The beauty of pursuing big goals is that we sometimes succeed. But only sometimes. Often things don’t quite turn out as planned, and at times we fail completely. Eventual victory is like chocolate – a sweet dessert whose core ingredient is the bitterness of those earlier defeats. But as any kid who has ever tried sneaking a bite of 100% cacao baking chocolate knows, that bitterness on its own can be overwhelming, and momentarily make someone question whether they even like chocolate at all.
At this year’s Spine Race, I didn’t even make it 20% of the way to the finish. I hadn’t begun to experience the true difficulties that make the Spine or any other multi-day event what they are. I missed out on what was perhaps once in a lifetime conditions in terms of both beauty and performance. I achieved none of my goals, learned very little, and traveled a great distance to do so (although I at least combined it with a trip for work). Like I started doing with last year’s Tor Des Geants, I’ve created a handy little visual summary below for anyone who doesn’t want the detail. The race is south to north, so start at the bottom. For the full-size image click here.
It’s certainly not the first time I’ve come up short. I’ve written many times before about using failure as the quickest path to eventual success for a big goal. Sometimes the lessons learned or the experience itself far outweigh any actual or desired outcome. Other times, no matter how we try to frame it, the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. Maybe we’re left wishing we had just stayed home and not even tried. But what’s done is done, and there can still be some good to be found. If an investment turns out to be a loss we still take what value remains rather than just throwing it away, even if that value is buried in frozen bogs along the Pennine Way.
Journey to the Start
After my 2020 Spine, I swore I would never return. I was more certain than of any race I had ever done, and I stayed certain for years. But that finally started to gradually change about two years ago, and I found myself incredibly eager to get back. Just getting there turned out to be an ambitious pursuit, though. Seventeen days before the start, near the very end of a run at Frozen Head, I rolled my ankle. As ankle injuries often do, it was initially excruciating and I could hardly walk on it for a day, but then within two days I could run on it again absolutely pain free. It was a bit of a hit to my final stretch of training, but I figured it would be fully recovered by the race.
Unfortunately it was also the same ankle I rolled about a month earlier trying to sidestep my dog when she tried to jump up on me after rolling in cow poop. And it was the same foot I had had toe surgery on a few weeks before that. And the same ankle I sprained trying to retake the SCAR FKT back in May. But it would be fine. I was otherwise ready, and how would I ever know if I didn’t try? I looked for the silver lining: maybe I needed a bit more of a taper before a race like Spine anyway.
Then a few days later, just under two weeks before the race, the flu hit me like a freight train (covid test was negative, and others who were at the same event tested positive for flu). I was in bed for nearly 36 hours straight and felt miserable all week. But again I looked for the silver lining: maybe all that time in bed will help prevent sleep deprivation during the race! And Doctor Google provided me with just the confirmation bias I needed: full recovery is typically two weeks and I have almost right at two weeks!
Then I arrived in the UK for a bit of work before the race. I grabbed a late night peri peri chicken toasty (grilled cheese) on the way to my hotel. One lesson I definitely learned from all of this is to never eat a dairy and meat sandwich from the top shelf of one of those open air refrigerators at the very end of the day. I guess a side benefit of going fully vegan is that there are fewer foods that can poison you. In any case, I spent the next few days largely unable to eat and spending inappropriate amounts of time on the toilet. But silver lining: I got my appetite back the day before the race, I was fully cleared out, and I guess I shed a bit of weight that could offset all that kit we have to carry!
What else was I to do at that point? Give up before I even tried? Stay home and sulk? Go into it with doubt and negativity? Adjusting goals to align with inescapable realities is always a good strategy – I do it often both before and within races (like when I got altitude sickness at Hardrock). But in this case I didn’t know with any certainty how these things might affect my race. Even a poor result would be better than never knowing, and this would just make a good result that much more satisfying.
One of my best races ever was the 2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler, after coming down with a stomach bug the previous evening. I went out conservatively, ran a smart race, and went on to win after not leading until 70% of the way to the finish. Kilian crushed UTMB shortly after asymptomatic Covid. Michael Jordan won an NBA Finals game with the flu. I constantly reminded myself of these things in the week before the race. I could still run the Spine! It was fine.
We all are dealing with some circumstances beyond our control, starting all the way from birth with the genetics we’re given. The best that we can do is acknowledge them, accept them, and chart the best path forward from where we are rather than dwell on where we wish we were. The true measure of an outcome is how far we come given our circumstances and constraints, and here I had an opportunity to perhaps come farther than I ever had before.
