Lauren Johnson - Winner (and Record Breaker) of the Summer Spine Challenger

© Lauren Johnson Collection

Just two years after she first found a love for hill running, Lauren Johnson broke the record on Montane's gruelling 108-mile Pennine race. What did it take to go from road runner to course beater, in such a short space of time? Rob Greenwood finds out.

Earlier in the year I was out on a recce of the Pennine Way from Malham to Hawes when I bumped into another runner. Given that it was only a month before the Summer Spine I thought it I'd ask the obvious question as to whether they were taking part, which they were, and what their name was so that I could add them to the list of people that I'd dot-watch. What ensued was pretty remarkable, because not only did the individual in question - Lauren Johnson - win the Montane Summer Spine Challenger, she also went on to smash the course record on this 108-mile endurance test. Naturally, we got in touch to see how it all went.

Rob: Can you tell us a bit about your running background?

Initially I thought there was no way I'd be capable of meeting the pre-registration requirements, let alone completing the race

Lauren: I have been running since around 2009, I remember watching the Great North Run on television and I decided that the following year I would like to experience the atmosphere for myself and take part. I was very much a fair weather runner until 2016 when I joined my local running club. I always ran on the roads until lockdown in 2020. I was living in Derbyshire at the time and I was really fortunate to have lots of lovely rolling trails to explore. I spent most of that year doing just that. Once restrictions had eased I dipped my toe in to the Peak District where I well and truly fell in love with hills, trails and fells. 

You're the Vice Chair of the Nottingham based Holme Pierrepont RC. How has being a part of the club helped you, both building up to - and completing - the Spine Challenger?

I love being a member of Holme Pierrepont and I feel very fortunate to be the Vice Chair. It's an incredible community of like minded individuals with the club offering road, cross country and fell running opportunities for all abilities. One of the longstanding members of the club and a good friend of mine - Pete - sowed the Spine seed in my head in the spring of last year. At the time I thought there was no way I'd be capable of meeting the pre-registration requirements, let alone completing the race, but he was quite adamant that I ought to consider it (we still joke about it now).

The beauty of being part of a club like HPRC is that there's so many inspiring individuals that have achieved incredible feats over the years that you can't help but want to give them a try yourself. I have been very lucky to have made some incredible friends; they have supported me with the training, navigation, kit tips, logistics support and boosted my confidence when I have questioned the sometimes relentless training. The support that the club gave me during the race was phenomenal. I had club friends at Gorple Reservoir, Malham and Horton-in-Ribblesdale. They'd all gone out of their way and given up chunks of their weekend to see me for a matter of seconds, but by being part of this community they know how much a few meaningful words can inspire you on an event like this. There were dozens of club mates glued to the tracker - knowing that on the Cam End Road when I was having a wobble, made such a difference to me. I didn't feel alone out there.

Lauren Johnson completing the Montane Summer Spine Challenger

Lauren Johnson completing the Montane Summer Spine Challenger

Earlier in year you took part in the Winter Spine Sprint - how did you find that (other than horrific)?

I recall finishing the Spine Sprint and really feeling as though I had learnt want it means to endure. The conditions that day were far more challenging than I had ever experienced up to that point and I know at times it really felt like we were suffering out there. I was fortunate in that I shared around 20 miles that day with two men - Guy and Paul - and I seem to recall that we laughed a lot at the lunacy of it all. We were in thundersnow on Black Hill (who knew thundersnow was even a thing) and we couldn't run (let's be honest, walk) on the slabs as they were covered in sheet ice and water, yet either side of the slabs the ground was so saturated that we were wading at times.

I learnt a lot about myself out there, I know the term resilience is banded around a lot, but I do believe that I found a whole new level of resilience that day. I'd had a fall and hurt my right ankle and left knee, I was moving significantly slower than I'd planned for and I really struggled with the cold. There were so many opportunities to call it a day, but that never really felt like an option for me. I knew deep down I had to get it done.

What lessons did you learn along the way, which you could then integrate into the Summer Spine Challenger?

Efficiency for starters; you can lose so much time if you are inefficient at aid stations. I entered Hebden Hey Scout Hut as 4th Lady and exited in 2nd place, purely because I was quicker moving through the checkpoint.

I'm a big believer in only focusing on what you can control and for me that was running the best race I was capable of

Secondly, I knew I needed to improve my navigation as I got really disorientated in the winter on Stoodley Pike due to the weather conditions, so I recced the entire route at least once. For the sections that I knew I would be covering in the dark I recced them 2-3 times so that I had no concerns whatsoever at nightfall.

