Montane Winter Spine Challenger South 2023

The Montane Spine race was first run in 2012, when there were only 3 finishers from a small field of 11 competitors.  The race is an ultramarathon along the entire length of the Pennine Way, from Edale to Kirk Yetholm, a total distance of 268 miles, held in January each year.  Since 2012 the race has grown in popularity – places for the 2023 race sold out in a matter of minutes, and the field is now several hundred strong.  As well as the now iconic full Spine Race, there are several shorter variants, including the Spine Challenger South (108 miles from Edale to Hawes), Spine Challenger North (160 miles from Hardraw to Kirk Yetholm), and the Spine Sprint (46 miles from Edale to Hebden Bridge).

The kit list for the race is extensive and detailed, running to 25 sides of A4.  The kit includes sleeping bag and mat, bivvy bag, stove and cooking equipment, handheld GPS, multiple items of spare clothing, and much much more.  For safety, all competitors are required to carry a GPS tracker which monitors their location on the route.  Competitors’ progress is shown in real time on a map on the official race website, with each competitor shown as a small circle on the map, which can be monitored by friends and family (known as “dot watching”).

Although I have been taking part in ultras since 2014, I had always maintained that I would never take part in the winter Spine race.  To me, the Pennine Way has always been a route to be walked in summer, as a holiday, with views to be enjoyed.  What was the point in attempting it in winter when it would be dark for two thirds of the time?!  However, after a week’s dot-watching in January 2022, the Spine’s lure became too much.  The race had me in its grip, my credit card was out, and somehow, I found I had entered the 2023 Spine Challenger South.

Fast forward 12 months and I find myself standing in a muddy field in Edale, with a heavy (7.5 kg) pack on my back and 108 miles in front me.  I’d travelled to Edale the previous afternoon for a rigorous kit check, staying overnight at the youth hostel in Edale.  I’d not had a good night’s sleep – I generally don’t sleep well before a big race, and it wasn’t helped by the intermittent humming coming from the heating pipes, which continued throughout the night – on, off, on, off….

All too soon, we were off.  I had decided to start at the very back of the pack, and set off power hiking, with the aim of maintaining a comfortable core body temperature, rather than overheating and subsequently getting cold.  Soon we were climbing Jacob’s Ladder on to the Kinder plateau.  The weather at this stage was as forecast – cold, wet, and windy, although on the positive side there were some breaks in the rain, and the temperature was well above freezing – meaning ice was not a concern.  Further along the plateau at Kinder Downfall the River Kinder was flowing fast and deep, wading across my knee length waterproof socks just about kept my feet dry.  A navigational error just after Sandy Heys where I headed SW instead of NW cost me 50m of lost altitude which had to be regained.

After around 3.5 hours I reached the Snake Pass and headed on up Bleaklow.  After Devil’s Dike conditions underfoot became increasingly wet.  At this point I was moving quite slowly but enjoying the mental challenge of navigating the optimal course through the peat groughs, trying to keep my feet as dry as possible (to avoid or delay any foot problems later).  The section of path above Torside Clough is not one of my favourites, and I was glad to get to the roadside near Torside Reservoir.  Although support crews are not permitted in the race, it is acceptable for family and friends to meet you at one or two points to cheer you on.  Reaching the MRT support point, Joanna was waiting for me, which gave me a big emotional lift.

The next section was over Black Hill.  The weather had improved, with clearer skies and lower winds, and even a patch of blue sky.  The clear air and light provided some great late afternoon views back towards Bleaklow.  Reaching Crowden Great Brook, it was no surprise to find it in spate, and I took full advantage of my local knowledge here, knowing the best places to ford and re-ford, which enabled me to move up the field by 4 or 5 places.  During this section I was overtaken by the leader of the Spine Sprint race, Jon Shield, who finished the 40 miles to Hebden Bridge almost an hour ahead of the second placed runner.

By the time I reached the summit of Black Hill the daylight was fading fast, and I put on my head torch. The next few miles of the route went quite quickly, home ground, along slabs and the good path down the Wessenden valley.   Soon I was at the next MRT support point at Brun Moor just off the A62, but I didn’t stop this time.  Since Black Hill, the weather had deteriorated significantly, with a strengthening cross wind and intermittent hail and sleet.  As I crossed Standedge, the wind really picked up, making for arduous progress, and this was to remain the case all the way to Stoodley Pike, some 13 miles away.  The section along Warland Reservoir was particularly difficult, being directly exposed to the full force of the wind for the full length of the reservoir with no natural or man-made features to provide any shelter.  All that was visible was a narrow tunnel of light from my headtorch, at times obscured by a haze of white dots, when the hail squalls set in.

It was a relief to finally reach Stoodley Pike, where I turned right and descended to Charlestown in the Calder Valley, and escape from the wind.  The next few miles I know well from frequent weekend runs, and it didn’t feel long before I was descending to the first official checkpoint at Hebden Hey – although I was at this point several hours behind my planned schedule.  I arrived at Hebden Hey (46 miles) at around 2.30am, 19 hours after starting – I had hoped to get there in 15 hours.  The volunteers at the checkpoint were brilliant – I was made to feel like I was being singled out for the best treatment, but I am pretty sure every athlete felt the same.  In total I spent around 4 hours in the checkpoint, with a full change of clothes (from my drop bag), a hot meal of shepherd’s pie, and a couple of hours sleep in a bunk bed.

