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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The price of ultrarunning/ the price of safety - Spine Challenger - it's not cheap!

In the lead-up to the Spine Challenger race, well pretty much for the whole year really, there was a lot of discussion on the race forum and other online groups about gear for the race.  Like in other group discussions, if you ask a question the responses will be split between those who are genuinely being helpful, those who are simply taking the mick and those who just have nothing positive or helpful to say to anyone about anything.  I once asked a gear question in another group a couple of years ago and regretted it almost instantly.


So, given that I was needing a great deal of advice about gear, I found myself relying on all the other Spine (and Challenger) newbies to ask the advice and I would just stalk the threads in the hope that something useful would come up from time to time.  It's not ideal but it saved me from getting the piss ripped out of me on a weekly basis, I'd had enough of that previously.




The thing about this race is that you are either already heavily equipped with the right kind of gear because you have come to it from a winter mountaineering type background, you are some sort of sponsored athlete or brand ambassador who gets loads of gear given at them for 'free', or you come at it from a standard trail running background (like myself) and whilst you might have a few bits and pieces, you realise that once you have parted ways with a hefty entry fee you then have the purse-emptying task of buying a shopping list full of expensive winter-mountain appropriate gear.  And given that you are going to have to part with a lot of money, you are hopeful that you are going to get good advice about what type of equipment/clothing is going to be good enough quality whilst not breaking the bank.




If you look at the difference in sizes and weights of packs carried by runners in the race, you will see a huge disparity, which can only have a knock-on effect on a competitor's speed during the race and therefore their finishing (or not finishing) time. You are pretty much told this on the race website! This caused many a drawn-out discussion in the online forums too - what's more important price, weight, or safety?


I remember way back when I was preparing for the Lakeland 100 there were many similar discussions about pack size, what shoes, what jackets, the lightest calories etc. Repeatedly there were people complaining about the mandatory kit list, asking why they had to carry this and that. It got really tiresome.  Mandatory kit lists are there for one good reason - safety - should the worst happen, can you keep yourself safe until help can arrive (bearing in mind there are hundreds of other competitors out on the trails who might also need help at the same time as you). Of course there are still those who will try and not carry everything (hoping they don't get caught) and there are those who whilst technically meeting the requirements, are pretty much taking the piss with regards to safety (of themselves and therefore putting others at risk) eg. taking a pair of ladies 30 denier dress tights as their "spare lower base layer" or a compass they got in a Christmas cracker that's barely the size of a £1 coin! It's ridiculous.


Remembering all those online debates back them whilst thinking about the Challenger kit-list made me laugh.  Half of those people complaining about the Lakeland 100 kit list would have been having complete hissy fits about the Challenger list.


The discussions were slightly different for the Spine and Challenger, but not completely devoid of the above issues.  But primarily it came down to what was most suitable for the conditions and cost.  For example, when it came to jackets, it was about how well the 'waterproof' or 'insulating layer' jacket had coped with Spine conditions as opposed to a regular winter outings, and then was it affordable?  For clothing in general it was a combination of performance and price.


With regards to the reminder of your equipment, i.e. the heavy part, weight was a constant source of discussion: weight vs. performance vs. cost. As someone who was probably one of the less experienced racers when it comes to winter mountain conditions I needed to buy (or borrow) about 90 % of the content of the mandatory kit list.  So from the horrifying moment that my race entry was accepted at the beginning of February I started scouring the January sales and online sales pages. Mother's day presents, birthday presents Christmas presents - everything was based around my kit list. Multiple times I had to dip into my savings.  I was watching every single penny, and watching every discount website waiting for things to come on sale (or hoping they would).  The gear didn't need to be 'this season' or the latest colour, it just needed to work, and work well enough. Winter conditions mean safety is key which means you can't turn up in any old sh*t, but quality brands tend to cost money, so it was all about learning which brands offered the best quality for the least money.


I experienced a lot of good and bad customer service during 2017.  Some companies were frankly appalling! And others were absolutely superb.  My online favourites - Alpkit, Sportpursuit and Tiso.  Real shops I went into - George Fisher, Pete Bland and Costwold Outdoors in Keswick (these three were also good online). And without my 'winter kit consultant' (ha ha) friend SJ I would never have found my backpack.


My most expensive piece of kit was my sleeping bag (£200).  It was also my heaviest at 865g.  I bought the lightest one I could afford that met the sub-zero requirements. It was the Alpkit Pipedream 400 which I learnt about in the Spine discussion groups. I still can't believe I spent that much money on a sleeping bag when all previous sleeping bags have come from Tesco at around £15!! No joke.  I haven't slept outdoors since Guide camp in my youth - that was quite some time ago.


Whilst I imagine that many of the 'fast and light' competitors (on the Challenger?) would have gone for a more lightweight emergency bivi bag (weighing as little as 100g), I opted for safety and took the weightier (664g) option of the Rab Storm Bivi. When I speak of safety, I speak of it in my own context.  Given that I'm less experienced, it was important for me to feel safe with the equipment that I was carrying and that I would be confident that if something went very wrong I would be able keep myself safe until help arrived. A 100g bivi bag would not have made me feel safe.  Clearly non of us plan on something going wrong, but inevitably they do, and we need to be as best prepared as we can.  It is our responsibility as competitors to keep ourselves safe.  It is not the responsibility of the Safety Team - they are our BACK-UP.


I started buying things for my race in February in the sales, and I bought my last items in one week before the race (not that I was cutting it fine or anything). That final item was actually a new head-torch.  Not the best planning but I had increasingly lost confidence in my Petzl Nao as it had failed me on numerous occasions (perhaps it was just too fiddly or just wasn't a good 'fit' for me).  Again I was stalking the forums and decided to buy a Black Diamond head-torch. It needed standard sized batteries and they were super easy to change.  And having adjusted the settings on the computer I knew the light would last through the 16 hour night on 1 set of batteries no problem - this was of key importance to me.


One key piece of kit was the GPS unit. But luckily I didn't have to shell out £200-£500 on a new unit as my lovely friend SG let me borrow hers - a Garmin Oregon. Not only did she lend it to me for the race but for the three months prior to the race for me to practice with too! She's an absolute gem of a friend. I have never used one before - always been a map and compass person - but there's no doubt I am saving up to buy one in the future.  What a fantastic bit of kit! It gives you a (perhaps misplaced) sense of comfort knowing that you have that extra layer of 'navigation power' for when conditions are not conducive to manual navigation (hoping that it works!).


Entering the Montane Spine Challenger and Spine Race is expensive.  The entry fee alone would put most people off, including myself (which is did for some time)! But I decided I wanted to do a big extreme race before I was no longer capable of such things. I wanted to do something super special and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  That was another reason to finish the race - I couldn't afford to pay the entry fee again.  Often people say 'there's always next year' if you're thinking of a DNS or mid-race contemplating a DNF, but that's just not the case. Yes, if you're an elite or sponsored runner and don't have to pay entry fees etc. but for your average runner then it's not such an easy prospect.  It's a bit different to paying £7 for your local hill race.


So was it worth it? For me, yes. Most definitely.  It was an extremely challenging, and at times horrific and brutal experience, but my goodness I wouldn't have changed it for the world. Well, except my stupid non-waterproof supposedly waterproof socks! Ha. It was everything I signed up for and then some. Pushing myself like that meant I had to dig deeper and find new strengths I didn't know I had.  And the people involved in the race - they were some of the finest humans I have met on my running adventures. The people make the Montane Spine Challenger.


The Hart family had a tough 2017, and the look on my husband's face as I arrived at the finish, and the enormous hugs and non-stop questions I got from my kids when I got home - PRICELESS!  In our 'running lives' we were due a win, and we got one. It was freakin magic!  And now I have lots of cool gear that we can have lots of future adventures with.


Keep adventuring...



Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Women and ultrarunning - a few personal ramblings





When I was interviewed after my Montane Spine Challenger finish last month, a question I was asked near the end of the interview struck a chord. It was a question regarding the lack of women in the race, and ultra-running in general. It was a timely question given the current climate about equality and women's rights.  And just this evening I saw a very long thread of discussion on Facebook about giving women a higher percentage 'quota' in a race lottery to ensure more are racing.  In this case, whilst I'm not against the sentiment, I'm very much of the opinion that a lottery is a lottery - nobody should be getting special treatment in a lottery - we should all be entering a race with the equal chance of getting in, no special treatment.


I don't wish to repeat all the different ideas and opinions about what should be done to 'rectify' the lack of women represented in ultra-running; some ideas were constructive and positive, others were complete nonsense.


