Hallucinations, sleep deprivation and finish line tears — runner reveals “brutal” challenge of Montane Spine Race

Josh Westwood taking part in the Montane Spine Race.

At the weekend more than 250 runners set off on a gruelling challenge to run the Pennine Way.

The 2020 Montane Spine Race is renowned as Britain’s toughest ultra-marathon. The main race follows the entire 268-mile length of the national trail from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.

Two shorter — although still immensely challenging — races also took place.

The Montane Spine Challenger Race is a 108 miles long from Edale to the Market House in Hawes, while the Spine Mountain Rescue Team Challenge follows the same route but is for rescue volunteers.

Runners are entirely self supported and must carry everything they need to survive along the way.

There are a handful of coffee stops usually arranged by local clubs or mountain rescue teams but, other than that, the only major checkpoint is just under 50 miles in at Hebden Bridge.

Here runners are reunited with their drop bag containing any dry clothes and food they might want to stock up on. After that they are mostly on their own again until the finish.

Among those taking part in the challenge event was 29-year-old Josh Westwood, from Castle Bolton, a barber who runs Westwood’s Barbershop & Social in Ripon.

Here’s Josh’s account of this year’s race:

This year the weather was atrocious, as it normally is. The first section over Kinder Scout to Snake Pass and beyond wasn’t too bad, and the wind caused the falls at Kinder Downfall to flow upwards in spectacular style.

As night drew in however, the conditions quickly got worse.

I got battered by the high winds and driving rain in the dark heading over Stanage Edge and the M62, and at the northern side of Blackstone Edge I was met by Oldham Mountain Rescue team and the news that a great deal of runners had already retired.

Sadly this number finished up being over 50 per cent of runners by the end of the race!

In the second half of the race I was carrying a minor injury to my right leg (which I’ve no idea when or how I picked up) and it hampered my running slightly.

I could still run but it got progressively harder.

The weather eventually started to ease off at lunchtime on Sunday ready for out arrival into the Dales.

From Gargrave to Malham and beyond things went much better, and I picked up the pace.

A few good friends came out to meet me too which is always a bonus.

My form didn’t drop too badly again until I started the ascent of Penyghent.

That’s when the sleep monsters kicked in and I started to hallucinate.

On a fell I know like the back of my hand, trees began to appear on the track side, and I felt as if I was walking through a wood.

Thankfully these hallucinations went away for the scramble onto the summit, but on the decent I began to fall asleep. Almost two days without sleep were starting to take their toll, but luckily I know the path to Horton-in-Ribblesdale well (except those trees had returned!) and I made it to the old school for a 25-minute kip — my only sleep of the race.

Not long later I began the slog on to the finish. More hallucinations on Cam High Road and I had to shout loudly at myself through the darkness and fog to keep myself awake.

The sun rose for my final descent into Gayle and Hawes, and I was greeted by friendly faces who had been watching my tracker and family members who had managed very little sleep themselves.

I can’t thank all the people enough who followed my race and came to see me finish. It really shows what an amazing, caring group of people we have in the Dales. They’re there for you when you need it most.

The messages of support on social media have been overwhelming too, and I admit to having had a little cry at one point when reading them afterwards, probably not helped by sleep deprivation.

Best Bit: Seeing the lights twinkling down in the valley as I dropped into Wensleydale and realising that I’d actually managed to run home from the Peak District!

Worst Bit: Dropping into Cowling with the rain STILL pouring and realising you’ve still got a long drag across muddy fields just to reach Gargrave!

So why do it? There are several reasons. I was on the Spine safety team last year as a volunteer looking after the runners, and always fancied having a go.

When the entries for 2020 came out I had not long since been through an awful relationship breakup so, instead of ruining my mental health over that, I figured it would be healthier to put my efforts into training for this big event and let that test me instead. It’s certainly been very good for that.

I always like to have a testing event or challenge in the pipeline to train for as it keeps me fit and gives me something to aim for.

Josh completed the challenge in 47 hours 49 minutes and 30 seconds, achieving his goal of a sub-48-hour time and raising more than £500 for Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team in the process.