This was without question my “A Race”. I had been driving towards this event for several years, slowly building up distance, terrain and race experience.
Going into the event, I really had no idea how things would transpire, so I went in open minded. That seems to have turned out to have been the best strategy.
Leading up to the Spine and first DNF
In August 2019 I toed the line of the North Downs Way 100 for my first taste of running one hundred miles. The NDW 100 for me, was essentially a tune up race, but one that I took seriously (or at least I thought at the time). I trained hard, had some big mileage weeks and lots of back to back runs leading up the event. So I was in good shape physically and looked forward to the race itself. Up to that point the furthest I had run was 54 mile ultra (Montane Cheviot Goat). I soon learned that 100 miles is vastly more than double the distance.
For the NDW 100 I followed a strategy of starting conservatively, and trying to spread energy / fatigue over the entire 100 miles, my mantra was ‘bank energy, not time’. However things did not go to plan (they rarely do it seems).
I made several mistakes during the North Downs Way and discovered I had one big flaw in my perception that needed to be fixed. I am going to use this post to unwrap those mistakes and dissect them for what they were.
The first mistake was to nurse another runner.
I “buddied up” with someone for the night section. Looking back now having just spent entire nights on my own on the pennine ways desolate winter moors, it was a tad over the top for an event that is run over summer trails of South East of England. My night buddy started to feel sick around 60 miles, this slowed us down a lot and at a time I felt capable of giving a lot more. Said buddy eventually vomited and we picked up the pace again. However a fair amount of time was lost through his nausea spell , especially when added to my conservative starting strategy.
Next it was my turn to hit a rough spot around 70 miles, but the difference this time was that my night buddy elected to bugger off and leave me at the checkpoint, as soon as he caught on I was struggling and it might impact his race.
Its your race. Be polite, say hello / hi / how you doing? However if someone is not in any real danger and they are compromising your race, drop em!
I managed to yank myself out of the 70 mile checkpoint and decided to continue and try to reboot at Detling where I made my second mistake. Detling is a village hall at 82 miles where they serve hot food and somewhere to rest up. I heard so much about race volunteers with Centurion running. The story was that they “had been there” and were adept at turning you around with some tough love, hot food and sending you on your way again.
I made it to Detling with six or so hours left to do the final push of just under a marathon distance to the finish, plenty of time really. On paper it was achievable, and nothing was really wrong with me apart from fatigue and the sort of pain that comes with running that far. I figured if I could just get to Detling, the folks there might help me turn the race around. A volunteer met me outside the hall as I came down the steps that cross the road. His first words were ‘..you going to continue, or are you done.?‘ It was kind of reminiscent of the TV series ‘Who Dares Wins’ where the contestant hands in their black armband.
I replied I was “done“ to the volunteer, who in hindsight I expect was mainly there to get a free ticket to the next race. A bit of me muttered internally “what are you doing?”, while the other side said ‘just give up!’. I was asked for my race number , safety pins and then sat around waiting for the van of shame to shuttle me to the finish. I said to myself in that van that I was never putting myself into that position again. Never again.
The ironic thing was that, physically I was not that bad. I have been in worse shape after a very hard training weekend. My mind had however shown that it needed a lot of sharpening if I was ever to come back and complete a 100 mile race again.
Don’t put your race into the hands of others. They can let you down and even though some are well meaning / salt of the earth types, some don’t honestly care wether you finish or not. You don’t really matter that much to them.
The DNF Aftermath
My confidence was really not that great after this DNF. I was now pondering how would deal with a self supporting winter mountain ultra that would be twice the challenge, when considering i just quit out on a summers race though suburban Surrey / Kent with aid stations situated every few miles adorned with treats and support.
Dissecting the race, there were the aforementioned lessons learned, however there was also a big flaw in my thinking. Here’s the thing with 100 mile races. They hurt, you often hurt all over. You get very tired, at times very down, and as said, you hurt and ache, quite often all over. In a lot of ways, I knew that I would hurt, but I had not really accepted that deep down and when it came, I honestly… resented it. I envisioned myself feeling great the whole time, which was setting myself up with false expectations.
Now a marathon hurts, the last 6 miles can be a real grimace. A 50k, sure..you get it even more, especially considering its often going to include some steep climbs. A 50 miler is even more of a challenge, most folks will end up on their feet for 12+ hours on a 50 miler. 100 miles though is a whole different ball game. It’s far more than 2 x 50 miles. The pain and fatigue levels are almost logarithmic, as in they ramp up once you get past about 60 miles. You also have to deal with sleep deprivation, which on the surface does not sound to bad, but honestly – it messes with your head. Its very hard to think rationally when your tired, when you want to quit and don’t think you have it in your to continue. If you’re doing ultras for the likes and comments claiming how tough you are on facebook afterwards, it won’t be enough to get you to the end. You need a deep down drive to get to the end and keep moving forward when your body is crying out for you to stop.
