The Spine Race Report – When is enough, enough?

Blog,Race Report

98.5% Complete – When is enough, enough?

I’ll kick things off with a lovely thing John Bamber said to me at the end: “Remember everyone has a different finishing line, be it KY or anywhere down the PY, and that line is a personal win after stepping up to the start line.” – I’ll come back to this later.

Why The Spine Race?

When I started my ultra-running journey in 2017, I was consumed by many excellent books from inspirational runners who had taken on fantastic challenges. Two races stuck out initially, which were Spartathalon and Badwater, but when I got my first ever coach, who was a local ultra running “legend”, he almost scoffed at those races and said, “Why don’t you go for something tough like Spine?”. When I researched, I remember thinking, “F*** THAT, who would be crazy enough to do that!” and a seed was planted.

Even though that “local legend” coach confirmed he had completed Spine, I never found evidence of his claim. So, the irony is that the guy who planted the seed by telling me he had done it had never actually completed the race. So, lesson number one, when working with a coach, always check their backgrounds.

Since moving on from the ‘local legend’ to working with an absolute legend – Nathan, we have worked hard to get into the British Spartathaon team. I completed the race and crossed the finish line of Spartathalon on the 1st of October 2022. After that race, my running mojo was lost; I struggled to recover from the highs of Greece.

In terms of my running background, I am more of a road and track runner and so all the long-distance stuff I have done (50 miles to 150+) has been on roads, track (24-hour races) or “standard” trails.

In January 2023, my good friend David Bone was taking on Spine, and I was in ‘dot-watching’ mode. As I consumed every video and social media post, I got goosebumps; I would tear up with some of the video footage. It’s all I could think about. Could I complete Spine? It was time to go for it.  The application process started, and I was lucky to be in the 2024 Winter Spine race.

Pre-Race

I live in the South of England. I have a young family and run a small business, so it was natural to think about how to recce certain sections when preparing for the Spine. In the end, with family and work commitments, it wasn’t possible to go to where the race would take place. So, the first time I would ever step on the PW would be the 14th of January. I love to be prepared and probably try to overthink and plan, but sometimes (for me), not knowing what was coming was also helpful. Whether I liked it or not, that was my reality.

Training Block

The 12-week training block I had was great. It wasn’t perfect because of a few days of illness and then commitments in and around Christmas, but I loved the change in training. Nathan added loads of elevation, and I spent hours in my local forest with a heavy pack. I loved the weighted vest sessions on the treadmill, with the incline set to max.

Volume-wise, I was around eighty miles per week, maxing out at one hundred and ten miles. The time on my feet was much higher than anything I’d ever done (as I was moving slower). The commitment to get up for a six-hour run at 5 am and then do a second session in the evening was hard, but I threw myself into it, and the weeks and sessions ticked off.

Kit

For me, pre-race, this was the most stressful thing. Getting your head around kit is massive, and it is only when you are in the race that you realise that everything that Lindley and the Spine team have on that list is really needed.

The best source of information on the kit list came from Centurion’s James Elson’s Spine kit YouTube video. I watched it many times, and that formed my plan. I used a lot of the kit in that video.

 This is a highlight of my key kit choices:

  • Montane Gecko VP20+ pack
  • Montane Men’s Phase Nano Waterproof Jacket
  • Inov8 Mudtalon Speed
  • Inov8 X-Talon 255 V2’s
  • Montane Prism dry mitts
  • Petzl Nao RL Headtorch
  • Dexshell and Sealskinz waterproof socks, with base sock underneath
  • Kahtoola Microspikes

I tested all my kit in training, and it went well. The only thing I couldn’t test properly was the microspikes on ice, and this would come back to bite me.

Nutrition

Of everything I nailed and got right, nutrition (eating) was at the top. I had a zip bag with a thousand calories in it, ten bags of a thousand calories. The food ranged from chocolate bars to olives, cheese to gels, dried cranberries to Peperami. It was a good mix, and it worked. I ate something every hour, on the hour. I may have missed this by a few minutes here or there, but I could eat almost everything with no issues. I also had some dried meals that I used in some areas where they were giving out hot water.  Drinking was a different thing though and often my bottles were frozen, so I had to really drink loads when at the checkpoints.

Mentality & Motivation

For Spine, I wanted to take the opportunity to raise as much money for a worthwhile cause. It wasn’t a difficult decision, as a good friend and teacher at my sons’ school, Kate Miles, has stage two breast cancer, and she is such a positive example of how to deal with adversity. Her attitude to dealing with her situation inspires me massively.

