Saturday, January 30, 2016

Spine Race - Part 2 - Race Narrative

My Spine Race - Or How My Mind Remembers

 Part 1 looked at how I prepared for the race and what lessons I learned.  This part it my fuzzy memories of what took place on each leg.

I felt a bit nervous stood on the start line but then I think you’d bit a bit of a fool if you’d never done the race and didn’t feel a bit apprehensive. Generally, I felt pretty good for most of the first leg until I completely faceplanted on Blackstone Edge and smashed my knee on a rock. While I didn’t do any serious damage it swoll up pretty quickly and was affecting my movement. I hadn’t realised quite what a state I was until I went into The WhiteHouse pub shortly afterwards and everyone was laughing at me. Going to the loo I could see why as I was covered in black peat from head to toe. I had a bit of a clean up here and some lasagne and despite the knee was feeling pretty good when I left.
Heading Up Jacob's Ladder - Photo Andrea Nogova
As I was leaving another 3 guys were heading out and we loosely teamed up for the remainder of the night stretch to CP1. We were moving pretty well together until somehow we managed to collectively mess up the nav and did an extra loop of a couple of miles over a hill probably losing a about an hour just before the CP1. I’d read lots of horror stories of how CP1 was too noisy to sleep in and I’d never planned on staying here for too long – planning on pushing onto CP1.5 at Malham Tarn and staying there. Two of the guys I’d come in with had disappeared pretty much straight after coming in to the CP – I think they had a van supporting them and had gone to sleep there. The other guy Gwynn was struggling to get any food down and we ended up staying at the CP a bit longer but still without getting any sleep. With hindsight I should have tried to get an hour or two here and suffered for the next two days as a result.

Almost straight after the CP we made a stupid nav error and although we realised pretty quickly it wasn’t a great start to the leg. As we headed out onto the moors the weather took a turn for the worse and the temperature dropped quite severely. By the time we up on Top Withins Gwynn was really starting to struggle to stay warm and when we lost some height down to Ponden Reservoir he made the decision to drop. Back on my own for a lot of the day I was feeling pretty miserable and seriously considered dropping myself. The task felt like it was too big and the lack of sleep was really starting to hit. My swollen knee was still slowing me down quite a bit. I managed to talk some sense into myself and some text messages from Suzanne and my brothers lifted my spirits a bit. Eventually I made it down to Lothersdale and into the Hare and Hounds. I’d heard of some of the community spirit surrounding the event and this was my first taste of it. The landlord had covered half the pub in plastic sheeting and had a roaring fire going for us to warm up. I managed to work my way through most of a massive Yorkshire pudding with some Lancashire Hotpot in it and some orange juice and lemonade. I felt vaguely human again before setting out.

Shortly afterwards I was met by my best man Jim Perkins who had come out with his family to see me. This was a massive, unexpected morale boost and his son Sam waving some home made flags made me get quite emotional.

Morale boosting support from Master Perkins
I didn’t stop too long but used this memory later in the race when things got hard. Shortly after this I met up with Ian who was doing the Challenger and we stayed together pretty much to Hawes. He was a more than competent map reader and I was quite happy to let him take the lead with me doing some check nav. The sleep monster hit me a couple of times during this stretch and I was struggling to stay awake. 

When we reached the visitor centre at Malham Tarn I managed to shut my eyes for half an hour in the CP that wasn’t a CP with the moment being captured by John Bamber – not looking my best. There were a couple of memorable bits of this leg.

'Not Sleeping at CP1.5' -
Photo John Bamber

 Going up over an icy Pen-y-Ghent in the dark I was reasonably confident doing the few short scrambly moves but some of the competitors in the vicinity were much less happy. It was probably the most fun I’d had since I’d smashed my knee and suddenly I was enjoying the race again even if I still wasn’t moving quite as fast I wanted to. Not long after I managed to get another half an hour shuteye head down on a table at the café in Horton. On the final stretch into Hawes I saw something I’d never seen before – a Broken Spectre. I don’t think any of us managed to capture it properly which is a shame because it was truly impressive. I’m not really superstitious but seeing nature at its best lifted my spirits again. I ended up getting ahead of Ian before we split to the different race CPs and never got the chance to thank him for his help in getting me through a particularly tough section.

