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Spine Challenger
174 km winter Ultra-trail, UK

Spine Challenger: 174 km winter Ultra-trail, UK (© P. Gatta)
Spine Challenger: 174 km winter Ultra-trail, UK (© P. Gatta)

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About the Spine Challenger and the Spine Race

Every year in January, two non-stop, Ultra-trails take place in England along the Pennine Way; the Spine Challenger with 174 km (108 miles) and the Spine Race with 430 km (268 miles).

Both races start in the small village of Edale in the Peak District. They follow the Pennine Way, a National Trail in England, crossing a wide variety of terrains: good trail, slabs, mud, snow, ice, fells, peat bogs, hundreds of gates, stiles and bridges. The Spine Challenger ends in Hawes, while the full Race ends at Kirk Yetholm, close to the Scottish border. There is one check point (CP) for the Challenger at Hebden Bridge and four more check points for the full race at Hawes (finish for Challenger), Middleton in Teesdale, Alston and Bellingham. Runners can stop at each check point to warm-up rest, eat, shower and get medical support if needed. Outside the check points, runners must be self sufficient carrying enough clothes, food, water and safety kit to face the rough weather conditions of England in winter. For safety reasons, runners also have to carry a bivy/tent, sleeping bag, stove and enough food for at least two days.

The Spine team, volunteers and medical team are great and highly available. They do an amazing job throughout the race but runners must be prepared for a tough race with less support, less food stations and less trail marks than in many other ultra-trails in Europe. That is the spirit of this race and competitors should keep that in mind.

Running toward Pen-y-ghent (© Euan Bruce)
Running toward Pen-y-ghent (© Euan Bruce)

In addition to the length of the races, the elevation gain (+5,400 meter for the Challenger) and the difficult terrain, runners have to face two other challenges; the weather which is quit rough at this time of the year, with strong wind, sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice. Last but not least, orienting is also challenging, especially during the 15 hours of night, so runners must be very familiar with maps, compass and GPS. Fortunately runners are allowed to have a support team.

All competitors arrived in Edale the day before the race. There are several lodging places in Edale, including YHA and hotels. There are also some nice pubs. On the Friday afternoon we checked-in, reviewed the kit, had some lecture and the race briefing. The race started the Saturday morning at 8am.

The Pennine Way (© P. Gatta)
The Pennine Way (© P. Gatta)

Kit and food for the Spine Challenger

The Spine Challenger was a great opportunity to test out some new Berghaus kit that will be on the market next year. The new pack, jacket and insulation layer have been amazing both in terms of performance and weight. The weight of the pack was around 5.2 kg not including the water.

Here is the kit list:

Tough conditions at Kinder Low (© P. Gatta)
Tough conditions at Kinder Low (© P. Gatta)

The Spine Challenger 2013 report

Edale to Hebden Bridge (CP1): 72 km and +2,450 m

We started off the race on Saturday morning at 8am as planned. The weather was not too bad, -2°C, cloudy but not rain and a relatively good visibility.

Start of the Spine at Edale (© P. Gatta)
Start of the Spine at Edale (© P. Gatta)

The wind became stronger when we reached the ridge of Kinder Low with some gust at 70km/h. Great scenery throughout this section with white frost on the ground and dark dramatic clouds.

Spine: Kinder downfall (© P. Gatta)
Spine: Kinder downfall (© P. Gatta)

I got my first experience with the slabs after Mill Hill. I fell a couple of times running on these ice covered slabs but I would not imagine running on the moss and swamp around.

Spine: the slabs (© P. Gatta)
Spine: the slabs (© P. Gatta)

We got a race control at Snake Road and then we continued toward Bleaklow Head. Fortunately it was so cold that the mud was frozen. At least I did not run in deep mud and water so I managed to keep my feet dry but the terrain was very rugged and never flat and remind me of the salt flat of Atacama.

Spine: toward Bleaklow Head (© P. Gatta)
Spine: toward Bleaklow Head (© P. Gatta)

I made a couple of navigation errors after Bleaklow Head but overall the trail to Torside reservoir was pretty good.

Spine: toward Torside reservoir (© Mike Clark)
Spine: toward Torside reservoir (© Mike Clark)

Then I met with Mike around Torside reservoir and we ran together for a few kilometers.

Spine: Torside reservoir (© P. Gatta)
Spine: Torside reservoir (© P. Gatta)

Spine: forest after Torside reservoir (© Mike Clark)
Spine: forest after Torside reservoir (© Mike Clark)

I felt tired right after Crowden and struggled a bit along the ridge of Laddow Rocks. The trail was narrow and the wind was very strong, so it was very difficult to run there. It was not good mentally to feel tired after 30 km when there are still 140 km to go...

Climbing toward Laddow Rocks (© Mike Clark)
Climbing toward Laddow Rocks (© Mike Clark)

I ate more which probably boosted me a bit. The wind was still strong but the sky cleared out. The section around Wesseden reservoir, Black Moss reservoir and Millstones Edge was easier and fun to run. It was good meeting with Euan and Mike again.

Spine: Black Moss reservoir (© P. Gatta)
Spine: Black Moss reservoir (© P. Gatta)

I joined Gary and Steve around the M62. It got dark when we passed Warland Reservoir. I left them right before Stoodley Pike and had some hesitation crossing some fields, then found the good trail down to Hebden Bridge. Unfortunately it was not so easy to join the check point 1, as there is a 200m steep climb and I got lost several times. I finally met Euan and we joined the CP1 together at 7:39pm, 10 minutes behind my plan which was not too bad. Overall I was not too tired and the feet were still in pretty good shape.

