Complete Not Compete – Eddie’s Spine Race Story

All Images Adam Jacobs - Wild Aperture

For the unfamiliar, The Spine Race is a non-stop, annual ultramarathon spanning the 268 miles of brutal, inhospitable terrain that stretch between Edale in England and Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. In January each year hundreds of ultra runners from across the globe line up at the start of the Pennine Way, with seven continuous days of unassisted hiking, running and self-navigation ahead of them. There aren’t enough superlatives in the world to express how hard this challenge is and even today, four months after she crossed the line as the third female finisher, Edwina Sutton is still processing those dark, bitterly cold, snowy days in January 2023. 


How do you reflect on your Spine Race experience now, months later?

“In some ways it feels like only yesterday in the frontal lobe of my brain. Until very recently it was still all-consuming, I couldn’t move it from the front of my consciousness and I’d be getting flashbacks at night from the middle of a blizzard. I’d see people in the street and I’d want to tell them all about the experience, you know like when you’ve had a baby and you want to share your birth story? Like that. It’s easing a bit now though, and sometimes I can’t believe that I ran 268 miles in 125 hours, 56 minutes and 43 seconds. 

Physically, i’m still suffering from a lot of tiredness; tissues and muscles, they’re still aching. It took me 10 weeks to feel normal, like daily normal, not spaced out somewhere high on the Pennines. I took my first run after the Spine just 10 days later, I’m so used to running every day and my logic was that if I move everything again, I might feel better. It was a terrible idea and I felt like a fool for even trying. After another two weeks I tried again, it was better but it took me a long time to build things back up. Longer than I imaged it would. Still now I feel old and stiff because I dug into resources in my body that I really shouldn’t have used. Conditions were so bad during the race – it’s one of the hardest years on record – with below freezing temperatures, deep snow and strong winds. I had to turn myself inside out to finish.”

What did you learn about yourself during the race that’s carried into your everyday life?

“It’s changed my whole meaning, it definitely has. During the race I thought to myself… if I don’t finish this, I’ll have to come back and try again. But the kit, the training, the entry fee, this was my chance after I’d done so much to get to the start line. I started talking to my future self, thinking about how grateful Future Eddie would be for pushing on. You know like then you unpack the dish washer before bed because you know your future self with be grateful. I kept thinking about all of the things I wanted to do after the race and how much better they’d be if I was a Spine Finisher. 

At the 169 mile checkpoint they told me that the next point of contact was 40 miles further along the trail. I knew I wouldn’t see a single soul during that distance and I was heading into the night alone, with just things I was carrying in my back pack. There’s no helicopter in case you change your mind, no one coaching you along. The mental strength it took me to carry on when I was already so exhausted is impossible to describe. 

Back in the real world, being a Spine Finisher has changed the way that I coach my own athletes. The way I live, the way I cope with problems and my friendships with people, there’s now a lot of stuff that I can let go of, it’s inconsequential, who cares. At other times I think that if I can do the Spine, I can do anything. I’m almost invincible now, that’s how it feels and it’s a great tool to have with the right purpose. It’s not ego driven, it’s an inner feeling that my kids have fed off too. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but time will tell.”

Many have described the 2023 Spine Race as one of the most brutal on record, but I’ve definitely seen you train in worse. Did training on the hills around Morzine give you an advantage?

“Yes, a massive advantage. I used our local mountains to train for The Spine Race for 12 months, but in the final month before the race, I turned it up a notch and purposefully went out at night, in snow blizzards. Even when it wasn’t snowing, I’d stand under the snow canons, spraying ice onto my face, just to practise putting on my kit and my goggles. I’d look for snow drinks to wade through, they think I’m nuts around here. But the farmers I see on the trails, my neighbours along the valley, they were all invested in my training and then the race. As it happens, when it got really cold on the Pennines and the snow was slapping my face, it didn’t phase me; I felt quite at home actually. It never felt as cold as a minus 18 degrees run up the Col du Cou.”

Where there any moment during the race that you thought you might not finish? That you’d gone too far?

