Spine Race 2023 - Leg 6 (Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm)

I might have revised my plans had I known in advance that within 15 minutes of leaving Bellingham the hallucinations would start so soon.  Again, more caffeinated gels came out and again they did nothing.  I was beginning to think I could be chucking away a potential finish of the Spine Race for just sheer stupidity.  However, I made my bed (excuse the pun) and now I needed to make the best of it.

I decided to make decent progress in this section by going at a good walk and no more, not knowing how I would fare later on.  I was having wave after wave of new hallucinations, occasionally interspersed with some normal thought.  Thankfully a useful distraction was that my wife turned up at one of the road crossings and Ultrarunning Sam was also there who was doing media work for the Spine.  This time I was happy to stop and have a chat for 10 minutes and both my wife interviewed me for the Youtube channel she puts daily updates on as did Sam.  With hindsight I think a lot of the material was useless as deep down I wasn't with it, even if I was appearing lucid.  It nonetheless gave me a period shortly thereafter where normal thought returned.  Shortly after just as the light was fading I saw two people on Padon Hill who turned out to be from the Safety Team checking on my welfare.  All was good and I took the opportunity to put on my ice spikes as it had been bad enough along this section in the light, but in the dark I'm sure I would have fallen.

Near a road head early on in the final leg.

Stopping for a brief chat with Ultrarunning Sam.

Padon Hill

I should mention at this point about my battery situation with the head torches.  My battery usage went up considerably this year, I'm assuming due to the much colder conditions affecting their efficiency.  For this last leg I was left with one set of fresh batteries (which last anywhere between 6-9 hours this year), two sets of part used batteries but very questionable life, and whatever life was left in my spare head torch, the batteries within I had not even changed prior to the start of this event.  It sounds like enough but I was seriously worried.

Despite my self made promise to just go at a decent walking pace I hit some forest sections before Byrness and it was just too tempting not to run.  The head torch battery situation I felt also made this a necessity.  I was going at a cracking speed and it was helping to keep the sleep deprivation at bay.  I arrived into Byrness at about 7.45pm for the mince and tatties which were excellent!

As soon as I left Byrness the first set of head torch batteries had already gone so I changed into another set that I definitely knew were part used.  However, I couldn't remember whether I had started the leg in fresh batteries or not (that is what I normally do).  If they were fresh batteries that had just run out then I was stuffed.  Before I had finished the Byrness Hill climb the next set of already part used batteries had gone.  I was now down to my emergency head torch and another set of batteries where I couldn't remember whether they were my part used ones or not.  I couldn't muck about now, I needed to make progress and fast progress as I had visions of having to emergency bivvy somewhere for several hours until daylight returned.  I decided to use my emergency head torch next and use whatever life was left in those.  Little did I know this was all building up to a completely different problem further up the course.

Because of the above, I made some cracking progress to Hut 1.  The trail by and large was broken enough to follow and I soon got the gist of it being best to follow the trail where there were vague footprints with pole marks either side.  Although what I previously described as being the second level of sleep deprivation being very much present, the urgency of making progress just about kept things at bay.  I arrived at Hut 1 at or around midnight.  The whole time I was by myself and there were no torches in either direction.  I promised myself a quick 10 minute nap and I was out like a light.  There were now just 16 miles or so left to the finish and I knew that once I'd reached Hut 2, the worst was over and it was mostly descent to the finish.  Unfortunately this was where my nightmare began...

I had assumed that the track to Hut 2 would be much the same as it was to Hut 1 i.e. visible and reasonably trodden.  Pretty much immediately it just sort of disappeared, the wind was howling and by and large removed any hint of the previous snowy path.  In all of this my poles were as good as useless.  I had bought them to aid stability so they didn't have the snow attachment on at the bottom.  They were effectively a long tent peg that was good at telling me the snow depth, but not a fat lot else and certainly didn't aid my progress.  I started to hit snow drift after snow drift and whatever direction I seemed to take it didn't help.  It also started to coincide with fresh waves of hallucinations and was what I've described as Phase 3.  Other than being in a snowy landscape everything ceased being real and I've described it as being a bit like being in a computer game.  I saw my name written in blades of grass, plastic bags growing out of the hillside, prayer flags and the mountain being covered in seaweed. There were also the usual farm animals dotted about the place whenever there was a rock or snowy feature.  Amongst all of this it was blowing a gale and it was so not funny.

