As I drive through the Yorkshire Dales on a cold and snowy morning, I am dazzled by the beauty of this part of the world. I feel very at home here. I catch a glimpse of Ingleborough, looking every bit majestic, camouflaged by a giant white blanket. I crank up the heating in my car as I’m slightly losing the feeling in my toes. It’s a really cold day, reminding me of how brutal this picturesque surrounding can be…weather dependent! Brutal, such an onamatapoeic word and the very word chosen to describe The Montane Spine MRT Challenge – Part of ‘Britain’s most brutal race series’.
I am on my way to meet 33 year old Steph Dwyer, who recently not only completed the gruelling MRT Spine Challenge, but was in-fact the only woman to complete the epic 118 mile course, in 41 hrs and 51 mins 01 Secs to be precise – taking 5 hours and 39 mins off the existing MRT Ladies record!
The Montane Spine race winter series comprises of three endurance races; The Spine Race (268 miles over 7 days), The Spine Challenger and the MRT Spine Challenge (to give Mountain Rescue Team members a chance to fundraise for their teams), both 118 miles with a 60 hr limit. The races take place in Winter (January) along one of Britain’s most iconic trails, The Pennine Way, and with less than 8 hours of daylight, toughing it out in the dark is a challenge in itself; ‘Widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance races. A truly epic challenge that will test your physical resilience and mental fortitude. Racing non-stop along the most iconic trail in the UK, you will experience the full intensity and ferocity of the British Winter’ (via Montane).
You can see Steph two minutes into this film…
Originally from Dublin, Steph lives in Settle, North Yorkshire, with her partner Geophysicist Mike Bottomley. A keen caver, Steph left her home city to be closer to the adventure and exploration offered by the underground world of North Yorkshire eight years ago. She is a voluntary member of the Cave Rescue Organisation (CRO) and one of their first women underground controllers. Steph has recently completed an MSc in Psychology (focusing on mental well-being and health inequalities) following a BSc in Chemical and Pharmaceutical science and a Diploma in working with vulnerable young people.
I don’t particularly consider myself a good runner, or fast or anything, but I am savvy and efficient – kind of like the turtle as opposed to the hare.
We meet at her home in Settle to have a chat about her recent achievement. Steph struggles to walk. The physical aftermath of completing such a feat of endurance is visible; swollen ankles, blackened skin. She is however in very good spirits, and speaks eloquently and with great humility about how and why she decided to take on the MRT Spine Challenge and why she feels so passionately that there needs to be more ‘support, encouragement and belief’ in women when it comes to sport, endurance races and just about anything else for that matter.
When did your preparation start for the MRT Spine Challenge?
‘I started about six months before, at least. I did loads of running and walking. It’s impossible for me to run 118 miles, so it’s as much about preparing for brisk walking as well as running. We really tried to mix it up – because even though we had sixty hours to complete the race, only about 20 of those hours were light, so one of the big things was to train in the darkness and so we did a lot of night training and in really grim weather; you think you can prepare yourself with the right kit but it’s not until you’ve been out in really crap weather that you really know if your kit is up to the task, and much kit was altered after nights out in blizzards and high winds..’
Steph explained how over the 118 mile course there is one check point (46 miles in) and a further monitoring point (94 miles in). She and Mike (her partner in life and in this race) only sat down for 15 mins and had something to eat. There was also an opportunity to sleep but as they were so hyped and exhilarated, they chose not to sleep and carried on. At the next monitoring point they sat down for 30 minutes and at this stage Steph became very aware of a pain that had been building up in her leg. One very painful massage later, they were off again…
“I said to Mike ‘women have been in labour for longer than we have to do this race’, when you think about that compared to what we have to do and how celebrated and lorded the athletes are, it’s really nothing.”
– Steph & her partner Mike –
Have you had to sacrifice anything in order to focus on training for this challenge?
‘You have to sacrifice a lot to be honest. I think people imagine that when you train to do such long distances it’s on top of everything else, but the reality is that it’s at the expense of a lot of other things. Socially it affected things; I didn’t keep in contact as much with friends as training took up so much of my time. I was also applying for jobs and doctorates, as I want to do a DClinPsych in Clinical Psychology as well as working at Ingleborough show cave and as a consultant for Yorkshire Dales Guides. I was running about 50 miles a week and then needed time for recovery – I built it up to doing a 10 mile day, followed by a 25 mile day with a pack on my back, followed by a kinder, shorter run with less weight because it was important to do back to back days training as the race was clearly going to go across at least two days for us.’
