest about is the following day, no knee pain, no blisters, sitting down on toilets without yelping and able to get out walking the dog.

 

The West Highland Way Race 2018

My feelings on the starting line of an ultra are always a bit of an odd mixture. On the one hand, there are nerves. On the other, feeling “nervous” seems daft because nerves seem to imply uncertainty, and there is one certainty: this is going to hurt.

To be fair, my nerves at the start of the West Highland Way were fears for the first two cut-off times at Balmaha and Beinglas Farm. I know I can definitely run 40 miles at that pace (let’s be honest- it’s 4mph, more of a brisk walk), but my only other 100 mile success was at the Spine Challenger, which took me a mammoth 58 hours. It seems daft in retrospect, because the Spine is a completely different race (snow, thigh-deep mud, 16 hours of darkness, etc), but I couldn’t help being afraid that somehow it represented the only pace I can do 100 miles in.

Anyway, I had some mild jitters waiting to start at Milngavie, but my biggest feeling was the strange apprehensive acceptance I get at the start of ultras. This is going to hurt, it’s is going to have hard bits, and it’s going to take a very long time. I was excited too, of course. Part of me is just a kid who sees ultras as a big adventure. I get to play outside all day eating whatever I want, what’s not to love, right?

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Finally, and all too soon, we were off into the night. 1am is a strange time to start, and I hadn’t managed to get any extra sleep so I knew I was in for some tiredness later, but it was an absolutely beautiful night for it. Lucky really, as I hadn’t thought to test my headtorch beforehand and the batteries were half dead. Surrounded by the solar bloom of some people’s spotlight devices I was absolutely fine, but in the patches where I ran alone, I was more or less running in the dark. I couldn’t face stopping so soon to change batteries, despite spares in my bag, so put up with it and actually rather enjoyed it.

The run to Drymen (where my headtorch came off), and eventually Balmaha, was good and uneventful. I felt decent coming into Balmaha and very happy to see Methini (bundled up against the midgies) waiting with a smile. A big learning point from the Spine had been that I’m not good at eating on ultras, and waiting to see what I fancy at each checkpoint previously resulted in my crew having to make a hundred suggestions and then just bully me into taking something, which isn’t a very fair burden to put on them. This time, I wrote a suggested food for each checkpoint on the cheatsheet I gave my crew (with postcodes and info about each checkpoint) and unless I texted ahead requesting something else, that was what I got. It worked pretty well, and at Balmaha I downed a “liquid breakfast” shake, swapped out water bottles, and headed off without too much delay.

 

Balmaha 19 miles – 5:11am

The run into Rowardennan, Land of the Midgies, went by smoothly listening to music, and I midgie-netted up and sat down to text my crew an update (they were sleeping through since I could have a drop-bag), then walked on eating a cereal bar under my midgie net. I switched to an audiobook for the slow up-downs from here, and that audiobook worked miracles for me all race. It was a trashy murder mystery and the weirdest thing to be listening to during an ultra, and I loved it.

The “technical” bits either side of Inversnaid were undoubtedly my favourite bits of the entire race. I love fiddly ups and downs, and the boulder scrambling low by the lochside was great fun. I did worry that I would be too slow getting into Beinglas, which dented my enjoyment, but luckily caught up to another runner who reassured me the last four miles into Beinglas became runnable, so I relaxed and enjoyed myself. My running of that last “runnable” section was slower than I’d have liked, but I came into Beinglas at 11:58, an hour before cut-off and happy with that. I had a nice sit down for a rice pudding with M&Ms stirred in, an iced coffee, swapped out my water bottles, and regretfully walked back the way I’d come to make use of proper toilets before carrying on.

 

Beinglas Farm 41 miles – 11:58am

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The best bit about Beinglas in my head was that it marked one more leg to go until I could have a support runner. I’ve never done a race that allowed support runners before, and I was excited at the prospect. This leg felt pleasantly up-and-down, and I seem to remember a particularly fun downhill where lots of others were walking and I was delighted to find my legs and feet happy to run down.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of my training in the Harris hills, trying to keep up with my friend Isi on downhills (and epically failing, always), and in comparison to deep heather hiding rocks and rabbit holes, the downhills of the West Highland Way are plain sailing. By this distance in previous races, my knees and feet have often felt too sore to manage the impact of downs, so it was very satisfying to be running them.

 

Auchtertyre 51 miles – 3:11pm

After my first weigh-in (no weight change) I joined my crew in the camper van and chatted to Methini about what clothes and kit she might want to bring with her. She’s only got into running much in the last year, although has done lots of long treks and hill walking, so the plan was for her to come on a short stint with me now, for some company, then to join me from Glencoe. Tom badgered me into eating some cheese and other bits and pieces and then we set off.

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We did the short stint and I found myself pretty poor company for her- it was a nice, fairly easy section, but I think sleep-deprivation was beginning to kick in. I was also feeling sick with stomach cramps, and wasted time at Tyndrum going to the loo and hoping it would go away. Methini got back in the van at Tyndrum and I went on alone, getting grumpier and grumpier. I managed to miss a turning and find myself at a main road, craning my neck for the right course and luckily seeing runners back up the hill I’d descended so I could rejoin the path without too much panic, but some extra grumpiness.

 

Bridge of Orchy 60 miles – 6:28pm

As always, running into a checkpoint cheered me up greatly. Not to mention, getting to use a fancy hotel loo. Unfortunately, toilets were featuring heavily in my thoughts by now and for much of the next few hours. Feeling that my bad mood was getting the better of me, I asked if Methini would come with me earlier than planned and do the leg to Glencoe with me. She immediately agreed and we got ourselves ready.

The moor was incredibly beautiful, but I had my head down a lot of the time now, feeling deeply sleepy and tired. Jelly Baby Hill wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, and the music (Star Wars theme if I remember rightly?) floating down towards us brought the biggest smile to my face in ages. I had an orange jelly baby, guessed the flag wrong, and carried on.

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From here onwards, I made a big mistake and let myself get into cycles of negative thinking and self-pity. I was only letting myself think of the next leg, the next checkpoint, but even so, the many, many hours looming ahead of me were intimidating, and I kept letting myself ruminate on how sick I felt, how sore my feet were, and it was totally stupid. Hopefully this will be a lesson I can carry into my next race- that if I let myself mope, it just gets worse. It would have been worth an investment of energy to force myself to even pretend cheerfulness, as I think it would have helped lift me out of a fug.

I can only apologise to Methini, who was absolutely amazing the entire time she was with me. We chatted, we walked in silence, she encouraged me to run at regular intervals, and was just wonderful.