The big flaw
100 mile races are a different beast entirely. You may think you’re tough and can handle a lot, but if you don’t have a deep conviction about why you’re doing it, you will likely fail.
Breaking the Spine
I managed to get to Edale in one piece. This was the first challenge complete. Leading up the race I had been hoovering up any colds or bugs within a 50 meter radius. I had one puking bug and then one head cold bug, just two weeks before the race. I had been militantly washing hands and avoiding public places, but they still landed on me. One Friday evening two weeks out before the race, my six year old said something about wanting to tell me a secret (some nonsense about Unicorns most likely). She leaned in close to my face cupping a hand towards my ear, just as she was about to let me in on the gossip, she let rip and sneezed snot and saliva directly into my eyeballs. Later that evening, I felt the tingles in my nose and knew it was in the post. If anything though, this made me extra vigilant. I had time to get it out of my system before the race and I stepped up my hygiene to a level that would have left a heart surgeon feel he was slacking. I travelled to Edale on the train, equipped with surgical gloves, a buff to cover my face and anti bacterial hand gel.
I stayed in the YHA in Edale, in a shared bunk room with one guy doing the Challenger and four guys doing the full Spine. I spoke to the lad doing the Challenger and found out he had never ran an ultra before, but had done a 30 mile + long run he told me. I thought to myself under my friendly social mask – ‘He’s fucked’, the race results show I was right. I have no idea how he got accepted into the race as they do vet runners for experience, perhaps he lied. I don’t know.
8am and 120 runners congregated on the start line. I noticed right away that I had made my first mistake. I had uploaded some funky high res mapping onto my Garmin GPSMAPS 64s unit and had somehow managed to delete the lot. All I had now was a blue line to follow.
Not a great deal to say about the start of the race, apart from I went completely by feel, rather then the tentative , airing on the side of caution persona I had at the North Downs Way. I hung out in the front section of the race teetering around position 25 to 30. This continued for quite a while until I had slip on the flag stones coming away from Snake Pass (I think it was). I came down on my left knee cap. At first I was worried it might be a race ending accident, but in the end it sort of shook off. I came off the gas though, and let it play out over the next 5 miles to see how bad it was. In the end much more important matters came to surface, that made me forget about my knee entirely….
I reached the Standedge Tunnel / Manchester Road Mountain Rescue check point at the car park around 4pm approximately. I felt good and my knee was holding up very well. I knew night was coming on, so I threw off my pack to grab my head torch. I normally always put on an extra layer before night falls, but I decided against it which was a dumb mistake. The weather seemed remarkably mild and the long sleeve arc’teryx base layer and Montane GoreTex were holding up well, so I decided to press on.
Night fell and with it came a storm. Westerly winds came in with quite some force and a lot of what you could describe as torrential rain hit me side on. I looked down at my Jacket and it was shining with saturation. I could feel the wind taking its toll on my eyes, so I pulled down my goggles. Visibility became very poor and I just about managed to keep to the path stumbling along, although at times I lost it and had to pull out my GPS to get back on route. I like using a map and compass, but they were near on useless at this point, as the fog and rain meant you could not get a bearing off anything.
After 30 minutes or so of these conditions, the cold started to really bite and I knew things were getting dicey. It was now to cold to stop and try and put layers on and there was zero cover around to do so. My teeth were now chattering at this point and the 1-2 minutes needed to stop and and add layers could well result in me hitting dangerous levels of hypothermia. My only option was to keep driving forward, as the momentum would at least generate some body heat and eventually get me off the exposed bit of moorland. I remember looking down at the blue line on my GPS and thinking ‘if I dropped this or it died I would be absolutely fucked’. It become may lifeline and beacon to safety.
Things continued this way with my body gradually get colder and the shaking and shuddering escalating. Is was at this point that I went what I refer to as ‘feral’. This consisted of me manically repeating the same thing over and over ‘keep moving, keep moving, keep moving, keep moving‘ while stomping ahead through the wind and the rain. I had the idea that calories might help with body heat generation, so I actually emptied two entire packets of Clif Bloks into my mouth and gobbled them down in seconds, like a kid eating an entire jelly in one go. I must make a confession here, I might have littered in my somewhat delirium.
At last a sight for sore eyes came into view… I made out some vehicle lights in the distance, and realised there was a road crossing with a lone mountain rescue vehicle stationed there. “Thank fuck for that” I said out loud. When I got to the vehicle I found another runner there sitting on the back of the SUV putting on some warmer layers. It was Jen Scotney, she had taken a fall and looked like she had broke her nose. We agreed to team up as the Wind was still coming in strong and showed no sign of letting up.
