THE WINTER SPINE 2024 – THE RACE THAT ALMOST KILLED ME

THE WINTER SPINE 2024 – THE RACE THAT ALMOST KILLED ME

Bit of a dramatic title I know! But in the lead up to the Winter Spine 2024 I had been very open about my ‘why’ to complete this legendary race. I’d even said to friends that the only thing that would stop me getting to the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, would be an injury bad enough to physically stop me running. 

As it happens, this was very nearly the case, but we’ll get to that bit later………..

A stressful build up 

Here’s a snapshot into my crazy family home life…..

On the day before the race, which is obviously kit check and registration day at Edale, I had some jobs to get done that I hadn’t managed to complete in the week leading up to the race.

I had to move (by hand) a metric ton of logs for our log burner for while I was away.

I had to rod our drains leading to the septic tank that had decided to block up that week. 

I also (and this one is possibly the most ridiculous) had to cut a hole in our front door to fit a cat flap. All because our 2 cats were going to be left over night without a cat sitter when the family drove north to meet me at the finish. (Great idea, but it would have been an even better idea if the wife had thought of it 2 weeks before the race, not 2 days before).

To top all of this off, my good friend Dan had decided a few months previously to get married that day! So not only did I have a list of jobs as long as my arm to complete the day before the race. I also had to drive to Chesterfield to see my mate get married. Then, and only then, could I disappear to kit check and registration and finally get settled in at Edale ahead of the biggest race of my life! 

But, after a stressful week leading up to the race I was glad to be healthy and on the start line. I had survived the taper!

THE WINTER SPINE 2024 - A man walking up a hill using trekking poles with the sun rising behind a hill behind him

Image credit: Adam Jacobs at Wild Aperture Photography

And so, we begin

The race started at a blistering pace and I found myself getting swept along by the excitement of the day. 

What I love about ultra trail running, is the fact that you get to line up with the best in the world and it’s no big deal. It’s the equivalent of signing up to do the 100 metres and standing next to Usain Bolt! I was stood next to this year’s champion Jack Scott, last year’s winner Damian Hall and various podium runners from the races past. 

Once I’d settled into a comfortable pace on Kinder, the realisation of what was ahead of me sunk in. It didn’t faze me particularly but it filled me with a sense of purpose to move forward efficiently. 

Despite a tumble on the descent to Torside which left me laying on my back in the bog with cramp in my hamstring, everything seemed to be going well. I even managed to keep up with the legendary Nicky Spinks for a few miles as we headed up the other side of the valley. We chatted about her living in Scotland and the wind turbines giving her grief. We didn’t talk about the fact that I asked her for a podcast interview multiple times in the lead up to the race and how she had ghosted me every time (she’s subsequently replied and explained she was busy and I’ve booked her in for next week so all’s good)

Heading up to Wessenden I fell in pace with Jonathan Sangster and we chatted as we ticked off the miles to Hebden Hay.

After a quick turnaround at CP1 we made the conscious decision to walk all the night section in the hopes of saving ourselves for daylight and the chance to run in clear but cold conditions. The night was super cold but clear and we made decent progress to Gargrave. 

After visiting the famous Gargrave Co-op for coffee and croissants I felt good enough to push on and run the next section. We tested our running legs and I felt good, but Jonny seemed to be in some discomfort so we decided to part ways in the hopes of seeing each other again later. 

Malham Cove and Pen Y Ghent 

I reached and climbed Malham Cove before hitting Malham Tarn feeling good, only stopping for a coffee and a biscuit. I knew that Pen y Ghent lay ahead so I wanted to hit it in daylight if possible. 

I made good progress up to and over the big climb and was happy to keep my pace moving as I knew the long Cam High Road lay ahead. 

The Cam Road was an absolute drag that never seemed to end as darkness drew in. By the time I reached CP2 at Hawes I was cold (especially my hands) and ready for some sleep!

After a 2 hour sleep and lots of my usual faffing I was off in the early hours ready for the big climb up Great Shunner Fell. Snow was now starting to fall and there was lots of sheet ice covering the flagstones. Microspikes were deployed and I made it down the other side. The next section to Tan Hill seemed to pass by quickly and a warm bowl of soup and a bread roll went down perfectly. 

