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It’s not often that I finish a race fully satisfied with my performance. It’s such a special feeling, not only because it happens so rarely, but also because of all the things that have to come together to make it possible. The Pennine Barrier Ultra 50 was pretty much a perfect race in every way, even in how I came to choose it. 

 

 

 

 

In December 2023, I did a three-day recce of most of the Spine Challenger route. The third day of that trip, I ran from Gargrave to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. The first part of that leg is mostly through muddy fields, and not particularly inspiring. But once you hit Malham, you get some of the best running around—up Malham Cove, through the Dry Valley, which feels like a canyon of limestone, round Malham Tarn, and then up and down Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent. This also makes up the first 16 miles of the Pennine Barrier Ultra 50, with a short section of out and back on the road to ensure that the race lives up to its name.  

  

 

In December I did this stretch of Pennine Way in a sort of winter wonderland, with snow everywhere and icicles in my beard - I absolutely fell in love with it! Then I had to run this same section in Spine Challenger, all in the dark, on my own, and with 70 miles in my legs which was slightly less enjoyable. But even as I was suffering through that experience, and I really did suffer, I was thinking that I wanted to come back and see more of the Dales, preferably in daylight.  

  

When the trauma of Challenger had faded, I started the search for a spring race and discovered PBU50. It seemed perfect. I had always been vaguely keen on the idea of doing the Three Peaks Fell race, though never went to the trouble of figuring out how to qualify. I also saw that the course record, set in 2022, was held by Rob Payne, a runner I don’t know personally, but have followed since he finished quite some distance ahead of me in the 2019 Wendover Woods 50. His time of 8:04 seemed a realistic target if we had good conditions and I ran a good race.  

  

I managed to sleep well the night before the race and woke up at 4 am, unusually clear-headed. My partner, Carine, drove us the 25 minutes to the start where I got my tracker and queued for the toilets. At 5:50, I sheepishly pushed my way in under the starting gantry as most of the 600 runners were already ready to go. There was a slight delay as we waited for stragglers to return from the toilets, then there was the countdown, and then we were off.  

  

As usual, everyone sprinted off at a pace that seemed ridiculous. Having seen the photos of the climb up the side of Malham Cove, I now understand why; there is a significant bottleneck at the steps, and if you don’t get out quickly, you’ll end up in a queue. Luckily, this was not the case for me, and I got up the stairs sitting in 3rd place, where I wanted to be. Liam Mills, a runner I had heard about before the race, was in the lead and seemed to be running well. Jacob James was behind him and looked strong too.  

  

We picked our way across Malham Cove and ran the technical Dry Valley section before the out and back on the road. Jacob and Liam were running together at this point, and I was trying to relax 30 seconds back. As we turned towards Malham Cove, I saw Kim Collison fresh off his win at Fellsman; I said hello, but I don’t think he knew who I was. 

  

As I approached Fountains Fell, I was caught by Carl Everall. He told me that he was more comfortable running 50ks and that he wasn’t confident he would finish the 50 miler. ‘This guy is going out pretty hard if he’s not sure he’ll finish’ I thought. Spoiler alert: he did finish—and in 3rd! When the climb started in earnest, I continued running and Carl bid me good luck, dropping back slightly. By this time, I had lost sight of 1st place and could only occasionally see 2nd through the mist.

  

I felt strong on the climb, and ran nearly every step, but was concerned that my left hamstring was starting to feel sore. I had had issues with this in the months leading up to the race but hadn’t expected any issues on race day. I was concerned but vowed to take the first few descents easy so as not to aggravate the problem. Near the top, I caught Jacob, and we ran to checkpoint 1 together. It turns out that we have run many of the same races down south, but in different years. He waited for me as I filled a bottle at the checkpoint, which was a nice gesture. Again, as the path ramped upwards, I started to pull away and pushed on to try and catch Liam in 1st.

  

My plan for the day was to push the climbs and relax as much as possible on the descents. This seemed to work well and kept the legs fresh. Pushing the climbs also meant that I wasn’t freezing on the tops. I also planned to consume a lot of calories, and to that point, my stomach was cooperating. Near the top of the climb, I was informed that 1st place wasn’t too far ahead, and near the bottom, I glimpsed Liam in his white T-shirt.

  

The gap between us remained about two minutes until we hit checkpoint 2 where he took his time and I quickly grabbed bottles and calories from Carine and continued on. We left the checkpoint together and exchanged a few words. It felt like the start of the race proper. I had planned to go out fairly aggressively, but I must admit I don’t like to push hard from the gun in long events. I much prefer to warm up gradually and save the real effort for the second half or even final third.  

  

I sorted out my bottles on the run, arranged my food in my waist belt, and when everything was where I wanted it, I surged and went around Liam. It was a deliberate move, and if I were Liam, I wouldn’t have taken it seriously at mile 21 of a 50-mile race. But as I started climbing Whernside I noticed that I was feeling unusually good. I was concerned that this push might cost me the race if I went too hard, but I went with it. I reached a gate a third of the way up the climb and a father and son held it open for me. I thanked them and didn’t look back, but I heard the gate close quickly, and there were no thank yous from behind me. I must have created some sort of gap. At the next gate I did glance over my shoulder. Visibility was poor, but I could see Liam, roughly 90 seconds back.  