For race directors, I think their role is quite limited, but still important.  Prize money should be equal, prizes should be equal.  If the first 3 men are getting a 6 pack of beer, then do the same for women.  It's horrifying the number of races I have been to where women are given household appliances as prizes! Honestly if I was ever good enough to podium in a race and they had to cheek to give me an iron as a prize, I'd walk away leaving the iron on the table.  (I frickin hate ironing!)
Women need equal billing as men. Treat the results equally, the prize-giving equally, press conferences and advertising - create a sense of excitement about the women's field in the same manner as the men's field. In my mind, it's not a complicated thing. (I'm sure there will be those that disagree.)


One reason for women not entering is perhaps the lack of role models.  I am not referring to the elite field though.  There are fantastic women at the elite level who are inspiring to watch, and follow on Instagram and other social media, many of whom are giving the men's elite runners a run for their money.  I follow plenty of these women and men on social media and I'm amazed by what they can all do.  But the bottom line is they do not inspire me to go out and race.  They are elite, and by virtue of that, achieving things that probably feel impossible to most women (or men). But they are pushing boundaries and creating exposure which in itself is key in facilitating women's participation.


But when it comes down to it, what is really going to make 'normal' 'everyday' women runners want to run a 100 miler? I'm 'normal' and 'everyday.' (others may disagree - cheeky!) So what made me want to run a 100 miler? What made me want to get up at stupid o'clock in the morning to train, and head out in the dark and awful weather once my kids are in bed to get more miles in?


The answer came in the talk/interview with Fiona Outdoors. She said she loves to write about seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I replied to her, than I am just an ordinary working mum. "Seemingly ordinary" she interjected.


I am not an elite runner.  I am a middle (at best) to a back of the pack runner, whether it's 5km to 100 miles.  I don't even 'look' the I should be a runner (especially not since I had the kids).  I don't look like most of the women runners you see on Instagram and elsewhere.  These days when I go to a race (to run or support) I feel like I am 10 time larger than everyone else.  But I would imagine that's how a lot of women runners feel; massively self-conscious and lacking in self confidence and the belief that they could do something amazing.


I am that women.  I have spent my life battling insecurity and self-doubt. But somehow a seed was sown in my brain, a question; what could I do? My first ultra was not inspired by some distant elite runner on the cover of a magazine. I was on my way to my first marathon (which I entered due to the encouragement of a fellow female running club member - also not a front of the pack runner) and we travelled alongside the West Highland Way.  Apparently people ran the whole of this trail, in one go! And not only that, two members of my running club had done the race, one male and one female. Wow, I thought.  I wonder if I could do that? It looks such a beautiful place to run. I hadn't even run my first marathon at that point. And the people who had inspired me were friends.  I thought that if they could do it, maybe I could.  Not through any kind of arrogance, but seeing them as seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.


Back then I didn't have the belief, but I had a sense of wonder.  I had the work ethic and I had the support of my club. Crucially I also had the time!


Things are different now that I am a working mother of two young children. How are they different? Time.  I just don't have the time I used to have.  But I have to find ways to make the time.  I don't have an extensive network of childcare.  I can't run commute or run at lunchtime.  Some parents can  but these options are simply not available to me.  So I have to make sacrifices elsewhere. But how can a working mum do that? Through support.  So whilst I don't have the time I used to have I do still have the support.  I have a husband who can look after the kids when I am training (late at night or at silly o'clock in the morning), and I look after them when he is training, and sometime we all 'train' together. We have lots of adventures. We are a team.


I'm still not sure I have the belief, but my husband and my kids believe in me so I have to trust them and learn to believe in myself.  I am lucky.  I still have that sense of wonder, the work ethic and the support and belief of my friends.


We need more seemingly ordinary women doing extraordinary things.  Fight the feeling to shy away from what they have achieved and let people know what they have done. Shout about it, write about it. Blog about it. I recently read a social media post of a runner complaining about people writing blogs about their races.  If you ask me, I think more people should blog about their races.  Provide other runners with a resource to learn, to give them the knowledge and confidence to help them tackle an event.  I know I couldn't have tackled the Spine Challenger without all the knowledge I gained from previous racers blogs. (If you don't want to learn from blogs, don't read them, but they are a fantastic resource for learning and preparing.)  Let other seemingly ordinary people see what is possible.  Let's help each other do extraordinary things.


Whilst sitting at the finish checkpoint in Hardraw after finishing the Spine Challenger, feet soaking in a bucket of warm water to clean them for 'inspection' the final lady finisher came in, and it was reported that that was all the women in now, we were just waiting for male finishers. One of my fellow racers commented "What a fantastic bunch of women we have in this race, we just need more of you." I think roughly, the DNF rate for women in the race was on a par with the men's DNF rate.  So one could say that once we have the courage/'training'/support/belief to start, we have the same chance of finishing as the men.


I hope there are lot more women out there who may seem ordinary, just like me, but who can also do extraordinary things. We can do this.




(Apologies for being a bit rambling but time is limited and I needed to get a few thoughts down on something that is important to me: I speak as an ordinary women/mother/wife/daughter/sister/friend... I hope other women can speak out on the issue too, and preferably a lot more eloquently than me).


EDIT: On reflection perhaps we can look at it both ways:

seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things

AND

ordinary people doing seemingly extraordinary things.




Monday, 5 February 2018

Every setback leaves behind a path to make your comeback

So I mentioned in my blog post Another Spanner in the Works that I injured my hip in a non-running incident. Because of the injury I found running for any length of time (above 20 minutes or so) painful and would have to take a walk break. During the final 3 months before the race much of my training was done by walking in the local hills or run/walking in the local forests.  My inability to run was one of the reasons I very nearly didn't start the race.  Not only was I facing the toughest race of my life, I was attempting to complete it whilst not being able to run without pain.




It was only 6 months since I had last attempted to run a race when I was in pain before I even started, and that had been an unmitigated disaster, so what made me think this time would be any different, especially when this race was 100 times harder than the SDW100? The answer is twofold. Firstly, I WANTED this.  I don't do bucket lists.  I don't do races just because they are on some arbitrary list of 'races you have to do before you die' that appears practically every other month in some sort of running publication. I just don't buy into all that.  Racing means time away from my kids so there has to be a good reason for me to do it. The Montane Spine Challenger presented multiple personal reasons for me to enter, and then once I started I had lots more reasons to finish.




One of the reasons to keep going was my hip problem.  It was constantly sore throughout the race, although much less acute than my shoulder or my feet. And now, 3 weeks after the race, my shoulder is back to normal and apart from some fairly severe achilles tendonitis my feet have recovered too.  But my hip is painful, almost all of the time.




With my x-ray results before the race showing no issues I decided that I would do the race because I could do any damage to anything bone related (or so I thought with my extensive medical knowledge! ha).




My MRI was scheduled for 2 days after the race finished.  I was dreading it as I do get a bit claustrophobic. Mainly I was nervous about what the possible diagnosis would be.  Whilst I tried to remain positive about it, I couldn't help but replay the list of possible results in my head. Not knowing is always difficult, but at the same time you dread getting the results in case it's not the outcome you hoped for.




So my results came through, and thankfully it was not the worst case scenario. Unfortunately it was not good news either. My injury is not fixable without a very difficult surgery, which to be successful requires a very good surgeon, and an long period of recovery. It's difficult news to come to terms with, but come to terms with it I must.


I have started a program of physiotherapy but hopefully before too long I will be put onto a surgery list. With it being a difficult surgery there is a good chance that it won't work, and even a chance it could make things worse.  But it is important that I stay positive and hope for the best, and give myself every chance of recovery.


The irony is that whenever you tell somebody that you are a runner, or especially an ultra-runner, they will question whether that is good for your knees or you joints, and the thing that has injured my hip was being a mum: Trying to be a helpful mum at that!


So I ran the Spine Challenger with the unconfirmed knowledge that it may well be the last time I compete in a race for a very long time.  If this was going to be my last ultra than I better make sure I finish it.  And thank goodness I did as it was the most glorious race finish of my life.


Maybe I have gone out on a high, or maybe there is more to come.  Only time will tell.  I will do everything I can to ensure my hip will work again.  I know it is going to be very difficult but life is full of challenges.  I can only hope that my best is enough because I want the chance to make many more memories running or walking in our wonderful countryside. But more importantly I want to be able to be able to be an active mum with my kids.  I don't want to stay broken and have to make excuses to not fully participate in what they are doing.


A positive attitude to achieve positive results. Chin up.



Post race interview

Here's the link to the interview I did with Fiona Outdoors just after the Spine Challenger race.


https://www.fionaoutdoors.co.uk/2018/01/vicky-completes-gruelling-montane-spine-challenger.html



Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Montane Spine Challenger 2018 (race report in full).