‘That’s how you build the stamina, you had to train when tired and learn how to push through it. The endurance part of it means you have to have the physical stamina to do it. There’s about 5/6000 metres of ascent which requires strength, and its resultant conditioning and aided recovery which involved a lot of massage and stretching. These aspects were as crucial as the fun running bit. The race takes place in winter, so training in the dark and cold was essential. But what makes this race stand apart from the rest is that you have to carry quite a large pack (approx 12kg), which included my camping kit, cooking kit, ‘microspikes’ (a kind of crampon), and safety kit as well as food and water. The contents of our packs reflected the seriousness of the distance and remoteness of the race in such winter conditions’.
‘I’m used to heavy packs from caving expeditions but I have never run before with such a weight. I actually hurt my back in the middle of training which really set me back – so to preserve my back, I under trained with the weight. I’m so glad I decided to do that.’
You completed this challenge alongside your partner Mike. Do you think it made a difference, being with somebody?
‘Doing something like this with the person that you love has its pros and its cons. Some people said ‘oh no, why are you doing it with Mike – make sure you don’t moan as you can lose your a head a bit’. The advantage for Mike and I was that we have done so much stuff together, such as caving expeditions; we’ve been in some pretty testing sleep deprived environments together, and we actually work extremely well as a team.’
‘Mike is a much better runner than me, he’s faster and practically twice my height – we are the most ridiculous looking couple and I’m sure there’s people out there thinking, ‘what on earth are these two doing this together for?’. But across an endurance race of that distance it becomes less about your athletic prowess and more about your psychology and I think in that regard we are really well matched. We operate in a different space when we’re doing stuff like that together – we are not like ‘the loving couple’. There were times when we had crippling lows, but never at the same time and we were able to kick each other up the arse and say ‘come on, you can do it – stop indulging in this kind of talk.’
Steph explained how, like her, Mike is a feminist and he absolutely utterly believes in her and her capabilities, which really helped amidst those low points during the challenge.
You were one of three women to do the MRT Spine Challenge, but you were the only one to finish it. How does that feel?
‘It feels a little bit disappointing. For me, you could take the ego perspective, but the reality of it is that it’s a reflection of the lack of support that women get and the lack of belief. I looked at those two lasses at the start of the race and they were really strong and competent and I never thought that I would get ahead of them. I think that isn’t to do with my athletic ability or that I was better than them, but that I was in such a privileged position; I’m very stubborn and determined but I have gotten a huge amount of support from people I’m surrounded by. So much belief.’
‘I know loads of incredible women that show me and prove to me that of course people can do this – women can do this! Sharon McDonald was the one who talked me into doing this challenge and my friend Jill Eccleston, a coach for RunBikeFun and Heather Eastwood from the CRO supported me every step of the way…they were my rocks! I never in a million years thought that I was capable of doing it but they pointed out my strengths and I started to believe.’
What was your high moment and low moment during this challenge?
‘My highest moment was about 40 odd miles in and some Mountain Rescue friends of mine were out supporting the competitors and they told me that I was in the lead and I had no idea that I was the first woman, I actually thought I was last. That was the most amazing feeling because I’ve never been in that position in my life before and I never expected to be told that.’
‘The lowest moment was probably when I started to descend Penyghent about 95 miles in. Coming down my cavers knees were really playing up and I had this horrendous cramp in my left leg and that was excruciating. I decided not to stop at Penyghent cafe as we had planned to sleep there for 20 minutes but I knew then that I couldn’t stop because I would cease up. Then a blizzard came in and I was afraid that if my leg ceased on me, I’d get immobilised pretty quickly and I was actually really quite scared.’
You are a caver and cave diver also. How did you get involved in these ‘sports’?
‘I went to University in Dublin. At the time I was massively into water sports like surfing and kayaking. I got into caving through the caving club at DCU (Dublin City University) in 2002 – at the freshers fair they had somebody hanging from a rope from the ceiling and I thought ‘that looks absolutely awesome’. They had trips away to the Yorkshire Dales, and it was through trips to the Dales that Steph became aquainted with the land she was someday to move to.
‘I hated my first trip and thought that this is not something that I can do. A guy running the trip told me that I did really well and convinced me to go on a second trip, pointing out that not enough women get into caving. I was less afraid on the second trip and for me that was such a crossroad, because somebody believed in me and said a couple of small things to me that completely changed my outlook and my experience going forward. Its just been like a snowball ever since. That guy, Enda Walsh, has no idea the positive effect he had on me and my life. I guess you can be such a spark of inspiration to people and they never know.’
