Context is everything
It’s mid-January 2017, allegedly the most depressing weekend of the year and I’m sat in the Penyghent Café. It’s 2am and I’m dressed in my red Mountain and Cave Rescue jacket volunteering for the Spine Race because I’m curious, like those who rubber neck on a car accident, to witness, and console the poor bastards partaking in this extraordinarily grim act of self-harm. I watch with grimace one poor carcass after another hobble, some near collapse into the Café, near a hundred miles into their “hobby”, and think my god I would never ever choose to do that to myself. It looked horrific in every possible way, the distance (over 108, often more like 118 mile), the season (winter on the Pennines, so always grim, & mostly in darkness), the terrain (churned up to f…. god forsaken bogs), not to mention the big heavy bags (10+kg for the mere mortals not able to buy space gear). As I watched them suffer, a shudder of relief trickled down my spine, never before had dry, blisterless feet, and an absence of chaffing up my ass been so consciously savored.
Over the following months I really enjoyed training for the far more sensible and pleasurable Fellsman, 60 tough but crackin miles across caving country, it went well and despite my mediocre time with tonsillitis I was miraculously 8th woman. So, what’s next, asked a friend so innocently? “You should do the MRT Challenger”, “why in the love of god would I want to do that”, I proclaim with a misplaced laughter, as if like I wasn’t totally capable of being stupid enough to sign up for something like that! No seriously, you’d be perfect for it. You’re an expedition caver, you’re well used to grim, multi-day, sleep deprived “holidays” carrying ridiculously heavy and unerognomical weights. You’re made for it. I changed the subject, but it was too late, the seed had been sewn and after a few glasses of wine I mentioned the ridiculous suggestion, in gest!, to my partner Mike. He astonishingly agreed, then laughing reassured me that it was something he’d never want to do, “I’ll support you” he said, bloody male feminists, you know this equality larky isn’t all it’s cracked up to be 😉 I mean look what trouble it can get you into. Long story short, some day in Sept of 2017 we both received an acceptance letter for an act of pure insanity – the Spine MRT Challenger.
Doubt & Action
As I type this my new all-time fav song is playing, First Aid Kits’ – Silver Lining, as I belt out the line, ‘be it for reason, be it for love, I won’t take the easy road’, something resonances with my soul. I suppose Callum was right I did “specialise in that sort of suffering” but even this seemed terrifying to an expedition caver. I was so conflicted. I’m sure if I went to a doctor and described my symptoms I’d have been offered any combination of psychoactive/tranquiliser drugs I wanted. I felt so extraordinarily out of my depth, the longest race id ever done was 63 miles, in Spring, only half the distance louring over me and with a comparatively light backpack. I hated Sharon ferociously for suggesting it to me,
what was I thinking?
“But you must have known somehow inside that you could do it, otherwise you wouldn’t have signed up” replies Mike to my terror, tear filled eyes. I take it on board but continue fettling my gear, thinking through every single detail of the race and my kit through the eyes of an utter perfectionist.
My race no., the label of madness for passers by
Not unlike a committing deep caving trip or cave dive, there was much to consider for this race. It was in winter after all, where the weather could be ferocious and unforgiving to the ill prepared. A little over sight or detail forgotten could have yielded much needless suffering and inconvenience. I mean what if I didn’t attach the Velcro right to my homemade bottle holder, it would bug me for not 20 or 30 miles but 118 miles. On a more serious note, in biteingly cold weather a wet glove and seriously cold hands, or the wrong sock choice could of cost you your race. I could endure fierce pain but not my own self-induced inefficiency. Preparation was everything! I chanted mantras like ‘nothing lasts forever, not even death’ and with a magnifying glass I massaged and soothed every niggle. I made lists and spreadsheets and got gear and advice from so many amazing friends. I cheered my bag up with colourful laces and embroidery and even put reflective strips on Mike and I’s bag in case the wind, rain and fog made it impossible to talk and easily see each other but nothing gave me ease.
Was I daring greatly or being a fanciful fool and was this going to culminate in an excruciatingly public failure. Gosh, I even berated myself for caring. I was supposed to be using this as a fundraiser but I couldn’t bring myself to ask people to give money to something I had no idea if I could do. I had more than enough bloody-minded determination, but maybe this distance was beyond the mind? Oh, but isn’t this often-what women do, doubt themselves, shy away. How could I moan about their only being 3 other ladies in this race when I didn’t believe in myself? So in the sung words of Gemma Hayes “I ran for miles to see what I was made of”. Despite barely sleeping the night before I was hungry to go, to immerse myself in that curiosity, so much so that I felt emancipated from the crippling doubt when finally, my feet hit those Pennine slabs. I was metaphorically at the bottom of a very deep cave, the only way to live was to make it out! There was no other option now.