"Start with the step you don't want to take, he said. Move with a purpose that you won't forget. Meet yourself, when you leave those other dreams behind." (Indoor Garden Party)



DON'T FOOL YOURSELF


It's been a very long time since I last felt properly sick with nerves before a race. I could barely eat (there's a shocker!!).  I managed a banana, half a lukewarm cup of tea and half a piece of flapjack.


I briefly chatted to Lizzie, and was filmed again by Summit Fever Media. They had interviewed me on Friday afternoon for their race coverage. But that was as sociable as I could manage and I basically hid until race start.  I phoned the kids and they wished me luck. "Good running Mummy." I nearly cried. I hadn't felt like this before a race in a very long time. I was beyond nervous and just desperate for it to start, and to not start at the same time.




After some last minute faffing (as is the norm), I went out to the start. A quick hug with Lizzie and Jo and I manoeuvred myself close to the back of the field. Whilst the pre-race announcement was being made I drew into myself, catching for a breath. Calm. There was nothing to do now but move forward.





I dicked about with my Suunto as we set off, still unable to tell if it was started or not. I’m so ingrained in the Garmin world that I am still struggling to get used to the Suunto. It was a Christmas present, bought to use in the race, because when put into a hiking made it can last 100+ hours. Whilst the minute details wouldn’t be that accurate as least I would have a recording of my entire race, plus I could have a vague idea of what my distance was during the race. I also wore my Garmin 910XT as a watch so I knew the time of day. I could have worn a normal watch but none of mine have actual working batteries.


Climbing up Kinder Scout





Whilst others set off at a run, I walked. Plenty of us were walking. There was a long way to go. But even at the strong walk I felt under pressure to go faster. My calves were burning from not being warmed up. I was conscious that the majority of the field was disappearing before my eyes but want to make sure that I kept calm and steady so that I didn’t sweat when tackling the first big climb up Jacob’s Ladder. The conservative start worked as I remained dry but the wind on the top was fierce and bitterly cold. I didn’t want to start off cold so I stopped to put my Montane Spine trousers on. I lost the large group in front of me but Patrica caught me up and we shared a mile or so of trail before she had to stop to put her jacket on as the wind was whipping up something fierce now.





Half a mile or so later one particularly strong gust of wind must have caught me off balance, lifted me clean off my feet and threw me down on the ground. After the initial shock I got up feeling my shoulder was sore but otherwise I seemed to be ok. It was slow progress due to primarily moving forward at a walk, but I was ticking off mini sections of the route, thinking back to my recces and trying to remember what was coming next.





As I walked and trotted along the paving stones towards Snake Pass (9 miles) I mistook a puddle for a full paving stone and went over on my ankle. Great! What was going to be next? I walked it off and  wound my way along the endless paving stones. We were lucky so far with the weather, despite the wind, it was dry and visibility was pretty good.





I reached Snake Pass around the time I expected. I refilled with water from the MRT crew and went on my way. This was a section I wasn’t really looking forward to. I didn't particularly enjoy Bleaklow.  It wasn't as bad as I'd remembered, and if I'm honest the ground was no worse than when I'd recced it with Jen back in August.  I caught up with Steve and another runner (I never caught his name) and we made our way towards the summit. We caught up with some people who were out walking near the top just as Steve stubbed his toe. He seemed to be ok, and was with a group so as I was feeling the chill and wanting to get down away from the summit, I carried on down.  It's a long way down to Torside and I wanted to get on with it.  I picked up the path easily and made my way down towards Torside Clough.




This was another part that I had built up in my mind to be something terrible -  the thought of what it could have been like if there had been snow and ice at this stage of the race.  It could have been pretty hairy.  But it wasn't. My shoulder was really starting to hurt now and I was starting to worry about it. The jolting descent was hurting my feet and already my quads were feeling the ache of being undertrained. I continued to walk, only running on the least technical parts.  There is a slight feeling of exposure here (for those not comfortable with heights) and I felt a little light-headed in parts.  On the final steepish descent towards the road crossing I saw Ellie and Matt from Summit Fever Media and thought I better put in a run, just in case they were filming.  I heard the drone just as I wiped some major snotters from my face! Good grief I hope they weren't filming that bit!  It reminded me of my Instagram feed - run for the camera, then walk as soon as you're out of shot. Ha!




As I arrived at the roadside the MRT were dishing out cups of tea.  It was bliss. I took 2 paracetamol whilst here and ate some of my flapjack.  There's a big old climb after Torside and I needed to be fuelled. There was a young guy sitting with some sort of shoulder issue.  His right shoulder was hurting.  I explained how my left one was hurting so at least we had two good ones between us, hoping my joviality would give him the impetus to continue.  Steve arrived and shared his brownie and I set off just ahead of him.  He caught up with me through the woods on the far side of the reservoir.  I was grateful for the company.  This was going to be a tough section with 2 rivers/streams to cross high up on the moors, and another one just before Wessenden.  I'm rubbish with river crossings.  Jen will tell you these aren't rivers, but if they are full, I'd say they were definitely rivers.  Knowing racers in previous years have been swept downstream on the river crossings and pulled out of the race because of hypothermia, I had good reason to fret about them before the race.  But much like on top of Kinder Scout, the water level was below where it had been on my recces.  Bonus! It almost made up for the increasing pain in my shoulder.  Almost.




Steve was great company and we were both looking forward to getting to Wessenden before the light faded.  We made it.  Steve stopped for a cup of coffee whilst I carried on down the path towards the next reservoirs.  There's so many reservoirs!  I lost track of all their names.  As the light disappeared and before I turned on my headtorch I took a toilet break.  It so much easier for men!!  Seriously, there's nothing my aching quads love more than doing a mid-run squat whilst exposing myself to the cold night air. Gah!




I resisted turning my torch on for as long as possible, switching it on as I passed the second reservoir. I caught up with the runner in front.  He was a little unsure of the turning here as you can easily be 'in the zone' trotting away down the nice track when you actually need to turn off and back on yourself to head down to the bridge.  I found the turn easily enough and he followed me down, before then passing me again half way up the climb on the other side.  He soon pulled away from me.  I thought Steve would have caught me up my now, but it turns out that was the last time I was to have company for 10 hours of darkness until I reached the checkpoint at Hebden Bridge (45 miles). 




As I passed along the reservoir on Black Moss, the air seemed momentarily impossibly still.  The water glowed a beautiful golden colour reflecting the urban glow the towns away is the obscured distance.  It was  a moment of beauty. I stopped to take it in, remembering the fun day I had with Jen on this section, writing our names in the sandy beach at the northern end of the reservoir. I was trying to remain upbeat.  Use the 'it could be worse' strategy.  I thought to myself that I had done pretty well with this so far considering my shoulder and my twisted ankle.  But now it was dark.  I was alone.  And the demons were coming to get me...




THE NIGHT SHIFT




For those not accustomed to racing through the night, being alone in the darkness brings with it a whole new set of challenges.  I've only raced a handful through the night before (except for track 24 hour races which are completely different).  Once was the West Highland Way Race where you set off at 1am and have maybe 3-4 hours of darkness to run in, but you are surrounded by people the whole time, then if you are running into the second night you will normally have at least one support runner with you. Another time, was at the Lakeland 100.  I won't sugar-coat it, I had a total meltdown during the first night of the Lakeland 100. I threw all the toys out of the pram and was determined to pull out.  The second night wasn't as bad, but it wasn't a positive experience either.




The difference between those races and the Spine Challenger is the length of time spent in the dark, and the solitude. I knew the dark was going to be one of my big obstacles during the race so I had spent many training runs and walks in the dark in preparation. But when you're in unfamiliar territory it's always going to be tough.  I was constantly repeating positive mantras to myself and visualising the route as if it was still daylight and again thinking it could be worse...




I had a cup of tea at Harrop Dale as I walked up from the road.  I thought back to my recce with Jen and making fun videos for her training vlog.  Along Standedge and across White Hill I was trying to remain upbeat but the pain in my shoulder had become unbearable.  I knew there was something seriously wrong with it and I was really starting to worry about my race.  I started stopping to bend over to relieve the pressure on my shoulder, and for that brief moment I felt some relief.  But as soon as I stood up the pain was back again. 




