Montane summer spine sprint 2022

…and then the dust clears, and you realise that the event you’ve been looking forwards to for the past half a year has been and gone – and you wander what’s next.

The Summer Spine Sprint felt like a logic race to enter – it’s a little further than I’ve been before, it’s local to me, and the terrain is beautiful. 46 miles (about 73km), about 6000 ft elevation, along the Pennine Way from Edale to Hebden Bridge. It’s worth mentioning that for those who don’t know, this is the ‘entry level’ version of the race – the Challenger is at 108 miles, and the full Spine is 268 miles all the way to Kirk Yetholm – anyone doing either of those events is seriously in another league of endurance.

Training for this one was an oddity – after doing the Dirty Reiver 2022 endurance cycling event at the end of April, I had 7 weeks to basically get back up to running properly again – this ended up being two test runs of the route (split in two – one from Edale to Holmfirth (Magic Rock taproom), and one from Woodhead to Hebden Bridge (to the Vocation tap room – there’s a theme here). Sprinkled in between was the Gods Own Backyard Ultra (no, that’s not a warm up – but I had to treat it as training), guiding members of the Bad Boy Running Club on the Edale Skyline, running the Yorkshire Three Peaks, and getting a couple of other long runs in – but not a great chance to tapering.

Kit and registration

There’s a fairly serious kit list for the Spine races – and the Sprint generally has the same requirements as the longer versions of the race. The race focuses on being safe and self sufficient in the hills – able to source your own water if needed, carrying enough food, the right clothes, med kit and navigation (it’s self navigated), as well as extra safety gear. On top of the mandatory kit list I had running poles on me (Black DIamond Carbon Z poles). I had a couple of items from the ‘optional’ list as well.

Once you have all that packed, it starts to get a little heavy – given this was the summer version of the race, water can be a little scarce on the course – I’d recce’d where the major streams were, but expected some to be less useful (which turned out to be the case) – and the race mandated the ability to carry 3 litres of water – I started out with my bottles about 2 litres full, and in retrospect could have dropped that down a bit. If you’re doing this race, bear in mind that there’s more streams on the first half of the course than the second.

Kit checks are serious business at the Spine – but it went fine. I grouped gear together by type in dry bags, making the check fairly easy – once that was out of the way (I registered a couple of hours before the start). I met with Becky who was volunteering at check in, got my tracker and pre-race photo sorted, then it was time to go!

I had the route gpx saved on my watch – a very capable but getting slightly elderly Fenix 3 – it took 10 minutes to load the map, but I was expecting that. I was also expecting it to crash, which inevitably it did as the race started…….

Last minute tea and flapjack was consumed from the cafe at the station, then it was time to get started. The atmosphere and approach to this type of race is fairly distinctive – it’s chilled by and large, with a slight nervous air – very different to big city marathons. We had a quick chat from the race director – then we were off!

Sprinting the start makes sense, right? Yes, I’m in red…..

At this stage, I promise I’m not going to give you a blow by blow rendition of the event – but the general theme was that I started off relatively close to the front – legs felt a bit tired from training, but conditions were good. A group of 10-15 of us spent the next 30km or so general splitting between different mini groups – you could really tell the different skills of the runners (more technical sections, more flowing sections – and so on). After Jacob’s Ladder there was a welcome breeze across Kinder – after crossing the A57, Bleaklow was its usual self, but felt easier than it has for a while. I ended up running with a lady called Renee for a while who I’d seen before editing a Bad Boy Running episode – had an interesting chat whilst heading across down to Crowden.

We were making good time – Renee was 3rd lady at this stage (we were both top 10). I thought I was on top of my nutrition at this stage – but as we started up Laddow Rocks towards Black Hill, my energy was off – so I slowed, refilled water from the stream (I had a filter on me), and got up the hill whilst eating a bit more. At this stage I caught up the first person doing the Challenger who had set off 4 hours earlier – we were about maybe 4 hours into our run at that stage, so it wasn’t going too badly.

The next stage was a blur – energy levels came back (I mainlined some potato salad), Wessenden and Marsden Moor came and went (with a friendly hello from some of the safety marshals at a road crossing) – then it was a case of keeping pushing on. I still wasn’t running at full power, and got overtaken by a couple of people at this point, and broke out the poles to get moving through the landscape a little faster.. At Standedge, I tried one of the SiS Beta gels that I’d recently picked up and used to good effect – and my energy levels picked up fairly fast, just in time for a speedy run down to Nicky’s Foodbar, by the M62, enjoying the view of the windfarm in the distance.

