The 2020 Montane Spine Challenger by Jen Scotney

The UK is lockdown due to COVID-19 and other than a few mile loops I have barely been able to get out for a run. Races have been cancelled, training plans scrapped, and freedoms of ultramarathons seem a distant memory, back before social distancing or coronavirus were words in my vocabulary. However, the time off running does give me time to catch up on race blogs, and so here I reflect on the 2020 Spine Challenger. The Challenger is a 110ish mile race from Edale to Hawes, in January. The last two years I have podiumed on this race, but with most of 2019 out due to illness and loss of my fitness, there was no expectation I would this time. So here’s my race report, sorry it’s a long one, but let’s go back to winter, stormy winds, and my Pennine Way…

Would you still be happy finishing evening though it will take you longer and you will finish further down the field? That was the question that I had been asking myself over and over and again, from about September 2019, when thoughts of doing this race had first started swirling around my head. It played in my head over and over. The next few months it felt so tough to try to train, my head had the drive to jump back into 50+ mile training weeks, but the body and new work routine wouldn’t allow it. I did what I could. But the miles seemed forced and slow.

The Spine Challenger is a race I have already enjoyed twice. It’s an adventure, the long winding unknown stretching out as I come off my familiar Kinder and Bleaklow… but the unknown isn’t in the paths of the Pennine Way under your feet, it’s carried in your head. The highs, the lows, the doubts… you bring them all with you. I learnt that in the last race. I hated the first 20 miles, so much pressure and stress, but I had taken it all there myself.

So what if I just turned up, did what I could, and tried to be happy with that? It seemed a challenge. It also seemed a risk, what if my body couldn’t cope? What if it broke again? But I didn’t actually think it would. My fatigue hasn’t coincided with races, but with work, unrelenting and overwhelming. But what if I was at the back? Could I still enjoy it? I thought about the times I had been in the darkness in my bed. I had times I couldn’t see getting through the next hour. To the end of the day. Never mind surviving the year and getting to considering this race in January. To me, it would be a celebration of getting to the place in time and health I thought I would never get to. There was still a way to go, my training told me that, I still don’t sleep well or feel rested. But I was miles on from that bed in April. And I was proud. I had done it myself. Because I hadn’t found help available from anywhere else. After getting through that the 110 miles of Pennine Way seemed to be a way to affirm, not test, where I was. It would also be my first race for a year, since the last Spine Challenger, and with no other races in the diary that seemed fitting.

I did two long training runs with my friend Helen. I thought if I could finish these long runs ok I would be ok for the race. We did the Yorkshire Three Peaks, getting to PYG for a freezing sunrise, and a 30 mile run on the Pendle Way. Both runs were a great time to chat about the Spine Challenger, about my year, and some of my fears. More walking than in the past, but overall I finished both runs feeling there were more in the legs. More importantly, they gave me the sense that the old carefree, smiling me wasn’t lost. Maybe buried under the mess from the last year, but still there, as my friend Ella had told a month before, like a bulb waiting to bloom up in the light.

With a slight wobble of a weekend where I didn’t think I had a place and a sulk instead of a long run, I had a few weeks to get my kit sorted. A few changes to the mandatory kit meant I couldn’t use my nanospikes or usual piece of closed cell foam that cost a few quid off Ebay for a roll mat. I was also using my new job at Rab to ensure I shaved off 200g with a super light Mythic Ultra 180 sleeping bag. The irony of celebrating this slight reduction in pack weight while I was about 8kg heavier more myself at the moment didn’t pass me by.

My kit was largely the same, with some new additions from Rab, and this is one part that experience on this race helps. It’s less daunting, I know what I have and what I can borrow, so nothing new was needed to be purchased for the race, just some of my bits of race food and a few changes to be swapped in as the kit requirements had changed.