About 2/3rds of the way to Hut 2 (so about 3 miles remaining to the bothy) I became aware of head torches in the distance behind me.  For some reason this got me really agitated.  I guess because my progress early on had been so good and despite not being interested in race position my sleep deprived state had somehow convinced me that I needed to keep those head torches at bay.  Despite the sharp ascent in the snow in the pitch black I was now trying to run at full gas, by that I mean 10k effort, or the same sort of effort if you were doing hill reps.  Obviously in this terrain progress was much slower, and I was getting caught in snow drifts.  One of which was well over head height.

The effort levels I was putting in resulted in me rapidly overheating and I was dripping inside.  I looked back and the head torch was closer and they were gaining on me and I reckoned were probably only a few minutes behind me now.  I had convinced myself that I had lost lots of time, that I must be looking like a fool to the dot watchers back home and that I needed to try harder.  I was virtually sprinting up Auchope hill and then took immense risks on the descent shortly thereafter before reaching Hut 2.

The Safety Team member on duty welcomed me in and could see I was in a bit of a state.  I was told to rest, but I explained that I needed to leave quickly as I wanted to keep those behind me at bay.  He said that he didn't know what I was on about and that the next person is over 4.5 miles away and that I've created a massive gap on them since leaving Byrness (this was backed up by a comment from a fellow competitor after the race who early on was trying to bridge the gap to me but said my pace was far too hot!)!  I didn't believe a word until he showed me the live tracking.  Even now what I saw mystifies me as it felt very real.  Its possible some of the head torches could have been stars, but the person that gained on me certainly wasn't.  I can only think it was a total figment of my imagination.  

Eventually I left Hut 2 for the 7 or so miles to the finish.  To be honest I dawdled as it was clear there was no one ahead or behind me so I may as well take my time.  Having said that I took it to the extreme and kept stopping to fidget with something or other.  As before everything stopped being real, but at least I was now almost home.

I eventually touched the wall at 6.47am in a total of 118 hours, 47 minutes and 59 seconds and finished in 17th place.

About to cross the finish line.

Touching the wall.

It all started to become very emotional.

I was totally broken and there was no time for joy or smiles, I just burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably into one of the volunteers shoulders before eventually being ushered to my wife.  I was quickly led indoors and as soon as my shoes were taken off me I found a corner of the Border Hotel where I fell asleep.  The manner of my finish was directly linked to the level of sleep deprivation I'd experienced and when combining the following:- 1) 1 hour of sleep at CP5 at Bellingham, 2) head torch worries resulting in pushing on harder than I would have otherwise done, 3) massive waves of hallucinations, 4) conditions between Hut 1 and Hut 2 being fiendishly difficult making progress exceptionally slow; it all resulted in me finishing the way I did.

Would have I done it any differently had I known in advance what would have happened?  The short answer was probably not.  As mentioned elsewhere in my blog, I leave it all out on the course and its just not me to finish with anything other than nothing left in the tank.

I'd like to thank everyone that volunteers their time for the Spine Race.  It sounds awfully cliched to the casual reader about there being a 'Spine Family', but in this case there genuinely is, all of whom are there for one another and it is this that makes the event what it is.

As for me, I finally feel like the story of redemption is now complete.  I no longer need to think of the two failures, and I can finally wear the shirt and badge with pride and I will do so for a long time to come!

Legs 5 & 6 review.


  1. Serial dot watcher here. Followed you from the start, having followed your previous two. Have to admit my eyes leaked when you finally touched that wall, as I'm sure many others did. Awesome achievement!


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