Spine Race - Autopsy

As mentioned in my preamble the Spine Race is no ordinary event and was the big one I had on the horizon for many months after it was cancelled last year.  This was meant to be the race to finish my running 'career' and what a way it would be to sign off!  I had promised my wife that post Spine I would tone it down.

The short story (read spoiler alert) is that I DNF'd - Did Not Finish.  In all of the races I've ever done, this is a first for me, I cannot ever recall having not ever finished a race I've entered.  I've always found a way.  Essentially the race sucked me in and spat me back out in disdain.  This is the story of what happened...

The Story...

Start to CP1 (Hebden Bridge)

After checking in at the Rambler Inn at Edale, I went to my allocated slot to register and have my kit checked.  As always with me, as my number ended in a 1, I had a full kit check but to be honest everything passed without problem and soon enough I was on my way.  That just left a pub dinner comprising of pie and chips, followed by sticky toffee pudding and a good nights rest.  I say a good night, in reality the nerves were in full flow and it was at best what you would call a disturbed sleep.


The following morning at 8am I was on the start line and to be honest the conditions were reasonable for the time of year - the odd passing shower and cool but not excessively so.  The plan was always to go at a decent pace, utilising my road racing credentials and to then settle in a more natural pace as the race progressed.  At the start, the three leads - Damian, Kim & Eugeni were about 30 metres ahead of me and about half way to Jacobs Ladder I caught them up.  Eugeni was dropped at this point which surprised me somewhat and I otherwise felt fine.  At elevation around Kinder it was a snowy landscape from previous falls, albeit slightly patchy in places, covered with about half a centimetre of fresh snow overnight.  Underneath all of this, it was boggy, like really boggy.  As soon as we hit technical sections, I was more cautious and was dropped on and off at some point after Kinder downfall, before being more permanently dropped after I managed to twist my ankle quite badly.  With hindsight, I was now wishing that I hadn't left my poles in my drop bag.  It was now snowing quite heavily and I couldn't rely on seeing the two leaders in the distance.  I then hit a number of peat hags and the path at this point became really indistinct, which coincided with the snow at its worst.  I had a gut instinct that I had taken the wrong re-entrant and soon corrected myself so the time loss was minimal.  I hit the Snake Pass crossing a few minutes behind the leaders where there was quite a crowd.

The next section to Torside was mostly varied between clag and very claggy underfoot and I was now slipping and sliding all over the place.  This limited progress but was also energy sapping.  At this point Eugeni came flying past me at a fast rate of knots and was the first person I had seen for some time.  As he went past me he immediately took the wrong turn, but in doing so someone marshalling the local fell race shouted over to us and we made a quick correction.  Lesson learnt not to blindly follow other racers!  It was somewhere along here where a Spine supporter was walking along the path, said hello to me by name (so must have been following the tracking) and offered a home made cookie.  I was never going to say no to that!  The support on that first day was amazing and I felt there was a real buzz in the air for some reason.  Just before Torside I intersected with the local fell race and passed loads of people heading in the opposite direction to me.  The vast majority got out of my way which I felt guilty about, but almost everyone shouted encouragement.  It almost got to the point where I was getting tired to say hello a hundred or more times but I did my best.  It was then just the descent into Torisde and it was the stuff of nightmares for me - a thick steep muddy slope about a km in length down to the reservoir.  How I wished I had those poles.  I slipped, slid and fell over more times than I care to remember.

I got to the Mountain Rescue mini aid station and I had a cup of tea to warm myself up.  I was overtaken at this point so was now 5th.  I was pretty knackered and transitioned from running when not slipping and sliding into more of a run shuffle.  I got to the road at Wessenden Head and saw my wife for the first time which was a pick me up but I didn't stop and wanted to make what progress I could.  Eventually, in the lead up to Harrop I was overtaken by two more people but their pace was a nearer match to mine so I made the effort to stay with them.  This was the first time I noticed that my walking speed is a lot slower than most other people in the race.  I usually had to shuffle run to stay with people and usually when I resorted back to a walk this was where I would drift back and it was this that would become a recurring theme.

Somewhere on the first day, possibly near Wessenden.

Consuming a huge amount of tea.