The week before the race was busier than I wanted, partly just commitments falling then, and also illness over Christmas meant this was the week I need to sort out my business accounts and tax. So usually the week before would at least be a couple of 3 mile taper runs, but I couldn’t even squeeze these in. So no runs, just Thursday night packing my kit and Friday going to registration. It felt great to be back, but I also was trying to be low key, I knew it would be slower for me and I didn’t want anyone to have expectations. So I registered, nipped into a briefing, and headed home.

Edale to Torside

Race day nerves are usually a bit uncontrolled for me, but with the determination that I wasn’t going to let my placing affect my race, I felt quite relaxed getting ready and heading to Edale. Weather was dry, and not too cold, but the winds were strong. I wasn’t too concerned, they seemed in a very kind SW or W and so it would either be a tailwind or a crosswind. Last year had been a headwind, which had been hard to stand up in, and I had survived. Experiences like that give you the confidence to face the worse.

I started with poles this time, rather than picking them up at Hebden. I had decided this due to the strong winds forecast but also my lack of fitness; I was worried that slow crawls uphills would be chances for the negative self-talk to flood in, so powering with poles might help. They did. I managed to roll my ankle in the first mile, just after you leave the tarmac, but I ran it off, and although I did the same a few miles later on Bleaklow too, I didn’t feel any niggle from these.

It felt like I was letting everyone pass me from the start, but I was calm about it; purely there to run my own race. I chatted briefly to some Dutch runners who had recognised me from my vlogs I did about my race and training. It felt strange, with the illness and changes that just felt like that wasn’t me. This illness has changed me, changed my relationships, and there are moments of grief, thinking of what I have lost. But somethings haven’t been lost; I still love the Pennine Way, I still love being out in the hills without any responsibilities outside looking after myself, and I still have the skills to look after myself in these conditions. That’s mostly what this race asks of you.

I felt slow up Jacobs Ladder, the first climb in the race, and it felt like a lot of racers came past me. The poles helped, making up for some of the power lost in my legs. But once upon Kinder I made the places back… this is my terrain, my home, and I can navigate and skip through these rocks easily. I crossed at Snake, patting my friend’s gorgeous dog there.



Alison and George have come to see me on my way at Snake crossing for all my three races. And each time I pat George on the head and it feels like he really is wishing me on my way as I leave my familiar playground and wind my way away from home. I also see a friend Mark as I head on to Bleaklow who has surprised me to come and cheer. It lifts you to know that there are people there, willing you on, on what is really such a personal challenge. I check my watch for the first time and see that I seem to be about the same split as last year. The weather has been kinder this year, with the wind behind us more than in front. It’s been warm and dry too, I don’t have my gloves on even, and the only rough bit of weather was turning into the wind above Kinder Downfall as the waterfall sprayed over me. In my head, I had expected to be way down on my time so it gave me a boost to be the same split, as I felt had taken it so easy at the start. Though I had set me intention not to consider times and placings, well, this race gives you so much time to think, really overthink, so the odd glance at a watch or flash in my head didn’t concern me.

I picked my way through the bogs off Bleaklow, following a runner in front but quickly realising this was a mistake when he went off track and then had to follow me as I skipped through the heather to the more runnable track. I had a few racers behind me now, and they seemed to pick up that I knew my way over the bogs and terrain, so even if they could have overtaken me, they slotted behind me to make use of my knowledge. I was surprised to find that I had dropped them all by the time I was heading to Torside, as again it felt so slow. I love the descent off Bleaklow, and I also knew this would be my last pocket of phone reception for hours. I had resigned myself that I was at the back of the pack, and although not stressing about this, I thought it would help my mind over the tough section of Laddow Rocks and Black Hill to know exactly where. I couldn’t spiral down in speculation and wallow at myself being last and off the rest of the race. I switched my phone on, checked the trackers, and was so surprised I was 4th female. I had no idea I was managing to stay that far up the field. It gave me a boost as I skipped down towards Torside.