“Honestly, no. My motto is ‘death or morphine’ and that way, I always finish the stuff that I set out to do. The only way I wasn’t finishing the Spine Race was by death, or if they dragged me off with a terrible injury. The first 24 hours were really hard though, that’s usually the case in an ultra because the mental load is just so heavy. Having not been sick at all during training, and despite having a nutrition plan in place, I spent the first five hours vomiting, it was such a shock. I came into checkpoint three hours behind my target time, loads of women were already leaving. The medics told me to eat, I immediately threw the lasagne up in the toilet but thought I could get away with it, sneak out into the darkness. Unfortunately (at the time but fortunately in hindsight), a female medic was waiting for me outside the loo. She made me stop, rest, eat rice pudding and I calmly sat there, watching time tick away. I thought to myself, this is what it’s all about, problem solving, not overreacting, turning myself around.

Of course I was way behind my target time at this point and I knew I needed to switch off from the race – to finish it, not compete. I knew some people had gone off really fast and that they’d be fucked by 100 miles, and they were, they dropped out. And then, on the last night, I was in third place, closing in on the second female. We were climbing up onto the Cheviots, she was literally a kilometre in front of me. There’s a massive ascent, the equivalent of climbing Nyon, it’s the middle of the night, I’ve already come 225 miles. Can I reach her? I clearly thought I could because the next thing I know, I’m waking up in the snow at the top of the climb and I’ve no idea where I am. How long have I been here? Have I missed the race, is it over? I’m still wearing the tracker but I was beyond confused. I called the emergency number to check in, they told me to wait for two male runners coming up behind me and then I told myself to just keep moving forward. Keep moving forward. There were only 20 miles to go but I’d let myself get into the race. I went on too fast, didn’t manage my own pace and my body shut down on me. 


What did you think about during the darkest moments of the race?

“Keep moving forward. One night we went up over Cauldron Snout, I was climbing across ice boulders and then up an ice waterfall. There’s no GPS there, they time you in on a satellite and use your average pace to anticipate when you’d emerge. I’d been dreading it, but like most things in life, the things you worry most about aren’t actually the worst parts. After that, heading up High Cup Nick in a blizzard at 3am, which as the name suggests is really high, and really exposed, I kept falling asleep as I moved. An inner voice was telling me just to lie down for a moment, use the snow as a blanket. I had to continuously shout “KEEP MOVING FORWARD” to myself. In this moment there wasn’t space to think about family or friends, I had to narrow my focus just to put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t think about the kids because if I became mum in that situation, I’d stop. I was in complete survival mode and I thought ‘this is how people die’, which seems silly now because obviously all of this was self-inflicted. 

By contrast, climbing across Cross Fell, the highest point in England was an absolute joy. The snow storm had cleared, it was still snowy underfoot and some other runners had completed a variant of the Spice Race that featured just the highest section. They’d made a trail through the snow, the sky was beautifully blue and the sun shining on my face. I popped on a podcast and even though I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, the voices were soothing. Everything was good with the world and let in the goodness, I thought about the kids.”

Following dot 254 became an obsession during the race. Could you feel us all willing you on?

“I didn’t know it would be such a big deal, the tracking, or the level of enthusiasm! I met Gary, my Tea & Trails podcast co-host 140 miles in at Middleton, he was volunteering. We made a Facebook video for our podcast Facebook group. Future Eddie didn’t have a clue what was around the corner at that point, how much harder it was going to get, so I was fairly chipper. But at some points I’d been running for 24 hours and not seen a soul. As the volunteers see your dot approach a checkpoint, they run out, sometimes a couple of miles out, to guide you in, triaging along the way. It’s impossible to have a conversation of course, and each time I arrived I imagined I’d never leave. But after three our fours hours rest, 3000 calories, some love from the team and a medical check, I always felt ready to go again. And returning to Morzine, discovering how many people had been watching, reading all of the incredible Facebook messages, it was really special.”

You crossed the line at Kirk Yetholm during a Facebook live stream. Do you remember that?