I planned to spend 4 hours at Hawes including 3 hours sleep and pretty much stuck to this. I struggled a bit to get some proper food down but had a shower and generally felt more alive. Getting there just after lunch did mean that I ended up losing about 3 hours of daylight to CP activity which wasn’t ideal but I needed the rest.

 CP2 to 3
Sat here I’m trying for the life of me to remember what happened between CP2 and Tan Hill Inn and I have absolutely no recollection. I know I left the CP by myself and arrived at Tan Hill by myself but can’t remember anything in between even after looking at the route on a map. At Tan Hill I got another half hour or so sleep and managed to eat some of the food that the landlord had left out for us – I couldn’t manage a lot but the Frankfurters were the best thing I’d eaten all race – or that’s what it felt like. I think it was Tom Jones who gave us some advice for finding the route from Tan Hill across the marshy ground.
 Initially I managed to find the white posts until eventually I went slightly off track and ended up largely following Frumming Beck until I hit the tarmac track for a bit. I do remember wondering how anyone could run on this section (not that I was even trying) until I read Eoin’s blog and he seemed to manage it just fine. I just remember being calf deep in bog for most of the section until after the A67. With daylight now returned I quite enjoyed the section over the grouse moors after the A67 and when I dropped down to the reservoir at Blackton I bumped into Mick Kenyon the photographer from Racing Snakes who put a smile on my face everytime I saw him.

 Things were good again and remained that way until CP3. Again I arrived at the CP during daylight but decided that having learnt my lesson on Day 1 that I would get some decent sleep – well 3-4 hours anyway.

CP3 to 4
It wasn’t long after leaving Middleton that I bumped into Esteve. He had come over from the Catalan region of Spain to do the race, although due to my lack of Spanish and his lack of English I didn’t find that out till later. We stayed together off and on for the next few days and on one occasion when the sleep monster hit me ‘Stevie’ as he told me to call him came to the rescue with the donation of a half of a homemade salami which I devoured in one go.
 On the approach to the mini-CP at Dufton Hall we were told by the Mountain Safety Team that we’d be temporarily held at the village hall as the conditions going over Cross Fell were very bad. I’d hoped to grab another short nap here anyway so wasn’t too concerned. Not long afterwards we were asked if we were equipped/happy doing the crossing in full on winter conditions and were then grouped together with Stuart Shippley and Leif Abrahamsen. Heading out on the fell was the first deep snow that we’d encountered all race and a taste of much of the remainder of the route.
 Route finding wasn’t too difficult but conscious of the mineworkings in the area we took our time.
Best Noodles In The World - Photo John Bamber
Leif eventually disappeared off by himself and by the time we reached Gregg’s Hut he’d already disappeared. Greg’s Hut will go down as one of my enduring memories of the race. The noodles were one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and John Bamber even indulged me with a posh Mocha after I decided the choice between coffee and chocolate was that I wanted both.

 As we left the hut the sun had appeared from somewhere and everything seemed right with the world. Not long after setting out we ended up going at our own paces as people stopped for toilet breaks.
Cracking conditions leaving Greg's Hut - Photo John Bamber
Back by myself I managed to get some speed going again on the descent and was even run/walking the flat from Garrigill towards the CP. The last climb up to the CP at Alston was fairly demoralising but hey ho sleep and food was in sight. Again I’d arrived at the CP in daylight – I reckon over the course of the race I must have lost well over a days full daylight due to time spent sleeping/eating in the CPs. If I’d actually rested at CP1 I might have ended up better in sync and quicker overall. As Stuart and Esteve arrived at the CP not that long after me we made a plan on what time we were going to leave – I think it left us with 5 hours sleep/admin.