Torside to Blackstone Edge

Photo by Mick Kenyan

The section between Torside and Wessenden is one I find tough on this race. It has steep climbs, only to then descend straight back down, and then bogs and flags up Black Hill. It’s 20 miles in, so tiredness is starting to creep in, but mentally that feels too early; I’m still in my Derbyshire hills with nearly 100 miles left to go. This year I was expecting it, and although the climbs felt laboured and slow, I actually pulled away again from another group that had come behind me from the checkpoint at Torside. I smiled as I descended on the flags from the trig, it was wet and misty, as usual, but I know there are some nice runnable sections coming up, and once I have left this summit behind it feels like I am leaving Derbyshire and my thoughts can turn to Hebden and Yorkshire. I haven’t been on these trails since last year’s race, and it’s a nice balance between knowing them so well I don’t need to worry about navigation, but also interesting seeing them again after a year away. This year it was me returning changed, feeling more fragile and battered than previous years, and the Pennine Way was my constant, unchanged, and holding space for the reflection of myself.

I headed into the car park before Standedge. Dusk was approaching so at the Mountain Rescue team water point I used the shelter of the side of the van to get some more food and headtorch out of my pack, and for the first time put my gloves on. One of the volunteers, Fiona, had walked me into the checkpoint and taken my photo, asking if she could put it on the Peak Running Facebook group – I had done a talk for some of the group the week before. I said yes, of course, though they will probably comment about my party ring biscuit habit on ultras, and I pressed on, with it now raining. As I climbed up Standedge a runner, not part of the race, ran towards me, ‘It’s grim up there’ he shouted… ‘Great!’ I replied. He was right though, the weather had ‘turned’ and as the dark fell the wind and rain lashed against me. But always in my mind was I that I endured hours and hours of this weather last year, usually with a headwind, and still came out smiling, and so the weather didn’t really bother me. I also thought back to last year, that I put my headtorch on only a mile or so further on, so I wasn’t too far behind my splits. From here it was a matter of head down and grind out these edges, but I find them quite a pleasant section though, as there is variety and are broken down with road crossings. By the time I was heading to the M62 crossing though I was feeling cold, and at the next wall I could shelter behind I had decided I would put on a synthetic jacket for warmth and swap my gloves for something thicker with GORE-tex mitts over. Annoyingly my Rab Pacer Jacket cuffs weren’t adjustable and so I wasn’t able to stop water going inside my gloves.

I headed into the car park before Standedge. Dusk was approaching so at the Mountain Rescue team water point I used the shelter of the side of the van to get some more food and headtorch out of my pack, and for the first time put my gloves on. One of the volunteers, Fiona, had walked me into the checkpoint and taken my photo, asking if she could put it on the Peak Running Facebook group – I had done a talk for some of the group the week before. I said yes, of course, though they will probably comment about my party ring biscuit habit on ultras, and I pressed on, with it now raining. As I climbed up Standedge a runner, not part of the race, ran towards me, ‘It’s grim up there’ he shouted… ‘Great!’ I replied. He was right though, the weather had ‘turned’ and as the dark fell the wind and rain lashed against me. But always in my mind was I that I endured hours and hours of this weather last year, usually with a headwind, and still came out smiling, and so the weather didn’t really bother me. I also thought back to last year, that I put my headtorch on only a mile or so further on, so I wasn’t too far behind my splits. From here it was a matter of head down and grind out these edges, but I find them quite a pleasant section though, as there is variety and are broken down with road crossings. By the time I was heading to the M62 crossing though I was feeling cold, and at the next wall I could shelter behind I had decided I would put on a synthetic jacket for warmth and swap my gloves for something thicker with GORE-tex mitts over. Annoyingly my Rab Pacer Jacket cuffs weren’t adjustable and so I wasn’t able to stop water going inside my gloves.

As I came down the path towards the road I was looking for somewhere to shelter and could see some lights on the layby in the distance. Ah, I could shelter out of the wind behind the car, I thought. I remember looking at the lights, thinking that actually maybe this dark layby up on the moor was not a place to linger by cars when there was clearly lights and people in the cars when… BAM. I lifted my head. It hurt. I was lying on the path. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening. I checked my headtorch, it was over my eyes but still worked. I got myself up and looked at the path, it had a deep rut but wasn’t too uneven apart from that. I have no idea how I had fallen like that, but there was no time to worry, I carried on, back to thinking I was getting cold and needed to add a few more layers.