The sight of the burger van at the carpark just before the M62 was a thing of beauty.  I wasn't entirely sure it was real until I was maybe 100 metres away from the road.  It was a relief.  I ordered a burger and a cup of tea.  Oh, it was just what I needed.  So warm and comforting.  I hoped this was the pick-me-up I needed to get me across the rocky mess that is Blackstone Edge and then onto the White House.  But no, I found a new low crossing Blackstone and by the time I made my approach to the White House and the MRT/SST(?) I was in a bit of a state.  I could barely get my backpack off so that I could get some paracetamol out of my medical kit.  The volunteers were super helpful filling my water bottle, giving me a cup of tea and a couple of custard creams (tea and biscuits make everything better!) and then helped me get my backpack back on.  They advised to see the medics once I got to Hebden.  I thanked them and headed off up the road, being cheered on by some people standing outside the pub.




Despite their help, and that brief moment of human contact, as soon as I was back out on the trail again, consumed by the darkness, the pain and the solitude I felt myself falling into the depths of mental darkness again.  The track was easy enough along to the next diversion, but I was in no mood for tramping through more boggy muddy mess round Warland Reservoir. Stupid f*cking @sshole of an excuse for a trail! Stupid f*cking bogs! Where was everybody? Was I so far back that there was literally nobody else left on the trail?  I could Have sworn I left the burger van before some other people.  I wasn't going fast, I don't think I could have been going any slower!  Why weren't they catching me? FFS!




I wound my way endlessly towards Stoodley Pike.  It seemed to take forever.  Walking was unbearably and depressingly slow, especially when there were so many miles ahead and they were just not passing at all.  As I headed downhill away from Stoodley I caught a glimpse of a headtorch behind me.  Oh great, now you catch up with me, just as we are coming off the moors!  Great help that is!




But for whatever reason they didn't catch up. Catch up, don't catch up, just stop flickering in my peripheral vision and using me to navigate!! (Obviously they weren't using me to navigate as this part is easy to follow.) Argh! I was having a serious sense of humour failure as I descended into Charlestown.  In fact I was being a real idiot.  As I crossed the road and went to take the turning up the stupidly steep path under the railway and up the hill, I saw a man in a van reading a clipboard. F*cking delirious idiot that I am, knocked on the window (bearing in mind this is sometime after midnight!) and asked him if he was with the Spine Race and did he need my race number? "The race love?" came the reply, "No, I'm with the railway." I mean, what the hell was I thinking?!  Clearly I wasn't.  As I climbed up the hill I was berating myself for being such an idiot whilst simultaneously trying not to burst my achilles which was being an absolute b*tch.  It's one thing to have a busted shoulder, I was making forward progress (slowly) with that, but a busted achilles would end my race on the spot.




I slipped and slid across the farm fields over the next hill, then down that stupidly narrow path towards the river.  I mean, what is that all about?  It's the Pennine Way.  People are going to be wearing rucksacks and yet they make these crazy style/stone hole things that you can barely fit through with a running pack, never mind a 9kg f*ckin mountain on your back! On the bright side, at least the stone bridge wasn't frozen and I didn't have to worry about falling in the river. The Pennine Way gives and then takes away - constant up and down - an emotional rollercoaster.




Soon I hit the road where the race deviates from the PW and heads down the mud luge to the checkpoint.  I phoned Paul as I knew I had signal here, even though I knew he'd be asleep.  I left a message to let him know my plan for the checkpoint so that he wouldn't worry.  Initially I had thought I'd be in and out within about 90 minutes but I told him I was going to change and eat and then see the medics.  I said there is a likelihood I would be in there for several hours. Then I said goodnight and headed down to the Hebden Hey 45 mile check point.  If I am completely honest, I wasn't entirely sure I would be coming back out.
 
HEBDEN HEY CHECKPOINT (45 MILES)

I was somewhat dazed as I arrived down at the scout hut, not really knowing what to expect and frankly needing a little help. After attempting to clean my shoes and waterproof trousers in the water tub I went inside and took off my shoes, and waterproof trousers and left my poles in a heap and followed the kind man through who was carrying my drop-bag.  There was no way I could carry it myself.  I went into the bathroom to change and clean myself up after informing the CP staff that I needed to see the medics.  I said I would eat first. I took my time changing my tops and changed out of my first pair of long waterproof socks which had served me well so far.  Apart from being sore from the pounding they didn't feel like I'd done too much other damage to them. Here I made my only mistake of the race - I should have swapped to my second pair of long waterproof socks but for some inexplicable reason I switched to the short ones and didn't even put the long ones into my backpack.  I was going to pay for that later.




After I repacked my bag, got myself dresses and repacked my drop-bag I headed for some food.  This was where I met my Hebden angel Olivia. She was a complete blessing, getting me some food, checking on my drop-bag, making sure the medics knew I was on my way, making me a cup of tea, trying to get me to eat more food and then sending me up to the medics.




The Exile Medics were brilliant with me, assessing my shoulder to make sure I didn't have any broken bones and had a quick look at my feet, finding a massive black bruise on my right achilles. Then I got a massage from the lovely lady from the sports massage company (that I just cannot remember the name of, maybe North Lakes or something - she was from Penrith). She massaged both legs focusing on releasing my calf (and try and stop my achilles tendon from destroying my race) and worked on my shoulder. Once she was finished, I went back to the medics and I had a couple of tiny blisters burst, webbing and tape put on. My emotions almost got the better of me when the doctor advised me that the best thing for my shoulder was to rest it, i.e. pull out of the race and o to A&E for a precautionary x-ray. I was utterly exhausted and felt beaten.  They advised a short sleep at the very least.  I hadn't planned on sleeping here. But considering I had had between 2 and 4 hours sleep every night for the previous week since my daughter's surgery, I knew it was the only thing to do at that point.  The lovely Olivia brought all my things upstairs that I would need and I somehow managed to climb onto a top bunk using a stool in a room full of snoring men.   I set the alarm on my phone for 30 minutes, tucked it inside my buff so it was right beside my ear and tried to fall asleep.




Two whole seconds later my alarm went off and my mind was made up. I wasn't giving up this easy. So I crept out of the room of cosy and comfortable snoring men and started sorting myself out to head back onto the trail.  I got some more help with my bags and headed back to the dining room for more food. Only an hour and a half since the chicken and rice, I wasn't particularly hungry but forced down a bowl of porridge as I knew I needed fuel - there was still 65 miles to cover.  Oliva sorted me out with tea as well and refilled my bottles for me.  She was an angel - just the right amount of sympathy and 'kick-up-the-bum' I needed.  I was so grateful for her help I gave her massive hug, was guided outside by another volunteer and was guided back to the start of the path up the mud luge.  I left the checkpoint at 5:40am, 3.5 hours after arriving.




I made my way back up the hill.  It was easier than coming down - less chance of slipping and falling on my backside.  But just as I was approaching the top of the path, I heard a shout from behind. Turning I saw the volunteer who had guided me out of the scout hut. He shouted to me asking if I was Vicky and if I was ok?  I said, yeah, I was as well as could be expected.  It turns out that when I had hugged Olivia we had accidently set off my tracker SOS so my wee alarm was going off at race HQ and the poor guy had been sent to chase me down and check I was ok!!  Oops. Luckily I was allowed to continue.




I tramped my way back up the road.  The night air was cold.  There was a strong breeze. It certainly felt colder than when I had gone into the checkpoint.  Soon I was reaching the turning back onto the Pennine Way.




WHO RESTS ON A SUNDAY ANYWAY?

It was still dark as I rejoined the Pennine Way.  I headed up the hill, met the gate where the path headed onto Heptonstall Moor.  I tried to go through the gate. It wasn't for moving. The sign to pull the leaver up.  I did.  I pulled that bloody leaver in every direction but the ruddy thing would not open. Stupid bloody useless excuse for a gate.  There was nothing else for it.  No amount of swearing at it convinced the gate to open so I had to climb over.  Easier said than done with a 9kg backpack.  Don't think I've mentioned how heavy my bag was yet have I? Ha.




I quite like Heptonstall.  Yes, it's another soggy, somewhat boggy moor, but it's really not got too many challenges for you so you can get a few miles done without too much drama.  When you're a bit of a race drama queen like myself, it's good to have a wee break.  But still, I continued to be alone.  Even when the distant reservoirs appeared across the valley in the dusky morning light I could still not see any headtorches in front or behind me.  This was proving to be a very lonely race.  I had expected to spend long stretches by myself, but not quite as much as I did.




Even though daylight was coming it felt much colder than Saturday.  There was a definite chill in the air.  It was frustrating to not be able to run more than a few steps along the road towards the Walshaw reservoirs, and then again alongside them.  The path is so runnable at this point.  As I was walking alongside Middle Walshaw Reservoir a grouse that had been very vocal about my presence, flew across onto the path and started pecking at my feet and squawking noisily at me, trying to chase me away. What the hell?  Crazy bird! I couldn't feel a thing but it was the oddest thing.  It was clearly not happy about me being there and I'm not sure who was more annoyed at my slow forward progress - me or the crazy bird. 