 I bumped into Luke Latimer shortly after arriving – I knew Luke from running notharaM nodnoL a couple of years previously and then being Strava friends. We’d been leapfrogging each other for most of the race but he’d decided to spend longer at this CP and when I said what time we were leaving he decided to come with us. I fed and slept quite well at this CP although when I woke up Lindley managed to get a picture of me still looking half asleep which rapidly appeared on Facebook. This gave my good lady wife a bit of shock – she’d probably had less sleep tracking me on the race than I’d had and until Lindley assured her I was fine she was quite worried.
Lindley capturing my better side

CP 4 to 5
Not long after leaving CP4 the sleep monsters hit Stuart and he announced he was going to get his head down again. Myself, Luke and Esteve carried on. As we were getting further north it was definitely getting colder and as we hit some of the open moor before Greenhead myself and Luke decided to stop for a hot drink.
 This was where the lack of a common language with Esteve caused some problems and after some futile attempts at explaining he decided he was going to continue by himself. We didn’t stop for long but the hot drink was definitely worth it as the weather worsened.

Whoever christened Hot Moss had a very bad sense of humour as it was anything but. With semi-frozen ground at times masking some fairly deep puddles and boggy sections it was probably only a matter of time before one of us got properly wet and it ended up being me. It was quite lucky that I was with Luke as I went in up to my waist and struggled to get out. Luke pulled me out with a walking pole but now I was really cold and my legs didn’t want to get going again. With some encouragement from Luke we managed to make some progress and it wasn’t too long before we made it to Greenhead where we bumped into Esteve.
 As we’d been approaching the village we’d both had visions of a café or something similar where we could warm up and get some hot food but there didn’t appear to be anything open for a while. Both feeling slightly grumpy we ended up having a ‘Snickers’ moment being a bit divaish before we caught ourselves on. Luke made the right decision that we should push on and not long after we bumped into Tom Jones in his camper van. He was sorting us out with a hot drink when the Hadrian’s Wall park rangers turned up and kindly let us into their offices to warm up and get some hot food down. It took me a while to warm up and I had a little snooze before we realised we were losing daylight and pushed on.
The Hadrian’s Wall section was one of the best to see in the daylight. It was cold and with some snow on the ground but was actually quite good fun. At one point we were going to divert off the route to go for a proper pub lunch until we bumped into Esteve’s brother and son who fed and watered us. Lindley also popped by to say hello and kindly gave us both some batteries.
On Hadrian's Wall with Esteve and Luke -
Photo Lindley Chambers

 It was probably coming down off Hadrian’s Wall that we got a taste of what was to come as we hit some fairly deep powder snow. I don’t have longest legs and was starting to develop a hip flexor problem which made lifting my legs high more difficult. It seemed to take a long time to get through the forest and by the time we hit Horneystead farm where a kind follower of the race was providing an impromptu barn stop it was getting on. I felt slightly awkward declining the hospitality but Bellingham wasn’t too far away and we pushed onto the CP.
 During the latter parts of the stage Luke and myself had often been waiting for Esteve to catch us up. We’d decided that we were going to have a decent rest at Bellingham before the push over the Cheviots but we were worried that if Esteve waited for us he might end up struggling to make the cutoffs. When we met his son at the CP we asked him to explain this to Esteve who agreed. At Bellingham we were hosted by the Lendon’s. Richard had unfortunately had to drop earlier in the race but had come up to the CP that his wife was working at.

 As we ate the delicious homemade shepherd’s pie (broccoli does go well in shepherd’s pie surprisingly) we ran our plan by Richard. We were going to get 4 hours sleep which would see us leaving at around 2am and would leave us 32 hours to do the last leg. We were aware of the increasing snow on the Cheviots but Richard agreed that our plan was sound and barring anything stupid happening should see us finishing. He also gave us some wise words – “I never think it’s in the bag until Hut 2.” We should have listened to this a bit more. We actually ended up leaving Bellingham at 0230am as Luke had needed a bit more medical attention on his feet with a slightly infected toe.

