My Spine Race ~ Kerry Sutton
‘Are you mad?’ ‘Insane?’ And most of all, ‘Why?’ These were some of the questions fielded at me after I had clicked ENTER on the Spine Race 2020. The race is a 268mile, 420km ultra which takes you along the Pennine Way, over and through some of the most inhospitable places in England. Once such place is Pen y Ghent: so reliable is the heavy wind that it has been granted its own name. ‘The Way’ also takes in one of the highest points in England – Cross Fell which, at 2,926ft, is a notoriously miserable point late on in the race and usually covered in snow. Add to this that the run is undertaken in the depths of winter, starting just after New Year on the 12th January. I guess people are justified asking ‘Why’ and suggesting that I might have a screw loose.
James and I arrived in Edale on Thursday night and checked in to a cheap and fairly ragged B&B. I had sorted my kit ahead of time. My drop bag was well organised. I had enough, but not lots of extra kit, and all of it was organised into multiple clearly labelled bags. This was to help my future self enormously when rifling through in sleep deprived fug.
The alarm woke us in what felt like the dead of night It was pitch black and raining outside. My stomach was filled with a different sort of nerves. These nerves were not adrenaline filled ‘fight or flight’ type nerves, but rather an incomprehension at how one completes a race of this magnitude; a feeling of heading into something so much bigger than me. In every other race I’ve entered, I’ve known what I’ll be facing – give or take. I’ve known what I will have to deal with physically and mentally, and I’ve known what I will have to do to achieve my aims. This race was different. I was throwing myself into the total unknown.
Arriving at check in, there was plenty of hustle and bustle as people sorted themselves out in the small hall. I love the air of expectation that hangs over the room: everyone focused, eager to start.
We lined up under the gantry, the sun beginning to rise over the horizon. The klaxon sounded at 8am on the dot. From now on the clock was ticking. It would not stop until either I did or once we had reached the cut off time of 168 hours.
Carston, a fellow runner, and I had had a couple of prerace chats on Facebook. I had met him in Fiji two years previous on the Lost Island Ultra. He suggested we stick together. I was slightly unsure of this as I generally like to race alone. However, his logic was sound. He had run the route before so would be really helpful with navigation and I generally have a quicker pace than him so he felt that would keep him on target. We had a good 16 hours together. In those first 16 hours we seemed to have a sample of everything I would encounter multiple times over the following 40+ hrs. We got lost, we chatted, we ran in silence, we fell into waist-high bogs, got rained on (a lot), and ran or trudged through deep mud and/or water. We fell, we slipped, we pondered just how we were going to do this! It was sadly one of these falls that cost him the race. Having slipped he started to feel pain in the back of his knee and was starting to slow. The realisation that his race was coming to an end before CP1 was heart breaking. It was hard to see him go.
The first checkpoint was a buzz of activity and you were sucked into a highly impressive system which was repeated at every CP there on in. On arrival you were ushered into a preliminary room. Muddy, wet shoes, gaiters and poles were removed and labelled. Your drop bag had been delivered and was waiting for you in the next warm room. Here you could remove wet clothes and find space on the radiators to give them a chance to dry as you tended your feet and went to eat. No sooner had you entered the dining room you were presented with a white board with a menu on it. There seemed to be no end to the patience of the volunteers as I asked for my 4th sugary tea! The shepherd’s pie was delicious, as was the rice pudding (not something I normally like – it is funny what racing does to your taste buds). You then you had the option of heading for a sleep and if so, were allocated a bed in a dorm. I chose not to stop long, wanting to reach CP2 before I slept. I eat and left. As I headed up the hill, I passed a runner looking lost. When I asked if I could help his answer surprised me, ‘I have no GPS’ he said. ‘I don’t know where the route is.’ We stayed together for the next 20 or so hours. Jan turned out to be an interesting character. He certainly had plenty to say, but despite my best attempts to get him to raise his voice or wait until the wind died down, he continued to talk incessantly at low volume as we walked in single file. Sadly, I only managed to hear 2 or 3 words in very 10, so following the thread was somewhat tricky. What I did make out was that he was quite a unique individual. He’d done a number of similar long, long races. This was the last of this nature however as he felt at 55 his body was tired. He was, amongst other things, a ‘physician’ of sleep. Clearly, he was using himself as a guinea pig, intending to do this whole race on no sleep. Hilariously, his motivation to ‘get it done’ was his commitment to his wife whom he was taking out to the theatre for her birthday 6 days hence. One minor detail: she lived back home in America! He was going to need to get a wriggle on.