Summit Fever Media Click here for: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 10
The journey not the destination
Mike smiled at me as I said, “aren’t we so lucky to get to share this with the person we love”. I go all fuzzy with gratitude but it’s quickly replaced with doubt as everyone jogs past us heading for Jacobs ladder. “Stay disciplined Steph” I say out loud to my cold stiff legs. I had no business getting swept up with them athletes, besides I’d made a pact with the auld legs that if I took care of them, and I promised solemnly I would, that they were to take care of me today, oh and tomorrow too and err probably Monday as well. I’m laughing even typing this now, it’s insane! “Shit” what sort of mind game needed conjuring now to neutralise that smack of reality.
Labour, I thought, women have seriously been in labour, in severe, all encompassing, exhausting, sleep deprived pain for longer than this race and then had to……. and after that, no, not recovery or medals, they take care of a baby and not sleep right for another few years. If women are designed to do that, they can bloody well jog and walk for a few days and nights in the hills. Mike nods in agreement, if a little paler for my description but spurred on we start to overtake a few panting Spiners before smiling for the cheery folk of Summit Fever Media and Racing Snakes.
Only 110 miles to go! Beaming on Jacobs Ladder
Once we warmed up, we alternated brisk walking and gentle jogging and before we knew it we were into the god forsaken bog that is Bleaklow and Black Hell, sorry I mean Hill. Bleak, black and low provoke apt imagery for this hell hole but I was armed psychologically and physically for this section. We knew what was coming and it was god awful, last time we barely seen the Pennine way for the raging waters and had to alternate between wading deep heather and thigh high torrents. Today though all was calm and that was the beginning of what was to be 80 odd glorious miles, miles of awe and immense elation. Awe at the comparative ease with which we burned through the miles unrecognisable to the utter nail biting, exhausting conditions we’d trained in. Awe at the fact I was enjoying myself, at ease, that my back or neck or arch hadn’t started playing up yet, that we were well and truly ALIVE 🙂 Honestly, I really am an advocate for invoking in yourself terror via imagining the worst possible scenario’s cause when it’s not near as bad as you were expecting, it gives you euphoria.
At the top of black hill, happy as Larry
Bam, what is possible radically changes
There I was shuffling along belting out Alisha Keys, this girl is on FIRE…. and we meet some mountain rescue friends who throw a load more endorphins into the gennie by telling me we were nowhere near the back and that I was first MRT lady. I couldn’t believe it, I was just chuffed to be still thriving at the back. All of a sudden, my whole world changed, what was possible and what I was going to do about it. I don’t know what felt better, my elation, Mikes happiness for me or the fact that the people around me had so much faith. I had never been in this position before so I made sure to savor it, every last moment I had of it. It was early days after all and night was soon to come.
I'm still in shock, is that really my name?
Everybody talked about how hard the night(s) would be and time would soon tell if our experience spending days at a time, dragging diving bottles, sleep deprived in the darkness of caves would pay off. It definitely did, but it was different and it still felt a lot harder than the equivalent miles and night spent on the Fellsman. What was remarkable was that the craic and banter were utterly different. Once night fell, the equally awesome folk of the Challenger weren’t as light hearted and jovial, even I the eternal night time singer and running entertainer extraordinaire, fell sometimes quietly into the fear. Even though the miles thus far (45 odd) were technically speaking easier than the Fellsman, there lay the weight of two sleepless nights, 100 odd miles and looming blizzards on the shoulders of those who dared delve into the night.
Nevertheless, we got to Hebden Hey tired but buzzing, and to our surprise under no doubts that we weren’t stopping to sleep. We’d agonised over what to do here in the weeks before as it was our only opportunity to sleep indoors. How would we know, we’d never run this distance before, what if we couldn’t sleep, what if we didn’t and regretted it later? The answer in the moment was clear, throw some extra kit in the bag and get on with it. I had something to defend and for the first time in my life, I raced someone other than myself. Out of nowhere came this competitive streak and we left a really lovely lad who couldn’t keep up with us, behind. Something I felt really conflicted about. Now I wanted to win but just as importantly I wanted all of us to finish. That was something I felt so incredibly passionate about. I really wanted the record, a psychological barrier, to be smashed and I wanted for once more than one woman to finish this race. For crying out loud women were more than capable of this but with such stark statistics how were we going to entice more participation and belief! Where were they all I ranted at Mike, if I (little miss longest run in the past 6 months was 27 miles) can make it this far. I know he said, “I agree they need to believe in themselves and the lads need to babysit so they can get out there and train, guiltlessly”.
