Spine Race Challenger 2018 Report – Wouter Huitzing – Back For More

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20 minutes into the 2017 Spine Challenger I discovered that most of my direct competitors had a support crew. I didn’t know that was possible (should have checked the rules better). I am a bit annoyed, but decide there is nothing I can do and put it out of my head.

It’s my first Ultra race, and my goals are to finish and enjoy it! After 33 hours I finished in 4th place, feeling great and knowing that I could have done much better if I had just put my mind to racing instead of finishing.

Through 2017 I kept thinking about the race and wondered if I could have taken 3rd, 2nd or even 1st place with a different mindset. For the 2018 race, I find out that support crew are no longer allowed. Slowly the feeling starts to grow that I have some unfinished business with the Pennine Way.

08:00, Saturday 13th January 2018

It has been a year and again I find myself under the starting arch of the Spine Challenger.

My gear is a kilo lighter; my ambition has gone up from finishing to winning; I have trained harder and I am stronger; I know what to expect, and have brought enough batteries for my GPS (last year I was going to do it with map and compass and only brought half charged batteries!). The weather forecast looks great for the first part as we should have the wind on our backs for most of the race and it should stay dry until Sunday evening.

The countdown starts and I completely relax, knowing there is nothing I can change anymore and there is only the race to enjoy now. 3, 2, 1, go! And I am off.

I am the first leaving the field and first out on the road. A familiar feeling. I slow down a bit expecting a leading group to form, but nothing happens. I take a look behind me and nobody shows a real interest in catching up. I run past the official Pennine Way start. After passing Upper Booth the Pennine Way starts to go uphill and I slow down a bit knowing that I have a long way to go and some company would be nice.

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, picture courtesy of Damian Hall

Still, nobody is catching up. Last year we had a group of ten by now. I wonder if I should slow to a walk or continue like this. I decide to keep my pace and start to climb Jacob’s Ladder. I am setting a strong climbing pace and at the top I feel great and look back to see I already opened up a small gap. I decide not to be bothered anymore by what everyone else is doing and set off to Kinderlow and Kinder Downfall.

What a difference to 2017 when we had to plow through almost half a metre of snow while going off track the whole time. This year there is no snow and the path is clear so I can set a good pace. Again I look behind and there is nobody in sight anymore.

Fog is setting in and it doesn’t feel like I am racing. It’s like I am out on a morning run by myself. After passing Kinder Downfall, the path bends sharp to the west and this time I catch a glimpse of a runner. I keep going uphill towards Mill Hill and bend towards the north, down over the slabs towards Snake Pass. The fog is gone and when I look behind me I see somebody getting closer and closer. I figure out this guy must be a real runner as he is making more and more speed on the slabs.

Pennine way slabs

When I get to Snake Pass, my friend Gary is there to cheer me on! I arrive in 1 hour 48 mins, while last year it took me 2 hours 14 mins. This year the conditions are much better, or I am going way too fast.

Going through the trenches at Bleaklow I see that I won’t be alone for long. I need a toilet break and figure out it’s better before this guy overtakes me. When I get to the first deviation I decide to take my break. So far for running alone as I meet Simon Bourne. Together we take the deviation and my hope of keeping my shoes dry disappears completely.

After passing the highest point at Bleaklow Head we turn west to descend towards Torside Reservoir. Both of us speed up on the descent. I ask Simon if it’s his first Spine Challenger and what his goals are. He tells me that he lives close by and wanted to do the race this year as the rules have changed to being unsupported. He mentions his goal is to win the race and take a crack at the course record. I reply that it’s also my goal to win the race. I check if Simon prefers to run alone, or likes company. He replies that as long as we both run our own pace he likes to run together for a while.

Going down towards Torside Reservoir we are racing more than 3 hours so I need to eat something and slow down a bit giving Simon a small lead. At this point last year I made a navigation error in the snow and ended up at the back of the pack. In the descent I noticed that I was quite good at descending and passed most of the runners again. This year it’s the same descent, but just me and Simon. After snacking I speed up and quickly pass Simon again to take a little lead myself.