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Glencoe Ski Centre 71 miles – 9:52pm

At Glencoe, I had another visit to proper toilets (these were blissfully warm- my brief stop at the van was enough to get me instantly shivering, as my homeostasis was starting to go haywire after so many hours on the move). I changed into long sleeves and trousers, which was an excellent decision, and set off in a very strange mood. I felt extremely sick and unhappy, but underneath it was the beginnings of a buzzing excitement- just one leg to go after this! For the first time, I let myself think about actually finishing.

The Devil’s Staircase was where my sleep deprivation, nausea, and self-pity collapsed in on each other into a muddle of pathetic whinging, very slow walking, and general uselessness. Methini walked steadily ahead of me and it was all I could do to keep one foot moving after the other. I whined that I felt very sick, that I was so tired, I just wanted to sit down. Maybe I could have a little sit down on that rock? Methini politely suggested I’d be better off just taking a few breaths standing still and carrying on. I glared at the rock as I staggered past it. It looked the perfect rock for a sneaky snooze.

I started feeling a bit dizzy as well as sick, and the whinging intensified. I asked if we could hold hands, as I was a little worried I might fall over and down the hill (I was less worried about breaking my neck, and more worried that I might then have to climb up part of the hill twice). It must have been like trying to shepherd a large toddler, but again Methini was unbelievably kind and practical. We kept walking and she kept me distracted with (of all things) poetry recitals and tales of her climb of Kilimanjaro. At last, I started throwing up, and the relief was enormous. It was like a fog had lifted and I could suddenly talk like an adult and walk at actual walking pace again.

We were both amazed at this transformation and did our best to make the most of it while it lasted. I was pretty fed up of rocky trail, which I no longer thought was any good to run on, but we made OK walking pace on it, bracketed by a couple of other pairs of runner-and-supporter looking in roughly similar shape (or should I say, similarly rough shape) to us. I’d read so many race reports warning that the descent into Kinlochleven takes at least twice as long as you expect it to, but all this flew out of my head and I moaned constantly that I couldn’t believe how long that descent was taking us! We finally emerged onto road and managed a trot to the checkpoint centre, overwhelmed by relief.

 

Kinlochleven 81 miles – 3:06am

In the centre, while being weighed I cautiously asked the room if I would be considered crazy for having a little sleep. I’d told myself that sleep is just a waste while the clock is ticking, but sleep-deprivation has a way of digging its claws into your brain until all you can think about is a way to get some sleep. If I had thought I’d get away with it, I’d have lain down for a snooze while Methini wasn’t looking on the hill, but I suspected somehow she wouldn’t have let me get away with it.

Thankfully, the back-of-the-pack runners do sometimes have a snooze here, as the marshals assured me. Feeling I’d been granted permission, I told my crew I needed an hour’s sleep. They agreed I could have a 40 minute sleep and duly set an alarm for 30 minutes. I love those sneaky bastards. I lay down and was instantly out.

When Tom woke me and practically pried me out of the van to get moving again, it was beginning to get light and I felt much better for the sleep, if very stiff. I hobbled across the car park and felt my heart rate rocket up instantaneously. Somewhat alarmed, I waved at my (both medical doctors) crew in their van and they waited. I asked Tom through the open window to check my pulse with that weird Shrodinger’s ultra hope – I simultaneously desperately wanted to finish and secretly hoped I had gone into some terrible arrhythmia and he would pull me from the race and I could just lie down. He frowned and felt my carotid pulse, then waved me away.

“It’s regular, it’s probably fine. See you in Fort William!”

That was that, then. I hobbled grudgingly away, popping my headphones in.

The climb up out of Kinlochleven wasn’t bad. My stomach was behaving so long as I didn’t try to eat or drink anything, but I was confident in my ability to go 14 miles without. I had my trashy murder mystery audiobook and my only job was to put one foot in front of the other.

I did start getting anxious about losing the route here, as the back of the pack was spread out and the way markers were few and far between. I wasted lots of time in this last section getting the map out of the back of my bag, scrutinising my surroundings, even taking bearings, and carrying on for ten feet before doubt crept in again. In hindsight, the course is easy to follow and obvious but I think the lack of sleep and calories was making me anxious and I chose to focus on the route as the subject of my anxiety.

At some point, I spotted a runner and supporter ahead of me and this was exactly the impetus I needed. Keen to keep them in sight, my pace crept up and I gradually caught up. The runner, Stacey, was in the depths of a low similar to mine on the Devil’s Staircase. Her support runner, her boyfriend, was obviously doing a great job keeping her on track, and kindly offered me a variety of foods when I shared her complaint of not being able to stomach anything. Boosted by the spot of company, I picked up my pace. Lundavra got a whoop of joy out of me and I ran through (pausing for a quick photo) and on.

The fire track should have been a wonderful descent. I’ve never had my legs feel so good after so many miles. There was no injury pain, just the expected aches and a few blisters, and I could run a perfectly reasonable pace. Those 4 miles went on forever, though. I started having ridiculous bursts of crying with excitement that I was actually going to finish, then a normal patch, then a sob of “why won’t this ever end!?” would break through, to be replaced by “oh my God, I’m going to get a goblet! I’m going to do it!”, in hectic circles. I ran past a few amused and bemused people out walking their dogs who gave me kind encouragement and ignored the tears.

I hit the road and pushed on, crying and laughing at myself. “Do you know where the finish is!?” I asked a random lady (pretty sure a local rather than a race supporter) sitting on a bench who clapped as I passed, and she very kindly leapt up to catch up to me and point out the very obvious race centre just across the roundabout.

At last, the finish. There was another runner, Joe, just up ahead. I’d spent a fair amount of the race benefiting from running with him and his support and since at this point I was running and he was walking I had no desire to zoom-hobble in and look like I was trying to pip him to the finish, so I slowed and said a delighted hello to my support crew as he finished, then jogged those last twenty feet into a very, very happy tearful finish.

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Fort William 95 miles – 32:26:45

 

Within two days, I was thinking of reasons to run it again. I suspect I’ll be entering the Spine Challenger again in January, and entering the ballot for next year’s WHW too. There’s just something about 100(ish) miles that does something for me- it really, really hurts, it teaches me a lot, and I’m so grateful to be able to do it.

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The MONTANE Spine Mountain Rescue Challenge 2017

Be warned: super long post!

At midday on Saturday January 14th I stood at the start for the Spine Mountain Rescue Challenge, UK winter ultra.

