Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Spine v The Knee

It is now a few days after the end of The Spine Race, the swelling in my legs and feet has started to go down and I can move more easily again.  All my kit has been cleaned, dried and packed away, so the only thing left to do is reflect on one of the hardest weeks of my life......
Ready to go.....
Those of you that know me will realise just how much preparation and training that I had put in to this event, prior to lining up on the start line of The Spine Race.  What I lacked before last week was experience of such events - but that has now changed.

This blog entry is not about breaking the event down leg-by-leg, step-by-step, or listing the equipment and clothing I chose to take with me. This is more to do with the experience that I have gained from the event, briefly looking at some the highs and lows; both mentally and physically - it is not really for those that took part in the event alongside me, or indeed those that plan to do so in the future: it for my friends and family who watched from the comfort of their homes and offices and want further insight into what that moving dot on their PC screens was actually going through.

There was a real buzz of anticipation lining up on that Saturday morning with over 70 other athletes prepared to take on the 268 mile race along the entire Pennine Way and 40 more taking on the shorter Challenge event.  The promised clear skies were filled with hail, which was quickly replaced by snow.  Waterproof clothing was donned and doffed as each individual tried to anticipate the changes in the weather, keeping themselves dry but not overheating.

The ‘off’ was just 21 minutes later than anticipated, which is pretty good when you consider the logistics of getting over 100 athletes to a remote spot like Edale, checking that all of the kit and clothing that they will be carrying was to the required standard, ensuring all medical and administrative paperwork was correctly filled out and then fitting every competitor with a GPS tracker. Even at this stage it was easy to spot a wide range of equipment standards (and costs) and athletic preparedness amongst those lined up.

With 268 miles ahead of me it was pointless to go out too fast or hard.  I believed I had the mileage in my legs, but I had to ensure I kept myself in good enough condition throughout the week to average over 38 miles every 24 hour period.   Some of the athletes went out much faster than myself and these seemed to be a mixture of those taking part in the shorter, 108 mile event and the seasoned, experience ultra-athletes whose world I was briefly visiting for this particular race.

At this stage of the race there were the maximum number of athletes on the route, so there was always some one to chat to, someone to judge your pace against and someone to follow to save having to check the map too often.  I had already walked this 45 mile leg during my training, so I had a reasonable idea what was ahead and the navigation was not too challenging.

Check Point 1 arrived around midnight and after a hot meal, a change into dry socks after re-taping my feet and replenishment of the used food, water and batteries into my backpack I was back out into the darkness and on the route within about 3 hours, facing the longest leg of the race of over 60 miles.
I know that many of my ex-military colleagues reading this will want to say that they would never use a GPS out on the hills, preferring to stay true to map and compass.  Until this event I had been much the same.  However, The Spine Race is all about making progress, getting closer to the finish line with every step, as quickly and as efficiently as possible.  At night, with the freezing rain falling and you are striding out along a rock-strewn path which has turned into a frozen toboggan-run, a quick check on the GPS screen that you are still on the correct path, heading in the correct direction, is much quicker than using map and compass - particularly if you need to use reading glasses to look at the map.  The marsh and bog lands that we had to cross sap your energy and forces your body to head off in unpredicted, random directions - but a quick confidence check of the backlit screen of a GPS will help minimise the effects of this and keep you on route.  By day and in good visibility, map and compass are still my preferred method, but as my cognitive function became impaired due to fatigue it was important to back this up with regular checks on the GPS.  There were times when I became completely disorientated and occasions when I went off route (those of you following my tracker online know when that was), it was important to be able to use both traditional and modern navigation techniques for this event. 
Can you spot me asleep in the middle of CP2?
At one point along the route I didn’t believe either my map or GPS.  There in the dark, right in front of me, was a large, double wrought-iron gate set in a high stone wall, obviously the boundary leading to some country manor or possibly a church.  Both the map and GPS said go through the gate, but I decided that they were wrong and I tried following the wall in both directions, several times.  I must have wasted 30 minutes trying to work out where I should be going before noticing the wooden sign on the gate; “Pennine Way” and an arrow pointing up the path the other side.  That’s what being tired can do to your thought processes.

The more tired you become, the more your sense of balance and reaction time is degraded.  This isn’t helped by the ever-changing terrain. Rock slabs laid as a path quickly turn to sheets of ice in the winter storms and the icy waters in the marshes quickly find their way into footwear as you sink up to your knees as you try to cross them, leaving you with wet feet for the duration of that particular stage of the race.  At one point I slipped and fell, I pushed off the ground with my hand to get upright again, however my hand sunk into the water, filling my Gortex mitt with water and rendering it next to useless. 
Ankle and foot support.
It was the fourth stage of the race where I ran into problems.  Like everyone else I was sore and fatigued, but I was able to deal with this.  Despite having lost the feeling in many of my toes, I was blister free which gave me an advantage over many of the other competitors although I now had strapping on both of my feet to help with my ligament problems, some which I had brought with me to the race, some that I had acquired along the route.  My upper back began to really ache, an old ailment, due to a hypo-mobile vertebrae joint sandwiched between 2 hyper-mobile joints.  Over several hours the ache got worse, turning to pain, but there was no stopping or resting as I was now part of a group, crossing a series of snow covered hill tops, in 30+ mph winds. As we made our way over the last 8 miles or so to Check Point 4, something gave in my left knee and quad area.  My leg became difficult to bend and when I did bend it, I received shooting pains up my leg.  

To say I collapsed into CP4 would be an understatement; to say there were not tears rolling down my face would be a lie - I was in agony!  The support staff were brilliant and caring and got me out of my wet waterproofs and shoes, drugged, fed and watered me.  I found myself an empty bed and literally crawled into it, not knowing if I would be able to go on to the next check point.