When I reached the car lights, I realised it was Mountain Rescue as part of the Spine Safety Team, and it was Steph, who I recognised from running the race a few years ago. I asked if I could just shelter by the car to add a few more layers. She opened the boot and allowed me to put my pack in there as I swapped my gloves and put on a jacket. She said goggles may become mandatory because of the crosswind, so I got those out and put on my head above my headtorch. I hadn’t expected the rain to come this heavy and early, so had put my light waterproof trousers in my pack, and my heavier ones, with zips to allow them to be put on over shoes, were in my drop bag, so I didn’t put the ones I had on. By this point, another runner had caught me up. He was putting on layers and asked if we could set off together. Not wanting to stand around I said we could if he was setting off at the same time. He got his layers on and was ready to set off so we went across the motorway together. There was just Blackstone Edge to navigate on and then a road crossing, to track and flags and easy running to Stoodley Pike and Hebden. Knowing the route so well makes it easy to break down, and breaking it down makes it seem so manageable.

Blackstone Edge to Hebden Bridge

We headed towards Blackstone Edge, with the runner, called Luke, asking me questions about the route, what was coming up. It passed the time, although not really distracting me. As I went to wipe what I thought was rain off my nose, I could see it glistening on my glove, it looked like blood, even in the dark and against the black glove, in my headtorch beam. ‘I think my heads bleeding’ I said to Luke, he looked at my face and agreed, but other than a headache I felt ok, and you don’t really have options in the lashing wild weather, in the dark, on these edges. Just get to Hebden, then deal with this head, I thought.

Blackstone Edge wasn’t too bad to navigate over, it was basically rocks sticking up out of water. 90% of the time I stuck to the path, and the water was less than ankle deep. Occasionally I veered on the wrong side of the rock and the water was a deep bog rather than the path. Luke followed. We turned down off the edge and then hit the path by a channel, which is usually runnable. But I had never seen the Pennine Way so wet, so even this path was negotiating streams and deep puddles. With head down against the weather I had missed the track down to the road. We crossed a low bridge and immediately I didn’t recognise it. We looked up and could see the lights of the White House below us. We crossed some tussocks and climbed a fence on to the road, and went down to the Mountain Rescue Team at the road crossing. I got some black tea in my cup and was ready to leave, it’s tempting to stop at points but I need to get on and get into some dry kit at Hebden. The crosswind was is strong as me and Luke set off on the track… but I know we will turn at the end of the reservoir and have a tailwind to Stoodley Pike, it’s comforting to know this route so well, every twist and turn and where the wind will be. Luke is still asking questions about the route, the checkpoints. I would have preferred to talk about something else, and he seems to want to leave Hebden together, but I’m happier on my own, and I tell him I won’t hang around at Hebden.

By the time I reach the Hebden checkpoint I am getting cold again. I get inside the checkpoint. I take my socks off to clean and dry my feet. They have been wet in the soaked ground, but I can’t see any blisters or hot spots, so just put some clean socks on. I speak to a medic, Alex, and she comes back to clean the cut and put some tape on it. With no blurred vision they are letting me continue. I put waterproof trousers on over my soaked tights. I put another thin top on under my jacket and I put a second synthetic jacket in my bag. I ate some pasta, vegan custard, pain au chocolates, and restocked my bars. And then it’s time to head out. Luke hadn’t even started eating at this point so there was no doubt I would be heading out on my own. That was what I wanted. And it’s an odd feeling going out, the next place you can get inside is Malham Tarn, which in my head is near the end, so it feels so certain I will finish as I head out. A bit later on I check the trackers for the second time. I’m still 4th, although a number of women were coming into Hebden as I’m leaving.