I genuinely went into the race with excitement and confidence, eager to line up against such a great field and set foot on the Pennine Way for the first time in years, in what looked to be amazing winter conditions.
I wasn’t the only one eager to get out on the course in beautiful conditions. I decided on the very first climb that the pace was way too hot and I dropped back. I was a bit surprised that I then caught up fairly effortlessly moving along the rocky section at the top. Maybe I was overly excited at the beautiful views we had. I had never even known it was possible to spot Manchester from the Pennine Way – I think it was the first time I had been on that section when it wasn’t claggy and miserable.
If nothing else it was great to be able to chat with the group at the front for a bit – trying to teach them all my clever methods for metric to imperial conversion and not at all trying to confuse and distract them with math(s). I interrupted myself when I spotted cars in the distance, “Wait, is that Snake Pass already?!” Looking down at my watch I joked with Damian that we were probably ahead of our splits from our supported summer Pennine Way records.
Not long after, about three hours in at Torside, I once again decided the sensible thing was to drop back. We had also just passed the Trigger Fell Race headed in the opposite direction and I was exhausted from the mental energy required to switch back from the American “good job” to the British “well done” for each runner that went by. 😉
I was pleased with my decision to slow down, and congratulating myself for having the maturity and confidence to run a smart, disciplined race. But then as we went up Black Hill my legs went dead. It was that heavy feeling, like they were encased in concrete, something I might expect to have to battle as I moved through the Cheviots at the very end of the race. Low points are normal, but just 4 hours in to an 80ish hour race I’ve gotta admit it was bewildering and incredibly frustrating. Again I had to remind myself that these sorts of strange things can happen, and I had literal days for my legs to wake up and get to it. I just needed to stick to a smart pace and eventually it would work out.
Then I started having extremely strange cramps. My inner thighs started locking up in fully immobilizing pain (My inner thighs? When have my inner thighs ever cramped?!). Spectators and walkers who were out for the day looked on, confused and offering help as I struggled just to scramble up a few rocks on a short climb. I continued, counting on my legs to loosen up and again continually reminding myself that I’ve been there before. I had to dig deep this time, going all the way back to my first Barkley in 2015 when my calves cramped up on the very first climb. Also in my head, though, were the strange cramps I experienced at Tor Des Geants in 2021 which turned out to be the first symptoms of rhabdomyolysis.
The thoughts started racing through my head, and a four hour mental battle ensued.
👿 This is some lingering effect from the flu, or the food poisoning. It’s not normal, I can’t push through this one.
😇 It’s a long race, there’s plenty of time. Just stay calm and patient and it will be fine.
👿 What if this is rhabdo again? I definitely don’t want to risk that with three days of racing left.
😇 No, no I have none of the other symptoms. It’s definitely not that, it’s fine.
👿 What can I hope to accomplish here? I have nothing to prove to anyone, including myself. It’s not worth it.
😇 These are incredible conditions – just enjoy and appreciate being out here regardless of the outcome.
👿 But what if that outcome ruins my recovery and training for my next event, and cascades through the entire year?
😇 Remember that extreme low and inexplicable exhaustion at Tor Des Geants a few months ago, on the verge of quitting before Stephanie Case kicked my butt out of an aid station? Remember how awesome of an experience the rest of the race was, and how incredibly grateful I was that I continued and finished? Would Stephanie let me quit right now? No, of course not!
👿 My flight home is Friday morning… am I even going to be able to make it in time if this continues?
😇 I’m still right on my 80 hour schedule! What am I whining about? Is it actually my legs, or is that just an excuse for being disappointed other people are temporarily way in front of me, moving at a pace I think will end poorly? Get on with it, stick to the schedule, and good things will come!
By the time I reached the first checkpoint at Hebden Bridge I had dug myself out of my mental low and regained confidence. I was eager to continue. It’s important to do everything possible to not come into a comfortable, easy to quit spot on a low. After shoveling down some pasta, chugging some hot blackcurrant squash, and switching out some kit, I quickly got back out and on my way. The next section goes across open moors, including Top Withens, the inspiration for the farmhouse in Wuthering Heights. I marveled at the expansive beauty on a peaceful and clear winter’s night. Everything was fine. Regardless of the outcome, I would soak this in.
My legs were improving slightly, the cramping had stopped, and I was still on schedule. I was starting to let myself become cautiously optimistic and my excitement for the race had fully returned by the time I started descending into Lothersdale about 65 miles in.
