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Spine Race 2024 - Reflections

There are so many ways to tell this story but I thought I would try and reflect on the race in a way that looks at what I thought my reasons were for taking it on and what I realised while going through it.

From the outset I heard many people talking about “Know your why!”. I had heard this on so many podcasts over the years and from numerous posts, many of them on the Official Spine Group Facebook page. I’ll be honest, I don’t like the phrase. Why do we take on any race or challenge and is the answer or are the answers not the same?

Because it’s there, because I can, I want to find out more about myself, I want to push myself, I want to go further (and not just distance) than I have before, I’ve been inspired by others who have done this, I simply want to experience all the challenges I will face and see how it helps me grow as a person, I want to meet others who get it. For me it is for all these reasons and more which is also why I invest so much in preparing for something like the Spine Race.

I'm sitting in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination.

Totally forgot my no. 1 head torch. Anya had to speed to Berwick with it!

The wider context for me (there’s always a wider context) is 2023 was a bit of a roller coaster year with losing my Mum back in October after a few months of illness, supporting my Dad to then move from his island home to a care home closer to me and my sister, and starting a new job 6 weeks out from the start of the Spine race. During this period there was the inevitable blip in training as we (Anya and I) adjusted to unexpected trips and changing travel plans but I managed to keep a focus on things. The thought of pulling out did cross my mind but thankfully didn’t take hold. I decided that my Spine journey was going to be a trip with my Mum. She was going to be right with me the whole way and I could call to her at any time, which I did. Those periods when I was on my own or, when moving with others, I dropped back a little so that I could have some time with her, reflect on her life and mine, see if she had any words of wisdom. My Mum was not a runner but she was a doer. She got things done. It occurred to me many times that if I said “Mum, I think I should stop, I’m really sore!” She would probably say “Absolutely! This is a crazy thing to do.” So, that wasn’t much use to me but it did make me smile. In her own life she followed through with her plans, often when other people questioned them.

Tracker pic. Wonderful.

Throughout the year of preparation that it took to tackle the Spine race I had the support of my coach, Jayson Cavill of Cavill Coaching who steered me in all the right directions. Spine training in earnest didn’t really start until October but everything up to that point was part of the build. Anya and I had donder up the Cape Wrath Trail and then a bash at the Southern Upland Way earlier in the year together. I took on my first 100km race in June coming 2nd overall which was amazing. Recovery from that led to a focus on easier efforts, regular strength and conditioning sessions and hiking. When I first entered the Spine Race I knew that I had to try and become a hiker who could run rather than the other way round.

Skipping, day 1.

Expectations going into this race are interesting to think about. Firstly, is it a race or an event? For those at the front it’s definitely a race, chasing a prize. For me it was an event although I did give myself a target of finishing during the day on the Thursday. The closer we got to the start date I started to revise this saying “Friday might be more realistic!” As it turned out I finished on Friday morning at 4am so it’s maybe somewhere in between.

I can say with confidence that I would have felt considerably more broken if I hadn’t had Jayson’s support and training plans – legs and upper body all feel fine and a sports massage 2 weeks after confirmed that muscles were fatigued but not damaged. The need to train your upper body can’t be underestimated. I trained using poles for many of my longer sessions, running and hiking as this is how I planned to move up the route. I did in fact start out with poles in hand and stayed like that for the entire Pennine Way. This meant I could use my poles to support me on all the ascents and descents, invaluable for protecting muscles over a long and at times gruelling trail. It also meant that my upper body was constantly involved in moving forward so needed to be strong and resilient. Many of my S&C sessions supported that.

During the race itself I made a bunch of new pals and many people who contributed in all sorts of ways to help me finish this thing. Undoubtedly I would not have made it to Kirk Yetholm without my new BFF, Eoin Keith. A legend of the Spine race - as was pointed out on many occasions by many different people between Hebden and KY! Everybody knows Eoin. We hooked up a mile or so outside of Hebden, I was slightly off track at the time and struggling to get my handheld GPS to recognise the track. I had it on my watch at that time but was watching my battery life and thought I could rely on my Garmin Etrex. Turns out I could not (further investigation post race highlighted operator error due to insufficient knowledge of the finer settings).

Nighttime. Or morning. Somewhere.

