Posted on: 01 Jul 2022
Near on two weeks later and I'm still waking up on the Pennine Way in my dreams. Usually a technical bit, the rocks underfoot distant cousins of the one that tripped me up and fractured my finger on the Ridgeway back in May, this time buried to the left of a steep drop off. One false move and I've got a motherless disabled son at home.
Good lord what a journey was that Spine Sprint.
To start with, I finished. I finished while walking with Joy (quite literally, my trail companion from darkness to finish line was a redhead named Joy, like some kind of mantra in my skull handing out deliverance "you'll finish and you'll finish happy and here's just the person to rally with.") We had some 29 minutes to spare, after 17 and a half hours of what was for me the most stunning, anxiety-riddled, clock-chasing, addictive race I've ever done.
My goodness, I actually did it. How on earth did I finish this race?
I trained my a r s e off from the minute I booked the place. Inspired by two friends supporting the charity I used to work for, who have both repeatedly beasted the full 268 mile route and knocked their AS square between the eyes with a fist (or two fingers), I thought yes, this. This is the race for me. It's meant to be the toughest in the land. I'm tough, let's go.
This is the race for me.
What I hadn't fully registered is that I live in flattest Essex. Despite the endless opportunities I've taken to train on the most difficult terrain I can find, those muddy dried tractor tracks, forest roads and pebbly bridleways haven't got a thing on the Pennine Way.
Despite eight preceding ultras across a range of UK terrain, I've never gone for a local run and had such an immense risk of death hanging about my head (or around my ankles). The skittishness of having taken a bad enough fall to break myself halfway through the last race made itself known from step one and boy that voice got loud. The descent to Torside was terrible and exhilirating all at once. I spent a lot of the race absolutely conflicted.
But I've skipped ahead again so probably should rewind a bit.
It all started well enough trotting comfortably out of Edale and powering up Jacob's Ladder, grateful already for the incline trainer that's taken residence in my lounge. Barring proximity to Epping Forest, the lack of hills in Essex could potentially be the trail running death knell for an ordinary person, but I never claimed to be ordinary so I will forever mash that square peg into its round hole with bloody fingers. I can't move for Rukai's special school is here, so I'm doing this sport here. And that's that. Close the book, no discussion allowed just now.
Having never set foot on the Pennine Way proper barring my time on Pen-y-Ghent during the Yorkshire Three Peaks I found it hard not to stare slack jawed at the immense views on what was pretty much a perfect day for this expedition. Still I could feel the remnants of the vicious cold that knocked me for six a month prior, making my breathing well below par on the positivity scale, but the legs were working as expected. Ok, 50% operational is better than nothing. I trained hills HARD and at that moment I knew how hard I'd been working. I felt good enough to do a little Rocky dance and even trotted a bit on the way down.
At the top I'd come across another Sprinter who was keeping a blistering walking pace and in crept the imposter syndrome, "look at how easily he's finding the line, you don't train here, you don't know the technique for this, slow down and stay in your lane". The chimp in my head bloody loved this race, that's for sure. He got his first kick when I bid my new pal goodbye so I could slow to my comfortable pace.
Let's call that great instinct 1. That, friends, comes with experience. Maybe I deserved to be here after all. Onward we go.
Who cares, check watch, I'm in time, check GPX I'm in line (and largely stayed that way throughout - my navigation in the race was one of my proudest life achievements, let me be honest!)
Onward to Snake Pass through the endless moor on those delicious flagstones I'd come to absolutely love. I was amusing myself by imagining the PW as a symphony, if all the tricky technical bits had a Game of Thrones-esque soundtrack, the flagstones were all Disney. I started singing out random chirpy tunes at the start of every flagstone section, delighted that I could get into some kind of rhythm and actually run a bit.
Only trouble here was desperately needing a wee and nowhere to drop off. I stuck my sticks into a bog to investigate just how bad they are and I swear it stood up and shouted "I'll have that" before sucking the pole down a good four inches. So wild wee became check over shoulder no, she's still there, still there, hell with it, there's some tall grass, "sorry, I was bursting!"
As to those flagstones, great instinct number 2 is the work I've been doing on my walking pace. Holy moly did that pan out. Largely because it was so impossible for me to prevent my untimely death and run at the same time over most of this race so it was a bona fide essential skill to have improved. Bank that.
So Snake Pass in the rearview mirror I had the stupidity to tell the safety team at the junction how much I was ABSOLUTELY LOVING THIS which of course was the go sign for the wheels to fall off. It was also the best learning about this race in contrast to all the others I've done in that you absolutely have to get your kit and food right or you are going to blow up.
Massive knock in the headgame in 3-2...
A bit of drizzle and rain in the forecast meant I stopped for the jacket on and all its pack faffing. I'd felt chilled across the moor and expected that to continue. Wrong. Pack back on I'm thinking let's get at that peanut butter and jam wrap in my flip belt.