Steph is keen to explain how she sees a huge discrepancy between the amount of support, encouragement and belief that women get compared to men, in the ‘outdoor’ world that she inhabits…
‘People now know that success is not necessarily down to nutrition, training and athletic prowess, of course they play a huge role but the cutting edge of what is making the difference between those who win and those who don’t is psychology. Sport psychology is getting really big and for really good reason – I think we need to learn from that; it’s playing a massive role in women’s participation and performance.’
‘I have the belief that men and women are totally equal in their capabilities and people argue with me that our biology is different and hormones play a role and generally men have more muscle than women. My argument is that men do perform better generally and statistically speaking in races such as this, but I believe it is because they are supported disproportionately more than women – that needs to change as we cannot fairly compare their performance until the starting point for both genders are equal!’
Who are your role models?
‘My absolute inspiration and the person that made me think of women and men as absolute equals is my Grandmother. She was so strong and did amazing things – she operated unquestionably within the more traditional gender roles of her time. They were farmers and they weren’t terribly well off and there was huge amounts of physical work that had to be done. So, from a very young age, I too was out there doing physical work (I loved helping out on the farm at weekends or during school holidays) and we all just got on with it. My Gran showed me by example how to be strong and determined.’
‘Growing up in Ireland and having a female president, Mary Robinson, was also very inspiring – a perspective changer! Within the caving scene, Pam Fogg was a real inspiration to me, she was doing phenomenal stuff and was just so tough. In terms of running at the moment there is an Irish woman called Carol Morgan who won the women’s full spine race for the second time this year and took something like 47 hours off the women’s record. Also Nicky Spinks and Jasmine Paris – amazing women. Sometimes I don’t think they realise the significance of what they are doing because they are redefining what is possible for women.’
I’d really like people to look at this and think ‘I want to do that’. I am not an exceptional athlete and I really haven’t achieved anything unattainable to anybody else.
Steph and Mike completed the Montane MRT Spine Challenge in order to raise awareness and donations for two charities, Cave Rescue Organisation (CRO) and ‘Mind Yourself‘. If you would like to donate (any donation, no matter how small will be gratefully received) you can do that here.
Steph and Mike have also inherited an exploratory caving expedition called the ‘Ario Caves Project’ in the Picos Europa in North West Spain (this project has been on-going for 57 years and was historically done by Oxford University caving Club).
In the last five years Mike and I have been leading expeditions to Ario with the aim of exploring new, documenting and connecting existing cave systems in order to forge one of the world’s deepest cave systems (it is nearly 2000 metres deep).
In collaboration with filmmaker Paul Diffley (Hot Aches Productions) a film was made to document this journey over the last three years. ‘The Ario Dream’ won the ‘Peoples Choice Award’ at Kendal Mountain Festival in November 2017. You can also catch it at Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF), Gorniski Film Festival, Sheffield Adventure Film Festival (ShAFF) and Killarney Film Festival amongst many more locations. Take a peek at the trailer here…
As I prepare to draw the interview to a close, Steph is keen to tell me how she would love to see more women participating and in leadership positions, which is what she loves about the Ario Dream. She believes that woman are underrepresented in outdoor sports and endurance races not because they aren’t ‘brilliant and capable’ but because they underestimate themselves.
It is still more socially acceptable for men to get out there at weekends and evenings to train, leaving their partners to look after the kids and cook and clean. It is so implicit in society that women can’t and shouldn’t be making space and time for themselves and their personal achievements, especially mothers. It’s not something to feel guilty about – we need to challenge this, so that overtime it will change!
‘It was an awful lot of hard work and it took a lot of training and mental discipline and I acknowledge that those things aren’t easy, but I know that women are more than capable of it. In the words of Sociologist Dr Brene Brown you have to ‘Dare greatly’!’
Steph and Mike would like to thank the Cave Rescue Organisation, Mind Yourself, the many Mountain Rescue teams that came out and supported competitors, Settle Harriers, Summit Fever Media, Racing Snakes and the countless amazing friends who gave advice, lent gear, and cheered them on.
We’d love to know if this interview has inspired you, and to hear from those of you with experience in or planning to take their first endurance challenge.
Photography by Aly Brook and Drew Wilson.