The race

The Spine Challenger is a 108-mile winter ultra following the southern half of the Pennine Way (PW) in north England. There is a time limit of 60 hours overall, which sounds pretty generous for a 100 miler, until you consider that the course record is around 30 hours and the DNF rate is extremely high. There is very little support along the course: only 1 formal checkpoint at mile 46 (CP 1 at Hebden Bridge) and a “mini checkpoint” where “hot water may be available” and “racers may be allowed indoors depending…”, no drop bags, at mile 82 (“CP 1.5” at Malham Tarn).

Racers must carry an extensive mandatory kit list, including stove, fuel, 3000kcal of food, medical kit, handheld GPS, full set of maps and compass, waterproofs and appropriate layering, sleeping bag rated to winter weather, and either a tent or bivy. There are only 7 hours of daylight this time of year here, and the weather is extremely changeable; previous races have faced diversions or forced suspensions of the race due to gale force winds, blizzards, and flooding. I was running in the Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) Challenge, a separate section of the race for mountain rescue team members, which set off 4 hours after the other Challengers, meaning more hours of darkness.

 

The start: Edale (Saturday midday. 0 miles down, 108.5 to go)

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Lined up at the start

It was perfect weather for the start of the race. Blue sky, crisp, little wind, a few inches of crunchy snow on the ground. We started at midday from Edale village hall. I’d arrived an hour or so early to get my tracker fixed onto my pack (which would transmit throughout the race, mainly for safety but also for people to follow the race live online) and mill nervously around with the other runners.

There were only 20 of us in the MRT race, and only 2 other women. Since everyone was a Mountain Rescue team member, as expected everyone looked pretty hardy and prepared. The ladies in particular looked very confident and comfortable, and their packs looked a lot less held-together-by-carabiners than my higgledy-piggledy kit.

I’ve never started an event before where I felt so uncertain whether or not I was even capable of completing it. Probably the closest was when I ran Round the Rock, a summer 48 miler around the coastline of Jersey, when I had some doubts about my ability to beat the first cut-off. If I made that, though, I knew I could finish well within the course time. For the Spine Challenge, I wasn’t so much worried about cut-offs, I just didn’t know how far I could go. I did expect to be near cut-offs, so my half-baked plan was to try to go straight through the first night, carry on ‘til dusk on Sunday and see where I was to decide how long I could sleep. No more detail than that, and even that didn’t happen in the end.

I had an amazing support crew ready to meet me whenever the PW crossed a road. In fact, I had 2 teams. My day team was my parents and brother, and my night team was my partner and a friend, Tom and Methini. The night team were in our Land Rover with a little half mattress in the back, so I could curl up for a sleep if the chance arose.

Despite lots of insistence from everyone on the start line that none of us intended to run, this was a long hike, we all inevitably set off at a run across the muddy field and up the road towards the start of the PW. I slowed to a quick walk halfway up the road, knowing we had a few miles of gentle ups and downs before hitting the first big hill of the race. Our numbers were so few we were spread out almost immediately, and other than a brief chat to one guy, Anthony, about our yo-yoing (running downs and walking ups) strategy, I was pretty much on my own from here on in.

It didn’t take long to get to the hill. It starts as a long zig-zag of steps called Jacob’s Ladder up towards Kinder Scout. I’d been up here before for a picnic with Tom and Methini and it had been lovely. A bit of a leg-burner to get up all those steps, but really not so bad. Unfortunately, I hadn’t really paid attention that day, so I was quite unpleasantly surprised to realise, when I got to the top of Jacob’s Ladder on Saturday, that Jacob’s Ladder is only a small start to the hill. A beautiful curving ridge of snow showed me the climb that I still had left.

Eventually I reached the top and had a nice traverse through deep snow before heading out onto Bleaklow Moor. My legs were already aching and burning, and I reminded myself that this was the freshest my legs would ever be. It was not a comforting thought, but it didn’t scare me as much as it should have done.

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Bleaklow

Bleaklow is a pretty featureless place at the best of times. It’s a muddle of thick black peat littered with boulders ranging from fist to armchair size. In a way, the snow made things easier- usually, crossing the moor is to invite twisted ankles, scraped knees and hands, and possibly the occasional plunge into black peat up to the thigh. Following the trail blazed by the earlier Challengers, the snow nicely filled the gaps between the rocks and it was decently runnable in places.

The downside of this was that it was very tempting to ignore navigation and just follow the yellow brick road of footsteps. I was obsessively checking my GPS but even so was saved a detour by a walker up ahead waving at me as I followed the path towards him. I waved back and he gestured to me to go east. I looked east and couldn’t see anything- no footprints, no path. I started towards him and he shook his head lots, gesturing east. I waded knee-deep through snow a few paces east and discovered a tiny trodden trail in the snow. I checked my bearing and he was right- this was the PW, not the lovely path I’d been about to follow. I wonder how many people missed that turn.

Further up, the trail I was following began to feel wrong to me. I’d recce’d this bit and knew I should reach a cairn and then take a leftward track, and I just felt like the trail was off. I checked my bearing again and we’d already strayed off the PW, too far east. The cairn was almost directly north of me. I hesitated, GPS in hand, looking at the nicely trodden down path in the snow- in the wrong direction- and the deep snow and gorse. I’m sure the trail eventually curved back around to the PW, because other runners must have realised their error. Unless, of course, the trail wasn’t made by runners but by normal people out for a walk. I took the plunge and waded out into the snow, quickly working up a sweat cutting a new trail, and came in sight of the cairn in just a couple of minutes. I had a quick scout around and couldn’t see any decent track leading in towards it from the right direction, only two other lines of deep footprints where other runners must have down the same as me.

The rest of the track to the first road crossing was very straightforward. Some of it was flagstones, which were nice and runnable, but by now I hadn’t had another runner in sight for hours. Occasionally, one guy would startle me by running up from behind, then slow and walk with me for a minute chatting. He was running as a team with a friend, who he said already had blisters and was struggling, so he would run and catch up with me, then stop and wait for his friend, rinse and repeat. It must have been agony for the friend to catch up to him, nice and rested, and have to just keep on, and I wondered that he wasn’t getting cold during those stops waiting. I found out after the race that he retired at CP1.

I felt quite slow along here and was beginning to worry about my pace, so I was pleased when I began to catch up on 2 guys ahead. It was a bit gutting to get to them and find out they weren’t racers- they were Mountain Rescue team members out to support one of their fellow team mates, who had now gone past them. On the bright side, I was now in view of the first road crossing, Snake Pass.