“I’d planned to say something really profound about women’s running, about mums, we can all do anything! I imagined I’d make a big statement to the world, but I had no idea where I was. It had taken me 12 hours to cross a section of the Cheviots that, when I’d reccied the previous year, had taken me just six. I’d stopped seven miles out because the tendonitis in my wrists stopped me from opening packets of food. I’d been sliding Minstrels and cashews into my mouth, my feet were so swollen I thought they’d burst. I’d passed out at a checkpoint because my blood pressure dropped. I was brutalised. My husband Bryn came out to cheer me on over the last mine or so, he’d been waiting for so long that he’d climbing up and sketched ‘Go Eddie’ in the snow on the side of the hill. I remember thinking ‘oh wow, that’s so weird, someone else called Eddie is running the Spine too!’ We had the same conversation 10 times on the way down, the confusion was just insane. And even though I was disappointed that I hadn’t made this profound statement to the world when I finished, I was so pleased that my three children had been watching live from the playground at their school, with their teachers and friends around them. Eddie was done.”

What was the first thing you did after the race?

“You know how there’s a moment after you’ve had a baby that’s like – thank fuck it’s over. It felt better than that. I was taken to this little hotel in the village, the fire was roaring, it was the first time i’d been inside a building for days. A lovely lady took my shoes and socks off, washed my feet in warm water, made me a cup of tea, which I promptly tipped all over myself. I immediately fell asleep for 20 minutes listening to the warm, soothing voices buzzing around me, caring for me. Fortunately Bryn had booked a little hotel in a  village 10 miles away that was packed with takeaways, I spent the night munching my way through the whole menu and the satisfaction of knowing that I never had to go on the Pennine Way again was almost better than the race itself.”

What was it like returning to everyday life?

“I crashed quite hard actually. We didn’t have seats together for the flight home, I asked the lady next to Bryn if we could swap, she said no and I cried, emotions were very high. And you know, nothing is very easy about life and logistics here in the middle of winter. Bryn works away, he’d taken his week off to support me at the Spine Race, then he had to leave. It snowed heavily, getting the kids to school was tricky, walking the dogs was tricky, it was hard. However, the crash wasn’t as hard as I’ve experienced after other ultras. At the Spine you’re more likely not to finish than to finish, and the relief of getting it done was actually more overpowering than anything else. I’d put myself into some really uncomfortable experiences in training for this event – heading out into the night on Christmas Eve as my family settled in for a lovely festive evening. Sacrifices like this had been the chink in my armour during the race, but I was glad they were over for now.”

Would you do it again?

“So, I landed back in Morzine after the race with a bump, getting back into normal life was hard, and initially I felt so disappointed with my result. I felt like finishing in the third female spot didn’t accurately show my athletic ability, it basically showed my stubbornness. I told Bryn I was going back again, that I could knock 24 hours off my time. I’d wasted time here and there during the race by unpacking and repacking my rucksack, boiling the kettle to make tea when I was close to a check point, those things. I could make better kit choices, I’d navigate better. But ultimately, the Spine Race isn’t about athletic ability. It’s about mental toughness and resilience and problem solving and I couldn’t have done more. 

As a mum, committing to the training and then the recovery is harder than the actual race and there’s loads of other cool things I want to do. Next up is the South Downs Way 100 with my Centurion Running team in June. It’s 100 miles, mostly in daylight on a lovely trail and some friends are coming out to run the second half with me, so that’ll be a joy! I broke my foot last time I tried this one, so we’ve got some unfinished business there. I feel now that I’m older I can use my age and my strength more effectively in endurance racing; I’ve got the athleticism for the first half and then I’m the wise old lady with the experience to push to the finish line. In September Bryn and I are doing a love run together in the Aosta Valley, 130km and 12,000m of climbing combined with two nights in mountain refuges then in April 24, I’ll do the Northern Traverse race, starting in St Bees on the west coast of England and ending 300km to the east in Robin Hood’s Bay.”

How’s the podcast going?

Gary and I have been podcasting together for a couple of years and our Tea & Trails podcast now has a life of its own. We’d never anticipated how well-supported it would be. Runners of all abilities and levels of experience tune in because they love the chat, we try to make running accessible and inspiring for everyone. The women love hearing about the realities of the juggle and struggle and yet we’re still out running, regardless. It doesn’t need to be perfect, as long as you manage to get out of the door wearing your trainers. Search for Tea & Trails on your podcasting app of choice and join in the fun and head to Eddie’s website for more inspiring stories like this.

Complete Not Compete – Eddie’s Spine Race Story
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top