Every year our January is made a little brighter by the return of ‘Britain’s most brutal race’...the Montane Winter Spine. This year we were eagerly following 3 #TeamMontane racers (see their pre-race interview to find out more about them) which included Rob Greenwood, taking on the Montane Spine Challenger South. Keep reading to hear how his race shaped up, as well as who went on to achieve the unthinkable on this year’s freezing trails…
2023 Montane Winter Spine Overview
Every Spine Race has a reputation: there’s the ‘wet year’, the ‘snow year’, and the ‘windy year’. This year would be best described as the ‘everything year’, with not just a little bit, but a LOT of every type of weather. It’s what Spine stalwarts describe as “proper Spine conditions”, but what most normal people would describe as “bloody awful”, and yet in spite of this awfulness the event continues to attract more and more people. In fact, this year’s Montane Winter Spine Race sold out in a record time of 2 minutes 58 seconds.
The Montane Winter Spine Race is no longer just an individual race, but part of a series of races including the Sprint (46 miles), Challenger South (108 miles), and Challenger North (160 miles). There are also virtual challenges for those who can’t take part, but still want to get involved. It certainly feels a long way from where it first started in 2012, with a field of just 11 competitors (3 of whom finished), but when you see the community that now surrounds it - something you’ll hear many competitors describe as the ’spine family’ - you’ll realise how special an event it actually is.
A major part of the Spine’s appeal is the dot-watching, and with so much going on - there is a lot to watch. Perhaps most exciting of all though was the men’s Spine Race, with its star-studded line-up of high-profile athletes and previous winners (including last year's winner Eoin Keith) all standing on the start line.
The depth, breadth and pedigree of the field had to be seen to be believed, but what makes watching the Spine so compelling is how unpredictable it actually is and how much things can change. As such, it could be Damian Hall, it could be Kim Collison, but it could also be anyone, and that’s why we invest several days of our lives watching it…
Within the weeks leading up to the Winter Spine all eyes were on the weather forecast; however, long-range forecasts are notoriously fickle and even a week before the race was due to begin, Race Director Phil Hayday Brown was suggesting “it might be the warmest Spine Race ever”. He then (perhaps prophetically) added “let’s hope it’ll get worse” - and that’s exactly what it did…
Not only did it get significantly colder, but it also got rainier, snowier and windier, with 70mph gusts forecast. As if this weren’t enough, the fact that there’d been several weeks of heavy rain meant that the ground conditions were truly abysmal. The Pennine Ways’ infamous bogs proved even boggier than usual (and that’s saying something).
4 Epic Challenges
Whilst historically it’s felt like the spotlight has been on the 268-mile Montane Spine Race, the Sprint, Challenger South, and North have grown in profile significantly. Designed to be a more accessible introduction to the Spine, they’re still very far from a Parkrun, and each represents a significant challenge that isn’t to be underestimated.
The 108-mile Challenger South was the first and was perhaps unfairly dubbed the ‘Baby Spine’, but perhaps, with the advent of the Sprint, it deserves to be re-named the “Adolescent Spine”, as it's prone to violent mood swings and unruly behaviour. Its bigger brother, the 160-mile Challenger North, represents an even greater challenge not just in terms of distance, but also terrain, as it takes in some of the highest and hardest terrain on the Pennine Way, including Cross Fell and the Cheviots.
Finally, there’s the Sprint, which at 46 miles could almost be considered short compared to the others, but lest we forget - it’s still a 46-mile winter ultra!! To add to the challenge the race organisers set you off at midday so that you’ve only got a few hours of daylight before the sun sets and you’re off into an extended 16 hours of darkness.
A lasting Impression
I’ve got to admit, I never saw the appeal of the Montane Spine Winter Races, as they just sounded unimaginably awful, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly put themselves through that. However, having taken part in the Spine Challenger South, I completely understand.
There’s something about the distance, the weather, and the people - both in terms of the competitors, staff, and volunteers - that makes it completely different from any other race I’ve ever done. It pushed me to limits I’d never gone to previously, but the thing that really surprised me was how much I actually enjoyed it. The weather was indeed awful, but with the right gear - it’s manageable - and the Spine is all about management.
2023 Race Winners
Despite the brutal weather conditions, this year's race delivered some incredible achievements and even some new race records! The first of these went to Jon Shield who took 2 hours off the course record in the 46-mile Montane Winter Spine Sprint, from Edale to Hebden Bridge. Jon bounced back from a couple of bad falls to hold a punishing pace throughout, finishing in a time of 8hrs 10mins 22 secs. Also smashing previous records was 1st Female Sprint finisher Louise Venables who is the first female to come in under 12 hours. Louise finished in 11 hrs 39 mins 21 seconds.
Eager dot watchers were treated to a battle for the lead in the full Winter Spine Race between returning racer Damian Hall (who sadly had to DNF last year due to injury) and Jack Scott. After securing an initial lead, Damian was eventually caught up by Jack. But in true Spine fashion, nothing is clear-cut on the Pennine Way trail. Despite both crossing the finish line together in a time of 3 days 12hrs 36mins 24secs, Jack incurred a time penalty for a navigational error earlier in the race, giving Damian Hall 1st male position. Although Damian didn’t beat Jasmin Paris’s time of 3 days 11hrs 12mins 23secs (set in 2019) he did set a new male finisher record for the full-length Spine race edition, shaving off an impressive 2 ½ hours.
As for the Spine Challengers, the Winter Challenger North saw two winners in a true display of Spine race spirit - congratulations to Tim Bradley and G Brian Hutchinson. Further south, Rory Harris crossed the finish line first, having battled snowstorms on the Montane Spine Winter Challenger South.
Discover more about the Montane Winer Spine Race including our race highlights and origins in our dedicated story behind blog. For more Spine insights don’t miss your chance to what from Summit Fever Media who have recorded the race over the past 10 years - hear some of the Spine stories they’ve been most moved by.
For those already feeling a dot-watching hole in their lives, take a look at all the other events we’re sponsoring this year.