 

Snake Pass (Saturday, 3pm. 10 miles down, 98.5 to go)

I saw the night support crew’s car at the crossing and was delighted, though surprised since support crews aren’t supposed to meet us at Snake Pass as it can be a bit busy. As it turned out, they were just getting out for a dog walk back south the way I’d come (though hoping to see me in passing) and they missed me. There was a Mountain Rescue vehicle to check us through this crossing and I accepted a coffee more out of gratitude that they were standing out in the cold to offer us help than actually wanting one. I’ve actually never had any kind of caffeinated drinks during races so I’m lucky my stomach puts up with most of my stupidity. Or at least, it did at this stage. More on that later.

The rest of this section was quite fun. The snow was absolutely beautiful across the moors and once I reached Bleaklow Head, there were some nice runnable sections. I was absolutely loving my shoes by now. I’d gone with Inov8 Oroc 280 having read a blog of someone who’d done the race in them and raved about them, and now I’m going to do the same. They have huge aggressive lugs and then metal studs as well and they were amazing. I was running over icy rocks and through thick mud confidently, and I think they must have saved me a huge amount of energy over the course as I didn’t fall once and I was saved an awful lot of ice-skating that I saw other competitors having to put up with.

As it got dark, I descended towards Torside Reservoir, where again there was an MR vehicle to check us through and offer us water. This time, knowing my crew were ahead, I carried straight on fishing out my headtorch as I went over the reservoir and up past Crowden.

 

Crowden (Saturday 5pm. 16 miles down, 92.5 to go)

Happily, I was greeted by my entire support crew (including 2 dogs) along the track near Crowden. I had a very quick chat, hugs from everyone, a cup of soup, and walked away eating half a cheese and ham sandwich. Already, Cliff bars and sweet things were beginning to pall; not a good sign 5 hours in!

The next section was nice and easy terrain for the most part. Lots of flagstones (covered in half frozen icy slush that my shoes treated like an easy pavement; I imagine people in less grippy shoes had a bit of trouble here). It was a lovely starry night and I was enjoying the easy terrain, but the darkness and blandness of the surroundings made it pretty boring.

 

Wessenden Reservoir (Saturday, 8pm. 25.6 miles down, 82.9 to go)

Both crews met me again. I was still feeling OK here. I grabbed a packet of Doritos and ate those as I walked off- these were my favourite race food throughout! By this stage, I’d stopped eating my Cliff bars. My nutrition plan had been 1/3rd of a bar every 30 minutes, meaning 270kcal every 1.5 hrs, or equivalent in calories from other food from my support crew. It’s a bit less than they suggest you have during a marathon, but I’ve never managed to keep up with the recommendation, plus the pace here is so slow that it’s majority fat-burning. If I’d been able to stick with it, I think it would have done me very well, but from this point on, eating became harder and harder.

This bit comprised long flat, if rather boring, tracks alongside a series of reservoirs. I wasted a bit of time faffing with my hiking poles (which I usually hate and only brought because so many experienced racers describe them as essential) getting them out for a hill and putting them away again.

I passed through Harrop Dale (Saturday, 9:40pm. 29 miles down, 79.5 to go) and crossed the M62 (Saturday, 11:30pm. 33 miles down, 75.5 to go).

Over the hours of darkness, alone, I was getting slower and more and more unhappy, making me slower still. I think it was a simple combination of the misery of constant darkness (around 6 hours of walking on my own in the dark by now) and inadequate calories, plus I was starting to get sleepy. I was beginning to get a bit desperate, and when I met my crew at Blackstone Edge (Saturday ~midnight. 34 miles down, 74.5 to go) I felt empty. I told them I needed a 10 minute sit down, mainly to spend that time basking in light, conversation and company. I sat on the back of the Land Rover with my feet dangling and they tried to make me eat, with limited success. I think I took a packet of hula hoops. The problem was, I knew from here it was a long stretch without seeing anyone- about 10 miles to CP1, which at my current pace was 4 hours. I was dreading it. Luckily, my support crew were exactly what I needed, ushering me away before I sat down for too long and being fairly unsympathetic. I headed back out.

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It’s HOW far to my sleep stop?

It was a bit of a grim haul. Somewhere, I caught up to a guy I ended up following for some time, probably annoying no end by letting his naturally quicker walking pace take him away from me, then I would jog until I was close again, then walk ‘til he started to escape again. It seems stupid in the real world, but in that mindset, I was letting him do the work of applying motivation to keep to a decent pace, and all I had to do was keep up with him one way or another. Eventually, I overtook him on a lovely downhill, only to realise (thanks to him calling and pointing it out) that we’d missed a turn. We schlepped back up and headed up towards the monument at Stoodley Pike, joined by three Irish guys who were doing the normal Challenger. They looked tired- they were 4 hours further into their race than us and must have been even more desperate for the CP than I was- and fell behind us.

After the beacon, I fell into walking with the guy I’d been trailing. He was lovely and it was unbelievably nice to have someone to talk to. Plus, he had done the Challenger before and was confident of the route into the checkpoint, and I let myself slightly relax my constant vigilance on route-finding as we made our way up. I’d recce’d this bit too and it was nice to be back in familiar territory, in company, and so very close to a place where I’d decided I was definitely stopping for a sleep.

 

CP 1 Hebden Hey (Sunday 4:45am, 46 miles down, 62.5 to go)

CP 1 is at a scout camp a mile or so off the PW. This in itself isn’t a problem, but the route down to it is a ridiculously steep, treacherous, narrow, unmarked slide of mud, tree roots and rocks that takes about 20 minutes to get down, much less the 30-40 to clamber back out. Before the race, several people warned me that plenty of people have ended their race on this path through injury, and to be completely honest, it pissed me off. I know the CP is part of race history and is never going to be changed, but the dangerous, miserable slither down just seemed like a needless dose of masochism. There are tough and dangerous parts elsewhere on the course, but that’s because they’re part of the PW. This bit is just a completely unnecessary pain in the arse. Of course, I might have had more of a sense of humour about it had I not been walking for 17 hours, awake for 21, and severely lacking in calories.

It killed me to walk past my support crew to get down to the CP, and killed me again to say no thanks to the invitation inside for a hot meal and climb back out, but finally I made it to the car where I could have a rest.

I had previously promised myself I would do no resting during daylight hours whatsoever, but having got to the car at 5:30, with daylight starting some time between 7-8am, I just needed the rest and gave myself ‘til 8 to sleep. My right shin was hurting so sharply I was slightly worried it might be a stress fracture. I wrestled my wet shoes and socks off, inspected the damage so far (the very beginnings of immersion injury, AKA trenchfoot, and several massive blisters on my toes), and ate what I could (about 2 mouthfuls of couscous and a couple of mouthfuls of a high calorie chocolate shake thing), then curled up next to my dog and went to sleep. My legs hurt a lot and I wasn’t convinced I slept at all, but Tom assures me I was snoring away, so I must have done.