At 10:53 I come down to Torside Reservoir to meet the Mountain Rescue for the first time. They fill my water bottle and before Simon comes in, I am out again. I run over the dam. And at the other side I see that once more I have a small lead on Simon. I expect him sooner or later to catch up, but for now I am alone.

I am going up Blackhill alone, but once I go down the other side Simon catches up again. Together we continue towards Wessenden Moor chatting a bit about racing, family and the great scenery. We are both running out of water, but I remember that last year there was a water post at Wessenden Head, so I am not concerned.

The path is once again made of the famous Pennine Way stone slabs and we are making a speedy progress. I check my watch and notice I am much faster than last year. We can already see the road where we need to cross. Whilst chatting I stumble and fall, hitting my knee on the slabs. I feel it’s bleeding and for a moment I am limping and can’t keep up with Simon. I need some moments to get myself together and start running again.

It doesn’t feel too bad, but it isn’t great either. Just before Wessenden Head we pass a stream and some photographers. I am sure there will be water at the road, so don’t fill up. However, when we pass the road at 12:35 there is no water point. We ask some bystanders, but there is nothing. Both Simon and I are out of water and need some soon to keep up this pace.

Climb up to Wessenden Head, picture courtesy of the Spine Challenger organization

Running down to Wessenden Reservoir we see water everywhere, but nothing drinkable or easy to reach. I remember that at the end we have to cross a small river, so I decide to go for that. At the river, while trying to fill his bottle Simon partly slips in the water and I get a chance to get away from him again.

For more than half an hour I run on my own. I pass a Mountain Rescue support at Harrop, fill up my bottle and am able to keep my lead for a while. Near the M62 Simon finally catches up again. We pass the burger van, which is there for the Spiners, but have no time to lose. After passing the M62 we meet Mike, a friend of Simon’s who is cheering us on. Simon gets energised and takes a small lead, which gets him to White House first.

We get our bottles filled up at the Mountain Rescue and both of us take a cup of tea. I try to drink mine as quickly as possible, but Simon is a real English gentleman and takes his time with his tea. I run off again. This was the spot where I lost Dominick in 2017 and I am focused on not repeating that mistake. For some kilometers I am alone. At this point last year I had to use my head torch, but now we have some hours left, which makes me wonder if we can get to the Hebden checkpoint in daylight. There is a deviation at Warland which lets us go around the last reservoir.

To me it seems that I will lose too much energy to run the moorland and I slow down to a quick walk. Simon disagrees and passes with ease. In moments he is building a nice lead. I wonder if this is a mistake I will regret in the future. After the deviation I speed up again and see Simon in the distance. Getting near to Stoodley Pike I am also getting closer to Simon once more, but never able to really catch up. I pass Charlestown in second place and try to catch Simon. Finally dusk is starting to set in and I need to get my head torch out. I am not the only one, as I see a light turn on in the fields before me. Luckily Simon didn’t get away too much.

I come to the road leading to the checkpoint (CP) and meet several people cheering me on. At 17:19 I get in the CP just behind Simon. He took his shoes off and went inside, while I am staying in the porch. There is a small discussion with the marshals if I am allowed to do that, but I say I really want to keep my shoes on, as at the moment they feel fine the way they are. They allow me to stay, like last year.

I have put a list in my drop bag, telling me what I need to do when I get to the CP. Step by step I work down my list and get a hot meal from the organization. I mean really hot! The first 10 minutes I couldn’t get a mouthful as it was too hot to eat. I am in a hurry as I told myself to stay at the CP a maximum of 20 minutes. On the first part of the race I took a kilo of food and have only 2 bars left. I take out a 1.2kg bag of food for the second part. Back home it looked too much, but now I have the feeling I am going to eat most of it in the next 100 kilometers.

I fill up my bottle of water, take out an extra GPS watch, change the batteries and take an extra spare set just to be sure. The clock is ticking, but still my meal is really hot. I manage to eat several bites, but then Simon comes back out to put his shoes on again. I take a few last bites and manage to set off just before Simon is ready.

As I leave the CP, Simon’s friends and family mistake my light for his and cheer me on, until they notice it’s me. Just before Walshaw Reservoir Simon catches up again. At the road we are greeted by a cop car, and I wonder if someone has reported people running in the dark with head torches. But the officer is actually following the race and just wanted to greet the front-runners.