My children’s school promoted my sponsorship page, and now there was no way I could fail. I did not want to let Kate down, and I didn’t want to let my sons, Arthur (10) and Murray (6), down. It turned out the school gave updates on my progress in assemblies. I didn’t know that at the time, but when things got so tough, I would imagine how they would feel if kids said their dad couldn’t finish.

I’ve had issues within my mind during previous races, and through lots of focus and practice, this has improved massively over the years. Before a big race, I write down a list of how I want to behave during these races. I thought about all the values I have and the values of the Spine race and community. I focused on ensuring I was the best ‘Spiner’ I could be.

The Spine ListThis meant:

  • Helping fellow runners if they are struggling.
  • Being positive in my thoughts and what I say at all times.
  • Smiling and thanking all the checkpoint crews.
  • Bring grateful and lucky enough to have a family that supports me so I can have this opportunity.
  • Will over Skill.

The Race

Kit checks and registration were all fine, and I shouldn’t have worried as much as I did about this. I stayed just outside Edale in a small B&B. My wife, Clare and the boys had driven me up. When it was time to say goodbye, Clare was close to getting upset, so I held it together and waved them off.

I finished sorting my bags and had an okay sleep, and the following day, I got ready to race.

The weather in the build-up had been awful, with so much rain, but we got lucky for nearly all the race. It was clear skies and no rain. The rain is what I was worried about.

Start to CP1 (Hebden Hey) – 46 Miles

When taking on big races, I am pretty good at breaking them down. Even though 268 miles is intimidating, what is much easier is to focus from checkpoint to checkpoint. So, I had six back-to-back races to do, ranging from thirty-one miles to sixty-seven each. That sounded doable and manageable.

As we set off at 8 am on the 14th of January, I felt good.  I settled into a rhythm, and the aim was to sit at a four out of ten effort level, and I did that.

I had started in the new Inov8 Mudtalon Speed rather than my tried and tested X-Talon 255 V2s. I understood the risk, but I’d had the Mudtalon Speed for two weeks before and worn them as much as possible. I have wide feet, and these are great for that. The grip was superb. I had the X-Talon 255 V2s in my drop bag in case they were needed.

Overall, this section was about getting in a rhythm and not pushing too hard, and everything went pretty smoothly, but as the sun set and darkness kicked in, my mood dropped as I knew I wouldn’t see the sun again for sixteen hours.

The highlight of this section was Jacob’s Ladder.

After seventeen hours and thirteen minutes, I arrived at Hebden at 1:13 am.

My CP strategy was to spend four hours at every checkpoint: eating, sleeping, eating again and then heading out. I would also change some clothes, charge batteries, and take care of anything else that needed doing.

I’d cut my right knuckle, and that got seen too. While this got worse with other CP’s (swollen), it would be the least of my worries in the end.

To sleep, I bought a SleepBand, which is kind of like a headband; it goes over your ears and eyes and has a Bluetooth speaker.  I could shut out noise when I was trying to sleep. After eating two bowls of chicken and rice, I went to a bunk and tried to sleep. I probably got about ninety minutes and could not sleep again, so I left a bit earlier than planned after eating more chicken and rice.

CP1 to CP2 (Hawes) – 67 Miles

This would now be the biggest leg, but we did have CP1.5 (Malham Tarn) in between (Thirty-minute monitoring station).

My first sunrise had energised me. I enjoyed getting into Malham Tarn for some Macaroni Cheese that I was carrying with me. It went down well.

The highlight for this leg was Malham Cove. It was sunny with blue skies. I was moving well, and seeing so many people out was lovely. It was great to get encouragement during the climb. Then, over to Malham Moor (Settle), I managed to speak to Clare and the kids. It was great, but I was missing them loads and holding it together when the kids were chatting away. The darkness fell again, and I was getting used to it now. Light power on and power on……….

I’m terrified of heights, so Pen-y-Ghent in the dark was probably better for me.  I had to stay calm and focused to get through that part without screaming my head off.

I loved the Hawes CP. There was a bit more space, it was less hectic than Hebden, and I got a decent amount of sleep there, but still no more than two to three hours. I continued to eat well and ate lots – cooked breakfast (two lots of scrambled eggs, beans, sausages, bacon, toast and loads of tea, all topped off with rice pudding). I felt good when I left; there was sunlight, and it was snowing. Although, it was a bit weird to go through Hawes with people looking at me. I felt like a primed athlete but probably looked like a man that had lost everything…..