I was trucking well. I was eating well and enjoying myself. It was really early in the race (relatively speaking) and I wasn’t concerned about my placing at this point. So much could change. I didn’t even know I was in 4th place until I arrived into a ‘half’ checkpoint and came face to face with another female competitor! She shot out of that checkpoint like a rat out of a trap. Once she had left, I was told she was 3rd place female.
I had spent a lot of time in training working out where to put all those things I would want to access quickly. I didn’t want to be removing my rucksack unless really necessary. Gloves, hat, music, headphones, food – each item had its own place on my body. I was so glad I did. Everything was second nature and meant the chance of losing items was much less. I was pleased with my kit too. In fact, I wouldn’t change a thing. I started the race in full waterproofs and remained in them for the duration. Bear in mind it was around 24+ hours between checkpoints, and I was generally soaked. I made a point of changing my leggings, top, and sock at each. I had bought a pair of lined waterproof mittens for the gnarly Scottish section, or so I thought. Wrong! I wore them from the first day onwards! My choice of shoe was brilliant. I had struggled to find a shoe with a wide enough toe box to accommodate both my wide feet and the seal skin waterproof socks (thick socks resembling large condoms on my feet). My Hokas and Altras were the only shoes that worked. However, on my last multi-day training session the Altras gave me the worst blisters I had ever had. I didn’t really have much confidence in them. You can imagine my reluctance to have to say goodbye to the Hokas after CP 3. They had failed me by ripping along the big toe of both my feet.
I reached CP2 some 36 hours in. I was feeling great, my excitement mounting as it was the only CP allowing support crews. It was so lovely seeing James waiting for me. He was able to experience things from the inside and see just how incredibly efficient these CPs were. It was at this checkpoint that the dedication of the crew took on an even great level. I had packed one luxury: my old battered Ugg boots for the checkpoints. My feet thanked me for the warmth of the soft boots albeit for brief periods as I went about my tasks. Yet as I removed one of them to have my feet tended to, in a bazaar and unfortunate twist of fate the full mug of hot tea was knocked and landed face down, filling my boot with its sugary contents. A volunteer rushed over and took charge. ‘I will make sure they are dry and returned to your bag ready for you at the next checkpoint.’ Seriously! He was true to his word.
I decided it was wise to get my head down here for 2 hours, I said goodbye to James and was allocated a bed. It wasn’t the most restful of sleeps. Firstly, 3rd lady was also in the room and was hell bent on shouting at everyone who made a noise outside the door. I also couldn’t lie on my side as my right hip was sore from bursitis and my left very sore from a very hard fall in the previous section. Lying on my back was the only option, but that was excruciating because my hip flexors screamed at me. So, I propped myself upright and wriggled about for a few hours, hoping that at least closing my eyes might afford me some ‘recovery’.
I took off again in the dead of night. I loved the long uphill section onto a moor. It was pitch black and quite windy, and I was totally alone. I could see no beams of light from other competitors in front or behind me. It was just magic. Once at the top you entered a section of flagstones laid over the bogs to protect you from falling. However, they were treacherous. A sliver of glass-like ice covered them – invisible to naked to the eye. Numerous times I tried to run along them, as they were definitely the easiest and quickest way to traverse the bog, but after a couple of nasty slips I gave up. Yet even in spite of them I was in my element and have to admit to having a number of ‘singing out loud’ moments.
One of the wonderful things about the race is the support you encounter along the way. Deep into the hills and at 2am I climbed over a style where I was greeted with a little ring of fairy lights around a large bottle of water and a tub of sweets. ‘For the Spiners’ read the message! Later that same day I was head down, pushing through the muddy, slippery fields being battered by driving snow. Passing through a farmyard there was a sign that read, ‘Spiners. Tea, coffee and shelter in the Hayloft if you need it.’ I wasn’t keen to stop but I popped my head in. This was no working hayloft but rather a self-contained cottage with a large roaring fire, sofa and cakes, biscuits and tea on hand.