THE WINTER SPINE 2024 - Sam Hill walking across moorland dressed for cold weather and carrying poles

Image credit: Gilly Photography

The next section heading towards Langdon Beck CP3 was snowy and seemed to be endless. I managed to team up with 2 other runners at this point which helped with the monotony of this section which is made more mentally challenging now that the checkpoint has moved from Middleton to Langdon Beck. A difference of only 8 miles, but by this point at the end of a 60 mile section, it feels so much further than Middleton would have. 

The weather on this final section was disgusting! It was rain and sleet and windy. It then turned extremely cold again. 

The race is held back due to the weather 

When we got into checkpoint we were informed that the race was being held due to the harsh weather conditions. As it happened, this didn’t really affect us as the race was restarted an hour after we arrived. 

We arranged to have a 2 hour sleep and continue together, but my faffing meant that I overslept slightly and missed my 2 friends leaving! Easy come, easy go I figured. 

The next section to Alston usually starts with the infamous scramble over boulders by the river leading to the scramble up Cauldron snout. A formidable obstacle even when I did this section in the summer. This time however, the safety team had deemed it too dangerous to tackle in the sub-zero conditions as the temperature now plummeted further to close to -20 with the wind chill. 

Heading for hallucinations 

The super cold temperatures were felt as soon as I left the checkpoint. With the Cauldron Snout section now diverted, the route went straight into a climb on an icy snow covered road leading to the trail to High Cup Nick. 

This section was eerily quiet and you could feel the cold trying to penetrate every layer of kit that you had on. It felt so cold that if anything had gone wrong and I had to stay still for more than a few minutes, the cold would envelop you and eat you up whole! 

Thankfully it didn’t and I stomped onwards to get a sunrise view of High Cup Nick which was spectacular to say the least. 

On this section I had a nice hallucination. In the distance I could see a very cute looking husky dog. Very similar to my very much loved and missed own dog, Inka who died some years ago.

I could see the dog sat at the side of the trail with its ears pointing up and eagerly waiting for me to reach it to give it a well deserved stroke. 

As I got to within a couple of metres of it, I realised that it was actually just a stone mile marker and not a dog after all! I’ve had scarier hallucinations before. 

After an icy descent to Horton, I stopped at the local cafe for a feed. A bacon and sausage sandwich with ketchup, followed by a strong sweet coffee went down a treat as I mentally prepared to tackle great Dun Fell and Cross Fell. 

After a long climb to the top, I was met with what can only be described as a moonscape. Deep white snow as far as the eye could see. I got stuck into a steady pace as I dreamt about the chilli noodles that awaited me at Greg’s Hut! John Bamber never disappoints and the noodles hit the spot needed. 

THE WINTER SPINE 2024 - Sam running across moorland dressed for cold weather and carrying poles

Image credit: Gilly Photography

I then found renewed zeal to get down the valley and head to the next checkpoint at Alston. 

I reached CP 4 after sundown and it seemed fitting to try for another short sleep before heading off. But obviously not before trying to eat my own body weight in the famous Alston lasagne! 

With a couple of hours sleep and a belly full of pasta, it was time to head off into the section that is described by most as the ‘boring bit before Hadrian’s Wall’. Boring this section may be, but it was about to get interesting for yours truly! 

The fall!

After settling into a decent fast hike/jog pace I came across Asok, a Gurkha who was doing the race with 2 other people. We chatted about our mutual friend, his coach Jack Scott and my podcast. I felt good so I pushed on ahead of him. 

At around 5am a stone wall crossing came into view. I pulled myself up and over to move quickly as I had been doing. But to my surprise, both of my feet slipped and I fell forwards from almost the full height of the wall. I put out my poles to brace myself but the left one snapped clean in two! I plummeted to the ground lading on my hip and hitting my head on the frozen concrete-like ground. 