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Somehow, I woke up feeling renewed. Even my right leg had quieted to a dull throb. I had a cup of that chocolate shake mixed with coffee, a pack of hula hoops, and a couple of bites of a sandwich while Tom heroically dealt with my feet (draining blisters and taping them up), then I headed out. My goal for the daylight hours was to get to Gargrave, at 70 miles, for a second sleep before a last effort to the finish.

The weather had warmed up to rain by the time I left CP1, so most of the ground from here on in was flooded. After briefly trying to skirt around the water (meaning huge detours off the path), I gave up and splashed through it all, sometimes nearly up to my knees. It was more like running in a streambed than on a path, but it was still quicker than the cautious approach and I overtook a normal Challenger on the moor. He seemed slightly disorientated and asked where the next turn was- it wasn’t for another couple of miles, as I pointed out on both GPS and map, but he didn’t believe me (or perhaps didn’t believe how slow the going was at this point, convinced he had gone further than I was showing him) and continued to stand staring at his map as I headed away.

I was in good spirits when I met my crew at the next crossing and didn’t hang about too much. I remember passing a man who was clearly really struggling. As I approached from afar, I thought I saw a hunched old man, so was surprised to see a young man’s face when he turned back to me as he was making his painful, slow way down the hill. I asked how he was doing and his reply wasn’t reassuring. He looked wan. I asked when he last ate; he said not for a three or four hours and I told him he needed to eat, offering him what I had. He said he would be fine and was meeting his crew down at the reservoir, so after double-checking he was OK I pushed on.

At some point, my left knee had started to produce a stabbing pain whenever it moved- it made me make strange noises as I went downhill- but overall in myself I was feeling steady for now, in a fragile way that I knew wouldn’t last. There were several massive downhills to go, especially Fountains Fell and Pen Y Ghent, and I wondered if I could do them at a fast enough walk to be within the cut-off.

I managed to miss my day crew at the next stopping point at Ponden reservoir, but they found me at a back-up crossing not much further. My wonderful mum had brought pizza, the first food that sounded attractive to me in a long time, and I ate three slices. At a later crossing, she produced Battenberg cake and more pizza, as well as three varieties of sandwich and sausage rolls. I really couldn’t have done it without my crew!

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It all went (figuratively) downhill from there. It was an endless series of fields, which sounds like it should be easier going than moors and fells, but it felt far worse. The mud was always ankle-deep at best, meaning each step was actually a lunge, leaning onto the slippery footing of the leading leg to pull the back foot out of the sucking, sticking mud, over and over again.

Fog settled in around me. It soon got dark and my mood plummeted. There was nothing to see but a few feet of mud ahead of me and nothing to do but examine my bearing or follow the most obvious trampled line of mud and hope I hit the next boundary at the right spot for the stile. It was unbelievably tedious and got to the point where even a wall looming slowly into view was a nice bit of entertainment. “Oh, I was imagining a fence for this field for some reason. That’s a nice wall.” And inevitably, “Oh bugger, that’s a high stile.” By now, to get my foot high enough to get onto a stile required a little swing of my leg, sometimes needing a second attempt, then a laborious clamber with my arms doing at least half the work. Kissing gates are the best invention in the world and I’d be quite happy if every stile in the country was replaced by them.

I took a wrong turning into one field and by this point was so exhausted I wasn’t thinking straight. Instead of going back to the track and along to find the right way in, I thought I’d just go over the barbed wire fence. It looked from the map as if that’s where the path lay. With lots of faff, I narrowly made it over the fence without injury, though tore my gaiters badly, to find myself in a horribly sloping bit of wasteland full of overgrown trailing plants, fallen logs, and certainly no path. I crossed it to another barbed wire fence and went over that, into a field with a huge shining body of water across the middle of it. Still no PW. Finally, I got hold of my senses and took a bearing back to the track I had been on, tramped up to it, over a gate and found myself about three feet further along than where I had left it, now even more exhausted and furious with myself. A few feet further on, there was a kissing gate into a field with a path of mud leading clearly away into it.

After a hundred years or so of random diagonal paths across fields, I finally reached the haven of Gargrave. I was as desperate for social interaction as I was for sleep, so chatted with my crew as I changed into dry things and ate three bites of pasta. I lay down with my feet up on my pack and tried to sleep, now an even harder prospect than it had been at Hebden with my knee and shins throbbing.

 

Gargrave (Sunday 10pm. 72.5 miles down, 36 to go)

Unlike my previous sleep, which left me feeling refreshed and rested, I woke from my rest at Gargrave feeling like death warmed up. It didn’t help that it was 2am and I knew I had to set off into the now hated dark again. It also didn’t help that as soon as I tried to eat, I started throwing up. Not a good sign. I wasn’t sure if this was a symptom of my failure to get enough calories in, irritation of my stomach because I’d been taking ibuprofen regularly for the last 24 hours (although I’d been staying carefully within safe limits, ibuprofen is never a good idea during endurance exercise), or just sheer exhaustion. I sipped water and ate a few Twiglets, and let Tom and Methini bully me into eating half a sandwich. I couldn’t finish it even with their insistence.

Also, due to mistakenly chucking my socks into a bag of rubbish, I had now run out of waterproof socks. In fact, I’d run out of socks entirely. I ended up borrowing a pair of Tom’s (he’s only about 5 shoe sizes bigger than me) and duct-taping plastic bags over the top of them. We hoped the day crew could recover the waterproof socks from the rubbish, quickly dry them, and meet me later on to change again.

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The only factor in my favour was that I had recce’d Gargrave to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, the next 22 miles of the route, and it felt familiar and welcoming. I was dreading Fountains Fell (a long, long climb) and sad that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy running down the other side as I had during my recce, but for the first time, I started believing maybe I could actually finish. It was enough to get me back on my feet and out.

 

Malham (Monday 6:45am, 78.8 miles down, 29.7 to go)

It felt good being on familiar territory, but the way to Malham was spoilt by my newly traumatised relationship with fields. What had been a lovely sunny stroll through pretty fields alongside rivers during my recce was now a miserable slog through at best mud and, more often, shin-deep water.

On the bright side, every new change over of water in my shoes and socks was quite soothing to my aching feet. I had been hoping to meet my night crew at a road crossing halfway, but it was the tiniest unmarked road crossing and they were both as sleep-deprived as me, trying to navigate unfamiliar territory at night in the fog, so unsurprisingly, they weren’t there at the precise moment I crossed. It shows how fragile my morale was that this left me crying for the next couple of fields, even though I didn’t need anything from them and hadn’t planned to stop.