CP5 to the Finish
Not long after leaving Bellingham we met up with Colin Fitzjohn who had previously finished the race. There was a minor detour not far from the CP which we managed to find with little problem and we were generally making fairly good progress on the section to the mini-CP at Byrness. The sleep monster hit each of us at some point and the section through the forest seemed to go on for longer than it should have done but we were still on track. At some point we met up again with Stuart Shipley who I’d done the leg up to Gregg’s Hut with. We had a slightly surreal moment as we headed in to the mini-CP. We weren’t entirely sure exactly where it was but Colin was sure that he knew. We approached a house in the woods that he was 100% sure was the location although it didn’t seem to match the GPS location.
 He was that sure that he knocked on the door – it wasn’t the right location and when we did get the B&B where the mini-CP was it looked nothing like the house we’d stopped at. I’d read about the hospitality of the couple who run the Byrness B&B. It’s not a proper CP and they provide food entirely off their own backs. And what excellent food it was – delicious home made soup followed by mince and mashed potatoes. Our extended stop at Bellingham had meant that the two leading ladies had overtaken us. When we got to Byrness they were already there although we had made up some time on them. We didn’t stay too long at Byrness and pushed on feeling good. If we’d known what was coming I’m not sure we’d have been in such good spirits. The climb out of Byrness onto the Cheviots is one of the steepest on the entire route.
 My hip flexor problem was getting worse now – I still had plenty of strength to push down on with my legs but lifting them high to take a step was beginning to hurt a lot. The others got ahead a bit on the climb although once it levelled out again I managed to catch them fairly quickly. Mick Kenyon from Racing Snakes was there on the climb and got some great photos that showed how much this was becoming a mountaineering section rather than a running race.
Proper Mountain Conditions - Photo Mick Kenyon

As we skirted the edge of the military danger area it occurred to me that the last time I been to this part of the country had been 21 years previously as part of my initial infantry training. That exercises had seen me pick up a minor cold injury as our instructor didn’t believe in wearing gloves. Well he hadn’t believed in wearing gloves until I’d shown him my fingers had gone a marbly white at which point a pair of goretex mitts had mysteriously appeared from his rucksack. Once we were on the tops it was still fairly slow going. Although the trail was reasonably easy to follow we already in some reasonably deep snow and everytime you planted a foot you weren’t sure if it was going to sink further or hold. Every once in a while the snow would have frozen slightly more and would take your weight for a few paces before you sunk in again and had to pull your leg out. As it started to get dark it was also getting colder and moving more slowly meant we weren’t generating as much heat. We hadn’t expected anything at the first mountain hut so was plenty surprised when there were some of the mountain support team there who gave us a hot drink. We didn’t stay too long before pressing on to Hut2.

 I’m not a massive fan of ‘disaster documentaries’ but they all seem to have that phase where everyone knew that something bad was happening and no-one did anything about it. During the stretch from Hut1 to Hut2 this was increasingly the feeling I got. By now there was a loose group of about 10 of us sometimes moving together, sometimes apart. The navigation was generally ok – following a fenceline but at times the snow had covered the top of the fence and we still needed to be careful. The snow was much deeper now and slowed us down even further. At times I think we making about a 1km an hour. Luke Latimer was doing most of the leading and breaking trail although even where someone else had made some sort of trail it was still incredibly hard work. At one point we stopped to pool immediate food resources. Many of us were starting to run short and I was down to my last energy bar. I still had boil in the bags in my daysack but didn’t really want to stop to cook food as the weather was detoriating. The group was now more of a rabble and some people were really struggling. My feeling of impending doom was getting worse. For the first time in the whole race I was feeling cold despite having all my layers on.

 During one pause I said to Luke that I was considering stopping and getting my bivvy bag and sleeping bag up until the morning and I think if we’d found a sheltered location I probably would have done. Luke persuaded me to push on for a bit further even though at the pace we were moving it was probably another 2-3 hours to Hut2. Eventually we hit the dog leg left turn towards the Hut. We were struggling a bit to find the path and somehow I got separated from Luke. The whole group seemed to disintegrate at this point. I ended up with Doug and Anna and we stopped to do a proper nav check. We worked out where we were and which direction we needed to head. We started to lose some height and not long after we bumped into two members of the mountain safety team who were heading up the hill to check on some of the others who had been in our group.