Everything went black 

All I remember is hitting my head then seeing my headtorch shining on the frosty grass in front of my face. The next thing I know, Asok is above me trying to pull me to my feet. Every time he manages to get me up, my left leg gives way and I fall back into a heap on the ground. This continues for a minute or so until I can stand by myself and come to terms with what had just happened. 

I was very aware of the cold at this point. In the 30-60 seconds that I’d been knocked out and lay on the cold ground I could feel the cold and the shock setting in. I made the smart decision to put an extra layer on to keep warm. I knew this would take up more time and increase the chances of me getting cold. But I also knew that the extra-long sleeve layer I had in my pack would get me warm again fairly quickly as long as I could get moving. 

Asok kindly gave me one of his poles and he agreed to guide me for a while. We headed onwards into the night and ticked off the miles as the sun started to come up. By now it was a good few hours since the fall and I was starting to feel much better. 

My head had stopped bleeding and wasn’t giving me much pain. 

We made good progress and before we knew it, the SST point at Greenhead near Hadrian’s wall came into view. I knew that runners who had overtaken us as we walked had said they would inform the safety team of what had happened. 

A photo of Sam's head in close up, showing the blood in his hair above his ear

Image credit: Greenhead SST

Forced retirement 

Once at Greenhead I made myself known to the safety team, expecting to let them know I was ok and then push on for Bellingham. But I was informed by the team that I just needed to pop onto the visitors centre and wait for the all clear from the medics who were in contact over the phone. 

I sat in the warm and had a welcomed cup of tea while I relayed my experience to the team. Then one of team came back in from being outside on the phone. He said ‘it’s not good news, the medics have decided to retire you from the race’ 

I just laughed and said ‘ok you can stop kidding around’ but he was deadly serious. He informed me that because I’d lost consciousness, even momentarily, their guidelines stated that I automatically needed to retire from the race straight away! 

This was shocking news, but me being me I felt that I needed to question the decision a bit further. 

While I understood the guidelines, I went on to explain that the fall had happened over 5 hours before this point. I had in fact walked for 3 hours and then jogged the last 2 hours to get to the SST point. I could have breezed past the safety team and carried on, but I’d voluntarily come to the team to let them know I was ok.

I sat and thought about it for a few minutes. I could sense that the SST team weren’t quite comfortable with the decision themselves, especially as they could clearly see I was in good shape, despite my bruised hip and bleeding head. 

So, I asked to speak to the medic himself. Once on the phone, I explained everything again and I pointed out that I didn’t agree that I could be retired from the race without one of the medics accessing me in person. 

He agreed but cautioned that I might be waiting a while for one to get to me for the assessment. 

I waited at Greenhead for a total of 5 hours. In that time I got warm and dried off my kit. All the while wondering if my race was over, or if I was going to be able to sweet talk my way back into the race. 

A photo of a naked man's torso showing a livid purple bruise above the left hip

The medical 

The medic arrived and to my surprise didn’t come with the preconceived idea that I was out of the race. In fact, she seemed to want to get me running again. After a battery of tests she pointed out that it had now been over 8 hours since the fall. I hadn’t suffered any issues and in the time that had passed. I was rested and ready to go. So, in her opinion, I was ok to continue, but it came with a caveat. At every SST point and checkpoint, I needed to present myself to the medics so they could keep any eye on me as I continued. 

This was the best news I could have! 

I quickly got my gear together, thanked the medic and the SST team and set off with renewed enthusiasm. By now there was only a couple of hours of daylight left so I made good progress moving along Hadrian’s wall with Bellingham as my goal. 

Obviously I had to call in at Horneystead Farm for a cup of soup and a chat. After a long drag, that farm is like an oasis in a parched desert! 

Once again feeling full of life I pushed on for Bellingham which was now only 6 miles away.

Bellingham 

I have mixed feelings about this checkpoint. As it’s the last official stop before the big push to the finish it should be a haven for the runners. But to me it feels like a very cold and slightly unwelcoming place. The sleep area is literally a wooden building that’s as cold feeling as being outside still. There are no beds so you must deploy your complete sleep system if you want to get any shuteye. 