I had another quick break at the Mountain Rescue aid station for another cup of tea, whilst the two I was with headed off about a minute before me.  I also said another quickest of hello's to my wife but I wanted to try and keep up.  I caught them up but I knew it was only a matter of time before I was dropped and at the A672 I decided I needed a proper 5 minute break so I had a cup of tea with my wife outside Nicky's Foodbar.  This was supposed to be the last time we would see each other for the next couple of days.  It was here that I think I might have lost another position but am not too sure.  Just after the M62 crossing I couldn't hold it in any longer and had my first pee of the day and it was now starting to get dark.  I was overtaken by Eoin Keith (the eventual winner) between here and the White House, but our moving pace was fairly well matched so whilst not running together there was a bit of toing and froing.  There was a final Mountain Rescue aid station here and my wife was waiting to say hello here as well which was a further uplift.  I had a further cup of tea and used the opportunity to use get my headtorch switched on as it was near pitch black now.  This was now the final goodbye for the next couple of days.

More tea at Nicky's Foodbar.

I had a bit of a second wind as I progressed along a number of reservoirs heading towards Stoodley Pike.  It was a well made track and played to my strengths and in time I could see I was catching Eoin up.  I caught him at Stoodley Pike and for the next section we were much as we were before, not together as a unit but were more or less locked together, sometimes I was ahead a few metres and at other times Eoin was in charge.  In the lead up to Charlestown, Eoin took more of a lead and it was at this point we had a bit of a chat.  I explained that I was out of position and was only here to complete the race, to which Eoin expressed surprise.  He also told me he was far slower than his previous efforts and that the main issue was one of increasing age.  As it turned out I was speaking to the eventual race winner and he couldn't have been more wrong in that statement!  I stayed with him up to the road that diverted to the CP and we parted company as I just didn't have the energy to run.  I would guess that I entered the checkpoint in around 9th position.

When I entered the CP I was a bit lost in terms of what I was supposed to do.  I was clearly knackered and needed several cups of tea and soft drink to rehydrate and warm myself up.  My base layers and mid layer were both damp from a mix of earlier effort and rain, so I changed to stay warm.  I had some accompanying snacks and eventually rolled into the kitchen to have some chicken and rice.  I really didn't know what to do now.  I arrived at about 7.15pm and the original intention was utilise my freshness to get in and out of the CP as soon as possible.  But I was knackered.  I eventually decided to have a quick lie down on the floor in a side room (but avoided the beds to get too comfortable) and had 20 minutes closing my eyes.  I'm not sure what the point of this was to be honest and eventually I decided to just get on with things.  I got back to my gear and slowly put things together and I was out of the door around 9pm.  I knew I had lost loads of positions, but I also knew now more than ever that I was not here for position, but only here to complete.

CP1 to CP2 (Hawes)

I knew that this was probably going to be the hardest section as its over 60 miles long.  Thankfully as I exited the checkpoint it was at the same time as another competitor called Nuno from Portugal.  We had a good chat and decided to work the early section together.  I was now feeling much better than how I had entered the checkpoint and we made decent progress, running sections that were runnable and taking it more cautiously when it was claggy (which was pretty frequent).  Eventually we were joined by Debbie Martin-Cosani who was clearly feeling fresher than the two of us and she drove the pace for the most part.  Eventually, she went off into the distance in the increasing fog, but we caught her again and then we eventually dropped her as she had a quick pit stop.  It was around this time that my GPS ran out of batteries and I noted my stupidity in not changing batteries at the CP, or having spares that were easily accessible.  I will admit that I freeloaded on the navigation for a good couple of hours.  In the area around Cowling, Debbie caught us both up again and then in the section towards Lothersdale, four others joined us in a sort of loose group.  We were not working together, but as we were in farmland that included lots of stiles, there was a sort of concertinaing effect going on.  Me and Nuno eventually plopped off the back of this group and we got to the Lothersdale Triathlon mini aid station at about 2.30am.  It was frankly an amazing aid station; warm blankets, bacon sandwiches, tea and other snacks on offer.  I used the opportunity to change my GPS battery.  Considering the time of day, I was very tired but overall didn't feel much worse than when I departed the CP.  Everyone seemed to be in good spirits.

