The Spine Race 2014

I trained all year for this race, only to drop before CP2, this blog is about why & the psychology & physical state behind it...

in Fell Running / Ultra Running / Winter

I've been out of Blog Land since Recce #3 & the Spine Refresher Course I ran for the guys at UltraMadness.

Why you might ask?

I hit complete exhaustion & I had a job to complete. I had to close my online website for sales, MountainLite. So you could say I've had a busy time, and I've also had an emotional time. Plus on to of this I've been trying to recover from 'adrenal exhaustion', as my Natropath put it. I don't use the conventional NHS, I pay for my health care, not going to go into why on this blog, but suffice to say that when I came out of my natropaths treatment room I felt like a train had run me over. She had switched off my adrenal glands & I went from hyper mode to zone mode in minutes… not what I needed with only 2 months to go pre-Spine Race.

Fast forward 2 months….

The Spine came fast & I had rested well, maybe too well, because I couldn't really get out and train, I was trying to keep my cortisol levels down, its an ultra runners problem & it will put you in a grave early, if you let it. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenals, it comes when the body is over stressed or you click into the fight or flight response. (Click here to learn more about cortisol), suffice to say, you don't want cortisol in your system everyday. It also leads to collapsed arteries & early heart disease….

The Start Line:

I'd been here in my mind for 2 months, willing this day to come & pass, as I needed this burden (its what it had become) off my shoulders. I was raring to go. I was with my very good friend & running partner Mr Andrew Burton, we ran the DBR together. Marcus Scotney was revving up to win & put a record down for the Challenger & there were plenty of good ultra distance runners in the field, although I didn't know this until I met them along the way.

I opted for shorts, as the weather report said sunshine until late afternoon. The actual weather showed us rain, but what looked like passing clouds, at the start at 08:00. On this premise I opted for a base layer & wind shirt combo for my top half, as the last thing I wanted when we ht the tops of Kinder Scout was to be sweating. This turned out to be mistake number 1. The weather didn't improve until much later & we spent the first 30 minutes running into rain, then sleet & finally snow. By the time we had put waterproof jacket & pants on we were wet & cold. Time to turn on the speed to stay warm & this was the last thing we should have been doing this early in a 268 mile foot race. School boy error certainly… We both had cold bellies & chests as the biting winds & sleety snow drove into us across the tops, thankfully as we descended to Torside Reservoir the sun was breaking on the other side & we'd get a chance to dry out properly. This cold started my chest to become infected. I was most likely harbouring a bug, and this allowed it to take hold, this was mistake number 2.

The rest of the day went well, but I felt grotty from the chest & the damp/cold earlier in the day. We ran with Damian Hall for a while across the Bleaklow Range & then later in the day we were caught by Andy Mouncey as we crossed the M62 & he stuck with us until 1km before the CP at Hebden Bridge, where he put on the pressure and cruised away to get a swift CP1 turn around.

We spent too long in CP1, it took 2 hours to get sorted & get out of there. Sometimes things just take longer than planned. In hindsight, we should probably have bedded down here for a few hours & accepted a 60 mile day for the 2nd leg, but I was unsure of how this would leave me physically & wanted to break the day. So we headed out, and got to just past Ponden Reservoir before setting up a quick camp in the GoLite ShangriLa. Neil Bryant, a very accomplished ultra runner joined us on this leg & shared our roomy tent. I didn't sleep well, as the Klymit X-Frame lightweight mat I was on kept bottoming out & I got cold, I also experienced breathing problems as I tried to sleep… it was a strange 3 hours of lying still & sort of sleeping.

Day 2:

06:30 & we were on the move after stopping for about 4 hours, 1/2 an hour set up, 3 hours downtime & 1/2 an hour to pack up. No breakfast, as it was a little cold & we set off to get to Gargrave for some hot food. We experienced a beautiful morning, sun rise was special, my only issue was I never warmed up, I spent 5 hours being on the edge of cold. Hindsight tells me I should have put more clothing on, but I was worried that with worse weather coming in later in the day, that if I wore too much now, then I wouldn't cope with the later day temps… this was an error, I should have put on more, let myself warm up & then strip the layers as the day warmed & so did I. Anyway, its a lesson for next time & this was mistake number 3.

We got to Gargrave around mid-day & went in the first cafe in view. Other Spine Racers were in there, it felt like a good place to be. I still didn't warm up until I got food inside me & then got a good talking to by Neil on the fact that I should put more clothing on. He was right, I listened, but when we came out of the cafe, the wind had changed direction, the ground was no long frosty & frozen & I roasted for a couple of km until I stripped layers again.

