Spine Challenger 2019 Review from Carsten Nielsen

Carsten had been thinking about tackling the famous Spine ultra run on England’s Pennine Way for a long time. Due to the fact that he is also running the 400km Munga Trail in April, he decided to go for the Spine Challenger 2019. This is a shorter 108 mile/175km run with around 4800 altitude metres, as opposed to the much longer Spine Race. Here’s his story…

Safety paramount

If there’s one thing we know, it is that the UK weather will always throw challenges at the start of the year. As a result, the Spine event organisers reminded us runners about our obligation to pack a lot of safety gear (it is mandatory). For the Challenger, I packed far more than I had ever taken before. With safety in mind, I was genuinely encouraged to know that the race’s medical support was provided by Exile Medics. In my experience, their participation guarantees a high standard – based on the organisation being not only service-minded but incredibly competent.

The race itself started in the picturesque Peak District village of Edale, just outside Manchester. Our route was to take us along the rugged backbone of England, otherwise known as the Pennine Way, heading northbound towards Scotland. I could instantly sense a different focus from the crew at race check in. This was serious business and the gear check was reassuringly thorough, but at the same time everyone to a man was friendly, kind and welcoming. It was immediately clear to me that the event organisers knew exactly what they were doing.

Checkpoint(s)

In some ways Spine Challenger is a strange race. It is in itself longer and harder than most other 100+ milers – and a massive challenge for most ultra runners. The amount of DNF´s runs close to 50%. And still, I had a strange feeling that this was just the starter, before the serving of the main course the following day. As I’ve mentioned, the weather can be a serious challenge during these races. Thankfully, the forecast did not mention snow. Instead we were warned to expect lots of rain and very strong westerly winds – with even worse conditions awaiting us around the mountain peaks.

There was only one true checkpoint along the route, just after the 75km mark, where our drop bags were taken. According to the rules, runners were only permitted to stay 12 hours at a checkpoint. Actually, there was another smaller checkpoint at 135km, but because of a lack of space, runners were only allowed to stay 30 minutes. This space was set up to provide hot/cold water and medical treatment, if required.

Time to get real

Driving towards Edale on the Saturday morning of the race, I experienced a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. I kind of hoped that I could turn around and go back to bed in search of my invisible place. This is a place where there are no expectations and certainly no GPS trackers to record every step I take. The morning rain had relented for a little bit, but the clouds were still sitting low in the sky. I knew I had many hours ahead of me. For some reason, this race scared me more than most of the other races I have done.

When the countdown was complete, I set off out of town – together with 120 other crazy runners. When I found my rhythm, a feeling of joy and calmness returned. The first climb was a tough one with a heavy headwind and it went from bad to worse. When the group reached this first peak, I had to face wind which was so much stronger than I have ever faced before. Meanwhile, the rain had resumed. But there is something almost metaphysical about the rain here in the north of England. It seems to be able to completely ignore the laws of gravity and ‘fall’ horizontally. For that reason, this particular mountain will stand out clearly in my mind for a while. With the wind howling tremendously and the rain lashing down, I had an incredibly close call. Mother nature almost took me over a cliff. To top it all off, we witnessed a waterfall, in which the wind made the water go up instead of down. That’s not something you see every day.

Wind and rain my constant companion

It is fair to say that heavy wind and rain were a constant companion – staying with me until I crossed the finish line. I cannot give you many details about the terrain we traversed over the 175km – and most likely it would not be very interesting stuff to read about. Suffice to say, the route looked very much the same to me. This might sound negative, but that is absolutely not the case. The area is really beautiful. However, with lots of rain and a heavy wind at around 70-100km/h – plus the majority of the race run in darkness – it is hard to give much of a description.

Normally, I focus on just one checkpoint and that was to be the case here too. For this race there were only two (or maybe just 1.5) checkpoints which broke down as follows: 75km to the first CP; another 60km to the next one; plus a final 40km to the finish line. When we crossed public roads, Mrs Running Viking, Louise, tried to be there to cheer me on. She was not allowed in or around checkpoints.

Checkpoint One

At this time of the year in the UK, it gets dark around 16.00hrs. That results in around 16 hours of darkness. In this darkness – many hours later – I reached CP1 where my drop bag was waiting for me. That gave me the possibility to change into new dry clothes. I can tell you that this felt amazing. I then made sure my headlamp and GPS device were fitted with new batteries. After that it was time to eat. In total, I think I was at the CP for almost an hour before I continued. Great. 75 km completed and only 100 km left to go. One of the best things about being at the checkpoints was the silence. There was comfort in the silence away from the raucous noise from the wind and the constant flapping sounds from my hood. Out there in the wild, the noise was constant and kind of stressful.

