Posted by Ray Poynter, 9 July 2021
On Saturday, 19 June, at 7:30 in the morning I set off as a participant in a 108 mile (174 km). race along the Pennine Way. 38 and a bit hours later I finished the race, at 9:42pm on Sunday. I ran it slightly slower than I had hoped, but I was very pleased to finish 26th out of 111 runners. Here are some of the highs, lows, and whys about that race – and my target for next year.
But, first things first, I dedicated this run to raising money for my favourite charity, CoppaFeel!, raising awareness of breast cancer amongst young women in the UK. So far, thanks to the generosity of so many people, I have raised over £2000 – but you can still make a contribution by clicking here. You can find out about CoppaFeel by clicking here.
The Spine Race
I took part in a version of the Spine Race called the Challenger, an unsupported run along the UK’s most famous path. There are other versions including the Sprint (46 miles), the full race (268 miles) and the Winter versions. Find out more about the Spine Race here.
The 108 mile race is a bit more challenging than you might expect. In addition to the 108 miles, we need to carry our kit on our
back (spare clothes, food, water, waterproofs, first aid kit, head torch, emergency shelter etc), the route is not signposted (we need to navigate), much of the route is open moorland, there lots of hills (we call them fells), and the checkpoints are really spread out (the first checkpoint is at 46 miles) and the next full checkpoint is at the end (108 miles) – there was a mini-checkpoint at Malham Tarn, about halfway between the first checkpoint and the end.
Before the Race
In preparation for the race, in addition to running lots of miles (from Feb to May, I averaged about 380KM a month, about 240 miles). I visited every part of the route to ‘recce’ it, ensuring I made my mistakes during my practices, not during the race. I also spent a lot of time trying different items of kit, especially different makes of shoe, bags, socks. I also bought a Garmin Fenix 6 watch and downloaded the route onto it. During the race I had three navigation options, I had the route on my watch, I had it on a handheld device (a Garmin eTrex), and I had the route marked on a map (and I had a compass, and I know how to use the map and compass).
On the Friday before the race, I registered at the start in Edale, and came home to get a good sleep in my own bed. On the Saturday morning my son Josh and I left Nottingham at 5:00 am, so I could get to the start for 6:30am, where I deposited my ‘dropbag’ (which I would see again at the first checkpoint and at the end), visited the bathroom (more than once), mingled with other runners (all the time being sure they were much better runners than me), and said goodbye and thank you to Josh.
To be fair, calling it a race in my case, and calling it running, is a bit of an exaggeration. There were plenty of sections where I walked (up hills mostly) and I was not ‘racing’, I wanted to finish the event, I wanted to enjoy it, and I wanted to avoid injury. (But I did get a buzz out of finishing 26th out of 111 starters – there are no age grades in this sort of race.)
At 7:30am we set off, through the start line and on our way to Jacobs Ladder and the Kinder Plateau. Note, most of the photographs with this post are from the recce runs, I did not faff about taking photos on the race.
The Start to Checkpoint 1
The first section went pretty well. I completed the 74KM (46 miles) in just under 12 hours (this section included 2106 metres of climb, about 6900 feet).
I realised I had made two weather mistakes, based on the weather forecast. The forecast was for a bit of sun, then rain for two days. So, I wore waterproof socks and did not pack my sun cream. The daytime of Saturday and Sunday ended up very hot and sunny (Saturday night was very wet). So, my feet got a bit sweaty, and I got a bit of sunburn (the first sunburn for many years).
In my pack I carry a water filter, this means I can take water from fast moving streams on the fells and it filters out most of the nasty things, like bacteria. However, because of the recent dry weather, most of the steams were either dry or a disgusting sticky brown – so being careful with water was going to be important. For those of you familiar with the area, Kinder Downfall was almost dry, and normally it is a fast-flowing stream/river.