CP2 to CP3 (Middleton in Teesdale, Langdon Beck) – 42 Miles

The snow and ice started to kick in, and everything that had happened before had been forgotten. It was like a new race: colder, slippery, and wet. It was very ‘Spine’ like (the way I had hoped). This is what I signed up for. These are the bits I’d see in the video clips. I was ready for these bits……bring it on!

At Alston, everyone kept asking, “How bad was Great Shunner Fell?” but I loved it. It was snowing, I had to be on my nav (and I was on it), and I enjoyed the section. I took a few falls, but the snow kept it from being too bad.

People talk about the Spine “bubble”, and I was well and truly in the Spine bubble now. It was just a case of step-by-step, eating every hour, focusing on the nav and just keep going.

When I made it to the Tan Hill Pub, I felt great. Lindley was there; it was good to see him and chat. The soup was good, and I ate more Mac & Cheese with a few rounds of tea.

The highs and lows kept coming, and the next section from Tan Hill to Alston was a low. I was messing about with my microspikes. They were coming on and off, and when I took them off, I would inevitably have a bad slip and fall. Nothing too serious, but one was at the edge of a hill and enough for me to have a word with myself  – “Just keep them on, you twat!”

I was getting low, even though the sun had risen. I needed someone, and this is when the Spine Angels started to look out for me.

I was tired when I came into Alston; it had been a hard slog with the ice. I went to sort something out with my feet. I needed my scissors, and they broke, and I just started crying. It wasn’t about the scissors; I was tired and needed to re-set. I was lucky because Jen was volunteering there, and she helped me more than I can ever explain.

I slept and ate well but only got ninety minutes of sleep.

We were told there was a detour around Cauldron Snout as we left. I can’t lie; I was relieved. With all the ice that I’d gone through, that section worried me.

CP3 to CP4 (Alston) – 31 Miles

The cold was setting in now. I had six layers on top and four layers on the bottom that were working well. My mitts were terrific, and I had hand warmers, which I changed every twelve hours. I was alright.

With Cauldron Snout removed from the equation, it was relatively steady through Dufton. I went into the Dufton monitoring station and saw a guy with his feet out, showing everyone he had no toes. Was that a sign? Was I hallucinating?

Before the big push to Gregs Hutt, I decided to go to the Post Box Pantry and have a Cheeseburger and Irn-Bru. As meals go, it was near perfect. The only way it could get better was some Chilli Whack Noodles…

Going up and over Cross Fell was one of the greatest moments. I wanted an adventure and to be tested, and now I was getting both. Coming into this, I was worried that my navigation skills would be up to it, but I was doing well and enjoying it. It was only when I was with someone else that I started to second-guess myself. I navigated well on my own (nearly all the time……).

I was with two other Spine racers at this point, and one of them was sick a few times. I stayed with him even though the other guy went off. I can’t lie and say that didn’t bother me because I wanted to be the best Spiner I could. It’s also in my nature to look out for others, so I wasn’t faking it. Coming down off Cross Fell was challenging, as the snow had taken away all the obvious markers, and it was dark. But I got both of us down and into Greg Hutt. John and his daughter Gemma looked after us. I had what I came for: Chilli Whack Noodles, which were delicious. I stayed longer than planned because the other spine racer wanted to sleep.

I was happy to get into Alston. But one thing that hadn’t worked well for me, which had happened in the last few CP’s: I was arriving in the day, so I was missing the daylight. I wasn’t cutting the time I had in there down, so it just meant more darkness.

My Spine Angels at Alston were Birgit and Noel, and they both looked after me in different ways. Noel made sure I had all my kit sorted, and we laughed whether my number was 106 or 109. At that stage, what’s the difference?! Birgit could see I needed a cuddle, and she delivered to the highest level. They were amazing people.

I was tired, and it had played on my mind that I was looking after others, and none of the other spine racers were looking out for me. They needed help, and I gave it with pleasure. I’d stopped someone DNF’ing twice and got someone over Cross Fell. I had a positive attitude, telling them, “We’re getting there, no doubt, we are getting there”. But a switch went off in my head. I wanted to come out of CP4 all guns blazing.

I ate and slept okay.  I was ready to go again; I had reset my mind. I was in an amazing place. As I left, my friend John Keat had a friend working at that CP, and he came and said hello. We took a picture, which he sent to my wife, Clare. It settled my mind that I could get a message to her that I was okay, as there was no phone signal.

I went out running, and I was running well. Nearly one hundred and sixty miles in my legs, but I felt good. Looking back, I made a massive mistake here. I had my microspikes on, and I’m not used to running in them. I was pumped up for all the right reasons, but if there was a part that played in my downfall, it started here. This alone would cause the excruciating shin splints, which would now affect me so much.