I continued to work with Nuno on the way to Gargrave and there wasn't much to report on this section, much of which followed low lying paths and a bit of canal.  In the lead up to Gargrave I started to have my real first sleepy moment, as at this stage it was around 6am and I had been awake for near enough 24 hours.  I said to Nuno that I needed a break and and we parted our ways.  I found the library and sat under the entrance for five minutes to shut my eyes.  It did the trick and although I was by myself working my way to Airton I felt much better.  It was here that I passed Nuno who was having his feet attended to by the medics.  It was also around here that I was overtaken by another entrant and there were a couple of others on my tail.  However, my pace started to pick up again and those behind me soon dropped back out of sight and I caught the other person up going to Malham.  I then ascended Malham and the final section to CP 1.5 having dropped the others behind me.  The checkpoint only allows a 30 minute stop, so I used it to have a dehydrated Chicken Curry meal and a cup of tea.  I only managed half of it as it was rather spicy!

I made it out of CP1.5 just ahead of a few others and was eventually passed by a couple of people on the way up Fountains Fell but from that point onwards I was more or less by myself again.  Running was out of the question but I was otherwise making decent progress and was back into one of my alert zones.  I knew one of the bigger climbs lay ahead as the demanding Pen-y-Ghent came into view.  To be honest it was not as bad as I feared even if it involved a fair bit of scrambling and guessing where to go as the path became non-existent.  It was then just a short drop into Horton and the compulsory monitoring station (no aid available).

The light was beginning to fade and I was firmly by myself here.  The light eventually went as I went to put my headtorch on I realised my GPS had disappeared - only the back clip was still there dangling from my backpack.  I knew I had checked it only a minute earlier so it couldn't have gone far and just as I was comprehending what had happened someone appeared out of the murk, asked whether I am missing a GPS and reunited me with it!

The section from Cam End to Dodd Fell was pretty horrendous.  Visibility was extremely poor and there was a lot of slush and sections of ice.  I would guess that visibility was about 20 metres, reducing to less than 10 metres in places.  But as it was dark and a snowy landscape, it was very difficult to pick out the correct route but I was feeling rather pleased with myself for absolutely nailing every turn at exactly the right place.  It was then just the descent into Gayle / Hawes on the horizon and to be honest I felt alright.  I had a couple of moments where I lost the path and lost more time trying to navigate rather than correcting minor deviations off the route.  Eventually these little stops resulted in a fellow competitor joining me in the final descent into Hawes and it was here he commented about how much I was sliding around, yet he was fine.  Thanks!  We parted company again as we hit Gayle and I broke out into a run over the last 15 minutes into the CP and arrived just before 9pm.

At Hawes it was always in the plan to have a proper rest so had scheduled 3.5 hours of sleep.  Before that I had sausages, eggs and beans, but strangely everything tasted spicy and could only manage half the egg, but the rest was polished off.  I was then led to a bunk that had a sort of plastic cover on and got into my sleeping bag.  You'd think that I would sleep like a trooper, but it was a sort of on/off bit of sleep here and there sort of thing.  Legs were constantly restless and couldn't stay in one position for long.  I also had a huge thirst on me and was my fault for not drinking enough once I had arrived into the CP.  Eventually I had enough after about 3 hours and got myself ready to go back out.

After handing my drop bag back in and the usual spot kit check I tried to put my shoes back on and came to the realisation that there was no way my feet were going to get back in.  Thankfully, my drop bag had only just been loaded in the van so I managed to retrieve the bag and get hold of another pair of spare shoes that were a size bigger.  Disaster averted, but clearly my feet had swollen considerably with all the rest.  I left at or around 2am.

CP2 to CP3 (Middleton)

I got the impression that I left Hawes in keeping with my arriving position.  The immediate section ahead is a long ascent up Great Shunner Fell and there was not much to say about it other than I was alert, made decent progress and it was a cool crisp night.  Other than the usual claggyness under foot the only other point of note were coming across a few snow drifts in places that made things a bit interesting.  Someone went past me on the descent into Thwaite, but at this point I had no idea of my race position and didn't really care.  I had a sit down on the bench in Thwaite for a quick rest and a bite to eat.  It was here that I made what I would call my first navigational error which was pleasantly surprising as I had not recce'd any of the route .  I followed a path aligning to the river, instead of climbing out towards Keld.  It cost me about 5 minutes in total and I realised something wasn't right fairly early on.