You know, the one that's been battered by the rucky for a few hours? The one in that small bag that has now exploded all into the belt? Yes, that one. Reach in there now, feels like birthing a cow? Yes. That's it. Have fun with that.
I had never previously been angry at food but there you go.
All the goo on my hands meant another long stop to get the food in and clean up or I'd have problems with sticky fingers all day and that wasn't on the agenda. So once that sorted on I plodded. Another Sprinter caught me up and there we had a great chat, bit of a collective moan about pack weight and stuck with him over Bleaklow until he too was moving faster than I could. I was again incredulous at his ability to pick a line. That is locality. That is 'these are my stomping grounds'. That told me I'd forever be at a disadvantage unless I got out here more or made garden obstacle courses with Legos or something.
Chimp takes up residence again, and with it my back started playing up. That was all I needed to swing the mallet and knock it on its head, "sorry, I need to slow down. Have a good race!" and back I dropped and off he went. Chimp departed, my back settled, my pace steadied and onward to Torside.
Following one of those nerve-wracking trip-you-up-drop-off-the-side jobs was less fun than bumping into Buzzer Jenny who came out to wish me well. Unfortunately some local pony wasn't as glad to see her and took a bite out of her arm. Fortunately just bruised but I think after the previous well-wishing injury of a broken wrist in Snowdonia she should cease and desist supporting me?!
I met two of the most ace safety team for the first time at the bottom of that hill and would delight in bumping into them repeatedly throughout the race. I think they have an idea of how much they uplifted me but best I put in writing here, what fun banter and great support. No nonsense, just "go fight the fight and come out on top, we are rooting for you, you got this". Ace as it gets.
I felt my toe taping shift a bit as I crossed the reservoir, suddenly glad I had the rain jacket on as it was coming down a bit and after an easy bit of paved section it was back up a slight hill. I stopped at a stile to secure the tape and change socks but didn't realise my chest pack was open, so out tumbles packet of tablets, foot care, phone, and more of my confidence. I think in retrospect for exertion I was just not getting enough calories in, reluctant to get the other 'carnage roll' out the pack so relying on smaller snacks. I should've brought more gels, with all the climbing they are always a good shout.
I suspect the anxiety was starting to rear its head. I had been watching the clock ticking and trying to ensure my miles were under 23 minutes to stay in time. The few stops I had already were teasing at trouble and by then it's awfully hard to settle down. In retrospect wish I'd thought to take a few of the Kalms I had in the pack as I was really beginning to worry that if much more of the track was as technical and nerve-wracking as the section before Torside I'd really be in for a long day at the office.
All this is why I wanted so much to recce. There is something so settling knowing what is coming up, where you have to push, where you must ease up and take it as it comes. All well and good to see it on a map but the only accurate maps are those underfoot which contain rocks that turn your ankle if you step wrong.
Why am I rambling on about panicking? The wheels were off but I very nearly crashed the jalopy going up Laddow Rocks. My heart is actually pounding with remembering this bit and probably one of the reasons why I haven't written about it for two weeks.
A forty minute mile.
That rain I thought would make me cold and want the jacket on for a while had long dissipated but my mental state wasn't processing it, I was in gogofasthurry mode. Still at a steady pace but nothing was relaxed anymore, that ABSOLUTELY LOVING IT behind a veil of I'M NOT GOING TO STOP EVEN IF I'M LATE, which albeit a positive approach does not make for as enjoyable an outing in the hills. I knew at that moment why I have previously avoided races with tight cut offs. If it goes wrong, in comes a shedload of the stress that we do these things to avoid. Why do this if it's a replica of life?
Why indeed? Could've taken up ten pin bowling. Stupid sport. We are all insane.
Stupid invigorating sport.
Up up up I'm plodding, thinking surely this is Black Hill, and looking out for the insane grouse that's going to chew my ankles off. I'm hungry. My breathing is going to hell for some reason. Up up up I'm plodding. I'm hot.
Now I'm dizzy. Hold on. Up up up I'm plodding.
No. Turn around. That was water back there. Fill your spare bottle. Dunk your hat, wet your buff. Take the damned jacket off. Stop stop.
The clock in my head stopped. For a moment, I stopped caring about finish lines and cut offs and pace and hills and only wanted to not be dizzy and overheating and finding it hard to breathe. That chest cold did more damage than I thought. Hey it's hard to have asthma and recover from that kind of thing. Who knew?
I stayed there at the side of that hill for as long as I needed to stay until it was safe for me to move on. Wet hat, wet buff on neck, jacket off, pack back on, up and over to the flagstones (singing diddlydiddlyDOOOOOO) up to Black Hill summit. One more bonkers scramble that felt a little spiderman-esque and like a mirage, there were those amazing SST cheering me on again.