Suddenly my ankle, yes that same ankle, rolled the wrong way over a lump in the ground and I was face down screaming into the grass, partly from pain but mostly from the frustration of knowing my race was likely over right after I had won that big mental battle and reconvinced myself how much I wanted to be out there. I hobbled into Lothersdale and sat at the support point. Over the course of about an hour and a half, in between the amazing Craven Energy Triathlon Club feeding me and keeping me warm, I repeatedly got up to check my ankle. I kept hoping it was one of those I could just walk off after a bit and I would somehow suddenly be able to run on it again.
Eventually I had to accept it. I was physically incapable of running even a single step on it and it wasn’t getting any better. There was no way I could go another 200 miles. If I tried I really could ruin my whole year and do long term damage in the process. Would Stephanie let me quit now? Yeah, she probably would. I was done just as I had seemingly been getting started.
Support Crew Imposter
After accepting my race’s fate, I somewhat joined the support team. I say somewhat, because the incredible crews working the checkpoints 100% had things covered and at times I was trying to just not get in the way. Hopefully I provided a bit of encouragement to the runners and helped where I could, particularly to be sure that when things got busy the leaders still had everything they needed and could get back out quickly. Minutes matter to them, and I knew a good bit about what was going on in their heads.
At Langdon Beck I managed food and sleep schedules for them while Challenger North runners poured in. Yes, I brought Damian his tea (but didn’t make it… I honestly don’t even know how and it was definitely not the time that anyone wanted me to try to learn). At Alston I did my best to encourage Jack to keep crushing it and pull away from Damian. Then I did my best to encourage Damian to get going and catch Jack. I scavenged my kit to replace items people had lost or broken – goggles, GPS, microspikes. Maybe I could make it to the finish in pieces.
Some people seemed surprised I stuck around. Was it agonizing being inside looking out at the beautiful winter conditions? Of course. Did every piece of me (except my ankle) want to be in the thick of the battle at Alston? Yup. A lot of people assume that it’s winter conditions that make the Spine so difficult. True winter conditions, with frozen ground and snow instead of deep mud and rain, are the best possible conditions for the Spine.
But what was I to do… sit around and feel sorry for myself? Travel all that way only to turn around and miss out on it completely? Staring out longingly at the landscape between fleeting moments of being part of the race was far better than nothing. And so many people have sat around for hours on end waiting for me to show up at a support point, many of them these same people. The last time I had seen Jack was when he supported me on my Paddy Buckley Round starting my “Grand Round” in 2020 (something Damian also supported me on).
The New Possible
So many things seem impossible, right up until someone does them. I believe that’s one of the greatest benefits sports offers to society – showing us both on an individual and a collective level that our limits are not what we thought they were. When I started running again a decade ago I would have laughed hysterically at anyone who said I could finish Barkley, or do half the things I’ve done since then. I would have never planned a 58 hour schedule for the Pennine Way if Damian hadn’t crushed my original record time and reset my perception of what was possible. All of these things are rungs on a ladder, continually leading us higher.
Jack has fully reset our perception of what’s possible on the Spine. When he left Alston he looked strong and determined, and I knew he could set a new course record. But not by that much! I watched the tracker in utter disbelief as he sped along Hadrian’s Wall, quickly got in and out of Bellingham, and flew across the Cheviots. Damian ran an incredible race, the second fastest time ever at the Spine, and no doubt was an enormous factor in pushing Jack. Plus if Damian hadn’t have come out on top in 2023 Jack might not even have returned in 2024. Damian should absolutely be proud of his race, and by my math he also evened our head to head record at 3-3 (Damian might have slightly different maths 😉).
As for me this year, *if* I hadn’t injured my ankle and *if* I had been able to continue on my carefully calculated schedule, then yes I would have caught people. Unfortunately of the 11 of us that came through Torside in the lead 8 of us didn’t finish the race (the 3rd who did was the completely unflappable Konrad Rawlik, husband of 2019 Spine winner and previous course record holder Jasmin Paris). But I wouldn’t have come close to catching Jack – he was so far ahead of my planned splits that I never would have even been in a position to take a gamble with a hard push to close the gap. I am encouraged about future possibilities by looking back at my 2020 splits, seeing how much time I wasted at checkpoints and that I was somehow 1:22 faster near the end from Byrness to Hut 2 (when I thought Jayson Cavill was still hot on my heels). From Dufton to Greenhead, though, when Jack made his big move, he was an hour faster than I was on my fully supported summer northbound Pennine Way record. 🤯
The beauty of pursuing big goals is that we sometimes succeed. But only sometimes. There are also those magical times when the stars align and we exceed those goals and what we or anyone else thought was possible. This was an outstanding athlete having an outstanding performance in outstanding conditions. No one else had even finished the Spine before dark on the fourth day. He nearly finished before light.