In the morning I was not the only runner struggling to leave the warmth and comfort of the checkpoint.  Setting off in the dark, I made my way back up to rejoin the Pennine Way.  The weather at this point was little better than the previous night, with a strong cold wind and hail showers stinging my face. After a tough section over Heptonstall Moor, I made my way to the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs.  Here, the sky cleared, the wind dropped, and suddenly it was a lot warmer.  Over past Top Withens and Stanbury Moor, I was amused to see the yellow flags put out for the Stanbury Splash fell race, which I had run the previous year.  Had I been one hour later, I would have found myself in the middle of that race!


The crossing of Ickornshaw Moor is regarded as one of the toughest sections of the Challenger South, being very wet and boggy.  It certainly was wet today, and I was very glad to be crossing it in daylight.  From Ickornshaw Moor the route descends to Cowling and over to Lothersdale.  At Lothersdale a marquee had been set up by the Craven Energy Triathlon Club to provide support to runners (with the agreement of the race organisers).  As I approached, I was approached by a volunteer, who stated she would take me into the tent and get me settled.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to “get settled” (I was supposed to be in a race after all, and it was only midafternoon!) but was too tired to argue.
After some chicken noodle soup with bread and salted potatoes, and a 15-minute power nap, I made my way up to Pinhaw Beacon.  Reaching the road running down from Pinhaw Beacon, Joanna and my Mum and Dad were waiting for me, it was great to see them there.

Shortly after descending from Pinhaw, night fell for the second time, and I made my way across lowland fields to Gargrave.  From Gargrave to Malham the route continues at a low level, much of it along the infant River Aire.  I had expected this to be a relatively easy section, but nothing was further from the truth.  The fields were waterlogged and muddy, and progress was slow.  At one stage I somehow lost a soft flask into a fast-flowing stream, my reactions were too slow to retrieve it, and I watched in vain as it floated away downstream.  At another point I missed a bridge and became very disorientated, wandering around in circles, I suspect following my own footsteps for a while.  Finally, I made another navigational error, and ended up stuck in a field corner with barbed wire fences to the left and in front, and a steep embankment on the right.  In hindsight, I was suffering very badly from sleep deprivation on this section.

Reaching Malham at around 11:20 pm on Sunday night (nearly 40 hours after starting), I felt broken and ready to retire.  However, after 20 minutes’ rest and a chat with a Spine safety team who were parked up in the village, I decided to carry on to the next checkpoint at Malham Tarn Field Centre.  The checkpoint at Malham Tarn is a “monitoring station”, competitors are limited to a 30-minute stop, but there would be a chance to sit down inside, with hot drinks available.

Arriving at the checkpoint I still felt unsure if I had the reserves to continue, but a 10-minute power nap and a strong cup of coffee left me feeling much stronger, and I wasn’t to look back from this point.  The weather had steadily improved through the day and was now quite benign with a very low wind.  I made my way up Fountains Fell in a still cocoon of mist illuminated by the beam of my headtorch.  Eventually as I climbed higher, I emerged out of the mist to a clear moonlit sky.

Further on, halfway up Fountains Fell I was overtaken by the leaders of the full Spine Race, Damian Hall, who would go on to win the full Spine Race, and Kim Collison.  It was humbling to think I had left Edale a full 24 hours before these super beings.  Later, as I climbed higher, the ground froze, and I found myself walking on a layer of snow and ice.  The grip provided by my Hokas was adequate, though care was needed on the descent.  Also on this section, sleep deprivation kicked in again, and I found myself suffering from sleep monsters (hallucinations) quite badly, mainly seeing animals and people appearing from the stones and in the mist ahead.

The next climb was Pen-y-ghent, and I took the precaution of putting my microspikes on over the summit cone.  Although usually it’s an easy scramble that I’ve done countless times before, I wasn’t taking any chances in my sleep-deprived state, with a thin layer of snow covering the rocks.  The summit seemed to come relatively quickly, but the descent seemed to take forever, especially that final rocky track down into Horton-in-Ribblesdale.
At Horton-in Ribblesdale there was a final support point, provided by the Craven Pothole Club headquarters.  Feeling refreshed after a cup of tea and a pot noodle, I set off on the last leg just after 9:30 in the morning.  This left me 10 hours to complete the final 15 miles within the 60-hour cut-off point, I felt this was easily achievable, but had no intention of dawdling at this stage.  I left Horton with a group of 4 other Spine Challengers.  Their pace was slightly faster than my own, briskly pulling me along for a few miles until Old Ing, when they pulled ahead out of sight.  The section along the Cam High Road was glorious, with a clear blue sky and snow-covered fells.  Along this long straight section, with no other runners in sight, it was all too easy to forget I was in a race, it felt more like a weekend hike in the hills.

Eventually I arrived at Ten End, where the Pennine way leaves the Cam High Road for the descent to Hawes.  As I made my way down, I made up a place, passing one of the group of four from Horton, who, although in good shape, was struggling with the icy conditions underfoot.  Carefully negotiating the icy roads and pavements of Hawes, I emerged onto the Market Place and the finish at the Market House, where I was presented with my medal.  The post-race support was excellent, with a hot meal and a doctor on hand to check that everyone was okay.

My time was 55 hours, 44 minutes, in 44th place out of 50 finishers.  Only 40% of those starting the race made it to the finish line.  Most of those who retired did so within the first 24 hours, due to the, at times, atrocious weather conditions on the Saturday.


David Milton,


Full Results Here



Start line, Edale

Descending to Torside

Pinhaw Beacon

Cam High Road

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