After the bird and I finally parted ways I started the climb up onto Withins Height and then down towards Top Withins (of Bronte fame).  It had been pouring with rain on my recce but today it was dry but as the wind increased the temperature was dropping. I knew I could get a phone signal on the top here so I phoned home again to speak to Paul and the kids. Daniel wasn't interested but apparently Annabel had been up since silly o'clock (no surprise there) watching my dot.  She was glued to the race all weekend.  She's her mummy's biggest fan.  Round about this time, unbeknownst to me, the race was being won in a new course record!!  Good job I didn't know as that would have been really demoralizing. That time is just mind-blowing!




I couldn't wait to get down to lower ground.  I couldn't believe how cold I felt.  Despite the phone call I was feeling pretty low.  I knew what was coming. I even broke into a bit of a run on the descent.  I was desperate for some shelter to try and warm up.  I remembered somebody had said there would be a local café doing some food down at Ponden reservoir, so I focused on getting down as fast as I could. In a sheltered spot just before reaching the reservoir I decided enough was enough and it was time to get my prism jacket and bigger gloves on.  Even the balaclava came out.  I could smell smoke; it smelled like campfire smoke.  I thought it must be the café, but by the time I reached the road the only sign of any activity was a few glowing embers from some sort of fire.  Any people or food were long gone.  It was disappointing.  I had hoped to get fuelled up for the big slog that awaited me.  I had to settle for a double twix and a packet of salt and vinegar crinkles.




Another b*tch of a stile led to the short steep climb up to Crag Bottom. My achilles started playing up again. Perfect timing.  Not. You've heard the saying 'the darkest hour is just before the dawn' but I can assure you this is incorrect.  The darkest hour is the hour (or more) you spend crossing Ickornshaw Moor. It's beyond grim. It's the devils bog. Even though we'd had it relatively dry this section is just pure misery. My feet should have been dry.  But it seems the Ickornshaw proved to be the final straw in the waterproofness of my socks. B*gger.  I still had close to 60 miles left and I was out of waterproof protection for my feet.  And with the wet, the taping and mesh started coming loose on my feet. Just great. Just what I needed.




The route down of Ickornshaw is the grimmest level of grim.  It's a complete joke. I've never sworn so much in my life as I did coming down off there. A national trail?  Really? The wind was bitterly cold and I just wanted off.  Soon I arrived at the diversion. Some race volunteers were just re-attaching the diversion sign again.  The diversion added a fair bit of distance to the trail (like all the diversions for the race - meaning we covered 110-113 miles rather than the original 108 miles).  It was here the James and Jeff first came passed me. We were to bump into each a few times over the coming hours.




On arriving at the village of Cowling I decided this would be a sensible time to stop and sort out my feet. I stopped on a rickety old wooden bench, which momentarily felt like it wouldn't hold the weight of both me and my backpack. One foot at a time I removed the wet sock and surveyed the damage. I tried adding a bit of the cream I had brought but it had turned solid and I couldn't get it to spread! That won't be in my blister kit anymore! Off with the taping and on with the next pair of dry socks.  They wouldn't be dry for long but at least my feet would get a brief respite. As I was packing up to leave another runner sat down to have a rest.  Like James and Jeff I would to-and-fro with him until darkness fell.




Feet sorted, sort of, and I was off.  This section is quite nice. Some lovely farmland. Up and down, up and down. The fast-slowing stream of my recce was easy to jump across with less water in the back in October. Happy Vicky. But the field that followed was although not deep, it was waterlogged so that was the end of my dry feet. Soon I was making my down towards Lothersdale, a beautiful little village tucked away in a small valley.  We had been told that the Hare and Hounds pub would be open to Spine racers where at the very least there would be bottles of water for us.  I reached the pub to be greeted by gem of a lady.  I wasn't going to go inside and said I would just grab a burger and head up the hill.  Thankfully the lovely lady convinced me to go inside where she served me up a huge cheeseburger with onions and a wonderful cup of tea.  They had put old curtains on the floor and plastic covers on the chairs to protect them from Spine mud.  The hospitality was wonderful. An absolute joy.  Other punters were fascinated by what we were up to and they were all watching the race (dot watching) on the big screen. I cannot thank them enough for the kind hospitality they showed us. I sat chatting to James and Jeff and 'the other guy' (I'm really sorry I can't remember your name) until we were all fed and watered and all warmed up.  Another round of paracetamol and I followed the guys out of the pub.




I tried to keep up with the guys but it was  a bit of a losing battle.  I kept in touch or in sight of them as we climbed up over Eslack Moor (the last moor for a while) and down the boggy midden towards Brown House Farm.   My only memory of the farm from the recce is the massive cow sh*t bog you have to wade through as you approach the farm. Luckily, being a dairy farm, the cows had been in for a while so the ground was much better than it had been on my recce.  Lots of sticky mud, but no cow sh*t. Winner.




As we headed along the road, we started together but the guys all soon moved ahead.  With light fading fast we all got out our headtorches.  By the time I reached Thorton in Craven it was dark and I was on my own again.  There was another diversion after the village that I didn't recall from the briefing.  I thought, great, I don't have to navigate across those soggy fields.  I was wrong, we were just going through some different muddy fields before re-joining the Pennine Way in the middle of some more muddy fields.  It was tricky at first but once I got my bearings it was fairly straight forward, sticky muddy progress towards the canal path.




I followed the path along the canal and then the short bit of road before you turn off through some horsey fields. Well, those horses must have known we were coming. The ground was completely churned up.  It reminded me of when Round Rotherham used to be held in December and you would have to try and run through ploughed fields.  You would leave the field with half of it stuck to your feet!




One more wet field and then it was onto the next diversion. The diversion was clearly marked and had been extensively covered in the pre-race emails, gpx files and race briefing. But apparently people still managed to not take the diversion.  Can't think why.  Yes the diversion was all on tarmac and deathly boring but way easier to navigate than those fields would be in the dark.  Perhaps then had gone across in daylight.  Who knows.  I digress.




That road was pretty dull and seemed to never end.  My feet were feeling really tender especially as they had been so wet for so long now.  I was really worried about them and hoped there might be medics to help at Gargrave... if I ever got there. Each time I reached a junction there was another road to go down. FFS!




Eventually I reached Gargrave.  I only had a couple of approximate time goals for the race - only made with the goal of a 60 hour race.  If I got to Gargrave for 8pm then my timings should still be ok for a finish.  I made it roughly around 8ish(?). As I arrived I saw a van (not a railway one this time - it had a Spine sticker on!) I wobbled my way across and asked if there were any medics only to find out that they had just been called out to an incident.  Allan Rumbles was needing to take a runner who had pulled out, onwards up to the next town (Horton) and was trying to sort out a few runners who were currently in the area.  He told me to go and get some food from the Co-op and then he would do what he could with my feet before he headed off up the road.




So I sat on the opening of the van whilst he covered my feet in Sudocrem. He said that the feet were still in a remarkably good state considering how long they'd been wet.  Hopefully the Sudocrem would help hold them together until the end.  We decided I should save my last pair of dry socks for Malham, so once my foot looked like it was made of royal icing my wet sock (oh so cold!) went back on and shoes tied tightly.  Whilst in the shelter of the side of the van I put on my final layer, ate my pasty and was sent on my way with a warning about the incoming weather.


As I headed up the road out of Gargrave the rain began.




START WITH THE STEP YOU DON'T WANT TO TAKE...

"Start with the step you don't want to take, he said. Move with a purpose that you won't forget. Meet yourself, when you leave those other dreams behind." (Indoor Garden Party)




As I left Gargrave I was feeling better than I did when I arrived.  I was confident that my feet would hold out for some time with all that Sudocrem on.  It wasn't ideal but we'd made the best of a bad situation, and that's often what ultra-running is all about. Chin up, shoulders back.  OUCH!  No, no, no, definitely not shoulders back.  Put shoulder in least painful position whilst still moving forward.


I couldn't quite remember how long to stay on the road so I was constantly looking for the signpost to head into the fields.  I had struggled to get the right line across the first field during my recce in the daylight. Now, in the dark, I just didn't get the right feel at all for what I was doing.  I got out my GPS, I had out my compass and map, and I still managed to balls up my navigation! I found myself in the middle of a field, in the dark, in the p*ssing rain. I completely lost my bearings and couldn't even figure out from what direction I had come from. F*ckety f*ck f*ck!! I spent several minutes trying to sort myself out before deciding the easiest course of action was to phone home and ask my husband to check my tracker how far off course I had gone.  I should have been able to figure it out myself but I got myself in a bit of a tizzy and thought I just need a calm voice to tell me to get a grip and get back on course.