CP4 to CP5 (Bellingham) – 42 Miles

It was daylight, and I was running and moving well.

As the sun fell, between Slaggford and Hadrian’s Wall, I made one or two navigation errors. But luckily, I joined a woman called Kate; she was lovely, and we worked well together. I knew we’d be okay when she said, “Ah, you’re the nice guy in the pink hat. Do you mind women who swear a lot?” …….it was a perfect match.

Hadrian’s Wall was tough. My shin splints were really hurting now, and I was moving slowly. Every step stung. I had some blisters, but I was using them as a comfort, so by feeling them, they woke me up, but the shins were different. But, no matter what the pain was like, I didn’t think about stopping.

I was now exhausted, and I needed a few ditch naps. I would lie on the ground for one hundred and twenty seconds (I counted) and get up. They worked well, but I was starting to hallucinate badly. I could see an old favourite from Spartathalon, the classic ‘old dead head on the floor.’ But there were also new ones: faces in the ice and evil cabbage patch dolls.

This is where I really longed for my music. At the back end of the training block, I had started listening to Oasis again, ‘Live from Knebworth 1996’. It was absolutely banging. ‘LG, I need you now, mate. Please help me…….’ LG steps up ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol for every mother f****** one of ya!’

Hadrian’s Wall was emotional. I started to think of my Mum and Dad dot-watching. I’m saying, “Look at this, Mum and Dad, I made it to Hadrian’s Wall.” But it is such a tricky section, and it hurt; I couldn’t get in a flow. I was fighting it.

Where was my main Guardian Angel? Up step Sean……. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but probably just before Middleton, and we just clicked. He knew what to say and what I needed to hear. We talked about reaching into the ‘cookie jar’ and making sure we both got to KY with no regrets. He helped me so much.

I entered Bellingham in the daylight, which again lifted my mood. All the volunteers gave big, warm smiles. It was like a virtual hug.

I made two big mistakes here.  I was going to sleep. I sat down and ate, and I felt okay. The leading medic, Tim, was excellent and looked after me. He gave me drugs to help with the pain in my shins, and Sophie sorted my feet out.

I had forty-three miles left. It was daylight. I had just been told the weather would get bad later, so I decided to push on with no sleep to make the most of the day. I would then sleep at the church after Byrness.

 

CP5 to Finish (Kirk Yetholm) – 43 Miles

I checked my messages, and there were loads. I can’t explain how much they helped. There were a few main people I was in touch with; you all know who you are, and I will be forever grateful for all the help you gave.

Messages checked, motivation up…. Come on LG, what you got for me? ‘SUPERSONIC’……. let’s go, Liam Gallagher.

The section started okay, but when darkness fell, I really struggled. I made a navigation error just before Byrness. I went up and down the same stretch for two hours. I was starting to lose this fight. I had never once thought I wouldn’t make it. My feet and shins were in bits, and this was the first time, with thirty miles left I contemplated quitting. My shins were in so much pain. Every step felt like my leg was broken, and my running poles were crutches.

Then, when I needed him most……Sean suddenly appeared. It all changed. We chatted, but I mainly listened. I didn’t want this to end. I was in pain, but I’d been in pain for two days now. I was making mistakes, and it was costing me. Having previously accepted my DNF, I walked into Byrness and was 100% ready to keep going………..thanks Sean.

I had three coffees, three teas, one plate for mince and tatties, jam and toast. There was also a good amount of Northern (and Kiwi) love and banter to get me out. I was given pain relief again, and then I went down to the church and slept for forty-five minutes.

As I went out, LG was ready to sing to me again, and the wind was getting stronger.  Although I had two hundred and thirty miles in my legs, I was strong. As I got to the top of the first climb, the wind was blowing me all over the place. Alone in the darkness, I thought of my two lovely sons. I knew they’d be tucked up in bed, nice and snug. ‘Your old dad is okay lads; I’m doing alright……nearly there, lads……love you xxx’

There was only one way out of this: I had to get to KY and get home. I am finishing this!! LG steps up with ‘Morning Glory…….’

The sun rising lifted me, it was the last sunrise on this race. First up, I needed to get to hut one.  I did it, and I was in decent shape. I ate my dried meal and drank coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Then I left, eager to get to hut two.

We were being timed from the sections from Byrness to Hut One and Hut Two.  I had to do forty-minute miles to stay in the race. I was on top of my time, still eating well and feeling okay.