Anyway, it was fortuitous as Eoin and I just got on from the word go, chatting about anything and everything and laughing plenty. We covered all sorts of topics but returned to music at any opportunity. If there were any lingering doubts about my “why” they were dismissed as Eoin and I got to know each other better and settled on finishing together from early on, whatever that finish looked like. We were joined by Elaine Bisson before reaching Hawes and then Nicky Spinks in Dufton where we were held for a time while the race was stopped. I honestly could not have been in better company. Relationships are everything and I feel privileged to have met and got to know these lovely people on this crazy journey. We leaned on each other at times - maybe I did more leaning than others, it feels a bit like that now but I think I was able to offer something back. We chatted, we sang, we shared some quiet time. We supported and respected each other.

Just heading out of Alston.
Coming out of Alston after I had just been told I was a "big girls' blouse". Which I was! The faces sum up the mood.

Coming out of Bellingham Elaine and Nicky were ready first and decided to push on, Eoin and I left with an attitude of welcoming the new day and seeing where it would take us. We were both dealing with various issues at this point so it was really a case of enjoying a beautiful run out on a crisp and clear winter’s day and seeing where it took us. We chatted, blethered and laughed for much of the time although there were times for me when I stayed quiet with my head down. I phoned Anya when I could first see the Cheviots and felt the tiniest hint that I might make it to the end.

In saying that, though it really was one step at a time. Nothing taken for granted.

After a freezing kip in the wee church in Byrness Eoin and I boosted off towards Kirk Yetholm over the Cheviot hills. The climb is steep initially but it didn’t bother me, climbing was ok, it was the descents that hurt most. After a while I noticed a pain above my left knee, hadn’t had it before or since but I became convinced that was it for me, I’d need to be taken off the hill, home to a cosy bed. Bummer. Really, though the only way out once you’re up there is forwards or backwards so we ploughed on. Only after we left Hut 2 did I say out loud that I was actually going to get to the finish. Then I promptly tripped over my pole on a descent and whacked my aching achilles making me shout out in pain. The rest was not a very pretty march towards the finish in the very excellent company of Mr Keith.

What stays with me more than anything is the friendships made and the quiet camaraderie that exists as we all try to hold ourselves together and offer support to others when we can, physical or emotional. The resilience that we all have and the simple joy of moving forwards. You really never know what is around the corner. So many beautiful moments, wonderful people and incredible experiences that play back to me now like a montage.

Horneystead Farm. Where lives an angel. It was freezing, mind.

I won’t go into the various wobbles that threatened at various times on the route but there were a few. For me they mostly came from my feet. Blisters became an issue from about 10 miles before Hawes and that issue just grew becoming a constant presence. It impacted on everything that was significant to finishing. Doing something like the Spine you have to think about always doing one of three things: moving, eating or sleeping. I had to now factor in extended time for footcare which I added in with planned sleep time. The blisters came about because I didn’t have the right set up for the conditions, I was equipped for wet conditions but the ground was bone dry, frozen and absolutely rock hard everywhere. With my waterproof socks in my Cyklon shoes I basically had the perfect environment for blisters. By the time I changed to my wider Altra Olympus (preferred) and Loomi (merino) socks it was really about damage limitation. I also wore Inov8 gaiters which was another mistake. My feet and left ankle were swollen, the gaiter on my left bit into my achilles causing pain and more swelling. By the time I took the gaiter off the damage was done and with 160 miles still to go there was no way of resting it! So everything feet-wise slowly deteriorated and a new baseline of “pretty bloody sore” was set. Fortunately, everything else felt great and I looked forward to the climbs!

Kit is important for any big ultra but knowing your kit and having used experience of it is invaluable. I messed up with my feet, although none of the kit was new it was just the wrong conditions, but it crippled me. I also had a nightmare with electronics. Top tip - do not try and load the full Spine route on a Garmin unless you want it to crash and freeze. Everything else was magic, though! I think I felt cold 3 times during the whole race. As long as I was moving, I was fine. Layering system worked great with my Loomi merinos as a base and building from there, finishing off with 4 layers on top and 3 on my legs.

It's done, and yes, I probably will do it again. Not to replicate the experience but to put myself in that place again. If you don't put yourself there, how on earth can you experience what life has to offer?

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That’s so beautiful, Cobber; you’re amazing and the gratitude you feel eeks out of every pore of every word you’ve written. Thank you for waiting before writing as the reflection is what gives this post its power. Till the next time!!!

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