 Not long afterwards we hit the hut. Looking back on this section I’m still not really sure how I feel about it. The ‘group’ that had formed wasn’t really a group. Many of us hadn’t been together at all during the race and didn’t ‘owe’ each other anything. There were however people with us who were really starting to suffer and several people when they did reach the Hut had to be treated for symptoms of hypothermia. Should we have stayed together earlier on, worked together and made sure we were all ok? It’s a difficult question to answer and I’m not sure that with our sleep addled brains many of us were capable of thinking entirely rationally about what was going on. I know at the time I had some feelings of guilt at not making sure everyone else was ok but I was worried if I slowed down much more I could have got into trouble myself. For me this was the most dangerous part of the race although I think my personal decision making was ok. Stopping and getting my head down till daylight would have been a sensible thing to do but I was still capable of monitoring my own symptoms and although I was cold I wasn’t showing even the early symptoms of hypothermia. If it had been much further to Hut2 I would have needed to get some warm food or drink inside but actually it was ok.

 Others who came across in this group have written similar things so I suspect we all know how close we were to getting in trouble. The reassuring thing looking back on it is how responsive the mountain safety team were. At the time that I was thinking we were in danger of getting into some real trouble they were already heading up the hill towards us and therefore the risk, whilst still there, was much less than my perception of it. That isn’t playing down the serious conditions but just highlighting the good organisation and safety net that existed.

Hut2 rapidly became something of a triage centre. Tom Jones was making hot drinks and generally taking control of people as they came in. I donated an army ration pack drink which was basically glucose powder and he gave that to Anna who was drifting into sleep and showing some real signs of hypothermia. I had some hot chocolate and then vaguely dosed off. I’m not sure how long I stayed there but as the hut started to fill up and my feet started to get really cold Luke and I were ready to set off. There were a couple of members of the mountain safety team who were setting off to the finish who were going to come down with us as well and we were joined by Ryan Wood and Colin Fitzjohn. The last 6 miles should have been special. We had one last climb up over the Schill before the descent to Kirk Yetholm. In fact for me it was a massive anti-climax and I felt rather empty. I don’t know if this was because I had nothing left mentally or emotionally or if it was just because I was really tired. At the end of every other ultra race I’d done I’d felt a huge sense of achievement and had welled up emotionally at the end but this was just a bit of nothingness. It actually took nearly a week before the achievement sunk in and I began to properly enjoy the finish. Lindley was there to meet us at the end. Colin and Luke finished a couple of minutes ahead of me as a last minute call of nature meant I slipped to 14th place! We all touched the pub that marks the end of the race before being ferried round to race HQ to get some sleep and sort ourselves out.
At the finish with Luke and Colin - Photo Lindley Chambers

 And that was it. The end of an incredible week. Looking back on it I had been taken to places that no other race had taken me. I’d had nearly 36 hours of battling the DNF demons in my head. I’d blubbed down the phone to Suzanne like I’d never done before. I’d also had some incredible moments of clarity – the realisation at Middleton that even though I still had a really long way to go that I had this within me; making the icy scrambling moves on Pen-y-Ghent confident in my own ability to do it safely; revelling in the sections when I managed to run smoothly and there weren’t many of these; the realisation post-race at just quite how much other people had bought into my efforts and were willing me on.

I had a good chat with James Adams once about how individual’s perceptions of events can change over time and how we are all capable of rewriting the past. Often this is to diminish our own errors and faults – a DNF becoming anyone’s fault but the racer’s. My own tendency is perhaps to go the other way – to become hyper-critical of what I did and to reflect on how I could have done much better. Sat writing this I’m pretty sure that I did my best, and I’m happy with that.

 The first part of my write up looked at my lessons learned and I’m sure if I were to do the race again I could do better – I learnt a huge amount and that knowledge would place me in a much better position. I don’t think I could have done any better this time round however. I must just remember to read this again in 6 months’ time when my brain has rewritten the past and decided that I could have.

 Would I do the race again? Luke and I had that conversation on the last leg. I enjoyed the race enough to do it again and to go back and do it with the knowledge I have now would let me see what I could really achieve. The organisation of the race was really good and the support from the mountain safety teams second to none. It is, however, an expensive race to run. The race entry fee would pay for about 7 ‘normal’ ultras – no great surprise there as it’s 7 times as long. There’s also the fact that Suzanne found the week very stressful and has asked me never to run it again. So all in all, I had a fantastic time, but for me that will be my one and only Spine. Unless maybe I win the lottery and Suzanne forgets about how traumatic it was for her……..

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