Back to Searching
Thank you so much to everyone at the Spine Race and those following along, and particularly to the Craven Energy Tri Club, who took care of me in Lothersdale after my ankle injury. It is truly an incredible race that on the surface looks like a solitary battle with the elements but is actually a massive collective endeavor by the participants, staff, and volunteers. I also owe a huge thank you to Jen and Marcus Scotney for putting me up and shuttling me around for a couple days before the race. And of course as always I’m incredibly grateful for my wife’s support to get me to the start, and her parents for helping out with the kids in my absence.
I did still return home a couple days earlier than planned, and ended up not fully missing out on beautiful winter conditions. With a few days of single digit F (negative teens C) and a solid layer of snow, I had those dream-like Spine conditions at home. But instead of trudging through bogs I got to go sledding and have snowball fights with my kids. Silver lining #1.
I also didn’t have much recovery to deal with when I got home. It’s worth mentioning that my coach, David Roche (also Damian’s coach), originally suggested I not do the Spine. Once I made the decision he 100% supported me as always, but in a year that started with a signifcant non-running injury involving a ladder, followed by three big multi-day efforts (Barkley, Long Trail FKT, and Tor Des Geants), and then a toe surgery in November (bone spur shaved off the top), he thought it would overall be for the best to have a good reset and rebuild to start 2024.
Well coach, you were right. And now I have that reset. It’s an odd thing to consider, that in our sport a race ending due to an injury can involve much less recovery than finishing the race uninjured. The Spine ended up being a great training stimulus for me, with just a bit of time being cautious with my ankle afterwards. Ankles are also odd, the way they can go from completely incapacitating to perfectly fine within a couple days. I’m in a much better spot for the build into my next event (rhymes with farkley) and for the season as a whole. Silver lining #2.
One of my concerns going into it was whether the toe I had surgery on would have any issues. It hadn’t been limiting in training in December, but it had remained intermittently “uncomfortable” and I definitely hadn’t tested it with that big of a run. Now I have my test, and it passed with flying colors. Silver lining #3.
Statistically speaking, I think I’m actually quite fortunate that out of all the multi-day things I’ve done on gnarly terrain, this is the first one that ever ended with an acute injury. To keep that going, I definitely need to address any chronic instability issues in that ankle. I’ve already picked up a few tools and exercise routines to address that, and got some great pointers from Tim Pigott, who has spent a good amount of time on the Pennine Way himself. This is also added motivation to stop entirely ignoring strength training instead of doing absolutely nothing but running. I really don’t have time for much else, but some of these things can be done while on a work phone call or brushing my teeth, and not having time is really just an excuse when in fact I hate all forms of strength, mobility, or flexibility training. Silver lining #4.
I learned to never trust a late night peri peri chicken toasty the week of a race. Silver lining #5.
Speaking of food poisoning and hating strength training, I had the opportunity to go to the Boston Run Show a couple weeks after Spine, where I spoke myself and also got to hear childhood hero and all-time great sprinter Michael Johnson speak. It turns out he also hated strength training and had to force himself to do it to end a string of injuries. He also, like me, grew up as the youngest kid around constantly trying to keep up with the older kids, and before the ’92 Olympics he got food poisoning and despite being recovered from the worst of it he found that his legs just weren’t there. We’re basically the same person. 😂 And what he did at the next Olympics in ’96 is the stuff of legends. I know I’m really grasping at straws now, but I’m going to go ahead and count having my experience validated by Michael Johnson as silver lining #6.
In any case, after my injury It was great to be able to join a few of the checkpoints and still be a part of the race in some way, but I longed to still be out there, even if well back from the lead. I loved being back on that terrain so much, especially on such a perfect day. But there will hopefully be many more days to come. I would even settle for around average conditions. There’s just nothing quite like complete utter failure to get me fired up. Silver lining #7. 😉
Gear and Nutrition
Normally this would be a straight forward, largely cut and paste section. I’ll still keep it relatively short, but I have some major issues with the Spine kit list. I’ve discussed this with the race organizers, and nothing I say here is anything I haven’t already shared with them.
I believe the organizers are truly doing their best to put on a safe and thoroughly enjoyable event that’s as accessible as possible, and they’re an amazing team for which I have complete respect. But I think the requirements have gone too far in places. If the requirements were all actually safety oriented, I would begrudgingly accept them. But I’ll never be ok with the stuff that’s for comfort, convenience, or is just pure micro management.