Bleary eyed coming into Cowling, the creatures were stirring but no sign of light
‘I won’t take the easy road’
Time and miles passed. I fell quiet. Mike feel quiet, probably relieved I’d finally shut up. The night deadened upon us. We kept our pace but it was getting harder and harder fighting the sleep monsters. Mike having only slept an hour the night before and not feeding off first-place fantasies sunk well and truly into the longest hardest wall he’d ever experienced. I distracted him as much as I could, knowing soon it would be my low, maybe in an hour or two, maybe tomorrow night. We pushed on, up over high Whithins, down past Pondon and over into what I call Bleakedy Bleak bog, what felt like the 2nd longest slog of the whole event. Despite being grateful for the visability to see the urban lights ahead, morning could not come soon enough and our successes thus far felt of little consolation. It was strange it seemed to be finding the first night so bloody hard, we’d done this loads of times before but it’s amazing the way of the mind and winter. I kept convincing us out loud, we’ll feel so much better for the light, it’s just our bodies last ditched attempt at protecting us from our insanity. Thankfully we were right and once the light crept in alongside the sleepy pub of Lothersdale, so did a new lease of life and practically a brand-new race to begin.
A new day, a new dawn…. and I’m feelin …. Fuzzy!
The next section is more of a blurr but the closer we made it to home, the more people we met cheering us on and the more it felt like the end was nigh. As a pain in the back of my leg started to moan the steps of Malham cove we’re miraculously a welcome reprieve from the mostly flat faster going miles behind us. I ached for a mountain I honestly did. I couldn’t wait for the familiar feel of Fountains Fell and PyG as we abbreviate it these parts. Big hills are my forte, my home and the relative flatness of the moors and slabs behind were nothing on the beauties that lay ahead but first Malham monitoring point. I decided to stop to tend to my leg and the little hot spot on my heel. The busy excellent exile medics were so friendly but during the 30 minutes waiting for my feet to be done, in an open, unheated room in an outhouse my body temperature insidiously plummeted. I set off pale as a sheet, shaky and seriously inhibited by the mild hypothermia and cognitive impairment of sleep deprivation.
Despite all the layers I put on me, the food in my gob, I couldn’t warm up and looking into the dark, blustery hills ahead I can honestly say I felt scared. But as my mantra says, nothing lasts forever, not even death and comforted by the reciting of some John O’Donohue poetry and a familiar face I was up and over Fountains Fell before I knew it, only to be boosted by an entourage of CRO Rescue vehicles and colleagues hurling tongue and cheek across the road. Phew, I felt better but my leg was starting to seriously cramp now. I was feeling wired and woozy but still strong on the ascent up PyG, all considering, but little did I know what lay ahead – the searing, agonising pain of my cavers knees playing up on the decent! It was tough and even harder to console myself for breaking my awesome steady pace thus far but my leg just wouldn’t play ball, it cramped again and again no matter what I ate or drank or snorted (I’m joking) and to make matters worse I seemed to develop some sort of UTI which meant I had to take my arse out in the pissings of rain repeatedly! “Gosh you women have it hard” said Mike with an outlaid arm for me to cling to.
Home turf. Buck up, no being rescued by my own!
We made it, what felt like years later to the PyG Café, having picked up what seemed like 100’s of friends along the way. I was home, in the bosom of what I moved here for. The heart of caving country, my bed was minutes away if I wanted but it never crossed my mind. I was heartened to the cheers as I hobbled into the same Café I sat cheering people on this time last year. I have tears in my eyes typing this. I never in a million years thought ‘I’ could make it that far, to be one of those extraordinary nutcases, falling in those doors, a 100 miles in…. the finish within sniffing distance. It means more than words could express and to think that self-doubt could of prevented me this opportunity to at least try.
We scoffed the most divine stew ever, believed a most suspiciously optimistic forecast and left another place we swore we’d rest and sleep. We were nearly there.
How wrong and lazy of me to think that!