I checked in with the medics and Hatty was an old friend from previous Spine races that I’d volunteered on. Hatty gave me the once over and told me that after the race I’d need to get my hip looked at as it still might need an X-ray. She loaded me up with painkillers and I settled in for a few hours’ sleep. 

The final push 

Although this final section is over 41 miles long. It never seems that long. Not in terms of mileage at least. 

Mentally this section is doable because you know that the first bit is a bit boring and boggy, but it leads to Kielder Forest where I seem to always seem to have my best hallucinations! 

In the summer race I had seen numerous black bears stood on their hind legs. I’d seen the grim reaper complete with scythe watching over me as I passed through the forest. This year the bears were in full attendance as usual but I encountered some new imagery friends. In the distance, stood firmly to attention at the side of the trail were 4 very regal looking knights in shining armour. Complete with shields and broadswords!

As I got closer to the knights I realised that they were in fact just tall trunks of trees that had died and gone very grey and were shining in the morning sun. The light reflected off then perfectly giving the illusion of being like shining armour. As I passed them I could see in the distance some children on a school trip. Must be a geography class I thought to myself as I trundled on. Although I did start to wonder how a field trip of kids and a teacher had made it all the way up into the forest that early on a Friday morning. 

Clearly I was tired and the hallucinations were strong! I decided that once I got to Byrness, I’d have a much needed sleep in the old church. 

Sam Hill wearing full winter gear and a yellow waterproof jacket, black hat and mittens walking across a snowy landscape

Image credit: Jamie Rutherford

Byrness naps

As I got onto the valley road into Byrness, I felt overwhelmingly tired and I was starting to weave across the trail. I sat on a fallen tree to gather my thoughts. I knew that the church and the SST point were less than a mile away now, but it seemed like a million miles. 

I turned the corner on the trail and saw a familiar face. Ryan from the media team was positioned outside the church and was chatting to runners about their race. We chatted on camera about my journey and that now infamous fall that everyone on the Spine staff now knew about. I told him I was going to try to get a nap in at the church and he quietly slipped away. I later saw that he included my conversation in the official YouTube episode 7 which I watched in bed the day after the race. I couldn’t believe how tired I looked! 

In the church I expected it to be quiet as runners slept. In fact, it was quite the opposite! At least one runner was snoring so loud you could almost hear it outside. Other runners were up making hot drinks or faffing with their kit. I decided rather than have to get all my sleeping kit out of my bag, I’d just take off my pack and lay on the cold wooden floor. That way I wouldn’t sleep too long as I was itching to get onto the Cheviots.

I dropped to the floor and passed out. It may have only been 20 mins until I could feel the cold start to dig into me. I sat up and felt marginally better. Now time for some food! 

SST Byrness

The mini safety checkpoint is a short walk down a track to a house that’s used every year as the final safety check. They are very welcoming. So much so that they keep a keen eye on the clock as you enter, making a note of when you must leave with precision. While this can feel a bit annoying at the time, they know as well as you do that time can slip away in a checkpoint and before you know it you could be still faffing with kit an hour later. So, it’s a good thing they keep giving you time updates. 

After filling up on some hot food that’s kindly provided I got my stuff together and set off back to the church. I wanted to give my feet one last look at before the final push. 

The final final push

After generously applying the last of my K-tape to my toes and heels it was go time. 

This section is now only 25 miles and seems like it’s a formality to get done. But having done this section in the summer race, I knew that it could at times drag with every step! I did however feel pretty good at this point so I pushed on as fast as I could. 

The climb up and onto the top of the Cheviots is technical in places but I seemed to relish it this time. Perhaps because I knew what was ahead and was feeling strong and determined. 

Once on the tops, the full force of the weather could be felt. Almost instantly on queue a gust of wind almost blew me off my feet. Reports said that the winds that morning were going to be around 50mph and increase to gusts of 70mph as the day progressed. At times it took all of your strength to stay upright, skilfully using your poles to keep your balance. 

I trundled on, jogging once on the flagstones that in places had now become exposed due to the winds clearing them. I passed a couple of runners and briefly chatted. I was now more determined than ever to get to that finish line before the day was out. 

