My Winter Running Accident - a cautionary tale
It may have been a lockdown-friendly local route that he knew well, but a surprise slip on icy ground put fell runner Nick Small in a serious predicament, a situation he hadn't gone well equipped to deal with. Do you carry enough just-in-case gear on your cold weather runs? Here's why you should...
I gazed through my window. There, Ovenden Moor, with its windmills glinting in winter sunshine under a pale blue sky, was giving me that "come hither" look. There was a smattering of snow but the heather and grasses were still plenty visible enough. I decided to head out for a long, easy run. One of those runs with no heed paid to pace. Just being out, enjoying the views and the crisp cool air would be enough.
The plan was a 15 mile circular route on very familiar territory, well used paths and, largely, along hillside catchwater conduits that provide mile upon mile of level, easy running ground just off the tops between Thornton Moor and The Stoop. I live at 300m above sea level, so I looked at the ground outside. The soil was firm and frozen but previously thawed snow was gone from the paths leaving no ice. Normally, in winter conditions, I would opt for Inov 8 Arctic Claws with their tungsten tipped studs. But they're heavy and stiffer than my preferred X Talon 200s, which are what I chose to wear. This was my first big mistake.
I prepared my waist pack. A bottle filled with freshly squeezed orange juice in case I needed fluid and sugars. First aid kit. Whistle. Waterproof over-trousers (I was running in winter tights). Buff. 2 x mylar space blankets. I wore a Montane thermal base layer with hood as well as a waterproof/windproof hooded jacket, insulated hat and running mitts. Being a man in his late 50s, I always take my phone, fully charged. I have a Garmin Fenix 6 with incident detection but I've never set it up. I felt reasonably prepared for a solo run on territory I know well at moderate elevation on a day with a benign forecast. This was my second big mistake. It was sunny, yes, but the temperature at my elevation was around 0 degrees and I'd be climbing 150m higher. I should have taken a lightweight backpack so that I could carry my packable down jacket, spare gloves and a dry change of base/mid-layer at the very least. Things can, and did, go wrong.
I told my wife where I was heading and that I would likely be out for between 2 and 3 hours. I don't think she was really listening.
I ran via the beautiful Ogden Water, which was partially frozen. I should have taken this as my cue to consider returning home to change shoes; but it's a mile back and, you know, my regular running partner tackles winter conditions in the same X Talon 200s. So I pressed on. I ran up onto and across Thornton Moor with no dramas, though it was icier on the tops than I was expecting. I picked lines that were snowy and grassy, taking great care where there was ice. It's an old, wide, quite eroded route that, after the kind of rains we'd had recently, becomes a tangle of rivulets which were obviously frozen solid. I dropped down onto the long conduit towards Oxenhope. It's a favourite route of many local fell runners. It was glorious. Aside from the brief threat of a snow flurry there were no worries or sketchy moments. There was even a hint of warmth in the sun. I was was being particularly attentive and careful.
After around seven miles I arrived at a part of the route called Stairs Lane. I had planned to run up it. It is a hard track that four wheel drive vehicles can use. The heavy recent rains had coated it with running water which was now sheet ice. Given my footwear choice I decided that it was much too dangerous to walk on it, let alone run. I stood, stationary. Thought about what to do. Pulled my race pack around from my back and took a swig of juice. Put it back and sent the pack around to my back again. As another big fella once said, discretion is the better part of valour. I turned to head for home the way I'd come.
I was down, my leg contorted beneath me. I heard the most awful crack and, simultaneously, was hit with both unbelievable pain and the instant realisation that I was in deep shit. I quickly calculated that waiting for mountain rescue (at least 1 hour) was not an option. I was already feeling the bitter cold. I realised that the only thing for it was to call for someone to pick me up from the nearest road, just under a mile away. I phoned a relative who could be there within 25 minutes. I then had to try to extricate myself. Hobble as best as I could. Crawl if necessary. There was no-one else in sight. I looked down on the village of Oxenhope and considered calling fellow fell runners that live there so they might help, bring me warm clothes perhaps. I decided to keep that option in my locker though as I know they are busy most days and my clear focus was on getting to the road. I thought that the temptation to stop moving might prove dangerously irresistible.
I can't really describe the pain. My ankle stiffened up and was immediately very swollen. Intense dull pain was punctuated by sharp stabbing in my lower fibula each time I gingerly put weight onto the injured limb. I realised that, as well as severe ligament damage, I was probably looking at an avulsion fracture, at the very least. It was the longest and most excruciating 0.8 miles of my life. One agonising step at a time. I turned the air as blue as the sky with rhythmical expletives as though this would expel the searing pain into the ether. The sweat in my base layer and my mitts was bringing my temperature down rapidly. I had plenty of time to curse my own stupidity as the distance to the road came down in barely noticeable increments.