What a near fatal mistake. I, Steph the psychologist not the athlete, got sloppy with the one thing I’d mastered – my mind and it led me into a despair that momentarily masked all that I’d already achieved and all that lay before me. All I had to do now was get back and I was the winner but I let myself feel it before I’d really earned it and my impatience during the last 10 miles caused me much avoidable misery. OK I shouldn’t be toooo hard on myself. I will acknowledge that the last 10 miles, the ones on top of the 108 printed on the t-shirt were super, super tough, the stuff the Spine is really made of. We were going 37 hours already with only 40 minutes in total sat down, and……. we were arm in arm been blown over in a truly epic blizzard.
Here’s where I let it slip though. I was continually cramping real bad and I was afraid of the consequences of getting immobilised on the unprotected Cam High road and I said to myself Steph, you’ll be back soon and I weakened into that. I should have dug deeper, lent into the pain and determination, not taken for granted the magnitude of what was left to do. Across my training 10, 20 miles had become nothing to me, but they’re still 20 miles especially when your knackered!! I let myself feel the extent of my tiredness, my pain, my desperation and even let myself moan. I got so miserable I almost lost it but thankfully among it all there was a moment, a sort of emancipating stumble into surrender.
There I was in the height of the buffeting snow laden winds, stumbling while contemplating pissing myself instead of exposing my already freezing, snow saturated arse AGAIN to the winds. Oh how I wished I’d had a storm shelter instead of a bivi bag to shield myself. But in my dithering I became desperate and in a flash of shame I shouted at Mike who can’t hear me for the wind, “help me”, furiously, like why he can’t read my mind, “pull my feckin knickers down, quick, before I piss myself”, my hands were in mitts and I was so shattered by self-pity and exhaustion, the trio of knickers, leggings and waterproofs were just too complicated 😊 You can imagine the scene, its the middle of the night, Mike all flustered trying to pull the knickers down of some cowering lass in the middle of a random path a few miles outside the home of Wallace and Gromit. Then the gust of wind comes, knocking me into the river of sleety mud, splattered head to toe in mud and shite, I crack my knee, and my leg cramps for the 100th time. Then comes the tantrum which is followed by the realisation that this is so ridiculous it will be absolutely hilarious when told in the warmth of the pub.
It was time to Woman up!
And so, we eventually made it, but in a way I didn’t cause the person who set off wasn’t the one who walked over the finish line.
This one, cracked open to a whole new radical interpretation of what’s Possible
Only an hour after the deed & my whole body was starting to swell, the 'tankles' on Mon were impressive!
Steph and Mike, were joint 6th overall and Steph was the only and hence 1st lady to finish in a time of 41 hours 52 minutes and took 5 hrs 39 mins of the existing ladies record.
Sarah Fuller an amazing mother who has finished the full 270 odd mile Spine said that you need to know, your why. As in the deepest darkest parts of your misery you might need it to hand.
Mine is: to prove to women that if I can do it, you bloody well can! But it would not have been the same without all the support, belief and encouragement I got from so many incredible friends, many impressive women athletes. Women need to receive those 3 things as much as the boys do because we know scientifically they really make a significant difference to participation and performance.
Thank you so frickin much to those who’ve changed my life.
I also did this in aid of two charities, the Cave Rescue Organisation for which I am an underground controller and the mental health charity, Mind Yourself, because we should!
Feet firmly back on the floor
Delighted ;-) pulling my gritty oversuit over achy limbs. Prepped for the 'beloved' de-rig.
A caving friend asked me, so is it the hardest thing you’ve ever done, how does it compare to your expedition caving? Well, there were glimpses at the end when it felt immense but it’s hard to compare the two. I’m no-where near as experienced a fell runner as an expedition caver, but what is for sure, it was as almost hard as some of some of the more challenging caving trips I’ve done or the time I had to self-rescue from deep within Pozu del Xitu with a few broken bones. But what is defiantly different, is after the climax of the ‘race’ aka when you exit the cave, you re-emerge into solitude, in my Ario context 1,800m up a harsh, pathless mountainside where you’ve to continue to survive and then prep yourself a few days later for another epic, totally uncelebrated detackling of the cave. That’s the difference and that’s what humbles me.
The two eejits at camp in Cave C4, some 350m down
I LOVE YOU MIKE and thank you for sharing this amazing journey with me.
For more info visit:
A life loved for an interview with me covering different aspects of the race, my strategy and training, me generally, women in sport and more, https://alifeloved.com/steph-dwyer-endurance-racer/ –