JEN SCOTNEY: SPINE CHALLENGER 2019
When is a DNF (Did Not Finish) acceptable for you? What red lines have to be crossed before you can make that decision to pull out of a race without regrets? For me, I usually think it would be an injury that could impact on future races, or create long term difficulties if I carried on, that would make the decision for me. That would be acceptable in my mind to pull out and mentally know it just couldn’t have carried on. A sensible, even if still disappointing, DNF.
But I wasn’t injured. Not even a niggle. And somehow, in the first few miles of a 110-mile race I had made the decision to pull out. No reason, other than I was sulking, faced with a weekend in the wet and cold, battling for a finish that would be in a slower time and further down the field than last year. I remembered then that Marcus would be still on his long run, and given the wet and wild weather I didn’t want to get my phone out or my gloves off so early, so I put my head down, and pushed on. I felt like I was falling even more behind on Jacob’s ladder and my mind switched into reminding me of what little training I had done in the lead-up months, especially compared to last year’s run-up to the Challenger.
I did have flashes of joy on Kinder though. How could I not – I love this terrain, and skipping over the rocks by the Downfall (unsurprisingly an Upfall at the time we crossed) whatever the weather, or situation; it’s just bliss to be there. My heart sang and I laughed at myself for so many negative thoughts early on. Although, back on the flags, as I couldn’t catch the woman in front, I was back in that drizzly mindset of wondering what reasons I had to keep going, when a warm bed and the chance not to get even further behind on my work was less than an hours drive away. But there is no phone reception at Snake Crossing, and so I carried on without texting Marcus.
Bleaklow continued along the rollercoaster playing out in my mind, as this is another favourite spot of mine and with the terrain, especially the bogs, suiting me I went past two women and a few men. My confidence peaked a bit but it didn’t last long as I was back replaying the negative records in my mind by Laddow Rocks, again thinking I was at the back of the field and needed to find a reason to pull out, a fall or something would be perfect.
Damian Hall talks about a ‘power sob’ and while I haven’t needed one yet, a power moan was my weapon of choice on Black Hill. Knowing I didn’t actually have anything proper to moan about made it all the more comical. I had got to listing reasons I just needed to carry on with the race, and the reasons I came up with were:
1) I didn’t have a reason not to
2) I should really be able to give Montane a reason to pull out after they had helped me get a place etc
3) I have just agreed to be put forward as a motivational speaker due to my endurance races and this really wasn’t going to sound a good motivational talk; ‘well I entered this one race, but couldn’t really be bothered, and pulled out’.
I laughed at myself. Which felt good. Then came the final turning point, the Angel of Black Hill, unexpectedly in the form of Emma Hopkinson, the 2018 Challenger winner and current course record holder. I had never met Emma before, but had seen the photos and video clips of her looking so strong on last year’s race. I passed her saying Hi and carried on the single track, but she caught me up, along with her training partner who I had actually run earlier parts of the Challenger with last year too. She really did lift my spirits and let me get out how I was feeling.
Firstly she pointed out I was 4th or 5th at this point, so I should shut up stressing about placing. She let me have my power moan to her, which felt even more comical to say out loud what was going through my head. We then chatted about last years race as I walked and ran up to the summit of Black Hill. She told me what went wrong for her, and about vomiting through the second half, doing the night section on her own… it really helped me put into perspective that constant view I have that everyone else is having a perfect race apart from me. I gave her a hug at Black Hill trig and left her, feeling so much more positive, especially having some really nice runnable sections now. My mindset had shifted, and no longer looking for that excuse to pull out, I started on the descent.
I promptly skidded on the greasy slabs and went over on to the side of the path. The irony was not lost on me, after 25 miles of imagining a convenient injury that would allow me to gracefully retire, I finally get my mind following the legs and bang, I fall. But without any injury I pressed on, and was able to overtake another woman before the road at Wessenden; she seemed to be running in a pair with a guy and held back to wait for him at a gate.
Although I still had doubts about my lack of speed and fitness, I don’t really remember any more times of telling myself I would pull out after that. The weather was getting worse by the time we were hitting the edges above Manchester, and I when I stopped to get my headtorch out sheltering behind a wall I realised how cold I was getting. I put a Prismatic Jacket on under my Spine Jacket (now replaced by the Fleet) and headed on towards the M62. It was probably a few miles earlier that I put my headtorch on this year, but I was trying not to compare my splits with last year too much, as I knew I was slower. The weather was really bad by now; horizontal wind and rain, and no visibility. I don’t actually mind being battered by the weather, but the problem for me was that it made getting food out to eat so hard, and just impossible at places. I had also been taking my gloves (the Montane Vortex waterproof gloves) on and off to eat, and this had meant my hands and the insides of gloves had got really wet. I lost the path slightly at the end of Blackstone Edge and was just grateful to be heading down to the White House where I knew there would be aMountain Rescue team at the crossing with – hopefully – a hot cup of tea.