Chatting again we pass Walshaw Reservoir and go up to Top Withins. My game plan for the whole race was not to run uphill. Going up towards Top Withins Simon keeps running and I slow down. Again I lose Simon and it starts to be a repeating pattern. I am not that concerned. While running around Ponden Reservoir I see a light at the end of the reservoir, and I know I am still close enough, so nothing is decided yet. After the reservoir the Pennine Way climbs steeply and just before the top I managed to catch Simon. At this point it’s clear that Simon is the stronger runner, but I am the stronger climber. Just before the start of the climb a photographer informed me that number 3, Ian, is catching up with us, and I get a bit concerned. Luckily just a little later we get confirmation that it isn’t true. Ian is actually more than 6 kilometers behind, so long as we can keep up our pace we should be fine. As Simon and I are pushing each other hard I don’t really think that keeping this pace will be a problem.

On Ickornshaw my intestines start to rumble and I need a toilet stop. I have eaten more than a kilo of snacks and sugar so I am not really surprised. Once again I need to let Simon go. For a long time I am running on my own. Into Cowling we have another deviation. As I am following the GPS this year, I am a bit confused as I don’t remember this part of the race.

Going into Cowling I decide I need some normal food and take out a wrap with lettuce, avocado, cheese and corn, which I made for such a moment. In Cowling some people are cheering me on. They have their IPad out and offer to fill my water bottle. They inform that Simon is just a minute before me and show me that number 3 is quite a bit behind us.

In Cowling I turn my head torch off to save some battery and manage to sneak up on Simon. For some time we run together again. When we pass a house with an outdoor tap we fill up our bottles. Compared to last year I have to search a lot more for water and wonder if I shouldn’t fill up an extra bottle, but that means more weight. As we get down to Lothersdale we hear cheering and it seems the local pub is full of Spine followers. When we pass there is a party on the street. Like last year there is a big pile of water bottles outside, only last year it was completely quiet.

Towards Thornton in Craven we have some fields to cross and some more hills to climb, but after that we are hitting the channels. This was the point I feared. Simon as the stronger runner is putting down a strong pace on the flats. I tell myself I need to keep up or I will lose him for good. Several times I slow down to a walk, but as Simon gets away, I speed up to catch him. I keep telling myself I need to stay with Simon, so I can try to lose him in the hills in the last 40km. Again we come to a deviation which favors Simon as it’s on a flat road. But luckily I notice some cracks in his pace as even he sometimes slows down for a short walk. At 00:27 we enter Gargrave.

After Gargrave we need to cross several fields again. Last year they were full of slushy wet mud. This time they are okay, but plowed over by sheep and a bit annoying to walk. I still have nightmares about gates from last year, when you had to stand in ankle deep, half freezing muddy water to open and close them. I start to feel strong again and know I can keep up with Simon until Malham Cove. At the Cove, the climbing will start again and I will be able to set the pace. At Airton there is another deviation which puts us on the tarmac again, but Simon definitely isn’t as strong as he was before.

We pass Airton and have a quick look around for a tap, as once more we are out of water. There is nothing to be found, so we continue back into the fields. I know these are the last kilometers in the muddy fields, as from Malham it’s all hard packed ground to run on.

Simon gets a bit desperate for water and tells me he is going to fill up at a small stream. The stream doesn’t appeal to me, so I continue. I move into Malham hoping there is a tap or something. However as I leave Malham behind, I still don’t have any water. I see Simon a bit behind me and actually slow down to a walk to let him catch up.

After some walking I notice that he hasn’t caught up yet. I come to a fast flowing stream coming from Malham Cove and decided that it should be good enough to drink. I fill my bottle and Simon still isn’t there. I decide this is it, I am going for it.

I speed up towards the steps out of Malham Cove and set a strong climbing pace. Almost at the top I look over my shoulder to see a light at the bottom just starting the climb. At the top I speed up to make as big a gap as fast as possible. Hoping to discourage Simon to try and catch up again. Every couple of minutes I look behind, but it’s pitch black behind me. There is no light to be seen, so I guess I made the right decision at the right point. When I close on CP1,5, while moving around Malham Tarn, I see a light far behind me. It inspires me to speed up once more.