Hebden Bridge to Malham Tarn

I head over Hepstonall Moor. It’s wet and boggy as expected, but the rain has eased, the wind has dropped, and I’m suddenly wearing too many clothes. I decide not to stop but just keep heading into the night. I jog through a few miles and find myself at the bottom of the reservoirs before Top Withins. The back of my legs are tired, in fact, my whole legs are tired and I have the urge to sit down. I’m completely alone and it’s so peaceful. I lean on the dam wall and give myself 20 seconds rest. On one hand, I am disappointed I’m tired, there’s no power in my legs, I feel slow, and I’ve never wanted to sit down this early in the race before. But on the other hand, it’s so peaceful, I love moving through the night on these races, and I’m still 4th. I get up and keep moving. I slowly climb up to Top Withins, and again I just feel the urge to sit down. I know there is a bench behind a wall at the top. Just get there, and then sit and eat I tell myself. I do. But again I feel so disappointed. I knew I wouldn’t be as fast running this year, but I didn’t realise I would have lost so much power, and struggle to move quickly on these hills. It’s 2am. I decide to turn on my phone, mostly to have a moan to Marcus about how tired I am. What I don’t plan for is the number of messages from people, some I don’t know at all, but everyone willing me on, wishing me well… I see Fiona’s photo of me before Standedge, I see people calling me an inspiration… I look at myself now, sitting at the top of a hill moaning about my tired legs and feeling unable to even attempt the climb after Ponden in a couple of miles. Hardly inspiring.  I realise just how sore my head and neck are, and I haven’t taken any painkillers so I try to talk to myself rationally. I’m on a moor, it’s 2am, no one is going to come and get me here even if I did want to pull out, Race HQ don’t have a helicopter for me, so I have to get off the moor. So I tell myself to stop sulking, I eat, take some paracetamol for the headache, and carry on. I’ve always told myself not to make decisions on a hill, this race seems to need to expand that rule to not forming opinions on a hill either. And then, with an easy track to run along about a mile later, I am in a different place, so happy to be out, feeling strong. It’s amazing the highs and lows in races can be so close. Don’t make decisions on a hill. I should know this by now.

The full moon shone so bright at Ponden reservoir I could have turned off my headtorch, and I thought about my recce from here for the race a year ago. I finished that recce at Malham, I think it was about 26 miles, so that didn’t seem long. The next sections were tough underfoot, with the ground and fields sodden, like standing on a sponge. The whole of Ickornshaw Moor path seemed a stream, more than I had ever seen it. But I could cope with this, it was the same for everyone. I was now chasing the sunrise, racing it to see how far I could get before it became light. In the end it was about Lothersdale I put my headtorch away.


Apart from trying to negotiate a flooded bridge before the canal, the journey to Gargrave was uneventful. It was a slog, the rain showers were cold, and the road diversion was a long road section. I knew it was then only 5 miles to Malham, but I had slowed even more and was getting cold. It seemed to take forever. I texted my friends as I approached Malham. They were cheering me on, but I felt defeated. Being this cold and slow in the sun wasn’t dangerous, but I couldn’t help think about this later in the night, on Fountains Fell, on Cam End… I couldn’t put myself and others at risk. I made a decision. I would get to Malham, put on my spare jacket, some dry gloves. I would eat and then see how I managed on Malham Cove. Could I get warm? Could my legs get me up a climb? Could I stay happy? I would get to Malham Tarn Checkpoint then make a decision about the rest of the race.

Photo by Jimmy Hyland

It was slow going, the sun was setting as I got to the top of the cove. I was flagging a bit, but then the friendly faces of photographers Matt and Jimmy popped up. They cheered me up, making me laugh, so much that I didn’t really care about being overtaken by a woman at the top. Jimmy stayed and chatted to me, taking photos, as I headed up to Malham Tarn. As I hit the lane before the checkpoint I felt warm. I thought about the weather the night before, the miles I had done. I hadn’t got through all that to just come this far. I was only 3-4 hours down on last year, I was less than a mile away from a cup of tea, I still had all my emergency layers in my bag… it may be slow, it may not be pretty, but heading into that checkpoint I knew I would finish.