For many years I have used Nordic poles for some of the walking sections, especially for long hills. But during this race I discovered I could use them while running. The benefit of using the poles is mostly that it shifts some of the effort from your legs to your upper body, but an additional benefit is stability. Having learned this new skill, I ran with poles for most of the race after about 20 miles. This had some benefits, but it broke one of my cardinal rules – ‘Never do, wear, eat, or drink anything on a race you have not done in training’. I ended the race with a very stiff back. I think the stiff back was because I used my arms for about 30 hours without a break, and without training for it. I will use the poles again in the future for long runs – but I will use them more in practice too.
Arriving at the Checkpoint in Hebden Bridge I was feeling pretty good, but I noticed that my rucksack was beginning to rub my back, and the little toe on my right foot was getting a bit hot. The volunteers at the Checkpoint were amazing making sure I got a hot meal, drinks and refilling water bottles. I was a bit disorganised and did not charge my phone and watch, which I should have done, I did not run out of power (thanks to carrying a power block), but I came closer to running out than I wanted to (my phone was down to 20% when I finished – but I did have a Nokia backup in my bag). In my next event I will take the advice of others and write a do list/checklist for things I want to do at the checkpoints.
Before leaving the checkpoint, I changed my socks to regular socks. In retrospect, I spent too long at the checkpoint, and could have achieved slightly more, in slightly less time if I had been more organised.
Checkpoint 1 to 1.5 (Malham Tarn)
I left the checkpoint at just after 8pm, so there was plenty of light left. The initial section is along a canal, so that was a steady way to get back into running. However, I discovered that my bag was now really beginning to rub (partly due to the large amounts of sweat running down my back). So, I stopped after about two miles to see what I could do to ameliorate the problem. I was wearing a bum bag as well as a rucksack, so the solution I ended up with was to empty the bum bag, put a couple of packets of tissues inside it and then wear it higher up my torso, so that it sat between my back and my rucksack. This helped quite a bit, but the bum bag often needed adjusting, and I did get some nasty rub marks on my back.
After the canal section, there was a really big climb, back up to the tops. Around 10pm it started to get dark, and as I approached the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs it was time to put my head torch on – for the next few hours my world consisted just of the small area in front of me illuminated by my head torch. One of the unusual challenges, running past the reservoirs was the large number of frogs on the path. I worked hard to avoid standing on them as I thought they might be quite slippy and I did not want to fall while running 🙂
I was aware that I was running slower than during the first leg (looking at Strava I can see I averaged 9:10 minutes per KM in the first leg and 10:56 minutes per KM in the second leg). This was a combination of fatigue and running in the night, and the rain that started to fall quite heavily.
One super highpoint was an unofficial support camp run by the Cowling Triathlon Club (who had people running in the race). They guided me into their camp by torchlight and gave me coffee, a bacon sandwich and good conversation – god bless them!
The weather played another trick on me. Around Gargrave there were fields with lots of wet, long grass – which is great for soaking your feet. On the first day I wore waterproof socks and it was dry, but now I had regular socks and wet feet.
Not long before the checkpoint I went through the beautiful village/town of Malham and bought a wonderful ice cream. After Malham comes Malham Cove (a very steep climb up the steps next to the waterfall and then a careful stepping challenge across the wonderful limestone pavements. By now the rain had gone and the weather had changed to hot and sunny, again.
This second stage was 65KM (40 miles), included 2000 metres of climb (about 6500 feet), and took me about 13 hours. This was slower than I had hoped, but when I looked at the records for all the runners in my section of the race, it was fairly typical – I think most of us found it hard.
At the checkpoint the medics offered to check my feet and back and I am delighted to say I was sensible enough to let them. My hot little toe on my right foot was getting bruised and there was a cut between it and the next toe. The medics did a great job of cleaning them up and putting tape on the sensitive spots. I took my dry, spare socks from my bag and for the rest of the race I had the right socks. They also put some tape on my back to reduce the rubbing with my bag. I spent longer at the checkpoint than I had planned, but it was all really worth it.
