Wednesday, February 1, 2023

160 Miles of Cold and Pain That Broke Me

160 Winter North Ultra Marathon 

I'd just completed a 250km Ultra Marathon, over five days, across the Arctic Circle, when I learned of the Spine race.  James, another competitor, asked me "What's next then Snowy?".  At the time, I was thinking, "fuck off mate, that was enough, and I never want to do anything like that again!".   But once the dust settles and body starts to get back to normal, what happens after you complete these things is, your mind starts to think, "what is next then Snowy?".  It's like you can't just leave it there, you're almost compelled to find something harder, to push yourself further.

Six years later I was laying on beach in Phuket, and I was sent an email for the final call for the 2023 Winter Spine race.  I'd completely forgot all about it, and at that moment in time, I was feeling very comfortable with life, and that makes me uncomfortable!

The Winter Spine Race-North, is a 160 mile race across the Northern Pennines, located in the North of England.  In January the weather can be pretty miserable, whether it be torrential rain, blustery gales or thick-heavy snow, you can always count on it being cold.

With 5 weeks notice and Christmas in the middle of prep, I thought I be fit enough to participate.  Bear in mind, two weeks previous, I just completed my first ever Crossfit competition, (which yes, I agree, is a completely different fitness discipline, compared to an Ultra Marathon).  I was heading to the UK anyway, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.

How do you Train for an Ultra Marathon

To be honest, I have a very short attention span.  So five weeks to train for an end goal seemed appropriate for me.  It meant I could go all in for a short period of time, get the job done and come home again.  It didn't quite go as smoothly as that, but when you're on a beach in Thailand, lapping it up, anything seems easy.

I had a base level of fitness obviously and I also have experience in Ultra endurance challenges, so I'm pretty prepared mentally for the kinds of physical and emotion battles you tend to go through on these sort of things.  My body, although fit, wasn't really prepared for 160 miles of loaded running/trekking-it's never going to be, and that my friends, is exactly the wrong attitude and to that'll put you in a world of pain!

I trained hard twice-a-day, my body was tried by the end of each week.  My training was based around how I felt, which how I normally train, but I still had to do the sessions planned, by the end of the week.

I'd split my days between Mornings-strength work and afternoons cardio.  I felt it was important to keep the strength training going, ie heavy lifting (squats, deadlifts, lunges, cleans, jerks etc).  These would give me strength for the hills. 

The cardio sessions, would alternate day-day-day, from loaded long slow duration runs, to loaded 1km intervals, with circuits in-between laps.  The thinking being: 

1.  I hadn't run for 3 months, due to a calf injury, so I didn't want to do too much to soon.  

2.  I hate running.  

3.  I still had to maintain muscle mass and a certain level of fitness for Crossfit (as I had another comp coming up, shortly after the Spine).

In training camp, I never ran more than 10km-yeah, 'only another 243km to go then', you're thinking.  

One of my biggest training challenges, was going to be the hills, not necessarily going up, but more the coming down (which really takes it's toll on the legs). The terrain was also going to be a leg draining factor. 

In Singapore, it's flat, like there's only one hill, and that's only 150m and inconveniently located. 

Another mega-factor I couldn't train for, was the weather.  Singapore is 27-31 degrees, and the North of England was between 0 and -12, with wind chill.

My diet didn't really change from normal, but I did eat and drink like a twat over Christmas, which on reflection, was also a bit silly.  I did increase my carbs, two days before the race and calories also, but I didn't measure them, just only monitored the portions sizes.

What equipment do you need for Ultra Marathon?

We did have to carry mandatory equipment for the Spine, basically to be able to survive in the cold until you could be rescued, ie: 
  • Sleeping bag (below -5 degrees)
  • GPS, compass, maps
  • 3000 cals of food + cooker
  • Extra warm gear, waterproofs  
  • First aid kit
  • 2 litres of water 
All in, my rucksack came to a total weight of 12.5kgs.  Not that much right, but the guys who paid attention to the briefings and Facebook group, rucksacks came to a total of 4.5kgs!
When I saw everyone getting their kit checked at the start, I said "no way effin way, are they carrying all the requirements".  Honestly, every other competitor looked like they were carrying fuck all.  But, this was the difference between experience and paying attention, and me, some plonker, who just turned up for a jolly and I paid for it, oh did I pay.

On your marks, get set...

Another thing to add here is, the race is self navigating, ie you have to use a GPS and/or a map and compass.  Now, another thing about living in Singapore is, it's not known for it's outdoor adventure training pursuits, let alone hill walking.  Because the Island is so small, there's not really a demand for trekking Global Positioning Systems.  So, getting hold of one, is a bitch.  Same also for maps of the UK.  I had to buy them online and pick them up from my Mums in the UK, when I arrived, two days before the race.  

When I eventually got hold of them, I had absolutely no idea how to use the GPS and, I didn't have time to plot my map.  

When I got to the check in, that was my only chance to load the route on the GPS, and have some race staff show me how to turn it on and off.  Cool.

On cold Sunday evening at 1800, we set off.  I was actually late to start line, no fault of my own, there just wasn't enough room on the coaches for me.  But, when I did eventually start, it was pitch black in the middle of a field and my GPS didn't fucking work!