For anyone thinking I might have over dramatised the previous few paragraphs – this weather influx caused almost half the field to DNF, many of them with hypothermia, including a lot of the elite runners leading the race. Here’s the thing with hill weather, a lot of people think freezing cold / snow is more treacherous. However cold conditions combined with driving rain and strong winds is far more lethal. With snow / frost etc, the variable remains fairly static and easy to manage, you wear lots of layers. However when you get wet, and by that I mean drenched through and a cold wind keeps driving into you, it gets very hard to warm yourself up again and you have very little time and space to make changes within. Your temperature drops and the resulting less body heat, means the temperature of your wet layers reduces as well. Its a bit of spiral downwards.
After this me and Jen made it to Hebden Bridge the only check point half way, she made a quick stop and moved on. While I ate a hot meal and spent a bit of time on my kit. I decided for the 2nd half I would put on my more robust Mountain Equipment Lhotse Hard Shell. A more weighted jacket not really designed for running, but I knew it would be likely the race would play out from here as less running and more fast hike. For good measure I put on a permaloft jacket underneath the hard shell and changed my gloves to the thick fake fur lined Montane Maximus mitts, with some hand warmers thrown in. The other change I made was changing my Altra Lone Peaks for King MT’s, which I wish I had not done, as the King MT’s decimated my big toes and are horrible shoes for long distance stuff.
From here it was a case of driving it home. Here is where I really noticed a difference in the runner I was on the North Downs Way 100 and as I found myself now on the Spine. My head was 100% in this race and loving it. I was absolutely sure I would finish no matter what and the only thing that would stop me, well, would be someone else telling me I can’t continue. Before the race had started I had envisioned sitting at the finish having DNF’ed. I saw and felt what it would to wallow in my own self pity for hours on end, while others come in elated at having completed the event. That vision of sitting there and my adamant position on finishing the race no matter what, changed everything. I was getting to end, come hell or high water, so there is no point moaning about anything, “seriously, give it up, you won’t be getting your way“. Towards the last 20 or so miles of the race, I was in pain and I was very tired. My right lower leg had locked up and my feet were absolutely battered. But the pain was experienced very differently this time. In a way I even found myself feeling it out as pleasurable, something I have heard people speak of, but had put down to a perverse kink that some of these eccentric Ultra types have. Interestingly though, it seems when you side up against pain and tell it you won’t be giving into it or allowing it a voice, it shifts from being something you want to push away, to something that you feel grateful to bare.
The last tough section was on the Cam High Road. I had not slept for around 40 hours at this point. I decided to have a couple of pro plus. This was almost a disaster. My heart raced like crazy for all the caffeine and coupled with a tired mind, I felt myself slipping into psychosis. I kept feeling really desperately thirsty, but I was peeing every 20 minutes or so and it was as clear as it can get. I panicked that I might have lost of track of the paracetamol I had been taking and perhaps my kidneys were failing. I cried as I though of my wife Kim and the kids and how their dad had died doing some crazy race. Eventually the caffeine whirlwind subsided and I returned to just being really very tired again, it was a massive relief. I was not going to die, so I had that going for me.
Eventually the cam high road turned to trail again (a few last wet bogs for my bashed up body to contend with) and I saw Hawes in the valley down before me. As I made my way towards the town a few people met me. “Hey are you Luke?” , yes I replied, surprised that people would be interested in a mid pack runner hobbling in. I received pats on the back and congrats.
I made my way towards the finish on the high street and walked into a heroes welcome. This is one of the great things about the Spine. Of course the elite folks get followed closely, but everyone who comes in gets streamed live on Facebook and giving a mini interview like your someone important. When you hit the finish line, everyone knows who you are from the tracker, and so you get lots of first name based congrats holla’ed out at you. Everyone is a hero on the Spine, the elite speed goats coming in a day before everyone else, and the back marker coming in last. Equal sincere grats are given to all.
I made my way to see the Medics to find out I had Cellulitis in my right lower leg and would need a course of antibiotics. It was at this point the whole lower leg locked up and started to swell. Its almost like it knew we were finally done and so shut up shop for the day My toes were also starting to go an angry colour of red and black. I could see it was going to be a fair while before I could run again, but I was OK with that. I had just done plenty of running and was feeling runned out.
I got myself to the hotel and slept for 10 hours, woke up and ate a veggie burger from the Hawes pizza shop and then went down for another 7 hours.
A lot went well for me on the Challenger. I feel its a start of me really finding my grove at these long distance events. You cannot side step and gain what real race experience gives you. You just have to get out there and learn. Sure, some great tips are around, but none come close to first hand experience.
So the moral of this race was that I had a lot more in me then I thought. That a 100 mile race will eat you alive it you don’t have a solid reasoning or mental base to tackle the ups and downs that will come. Pro Plus necked down on top of two days without sleep causes a temporary psychosis that you really could do without. And Altra King MT’s are not a good option on a long distance foot race.
It’s now about just over a week later and I am still resting up. My leg is still sore and I can’t wear socks as the band digs into the swollen flesh and makes a grove. My toes are now black. But I feel good knowing I am capable of a lot more, even when things get tough.
Next big race? Revenge of the North Downs Way 100. This time a bit wiser and a bit hardier.