Ceri was waiting to cheer me on at this stage – it was good to see a friendly face, slurp some tea, and throw a cheeseburger in the rucksack for later. I would not normally be eating a cheeseburger mid-run – but suspected I’d need it. Nicky’s Foodbar is a bit of an institution on the Spine from what I can tell – it’s a shipping container / roadside cafe, and she stays open for all the runners coming through – and I suspect it’s rescued more than one person’s race.

After Nicky’s, I got running with a group of guys who had some good speed – I was still drinking a cup of tea at this stage, until I downed it to get over the rougher ground at Blackstone Edge – where energy gels, crisps, and anything else I had stopped working, and I got shaky, craving…..a cheeseburger. Sorted. You get some odd looks walking in the middle of nowhere at sunset eating a cheeseburger that you’ve somehow acquired – but it’s par for the course for this event, especially as it is generally fairly remote.

Sunset was beautiful – and incredibly peaceful. My energy levels picked up (give or take being cautious running whilst food settled), and the valleys were slowly fading into the sunset across the landscape.

Part of the kit list is both a headtorch – and a rear light. I could see the people a couple of km in front of me, it gave me someone to aim for, and a strangely comforting if remote sense of camaraderie.

At this stage, I was coming across a few more people doing the Spine Challenger – all seemed in reasonable spirits, if a little tired in some cases. Stoodley Pike slowly came into view – even in the dark, it’s a good landmark to aim for – at this point, I knew there was about 10km left, I had energy and was enjoying myself, even if my legs were heavy and I had some fairly painful chafing from my rucksack (and an old foot injury flaring up).

From here on it should have been a fairly clear run through the fields, down the path towards Hebden Bridge, turn off the Pennine Way on to the Hebden Loop, down the hill, and to the finish. Nearly off that was accurate, apart from hallucinating a diversion sign, and diverting down the canal in Hebden Bridge. Luckily I knew the area roughly, and got to a point where I knew there wasn’t any bridges for a while to get towards the finish line – so turned around, and improvised towards the finish where I found one of the race staff coming to find me, concerned that I was lost. A quick run up the hill to the finish (that’s a cruel kicker!), and it was done! I wish i’d had the energy I had in the last 10km earlier on!

I finished in about 12 hours 12 mins – it would have been under 12 hours if I’d not hallucinated a diversion….but it doesn’t really matter. A quick set of photos at the finish line, a chat with the race staff and being given a medal and finisher’s shirt, then it was time for some food – they really looked after us at the finish. Massive thanks also to Ceri who’d checked into our hotel up the valley, then came to watch me in at the finish! After some food, a chat to the other competitors who had finished at a similar time (and who I’d been playing tag with for hours), then it was time to head back to the hotel.

An honourable mention also goes to the race volunteer who noticed me in Bad Boy Running colours, and insisted on press ups as is traditional…..

.So where does that leave things?

It wasn’t easy – and there’s a couple of things I could have done better – if I’d got my eating slightly better, I suspect I’d have finished around an hour faster – but I’m also happy with my time, and finished just in the top third of the field – I’ll take that – my goal was to not be last. Really glad to see the Renee (who I ran with earlier in the event) came in at around 10 hours 45 mins, 3rd lady..

I’m a little cautious on long distances given I have slight wear and tear on my knee and foot, from a recent checkup – but also have been told to keep them strong, so…… I’m thinking on what my next steps (no pun) are. I’d do this event again. If you’d asked me at the time if I thought the 108 mile challenger was a good idea, I’d have said no – with rose tinted specs, and assuming more walking…who knows?

If I could convince Tim my bad adventure buddy to join me, it could be interesting – I’m not sure much of the rest of the Sheffield crowd are up for it sadly – it’d be different with company, but on the same note, most of my long runs are on my own – and I’m ok with that.

I’m writing this a week later – I’ve had a couple of short runs since – I’m a little creaky, but energy’s not bad – so now I plan some speed work, enjoy running without a firm target for a while, then start to focus on the Ring of Steall in September. I might have to admit at some point that I’m probably starting to count as an ultra runner, albeit on the lower end of the scale…..

Enjoy trail running, self supported, with a very supportive race crew and good camaraderie enroute? I can’t recommend this race enough – just make sure you’re comfortable being self sufficient.

Key kit decisons:

  • Montane Spine jacket
  • Inov8 waterproof trousers
  • Ultimate Direction Fastpak rucksack
  • Black DIamond Carbon Z poles
  • Saucony Peregrine 12 trainers
  • MSR trailshot water filter
  • Various gels, lots of other food!

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