Malham Cove to Horton in Ribblesdale

Steph was on duty in there, making me a cup of tea, chatting, I meant to stay 10 mins but no doubt it was about four times this long. But eventually, I went to face the night. The first challenge I hadn’t expected was to actually find Fountains Fell… I hadn’t been on any of this section, other than Pen-y-ghent, since the last race, and I had always done this section in the light. I went up the farm track and knew I had to go near the farm, and then up a grassy field to a large stile. I mostly remember it as there’s a couple of stiles on this section climbing over 6ft walls, with a gate cruelly locked next to them, as you try to get your 90 mile legs up the steps, with poles going everywhere. The hallucinations were starting in the dark on this section, with faces appearing in walls, and rocks and sheep being indistinguishable between each other. I head up near the farm… but was faced with uneven ground rather than a smooth slope, and no stile in the wall… I retraced my steps down near the farm… I think a tractor came past but what was real and imagined was getting very blurry now. I switched on the navigation on my watch…

it wasn’t really helping, I set off in the direction it was telling me, but ended up back up the hill where I knew I wasn’t right. So I went back down to the farm, wondering how this could look so different in the dark, and trying to remember what it looked like in the light. I stood in the field, aware of how much time I was losing, of how comical this was, losing Fountains Fell. I thought about getting my maps or GPS out of my bag, but they were right at the bottom. I checked my OS app on my phone but there was no coverage and I hadn’t downloaded the map seeing as I apparently knew the route so well. I back at the farm now, and the navigation on my watch was telling me to go up a gravel track through right next to the farm. It didn’t seem right and was a steep hill if it was wrong, but I had no other option. I followed it, and then at the top, the grassy bank was in view, and the stile was a bit further on. Finally, back on track.

The climb up Fountains Fell isn’t particularly steep or tough, but it winds up and around, with false summits. I know from previous races it’s really just head down and grind it out. My tights were still hurting my legs, as they were wet from the first half and wouldn’t stay up, which was slowing me slightly, but I could appreciate that my legs, head, well, nothing really else hurt. Two runners in the MRT race caught me up, and told me to join them, but as I was hitching up my wet tights to try and stop them falling down, they carried on and I couldn’t catch them. These are the moments pairing up helps I think, as much as I like being on my own in races, the second night is when I will hallucinate and have slow patches. Being with someone, chatting and distracting you seems to hold the tiredness at bay. The weather was bad at the top of Fountains Fell, but it seemed to come quicker than I expected. The top of the descent is great, but it gives way to steep, slippery, boggy descent at towards the bottom. I met a headtorch at the bottom, confused to find Marcus coming out to check on me. I’d barely spoken to Marcus all race, maybe a couple of texts, and he hadn’t texted back. I told him I was going to grind out to the finish and apologised for him having to wait. He was heading back to Hawes to wait and get some sleep.

