‘Britain’s Most Brutal’ Stephs Spine Blog


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!

The Crux

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.

My why

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!

Mind Yourself: www.givey.com/stephmike
Cave Rescue Organisation: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/crospine

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/ –

The Fellsman – a cavers foray into fellrunning


ARIO DREAM Wins Peoples Choice Award at KMF

The Ario Caves Project is delighted to share with you that the film, the ARIO DREAM, won the ‘Peoples Choice Award’ at the 2017 Kendal Mountain Festival.

From Left to Right, Paul Diffley (Filmmaker), Mike Bottomley (ACP Co-leader), KMF rep & Steph Dwyer (ACP Co-leader)

The film, made my Paul Diffley of Hot Aches Productions, follows the 2016 and 2017 expeditions in their quest to connect Europe’s deepest cave, as cave divers Paul Mackrill and Tony Seddon attempt to pass the downstream sump at -650m in the cave known as C4 in Spain.

The expedition team and the countless cavers that have been involved in these expeditions for over 50 years are absolutely elated.

The final graphic of the ARIO DREAM film, the list of all the cavers involved in the 50+ years of exploration.

The film featured in 5 events over the weekend and it’s premier was the first event at the festival to sell out, prompting a second screening to be added raising funds for the Cave Rescue Organisation. Over 400 tickets were sold at KMF events. In addition, the Ario Dream was shown as part of the “Best of Kendal”, with a further screening also held on Sunday at the Rheged Centre near Penrith. In total, is it thought that over 1,000 people saw the film over the course of the weekend.

Filmmaker Paul Diffley looking happy with his trophy after a long weekend

For those of you gutted to miss out, there will be further showings as the ARIO DREAM tours adventure festivals and events world wide, so stay tuned on here.

But for those of you who simply cannot wait The ARIO DREAM film is now available for download at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ariodream


Ario cavers attempt 108 mile ultra for charity

Steph and Mike, the leaders of the Ario Caves Project are attempting the Montane Spine MRT Challenger, a 108 mile ultra endurance race. It starts in Edale in the Peak district and follows the Pennine Way over the fell tops to Hardraw in the northern Yorkshire Dales. The race starts on Sat the 13th of January 2018 and they will have 60 hours to complete it, however only 20 of those hours will be light! 

They are hoping their experience of expedition caving, spending days at a time in total darkness will offer some little advantage. They are the furthest possible thing from elite runners but are attempting this crazy race in the depths of winter for two charities – their own Cave and Mountain Rescue Team – CRO  and the brilliant mental health charity – Mind Yourself

So please donate here, every £1 helps those in need:

Cave Rescue Organisation: CLICK HERE

Mind Yourself:  CLICK HERE

Mental Wellbeing is something very dear to Steph’s heart as she has just finished her MSc in Psychology and conducts research into Mental Wellbeing and the health inequalities that hinder this. The Irish in Britain are the subject of significant health inequalities and subsequently have some of the poorest wellbeing in Britain. Mind Yourself provide support and help to all whom need it. Please mind yourself and others by donating.  


More info about the Spine race CLICK HERE

Thank you so much for your support and belief, we really appreciate it.



On the 2nd of July 2017, Tony Seddon of Starless River surfaced in upstream 2/7 aka Cave of the Witches Eye after a 140m exploratory dive at over 30m depth, resulting in a historic connection between Sistema Verdelluenga (C4) and 2/7.   The note seen above is the survey note left by Hilary Greaves and Lynn Cooper at the upstream limit of their surveying in 2/7 in 2000. They fixed it to a cairn hoping that one day a cave diver might surface out of the blue pool before them, leaving footprints in the history of time, yet again. 

Over 30 years of hard work by Oxford University Cave Club and more recently the Ario Caves Project has finally come to fruition, and the Ario Dream of Europe’s deepest cave is one step closer to being realised.  The C4-2/7 cave system alone has jumped from 191th in the world to 140th with the combined system now being 905m deep. When this system is connected to the higher cave F64, which is getting ever closer now, the system will increase to 990m deep. The final but not trivial piece of the puzzle will be the connection of the Ario Master System (F64-C4-2/7) to its resurgence cave Culiembro flowing out into the Cares Gorge, culminating in a world class depth of well over 1,700m.  

