I volunteered on the Spine Safety Team in 2017, being stationed at Hebden Bridge and Hawes over the few days I helped out. I learned a few things – at Hebden it was clear that many people faff around far, far too much, while at Hawes a shift in the dark of the Cam High Road showed me how broken people can be less than halfway into the race (‘only’ 100 miles in!). I also learned that I didn’t really want to do the race because it looked miserable.
A few years later, I somehow found myself entered into the ‘Baby Spine’ – the first 46 miles of the Pennine Way, from Edale to Hebden Bridge. The longer races do appeal, but Covid, bunk rooms, etc.
The Sprint is a single push over a maximum of 18 hours, starting at midday on a Saturday. I arrive in time to slot my car into the penultimate space in the car park (phew) and then go to register and pass through kit check. Back in the car park I hide from the downpours, um-and-ah about whether to wear my studded shoes or not, and then forget to tie the laces before wandering off towards the start. Embarrassing. My training has been.. okay.., but I’ve had a couple of stretches of feeling too apathetic and lazy to bother going out regularly. This worries me a little, so I’ve set myself a vague target of 14 hours to finish.
At the start I’m less nervous than anticipated, and run perhaps a bit faster than is advisable through Edale in a bid to not get snarled up in queues for stiles and gates. I have no intention of challenging the top half of the field, I just hate standing around. It turns out there are fewer gates than I remember anyway, and soon I’m up the valley and chatting with a couple of guys heading up Jacob’s Ladder.
At Kinder Low we enter the clag, and the four people I’m with slow up. The studded shoes now look like the right choice on icy ground, and I push on alone. I know that I need to make best use of the daylight, and that this is the best kind of ground for me. The flat hardcore access tracks along reservoirs later in the race are less my kind of terrain.
Along the edge it’s familiar territory, crossing the River Kinder without any problems despite the thawing snow and heavy rain. Eventually down off the end and onto Mill Hill, making good time across the endless slabs. Straight across at Snake Pass (first cow bell of the day) and up onto Bleaklow. The cloud has lifted now, and I still have daylight for the descent from Bleaklow Head. The volume of water running down the hill is phenomenal; I’ve never seen it like this. Lots of the puddles have a layer of ice hiding at the bottom of them.
At Torside I can see that the sun is starting to dip, but I’m buoyed by the sight of Tim and his MR colleagues. I’m spoiled by tea and biscuits. There’s a momentary faff with the tracker, which seems not to be working, and then I saddle up and promptly run the wrong way out of the checkpoint. Doubly embarrassing because I did exactly the same on the Marsden to Edale last time too.
My torch goes on after the reservoir dam, and in the darkness up Laddow Rocks I catch the first back-marker from the Spine Challenger race which set off a few hours before us. They are continuing as far as Hawes, though, 109 miles. This is the only bit of the route I’m not familiar with, and the big dark drop into the valley on my right means I moderate my pace rather than risk a silly slip. Gaining height, the wet theme continues with more slabs-turned-into-a-stream following a thigh-high river crossing. I find the latter most entertaining; I’m very much enjoying being out in the dark on my own, doing something silly. It brings back nice memories of similar nights on the Marsden to Edale, too.
Down off Black Hill as the sleet starts, and along a mandatory diversion to avoid Dean Clough, which is in spate and too dangerous to cross. The diversion involves a seemingly inordinate amount of descent and re-ascent to the road at Wessenden Head, by which point I’m getting slightly cold and wearing my goggles to make progress into horizontal hail hitting me head-on. I confirm with the Safety Team that my tracker is indeed still working, then move quickly over to the path down past the reservoirs, wanting to reach the shelter of the valley bottom to put another layer on. This warms me up nicely, and I climb back out to eventually reach the road at Brun Clough.
There’s another (unexpected) MR team here, so I avail myself of another hot drink and some chocolates. The general theme of questioning seems to be based around whether I’m too cold/tired/broken/blistered/despairing/etc., but everything’s fine. I have a nice cup of tea and a chat, and am told I’m “the only one still smiling”, which I think is a bit of a shame, but at least I’m having fun!