So there was just Pen-y-ghent and Cam End to go. I could do that. I set off up Pen-y-ghent, grinding out the climbs, but it was feeling long, I kept expecting to hit the wooden boards, but they weren’t coming. I knew I was heading in the right direction… when I hit the wall and stile. I laughed. I was halfway up, and nearly at the scramble I knew so well. They must have taken the boards out since the last race, or maybe it was before then. It was a boost though, to realise I had done more than I thought. The scramble up Pen-Y-Ghent was just as it should be; tough, awful weather, hallucinations… more than 90 miles in and I’m clinging to the rocks trying to find the path up. I had done this in the light two years ago, with people around. But last year the wind meant we were diverted halfway up and cut off the scramble, the summit, and miles of descent. Hallucinations were running away a bit here, I really don’t think there is a poster for The Cure Tribute Band halfway up the mountain, or goats, or whatever else I had seen. As I got above the scramble I was in the mist, never mind I thought, it’s easy flags to summit. But from now my mind would hallucinate that, instead of the path coming into view in the mist a few feet ahead, the path was actually being built in front me, being laid ahead as I power hiked up. It seemed to take ages to get to the summit, but it was a relief to start the descent. I had only been there a few months before, but the distance to Horton, and the new mandatory checkpoint, caught me out. My tights were constantly falling down under my waterproof trousers and slowing me down. And it just seemed so much further in the dark than I remembered. I eventually got into the checkpoint, and had a black coffee and some food on, as well as changing my headtorch battery. A couple of women came into the checkpoint, I wasn’t too bothered, just annoyed that I was losing time and slow. I taped under my tights, which made such a difference I wish I had done that 20 miles before. Looking after yourself in these races seems a balance, of when to stop, of what needs to be dealt with immediately, or what can be endured. I had got it wrong with this one, but never mind. Sorted now.

Horton in Ribblesdale to Hawes

I headed out of Horton ready for the last leg. I found that if I kept my headtorch beam and sight a couple of metres in front then the hallucinations weren’t so bad, but if I tried to look into the distance they were worse. I can’t remember all the things I saw on this stretch; I wanted to get the GoPro out to film them, but I also wanted to keep my gloves on and keep going forward. I was feeling stronger than I had felt for a while. There was a thin man dancing ahead of me, in a hoody, with one shining eye. His upper body was moving to the music I couldn’t hear. I got closer. I shined my torch and realised that there was nothing there apart from the shining eye he had was a star. Or a planet. It was bouncing up and down in the sky. There was another hooded character that was just a standing rock. A line of grasses became a line of Shetland pony heads at ankle length. I tried to keep my head down, but small rocks in front of me appeared to have been painted with caricatures, Jeremy Corbyn, Jarvis Cocker… I knew they weren’t real, but it doesn’t stop them looking real.

Cam End has always been awful in this race, especially when you just want to finish. I first recced it years ago in bright sunshine. It’s a stony track winding up, which levels out and becomes tarmac, and then a rutted track descending to the finish at Hawes. In all three races it has been dark, wet, windy and relentless. Last year I was blown off my feet so many times. This year the calm night gave way to mist and rain as I started the track. Yet again my mind was seeing the track appearing out of the mist as if the stones were being freshly laid in front of me, with some of the track looking like stones floating until air until I was about to stand on them. The puddles were tricky, my mind was imagining deep chasms rather than water and wanted my feet to avoid them. I took stock. Yes I was tired and hallucinating, but I asked myself if I was liable to want to sleep, to curl up at the side of the track. No. I felt safe. I could get to the end if I kept moving, but if I was stopping this would be dangerous. So onwards I went.

The last problem was finding the track off the tarmac. I crossed a cattle grid which felt right, but then there was more tarmac and bend that felt I had gone on too long. I shone my head torch up looking for the track and signpost I thought there was. Maybe it is there, but my hallucinations took over. I was seeing whole junk yards with vehicles up there, I was seeing allotments and people putting out roll mats ready to sleep. There was a family on a picnic blanket eating… I knew they were just hallucinations, but I still couldn’t find the path off. I was walking up and down this stretch now, seeing ice sculptures further down and weird 8ft high plants. I have no idea how much time I wasted up here. In the end I decided not to look for the track on the ground, I knew that before the road turned I needed to keep more North. Trusting my instinct worked, after some rough ground I found the track. Last year this was where I was blown off my feet at every break in the wall, so this year was so much easier. I knew I only had the last few miles to go. The dawn was creeping in, about the same speed I was descending really. By now I just wanted to finish, the miles since Malham had taken much longer than I thought they would, partly as I was comparing splits with last year and the detour to miss out Pen-y-ghent and the new checkpoint this time had made it miles shorter that year. I was now stressing it was going to be such a rush to get to my step-daughter’s ice skating competition in Nottingham at lunchtime. I had told Marcus to just set off so he would make it, but he said he was at the finish.