The section to Keld was quite steep and rough underfoot and as dawn broke I was caught by Nuno, although at this stage we did our own thing and he went off ahead as I was having one of the those sleepy head moments.  I worked hard on the way to Tan Hill, but again another sleepy moment caught me half way between Keld and Tan Hill and I just lay down on a grassy area, only to find that the local sheep found this extremely interesting and decided to literally come running in my direction!  I took that as a cue to move on...

Tan Hill came along and I went inside a side room set up for the race and made some hot rice pudding with cinnamon.  I put too much hot water in, yet the rice stayed half crunchy for some reason.  I ate it anyway.  After about 20 mins I decided enough was enough and headed out into Sleightholme Moor which is renowned as being one of the most boggy sections of the whole Pennine Way.  I figured it must be difficult to be more boggy than what I had previously encountered; in fact I quipped to some other entrants that the Pennine Way may as well be renamed the Bog Way.  However, Sleightholme Moor did live up to its reputation with a new level of boggyness.  It could be best described as a bit like walking on a sponge; every step just led into sinking watery stuff.

Around Cotherstone Moor I caught Nuno up again and after some oscillation we eventually stuck together for a bit.  This coincided with two work colleagues who are avid dot watchers deciding to pay us a visit.  I did think they could have chosen a nicer section for themselves than watery bog, but they seemed to enjoy it and it woke me up a bit.  They floated around for about half an hour, speaking to some of the other entrants in the vicinity as well.  In the last hour and half or so Nuno was having a tired patch and I was feeling a bit better so I latched onto a couple of others and we worked our way through the farmland into Middleton at last light around 5pm.

Somewhere around Cotherstone.

A couple of hours from Dufton.  The sun even came out!

My ankles and knee were very sore but there was nothing to suggest anything terminal at this point.  I fuelled up with a Leek and Potato soup (which also tasted spicy - in fact everything tasted spicy at this point for some reason...) and decided to have another 4 hours sleep.  Others around me were contemplating longer rest as they didn't like the idea of setting out much before midnight.  I took a bunk but after 3 hours of further disturbed rest I'd had enough.  After a bit more kit prep and some cold rice pudding with jam I headed back out at 9pm.  I had been told to expect a short diversion around Cauldron Snout due to ice, but otherwise details were sketchy.  I certainly exited the CP ahead of the position I entered and although I felt a bit all over the place in my head for about half an hour I was in a good place.  I knew this was going to be a long night.

CP3 to CP3.5 (Dufton)

As soon as I exited the checkpoint I could feel my legs had stiffened up considerably.  I just couldn't get the legs working properly.  More concerning was that I could feel a developing shin splint.  I had a quick call with my wife about 9.30pm and gave her an update as she did with me.  It seemed that quite a few front runners were dropping out for various reasons.  The first half of the route to Dufton followed the path of the River Tees.  I managed to bash my shin, right where it was already hurting going over a stile.  Another little jab.  However, I felt refreshed and alert and otherwise I was going at a nice steady pace.  No running, but at a pace I knew I could sustain.

The second half of the way to Dufton could not be more different.  It was frankly a horror show in the making.  Just after leaving the River I saw a sign with an arrow on a broken bit of fence post and wire mesh - surely this couldn't be the diversion?  It didn't make any sense as this was about 5km before Cauldron Snout and any sensible diversion would have been lengthy.  I decided to call Race HQ - no reception (it turned out another participant did the same as me, but decided to take the diversion).  I took the opposite decision and carried on the Pennine Way as this didn't align with what I had been told at the CP.  Several others after took the same view as me.

To begin with all was ok, but my shin was hurting badly by now.  I then encountered a boulder field, which turned out to be the first of several.  My shoes, being next to useless in the clag, turned out to be even worse on the boulders.  I slipped and slid all over the place.  Progress was agonisingly slow by anyone's standards.  It included a slip into the Tees itself, and another fall where I went head first into the edge of the river banging my head slightly on a boulder.  Just when it couldn't get any worse I then encountered Cauldron Snout itself which can only be described as a very tough scramble.  It was the first time I became quite nervous as I knew any slip could result in serious injury.  As I knew I had no confidence in my feet I was extremely worried, but I managed to safely but slowly navigate myself to the top.