Thirdly, eat regularly. My fuelling during the Sprint was awful, mainly because my food was inaccessible and my hands were cold so I didn't eat nearly enough. During the Challenger I had an alert on my watch which told me to eat every 30 minutes - it worked perfectly and I never once "bonked".

Fourthly, I bought some better kit so that I didn't have issues such as my food being inaccessible.

Finally, to run my own race. I enjoyed buddying up in the winter Sprint, it felt safe and it without a doubt made the experience more fun, but I knew that to run my own race I needed to be prepared to cover the entire route on my own. I did a lot of the recces by myself so it quite quickly became the norm.

Lauren running along one of the many stone pitched sections of the Pennine Way

Going into the race, what were your main aims - was it to finish, win, podium, enjoy it, or something else entirely?

To do myself justice. As long as I got to Hardraw knowing that I couldn't have tried any harder and that I'd had the race that I'd trained for I knew I would be happy. I'd looked at the average finishing times and I knew what the course record was, I knew what I was capable of, but I had no idea who the competition was or what they were capable of. I'm a big believer in only focusing on what you can control and for me that was running the best race that I was capable of.

Journeys as long as this tend to have their highs and lows and in a post on Instagram you said you "experienced every emotion". Whilst I'm aware it's probably impossible, can you put into words the enormity of the experience?

I just think that the human body and the mind is incredible. Throughout the 30 hours that I was running I laughed, I cried, I cursed, I sang, I grumbled; and my feet really did cause me a lot of problems. I was convinced I was losing pace and would be caught, but I never once considered giving up.

108 miles is a long way and 30 hours (as it was in my case) is a long time to do anything for, but I knew if I kept my head up and I kept my reasons for being there at the centre of my mind that I could achieve what I had set out to do. I thought about the fact that I had chosen, and paid, to be doing this, while there are people all around the world fleeing conflict, fleeing for their lives. I certainly wasn't going to let some tiredness and a pair of sore feet be my reason for giving up. I felt that it was a massive privilege to be out there, doing what I love, knowing that I had so many people watching my dot and willing me to succeed. It was a rollercoaster of an event, but I'd repeat it in a heartbeat.

Were there specific highs and lows along the way?

I ran the first 32 miles with my friend Emma Roper (who eventually finished third); for me that was lovely. I didn't feel the pressure of a race, I felt as though I was on an adventure. We parted ways just before the bridge that crosses the M62. I loved the next 14 miles. My goal was to arrive in Hebden Hey feeling in the same shape as when I'd started and I did just that. I'd seen the then first Lady exiting the checkpoint as I was going in so I knew she was approximately one hour ahead of me. Catching up with her at Pinhaw Beacon was overwhelming. I didn't actually know what to do immediately. I didn't like the thought of going head to head for 55 miles so I stayed a little way behind before deciding to kick on. Going into first place was a real high for me, but also terrifying at the same time as I have always enjoyed having someone to aim for in a race, I have never been the person being chased after.

I didn't take care of my feet as well as I should have done. I should have changed my socks and shoes at Hebden Hey, but instead I chose to be as efficient (or so I thought) as possible and I decided my feet were OK. It turned out by Malham Tarn they were anything but OK. It made for a fair few low points during the 26 miles that followed. I'd already been dreading the drag up Fountains Fell, but because my feet were so sore it just felt very unpleasant. I even rang my coach as I was descending as I felt I was losing my head. He told me to "keep up that relentless forward motion and this race will be yours", I am pretty sure I cried (again) but his words helped tremendously.

The Cam End Road was as I anticipated - awful. I was really suffering by this point and I was running out of water. I really did want it to be over, but it goes on for what feels like an eternity.

Crossing the line and being told that I had broken the course record was a phenomenal feeling.

There's a lot of talk of the 'Spine Family' and 'Spine Angels' who provide support along the way - can you tell us a bit more about who they are, and what they do.

All the volunteers and the medics absolutely make this race what it is. They cannot do enough for you. When I arrived at Hebden Hey Scout Hut, there was a chap stood with my drop bag, he was so positive and caring. He took me through to a room where the volunteers were assisting approximately 15 runners with a quiet efficiency that was very impressive: refilling water bottles, feeding us, carrying out kit checks, checking each one of us was in a fit enough state to continue. The kindness can be a little overwhelming especially when you're sore and tired. They know exactly the right things to say and do to keep you moving.