I leave the fairy lights behind, not wanting to stop too long and get cold, and cross Standedge. Further on I can see two of the mandatory red lights shining on the backs of other competitors’ rucksacks. They’ve missed the Pennine Way turning and carried on West, too far ahead to hear any shouting I might attempt over the roaring wind.
I’d ordered a vegan cheeseburger in advance from the van at the M62 crossing, but Tim had worried me immensely by mentioning that the year he did (won!) the MRT Challenger the van hadn’t actually been there. I’m temporarily confused by the fact that they’ve turned off the lights on the Windy Hill transmitter mast for some reason, thus making the highly-visible target suddenly invisible, and then as I approach the lay-by there is no sign of the van. I swear my way down the path, but am relieved to find that a fuel tanker is hiding not only the van, but more fairy lights, burgers, tea, and chocolate. A chap with his dog comments that he’s been watching the tracker and that I seem to have spent most of the race on my own. Little do I realise that this fact has already been picked up in our Dragon’s Back WhatsApp group.
A short hop across Blackstone Edge – scene of many training runs on trips between Wilmslow and Darlington for work – and I’m very quickly in another MR tent having another cup of tea. This is the most spoiled I’ve ever been on a race. I pre-emptively change my headtorch battery before the last leg. A lady arrives just as I’m finishing my drink, looking a little windswept and piling on layers. I suggest we both might like some company for this final long section from the White House into Hebden, and we set off together along the reservoirs. Chatting is difficult as the wind blasts us from left-to-right, but at least there’s nothing wet falling from the sky. Some motivational work is required to convince Anna that the reservoirs do eventually end, but sure enough we’re soon turning out of the worst of the wind and off across the moors again. I don’t really like that reservoir section, but having company takes my mind off how boring it is. My race number is whipped away by the gale, and I complain that I’ll be prosecuted for littering because it’s got my full name printed on it.
The monument atop Stoodley Pike is the scene of some very brief celebrations, and then it’s all downhill (literally, not figuratively). We stop for some food in the shelter of a strategically-placed dry-stone wall – I’ve spent the last three kilometres dreaming about hiding behind it. While we do that, another lady passes us. We set off and pass her again a couple of minutes later, and Anna nonchalantly comments that this other person must be third lady. I query whether that means we need to stay ahead of her, and receive the understated reply “Well ideally, yes.”. I put Anna in charge of pace while I continue navigating, and we put the hammer down into Hebden. It’s actually quite a long stretch, and in reality we’re at best trotting. Anna complains that my fast walk is the same pace as her run, little realising that fast walking is the only thing I’m good at! We make great progress and push each other along, down the horrendously steep hill towards streetlights and tarmac, through the middle of the sleeping town, and then finally up a horrendously steep hill to the finish.
The distance and duration of the race mean we’re the only competitors at the finish, because everyone’s so spaced out on the route. There are medals and photographs and congratulations, and then soup and clean clothes and checking my watch. 14h 42m is my final time, which I’m reasonably pleased with. I suspect the diversion added on half an hour. I’ve one sore toe, but am otherwise unscathed. My shoes haven’t fared so well, with both soles having pretty much entirely detached themselves. My watch says the final stats are 73.8 km and just over 2,500 m of ascent. Thankfully onward transport is already sorted, as Dad arrives in the campervan to ferry me back to Edale (thanks Dad!).
A review of info from the watch shows that the plan to get over Kinder and Bleaklow quickly in the light, then slow down, is exactly what I stuck to.
This is the longest race I’ve ever done (in one go – Dragon’s Back was different). I’m pleased to report that I’ve had no lasting ill effects, and came 14th out of 39 finishers. 19 of the 58 starters pulled out, a 33% attrition rate. So in summary, very enjoyable and a nice test of managing pace, gear, food, etc. for a sustained period of time. I think there’s probably scope to go a bit further now!