I got back on course and found the muddy gate. Navigation in the dark across the forthcoming fields was going to be tricky in the dark and my confidence was gone after messing up in the first field.  I relied a lot on my GPS, constantly checking I was going the right way.  I saw two head-torches ahead, and used them to help guide me in the second and third fields, before catching them up whilst they stopped behind a wall to get something from their bags.  I headed onwards willing the road to appear so that I could let my brain rest for a wee while.  It took longer than I remember. Everything takes longer in the dark.




I was glad to reach the road, and follow the path alongside the river, then hit the road again to start the diversion. When I had done this section on my recce everywhere was completely flooded and the river was in spate. It was probably my most hated section in my recce due to the conditions.  It was horrific. Blighted by these memories I was so relieved to get the email with the list of diversions a few days before the race.




I have no idea how long I was on the road for.  It's hard to judge distance when you're going so slowly, and in the dark.  Part way along the two runners I'd passed in the fields came past me again. They were MRT and asked how I was doing, then disappeared into the dark.  They were walking.  So I hate to think how slowly I was going as they disappeared really quickly.  I was starting to weave across the road, struggling to keep my eyes open.  I must have fallen asleep two or even three times as I walked along the road.  I knew I needed to stop and have a sleep but couldn't think of a good spot back on the race route round this area and knew I wasn't going to make it to Malham. As I walked through Airton I caught sight of an old red phone box on the side of the road.  Perfect! I opened the door, turned round and sat down on the concrete floor with my feet perched underneath the door.  I set the alarm on my phone for 15 minutes and leant back on my backpack and closed my eyes.




In an instant the alarm went off. I was still completely exhausted but knew I couldn't afford a longer catnap without compromising my body temperature, and I didn't want to resort to bivvying out.  At least not yet. I was feeling chilled but knew I could get warmed up once I got moving. It was straight-forward enough to get back to the Pennine Way but this section is tough to get right in the dark when you're so tired.  I didn't enjoy it on my recce either. Trying to find the least boggy/wet route across to the final field was a total pain in the arse.  I remembered if I went high then it would be the least wet so that's what I did, swearing with every step that I was never coming on the Pennine f*cking Way ever again!




Sticking to the riverside through the final field I finally made it to Hanlith Hall. If you see it in the daylight it looks like the kind of place that could be used in a period drama.  It's looks very 'Yorkshire.' The climb up the road was longer than I remember and then I was faced with more bl**dy fields to negotiate before I could find the path down to the river. Again the water level was lower than it had been during my recce and I didn't have to worry about the stone bridge being icy. One final soggy boggy mess before the footpath into Malham village.  It had been thronging with people last time I passed through, but now, in the middle of the night and pouring with rain, there wasn't a soul in sight as I made my way silently through the village.




I had loved this next section during my recce.  It had been my first visit to Malham Cove and it didn't not disappoint.  It is stunningly beautiful.  The gravel path from the top of the village to the cove was a delight to run on, and although the many, many steps up the side of the cove leading you up to the limestone pavement had been tough, they were totally worth the view from the top.  It was nothing short of spectacular.  But in the dark, the steps were just a slog.  And the limestone pavement was a death-trap! Bl**dy lethal! I kept trying to aim towards the back but somehow kept veering towards the edge! Multiple times I tried to find a way across. The rocks would just like ice in the rain - so slippery and just willing you to break you leg. It was crazy.




As I finally made it across I saw two more headtorches arriving on the other side of the limestone.  Clearly they too struggling to find the best way across in the dark as it took a very long time for their head-torches to appear behind me in the narrow valley of Ing Scar which the trail wound its way along.  The rock strewn valley was tougher than I remember with everything being so slippery. I was glad I had recced this part as it was easy for me to find the right route at the top of the rocky path/head of the valley and turned back on myself winding up into the next little valley between Comb Hill and Dean Moor Hill.




The further up the valley I went the heavier the rain became and the more the wind grew in strength.  As I made my way onto the open moorland at the top of the valley where the Pennine Way crosses the road I was met by a wall of wind. It was stronger than ever. As I made my way round the 'trail' that goes via the foot of the tarn I was getting battered by the wind and rain.  It was beyond awful and I was getting really, really cold, and really p*ssed off. I was desperate to get round Malham Tarn and get to checkpoint 1.5.  At least I could have 30 minutes of warmth in there.  I was seriously in a strop though. So cold, and battered and sore and wet and there was no bl**dy way I was going over Pen y Ghent in this weather.  I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of it.  It's blowing 50, 60 (?) mph at least and pouring with rain.  There's no way it could be safe to scramble up the top of PYG.  I didn't know what I would do if they said it was still the route. I was so worked up with everything - PYG, the cold, wind, rain, the tiredness, my f*cking shoulder and my wrecked feet, and my constantly throbbing hip that I must have looked like a horror show when Sarah opened the door to me at the mini checkpoint.  I'm sure they must see worse, but I've never felt so awful during a race.  I was done.


Inside was so lovely and warm I could have stayed all night, but I was very conscious of the time limit. In my dazed state the lovely volunteer race team and medic set about getting me sorted. The actual sequence of events is a little hazy. I know I was still trying to regain my brain function when Jim Mann arrived.  What the actual ***k?!? That was just bonkers!  It had literally taken him 24 hours less than me to get here (to 82ish miles)!  My mind was blown!  I know I was doing it the slow way but still. Anyway, I had to focus. I(we) changed my socks.  I(we) got the batteries changed in the GPS, I wanted fresh batteries to get me through the rest of the night - there was now point attempting to use a map in this weather. Sarah put some hot water in my freeze-dried chilli from my rucksack - it was surprisingly spicy and much needed. At some point in the literally 4 or 5 minutes that Jim was in the checkpoint we were informed of the Pen y Ghent diversion. Thank f*ck for that!!  What a relief.  I felt like maybe, if I could just get going again I could actually finish this race now that I didn't have the PYG fear.




The medic took me into the toilet - not so warm in there - and we managed to get my tops off between us so she could examine my shoulder.  Oh my god it was in a bad way.  The advice was the same as at Hebden. 'Are you really sure you want to continue? The best thing would be to stop.  It doesn't seem to be a bone injury but we can't be certain without an X-ray. You're not at the point where we would make you stop so the decision is up to you but our advise is...' I fought back the tears. I knew the sensible thing was to stop, but I'd gotten so far, fought through so much pain and so through so many mental battles to get here. There was potentially no more than 15 hours left of the race - that sounds utterly mental when you say it - but it seemed small-fry in the bigger race picture. I was so close.




I decided I would continue.  I wasn't going down without a fight.  Although I couldn't get my tops back on myself! Whilst I set about getting myself organised to head back out with the extensive help from Sarah, Nick and the rest of the crew Eoin Keith came in. Wow! These athletes! Incredible. Just shortly before I was about to set off out, one of the guys from Lothersdale appeared at the door. He looked remarkably dry and clean. He said he had decided to pull out.  I don't know if he carried on or not. Hopefully he managed to.




So once I was fed and warm, and somebody helped me get my backpack on, Sarah took my photo and I headed back out into the wind and rain at the same time as Eion. He was gone before I could blink. Two blinks later and I was as cold and wet as I had been when I went into the mini checkpoint. It was going to be a long time until dawn...




SENDING OUT AN S.O.S.

The rain was lashing down, but along the sheltered road I at least had a break from the wind. My feet, in my final dry pair of socks, remained dry along the road but the moment I was back on the trail a few minutes later they were soaked again. The grassy track along the bottom of the valley was waterlogged.  I knew the navigation was fairly straight forward along here but I decided to keep my GPS out because the visibility (on top of the darkness) was deteriorating.




Leaving Malham Tarn. Photo from Sarah Fuller

These fields had been full of beef cattle with calves when I came along on my recce and I didn't wonder if they'd still be out.  There was no sign of them or them bulls. And I arrived at the road crossing and the farm surprisingly quickly.  Then the big old slog up Fountains Fell began.  It's not a difficult climb, it's just long.  Once you find the start of the trail up, then you're pretty much sorted and it's just a case of head down and keep pushing upwards.  The higher I climbed the heavier the rain fell and the wind was building again.  I knew that the hill was providing some shelter so I was dreading getting over the top. About three quarters of the way up Pavel and another runner breezed past me seemingly effortlessly compared to my trudging.