At 02:14 I get into CP1, 5 where I drain 2 cups of tea, make sure to fill up both of my bottles this time and prepare an adventure food meal. In minutes I jog out, without having seen Simon. 50 metres out of the CP I curse as I forgot my poles. Turning around I expect Simon to show up and skip the CP to take back the lead. I grab my poles and still there’s nobody there (after the race I heard he came into the CP 2 minutes after I had left).

Leaving CP1.5 Malham Tarn, picture courtesy of John Bamber

From last year, I know I could still run the first part before going up to Fountains Fell, so I run with poles in one hand, and my rice meal in the other. When the terrain starts to go up again I finally take my time to eat. The eating is tough and after half a meal I decide to stow it away for later and grab some sweets.

I keep setting a fast pace knowing that this is my best chance to win the race. Every once in a while I look behind, and just as before there is no light to be seen. My guess is I am increasing my lead, but I still keep pushing hard. I move over Fountains Fell and while going down the other side I notice some snow and ice on the ground. I go down as fast as I dare.

At the road I start running once more towards the base of Pen-Y-Ghent. Still there is no light behind me. As I start the climb towards the top of Pen-Y-Ghent I finally see a light. However it’s hard to make out how far away it is and how fast it’s moving. My guess is it’s Simon coming down from Fountains Fell, giving me at least a 20 minute lead. But it could as easily be something else. Near the summit of Pen-Y-Ghent the fog sets in and the wind seems to be picking up.

Last year I was here in the morning, with the summit and the paths full of people. This year it’s the middle of the night and I am completely alone and cold. With the fog and darkness I am fully focused on the GPS to make sure I stay on the path. I seem to remember a hard, slippery downhill, but I find a nice set of steps (newly installed?) going down. I run down to Horton in Ribblesdale and as the road has the shape of a big U I expect to see Simon’s light at the other side at some point. But as I move around the last corner to Horton I still haven’t seen any sign of being chased. I keep thinking that I might really be going to win this race.

At Horton I see some members of the Mountain Rescue who note down my number and I speed off to take down the last 20+ kilometers. At this point last year I was relaxing, figuring out that the race was more or less run. I was enjoying the scenery and my food. This year I have a voice in the back of my head saying that Simon can show up and take the lead at any minute, so I need to push on. From here it’s a broad gravel road so I am a bit nervous that Simon has switched his torch off and is sneaking up on me. Every minute or so I look back.

The first 10 kilometers go fast, but when I hit the Cam road everything seems to slow down. According to my watch my pace is still the same, but I get nervous and just want to finish. While dawn slowly approaches, I meet some of the photographers. I don’t ask them where Simon is, as I don’t really want to know. I need to keep going that’s all there is to do. The last deviation is a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped to have a nice jog down, but the road is completely trashed and full of blocks which can easily make you twist an ankle. I move into Hawes knowing it’s just a few more kilometers. At this point I know I have this race in the bag, but when, out of habit I look behind, I see somebody in a blue jacket.

Last 500 m, 09:40a.m. Sunday 14th January. Picture courtesy of Spine Challenger organization

Fortunately, it’s a guy who just woke up and is walking his dog! I would be gutted if Simon would catch up with me now so close to the finish, especially as I am just passing last year’s finish. They added a few kilometers to the race this year to finish in Hardraw. The plus side to this extension is that they promised a bed and shower at the finish, which I am looking forward to. The downside is that there is still a little bit to go.

I pass the Haylands Bridge and move through one of the last gates. I am walking the last kilometer when I hear a buzzing sound. It’s a drone filming my finish. Of course I start to run again (can’t be filmed walking). At the end of the field are some spectators cheering me on.

Near the road I meet Scott, the Race Director, who congratulates me on my win. He tells me that it’s just 150 more meters, so I start to sprint and finish the Spine Challenger with a new course record in 25 hours, 42 minutes and 21 seconds.

I owe a big thanks to Berghaus for their support and belief that I could win this amazing race. Without their support and equipment my backpack would have been much heavier and I would have been far less comfortable.

Here’s to the next one!

Wouter Huitzing