It was light by the time I was in the fields above Hawes. So near. The dawn’s light drove out the hallucinations. I could see my way down, and the only obstacle was a gate I could not open the clasp on. It felt like 10 minutes of trying, but the hand-eye coordination had obviously gone to sleep long before I was ready to finish. Exasperated I decided the only thing was to climb the gate. I laughed. It was six feet high and my legs had done 115 miles. Ok, back to the karabiner type fastening. Somehow it opened. I left the last muddy field and on to the roads to finish.

There is a couple of paths behind the houses in the last half mile. At the first one I saw a group of people. They looked like runners, with their clothes and packs, and there was one woman in. I trailed them across the path and road. The woman saw me at the next gate, and with her supporter, put on a sprint finish. I was past caring. Maybe she had overtaken me when I was in my junk yard above Cam End. I jogged to the finish with Marcus. Where thoughts immediately turned to a quick change and a rush down to Nottingham. We didn’t make the competition, but Marcus did see his daughter at least.

Post Race

My face was swollen, my black eyes were coming out, and I looked a mess after this race. But my feet were pretty good, two tiny blisters in the end, and no lasting niggles once things had settled down. The expense of replacing my tooth that had broken on this race two years ago meant that the black eyes didn’t seem too bad to deal with. Perhaps the most comical was the weekend after when Marcus made me take him to A&E thinking he had broken his ribs slipping on black ice on run. I lost count of the nurses that tried to usher me into various rooms, looking confused when I said I was only waiting for my husband. His ribs weren’t broken after all.


I finished 6th female and my watch said I had run 115.6 miles. I didn’t finish until about 9am on Monday morning. The attention after the race was hard to accept. Many of my new colleagues, who had never known me able to race, were full of praise and congratulations. For me, it was not a performance to shout about. I hadn’t trained with discipline but rather had just done what I could. I was so slow the second half of the race, with no power, and had stopped so much. I caught myself feeling resentful, at all the comments and messages around this race from people that I had seemed invisible to when I was ill, desperate, and so very lonely. But a race makes you visible, and getting those connections back seemed something to celebrate not resent. The journey last year had been so lonely, that the positives from this race seemed something to reflect on in private too. Honestly, this race was easy compared to anything last year. I had made a choice to do it, unlike having my fatigue, and I could have stopped at any moment. That choice is a privilege. The darkness hiding Fountains Fells was nothing to the darkness I had carried in my head last year, and the tired legs as I tried to push them along the 115 miles was nothing compared to the fatigue that had sunk me over the last few years. It was all temporary. It was a choice. There was a clear end. All the things that had been so hard to deal with for my illness. I used to wonder if the high number of ultrarunners I come across battling depression or low self-esteem was unhealthy, the races a means to self-esteem that wasn’t sustainable. But this year has given me a different perspective; rather than me usually talking about how pushing myself through races gives me confidence in other areas of my life, this one felt different, the opposite, that after what I had endured through illness last year meant that this race felt like no effort at all. Maybe the darker places you have been outside of running the more you appreciate the fun of these races; the choice to be tired was a privilege and the race seemed so short for just knowing it had such a clear finish line.

There was a shift for a short time after the race, although I’m not sure if it’s because of it, but I felt ready to move on a bit. To accept what happened in my illness and body, and stop reaching for all the answers. And just at that point of giving up on recovery and racing again, the answer may have dropped to me during this lockdown. It’s a story I will tell another time, but two weeks into treatment it feels like my body is renewing, and maybe I will be back training this year.

I still feel that nothing in my running can be as tough or make me suffer as my illness over the last 5 years has, and that’s exciting because it makes me less daunted by my running plans. If I can just get back the power in my legs, to catch up with this power in my head, then I am sure I can go on to achieve more than I have already. But there’s no rush. And maybe this patience, this lack of urgency for the destination, when the journey can be the most beautiful and revealing part, is just one of many things I have gained.


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