Movement was now slow, really slow it seemed. We moved up the valley from Gargrave to Malham, muddy & no incidents. It was beginning to grind & I wasn't expecting this on the 2nd day. Also, my knee had been locking up on the first day as we ran with Andy Mouncey, this meant I couldn't run today, even if I had wanted too. To add to this, my tendon, the Extensor Digitorum Longus Tendon, the one that lifts the foot & toes to be exact, was starting to hurt. I noticed it during the day, but it was getting steadily worse, especially on descents. We made Malham Cove & the Malham Tarn in pretty good time, around 18:00 & had a quick cup of coffee, getting ready for the ascent onto Fountain Fell & Penygent.

All day my mind had been bombarding me with the fact that my knee was not in good shape & now my ankle was beginning to suffer. Negativity was creeping in, in a very big way. I went through the odd sugar dip & this didn't help, but also time seemed to stretch inexplicably. What was actually 1 hour, seemed like 2 to 3, I was suffering mentally & physically & this was not good. I was finding it hard to stay positive. We trudged up Fountain Fell & I was deep inside myself. I could climb the hills, this was easy, energy was there, but my knee & ankle were really troubling me. I had already taken 4 x Cocodamol (8mg of codeine in each tablet) & the second batch weren't really abating the pain. My mind looked for ways out. I adjusted my gait, which had already been adjusted naturally, but it didn't help. We summited after what seemed like ages & the top was slick with verglass, covered by wet snow & slush. Conditions seemed treacherous, but I didn't mind this, I live for this type of stuff.

On the start of our descent my knee was agony, my ankle was making it increasingly difficult & my mind was offering all the solutions it could to stop this pain. You don't need to go on, you don't need to injure yourself, its not worth it just to say you've completed the Spine. Realism crept in & I didn't really think I had the next 10 miles in my legs, or at least in my knee & ankle… I was on a downward spiral & I knew my knee was in a bad position for the rest of the journey. Could I really complete another 160 miles after the next CP at Hawes, if I couldn't get off this bloody hill without experiencing pain?

Now I will never know the answers to these questions, but one thing I do know in hindsight, was I was able to move downhill quicker than most over the verglassed rocks, although I am good at this, as I spend plenty of time in the winter months, on Striding & Swirral Edge, Helvellyn in marginal clothing & gear, learning where to & where not to tread… I found this easy, yet as we moved onto the grassed areas I couldn't move at the same speed as the others. I couldn't handle another 5 + hours of this to Hawes, I was slipping further into stopping with every step.

We hit the road & the pain went, I now was back at the front, walking fast with Neil Bryant, eating salami & feeling better, yet I knew the descent off Penygent was steep & I was going to be in the same place again, with my knee stabbing & my ankle just in general pain.

I was about to can it, I spoke briefly with Joe Faulkner, asked him what the next section was like. He said get up the hill & if you need to drop down, then head in the Horton in Ribblesdale by Bracken Bottom, but he told me to go on.

Unbeknown to me, Andy Burton, who I had un-officially entered with, was having troubles in his head as well. His ankle was also swollen, and he was walking in a funny way. He too spoke to Joe & got the same response.. "get up the hill lad" & that was that.

We were in a group of 6. The other 4 waited for us, but we hung back to talk. They couldn't wait, they would get cold so off they trotted & we got to chat. Andy was suffering, he told me of his issues. I was suffering & I told him of mine. As were neared the path that would take us to Bracken Bottom & then Horton in Ribblesdale we had already made our decision, we were already mentally out of the race, even if the physical was holding us back. We sat behind a wall & had a few minutes of thinking. We decided to drop from the race. Relief was great, but in my mind I felt like a failure. I felt like I should be carrying on until I really couldn't walk anymore, but then I didn't want to damage myself irrevocably. I'm sure Andy felt the same, but we didn't talk about it.

We had a 3km descent ahead of us & it took us most of an hour to get to the pub in Horton in Ribblesdale & that was it. We called in to the CP by mobile, told them we'd dropped out and waited for our good friend Stu Smith to come and pick us up in the sweep van.

We stayed up in the CP until Neil Bryant and others came in, so they knew what had happened to us. Nobody made us feel bad, like we were failures, but I still felt it.. perhaps my injuries were just in my mind, as there was no swelling in my foot/ankle & certainly nothing in my knee. Obviously we had the standard swollen feet, but this is normal for ultra runners. I felt like a fraud. Its a hard trip the mental side, especially when you call it a day.

We slept for a few hours, waking & dosing. You're body is so full of adrenaline & caffeine that its hard to get good sleep. We woke around 7:30/8:00am & hung around, talking to other who were continuing & others who were out like ourselves.

We were picked up by my girlfriend, Nicola, around 09:30 and headed back to Kendal. The day was beautiful & I couldn't help thinking it was all just in my head. I had experienced searing pains in my ankle upon standing after I slept, like my tendon was sprained, but this had gone on moving around, but I was hobbling. My achilles were in bulk, swollen & my ankles & feet were fat, but nothing too bad.