I definitely had one of the lighter packs, coming in around 6 kg / 13 lbs with food and a liter of water. To lighten my load I purchased some costly gear, most of which I’ll never use except for the Spine. Issue #1 – it’s wasteful (both environmentally and financially) and can create an uneven playing field based on what someone can afford.
A lot of the requirements seem to pander to individuals who had individual problems or complaints in the past. Don’t want to carry eating utensils, cup, stove, or fuel cannister? Fine, no soup for you (more specifically, no noodles at Greg’s Hut). Get over it. I had to carry extra solid food and alter my nutrition strategy because of the 3,500 calories required to leave each checkpoint only 500 can be drink mixes. I typically get 50% of my calories from Tailwind, and the Pennine Way is almost a nautical route at times – there’s zero issue getting water for a drink mix. Issue #2 – people should have control of their own race and strategy without being micro managed, especially if it doesn’t actually have anything to do with safety. No one is going to starve on the Pennine Way.
The Spine can have massive differences in conditions year to year or even day to day. There is no one size fits all possible conditions kit list. People need to be able to look at the conditions and know what to carry. And just because someone is forced to carry something doesn’t mean they know how to use it. Issue #3 – giving an extensive kit list just gives a false sense of security, making people think as long as they have everything required they’re fine.
Even if someone knows how to properly prepare for the conditions, they might not be able to carry everything they need because they’re forced to take up pack space with frivolous items that have nothing to do with safety. And that extra kit adds unnecessary weight, keeping people out in bad conditions for longer. Issue #4 – it can go beyond a false sense of security to a true sense of danger.
My preferred kit list would be absolutely nothing. Make sure people are qualified rather than gear. At Barkley there are no requirements. If someone gets out there and doesn’t have something they need, tough luck. It’s their own fault, and they signed the waiver. Out of over 1,500 entries in Barkley’s history (during which time available gear has changed substantially), not a single person has ever not managed to get themselves to safety.
I understand those are two very different races, and the laws in the US and UK are different so that just having people sign a waiver might not be sufficient for the Spine. I also appreciate that they at least enforce the required kit at Spine, with a check at registration and at each checkpoint. Some races require certain things must be carried but then never actually check, giving a disadvantage to people who follow the rules.
My Actual Gear and Nutrition
Note: I have relationships with many of these companies. For a full list, see Partners.
Oh, right, I should probably mention some of what I actually used. I still had my usual Tailwind (even though only 500 calories counted towards the requirement), plus Supernatural, Maurten, and imported American junk food (e.g. Little Debbie cakes).
Footwear is always a big decision at Spine. On all my other Pennine Way adventures I conceded that I would just have wet feet the whole time. For the 2020 Spine I didn’t even know yet that waterproof socks existed. This time I went with a combo that seemed to work extremely well splashing through puddles in training. I had La Sportiva Cyklon Cross GTX, which is basically the Cyklon with a Gore Tex cover, then under that I had Dexshell waterproof socks, and under that XOSKIN wool toe socks. Where my shoe hit my socks and where my socks hit my leg I had small rubber sleeves (normally used for cycling shoes) to seal the gap.
The good news is that my feet did stay pretty dry. The terrible news is that in order to accommodate the waterproof socks I sized up my shoes slightly, which I think created a more sloppy fit, which I think was a contributing factor to rolling my ankle. Next time I’ll probably go back to embracing the wet and just go with normal shoes and double layered wool socks to stay warm. Less weight, better fit, and hopefully no sprained ankles.
For my pack I used the Ultimate Direction Blazek 18. It worked really well, but wasn’t as perfect as I had hoped it would be. Even though I wore a Race Belt for added accessible storage, I definitely wish the pack had a waistbelt with hip pockets. I also wish it didn’t have the foam padding in the back. If I use it again I’ll cut that out. I’ve honestly never understood foam padding on packs, it adds weight and can chafe vs. just putting clothes and soft items in the back. Next time, I’ll probably go back to trying to stuff everything into an Adventure Vest like I did in 2020. I just wish that vest had two holsters instead of a burrito pocket on the left strap.
All my other gear was pretty standard for what I normally use. I had a Petzl Actik Core for short dark stretches and a NAO+ for longer sections. My COROS Vertix 2 didn’t even use 10% of its battery in my ~15 hours out there, and my XOSKIN base layers kept me warm and unchafed.