The gradient levelled out soon enough and the wind was now right into my face, with the rain battering against me. Across the plateau it was fairly easy to navigate to path thankfully - don't much fancy falling down an open mineshaft - and the giant wall and stile appeared for a brief moment of shelter. And who doesn't love trying to climb over a 6 foot high wall stile in 60 mph winds? The wall into hell no less!



The moment I was up and over the race moved up to another level of brutal. I recalled a rocky and then boggy descent off the hill but everything was alien to me.  The wind torn at me and the rain was beating down so hard it felt like it was working it's way through every layer of clothing I had.  My waterproof gloves had lost the fight and were soon completely sodden and my hands were starting to feel numb with the cold.  The route was nothing like I remembered and I simply couldn't picture where I was at all. Layers of ice were scattered across the route and there seemed to be loads of route options where I only remember there being one.  Visibility was down to about 5 feet.  The grassy section appeared, but again it was different to what I remembered. I fell, over and over, seemingly incapable of finding solid ground.  I was covered in mud but it washed off in minutes with the rain being so ridiculous.  I found myself in a gully wondering where the hell I was - it just didn't make sense.  I didn't remember this from my recce at all, but I was grateful for the respite from the wind.  I stopped to swap one wet pair of gloves for another and to put on an extra buff. I was frozen.  I didn't want to come out of the gully but knew I had to keep moving.  The GPS said I was right but my head was not feeling it all. I knew there was a bog at the lower end of the slope.  The paths all looked like a bad choice so I tried to use the wall down as a guide, when it was within visibility. Oh how I wished I could have done this section in the daylight - what a difference it would have made.  I was in complete bog hell.



Where was the f*cking road?! Seriously!  I was flailing around this stupid bog trying to find the non-existent road - back and forth, back and forth. Give me a f*cking break!  And suddenly it was there - right in front of me - it had been only feet away but I simply couldn't see it or reach it. FFS! It was so different in the dark - a completely different world.



There was no victory dance though. The wind and rain continued to beat down on me.  My hands were frozen and wrinkled from being so wet for so long.  And I was cold.  So very cold.  I had never been so cold. I was completely alone, no one and nothing in sight.  I was shivering badly. My mind was going through all my hypothermia knowledge.  I focused on my breathing. 'Shivering was ok.  No need to worry yet. Stay focused.  Move. Breathe.  Move. Is this it?  Is this when I press my S.O.S.?   No Vicky, you've got this, keep moving. Keep your head in the game.  You can do this. Focus.  Forward.  The wind isn't there.  There rain isn't there.  Just move, forward. You're made of fire and ice, built of grit.  Nobody wants this more than you.  Move. Forward. Breathe. Forward.  This is what you came for. To be pushed beyond your absolute limits - well here they are Vicky.  Here's your limits - you've found them.  So what are you going to do?  Are you going to quit or are you going to push on through? Be more than you thought. Make new limits?  Be more than other people think you can be?  Prove the doubters wrong, or prove them right? Who are you?  What do you stand for?'

I couldn't see a thing. A wall of darkness and biting rain right in front of me.  After what seemed like an age, right in front of me, literally a few feet away, a Spine Safety Team appeared. In my abject misery I had forgotten they would be there to ensure we all took the safety diversion avoiding the scramble up the top section of Pen Y Ghent. What a relief.  Another human being.  They checked if I was ok.  'Keep your head up Vicky, don't crumble in front of them.  You've got this.  We're nearly on the home straight.  Don't lose it now.' They reminded me of the diversion and from their description and from what I'd been shown on the map back at CP1.5 I had a pretty good idea of where I was going.  Onwards along the track into the never ending wind and rain.  At least now my brain could have a rest as the navigation was straight forward from here, even in the dark and poor visibility. And the change of direction meant the rain and wind were no longer straight into my face.



About half way up the climb I met a group of three racers coming back down the route.  They asked if I knew where the diversion was. They were worried that they'd gone passed it.  I explained that they simply hadn't gone high enough. The diversion should be easy to find, and they would know if they'd gone too far as they'd arrive at the huge rocks at the start of the steep final climb of PYG. We made our way up together.  One of the three was really struggling.  But soon enough we arrived at the diversion.  They stopped to shelter and rest for a moment behind the wall but I headed through the gate and started my descent down the slab steps. I had no idea what this diversion would be like or how long it would take but I was grateful not to going over the summit.



As I descended, daylight started creeping through the cloud and mist.  The winds eased to a more manageable level and the rain stopped being quite so painful.  I'd made it!  I'd made it through the final full night.  What a relief. It wasn't a particularly pleasant descent but I could have been running across broken glass for all I cared at that point.  I was just grateful for the daylight and the easing up of the weather.  The final day was upon us and I was closing in on Horton and a hot cup of tea.  Thank f*ck!!



THEY THINK IT'S ALL OVER


I arrived down at the road after a longer than anticipated diversion down (although definitely shorted that the normal route).  I thought Horton would be just around the corner, it is on the map, but like everything else during my race, it was taking a long time.



Arriving at the Pen y Ghent Café I was feeling exhausted and pretty much in pieces.  I knew the medics were waiting to assess me as all the checkpoints were communicating the state of each (wobbly) participant. After (with help) managing to deposit my backpack at the door I went inside.  It was so lovely and warm and welcoming.  The Spine staff were excellent in taking care of me and assessing me.  I ordered some bacon eggs and toast and a pint of tea.  The tea would be easy enough but I wasn't sure how much I would eat, I just knew I needed to.  Whilst I waited for the food the race medic assessed my shoulder again and my general well-being.  Top of the freaking world! Ha.  No, all things considered, I was still upright and still moving.  And finally I was warming up.  I couldn't raise my left shoulder beyond about a third of what is normal. The doctor was great and said it was ok to continue, with the same advice I'd already been given.  I was grateful not to be pulled from the race at this final point.  I put on my final dry pair of gloves.  I knew they wouldn't stay dry long but I should get maybe an hour's use out of them (they weren't waterproof). I swapped my balaclava for a fleecy hat to wear under my hood and put on my final dry buffs.



With help I was able to get my backpack and front pouch back on.  Back outside the rain had eased and there was little wind beyond a chilly breeze down here in the village.  I picked up my poles, said my thank yous and set off on my along the final 16 mile section of the race just after 9:30am.


It was in the bag now surely? That's what I kept telling myself. So I left the village with a slight spring in my step. Not so much that I could run though. Ha. Many of these final 16 miles are runnable and they didn't take that long when I recced them. In my head I was only a few hours from the finish. I'd easily be finished in daylight. I'd packed my head-torch back into my backpack. But after a mile or two I had to remind myself that actually I was probably not doing much better than 30 minute miling and this could take me up to 8 hours yet. That would mean finishing in the dark. I needed to push on while the light was on my side. I walked with purpose.  I was pushing myself. Giving everything I had to this final section. It was going to be straight forward from here on in right?  Hmm, not so much.



Britain's (2nd) most brutal race wasn't done with me yet. After the torrential rain all night the track was sodden, with streams flowing everywhere and puddles spread out at every opportunity.  The first stream crossing, which I can barely remember from my recce (because there was nothing to remember!) it was now in full flow, with the sheep gate under the wall completely horizontal as the water was that high.  I couldn't get across where I went across in my recce and had to make my way upstream until it was narrow enough to get across: bag and poles first, and then me. It was so painful trying to get my backpack back on.  Very funny Pennine Way. You think you're really funny don't you? *rse!



Oh ho, the joke wasn't over yet! A mile or so later I rounded a corner only to be faced with a lake!  The track headed straight into in, and 30or so feet further away the track appeared out of the other side of the lake!!  Are you freakin kidding me?!  What the actual f*ck! I couldn't climb the wall on the left as it was  as tall as me (although there was gate close to this end of the water, I would have to try and climb the wall at the far side and I just wasn't capable of doing that given the state of my shoulder).  I tried going round the steep slope to the right only to find boggy ground and fast flowing water in spate. I returned back to my starting position.  There was nothing else for it.  I waded through the mini lake.  Given that the water was spread out so wide I reasoned that the flow of the water would be a lot gentler and so more manageable if I waded through.  Bloody hell it was freezing cold.  My legs, oh my god, they've never felt so bitterly and instantly and deeply cold. It had seemed like the best option to start but I was really questioning myself and my sanity as the water reached my hips.  This race really was a complete beast.  No doubt about it.