But I did get to the road. Another local fell runner, Joe, arrived on the scene (in shorts FFS). He confessed that he was not carrying a phone. Joe was actually aiming for Stairs Lane but saw my state and decided against. He assisted me with getting my over trousers on as we waited for my lift. Joe stayed with me for moral support, for which I will always be very grateful. I needed every bit of it. In return, my predicament taught him to, at the very least, carry a phone in future.
My lift came and I went home. By this time, I was very cold. I didn't go to hospital straight away - I know they are under pressure at the moment. I also, quite honestly, couldn't face it. So I iced, rested and elevated etc. I applied some support bandages. I could just about cope once the tandem dose of ibuprofen/paracetamol kicked in. Saturday the swelling was much worse, accompanied by bruising. I decided to wait another day so see if the swelling would go down. It did, a little, so on Sunday morning I called a cab and went alone to A&E.
The upshot is, I have broken my fibula, just above the ankle. I'm in a pot and confined to barracks for the foreseeable future. On the bright side, we're in lockdown anyway, so I won't be missing much apart from my daily run on the tops and grocery shopping.
I asked my friend Kirsty Hall, top fell runner and member of the Upper Wharfedale Fell Rescue Association, for her take on my misadventure.
"You did the right thing trying to extricate yourself as I'm sure that hypothermia would have quickly set in" she says.
"However, in the event of an injury calling Mountain Rescue to let them know your location and plan of action is good insurance even if you're getting to safety under your own steam."
"From a mountain rescue team perspective it's often not what was initially called in that becomes the most dangerous issue. In your case the call would have been suspected fracture. So in dealing with the response they would have been thinking about pain relief, splinting the injury and quick extraction at the same time factoring in hypothermia.
"For example, a guy we were called to where the same thing happened in terms of injury (he just slipped walking) he was on the ground three hours before we got there in the cold and wet. After initial assessment the main focus then changed from priority injury treatment to priority hypothermia treatment.
"Being wet (in my case, a bit sweaty) speeds up hypothermia so ideally get out of wet clothes and into dry spares if you can. Having emergency food is also advised as this will give you energy to keep you warm. A shelter (eg kissu) or a space blanket can slow down the onset of hypothermia."
"Location - a fully charged mobile phone is great but in a predicament, do you know how to call mountain rescue? Would you be able to relay your exact location? Access to a map (hard copy or electronic) and being able to use it is an advantage. Or download What3Words. An accurate grid reference or an accurate relay of your W3W location can ensure that you are reached more quickly.
"All this might not just help you but, if you happen upon another casualty whilst you are out, your kit might give them a better chance of survival.
"Finally, we encourage people to be aware of the Adventure Smart principles."
The experience, my first such catastrophe in a life on the hills, has taught me some lessons that I will pay heed to, particularly when venturing out alone.
Dress for the conditions. If ice is a possibility and you have shoes with tungsten tipped studs, flippin wear them. Better still, consider changing your route plan.
Always carry a well charged phone. I would add, register for the 112 SMS service too and make sure that your In Case of Emergency contact details are accessible from your phone even when the screen is locked, in case you are found unconscious or confused.
Always carry much more than you think you will need. Forget about travelling light, especially in the winter. I thought I was reasonably prepared... but I should have carried more spare warm clothing. I got away with it because I was able to haul my sorry carcass to the road. Had I been in a more remote place, on steeper terrain, further from assistance, the outcome could have been very serious indeed. Cold kills. A down jacket, spare dry layer and spare warm gloves may easily have been the difference between survival and tragedy. And, even if you yourself run or walk without incident, you my happen upon someone who has not been so lucky. Your spare gear might save their life.
I have learned the painful way that a beautiful and enjoyable day on the hills, in familiar territory, and relatively benign conditions, can turn into a life-threatening situation in an instant. I won't make the same mistakes again.
Nick Small is an experienced fell runner, qualified coach and outdoor enthusiast. He is Race Organiser of the Calderdale Way Relay, the largest club run fell race in the calendar.
As a Television Director he has a long track record of producing outdoor based content for Countryfile, The One Show, River Walks and the most comprehensive review of the nation's hiking habits: the 2 1/2 hour spectacular, Britain's Favourite 100 Walks (ITV).