I wasn’t as happy to reach Malham as I should have been. It’s a lovely little village and I had been expecting to feel overjoyed when I got here. Instead, I was dejected and poor Tom and Methini had to balance sympathy with practicality, only letting me sit down for long enough to decide what I wanted to eat as I walked away. Obviously, the answer was nothing, but I grudgingly took a handful of Twiglets to munch as I walked away.

The pre-dawn light showed me Malham Cove as I approached and I began to cheer up. There were two mysterious lights wandering around at the top and I sped up slightly, a little worried- had a runner dropped some vital piece of gear? Were they completely delirious? As I climbed the steps up the cove, I met the two coming down. It was two of the Irishmen I’d met near Stoodley Pike. I’d actually overheard them coming into Gargrave and debating what to do- being in the normal Challenger, they were 4 hours ahead of me, so 4 hours closer to their cut-off. It was about 7:15am on Monday now, and they had to be at CP 1.5 the other side of Malham Tarn by 8am. Evidently, they had decided to carry on through Gargrave without rest, which is more than I could have done by that stage.

They told me they’d been poking about in the rocks up at the top of the Cove for hours trying to find the PW, but they were so tired it was getting dangerous and they’d decided to retire. I felt terribly for them- they had pushed so hard to make it here, and were going to be timed out for this. I knew exactly why they’d had so much trouble—the top of the Cove is an enormous limestone pavement and the PW sneaks through then behind it, to scuttle through a valley. On my recce, I’d missed it and followed a different footpath completely, despite daylight, plenty of sleep and a GPS. I told them I was fairly confident I could navigate us to it and was happy if they wanted to come with me and they hesitated in their descent, then shook their heads. They would never make it to CP 1.5 in time anyway. I left them making their painful way down the steps and hurried on, the closeness of my own cut-off now stark in my mind.

Finding the PW, even knowing my previous error, taking very careful bearings and the benefit of dawn, was very difficult. It was made worse by my increasing lack of balance on my painful legs, so that I didn’t dare do any clambering over the boulders or go anywhere near the crag edge. I ended up doing a cautious skirt inwards from the crag, aiming for a point where I knew I’d meet the PW the other side of it. It was slow but it worked and I set off for the Tarn.

I met Tom and Methini in the car park before the Tarn in much better spirits than I’d been back in Malham. Daylight was everything to me now and lifted me enormously. I was worrying excessively about the cut-off, though, constantly trying to do mental arithmetic to calculate what time I might get where, and if I had time to finish. CP 1.5 was 82 miles in, so I’d still have almost 30 miles still to go. The distances were so big my mind was sort of numb to them. I didn’t try to contemplate what 30 miles feels like or whether I was even capable of 30 more miles, I just considered how long it would take. I was down to about 2mph, so 15 more hours. Say I get to CP 1.5 at 9, 15 hours is, oh shit, it’s midnight. That’s the cut-off.

I set off at a determined march. Well, a hobble, but a determined hobble. I’d been using my poles heavily for the last 24 hours, more to take some of the weight of my legs than to help propel me, and had been walking in a tentative way that minimised the pain. I decided I didn’t have time for this any more and flung the poles down as I reached my crew. Now I would just try to walk as fast as I possibly could and do my best to accept the pain. I knew limping would only bring new injuries and strains of its own, so I was trying to walk as normally as I could. It bloody hurt. I had a mantra, though: Malham Tarn, Fountains Fell, Pen Y Ghent, Horton, Hawes. That was all that was left. I just had to do it.

This march got me around the Tarn steadily and I made my way up to the checkpoint, but I was hurting and I was worried about the cut-off, and generally not doing well. As I came in, a member of staff came out to ask how I was doing. The kindness was too much and I told him I was on a knife’s edge, and burst into tears. The poor bloke probably had no idea what to do with me as I tried to ignore the fact that I was practically sobbing and scrabbled with my kit, asking if I could possibly have a refill of water. His response was perfect, though, as he efficiently topped up my bottle while I washed my face in a sink and tried to get control of myself. He checked if I wanted a brew or a sit down and I insisted I wanted to make a move on, explaining I was worried about the time. As I left, he nipped round the building the other way and was standing waiting as I passed, where he gave me a perfect pep talk. “I think you’re just having a discouraged spell. You’re walking really well, looking great, and you’re 3 hours ahead of time. Just keep going.”

Now the mantra was: Fountains Fell, Pen Y Ghent, Horton, Hawes.

I had a dread for Fountains Fell for the entire race. On my recce, it had wiped me out— it’s a long slog up and up and up—but I’d loved zooming down the fairly technical but great fun steep route on the other side. Strangely, it was exactly as bad as I’d expected but I quite enjoyed it, at least relative to other sections of the race. By now, uphill was far less painful than down, and thanks to the daylight I got to enjoy the rewards of my climb when I stopped to catch my breath now and then. It was a painstaking hobble down the other side, doing that one-two pattern that toddlers use down stairs, but I could see Pen Y Ghent in glimpses when the distant fog cleared and I felt in reach of the finish.

 

After Fountains Fell (Monday 12:25pm, 89 miles down, 19.5 to go)

I met my parents at the road and told them I was thinking of pressing on rather than stopping for a foot change. Luckily, they override my sleep-deprived stupidity and told me I had to get dry socks on. It was my longest stop besides my sleeps, and I was extremely grateful for the socialising. They told me news about other racers, including the fact that I was the only woman left in my race, and had been for some time. It didn’t change my determination to reach the finish, but it added a bright note that no matter how slow I felt, I was doing well to still be moving.

Pen Y Ghent, Horton, Hawes to go.

PYG (“pig”) as I called it in my mind wasn’t too much of a pig to get up, steep but straightforward. Thick fog surrounded me once more so there was no view to speak of. Again, my lack of balance slowed me down as there’s a section that’s a hands and feet scramble at the best of times. With 5 hours sleep in the last 50ish hours and a barely functional left knee, I took this at an extremely slow pace, placing each foot very carefully. The real pig of the thing was getting back down: a three mile rocky track downhill to Horton. It was grim and every time one or other of my feet snagged on a rock, I gave a little yelp as hot pain bloomed in my shins and left knee. My mum met me at the bottom (with one of the crew dogs) and I made my way to Pen Y Ghent café in Horton. Only Hawes to go!

 

Horton-in-Ribblesdale (Monday 3:30pm, 94 miles down, 14.5 miles to go)

I tried the cheese toastie my crew had kindly bought me—I managed one bite and nearly threw up. Nevermind, not far to go. I cheerfully told everyone that it was only 6 or 7 miles left, one last push! A silence that I didn’t notice greeted this and I hobbled into the public toilets (the only time I got to use proper toilets for the entire race; it was lovely).