Cauldron Snout.  The stuff of nightmares.

All the slips and trips meant that I went from discomfort in my legs to downright agony.  I internally bemoaned that I missed what was clearly the diversion.  On the other hand the reason for the diversion was due to it being icy and I certainly never encountered anything even if I was slipping around for other reasons.  It was a juxtaposition between being angry that the diversion was not better marked, to it being my own fault for having seen what turned out to be the diversion and then deciding not to take it, but then not encountering anything that justified the diversion in the first place.

If things couldn't get any worse they soon did.  I went along a well maintained gravel vehicular track.  It was well out of the question to run but I could still walk at a decent pace, albeit in increasing discomfort.  As I ascended I went into the thickest fog I've ever encountered.  Twice I came off the vehicular track which must have been 5 metres wide, simply because I couldn't see where I was going.  I then missed a turn that headed to Maize Beck and onto High Cup Nick.  This was only my second navigational error, the total cost was about 5 minutes so not too bad.

The fog was so bad that I couldn't really see what I was walking on.  It was impossible to stay on any path and I kept drifting on and off.  The path was really indistinct, but I suspect in the daytime it is probably much easier to follow.  I knew my navigation was otherwise good as occasionally I would hit a few flagstones or a marker post.  Whilst my navigation was good and I was fully alert the lack of visibility just added further blows to my legs.  Far more oscillation and rolling of my ankles and legs than would happen in clear weather just added further blows to my already weakened body. 

On an unrelated note it was interesting that I was clearly very old school when it came to navigation.  I didn't see anyone else navigate with maps other than myself.  Furthermore I didn't really seeing anyone else use their GPS either other than on the odd occasion.  Most people tended to use their GPS watches instead.  I would say that I used maps about 1/3rd of the time and increasingly relied on GPS the rest of the time, particularly at night.

I saw absolutely nothing of High Cup Nick whatsoever and eventually descended into the CP 3.5 at Dufton just after first light at 8am.  I knew I was in trouble, but to be honest I didn't ever think about dropping out.  One of the staff at Dufton managed to strap me to try and block out the shin splint which at this stage was causing the biggest issue.  Whilst this was happening I had a weird dehydrated meal of scrambled eggs, onion and cheese.  It wasn't great but it was better than nothing.

What High Cup looks like.  For what I saw of it I may as well have been in my back garden.

I cannot find a single photo that is even close to the fog I encountered.  The picture below implies you can see the outline of a person ahead.  I couldn't even see my feet.

I left the CP a little after 30 minutes and realised my legs had stiffened up more.  The strapping was working to an extent though.  As soon as I started the climb to Green Fell the ground became more uneven and the pain continued, but worse.  I think this started to affect my energy levels as the pain took strength away from me.  Half way up I took a couple of rests, including a slumber on some grass for a 5 minute kip.  If anyone happened to have walked past me at this stage they would have probably thought the worst considering how I was spread out on the grass!  As soon as I got to the top of Green Fell it became boggy and extremely uneven and now every other pace caused shooting pain.  I was now limping and soon after was having to use the poles similar to how crutches are used.  Needless to say my pace was excruciatingly slow and I looked at what lay ahead.

I knew I was heading into one of the most remote sections of the whole Spine Race and that if I became totally immobile I would be a Mountain Rescue case.  It was at this point I decided to call it.  It is one thing to become a liability to yourself, but another thing entirely being a liability to others and putting them at risk to come and rescue you.  I made a quick call to my wife to tell her not to worry in case she saw I was deviating off route.  I then called Spine HQ and told them it was over.  They originally suggested backtracking to Dufton, but I knew just before Great Dunn Fell there was a paved surface to the summit where the Air Traffic Radar Station lies.  I said I would make my own way down the road to Knock and it would be good if someone can meet me there and drive me the last mile or so back to Dufton.  They agreed this was the better option and they would keep tracking me.