A short while later I caught up with 2 other runners.  And we approached the final water crossing together.  It was yet another detour upstream to find somewhere we could get across.  One had hurt himself at the previous 'water obstacles' but we all managed to jump across before then coming back downstream.  Just after this we reached the sharp left turning heading down to Old Ing. I moved ahead of the others and headed off on my own again.  Heading along the next section of track some more full Spine racers came past, 2 men first and then the absolutely amazing Carol Morgan.  It sounds a bit fan-girly but I was completely mesmerised by how smoothly she covered the ground and seemed so energized, especially due to the complete wreck that now was. I was and am completely blown away by all the Spiners - they are of a different breed to us mere mortals.



As I passed by Ling Gill I decided I better use the final piece of shelter before Hawes to get my head-torch back out just in case.  I'd left Horton at 9:30 which at 30 minute miling would be a 5:30pm finish (in darkness).  I took the now useless gloves off.  I knew the wind was going to really pick up again as I returned to high ground.  I resolved not to put any more wet gloves back on.  There was nothing else for it but to basically tuck my hands up inside my jacket sleeves as best as I could (just like you do when you're a child but trying to act tough and not wear gloves like your mum told you to).  I somehow managed to get my backpack back on.  I'd just taken another dose of paracetamol. I think I was at my 24 hour limit and knew that I wouldn't be taking any more during the race.  Whatever the pain, I just had to bare it.



And so the slog up to the Cam High Road began.  And that really is all it is. A slog up a track that was now a stream. Once you reach the Cam High Road you simply turn right and carry on upwards.  I remembered to stop and turn around to look at the Ribblehead Viaduct -  a cracking view back when I did my recce, and surprisingly the cloud had lifted enough now that I could see it, somewhat hazily, in the distance.  Onwards I trudged and the wind picked up behind me, colder and more bitter with each passing step.  I was struggling to keep my hands warm, but at least they were dry.  My left shoulder was really playing up now with my constant need to use my poles to help push me up the never-ending hill.  The short tarmac section never seemed to get any closer.  I was constantly clock-watching now. If I could just get to the tarmac by such and such time, then I would only have about 7 miles left, and if I could do those in such and such time then I would finish by x o'clock. I was longing for it to be over now.  I knew it was coming.  But whilst it was only 7 miles, that could still be another 3.5 hours of torture. Why did everything have to take so long?  Why did I have to have an injured hip?  When did I have to fall so early in the race and bust up my shoulder?  Why had I not put the right socks on and got my feet so wet and painful?  Every single step sent bolts of pain through my feet. This race was truly taking everything from me.  Tearing at me from every possible angle, trying to stop me from achieving my dream.



The tarmac came and went, and I started my 5.5 mile descent towards Hawes. It probably should be described as my descent into foot hell. My macerated feet were screaming at me!  Every step was excruciating.  It felt like every bone was broken and every muscle and tendon was torn to shreds.  The evil Pennine Way goblins had covered the route in sharp knives that I had to then run over. At the same time the wind on this section was unreal.  It is full on wild and freaking insane.  My hands were completely frozen, the rest of me was not much better.  I just had to keep telling myself to move, move faster.  It doesn't matter how much it hurts just move as fast as you can.  I had to get out of the wind or else I would freeze.  I was too slow.  Move. Move. Come on Vicky, block out the pain.  Every step is one less to endure.



It was truly horrific.  Rather than letting up, the wind was getting stronger and stronger.  The route turned into ridges on slippery muddy grass between ankle deep muddy endless 'puddles'.  I couldn't keep on the dry as the wind was knocking me off my feet once again. Multiple times I was blown clean off my feet again and onto the banking. I was raging.  Absolutely seething. Stupid f*ckin *rsehole Pennine f*cking Way! AARRGGHHHH!!!! I've had enough!  Get me the hell off this god forsaken hell hole! My feet have been to some pretty dark places in races before, but this was a new level of misery and pain.  I was done.



Finally I arrived at the diversion.  Anything had to better than the muddy boggy mess that you had to go through on that final hill right? Most of us were thrilled that a diversion had been put in.  Oh how wrong we all were.  So, so wrong.  Picture a pile of rubble with streams of water running down through it. Now try and run/walk across this endless pile of rubble with completely destroyed feet for the best part of 2 miles.  It was pure, unadulterated hell. The absolutely only thing that made me move forward with any momentum was the thought that I might actually be able to finish the race in daylight.



I could see across the valley to Hardaw.  I could see the finish.  It was there waiting for me. Finally I made it onto the tarmac.  I don't think I have ever been so glad to see tarmac. There was about half a mile into Hawes and then another mile and a half to Hardraw.  This is when it hit me.  I was going to finish.  One week ago I was 95% certain I wasn't going to even start.  I couldn't believe it.  This was actually happening.  It had been such a long race. I knew it would be long but in reality it's always different.  Such much harder to execute than to plan. I was hurting in every possible way, but looking at my watch I couldn't stop and dawdle now.  If I wanted that daylight finish I had to get shifting.  But how could I possibly run given the state of my body.  I was so exhausted and the pain, especially in my feet was excruciating.  Each step - the pain - searing up my legs.  But somehow I needed to run.  It hurt like nothing else, but I had to block it. I had to push.  Don't let it slip now Vicky.  Keep on fighting.  What's 2 more miles of pain after all these miles. It's nothing! Block it.  Push on.  Run. Run. Run.

I followed my GPS to make sure I got the correct route into Hawes.  I was finally here. Passed the Wenslydale factory. I thought of my kids and Paul who had toured the factory when I had been doing my final race recce.  All of our effort as a family was showing here and now.  I had made it back to the factory, to Hawes.  Now all I had to do was soak up that last mile and half to Hardraw.



Run. Walk. Run. Run. Walk. I weaved my way through Hawes and headed out the road towards Hardraw.  As I left the road to take the path across the first field I saw two other runners in front of me. I couldn't believe it.  I hadn't seen anyone in so long. They both looked in pain by the way they were walking. I didn't want to overtake so close to the end but I had to run.  I had to get to the end as fast as my broken body could. I realised the first runner was a girl but didn't realise it was the lovely Lizzie until after I finished.  I said well done as I passed but was completely focused on forwards.  If I hadn't been so possessed I would have stopped and hugged her.  She's such a lovely and inspiring lady to know. But I only had my eyes on the finish now.  Back on the road and it was flooded, so up onto the path on the far side passing the other of the two runners. There was so much water in the river.  Back on the road again I ran along the flat, not stopping to walk until I reached the hill.  I wanted to get into those fields.  Those final fields.



I don't think I truly believed I would see those fields for a second time when I did my recce of them back in October.  I'm not sure I believed it when I stood on the start line in Edale nearly 56 hours previously. I checked my watch as I crossed the field.  It was 4pm. Only now, could I relax.  I knew I had the daylight to finish.  I could have walked.  No I couldn't!!  No way!  I wanted to finish in style.


Every step I savoured.  Each one I would never have to repeat.  I would never have to suffer through those awful bogs, that hellish weather, the dark, and the pain again.  My broken and battered body had done it.  It had got me to this point against all the odds. I had done it. 110 (ish) miles of utter hell.  I faced it, endured it, and beat it.



THIS!

There was a photographer taking photos in the second to last field.  I shouted to him "I did it! I bloody did it!"  He cheered back, "Yes you did!" It was wonderful. I was so completely happy. My heart bursting.  And then across the next field I saw somebody yelling from the gate.  I thought to myself, "That's not Paul, who is it?" It wasn't until I got closer I realised it was Olivia!  My Hebden angel had come out into the field to cheer me into the finish!! How amazing was that?  THAT is the Montane Spine Race!





Olivia - my angel

We hugged in the field and I carried on running.  She told me Paul and everyone was waiting for me (with cameras).  "Oh no, I need to wipe all the snotters off my face!! I don't want them in a picture!" We laughed and Olivia hunted out a tissue as we ran! My angel till the end. She was as excited as I was, telling me she had to be the person who gave me my medal. Through the final gate, people were clapping, and there was Paul!! He was videoing me.  I blurted something incoherent at him. Grinning from ear to ear and shaking my fist.  "I BLOODY DID IT!!!" I yelled as I ran over the bridge.  This was without a doubt the proudest moment of my running life.  As I arrived at the bunkhouse to the waiting welcoming committee I raised my good arm into the air and yelled again.  I had done it. I had finished Britain's (2nd) most brutal race in 56 hours and 11 minutes. And Paul was there to see me finish.  Perfect. I couldn't stop smiling.

Half of Team Hart





I still haven't.






(Post-race thoughts to follow)
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There's a fine line between heaven and hell, and that line lies outside the bunkhouse in Hardraw.


My Precious