Pennine Bridleway Challenges

 The Pennine Bridleway is a 270km long trail from Derbyshire to Cumbria (the full length on the website includes two extra loops); it isn't as well known as the older and longer Pennine Way, but it runs through some spectacular countryside and deserves to be much better known than it is. Bridleways are open to horses (hence the name) and cyclists, but don't let this fool you, there are some tough sections on the Pennine Bridleway, where walkers struggle, much less horses and bikes.

The Pennine Bridleway Challenges are events organised by Ranger Ultras; the 270 covers the whole length of the trail and the 137 starts in Hebden Bridge and goes up to the end of the trail in Kirkby Stephen. I was due to run the 137km version this year, but pneumonia intervened and, instead, I spent four days supporting the race; this is the story...

The PB270 Challenge started on Wednesday morning. The runners assembled for registration at Hayfield in Derbyshire and were then driven down to Middleton Top for the start. After forty or so miles, they arrived back at Hayfield, which was the first checkpoint. 

At each checkpoint the runners' routine was more or less the same. They would have a warm drink, a hot meal and perhaps change their socks or some other item of kit. Sometimes they would take a rest - anything from a few minutes to a few hours sleep - though at Hayfield, not many people rested for long, because it was only (only?) forty miles in. Each runner had a drop bag, which included change of kit, extra trail food, washing gear, sleeping bag and mat and so on. 

I arrived at Hayfield early on Wednesday evening, just as the first runners started to come into the checkpoint. I didn't have a great deal to do at that point, but I tried to make myself useful by serving meals and asking the runners how their day had gone. My main responsibility was to run the third checkpoint at Settle in the Yorkshire Dales. This was 120 miles (200km) into the race and the last stop before the finish. Stu, who runs Ranger Ultras, briefed me on what I would need to do there, showed me the huge bags of supplies and various administrative things that I would need to deal with. 

Around 11.30pm I set off on the two hour drive to the second check point at Hebden Bridge. The car was full of supplies for the Settle checkpoint and drop bags for the runners who had already left Hayfield and would need them at Hebden. The Hayfield to Hebden stage was the longest one in the event, especially so as much of it would be covered overnight, but in a car it was relatively straightforward. 

I grabbed a few hours sleep at Hebden and in the morning, I dropped off the drop bags for Hebden, picked up the bags from the front runners who were already on their way to Settle and then stayed around long enough to see the runners on the PB137 set off. I then drove up to Settle, myself, and started to get the Control Point up and running in time for the first challengers to arrive.

The CP was in a scout hall, with plenty of open space, a good kitchen and a small area upstairs where people could spread out their roll mats and get a bit of shut eye, if they wanted. I arranged the table and chairs, so that people could sit and eat, and so there were plenty of places to for faffing (a universal term in ultra running) with their kit and get ready for the next stage. Compared to the luxurious fare on offer at some of the other checkpoints, the menu at Settle was fairly basic. A choice of pizza or baked potatoes with cheese and beans followed by rice pudding. There was limitless cups of tea and more chocolate bars and crisps than you could shake a stick at. The challenge was to have hot food available for the challengers as soon as they arrived. I kept a constant stream of half baked potatoes and semi cooked pizza available, so that as soon as people turned up, I could ask what they wanted and have it available as soon as they were ready for it. As they were arriving in ones and twos at varying intervals over about 30 hours, it was a delicate balancing act having food ready when it was needed. Thankfully, all of the challengers carried trackers that gave us a rough idea of where they were at any time. 

Early on the Thursday evening, I was joined by Martin, who had completed the event last year and he and I ran the checkpoint till the last people left early on Saturday morning. We tried to ensure that we both got enough sleep, but it was hard to get proper rest with runners popping in and out at all hours. There were long periods when no one turned up and then frantic moments where it was hard to keep up with the requests for cups of tea, plates of pizza and making sure that the washing up was all done. We also needed to keep track of when people arrived at the checkpoint and when they left as well as ensuring that their drop bags were sent up to the finish at Kirkby Stephen before they arrived there. We missed out on one bag, and the poor chap arrived at the finish cold and wet to find that his warm change of clothes was still forty miles away. Apparently he was very nice about it and Martin leaped in his car and drove the bag to him as soon as he could. 

One of the highlights for me (strange though it might seem) was spending twenty minutes taping a runners feet to treat the blisters he was developing on his toes and the balls of his feet. I'm not the greatest trail runner, but I'm an ace-feet taper. Mike was nice enough to say that if I hadn't done that, he'd have had to pull out of the race. 

Anyway, once the last runner was through, I swept the floors, swabbed down the kitchen, cleaned the toilets (the glamour of ultra-running), loaded the car and drove up to Kirkby Stephen. My work here was done!

Just a few observations:

I love seeing the different approaches of runners at checkpoints. They guys at the front, with the game faces on, arrive, drink coffee and eat pizza, while changing their socks and charging their GPS watches. The eventual winner of the PB270 was in and out of Settle in just over half an hour, while the winner of the PB137 was even quicker. Then there are those at the back, who are much more leisurely, who take their time to enjoy their food, to have an extra coffee and do some serious faffing, before spreading out their sleeping bags and having a kip. It might sound relaxed, but they still had to cover 270km on foot, over rough terrain - there is nothing easy about this!

Indoor checkpoints give you a bit of a false sense of what is going on. There were times when the weather was foul and runners arrived in Settle, cold and wet having been almost blown off their feet by freezing winds. Meanwhile, we were nice and warm. Our colleagues who were running safety points out on the hills had a much better impression of the conditions than we did. That being said, I loved working as part of a team. I don't think there was any point where all of the Rusties (Rangers Ultras Safety Team) were all in one place, but because team members were popping in and out of the checkpoint, and we made good use of a WhatsApp group to track the event, there was a great sense of camaraderie among the team. I had an absolute blast.

The event is brilliant and deserves to be much better known. There are other - more high profile - races that go up the Pennines from North to South, but this is the equal of any of them. For those who think that running in the hills in the winter is silly, the fact that this event is in April is great, you get a bit more daylight and better weather, but it is far from balmy and warm. It is still a serious challenge. Ranger Ultras take their mantra of big-enjoyment, low-key, great-value, trail-running events seriously and this event typifies this. If you are a trail runner and you want to make the step up to multi day events, you won't find a better way to do it. Sign up here or here!

Meanwhile, I'm not planning to serve up pizza at Settle next year. As long as no other microbes take up residence in my lungs, I plan to be out on the hills, my pack on my back, poles in my hands and a silly grin on my face. The only question, is which distance!

Meanwhile, if you'd like a view from the front of the race, these three videos give a great impression of the event.