These successes have involved a tremendous amount of back breaking work and dedication from a large number of exceptional cavers, all of whom do this out of their own pocket for ‘fun’ on their ‘holidays’.  This year was the 3rd year of exploring, the 3rd year of lugging heavy, bulky, life dependent dive equipment down and out of a 600m+ deep cave, to make the connection. The first two years of exploration in the sump, named Special Agent Sea, were carried out by cave diver Paul Mackrill and succeeded by Tony Seddon in 2017. 

The ACP 2017 Team were: Ben HudsonRich Hudson, Reuben Harding, Stephen MacnamaraClaire DunphyMark SimsPhil BakerKeith MasonStuart WestonSarah LeannFleur LoveridgePaul Diffley of Hot Aches ProductionsEoghan MullanTony SeddonDave OttewellHelen Blyth, Marcus Evans, Jock ReadDuncan Simey – Expedition Photographer, Adam Walmsley, Martin Hoff, Aileen BrownAxel Hack – Expedition Photographer, Sara GregsonRichard GregsonJoanne WhistlerMike Bottomley and Steph Dwyer

This is a very significant piece of history for the Ario Caves Project and we were very privileged to have this year and last years expedition captured on camera by Hot Aches Productions director Paul Diffley. The feature length film is likely to be premiered at this years Kendal Mountain Festival the weekend of the 16th to 19th of November 2017.  

Exploration at the upstream end of the system is still ongoing, with another major success in finding the way on in Tinkle Tankle passage, which issues the bulk of the water and a powerful draught. Two further leads were pushed up an inlet yet to be named, one of which yields cave of impressive proportions and the Sanctuary aid climb ‘the Cult’ was climbed for over 75 meters with passage visible above. We will give further updates on all the upstream exploration once we have finished fettling the survey data. Watch this space.

So, 2017 has been particularly good for the Ario Caves Project   More photos and the film trailer to come.

Ario Caves Project 2017 with AlpkitDMM Climbing, Starless RiverHot Aches Productions & Bosch Global

Our supporters are: ScurionLyon EquipmentTaylors of HarrogateExpedition FoodsMunchy SeedsBattle OatsAventure Verticale, Extreme Foods, PentaxYorkshire TeaTunnock’sFESPA, Bradford Pothole Club, Craven Pothole Club.

Our social media: https://www.facebook.com/ArioCavesProject/



The Fellsman – a cavers foray into fellrunning


It’s mad the crossroads one comes to in life. It first came into my mind in 2015 to try a fell race up the stunning Ingleborough, the hill I looked out onto daily from home. Being a long-standing caver and lover of the hills I was well aquatinted with steep hills but in wellies as opposed to runners. I remember chatting to my friend Ems who was already a member of the Settle Harriers telling me “once your comfortable running 5 miles without stopping you should deffo join”, “they’re a great bunch”. Without stopping I thought, shit I’d better get my ass in gear, but when you’ve never really run with anyone bar your Cumbrian born 6ft6” partner its very hard to get much perspective of your ability. So I didn’t summon the courage to join and I’d have backed out of the 7m Ingy race if it wasn’t for Carmel and Timsy dragging my ass out the door.  Miraculously I didn’t come last and the following week I got a call from the infamous ‘Sharon McDonald’ congratulating me on my first fell race and wanting to meet up. I couldn’t believe someone could be so helpful and encouraging to a total beginner and over the year with tips and help from many of the harriers my little legs and ankles grew stronger. Now, I’d been toying with the crazy notion of doing the 3 peaks but my MSc got severely in the way of that and I lost any bit of confidence that I’d make the cut off’s, so in typical caver logic the Fellsman was Mike and I’s fallback option.  

Long, grim, overnight endeavours us cavers are well adapt to. So we weighted up the options, the three peaks would have to be light and fast but the Fellsman gave us 30 hours to crawl to the bitter end and the heavier bags were negligible to the loads we’d been carrying on multi-day, subterranean expeditions. At least on the Fellsman we could step into the unknown charters of walking long distance, we could even fail, a luxury not afforded to cavers deep underground. Maybe this cavers sense of commitment might distract us from opting out when completely f=cked in the depths of Fleet Moss. If nothing else it was easier on the ego to fail on a 60mile outing than a 24miler. So we signed up but didn’t speak much of it.  

So I’ve set the scene I am no seasoned, or experienced fell runner but you might find some of my strategies and learning curves at least hilarious if not useful. The most important learning point is that if I can do it, you bloody well can. All you need is an abundance of madness 🙂 It should be noted that the comparisons I make are with total novice fell runners not the seasoned nuts out there, thou I would hasten to remind one that it always best to do comparisons in that direction as one tends to fair out better giving you the brass neck to attempt these crazy things.