I put in my headphones and drifted off into an audiobook. This distraction worked really well and before I knew it Hut 1 came into view. My heart skipped a beat at this point. I knew that from here it was another 9 miles to Hut 2 then a measly 7 miles to the finish! 

I stopped and had a warm coffee in the hut and noticed there were 3 or 4 other runners in there all taking they’re allowed time of 30 mins. I didn’t want to stay any longer than I needed to. So, I quickly necked my coffee, had some food, and pushed on. I had a mild dread for this next section to Hut 2. In the summer I’d become extremely tired on this bit and I wandered off course and ended up needing to sit by the trail and have a nap to recover. In my head this section was really long. As it happened though, I was feeling ok this time so the miles passed as quickly as I could have hoped. 

The night had drawn in by now and head torches were deployed for the final time. I’d now managed to catch up with a small group of runners and was happily chatting about being so close to the end. We made it down the icy descent to Hut 2 and again found a few people huddled inside for warmth. The wind had now increased to the predicted 70mph gusts and the SST guys had to literally guide us into the hut to make sure we weren’t blown across to the ravine that lies 20-30 feet to our right as we moved closer to them. 

Again, I didn’t want to waste time here so I had another coffee and said my goodbyes. One of the safety team ran with me as I exited the hut. He ran me all the way along the ridge to the start of the Shill. The final insult!

When you leave Hut 2 you assume that it’s 7 miles down to KY. Which it technically is, but not before you must make one final climb over the Shill to then drop down all the way to the finish. 

At this point I didn’t mind. In the summer I was annoyed by this final task, but today I didn’t care. I knew my journey was coming to an end. 

The last bit

In my excitement at finding that I had phone signal at Hut 2, I’d sent a text to Kate and the girls saying that I’d only got 7 miles to go and I’d be down in 1.5 hours! I must have been a bit delusional as this section took me at least 3 hours! 

Although I’d done really well managing my blisters to this point, the final decent put so much pressure on my toes and heels. You don’t notice blisters when you’re climbing so much. But descending really puts pressure on any that you have and mine were now excruciating!

I winced my way down through the ice and snow and onto the tarmac road at the bottom of the valley. This road in the summer was smooth and walkable. But this time it was a death trap of ice, snow and water.

I picked my way around the ice and down towards the lights of Kirk Yetholm. As I rounded the corner to drop down the final half mile I could see the lights from the Border Hotel. I could see the inflatable Montane finishing banner and lots of headlamps milling around. 

This was it! I was done! 

As I managed to pick up speed into a jog to cross the line. I could see my wife Kate waiting with tears in her eyes. This race takes up so much time for a family man like me. Hours of training, reccy days away from the family. Being good for nothing at times because of the training load. 

I could see her relief that it was over. The same relief that I now felt. 

As I saw my girls all wrapped up in big coats and holding their handmade GO DADDY! signs I didn’t feel the emotions I thought I would. I’d imagined this moment so many times before. I envisioned me crossing the line in floods of tears as I hugged my family then kissed the famous wall of the Border Hotel. 

But I didn’t feel any of this. In fact, I was devoid of all emotion. All I felt was a sense of completion and finality. The job was done. No need to make a big deal of it. I’d had super highs and super lows over the week. All of the emotions had been dragged out of me as the week went on. All I felt now was joy that it was finally over! 

A black and white photo of Sam kissing the wall at the finish of the Winter Spine Race 2024

Image credit: Adam Jacobs at Wild Aperture Photography

I sat in the lounge of the hotel with a warm cup of tea. Wearing my trusty warm dryrobe. Kate pointed a phone in my face to video me and asked me if I was going to do the race again? 

I confidently said ‘No, it’s done now. No need to do it again’.

She reminded me that she had it on video and that it would be brought out again should she ever need it. 

I laughed and said ‘never again!……well not for a few years anyway’.

Read more:

The Inaugural Summer Spine Challenger North
The Inaugural Summer Spine Challenger North

"I’d imagined this moment so many times before. I envisioned me crossing the line in floods of tears as I hugged my family then kissed the famous wall of the Border Hotel."

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