Nicola & I live in Watermillock, Ullswater & after being dropped at work in Kendal, picking my car up, which is automatic, thankfully, because my left foot would have found it hard to depress the clutch, Mr Burton & I headed off to my house to lick our wounds & discuss the last 2 days.

The aftermath...

  • What went wrong?
  • Why did we really stop?
  • Was it injury?
  • Was it our mental state?
  • Did we just give up?

I find the psychology really interesting. We entered as a pair. Why? Because we did the Dragons Back together, but we had entered that solo. We are Mountain Marathon runners & like the paired running you get in these events. It can be easier as a 2. But we experienced lots of different emotions as we moved together & with other folk. Had it been a mistake to pair up?

I have to say now, I hope it doesn't piss Andrew off when he reads this, I hope he see's what I see. I'll know soon enough when he reads this bit.

On the both days we travelled together & we travelled with others. I enjoyed everyone company, but I know I pissed Mr B off. I also found it hard to be tied to my friend, and he really is a good friend. I know he found it hard at times too. CP1 was difficult. I was ready, Andy was faffing around as far as I could see. I pushed him to get ready, he didn't want me to. He might have actually wanted to stay in CP1, I did want to, but wasn't letting myself. We suffered tension here & this was a thorn in both our sides. In ultra's it seems to me we all travel in groups, I've experienced it before & its fine if your solo. Groups will change, pairs will swap, you might end up solo, you might end up in a pack, but ultimately when your solo, you are your own master. When you start as a pair, you don't want to be separated, you want to look after your partner, you want to bounce off each other. In an MM you will make sure others don't infiltrate this relationship, you will operate solely as a pair & keep others at bay, this is how it works. In an ultra its not like this, people carry each other along & people leave each other & join the next group, or group behind. Or just look after themselves for a while.

Andy & I suffered from the pairing. We had our friendship jeopardised by others joining up with us. Ultimately I think we work well together, but on this occasion I'm not so sure. We didn't work well together, but then on the flip side when we traveled as a 3 with Neil Bryant, we worked well as a trio… so maybe it really doesn't matter. Anyway, we talked through the psychology of what happened on the trail & ironed out any issues that might have developed. The reason I am writing about this is for others to learn from our experience.

Would I enter as a pair again?

Probably not.

If Andy enters the Spine again will I run with him? Damn right! Andy is a great runner, and a great guy to move with, but I think both of us require the freedom to decide when we stop, when we continue & who we might run with on a chosen day. We used our experience in the DBR to enter as we did, but this was not the DBR, its the Spine & its a different time, different course, different race.

So what about my injuries?

Well the ankle did swell eventually, more than I thought it would. By the time Andy & I had talked through the mental aspect of the race & our partnership, it was massive. I lost my ankle & foot to a funny shaped tube, that use to be my ankle & foot. I got up off the sofa to find I was hobbling badly. That night I was in agony & had to take pain killers to dull the ache. I had Bowen treatment the next day & my therapist, who was an athletics coach & distance runner himself, amongst other things, asked if I had been bitten by a dormant snake, the swelling was that aggressive.

Its taken 3 days to dissipate, but its still swollen. The knee is still there, although its just a reminder right now.

And the big question!!

Could I have continued? I will never know, but I'm glad my ankle has been the shape it has & I know I would have struggled & been in pain all the way. Could I have coped with another 160 miles of pain? I doubt it. Pain from battered feet is one thing, but my ankle and knee would have been to much for 'me' to cope with, it was getting me down after Day2, not sure what 3 & 4 would have been like.

Is it fool hardy to entertain thoughts of continuing in my mind?

Yes, because I will never know.

All I do know is this year I'm having a rest. I'm detoxing my liver over the next few months, I'm getting some proper rest for once. We move house in a couple of months & I have a new business to build. I'll probably do some fell races, not some silly mega distance route like the Spine, but one thing is for sure, I'll be back. 2016 is my target, which gives me 2 years to get myself in shape, mentally & physically.

And next time I'll have more tricks up my sleeve to deal with the injuries I picked up & the mental aspect, so I can work my way through it.

I'm amazed at the Spine'rs, the mental tenacity & the physical toughness. I have never experienced anything which has drained me physically as much as the Spine & I only did 2 days. But then maybe my mind has played that old trick, of allowing me to forget just how hard the DBR really was. It seems easy in my minds eye in comparison to the Spine, but don't take my word for it, enter them both & suck it & see.

Thanks to Scott & Phil, the organiser of the race, they have put on a really great event. Thanks to all the other Spine workers who make sure there is food in the CP's, & it all runs like clockwork. Thanks to Joe Faulkner & Stuart Smith for being the safety guys, as I really trust these 2 and a big thanks to Montane UK for sponsoring me and giving me all the clothing I need to compete in events like this.

There will be blogs about kit in the following weeks.

Look out for training courses for these events, The Spine/Challenger & DBR later in the year… 

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