Some psychologists say the secret to happiness is low expectations and that deffo maintained our spirits on our first Fellsman in 2016. Every mile we did over 24 (the longest we’d ever trained), however slow, we marvelled at. It took us 26 hours but our sleep deprivation was overridden by the elation of making it past the 40mile mark, even if it meant crossing the ‘will to live wharp’ that is Fleet Moss and Middle tongue. Fellsman 1st timers never ever underestimate the academically flat trudge that is Middle tongue. Feck the steep hills, at least your hard work gives you some sense of feedback. From now on the checkpoint on the far side formally known as Hells Gap will forever be known in my mind as Hells teeth – a far more appropriate name!  A disadvantage of low expectations, however, comes into play when being grouped. Grouping which is the non-negotiable bane of the non-elite runners life on the fellsman, can be somewhat minimised. 1st rule of grouping (if you care about your time) is go with the first group your assigned to. We got originally grouped in 2016 with what looked like fit joggers at Redshaw ~30m in, suffering from a major case of imposter syndrome and not wanting to cost them their fellsman we declined and waited for the next bunch. We weren’t out for a ‘time’ but our laid back attitude resulted in a group of 8 people! Which brings me to the 2nd rule – Never agree to this, rules state you can go as a 4! 4 is more than enough because even if it’s a team of the 8 best and loveliest fellrunners, the variability in the peaks, troughs, shoe lace ties, pee stops etc of 8 different people results in vastly increased waiting times compared to a equivalent group of 4. It didn’t matter to us in 2016, in fact it was the people that really made it for us but this year I couldn’t do Fleet Moss in the depths of the night again and when I seen 8 numbers on our grouping sheet I hit the roof. Much to the dismay of the other poor sods who got grouped with us and after some assertive arguing (this delay of ~20mins was not deducted from our time I may add) we set off with the far more amenable size of 5. All miraculously people I knew, who were savage craic and whom I considered to be far superior, even ‘real’ fellrunners. And holy shit I was keeping up.

Now, this is where a no technique, slow arse like me can keep up with the likes of Emma, Gavin and Brett, I never keep up with Mike he just has to come home with me and therefore spares himself the headpeck later over leaving me behind LOL. We knew and trained on the route, we elucidated the most fabulously efficient line across the whole thing and downloaded it to our fancy dancy watches via a GPX file generated between strava wankers.com and viewranger. We had the route so precise that we literally did 60.2 miles across the whole course. That precision made such a difference that we overtook a group of faster runners who were initially well ahead of us on fleet moss whilst moving slower. Now if you don’t mind me indulging here but that smugness is stuff of gold in that god forsaken bog, and after that we overtook 5 more groups before we were home. The fellsman route holds a lot of sentimental value to me as it is a traverse of the finest limestone in the dales and within it are the hidden gems I moved here to explore. Advantage no 2, if you want to shift the prospect of something from hard to still hard but relatively not as bad, try caving LOL nothing else in the world seems so bad anymore. I was genuinely surprised that walking to these caves in wellies and often in the dark did offer its advantages, if marginal, but clasp onto any positive thing you can as no matter how many miles you’ve run, even if fast. It’s your head and how you view what you’re doing that makes all the difference. And be disciplined with your thoughts, be eternally and completely irrationally positive. Break it down and enjoy all the little steps, rejoice every few miles you succeed and only count the miles completed never the miles ahead. My mantra when feeling low is to remember and its true in life as in fell races – nothing lasts forever, not even death 😉 There were times when my burning acid indigestion and nausea were so relentlessly gnawing that I thought it might have gotten the better of me but I would choose to focus on something better like slagging Mike off, singing god awful tunes or laughing at my misfortune on the Kingsdale decent when I ended up waist deep in a bog on the driest fellsman in what must be a decade.  You’d never predict it but I felt a lot better on the second half than the first so keep going!

