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Spine North Challenge 2022

Hannah - Camino Ultra Legend came second female in last week's epic Spine Race - North Challenge.

We became healthily addicted to following Hannah's tracker (aka dot-watching) and we were privileged to be on a small WhatsApp group with some of Hannah's dearest friends - going through the daily mill together.

What Hannah (and all the Spine 2022 competitors) achieved was extraordinary - 160+ miles of continuously racing along the toughest stretch of the Pennine Way - the organisers call this Britain's most Brutal race - for reasons you will uncover when you read Hannah's guest blog post below.

We are so proud of Hannah - she is an amazing, gutsy and resilient athlete but more than that she is inspiring in the way she takes on these epic challenges with heart and kindness. Will we be joining Hannah at the Spine 2023 - 100% x


Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth

The Spine Race, running the full 268 miles / 431km of the Pennine Way in winter, is one of Britain’s best-known ultras. Having run (and enjoyed!) my first 100-miler at the NDW100 in August 2021, I was looking for a winter ultra for my next challenge. “Not the Spine,” I told everyone; “I’m not a lunatic.” But I was intrigued to see that the Spine had some feisty little sisters – the Challenger, covering the southern 108 miles of the course, and a new race, the 160 mile Challenger North, which covered the rest. Of the two the Challenger seemed marginally less ludicrous – but it had already sold out. So the Challenger North it was to be. 160 miles/260km, 6000+ metres of elevation, a 108-hour cut-off, carrying a whole lot of equipment (including a sleeping bag, mat, bivvy, stove, gas, right down to a compulsory spork). In January. Hmm.

This silly decision got sillier in autumn 2021, when I moved out to Malawi in Southern Africa – not an ideal training ground for British bog. But luckily Malawi does have beautiful mountains and, more importantly, I met some great running companions. So with the help of Camino I decided to put in the miles, and worry about the bog later. This involved lots of running and hiking some fabulous hills with excellent company, often leaving at 5am to escape the 30C heat, and sometimes lugging a depressing rucksack containing 5 kilograms of rice.

In true 2021 style, there were some last-minute curveballs that even my 12-tab spreadsheet hadn’t predicted. South African scientists discovered Omicron three weeks before I was due to travel home for Christmas, and Malawi (even though it was a COVID-free haven compared to Britain’s Plague Island) got plonked onto the UK’s red list. Travel plans were turned upside down, and lots of my British friends ended up cancelling some very long-awaited trips to see family. Luckily my housemate Rachael was pretty determined to make it back, and before I knew it we were on a last-minute flight (via Kenya and France) to Ireland, to spend ten days in rural Donegal before being allowed to enter the UK without having to hotel quarantine. This meant working from home in a B&B, but also a chance to get in some miles on the nearest thing to British bog (Irish bog), including a climb up Errigal and two big days out on the Sli na Rosann and Sli na Finne.

Once I got back into the UK the training continued with some very squelchy running and cold water acclimatisation swimming. The uncertainty lingered – Omicron rumbled along, and with a week to go we heard that there were two big route changes to avoid forest destroyed by Storm Arwen, including one impassable section where we had to be driven to the next point in the course. This reduced the length by about 10 miles, which I wasn’t all that disappointed about. And then 2022 swung around, my lateral flows remained negative, and suddenly I was packing up my dropbag with individual motivational cards for each checkpoint from my lovely housemate Laura, ziplock bags of suspicious white powder (onto which I’d printed “Tailwind” for clarity) and drybags labelled things like “Checkpoint 3”, “Emergency food” and “Oh Shit It’s Cold”.

Two trains, a bus, and then I was in Hardraw, having my kit checked and my mugshot taken for Mountain Rescue, before settling down for one last night sleeping in a bed.

Section 1 – Hardraw to Middleton-in-Teesdale – 54km, 1871m elevation

In the footsteps of strong women

The race kicked off at 8am on Sunday morning, with a no-nonsense climb up Great Shunner Fell. As usual a few people shot off quickly, while I remembered to maintain a sensible walking pace, chatting with other racers as we ascended. The landscape was breathtaking from the beginning – coated in snow and ice, with a silvery sun edging through the mist in the valley below us. Crisp snow made for pretty comfortable underfoot conditions, although a bit of sheet ice and bog kept us on our toes (and sometimes on our backsides). From the top it was a fun but treacherous icy descent down into Thwaite and over to picturesque Keld. That was the end of the only bit of the route I’d run before (and that had been in summer and in the opposite direction) – from here it was all uncharted.

From Keld we romped across bleak snowy moor to the incredibly inviting Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub. The warm lights and smoke rising from the chimney were tempting, but I was feeling good, so gave a wave to the team and passed by without chips or a pint. In Damian Hall’s official route description, the next section, “the dreaded Sleightholme”, is summarised as “notorious” and “super-squelchy.” Each footstep on the frozen bog was a coin toss. Heads: it holds your weight. Tails: knee-deep mud. It could have been miserable, but on fresh legs and in daylight, it was just about fun.

For a lot of this section I was with or near Victoria, the ultimate ladies’ winner and excellent human. I’ve subsequently learned about her amazing achievements and adventures which she was too modest to mention – but I think it’s safe to say that she’s the world’s most bad-ass librarian, and also excellent company. We passed through Hannah’s Meadow, which Victoria had told me was named after Hannah Hauxwell , a Yorkshire farmer and archetypal strong woman whose story put our dabble with winter endurance to shame. This inspirational namesake gave me a sense of connection to history and the landscape as we journeyed north. (We also passed near to Barnard Castle, although I didn’t actually see it – but perhaps this was just my eyesight. Ahem.)

Victoria powered ahead as we descended into Middleton-in-Teesdale, and the checkpoint was the last time I saw her before she absolutely demolished the rest of the course. It was also my first Spine Checkpoint experience and it was incredibly friendly and formidably organised. The lovely and efficient Glenn took care of my every need (1. Change socks. 2. Charge electronics. 3. Warm layers. 4. Eat. 5. Two cups of coffee. 6. Go.) and I got to open the first of Laura’s checkpoint cards. I was full, smiling and recharged as I left Middleton with about an hour of daylight left.