Luckily, every competitor was wearing a red light on their packs, so I had just had to play catch up, which spanked me, because it was uphill straight from the start.

At the first check point, 13 miles in, someone helped me out and I was well underway, but for some reason, I felt unusually fatigued and then I realised, I was doing this shit jet lagged to fuck.

Getting through an Ultra Marathon 

I can only really summarise the next 143 miles really.  It was long, monotonous, wet, fucking cold-like really fucking cold and painful.  On the second night, it was particularly long, monotonous, wet and fucking cold, but it was also very fucking windy and snowy to boot.  

On one of the down hill drags, I kept slipping on ice and with the weight of my pack and untrained legs, I thought I'd ruptured a tendon on the inside of my knee.  I was in pieces.  I couldn't lift my leg and let it bend naturally.  I really thought (hoped) I'd have to pull out.  

I tagged along with some new buddies (that happened to be ex military also, so we had good bants), that went ahead of me and let the doctor know at the next check in, I was in shit state.

She gave me a quick once over and told me to rest up for a couple of hours.  I downed some Arcoxia (the miracle drug! A anti-inflammatory/pain relief), got the massage gun on my quads, 'slept' for 2 hours and kept my leg elevated.  But I knew it was pointless, my race was over after only 60 miles.

Bli-mey, if it wasn't almost 100% when I woke up.  I couldn't believe it.  It must've just seized to protect itself, because I was ready to go again-FUCK SAKE!

That day, the sun was out and the snow had laid.  It was absolutely beautiful, almost emotional, to see so much vast openness.   But by 1600 it was pitch black again.

I had 'seal skinz' socks and gloves, which are claimed to be waterproof.  I can tell you now, they ain't!  My feet were wet and cold for the entire race.  If you stopped, you froze and your body got stiff.  So it was an incentive to keep moving.  

As I mentioned, I just couldn’t come close to the terrain I was now battling whilst in Singapore.  It was boggy, uneven, wet and parts where it had snowed, it sometimes came up my hips, got into my trainers and froze.  At one point close to end, I traveling less than 1 mph.  I was not having fun and some points, just found myself screaming FUCK THIS!!  But then would have to laugh at the dark comedy, in the fact that I chose to do this and actually paid for it.

Mindset for an Ultra Marathon

I really found myself having to concentrate on this event.  There was little time for zoning out and, every time I did, I got hurt or, missed a turning.

I was having to focus on where I was going, which is very tricky in the pitch black of night.  I'd have focus on my footing, which hard when your tired and finally, focus on morale, which is hard when your'e cold, hungry and alone for hours.

The second night saw the worst weather, there were so many people that pulled out of the race.  I have to admit I was nearly there with them, but I just couldn't justify it to myself.  Plus, I wasn't going to come back and have another crack at this shit, no, fuck that very much, thank you.

I was tagging along with one guy on night two, and he got on the phone to his missus as we moving.  At the next check in, he retired from the race, because he was “tired”.

I was like 'what the fuck!' Surely he must’ve known he was going to get tired in a 160 mile race?

I imagine, that whilst on the phone to his missus, she was being loving and caring, saying things like "stop if you're tired", "you don't have to this", or "what's the point hurting yourself".  That kind of loving softness gets into your head.  I've been there before and that's why I didn't pay attention to my phone.  I couldn't have any minor encouragement to quit, no matter how loving and caring anyone may have been.

I normally go into these Ultras, with a very negative mindset, ready to embrace punishment.  That probably goes against everything you'll hear from the 'self help gurus'.   Anyone who 'truly' loves themselves, would never do this shit.  It's painful. It's horrible, to be honest I hate doing this stuff.  But there's a sick-weird-sadistic need for me to do them.  It's like twisted therapy for me, I don't get it and I can't expect anyone to get it either.  But to the small crowd that do do this stuff, we collectively appreciate and respect each other and 'know'.

I really feel that everyone could do with doing at least one ultra marathon in their lives.  I believe that people don't really know themselves until they've been in ongoing physical and mental battle with themselves amongst nature, the elements and with sleep deprivation.  You can really learn a lot about yourself and others it. 

I think more than anything, each event has been a reminder of what I'm capable of.  As I mention, I live in Singapore, in a very comfortable 'bubble', so these challenges act as kind of reset for me. Some people choose holidays and others choose pain.

What’s next?

My initial response to that question is “fuck off, ‘what’s next’!” But then, after the come down and I can start to walk normally again, I do start to wonder ‘what’s next then Snowy?’

I completed the full 160 miles, in 85 hours, on 3 hours of 'sleep', and placed 13th out of a starting 79. 30 didn't finish. So, for my first shot, unprepared and inexperienced, not too bad.

I’m thinking of doing the full Winter Spine (268 miles).  At the moment, I just don’t know how the hell I could do another 108miles.  The fact that it’s out there and people have done it, reassures me it is doable.  Next time I’ll pay more attention to the briefings and do more research on the best kit.  For that kind of distance, it’d be stupid to try and blag it.  

Would I recommend doing it? No, not at all.  There are plenty of other things you could with your time and money, but if you are one of ‘us’ and need a challenge then go for it-you sick fuck.

Keep it real troops 


If you’d like any help/advice/training to achieve something truly incredible for yourself, feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to share some wisdom. Contact



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