I was cold when I reached it, and needed to get some more kit on. I put on my Minimus waterproof pants over my wet VIA trail tights, as the next few miles would still be against the wind. I also swapped to my Women’s Extreme Mitts and Gortex mitts over the top. I set off for the last exposed leg to Stoodley Pike, mostly in the company of Martin from Northern Ireland. It was hard to maintain a conversation in the wind, but I was warming up, and this was actually the only section I had recently recced. The wind on Stoodley Pike was wild, I was wishing I had used my poles from the start as I was buffeted across the path, never quite stepping where I planned to, and had to use my hands at some points. But there was something so enjoyable about this section, I think just that feeling of being vulnerable to the elements, but safe, and knowing it wouldn’t last forever.
Dropping down off the high moor was a relief, though one of my gloves had filled with water – probably off the rain from my jacket sleeve, and my hand was cold. I knew it was only a few miles until Hebden Checkpoint and I tried to get some food in on the climbs on this section. At the end of the penultimate hill I realised I had dropped a glove while eating, and so decided I would just check it wasn’t in the last 400 metres… I hadn’t gone back for before I met a guy Jack who had so kindly picked it up, and he was local to me and part of the Accelerate Trail Runners group, so we could chat our way into Hebden. I tried to be as efficient as possible in the checkpoint, changing my socks, eating, and picking up my poles. I was feeling so strong coming into the checkpoint that I knew this would be a much smoother second half of the race than last year, without the blisters that reduced me to a hobble not long after the checkpoint.
The boys in the room, some of which I had shared a few miles with, all seemed to getting comfy, or in the faffing zone, so I hurried back out on to the trail. The only issue was that I had not eaten as much as I wanted; my fault as in the rush of making my tomato pasta it was too wet and really not appetising. I ate the other bits in my drop bag and felt ok. I had some dry Prism gloves to put on under the mitts, but my ‘spare’ gloves in my bag were the wet mitts and I would have felt more comfortable with a dry pair in my pack. I cursed myself for not putting enough spare pairs in my drop bag, the wind had been taking my focus on weather forecast checking rather than all the rain. On the climb out of the checkpoint I met a few women coming in, although I was assuming they would stop for as long or maybe longer than me, so wasn’t too stressed. I think I had stopped for just under 30 minutes.
I allowed myself to turn on my phone and check the trackers as I headed over the first moor a mile or so after the checkpoint. It showed me in third place. But 4th and 5th not too far behind. In fact, I doubt they had left the checkpoint at this time, but for the next whole section until near Gargrave, I assumed any light behind me was the women catching me, and a few times resigned myself to finishing 5th, just to have a guy come past. I might have been in a much more positive place, but that fatalistic sulk isn’t far away, assuming everyone is faster and fitter than me and wanting to give up at the first hint of being pushed. A runner, Doug, came past on the way to Pinhaw and told me that the women were much further back, and I pressed on. I was now well within my comfort zone, just ticking along without the pressure of women immediately behind me, the rain had stopped, so I was just heading through the night, jogging when I could but mostly power hiking. I still love the peace of going through a night on these races, in a world that seems so much quieter and darker than I’ve ever known.
I knew I was down on last year’s splits as it was light before Gargrave this time, but other than a stop to get some food out of my bag, I just kept moving. Perfectly happy and enjoying the race. The fields before Malham seemed to go on, maybe as we had a road diversion to cut them up last time. The sun made a brief appearance in the last few fields, and as I saw my shadow on the ground in front of me I thought ‘who’s caught me?’, and turned around, to erm, see the sun. I laughed. Soon I was at Malham Cove, and then it feels like most of the race is behind you, with just a climb up to the 1.5 checkpoint. This felt the only time I was mixing with members of the public. Who knows what they thought of me as I can’t have looked that normal, my one selfie in the race was just before this part and shows me with mud smeared about my eye from somewhere. At the top of the steps a guy said good afternoon, and then chuckled, and corrected himself to good morning. ‘I don’t know what time of day it is’ he laughed. I smiled at him, and told him ‘neither do I. I have been running since yesterday morning without sleep’. I carried on. He called back after me to ask about the race, and how far we had gone. ‘Nearly done’ I said, ‘only 30 miles to go’.
