The Pennine Way is well known amongst outdoor enthusiasts as being the first long-distance trail in the UK. The idea of a national trail came from walker and journalist Tom Stephenson, who having been inspired by the Appalachian Trail had written an article in 1935 titled “Wanted: A long green trail”. If the concept was simple the execution was anything but, and it took 30 years of wrangling with landowners over rights-of-way issues before the 268 mile trail was established in 1965.
As well as being the first official long-distance footpath in Britain, the Pennine Way is probably also the toughest, following the rugged ‘backbone of England’. The record time to complete the route is 2 days, 17 hours, 20 minutes and 15 seconds, set by runner Mike Hartley in 1989, but most walkers take about 17-18 days to complete the challenge, which is often made more arduous by difficult walking conditions and sometimes appalling weather.
If the weather can be ‘appalling’ in summer, when most sensible walkers tackle the route, it begs the question, “what are the conditions like in winter?” That question was about to be answered at Edale in Derbyshire at nine o’clock on Saturday morning, 14th January, when 15 athletes set out on “The Spine”, Britain’s most brutal race – the Pennine Way in 6 days in winter conditions!
The field included several highly-regarded athletes in the arcane world of ultra-marathon running, though one question still being asked as the runners set out was, “can it be done?” Race organisers Phil Hayday-Brown and Scott Gilmour believed that it could, but had gathered a support team together to look after the welfare of the athletes taking part in one of the most gruelling ultra-marathon events ever conceived.
Most experienced staff member by far was polar explorer Conrad Dickinson. Also along for the trip were doctors Anna, Dan and Becky of Exile Medics, with a band of unsung heroes who set up and ran the checkpoints. Scott and Mikey were out and about filming the event, and on the route with Conrad were Mountain Leaders Stuart Westfield and myself, with ace outdoor photographers Rob Holden and John Bamber comparing f-stops, exposure times and lens sizes.
One of the problems of running an event like “The Spine” for the first time is that it was all one big unknown. To remove some of the worry and uncertainty it had been decided to run a safety point on Cross Fell in Cumbria, the highest section of the Pennine Way. John Bamber had put himself forward as the person to man that, and had promptly invited me along as well! That was still three days away as the runners set out from the start line.
The first day proved to be punishing in more ways than one. The day was cold and clear as the competitors set out over the Kinder Plateau, and it was thought that the cold conditions would freeze the ground to allow faster progress – what had not been envisaged was that several paved sections of the route were ice bound, causing real problems for the athletes.
Worst affected was world-class runner and record holder Sharon Gayter – she had fallen badly several times on the Peak District section of the race, and decided to withdraw when she reached Saddleworth, rather than risk further injury. This was a blow to all involved – if Sharon had been forced to withdraw so early, what chance did the others have? By the end of Day 1 a total of five athletes had bailed out.
The support staff were also feeling the strain – following a 20-hour Day 1 with no food for 14 hours, John and I set out on Day 2 after 2½ hours sleep. By now the field was well spread out, making monitoring and photography difficult – a support team meeting in the Pen y Ghent café at Horton-in Ribblesdale sorted out our tactics as the runners made steady progress in sub-zero conditions.
Tuesday was the day that John and I set off to open up the safety point at Greg’s Hut bothy, situated at 700 metres altitude just below the summit of Cross Fell. We had our own race to run, with Phil, John and I trying to locate a key to open the gate on the Greg’s Hut track – having failed to do so we had no option but to backpack everything to the hut, ably assisted by porters Phil, Conrad, Stuart and ‘Doctor Dan’.
As news filtered through of harsh conditions and more withdrawals, it became clear that John and I (plus Border Collie ‘Mist’) were going to be here for a while. We put the kettle on and settled down for a long wait….
To be concluded next week…
Text and images © Paul Shorrock and John Bamber
p.s. This account is a snapshot of my involvement in “The Spine”, and so misses out much of the hard work carried out by the other members of the support staff, and the grit, courage and determination of the competitors battling with cold and fatigue. For more stories about “The Spine” visit the website at http://thespinerace.com/ If you have been inspired to have a go the site will soon be accepting entries for the 2013 race.