Something else like many other women that I am afforded is the ability to pace myself. My pacing is often ruled by my staggeringly low self-esteem at times and strange inability to not overtake those whom I see as better than me but I want to say a few words about the comparison between doing the Fellsman across 26 (2016) and 19.5 (2017) hours and offer up some food for thought. In a highly unscientific hypothesis, when controlling for things like training, I’d really trained this year, e midst a bout of bad asthma and a sprained ankle robbing me of about 5 weeks, that far back in the pack moving faster is easier. By the time we got to Fleet Moss this year we had gently jogged most of the flats and downs. It was a lot more energy intensive and much to my dismay obliterated any idea of peeing sat down – holy shit those cramps were epic. No matter how bursting you are ladies, don’t rush it. It would seem hip flexors after that much movement in one direction aren’t going to be so cooperative with a swift change of direction hehehe. Oh the irony of those low profile portaloo’s, I thought to myself what luxury compared to a caving expedition. Jesus at least after hours of rope climbing one can still crouch down, I warn you those things are not intended for joggers!

Nevertheless, getting to Fleet Moss in the light and Cray after only 14 hours does make for an easier time. At least when jogging or shuffling which it usually is by then, the brain is still pouring out happy chemicals, you’re going to be shagged and hurting by then anyhow so you might as well get it behind you faster. The other point is that you’re not having to fight major sleep deprivation and your spending less time in the melatonin dozed nightime. So before you get overwhelmed with the distance ahead, all those scary stats and reduce to a stumble, at least first try 10 mins jogging and 10 limping before you give up. You’d be surprised how efficient you get those miles behind ya.

Before I finish my long brain fart I just want to rave about Phil Ward who works out of Giggleswick and the legendary Victoria Wilkinson who works out of Skipton, whom I went to for massage and rehab with my bad ankle. I really didn’t think I was going to make a fast enough recovery for the Fellsman and without them all this pain and suffering wouldn’t have been possible. The odds were stacked against me so this is why when I ended up sick with a chesty cough and sore throat 2 days before the Fellsman I did it anyways. Thank you so much Clare for being my chauffeur – hugs. I really wouldn’t recommend doing that to your immune system, I was bed ridden for 2 days afterwards and I’m still struggling to breath normally after a week of oral steroids. But for me, just this once, it was worth it for the euphoria. And finally to my partner Mike and my group Gavin, Emma and Brett. I know I was so jolly on the outside but I was suffering like hell at times inside but the savage craic we had amply distracted me 🙂 Settle Harriers thank you so much.

Oh and beware amply endowed ladies, vest style fell bags give you a mahoosive uniboob and over 60 miles those buggers rub. Ouch-ey, I never expected a bigger blister on my boobs than on my heel 🙂

The Fellsman is a 61mile/100k, (with 11,00ft of ascent) traverse of the Yorkshire Dales, the event is organised and run entirely by volunteers from Keighley Scouts and their friends. The staff and the whole operation is incredible and the banter between the staff and participants is said by many to be a highlight of the event. It’s really great to think that the small fee you pay is being reinvested into the adventurers of the future. Check out https://www.fellsman.org.uk/?page_id=20, for more info.

 – Steph Dwyer 5/5/2017

A side note about FEET

Last year every one of my 10 toes went black and it was a case of trying to find some foot beneath the layers of god awful blisters. I have really suffered with my feet, and chronically tight calf’s so I thought I’d share the recipe that has finally worked for me.

Inov8 X-claw, Skins compression socks, a very thin anklet sock and I cannot rave enough about CushNstep insoles. I had a looooong list of complaints but I never once wanted to tuck into my emergency stash of drugs cause my feet miraculously didnt ache! I brought spare insoles and socks but never needed to change em. Those do not look like feet that have done 60 miles, so there ya go there’s hope for us all, as for my poor chest and throat………


Ario in the Sunday Times

A superb 6 page feature in the Sunday Times magazine of 5th March 2017.

Written by Ario veteran David Rose it covers Paul Mackrill’s dive in Special Agent Sea, discovery of The Sanctuary and writes enthusiastically about the Ario Dream.
It’s a wonderful bit of writing and well worth a read!


The online version is behind a paywall, but you can still get to read it for free. Click on the Get Access button and you will be offered complimentary access to two articles every week. You will need to register your email address, but it is worth it!

The Women of Ario

Steph Dwyer has written an article about the contribution made by women to the Ario Caves Project.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the spirit of Feminism and in celebration of International Women’s Day I wanted to write a few words to highlight the significant and inspiring contribution that women have made to cave exploration in Ario. In doing so I will mention some of the great characters whom have inspired me to be better than I dreamed, whom have lifted me up and forward, in the hopes of passing this empowerment onto the young ladies beside me.

Read more…. (101Kb)