Hebden Bridge (CP1) - Hawes (finish): 102 km and +2,925 m

I stayed 1h15 at the CP, eating a substantial number of Chili Con Carne and an even greater number of muffins. I drunk half a bottle of a very sweet orange juice and heard later on that it was a sirup, I needed sugar anyway... I changed the strapping of my feet, put on new socks and was ready for another 100 km.

The Pennine Way (© Julie Gretton)
The Pennine Way (© Julie Gretton)

I made a few navigation errors right after leaving the CP. I got back on track but shortly after we had to cross a swampy area. I did my best to keep the feet dry but eventually fell in cold water up to mid calf a few times. That pissed me off as I knew my feet would be wet until the end of the race, increasing the risk of blisters.

I joined Eugeni and Joel on the climb after Walshaw reservoir. The terrain was very rough, icy, muddy, wet and it was very hard to run. I do not have much memory of this section. Then we met Euan at Cowling who gave us some food and Coke. We left Cowling at around 1:30am. Eugeni and Joel and I joined Andy soon after.

The temperatures dropped, I opened my pack and realized that I forgot one of my top layers in the bag at the CP1. I was not wearing enough clothes and because of the rough terrain we could not run much so I really started to get cold.

We were progressing very slowly. I kept on eating and drinking to avoid hypoglycemia and hypothermia. 15 hours of darkness is long, very long. It is not fun as we cannot see anything, the slow pace, the cold, the lack of sleep combined with the fatigue and 16 hours of race dropped us into a Zombie state. We eventually reached Malham short after the sunrise, almost 3 hours behind my schedule. Julie kindly gave us some water, food and we left toward Malham Cove.

Eugeni, Joel, Andy and Philippe at Malham (© Julie Gretton)
Eugeni, Joel, Andy and Philippe at Malham (© Julie Gretton)

Eugeni and I went a bit too fast and went West instead of East right after Malham Cove, another 500 meters extra.

Spine: sunrise after Malham (© P. Gatta)
Spine: sunrise after Malham (© P. Gatta)

The positive thing in being late is we could enjoy the scenery and again, it is nice to see something after 15 hours of night. The temperatures rose a bit, the wind had dropped and the sky was clear but not for long...

Eugeni, Joel and a fan (© P. Gatta)
Eugeni, Joel and a fan (© P. Gatta)

The Spine team gave us some water just before Malham Tarn. All this area is pretty nice and we could run for a while.

Eugeni and Philippe running down from Mountains Fell (© Euan Bruce)
Eugeni and Philippe running down from Mountains Fell (© Euan Bruce)

The clouds came back very quickly. Julie and Euan gave us some more water at Silverdale Rd and we headed toward Pen-y-ghent.

Philippe running on Silverdale Rd (© Euan Bruce)
Philippe running on Silverdale Rd (© Euan Bruce)

Julie and Euan told us that the front runners were not far ahead and not too fast so we started thinking that we could pass them.

Spine: Pen-y-ghent (© P. Gatta)
Spine: Pen-y-ghent (© P. Gatta)

It was snowing when we reached the top of Pen-y-ghent and it kept on snowing until the end. Eugeni pushed me knowing that we were not far behind the two first runners. We left Andy and Joel and both started to run faster, even uphill.

Andy climbing Pen-y-ghent (© P. Gatta)
Andy climbing Pen-y-ghent (© P. Gatta)

28 hours of non-stop race does not help to get smarter and we all forgot that we have been told at the briefing that we could skip Horton in Ribblesdale. We followed the "old" trail and ran 4.2 km for nothing...

Snow on Spine (© P. Gatta)
Snow on Spine (© P. Gatta)

We passed one runner and I kept running while Eugeni slowed down a bit knowing that he still had 256km to go. What he did was impressive and helped me tremendously. I took the lead just 4 km from the end and ran as fast as I could in the descent to Hawes.

I lost some time to find my way to Hawes but passed finish line in first place after 32h18 of race, 4 hours less than the previous race record. Many thanks to Mike, Euan and Julie for their great support along the race. Mark arrived 16 minutes later followed by Eugeni who eventually won the full version of the Race in 5 days, 4 hours and 52 minutes, setting a new record too, impressive!

Philippe won the Spine Challenger (© Euan Bruce)
Philippe won the Spine Challenger (© Euan Bruce)

Photos of the Spine Challenger

These photos have been taken by Mike Clark, Euan Bruce, Julie Gretton and Philippe Gatta.
These photos are protected by international copyright laws. No material may be copied, reproduced in any way, or by any means, without the written consent of the author.
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Spine Challenger 2013 Results


The top 5:
1. Philippe Gatta: 32h18m
2. Mark Caldwell: 32h34m
3. Gary Warmington and Stephen Thompson: 37h09m
5. Guido Huwiler and Eamonn Chapman: 52h:26m

More information and the complete results are available on The Spine Race web site.

Spine: sunrise from Malham Cove (© P. Gatta)
Spine: sunrise from Malham Cove (© P. Gatta)

Map and track of the Spine Challenger



Legend:

My track is shown in cyan. We can see the hesitations and navigations errors. Note that the GPS was off most of the time between Malham Tarn and Pen-y-ghent which explains the straight lines.
The Flag, Car and Fork icons are some of the waypoints used.

Usage: use the arrows or "drag & drop" to move the map. Click on + or - to zoom in or out.

Click on Terrain to get the map with altitudes, Satellite to see the satellite photo, Hybrid to get the satellite photo with the names of cities and road. Click on the icons to see location's names.



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