My mum stuck her head into the loos as I was washing my hands.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” she said.

Uh oh.

It turns out I had got confused in the last 25 miles and had convinced myself it was 6 miles from Horton to Hawes. It was more like 14. I stared blankly at her as she gently explained this. I honestly didn’t know if I could do this. 14 miles? That’s 7 hours. Almost a normal work day, but of nothing but hobbling along alone in the fog. And it would be dark soon.

“OK,” I said, and numbly I carried on.

As I climbed up onto the moors, I was a jangle of misery. It was as if all the threads of my personality and emotions had frayed into childish self-pity and there was a chorus of voices in my head saying nothing but, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I want to stop. I just want to stop. I don’t want to. Seven hours.” There was just one steel wire in the middle that had decided I was carrying on. It was a tyrant over the rest of me, so even though almost all of me wanted to just lie down and stop, I couldn’t because there was no decision to be made. I was carrying on, and that was that. It didn’t shut the rest of the voices up, but it kept my legs moving.

I was exhausted, though. Truly exhausted. I felt as if I had been hollowed out and was a shell of a person, fragile, barely even there. My legs had felt done when I got to CP 1 at Hebden, 50 miles ago. Under normal circumstances, had I stopped there, I would have taken a couple of days to recover enough to go for a walk. Instead, I’d kept going, and somehow, my body had let me. I was empty, every tiny step hurt inordinately, but in some ways my legs still felt strong. I told them to move and they moved. I felt utterly awful, but it was an incredible feeling too.

When darkness fell, my world was reduced to a few steps of white mud track ahead of me and droplets of moisture in the air. If I reached out in front of me, my fingertips were fuzzy in the fog. There was nothing to see, nothing to think about except the hours left to go. I started taking little breaks crouching down, my forehead resting on my knees with my eyes closed for a few breaths. They did nothing except slow me down and make my knees ache, but I kept doing it.

I was desperate for some distraction, anything, and suddenly thought to dig out my phone. I’d had it switched off the whole way, no time for photos or need to contact anyone. Switching it on, I was amazed to find I had signal. Messages poured in. My support crew had a Whatsapp group to let each other know how I was doing, where I was, and had invited friends and family to join the group so they could keep tabs on me. All of them were watching my online tracker too. There were over 80 messages.

For the next half hour, whenever the ground was smooth enough not to fall over, I read through every single one of those messages of support. I had felt like I was the only living thing on the planet, wrapped in my self-doubt, self-pity and discomfort walking up that dark, foggy hill, but here were other people watching my slow, slow progress towards Hawes. It helped me grit my teeth and resist the pauses. I had to keep moving—they were watching me move, they were willing me to Hawes. I would get there.

Even with this boost, I was struggling. I was literally delirious with tiredness and had been mildly hallucinating for the entire climb. Shapeless rocks always rise out of fog like people or animals and we’ve all had that funny momentary, “Oh! I thought that was a dog, but it’s a boulder!” These weren’t like that. I would see a dog, or a dinosaur, or once a porcupine that had been cut in half rising out of the fog and be confused. Then I would worry—it wasn’t right for that to be there. Why was it there? My heart rate would go up and I felt scared until I was right on it, sometimes even stopping to stand over it and stare, and realise it was just a rock or clump of reeds. Every night I had been glimpsing distant lights through the darkness and mistaken them for other racers, only to realise they were houses, cars, planes, all sorts. Now, those mistakes had a vaguely paranoid edge to them. I was sure I’d seen a light just there but now it was gone—someone must be hiding from me in the fog. I knew I was hallucinating, but it was still unnerving. It made me laugh as well, though. I always carry a little plastic dinosaur in my pack for luck (don’t ask), so perhaps that’s why dinosaurs featured quite prominently. I think part of it was that my tired mind was desperate for some sort of stimulation besides fog and darkness and the relentless pressure to keep moving, so started producing images just for something to do; at least they gave me some entertainment.

I’d been warned that Cam High Road is a hill that goes on forever, but I’d always taken the description to be figurative. Nothing can go on forever, after all. But it turns out, Cam High Road does. It goes on forever. It’s quite possible I’m actually still walking up that bloody awful hill and just hallucinating being at home on a computer, to be honest. I hate it, I will always hate it, and it is the worst place in Britain. Possibly the world.

Miraculously, my support crew managed to get up onto the Cam High Road somehow- it’s miles up a dirt track and must have been terrifying to get up in that fog. My mum suddenly appeared out of the aether ahead of me.

“How are you doing?” she asked. Until now, my answer had always been positive, or at least slanted that way. Mum thought this race was a stupid idea, that I would quite possibly die, and I shouldn’t do it. I was scared if I showed her how hard I was finding it, she would encourage me to drop out, and flimsy as my resolve was becoming, that I would agree. I didn’t have any positivity left.

“I need a hug,” I told her.

She wrapped her arms around me and for a moment I rested my forehead against her shoulder, trying not to cry. Then she let me go, turned around and started walking. I followed.

“You can’t stop now,” she told me. “What do you need? Water? Food?”

That was that, then. If Mum said I couldn’t stop, it must be serious. I managed to conjure a weak smile for my dad and brother as they emerged from the fog, declined any food or drink, and headed off, back into the lonely darkness.

After five or six lifetimes of continued hobble-marching, overtaken by multiple people doing the full Spine (whom I had an 18 hour head-start on, and all of whom were mind-bogglingly cheerful and sprightly), I realised I had taken the wrong track and there was a head torch on the correct path above me. Considering that I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other on a dirt track, I was surprised to find myself able to clamber up the steep ascent through thick heather. I emerged onto the path to meet Anthony, the Mountain Rescue racer I’d spoken to briefly right at the very start, before Kinder.

He wasn’t much appreciating the fun that Cam High Road had to offer either. To paraphrase just very slightly, his opinion of it was, “Blimey, this darn hill is a jolly old foozler, wouldn’t you say?”

I agreed, in similarly colourful terms, and I can’t explain what a joy it was to share my hatred of the hill with someone. He was struggling with his breathing (a winter ultra isn’t the best time to discover you’ve cold-induced asthma) and I was struggling with my knee, and we probably slowed each other down if anything, needing stops and pauses for different bits of the terrain. I didn’t care—the company was brilliant. We swore our way down the hill and the first lights of Hawes came into sight.

Anthony was keen to push on, but kindly agreed to stick with me—I tried to match his run once we hit the road and instantly sick pain shot up both my lower legs. We marched as best we could, me with elbows swinging wildly as if my arms could make up for my legs’ lack of power, and him wheezing and puffing, through the dark, quiet streets.