I stopped to add an extra 5th layer on at the Malham Tarn checkpoint. I had a cup of tea and left, seeing that 4th female was just heading out of Malham village. I had been a bit disappointed that there was now a diversion cutting out the scramble of Penyghent , but the wind was ferocious trying to get off Fountains Fell, and another fight off a top would have been slow. The weather apart from the wind had died down to leave a gorgeous sunset, turning Ingleborough red. A barn owl flew up from near my feet and swooped low across the bottom of Penyghent. Despite the wind it felt so peaceful, and such a privilege to be out still, on legs that might be a bit tired, but I had no aches and pains. I tried not to be disappointed that I would have the last section in the dark and I headed down the little scrambles into Horton. I hadn’t planned to stop here, though my hands were struggling to warm up. As I approached the café I was told I would be having a kit check before I could leave. I was a bit grumpy about this (sorry volunteers, that is not like me!) so I went inside and unpacked my bag, which had felt so comfy all race. Obviously when I had repacked it after the check it was not so comfy on my back, but I knew I could cope with it for the last section. It also gave me the chance to dry my gloves on the heater, as I set out for the last long push.
Matt from Summit Fever Media caught up with me on the climb out of Horton, and it was nice to have that chat before I headed into the night, alone and on what I find the most difficult part of the race. I had recced the few miles from Horton to the bottom of Cam End a few months ago, partly as I was near although I had not entered the race at that point, but also it was the section I had the least memory of in last year’s race and ashamedly had let Andy navigate on when we were together on it. Despite the recce, and the fact the first section is following a wide track, my mind started playing some sleep deprived tricks on me.
I have found it is going into the second night without sleep that the hallucinations start, and tractors and vehicles were appearing out of the paths and walls. ‘Is something happening up there Matt?’ I asked as I saw sheep being loaded into a trailer. ‘It’s just a wall Jen’ he replied… ‘ok, this is going to be a long 16 miles…’ I have no idea if the lost pointer dog I was calling at was real, although I know all the headtorches I could see in fields were not there. I turned at one point to see someone turning back at me, and it took me a while to realise my mind had created a mirror to the side and as I turned so did my reflection. I was alone, and it was probably a good thing, as I was lifting my arms and showing myself that I was hallucinating a mirror, waving at myself, in my mind… I laughed at it. I don’t mind the hallucinations, but what was frustrating was that my mind was also telling me I was on the wrong path, and with my watch out of battery, I was stopping to check on the OS map on my phone, which was the easiest to reach, but slowed my slow pace in parts.
Cam End goes on and on, just a rough uphill track. I have no idea how long the section is – probably a few miles – but add in the darkness, the awful weather that seems to be constant on this place, and then the fatigue of 105 miles and just wanting to finish… it felt like 200 miles. I power hiked and jogged on the downs over the other side when the crosswind would let me. A couple of guys were around me and we had some small chats. I left them and started the descent into Hawes, I had not been on these paths for about 14 months, as last year the race had diverted down a track. My mind kept trying to tell me I was on the wrong descent, that the lights in front weren’t big enough to be Hawes, that I was miles away from the end. Those last few hours seem the slowest and darkest, but I knew the end was in sight, and my mantra was just one step, one step towards Marcus, who I could not wait to see.
And the end always comes, maybe that’s why I find it fairly easy to endure these races, even in this weather. Because it ends. And I was so happy it ended with 3rd place again. And I was so happy it ended with a hot meal, cup of tea, and feet in a bucket of hot soapy water, as after 38 hours of being battered by weather these simple things become the most heavenly items on earth. And I was so happy it ended with a smile, as that meant I had conquered the voices telling me not to bother, to give up, as I was just not worthy enough to think I could fight for podium places in ultras. And the smile meant I had ended up with all my teeth which after the last race is something to smile about too. I know I said countless times that I would never do another Spine Race again throughout the race, but the scary thing is even just a few days later, I cannot for the life of me remember why I was saying that…
So onwards to recovery, although feet and body seem much better than last time. Onwards to the rest of the year, which for me has always been about running the Pennine Way. The Montane Spine Challenger was just a recce of the first section, a training run to see where I was in terms of fitness of tackling the whole 268 miles in summer. And when Jasmin Paris annihilated the men’s Spine Course record, never mind the woman’s one, there was a day this week when my ego told me to give up on my dream. But the heart was there, to quietly remind me, that the heart rules, and I have a journey to make… and a story to tell. So onwards it goes.