There's a reason though that the competitors keep coming back to the Spine events. There's a shared bond that I am not sure other events can replicate in the same way. I guess it's got something to do with the event being self sufficient, it's a real adventure with the added bonus of carrying full mountain marathon kit. It can be wild and remote at times, and you are entirely at the mercy of the elements, but it's also incredibly simple - put one foot in front of the other and for the most part head North. The competitors that I have met through the event have all had their own reasons for being there and that's what drives you forwards when it gets difficult.

There's some spectacular scenery along the Pennine Way, but were there any places along the way that particularly stood out for you, either within the race itself or during the recces that led up to it?

Malham Cove is absolutely stunning, I very much enjoyed my recces there, but on race day I reached there around 05:45 and it was, as you'd imagine, completely deserted, that was special. I also loved seeing the sunset as I was approaching Top Withens and it was utterly beautiful seeing the sunrise as I was leaving Gargrave. It was the best feeling knowing I'd made it through the night without any issues. I also had a moment as I was dropping down to Horton-in-Ribblesdale when a complete stranger walking his dog said to me "are you Lauren?", when I said that I was he said he'd been tracking me through the night and that I had run an incredible race. I burst into tears (mainly because I was tired), but that meant a lot. I loved the run through Hawes, mainly because I knew I only had one mile to go and there were people clapping me in the street.

On the note of recces, aside from getting to know the route, what other systems did you manage to get dialled on the time out along the route?

As you'll know from our chance meeting on the Cam End Road, I recced the route to death so I knew just how long the tough sections dragged on for and what was ahead to keep my spirits lifted. I was also a little obsessive about my nutrition. I have Ulcerative Colitis so this was a must. I worked on increasing my carbohydrate intake to 60 grams of carbs per hour. I then trialled various combinations of wholefoods and gels on every long run to work out what did and more importantly did not work for me. When I'd decided what did work, I then used the same combination of the same foods for every long run I did for around eight weeks. Yes, it bored me to tears, but it took away the stress on race day of worrying how my body would respond.

You've said that you never believed you were going to win. At what point did this change and why?

Honestly, not until about 5km from the end. My coach was waiting for me on the approach to Hawes, he had a huge beaming smile and I forget what he said to me, but it was at that point that I finally believed that I was going to win. I'd planned in my head, and discussed with Howard, how most eventualities would feel and how I would deal with them, but I hadn't for one moment considered how it would feel to be 1st lady from 65 miles onwards. I had about 12 hours of running out in 1st place and that is completely alien to me. I knew that Mairead O'Keefe (the lady that finished 2nd) was really a strong runner and that there were a couple of other ladies on the course that I knew had really phenomenal endurance; in my head they were a matter of minutes behind me. I couldn't comprehend being as far ahead as I ultimately finished, or indeed breaking the course record.

How did it feel reaching the finishing line in Hardraw?

I was absolutely elated, it was genuinely way beyond my wildest dreams. It didn't feel as though it was happening to me, I'd never considered the possibility so it really was wonderful. It was great to see my best friend and my coach there with big beaming smiles. I knew I'd done them and myself proud and I was completely over the moon.

You've mentioned your coach, Howard Dracup several times - how did he change your approach to training?

Howard is brilliant, I couldn't recommend anyone more highly. We have only been working together since February, but he really has brought the best out in me both in terms of my running and with respect to self confidence. None of the training has been revolutionary, but it has given me the structure that I have been missing. I have never trained in blocks before e.g. VO2 max or Endurance, but I have found this approach very beneficial. Howard is a Spine legend so his knowledge of the route, the demands it places on your body and the kit requirements has been superb. I have always struggled with self belief and so we've talked about this at length and the power of positive self talk. Howard is also a massive advocate of rest - I think if I'd have trained for the Challenger on my own I'd have done a greater volume of miles and probably have turned up to the event over trained, but working with him has really demonstrated the importance of quality over quantity.

Whilst it might be the world's most unimaginative question: after your success within this - what next?!

My plan is to enjoy the summer; running with friends, going on adventures in the Lakes, Peaks and Snowdonia and supporting a few friends on challenges of their own including a couple of Bob Graham Rounds. My next A race will be the Challenger North in January - I need to put my Spine obsession to bed so I will be running the 160 miles from Hawes to Kirk Yetholm; hopefully in better weather than that which I experienced during the Sprint.

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29 Jul

Very inspiring. If you say "108 miles" quickly it doesn't sound like a lot but omg...

29 Jul

"My goal was to arrive in Hebden Hey feeling in the same shape as when I'd started and I did just that"

Incredible - I'd love to be able to do 40-odd miles and feel fresh as a daisy!

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