From Hut 1 to Hut 2, I wasn’t given pain relief, so I was in bits. But I said to myself – I WILL NOT STOP. I will not stop. It’s just pain. I’ll fix it when I get home. But when darkness fell, I couldn’t see where my feet were going, so one misplaced foot, and my shins were in agony. I was gasping and screaming with every step. I WILL NOT STOP. I am getting to Scotland.

My nephew, the lovely Finn, sent me a message, and I sent him a photo: “Here is your Uncle Allan just crossing into Scotland. Have a good day at school, mate x”.

I was born in Scotland and moved to England when I was seven. I’m very proud of my background. I’m from two coal mining families, and I am now a middle-class Southerner, but I don’t forget where I am from, and that drives me. I wanted to cross that border into KY. It had more meaning than a race. I wanted to see those flags. I WILL GET THERE.

During that section, there was another Spine Angel, an ex-teacher called Malcolm from Durham.  He came out to cheer Spine runners on and cheered me up.

I made it to Hut 2, but the weather turned bad. I hadn’t had to deal with the wet weather for the whole race, and now I did. I refuelled at Hut 2, and I could see they were looking at me with concern, but I just smiled through it. I put a smaller Gortex jacket on underneath everything, so I now had seven layers.

Leaving Hut 2, I had thirteen hours to go only a few miles. Not many people mess this up from here. I was tired, wet, cold and in a huge amount of pain. There was a group of four of us; we were all struggling. Jon Dunn was struggling the least, and he wanted to push on, but he didn’t.

My mind was playing tricks on me. I didn’t think we were in a race; I thought we were doing a recce, and I was telling everyone I’d done this section loads and knew where to go. I’d convinced myself my left quad was someone else’s.

It was just one more big climb, but I needed one last dirt nap, so I went to find shelter behind a wall and slept for two minutes. This was the end of the race for me. I was too cold, and by stopping, Hypothermia kicked in, and Jon made the decision to get the safety team. He made the right call.

Four miles short. Stuck in England.

98.5% complete.

Mike, from the rescue team from Hut 2, was my saviour. He was amazing; when we sat in the MRT buggy to get me off the PW, all I could think of was my wife. I felt so bad and selfish to put her through this; she is so supportive, as are all my family, but she doesn’t deserve this.

I was taken to the finish line in Kirk Yetholm; this didn’t feel good. Here should have been the scene of my victory: sitting on the plant pot, kissing the wall. But no, I was being carried out of a car and into the main hall. However, as always and like with every checkpoint, all the Angels were smiling. I had Mac and Cheese, and I thought of my youngest son Murray, as this is his favourite.

John Bamber came over to chat, and like a big, gentle giant, his words soothed me. “Remember, everyone has a different finishing line, be it KY or anywhere down the PY, and that line is a personal win after stepping up to the start line.”

The Aftermath

I’ve dealt with DNFs before and am famous for beating myself up about it. But this is different. I am not beating myself up. I gave everything I had and more. I found a place in my mind and went somewhere I didn’t think was possible, so I’ve taken strength from that.

Nathan and I have talked about this being an adventure and not a race. No medal, but boy, was it an adventure, and I lived 100 races in one.

On returning home, I needed to go to A&E because my feet were so badly blistered that they got infected. It will take a while to get over this one, but I will run again.  But, you won’t see me do Spine again. I had my adventure, and I loved most of it. I won’t forget everyone who helped me. Thank you to those people.

 

Big Picture

I raised over £2,500 for Kate and her charity. I know how much this means to her, and it fills me with so much satisfaction that I could help and contribute. Thank you to everyone who donated; hopefully, you don’t feel shortchanged by the lack of four miles.

Any donations would be gratefully received via this link:

https://www.justgiving.com/page/allan-anderson-1704736480232

 

Thanks & Acknowledgments

Just a few thanks to some amazing people who helped me prepare, get through the race and now recover.

My family. They take the brunt of this crazy shit. From pre-race anxiety to huge levels of worry during the race and then dealing with a broken, tired body at the end. Time to now focus on being husband and Daddy again.

Without Nathan, none of this would be possible. As a coach and friend, I’m blessed to have his help, guidance, care, and dedication. Thank you, mate; no words can do justice to what you do for me.

To Ash, who drove to KY to get me home safely when I was in no fit state to travel. Thanks so much.

To Kathryn, who, with her passion for all things Pennine Way. She lit the fire for me to want to tackle Spine. Also, thank you for everything she has done to put my body back together with her chiropractic treatment.

Last up, Liam Gallagher. I’ve never liked Noel; he is a snide, and LG, you got me through most of that race. As you were.

 

 

 

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