I stopped outright, told them my plan to not quit and there was nothing but "you will do this, you are so energetic". It was the banter and the sight of people and the fact I recently had the sense to stop and calmly fix a major problem that fuelled that energy for sure.
And then I realised that is the actual thing I'm good at. Not the running at all, I'm nowhere in the ballpark of fast but entirely relentless and bloodyminded. But the ultra distance and all that goes with it is so much more about problem solving. That, friends, is what I'm good at. That is why I do this.
To perfect the recuperation from imperfection.
To take the wheel back from that psychotic chimp in my skull who wants me to give up, who wants me to cancel myself as a no goer, in all things.
You lose baby. You lose.
That chimp got a vicious pummelling out there.
Second slimy PB&J roll absolutely choked down ("you know have to eat that. Eat that. Get it down you.") before I was onward to Wessenden along an easier bit of trail with some amazing views. That food unbelievably energising and I got a bit of sunshine in my step, maybe was I actually enjoying myself a bit.
I tried to keep the woman who'd overtaken me at the roadside in my sight (I'd learn later I was quite literally trying to keep Joy in my sight) and chased her in that plodding chase-y way until she disappeared over a hilltop. I decided upon looking down a proper chasm it was time to get the headlamp and fleece out.
Past that technical bit, as the sun began to set I wolfed down a bag of olives (highly recommended) and staggered my way into the darkness, mostly dreaming of Nicky's. Somewhere between there and there came a headlamp out of the darkness who'd taken a errant line and was making her way back. "I'm Joy." and there was suddenly company in the dark just like last year's R86.
We had a terrific chat, Joy and I, taking turns leading, cursing, telling ourselves what a great job we were doing, and finally making it to Nicky's where this angel was stood outside in the dark wearing a headlamp at some ridiculous time like 2 am, waiting to make us some food.
I can't even tell you what a legend is Nicky.
In we go, trying to stop feeling a bit terrible, shoveling food in, flat coke, fizzy coke, I better put ketchup on this burger bc it's more sugar and I think I'm crashing a bit, all too much. As we're ready to depart, Mike arrives, last rider on this fun bus and someone I'd seen on and off all day (and later shared a cab back to Edale with), bound and determined to see us in time at the end of the line.
Only Joy and I couldn't even get the route out straight. My GPX would only tell me the line once I started moving, Joy wasn't sure she'd got the right way, and I remember reading how someone previously fell into a bog on the way out, so I popped back in to check with Nicky and scared the hell out of her for opening the door out of the blue (I'm still so sorry!!!)
She pointed us right and off we went. Staggering along and delighted to see a friendly face at the White House who reminded us "there's x miles and x time and don't stop here talking to me!" once we hit those amazing reservoirs, flat flat flat flat and fast. Into our own heads time, Joy out in front and my head repeating "Pain! You made me a you made me a believer..." for a solid half hour, despite me having an actual iPod in my pocket. No idea.
Spotted Stoodley Pike which was in our pocket...no it's not...surely nearly the--no, no...now we're defini--oh FFS...and on and on.
By the time we hit the top we were in a constant circular discussion about how much time we had, would we make it what pace should we go, down the hill, passed a turn, recovered and down, down, down we went. Now checking mileage, I'm remembering from video recces the foresty bit we go along into Hebden Bridge, there it is, no maybe it's that one, oh good grief here we go again.
Tired doesn't cut it, and we've only done the short one.
Made it down laughing at how much our 'balls' hurt (the ones on our feet, but maybe those mental ones came into play to be fair). Crossing into HB, we see a man absolutely hobbling down the road. He'll make it. We'd seen Mike's headlamp at the reservoirs. He'll make it too.
We'll all make it.
We'll all make it!
That hill at the end I'm looking around the corner expecting to see the finish line, forgetting that I've got a GPX telling me there's a bit more to do. And then round we go and there it is and I stopped. "Is it there?" says Joy. I'm pumping the air. We finish together.
I'm broken. They give me a medal. I can't believe we made it. I look to the heavens and show my Pop his Father's Day present, squat down, and burst into tears.
As always at the conclusion (and during, to be fair!!) there was a never again, but as always the trail is calling. This one in my dreams, "here's what you change, how you tweak the training, you know the route now, so..."
She is vicious the Pennine Way. And her weather didn't even turn up. My navigation on point, sensibly pairing up on the tops to get me off of them. That beautiful blue line on my wrist turn here, go there, now, now. You got this.
She is beautiful, the Pennine Way. One brief look at her and I can see how her mystery explains why people are called back to see her in a different light, in a different wind, from a different angle, at a different time. What's around the next bend? I only know the ones I've taken. There are more. What's there? What if it's Baltic out there? How does that change all of this?
Is it fascination or obsession? Time will tell. In my case, this journey started with seventeen hours, thirty minutes and seventeen seconds of walking with pain and finishing with Joy.
I only went and did it. And I can't wait to go back.
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