 

As I neared the top of Whernside, I became aware of how cold and windy it was. I was uncomfortable, but too stubborn to take the 30 seconds required to extract and put on my jacket in high winds. Finally, I reached the summit where visibility was poor.  

 

The descent from Whernside starts gradually but has stretches lower down which are steep and technical. I tried to move efficiently and stay relaxed, but I was also aware that this was a section where other runners might make up ground on me; I tried not to get too comfortable.

 

On the way down, I saw an army of GB Ultras volunteers. They were all incredibly friendly and urged me on. I saw Kim again. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was encouraging and included my name. Success! As I hit the road section towards the bottom, I looked over my shoulder briefly. I couldn’t see Liam or any other runners. Visibility wasn’t great, and I didn’t look for long—’better to assume he’s right behind you anyway,’ I thought to myself. 

 

I refilled my bottles at Philpin Farm and started up Ingleborough. There is a tempting shortcut to start the climb, just next to the Hill Inn. I think I could have taken this, as the GPX was meant to be a ‘guide,’ and I was certainly tempted in the moment. However, I had checked pre-race to see what Payne had done, and he stuck to the GPX; I followed suit.  

 

I ran the lower slopes of Ingleborough, which weren’t too steep, and hiked as fast as my short legs allowed when I reached the steeper rockier bits towards the top. I did the out and back to the summit and started the rocky descent. I checked my watch and saw an estimated finish of 7:36. ‘Whoa, maybe I can do 7:30!’ I thought. Probably not, but maybe. I took on more calories and caffeine and started to move well as the gradient got gentler towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale. 

 

Descending into Horton I dodged crowds and tour buses. At the checkpoint, a friendly volunteer asked, ‘You’re the winner, aren’t you?’ ‘Not yet!’ I replied. ‘Can we take a photo?’ ‘Yes, but I won’t be doing much.’ I said as I crammed my bottles into my pack.

 

From there you have to close the looped portion of the race and get back to the path we had taken up Pen-y-ghent earlier in the race. I didn’t expect it to be such a climb! It was also crowded, and no one seemed impressed by my plodding up the hill. It really felt like they should have been! Finally, I rejoined the path and bombed it down the same track I’d come up several hours earlier.

 

I ran past the last checkpoint and shouted out my number. They didn’t seem to be expecting runners, and I learnt afterwards that my tracker was pretty unreliable for parts of the race—so their surprise was understandable.

 

At the base of Fountains Fell I told myself I would run every step, and I kept this promise, for the most part. I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible, more than 40 miles into the race. It wasn’t quick, but it was faster than walking.

 

As I started to descend, I felt a real rush of adrenaline. If anyone had been up there, they might have heard me urging myself on ‘Come on Daniel. You’re doing well! Keep pushing!’ Proper weirdo stuff. But it helped.

 

I got round Malham Tarn again and went back through the rocky valley. It was not easy to move quickly over that terrain with tired legs. I hit the top of Malham Cove and started to see crowds. I weaved through them, trying to request priority at gates and stiles.

 

7:30 seemed like it was going to be just out of reach, but perhaps the course was short? I ran past families, children and dogs who were out for a pleasant walk. I felt like I was sprinting and hyperventilating, trying to get to the finish line. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic, but I didn’t care too much. Finally, I could see the finish line. I checked my watch. I had about two minutes to get there. No chance. I kept pushing anyway.

 

Finally, I got to the field and ran hard through the finishing tape. In retrospect, I should have held it up! My brain wasn’t working at that point, I was so happy—maybe the happiest I’ve ever been at the end of a race.

 

I had run 7:32, about 15 minutes faster than I thought I possible on my best day. Liam crossed the line in 8:04, running almost exactly the previous course record, and Carl came through 8:26. Carol Newman won the ladies race in 10:09; Dan Bentley created quite a cool image of us side by side with our trophies—though sadly I didn’t get to speak with her or congratulate her in person.

 

I had genuinely surprised myself and had done what I didn’t think was possible. The main reason I believe I was able to do this was that I consumed more calories than in any previous race. This is a big part of why I contacted VOOM and asked for their support. Fellow 'VOOM-ers' and friends Gavin Dale and Mark Darbyshire had both let me try a variety of the products in the middle of long runs, and I really liked the taste, the caffeine kick when required, and the ability to carry a lot of calories in a small package. The Pocket Rockets are particularly good for a race like this. I expect I will rely on a mixture of these and the Powr energy bars in 100 milers. I also think that the savoury Sparta Fuel drink mix could be a life saver in the later stages of a long race. I am looking forward to figuring out what will work best for me at Lakeland 100 in July.

 

Winning the PBU50 was an incredible feeling, but winning in and of itself is not satisfying. I discussed this with my mate James White just days after the race. I would far rather finish second and know that I gave it everything, than finish first and feel like I should have got more out of myself. Of course, if you can have a good day and win, that is the best of both worlds! 

 

 

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