I have been privileged to coach David Riley for the majority of last year, including helping him prepare for his toughest challenge the MONTANE Spine Challenger. He very kindly shares his experience of running this year’s Spine Challenger as he lays it all bare of how tough the event is and how deep he had to dig to get to Hawes.

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Well it has been a week now and I think I am still on what they call the spine high.

It all started on the 9th January as I took on the biggest challenge of my life the spine challenger  – a 110 mile journey of the pennine way from Edale to Hawes…little did I know I was to face my biggest challenge of my life.

I remember seeing the spine race advertised when it first started and thinking to myself, this is well out of my reach. However, here I was, stood on the start line at 6.30am huddled together with fellow racers, head torchers burning, everyone feeling anxious but excited.

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All kitted up in my new gear, courtesy of True Mountain (True Mountain Minimus Smock and Sports Wool Beanie), I was ready for the off.

7am arrived and it began, starting near the front of the pack I wanted to get through the first section as quickly as possible to avoid being held back by all the gates.
My first stop was ‘Torside’, a very quick in and out job, conscious that every minute counts. We made our way across Laddow rocks, which has a brutal section of climbing and always gets me on the last pull up to the road crossing, cramp started setting in and I slowed my pace slightly.
I could see the skyline, people were lining up and cheering which is where I felt my first tears. Being huddled into the van with my team mate, Alistair, we tried to digest a cold tin of ravioli and coffee…and then we were off again.

Next stop, Harrop Dale. Feeling fresh we were in and out, didn’t really stop for refreshments this time as we wanted to push on to the next road crossing, White house.
Night was starting to creep in, I knew the next section would be a long and exposed part of the race and there was a high possibility of rain or even snow. Therefore, I decided put on my waterproof trousers – yet again supplied by True Mountain. These waterproof pants are phenomenal, they are so lightweight yet highly waterproof and pack down to the smallest of size. In fact when I had my kit check before the race, they had to check that they were in fact a waterproof pant!
Heading on into Heben Bridge, we had a nasty climb to Hebden hay scout hut where the first CP1 was based. Feeling cold and battered by the weather, we decided to have a full kit change to make us a little more comfortable. Very impressed with my trusty True mountain minimus smock – it had looked after me for 50 miles of the race in pretty changeable weather, I decided to swap to a more heavy weight jacket for the overnight stint.  The waterproof event trousers where still going strong, therefore these little beauties were staying on, my legs were dry and warm. My mates Montane minimus pants had given up though, which did surprise me and he was left with some very cold and wet legs.

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Setting off from CP1, I had in my head reaching Malham by sunrise in able to get a decent time and position. Unfortunately, when I reached Cowling the sleep deprivation was starting to kick in, falling asleep on and off in the van whilst my crew where shouting instructions at me – they pushed me on and before I knew it I was on my way again. On leaving the crew, snow was starting to fall, quite heavy, making navigation and visibility a quite awkward.
At one point we found ourselves in full white out conditions – leading up onto the last hill before Gargrave. This is where the doubt was starting to show and I was wondering if I could even complete this race. Glancing into the distance I could see Pen-y-Gent, which is about 45 miles away. I wasn’t sure I could get there. In and out of sleeplessness we finally reached Gargrave where we refuelled quite heavily which seemed to work and bring me round.

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Arriving at Malham, I was feeling strong and powered up Malham cove to malham tarn. Another hour we would be going into our second night, silly enough I forgot about Fountains Fell, this was a long nasty climb and seemed to go on for miles. Finally reaching the top, we were treated by a fantastic ascent dropping us to the base on pen-y-gent were we made good progress to the summit. It was on the way down my feet went, every footstep was extremely painful. At one point I thought about putting grass in my shoes to ease the pain! Never less I reached Horton and the final push to Hawes was underway …… it was this stretch that nearly finished me off.…… It was a 14 mile stretch mostly up hill.

Trying to push on with my feet was awful and yet again the sleep demons were after me again. This time I really didn’t feel like myself, feeling dizzy and a bit disoriented I started falling asleep again. I remember thinking to myself, who has dropped all of this litter in such a remote area, it was in fact snow! (I think this is where the hallucinations started kicking in), I just wanted to see some life, I started seeing houses on the trail that were not even there!

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Getting angry with myself, I set off sprinting for half a mile, eventually I collapsed in the snow in floods of tears – this is where I managed to bend one of my sticks by whacking it on the stones I was that cross. I needed to get rid of some of these demons, rubbing snow in my face brought me round slightly but the emotions were still running high. At some points, I just couldn’t stop myself from lying down, come on I thought!
As I saw the lights down in Hawes, I knew it was the last push and somehow found my last bit of energy to descend into the village. I have never been so happy to see buildings and people, we made our way towards the finish – the market hall, our final steps into the entrance hall and we had finally completed the UK’s toughest race!

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I can now say I have broken the Spine in 43 hours, coming joint 10th position with my team mates (Alistair and Shane) and 2nd senior. J

Well done to David for such an amazing story of not giving up, and here’s looking forward to the year ahead.