My race was now over.  I'm not the most emotional of people but I burst into tears.  Totally sobbed.  I knew it was the right and sensible decision though.  I could have perhaps gone further and maybe if there was only 20 miles to go I would have found a way through.  But with around 90 miles left of the race I would have only delayed the inevitable.  As I was back on the paved surface I managed to go at a good pace and then I questioned once more whether I should have quit.  The reality though was that although I could move on the tarmac road albeit still in huge amounts of pain, the minute I went off road again I would have essentially become immobile again.

As it turned out, above half way to Knock two cars came to pick me up, explaining that the gates were open to the private road.  I was then driven back to Dufton and well looked after.  I stayed there for about 3 hours before being transferred to CP4 at Alston.  It was all over.

Post Mortem

The way I have described my injuries is that I didn't actually receive a knock out blow.  It was a bit like a boxing match, where a jab is unlikely to end the match.  But after receiving 1,000 jabs, the cumulative effect was plain to see and I just could not continue.

The truth is I was on the back foot before the start of the race and I didn't even know it.  I was determined to not take poles until CP1 at Hebden Bridge.  This was a mistake and I twisted my ankle badly a couple of times.  Neither were catastrophic other than a bit of a limp for 10 minutes or so after, but these were blows I took, the cumulative effect of which would be felt much later on in the race.  The second bad choice were my choice of shoes, the Inov8 X-Talon 290's.  There is nothing wrong with them, but for whatever reason I slipped and slid everywhere.  This was to the point of someone following me into Hawes enquiring what I was wearing as he couldn't believe how I was all over the place.  All of these slips and slides put stress on the lower leg and ankles and added to my final demise.  The final blows were in the sections leading up to, but also including Cauldron Snout.  I knew my feet were not great at this point but felt that I could manage it and had made good steady progress out of Middleton.  The boulder fields resulted in several slips, trips and falls which is where I got my black eye and from that point on I was more or less stuffed.  This was finally compounded by the worst fog I've ever encountered heading towards High Cup Nick where I couldn't see what I was walking on, so was not able to manage the oscillations my ankles were taking as much as I would have liked.  It was more or less game over from this point even if I managed a few miles beyond CP 3.5 at Dufton.

My right foot somehow seemed to grow but it was the swelling in my left leg from the lower shin down that ultimately caused my exit.

Lots of angry swelling around the shin and ankle.

The injury count was pretty impressive:

- Left swollen ankle

- Swollen left midfoot

- Swollen calf

- Terrible shin splint (this was the worst injury of them all)

- Twisted knee causing occasional jarring pain.

- Innumerous blisters at top of sock due to swollen calf.

- Right foot about two sizes bigger than the left (I was always told feet grow in width and not length but is patently not true!).  The right leg had similar issues to the left but on a much reduced scale.

- Various scrapes, particularly on left side that some 10 days later are still scabbed.

- Black eye

- Left thumb tendon (probably caused by trying to take weight off my left leg too much with the pole)

The physical injuries I can all heal from, but to be honest the biggest injury is the mental one.  The feeling of failure, ineptitude and being down on myself.  People say I tried my best, but my response was that my best was not good enough.  The mental demons set in to the point where I have not been able to talk much about what happened and I've shut myself off from reading anything about the race as I cant bear it.  Time will heal this too, but I do feel somewhat lost with myself, perhaps compounded by having no plan other than going into semi-retirement whatever happened.

The funny thing is what I feared most about the Spine didn't really materialise.  I was worried about the bad circulation in my hands and feet, but by and large I had no issues.  I was also seriously worried about sleep deprivation, but again if I'm honest it was far less of an issue for me than I thought.  I had about 30 seconds of sleep at CP1 at Hebden Bridge, about 3 hours lying down at CP2 at Hawes (of which about half was sleep) and a further 3 hours at Middleton (about half was sleep).  That was more than enough to keep me refreshed and I could probably have had less.  I did have quite a few sleepy moments out on course, but these just came and went throughout the day.

People say, there is always next time and I have said to everyone since was that this was attempt number one of one.  My position will no doubt soften over time and just like the boxing analogy I used at the start of this section, perhaps I should one day have a rematch!


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