There were countless of these heart-warming stories which make this race so special. I was told of one coffee shop along the route which left its door open and the coffee machine on overnight for those who needed shelter. If you listen to the media and what they choose to report on these days, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking everyone is rotten and out to get you. These simple acts of trust and kindness helped rekindle my belief in humanity.
This section saw the temperatures plummet and we were ‘treated’ to a snowstorm. The cold temperatures combined with exertion meant I started to have a problem with my breathing that I had never had before. I couldn’t get a full lung of air and was coughing up nasty little bits.
Coming into CP3 I was really breathing hard and each breath was taking a lot of work. If I was going up any kind of incline, I could only take one or two steps before needing to pause to catch my breath. James had come out to see me on the road 50m from the checkpoint. It was so lovely to see him again. I wanted to spend some time with him, but they were quite adamant he was to remain outside the CP. Rules are rules. However, whilst chatting to the medical staff and in trying to decide what I was to do an exception was made, and he was allowed to come in for 10 mins. The next checkpoint was some 30 hours away and so having a watertight plan was going to be crucial. A chest infection can change into pneumonia very quickly in a race of this nature. I took a few deep breaths on an inhaler and ate, then tried to sleep but to no avail. I was now nearing 40 hours of no sleep, and the process of figuring out what to do about my chest had set me back a couple more. 3rd woman set off with two other runners ahead of me. I didn’t worry. It was still a long way to go and I felt that covering my bases was more important than the chase at this time. I set off around an hour later with someone I hadn’t met before. However, a couple of kilometres into the stage I was began to have shoe issues (having swapped my Hokas for Altras) and not wanting to be the reason he slowed, I let him go on. If only I hadn’t…
The route followed a wide, thundering river for many kilometres. The rivers were already swollen by the huge amount of rainfall across the country and topped up further by the recent snowstorm now adding meltwater. At one particular tributary I was taken aback by its depth and force and walked up and down trying to find a sensible crossing place. Settling on one section I found some stepping stones to balance on. Like pillars, they would normally have kept you well above the water. Not tonight – the water went over my knees. It was pretty sketchy; I did not want to slip. They subsequently diverted runners off this section of the course.
I had heard at the CP that there were crew stationed at the base of ‘The Snout’ which is a notoriously difficult climb up a powerful waterfall. I had also heard rumblings that they were going to divert the route around it because it was deemed too dangerous. I was moving along well but these doubts started to play in my mind for two reasons. A) I didn’t see any headtorch beams in the distance or behind me the entire night. The river along which we were to follow was so flooded we were forced to clamber, slip, climb, roll over huge boulders under an escarpment, and I started to wonder if I could have missed the instruction to go around rather than over this stuff. And B) I was in a mobile black spot so couldn’t get any support on this. I could hear the thunder of the waterfall up ahead and was so far into the route that going back wasn’t an option.
I then faced a ‘first’ for me: a moment trying to wriggle free with both feet wedged between boulders. I was deeply lacking in sleep and I asked myself, ‘had I reached my limit?’ – that limit which I was always trying to find. But I reasoned that I still felt physically strong and wanted to continue, so I couldn’t be there yet. Yet mentally I was feeling the pressure.
Hallucinating is an experience I’ve heard about on these sleep-deprived long runs well over 30 hours. I don’t know if you call it hallucinating but I certainly saw many, many things which just weren’t there. I can, even now, remember clearly all the sights I imagined. Moss growing on boulders became sheltering sheep; people appeared everywhere, and it was only upon getting close I realised they were rocks or trees. I remember saying to one person I passed to look at that amazing drawing of a persons’ head on the road. ‘I can’t see anything except cow shit’, he said. My eyes were playing tricks on me big time.
I climbed up over the waterfall, using hands and feet, careful with my foot placing as it was very wet and slippery. The thunder of the water reminding me it wouldn’t take any prisoners. The top was easy flat terrain but was the first time I felt a tad uneasy. Anyone who knows me knows I am happy alone in remote areas and in the dark, but this section had a funny feel about it. Dismembered rabbit carcasses littered the area, and the wind whistled around. But other than that, it was totally desolate and silent. It had an eeriness about it. I was beginning to feel the pull of sleep and was desperate to close my eyes for just a few moments. I hatched a plan with myself. I would sit on a rock to shut my eyes for a few minutes. I reasoned that if my head wasn’t propped up and I did fall into a proper sleep my head would nod sufficiently that I’d wake myself up! It worked. I got a minute or two and that was all I needed. It was the only moment in the entire race I sat between checkpoints. So, when I say it 30 hours between checkpoints, that is 30 hours of pretty much continuous movement, and certainly upright for the entirety.