A marshal in fluorescent yellow appeared out of nowhere at the same time as my dad called out to me, and the two of them escorted us the last few hundred metres to the finish, where a Montane flag stood outside Hawes village hall and staff and family waited, clapping us in to the finish.

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I did it. First (and only) women’s finisher of the Spine Mountain Rescue Challenge 2017.

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Hawes (Monday, 9:58pm. 108.5 miles down, 0 to go)

Overall, of 20 MRT starters, 1/3 women finished and 11/17 men,making it a 40% DNF rate this year. The main challenger had 94 starters and a 43% DNF rate. It was so much harder than I imagined and an amazing experience; I think its effects on me (physically and mentally) are going to take a while yet to fully sink in.

Thanks so much to the organisers and my awesome support crew. Shorter follow-up post to come with a review of my kit.

 

 

Small island, epic dinosaur runner part 2

Day 2

The running was, oddly enough, much easier in Day 2. Ed, who was running the first leg for the boys each day as I was for the girls, made me l laugh by struggling to walk across the kitchen. I then made him laugh by taking several minutes to stand up from sitting on the floor.

Despite struggling to move between the kitchen table and the fridge, it really wasn’t as hard or scary to start running as the previous day. I’d be a jelly-legged bundle of nerves on the start line of a half marathon, but somehow doing several in a long weekend makes it… easier..? Running is weird like that.

Ed and I started off together without having planned to, and ended up sticking together for the whole course. It was so much fun!

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The terrain was much more forgiving, which certainly helped. There was a steep climb at mile 2 or so, then an unexpectedly picturesque run through a quarry, out onto grass and a gentle downhill to the lighthouse that marked the CP- which we managed to beat the supporters to!

Along the way, we chatted and did dinosaur impressions:

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At the CP, I inhaled a Twix and we set off back to HQ! It was nice doing a route that was so easy to picture- a loop around Portland from base camp back to base camp. The only bit repeated was the long flat along the bridge. Emphasis on “long”.

So. The home straight. Pretty sure this took about ten minutes and a mile on the way out. Okay, maybe 2 miles. It was fine- a bit boring, straight pavement, just a little plod.

On the way back, it took FOREVER. Ed and I were a bit delirious and the never ending straight did not help. I kept cheerfully asserting, “it’s just a bridge. Bridges can’t be that long. Anyway, I can see a roundabout sign so we must be near the end of the bridge! Bridges don’t have roundabouts!”

Yes, Ella. That’s because we aren’t ON the bridge yet.

“Of course we are! We’ve been running for ages!”

You’d think it would be easy to tell whether or not you are ON a bridge, wouldn’t you? Ah, long run madness.

Ed was listening to music in one ear and let me know Eye of the Tiger was starting. We belted it out as we finally neared the bridge. I’m not a great singer at the best of times. I’m probably not made any better by singing along to a song I can’t hear while running the twelfth mile of my second half in two days… Let’s just say no other runners stayed alongside us for long.

Eye of the Tiger had to end, of course, and by now we were on the bridge. The end was literally in sight but still seemed so far off. Our solution to this was to yell the things we wanted at the finish:

BEER!

ICE CREAM!

SITTING DOWN!

SAUSAGE ROLLS!

A BAAAAAATH!

We made it and in a nefarious sprint finish, Ed nipped ahead and dibbed in before me. Sneaky.

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I loved that shirt (kindly lent to me by my 13 year old cousin. :D)

Of course, being hardcore runners and dinosaur enthusiasts, we leapt into the car to drive to the checkpoints to cheer our team mates along. As you can see, I was pretty hyperactive:

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Small island, epic dinosaur runner (Jurassic Coast race report)

Finally, here it is! The long-awaited, much anticipated- OK, possibly not but overdue at any rate- Jurassic Coast Challenge Race Report!

It was fantastic. The whole thing was just brilliant. I spent a long weekend (when I should have been working night shifts…) with a big group of friends and family in a little holiday house, every day running a few hours of the most beautiful countryside I’ve run in and then spending the rest of the day driving to checkpoints to cheer other runners in and high-five and pamper our relay buddies, talking incessantly about running and eating all of the food under the sun.

Why aren’t all holidays like this?

Votwo did a great job in the organizational side of this event, I really can’t fault them. The whole thing went incredibly smoothly, aid stations were manned by lovely, smiley helpful people and tables groaned under the weight of a delicious variety of food, there was free beer, tea, coffee and cake at HQ, and the Grim Reaper held gated open for me (more on that later…). The atmosphere amongst the runners was great, too; no one seemed to have any ego or competitiveness against one another, it seemed like we were all there to enjoy and challenge ourselves. No one who was asked for a dinosaur impression refused, which speaks for itself 😀

To the meat of it, then: the running. As this will probably be a novella as it is, I’ll just give my overriding impressions from each day’s run. I ran the first half of each days, so the first two legs; Ducky then took up the baton (in fact, a weird timing chip worn as a Velcro ring around one finger) to skip her unfailingly chipper way to the finish line.

Day 1:

We started nice and high and at first there was a beautiful, flattish clifftop run that gave us incredible views along the coast. In fact, it was suspiciously slightly downhill…

The hills.

I was warned about the hills. I thought I knew.

I didn’t know.

They were steep and gigantic. I sometimes doubted I’d be able to walk them, much less keep running afterwards. Somehow, everyone seemed to keep smiling through them, breathlessly chatting, which helped keep my fears at bay. It helped, too, that I absolutely love downhills and these tended to follow their nasty upward cousins.

Rebecca, my previous guest poster, commented on our run together that I take downhills fast. I thought I just run flats and ups slow, so this was a matter of perspective, but the Jurassic made me wonder if I might actually go a bit fast down them. I definitely overtake more going down than up. They’re just so much fun! I’d also take a few slopes at a child/goat-like skip-jump-windmill arms-hop that other people seemed to be… well, walking. Carefully.

Day 1 wasn’t all hills, though. In fact, the hills were the treat. The tricky part of day 1 was The Shingle.

I now hate shingle. Possibly beaches in general.

There must have been at least two miles of it, right towards the end of the half. There was no running it. Pebbles poured into my shoes wading along it and I’m pretty sure it took me three or four days to cross it all. Happily, I was walking alongside a bunch of guys who were doing the full distance, so I couldn’t feel too sorry for myself. One of them had run the Marathon Des Sables and said it reminded him of the dunes there.

Finally, we were back on dirt trail and I jogged tiredly but very happily into checkpoint 2 to high-five and pass the baton. I paused to build a stone “sand castle” as challenged by Ducky. 😀

To be continued…