I do not remember much of the first night – but rain, gusty wind, darkness, water, mud and simply focusing on navigation got me through the night. When morning and daylight eventually returned, everything felt a little better. And, as usual, my ranking in the race got better the further into it we were. But at around 100km I started to feel a strong pain at the back of my left knee. This was not anything that I had experienced before and therefore I wasn’t sure how to proceed. No matter what I did, I could not get rid of the pain.

100km and I clutch my knee

As time passed by, I realised that this knee problem could be serious. I would be forced to fight even harder to overcome this challenge. I kept going and enjoyed a morale boost around 120km, when I met Louise. This helped me onwards towards the checkpoint at 135km. As I approached it, my GPS device ran out of batteries and I navigated by following other runners. Once there, I changed the dead batteries and had the medics look at my knee. In truth, I had been struggling to move forward. Suddenly, the many hours ahead of me felt tough. The medics phoned to get an opinion of another person. Video demos were sent and finally I had my knee taped. This turned out to test my patience to its maximum as while all this all took place, runners entered the checkpoint – and left again.

Finally, I was done. I was able to continue and soon started to enjoy moving in daylight. I was even able to observe the scenery which seemed different with flat areas and canals. On the advice of the crew, we were forced to use an alternative route to that which was planned. Ascending the Pen Y Ghent mountain at that point would have been far too dangerous. No-one should risk being blown off the mountain.

Final 25 to go

At a café about 25km from the finish line, the race crew checked our packs for one last time. They even took the trouble to check over our sleeping bag, bivy bag and GPS devices as a safety precaution. After a little food and drink, it was time to tackle the final section of the race. I had barely escaped the town when I realised that I had left my poles behind at the café. This was a problem as there was one final mountain to negotiate. Running back again was a total no-go, but I really did need them for the climb. End of discussion – I continued on. To compound my problems, a little further up the mountain my watch ran out of battery. From that moment I did not know how much further I had to go. A really frustrating situation.

Running is mental

From from a mental viewpoint, the final 25km turned out to be some of the hardest miles I have ever put myself through. I was constantly buffeted by a fiercely strong side wind, making it desperately hard to maintain any sort of balance. The constant noise from the hood was all I could think of at times. It’s worth saying, of course, that I had been on the go for about 36-37 hours at this time. The reality was that I was tired and made a few mistakes with my navigation. It was not just tiredness that caused this, though. Darkness played its part too. I found it was this that really prevented me from having clarity on the distance I had covered or the area I was in. Occasionally, I was tempted to stop and seek shelter behind one of the stone walls along the route to get a little respite from the relentless wind and noise. It was little surprise that a few runners passed me as my knee was really giving me a hard time

I thought I was nearing the finish area when I started a 6-8km descent into a small town. The crew motioned us through the town, however, and soon it disappeared behind me. Not having my watch or any notion of distance to the finish became a little frustrating. Indeed, every time I caught sight of an approaching light, I hoped that it was the finish line. Suddenly, the welcome sight of Louise emerged from the darkness and soon after I was relieved to cross the finish line as tenth male – and 13th overall – in Hardraw.

Epilogue

Several times during the last stretch I thought about the two different races. I was so happy that I had chosen to ‘just’ do the Spine Challenger instead of the full Spine Race. Truthfully, by the end of the run I had had enough of that damn rain and wind. And since I would soon be a finisher, I would no longer have to think about it anymore. My knee was really bad, plus I had other issues as a consequence of me trying to compensate. After almost 39 hours in wet shoes and socks my feet were surprisingly fine. All that I had to show for it was just one small blister. Simply amazing.

Waking up the next morning I was proud of this very smart decision. Completing Spine Challenger was good enough. I am so glad I stuck to that decision – well into the following day and night. However, a not so smart thought began to form during day two on going to bed that night. I knew that I just completed chapter one. I was tossing around the idea that I would have to come back later to do the Spine Race. That’s a total distance of 426km. Sometimes I am surprised how stupid I can be.

Kit overview

All my clothes worked out as planned, except for my gloves. My biggest fear before the race had been around hypothermia. Therefore, I focused on keeping myself as dry and warm as possible. On my upper body I went for a three-layer strategy: my long sleeve ashmei Merino wool baselayer, the Hooded Sweatshirt as middle layer and then an outer layer jacket with an integrated hood to keep wind and rain out. Smarter people than myself warned me about my gloves and they proved to be right. I started out with my regular running gloves, but was looking to change into some warmer skiing gloves around 60km. By that time though, my fingers were so cold that I could not use them. I even needed help to do the basic stuff. Stupid. This also prevented me from being able to get into my pre-prepared small food packages. Double stupid.

To find out more about the Spine Ultra click here

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