I awoke after 7-8 hours of solid unconsciousness and all the pain was gone! I can only assume that this was because my body had given it’s first chance to fully relax during that period of rest and the muscles could now unknot and begin to repair themselves.  I knew I could push on further, so I prepped myself and my kit and headed out towards Check Point 5.

All along the route you met people.  Great people.  If it was another athlete the first thing you generally asked was “How you doing?”  and the second thing was “Have you done The Spine before?” Just about everyone you meet is encouraging and positive, if they are not, then they are probably struggling and need you to be positive and encouraging for them.  I passed some people, some passed me, some I would walk and chat with for a few minutes and others I spent a whole day with, feeding off each other, helping each other and passing the time as progress was made further and further North.
Passing Black Hill - (Photo kindly provided by Ray Green Photography)
I have to make a special mention here to Neil.  He was not a competitor, just a friend of a friend on Facebook who found out about the Spine passing close to his farm.  Neil came to give me and others encouragement on several occasions along the route.  We had never met before, but he is ex-RAF like myself and I am pleased to now call him a friend.  Thank you for your support Neil.

The small tupperware box on my right shoulder meant that I was never alone.  This box contained the tracking device that moved the dot on your screens and allowed my map reading ability to be scrutinised at any given time, night or day.  Anita at one point sent me a text to say that I had strayed off route, unfortunalty my phone was switched off at the time to conserve battery life for emergencies and my navigation error had to run its own course - luckily this was not too long, or too far.

One of the things I did not think I would struggle with during the race was nutrition.  I carried a good variety of food with me and plenty of spare stuff in my drop-bag to replenish from, but I really struggled to take on food whilst on the move - it was almost as if my digestive system closed down after the first day.  The food provided at the check points was great and once I had stopped moving it was easier to get the calories down, but this often sat heavy in my stomach over the next leg and nausea seemed to be a constant companion throughout the week.

I love being on the hills and mountains and I can still remember my first ever summit: Skiddaw in the Lake District at the age of 4.  Since then, wherever I travel to in the World, if there is a hill or mountain I want to see the view from the summit, enjoy the freedom of being at the top of that particular part of the World.  But I have to admit, The Spine Race really tested that love.  During daylight hours things were fine.  But once it was dark (15 hours at a time) and head-torches were switched on, the fun and enjoyment had gone.  Plodding along in your own arc of light, the immediate world only stretching as far as the beam of light coming from the top of your head could reach, to me, is not an enjoyable experience. When the moon was out and shining bright, some of the enjoyment came back but this was not the case very often. 

Despite this monotony I pressed on, the thought of completing Britain’s most brutal race spurring me ever closer to the end.  As I headed out onto the 5th stage I felt invigorated and fresh, ready to tackle the remaining 80 or so miles.  After a couple of miles I had paired up with Javed, an experienced and strong ultra-runner and we were able to share and compare navigation, keeping each other motivated along the way.  

After a while my quad and knee problem returned.  The pain was intense and I had great difficulty bending my leg: I urged Javed to push on without me, but he encouraged me to take pain killers and anti-inflammatories and push on.  He also gave my thigh a massage: well he drove both his thumbs into the knotted muscle above my knee, bringing tears to my eyes with the pain that he caused.  Compared to that pain walking was now slightly easier, but I had to modify my walking technique, being unable to lead with my left leg going up a hill or support my weight on the knee joint coming down hill.  Over the remaining hours of that 5th stage the pain did gradually ease, but as it eased, my mobility reduced along with the speed with which we covered the ground.

Although exhausted having walked for over 24 hours non-stop, I was relatively pain free on arrival at CP5 but I knew I was going to need a good rest and I would need to get my pace back up above 2 mph if I was going to complete the race - but time was running out.  Having refuelled I went for a shower and it was at this point I knew I had a problem.  I had expected swelling in my feet during the week and had prepared for this by bringing a larger pair of trainers, but when I looked at my legs I now realised why I couldn’t bend my left knee - it had swollen to nearly twice it’s normal size.
On the left a swollen knee, on the right a double swollen knee!!
My thought process went along the lines:

“If I continue I would need to go faster than I had on the previous leg in order to meet the time limitation.  With my knee in this state and the terrain getting worse, this is unlikely.  If I was with others this might help me along, but I would slow them down and they might miss completing the race themselves, I don't want that responsibility.  If I go on my own, I would just get slower and slower and would be likely to finish long after the cut-off, making my knee worse in the process and I may even need pulling off the hill.”

Right or wrong, I decided enough was enough and called it a day.  No regrets, I had given it my best shot.  Only 30 athletes went on to finish within the time.

I had completed over 226 miles in under 6 days, competing with and against some the the World’s finest athletes that I have had the privilege to meet - I am proud of that and thank everyone involved with the Spine (organisers, volunteers, athletes and supporters) for letting me be part of the event.  I’m not an ultra-marathoner, I’m just someone who likes a challenge and having a go.

On the positive side, I have managed to raise around £2000 for East Anglian’s Children’s Hospices and would like to thank everyone who has contributed to this total.  My fundraising page will remain open for a few more weeks, so if you have a few pounds to spare please consider adding to that total.
Steve's Fundraising Page

In the meantime, does anyone have any ideas for my next fundraising challenge?


  1. Dam fine effort mate, and a well written blog.
    Hope you recover soon and find yourself a sufficient challenge for your next blog post ;)

  2. Steve, it was great to meet you, and it was just sheer back luck that you didn't finish. It happens to us all from time to time, that push the limits. You did great to get as far as you did with those injuries. Speedy recovery.
    Dave Lee

  3. Thanks Dave, it was great to be part of the event and also to meet you. Congratulations on completing the Race.


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