Checkpoint 1.5 to the end (Hardraw)
The final section was 43 KM (27 miles), involved 1170 metres of climbing (3800 feet), and took me about 11 hours. This section was hard for several reasons. My back was starting to get very stiff and painful, I developed a habit of leaning forward when using the poles and to minimise the backpack rubbing, and this made my back hurt (and it hurt for the next couple of days). I was beginning to use water faster than I usually do (it was hot and I was tired), so I had to watch out for hydration more than I usually do and with about 10 miles to go I made a conscious decision to slow down a bit to reduce the rate at which I needed water. I was also beginning to hallucinate. Not really-scary stuff, more a case of seeing things ‘wrongly’ – for example I thought I saw a man sitting by the trail, but when I got a bit closer it was a pile of rocks, on another occasion I saw some green bin bags with yellow writing, but they turned out to be a bunch of nettles with the light playing on them. The hallucinations were the result of missing a night’s sleep (and running instead of sleeping). I had woken at 4am Saturday and finished running just before 10pm Sunday night.
My pace for the last third was the slowest of all three sections, 11 minutes 13 seconds per KM – but that is not surprising, all things considered.
For much of the section from Gargrave to the end I was running with Woody (445) and his company made the time go faster – so a big thank you to you Woody.
As I turned into the finishing straight my ears were blasted with shouts of ‘Come on Ray’ from Pete Henley, one of my club mates from Redhill Road Runners. Pete was a member of the Spine Safety Team and was there at the end of my run, with a pint of beer waiting for me.
I spent a little while talking to Pete, the volunteers, etc and then one of them kindly gave me a lift the two miles to my hotel – having confirmed to my children and partner that I was safe, I quickly fell asleep.
On Monday morning, I had a hearty breakfast at my hotel, took a bus to the train station and travelled back to Nottingham, and regular life. I was feeling pretty happy with myself, I was not sure I could finish the race, I had finished, and I had finished with nearly 22 hours left before the cut off (as well as running 108 miles, you have to do it in less than 60 hours). I had one black toenail, some chafing on my back, a stiff back, and sunburn – so not bad all things considered.
I also saw what an amazing job my children had been doing in terms of the fundraising and support – helping me get past £2000, and helping me with things like letting the hotel know I was late, but would be checking in soon.
Some people ask why? The answer has to come in several parts. 1) I love running, especially running on the fells. 2) I like adventures, I like to be challenged, 3) the buzz you get when you set yourself a challenge and you make it is exciting.
Did I enjoy it? Not all of it in the conventional sense of fun. The first section was all enjoyable, and well within my abilities. So I would say Saturday was enjoyable. It was what we call type 1 fun. Sunday was hard (not terrible, not super difficult, but hard). Sunday delivers type 2 fun. Type 2 fun is when you look back at that ice cream in Horton, to running down Pen-y-ghent, to meeting volunteers with water on Cam High Road, and to chatting to the medics and it brings a deep smile to your face and to your insides.
I have various runs and races coming up during the rest of the year and early next year. In January I am going to run the Spine Sprint. This is only 46 miles, but it is in winter, there is only about 8 hours of daylight at that time of year, and there could be snow, rain, hail, strong winds, ice, or all of the above. The pack is heavier, so it will be a different sort of challenge.
But, the big challenge is in June next year, I am going to try the full Spine Race, 268 miles (431KM) in six days. I plan to run a very different race. My thinking is that I will run a section and then sleep for 4 to 6 hours before running the next section. Between now and then I will practice the whole route, and practice running (say) 40 miles, then sleeping in a bag on the floor for 6 hours and then running another 40 miles – first for two days, then perhaps three or even four.
Thank you for reading this. If you were a fellow runner, thank you for the support we all gave each other (I loved the way the fastest and the best runners take care of the rest of us). If you were a volunteer, many, many thanks for your help. If you contributed to the fundraising, thank you very much. If you’d like to make a contribution, click here.