I continued along this plateau, still in a total mobile black spot. For the first time in the race I was finding navigating hard due to a combination of strange GPS tracking and tiredness. I came to divergence in the path and couldn’t find my route. I started down a rocky ravine. Had I not come over the last difficult section I may have questioned the sense of this route. But I continued on until I saw the route appear on my GPs to the right and above me. The ground was steep, really steep, and grassy. Saturated by the copious amounts of rain the turf was loose, and grass pulled out in my hand. I had nothing to hold on to. I shuffled along on my bum, leaving my poles on the ground as they were hard to manage, and taking off my waterproof gloves since they offered me no purchase. I had no idea what lay below the short beam of my torch. What I did know was that if I lost my grip, I would fall a long way before anything stopped me. My phone had two small bars of signal and with that I called Tim, one of the race mountain rescue team who I knew. He couldn’t answer.
This was futile and increasingly dangerous. I was getting frightened and rather than make the wise decision of shuffling back to where I had come from, I decided to move upwards. The path was now showing on my GPS as above me atop the cliff face. I reasoned that I knew how to climb, and it’s wasn’t far. I shuffled upwards to the rock and began to climb. I made it about ten metres. The rock was becoming increasingly wet and pulling away in my hands; the foot holds were tiny. I had my left foot on a small grassy lip and my hands were so cold I couldn’t hold the rocks. Panic started to set in, and I remember saying out loud ‘I’m screwed. What am I doing?’ Again, my phone affords me two bars. I called James. ‘I am going to die’, I told him. Poor guy. Not what you want to be woken up with! ‘Press your trackers’, he kept saying. We had all been issued with two by the race organisers. I tried but it was clear I couldn’t reach them on the shoulders of my backpack. I could barely move for fear I’d lose my balance. Signal was gone again. Without another thought I called the police knowing that my call would go through. I asked for mountain rescue… the ball was set in motion.
It’s funny how coincidences can occur sometimes. On the way up to the race James and I had been talking about a location code app called ‘What 3 Words’. He suggested I download it. Wise, very wise. I was able to hand this to mountain rescue and they could pinpoint me.
I spent two long hours clinging to the rock. I was shaking uncontrollably and kept falling asleep despite desperately trying to keep awake; worried I would fall. It was terrifying, and I don’t remember much more to be honest. My memory restarts from when I was lying on the slope, my feet in a makeshift harness slung over a rock behind me. Two medics were asking questions and taking readings. They too were anchored to rocks above. Another chap was holding me under my arms, bracing himself against a rock to stop us from slipping. I couldn’t easily answer the questions they were asking me. I kept dropping in and out of sleep. The rest of the ten crew were rigging up a system to get me down the hill. After a time they put me in a stretcher and lowered me down the hill on ropes. Again, I don’t remember much of this. Once more level, they used a caterpillar-like technique to rotate me safely over the large boulders. That continued until we reached level ground where six burly men carried me to the waiting farmer in his off-road buggy thing. This whole operation took 5 hours.
They were the most warm and confidence-inspiring men, and I can’t thank them enough. I had been pretty frightened and vulnerable, but they had made me feel safe and cared for.
This race more than any other played over and over in my mind for the following month or so. I was gutted not to have finished: I had felt strong and was really enjoying it. It was such a mammoth undertaking and challenged me on every level. I loved the enormous buy-in from the race crew and locals, and my family and friends back home, avidly following along to such an extent that it took on an expedition-type feel. It was so much more than just a race. I am itching to get back out and try again.
Spine race facts: Start: 08:00, Sunday, 14 January 2018. Total distance: 420km/268 miles. Time limit: 168hrs (seven days) Overall ascent: 13,135m/43,093ft. Overall descent: 13,255m/43,487ft. Highest point: 892m/2,926ft (Cross Fell) Along the course there were: 287 gates to open, 432 styles to climb over, and 204 bridges to cross.
My race facts: I covered 264km/160m and was on the go for 72 hours.
My visible war wounds – the bruise I sustained after falling on a rock on Day Two. I very rarely bruise so was particularly proud of this one! And my feet at the end of the race.
The whole route