Cornwall Running News is delighted to welcome another guest post, this time from Andy Ferguson, ultra runner from Mud Crew and one of the organisers of the Arc of Attrition, just a few weeks away. Andy’s cracking account of his successful attempt to complete one of the hardest footraces in the UK, the Spine Challenger should inspire anyone tempted to try an ultra, and encourage those about to face 100 miles of Cornish coast path next month! Over to you Andy…
Think Scrooge-like terrain for 112 miles, with torrential rain, hurricane force winds, a load of deadly slippery wet / ice-covered slabs and the odd mountain thrown in for good measure and it will give you some idea of what this footrace is all about.
I gathered in Edale with 4 others from Cornwall: Richard Fish; Sharon Sullivan; Rob Coleman and James Turner, all Mud Crew (MC) trail runners and experienced ultra marathoners – this would need every ounce of that previous experience.
We started at 6.30am in the dry but by 6.35 it was like a different world, on the first big climb up to Kinder Scout it was torrential rain and hurricane force winds so much so they delayed the start of the full Spine race. We were in it and didn’t we know it, blown off my feet and thrown up in the air on several occasions just wanting to get some shelter to put on extra layers and a balaclava (yes balaclavas are compulsory kit).
Kinder Downfall waterfall was literally being blown upwards such was the force of the wind; quite a sight and something I will always remember.
Made my way with Sharon slowly but surely up through Devils Dyke and onto Bleaklow Head before descending at last into Torside Reservoir to be met for the first time by Caroline Cable from MC and Falmouth Road Runners who had madly volunteered to be support crew (an endurance challenge in itself).
After some TLC and a strong mug of coffee Sharon and myself were off up another steep climb. Sharon was beginning to have breathing difficulties and not long after had to retire (no doubt she will be back next year ).
I pressed onto picking up the pace trying to catch up with some guys in front of me, the extra effort was really hard work and I was using more energy than I wanted to be doing (this is a race about conserving energy not using it if you just want to finish it ). I was beginning to feel out of my comfort zone for the first time but eventually caught up a girl called Maxine and another Emiko who I had previously met a few weeks ago in the Brecon Beacons when on a training race for this event.
Having company again and with the pace slower I plodded on in continual bog with many deep river crossings, their was virtually no visible path for several miles. I was glad I wasn’t alone as dark was descending as the hours just passed.
Pressed on and on and on in the darkness and caught up with 2 great lads from Guildford, Mike and Ash whom I spent the rest of the night with making our way to the 1st CP at Hebden Bridge. Snow was now falling heavily on the higher ground turning to heavy sleet and rain at lower levels.
Spent too long at the checkpoint (not my normal tactics) because I wanted to stay with Mike and Ash: they were good company and the weather and navigation was so bad it was safety in numbers. We made our way up a huge muddy hill on the way up to Oakworth Moor (I’m sure it’s very pretty in the summer but it’s complete grimsville on a January night in a storm).
[pullquote-left]I was now last man from Cornwall standing making me even more determined to push onwards.[/pullquote-left]Endless slippery ice-covered slabs of stone mixed with deep bogs made it treacherous and slow going, somewhere along this moor we lost the path and spent 45 mins train to find it again. Daylight seemed to be an eternity but eventually it came; it crossed my mind that I still had to do another full day and night and probably best part of another day without any sleep. I was only just approaching halfway when I was met by Caroline again with Sharon now for company. They told me the news that Richard Fish was in hospital (heart issues), Rob Coleman had fallen and badly sprained his ankle, and now James Turner was out with knee issues; this race has such a high DNF rate, well over 50%. I was now last man from Cornwall standing making me even more determined to push onwards.
[pullquote-right]Bugger, I was on my own again.[/pullquote-right]Can’t remember much about the next day it passed in a blur of cold, wet and extremely shitty weather. I had on seven layers at some points in this race and I was still cold at times on the high ground. Lothersdale came and went at around 65 miles, it was around there that Mike was really struggling and began to drop off. Ash was really suffering with the cold and after a particularly nasty Tor we had to climb where conditions were apocalyptic they decided to call it a day both saying they couldn’t face another night of this weather.
Bugger, I was on my own again. I knew there was a group of three behind me so waited for them to catch up: Emiko from London and a couple of guys from Lancs who had recce’d this part of the course. I thought that could be very handy and decided to stick with them like glue through the second night.
Onto Malham and arrived at the pub there just as it was closing but pat least I had some crisps and Coke, caught up with my ever suffering support crew again and then off again to the next CP on Malham Tor, a godforsaken hell hole of a place and conditions were bloody awful.
The 3 guys I had travelled with for the last few hours wanted to rest, I did not as I wanted to push on to make sure I wasn’t chasing cut-offs in the morning. Luckily I met with a mate from Surrey, Allan Rumbles, one of the country’s most experienced ultra runners and whom I had last seen sprint past me in the last mile of the Cotswold 100 back in September, my last long event.
This proved to be a real stroke of luck as it was out of there in 5 minutes and onwards to what was to be the most exhilarating and scary part of the whole race. We made our way across Fountains Fell in what can only be described as hurricane conditions. I was hallucinating a bit through lack of sleep but the adrenaline of trying to stay on my feet and stick with Allan kept me wide awake. We were alone out there as unbeknown to us the Race Director had diverted the race off the highest ground around Pen-y-Ghent; we were the last to leave the CP before Mountain Rescue stopped anyone else leaving. They were diverting runners off the mountain and getting them to low ground in Horton where an emergency shelter in a café had been set up.
I made a call from behind a rock to Sharon to meet us in Horton with some dry kit and more layers; she arrived just as we got to the emergency shelter. (I’ve got to say I was scared for my life at times during that descent into Horton, when we slid, got blown, stumbled to the bottom of the fell, Allan turned to me and said “well that’s one to tell the grandchildren”)
The race was held up for 2 hours whilst conditions eased; we were off again in 30 mins as we were the last ones to arrive .
The terrain from Horton to Hawes was a lot easier but the conditions weren’t. It did make for easier going though as nav was easy as this part of the Pennine Way was well signed. The winds over Dodd Fell were extreme and I again got taken off my feet several times but the thought we had now passed the 100 mile mark made things easier to deal with. I was on the home stretch.
Finally I came over a hill and Allan said “that’s Hawes in the valley”. Such is the ethos of the race there are no banners or fanfares, we simply walked into the village hall where we were met by Sharon, Caroline, Rob and James (Richard Fish was still in hospital) and the Spine staff.
All in all not the toughest course I have ever tackled that has got to be the UTMB with the elevation but certainly the worse conditions by far, coupled with the fact you have everything including the kitchen sink on your back. Along with the navigational issues it will forever live in my memory. Will I go back? Never say never… I learnt a lot and know I could vastly improve on my time and 22nd place.
Many thanks for sharing that with us, Andy, and congratulations on completing the race! If anyone taking part in Arc of Attrition wants to send us their race report (or any other race for that matter), we’d love to host it. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out some of our other Guest Posts: