The Spine Race 2019 – Preview

It’s that time of year again…let the tracking begin!

Firstly, apologies for the definite lack of blog posts in the last while. I have quite a few half written posts which I must get around to finishing. Like so much else going a bit awry these days I’m blaming Brexit. So much to keep up with, and no increase in the number of hours in the day to allow for it. Something had to give.

I’ve previewed the Spine Race on a few occasions before, and written a few blog posts describing the race itself. Rather than repeat myself I’ll let you read those to pick up all the basic details. In this post I’ll just concentrate on the specifics of this year’s upcoming event.


Course and Kit


The Spine Race Route

There were a few diversions last year on the course. Most of these have been eliminated for this year, so the course is almost fully the Pennine Way itself. The main exception is an allowed diversion past Padon hill approaching Byrness on the last leg of the race. The kit requirements are almost all the same, with the exception of a beefed up specification for the Roll Mat. I had been getting away with using the in-built mat in my OMM 32L backpack, but this no longer meets the requirements. So a little extra weight will be transported around the course this year.


The Weather

Anyone who thinks an accurate weather forecast is possible before the race has started is delusional. Anything could happen over the 4 or 5 days of the race. As usual, we’ll have to be prepared for whatever could get thrown at us, with the probable exception of a heatwave (In complete contrast to my last race, the Oman UTMB). At the moment it is looking like classic UK/Ireland hill weather… Not too cold, but murky. That’s potentially awkward racing conditions which could be hard to get the optimal balance of clothing between overheating and potential hypothermia.


The Competition

There’s no point in pretending otherwise… I’ll be aiming to win this year. But then, this has always been the case. I haven’t any major issues coming into the race, but you never know exactly what shape you’re in until reality starts biting in the race itself.

There are three or four notable absences from the Spine Race this year. Pavel will not be there. I’ve no doubt we’ll be hearing of other adventures from him later in the year. He has been an iconic presence in the race over many years, and he’ll be missed. Another recent winner, Tom Hollins, is also notable by his absence.

Jim Mann will be competing in the Spine Challenger. Given the speed he made it out on the challenger course last year, whilst presumably pacing for the full Spine which he was competing in, he’s my very firm favourite to take the win in that race. He was i looking like being the easy winner last year when injury took him out of the race. Similarly Carol Morgan is also doing some speedwork by competing in the Challenger, and looks to be the favourite for the female category (Come on the Irish!).

That still leaves plenty of interest in the Spine Race itself. The most obvious first mention goes to Eugeni Rosello Sole. Eugeni has won the race in the past, and is always one of the fastest runners on the course. His usual race tactic is to stick with Pavel for as long as possible. That’s probably as much to do with conversation as anything else. Of course he hasn’t got that option this year, so it will be interesting to see how he goes. My Spanish is considerably worse than his English, so I won’t be a useful Pavel substitute for him!

There is a reasonable chance the race could be won outright by a female this year, as Jasmin Paris is competing. She is a phenomenal athlete. Her record speaks for itself. Her Bob Graham Round time is my particular favourite of hers. She’s also the current British fell running champion. She will be one of the fastest runners in the race for sure. This will be her first non-stop multi-day race, so it will be interesting to see how she will adapt. It makes it hard to predict how she will compete as a result. If all goes well its possible she could break the course record and win. Needless to say I definitely expect that Jasmin will win the female category.

Another runner who looks to have an excellent past record in shorter events is Jayson Cavill. Plenty of wins and fast results of note, including multiple wins at the Lakeland 50. I can’t see any results for longer races for him though, so again its hard to predict how well he will adapt to multi-day non-stop racing. If he turns out to be a natural at this then he should be a strong contender.

My teammate from the last adventure race I competed in, Thure Kjaer, is competing in the Spine for the first time. He has a hard-earned PTL finish from last year. He’s got the skill set required to get around the course and deal with the specific challenges of the Spine. We count him as being a honouary Irishman! It’ll be interesting to see how well he does. I’m expecting him to go very well indeed. Thure will be huge addition to the race itself.

Beast 2017 team

Beast team 2017 (Richard, Taryn, Eoin, Thure)

There are also runners like John Knapp and Matt Neale who have enough experience and pace to give themselves a good chance to get on the podium, especially if the likes of me start making big mistakes.



As usual, the live tracking should be excellent, and is available at The main race website is here. I expect the usual high standard of reporting will be available on their facebook feed, hopefully along with video updates.


See you on the other side!

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All aboard for the Northern Traverse

This Saturday (12th May) I’ll be taking part in one of my favorite races. The Northern Traverse Starts at 9:00 a.m. in St Bees on the West coast of England. We have to make our way along Wainwright’s coast to coast route non-stop finishing in Robin Hood’s Bay on the East Coast.


The Northern Traverse Route

The route traverses 3 significant upland areas. These are the Lake district, The Northern Pennines, and the North York Moors. This is a spectacular route. I particularly love the Lake district, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. This year I’m hoping that the weather will allow me to see more of the areas I’m less familiar with.

The first edition of this race was 2 years ago. I ran a good race to win in a time of just under 52 hours. That happened to be the longest I ever went without sleep, which was a bit of an accident! The weather turned quite stormy on the North York Moors, and as a result I wasn’t able to grab a sleep when I most needed it.

This year I’m back to try to defend my title, and hopefully not get quite so sleep deprived. Another great thing about this race is that the organisers are also the main race tracking company in the UK. So of course full tracking will be available for the race here. Being the sole Irish entrant my flag is easy to pick out there!

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Preparing for Barkley (Striving for Optimal Idiocy)

The last few months have been very very targeted to getting to Barkley, and giving myself the best chance of performing well once I get there. Pretty much everything has been focused in that direction.

Logistics and Crew

The first things to sort out were getting whatever help I could muster, and then sorting out the logistics of getting there. The most obvious crew person would have been Helen, my wife. Unfortunately Barkley coincides with a  very intense period of time with her work, so she was not able to commit.

Mike Dobies is “the numbers man” of American ultra running. He was going to be at Barkley helping Laz out,  no doubt compiling all the race stats. I’ve met Mike a few times over the years, most recently on his visit to Ireland crewing for the American 24 hour running team at the Belfast world championships. As I knew he would be there anyway, and that he is a super knowledgeable and experienced crewman, I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t check his availability. I lucked out, as he was indeed there and not crewing for anyone.

In the meantime as soon as I told Richard Nunan, my Team Columbia Ireland adventure racing teammate, that I had a Barkley entry he immediately offered to help. That could  not be turned down! He had done a brilliant job crewing for my record run from Mizen to Malin, and is someone I can totally rely on.

So that was great. One of the hardest things to do was sorted out in style relatively early. After that the rest of the logistics was working out where to fly to, how to get to Frozen Head, where to stay etc. Having Richard Donovan come in a sponsor really helped in a big way here, as it just became a matter of finding the optimal options to get there and arrive at the race in as rested a state as possible.



I’ve been concentrating training on getting in plenty of hills in all conditions. The Irish winter (And the Spine Race) have both been very co-operative in giving me plenty of practice in running about the mountains in a wide mix of weathers. What I haven’t practiced much of is running through trees. And by that I don’t mean running in wooded areas, but rather running right into the vegetation itself and out the other side. Rhododendron outbreaks would probably be ideal for this, but I don’t have any good local examples that I know of.

The potential totals for climb and descent in the Barkley are enormous. I’ve seen estimates of over 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) in a few places. That would make it the hilliest race I’ve ever done. By comparison the total vertical gain in the UTMB is under 10,000 meters, and distances would be quite similar. As a result, unsurprisingly, I’ve been trying to emphasise hill work and building up my climbing strength. It feels like that has been working, but I won’t really know until reality bites.

Even my first big race of 2018, The Spine Race, mentally became an excellent week’s training from my own perspective… I was still trying as hard as ever, but it was had changed to being more a means to an end than an end in itself. That actually probably made the Spine race more enjoyable for me, as I was putting fewer eggs into that basket, so to speak.



I think its been the case that every ultra run I’ve entered I’ve always gone in wondering how competitive I’d be. This started right back at my first ultra race, which was The Wicklow Way Ultra (Now called the Maurice Mullins Ultra, in memory of the race’s creator… Maurice was an early pioneer of ultra running in Ireland and encouraged me hugely in my early development as an ultra runner.). Even on that first ultra I was in the lead group of 4 for most of the race (before finishing 4th, but plenty learned).

In fact even my first ever running race almost 20 years ago had me launching at the Dublin city marathon not to finish, but to try to break 3 hours (2:57 achieved), after a very good last long run training session with my training buddies.

There has been no running race since then that I haven’t been trying to compete in at some level, rather than simply complete… all the way up to world championships and similar high level races with tough completion targets such as the Spartathlon and the The Spine Race.

The only times I tend to get intimidated in races these days is for swimming sections in adventure races, and even at that swimming tends to be a tiny part of these races that I just need to “get through”. The last race that really intimidated me in its entirety was the Primal Quest Utah Adventure race in 2006. My team was nearly a year preparing for that one, and it was a big new experience in a fantastic, but totally unfamiliar environment of the Utah Desert. I can well remember being at the opening ceremony and watching this video that was clearly designed to psych us all out (which it did!).

And then there’s Barkley. A race that needs no videos to psych people out! This is the first running race that I’ve entered that intimidates me. And it does so in a big way. On paper I have a good background to take it on. I have a good ultra running history. I’m a competitive multi-day racer. I’m a competitive ultra trail racer. I’ve got a hill walking and mountaineering background. I’ve raced in tricky terrain. I’m a navigator on adventure racing teams. I’m used to finding my way around on my own in the dark in crappy weather. All great. But this is Barkley. Barkley isn’t raced “on paper”. Barkley isn’t really raced…. if you’re really good and really lucky then it is survived!

So then… how to approach it, and what to target. If you’ve watched the film you’ll have heard some of the competitors put it perfectly. I think you’ve got to go in with the attitude that you’ll try to complete the 5 laps. If you don’t have that in some way as a target then failure is definite. But at the same time have the realistic knowledge that this is unlikely to be achieved. Failure isn’t inevitable, but it is highly likely.

In terms of my own targets… well I just don’t have enough knowledge to really know. Only experience of the race will truly give me that. So I’m simply targeting to go out and do my best, try not to get lost too often, and to finish satisfied that I gave it my best shot.


Entry Fee

I’m a Barkley virgin, so the entry fee for me is Licence plate from my home country. I don’t own a car, so it’s a less obvious choice for me. A day or two after getting my entry I was cycling up a hill and noticed a mangled plate left behind after a fender bender. I thought about it! Jeeze… Barkley sets you off doing strange things. But then thought that that would have been a bit too vulture-like. I’ve put a bit of thought into it, and hopefully have something suitable now.




Ha! Barkley is the anti-technology race. Nobody will be carrying trackers. We’re not even allowed carry our own watches, due to the possibility of having too much technology on our wrists. (Laz issues everybody with a nice low tech watch so we can at least know how close we’re getting to the cut-offs). The only technology we carry is a map and compass. Updates on the race are patchy at best, and tend to only reliably happen as runners arrive and depart the start/finish line at loop transitions. There are a few places online where updates are posted on the race as it progresses.

Richard will be hoping to post updates to my Athlete page on Facebook here. That depends on connectivity at the race HQ. There’ll be plenty of media at the race, so there should be lots coverage getting out over time. I’m sure Mike Dobies will also be ensuring that accurate data get published when available.



I’ve been trying to think of any new gear I might be able to get hold of that would be of particular help for Barkley. I’m already very well geared up with my range of Columbia clothes, such as lightweight Outdry Extreme shell jackets, that will most definitely be a big help, especially if the weather is in any way wet. I’ve also got a few different types of shoes to bring. I’ve gone for waterproof shoes, more to keep grit and debris out than to keep water out. I don’t expect to really be able to keep water out. I’ve got the Montrail Mountain Masochist for maximum protection, and the Montrail Mojave II for more cushioning.

Another major item of gear that I reckoned could potentially make a big difference is head torches. Depending on the start time it could be possible that more than half the race could be run in darkness. I can remember an old saying from back in my orienteering days referring to night orienteering “he with the biggest headtorch wins”… which was often true (but then the best orienteers usually splashed out on searchlights for their head). I reckoned it would be worth a weight penalty to get as powerful a headtorch as possible (within reason), that could last for a full night at high power.

John in the Great Outdoors was extremely helpful with this. As a result I have a Petzl Nao+ and a Led Lenser MH10 as back-up. Yet again Richard Donovan’s sponsorship helped hugely here, as it enabled me to get hold of an even more exotic option by picking up a Lupine headtorch as well, with a massive peak output.



Given that this eejit is a proud Corkonian, I think this song from a great Cork band is highly appropriate (especially as there is a direct link to my Barkley crew, eh Richard!). There’s more than one way to be an idiot. Hopefully if I get any ear-worms in Barkley they’ll be suitably lively.


Finally, Thanks again to everyone who is helping make this possible,  especially Helen, Richard Mike, and my sponsors Richard Donovan, Columbia, and the Great Outdoors.

Thanks also for all the messages of support coming through in multiple media! They’re all much appreciated.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 9 Comments

The big target for 2018

The email arrived into my inbox and I took a deep intake when I saw who the sender was (Lazarus Lake), and what the subject line was…

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssss! I’m in…. Oh crap! Now I’ve really gone and done it. It appears I was now an idiot!

I was wondering how I’d follow up last year’s epic racing. Now I had my answer. Everything else planned for the year was swept to relative insignificance. I was getting a shot at competing in the Barkley Marathons


The Barkley Marathons – What the hell is that!

The Barkley Marathons is, as far as I’m concerned anyway, the toughest running race there is. It is designed by its evil genius creator, the man generally known as Lazarus Lake, to be just slightly beyond what can realistically be finished. More often than not Laz is right. More years than not there are no official finishers of the race. In fact out of about 1000 starters over its history there have been only 18 finishes by 15 runners (A few idiots have completed it more than once).

In recent years Barkley has become much more widely known beyond niche ultrarunning circles, mainly thanks to the release of the film The Barkley Marathons – The Race That Eats Its Young.


The race is quirky in so many ways. There is no race website. There is no obvious entry process. People who know about the details generally don’t talk about it. Laz regards anyone who tries to enter his ultra torture-fest to be an idiot, by definition. He happily addresses all the entrants as such as such. Being Irish though, I find the hiberno-English word Eejit to be more apt in my case!


Laz about to start the race (By lighting his cigarette)

But anyway, there’s loads of very very interesting information out there on the Barkley if you go looking for it. I’ve been trying not to talk about it too much, so I won’t start here. It’s been hard keeping relatively quiet about this, as the thought of racing it fills me with a combination of excitement and terror. One thing is for sure… it’ll be one hell of an experience.

As time marches forward towards the traditional Barkley date of April 1st (Yes, fool’s day) the clock is ticking ever more loudly and the level of terror is rising with it!

As this is my A+++ race this year I’m throwing everything I can at it. I’ll try to get at least one more post written on planning and preparations, and why the Barkley is so much more intimidating than any other run I’ve done.

Helping throw everything at are my regular Sponsors Columbia, providing me with their superb racing clothes and shoes, along with The Great Outdoors in Dublin, helping with some other very useful pieces of gear.

For this race I’m getting huge sponsorship from one of my Ultra running heroes… Richard Donovan of Global Running Adventures, which organizes the North Pole Marathon, Antarctic Ice Marathon, Volcano Marathon and World Marathon Challenge (7 Marathons 7 Continents 7 Days). As well as being one of the best race organisers there is, he is also an accomplished ultra runner in his own right. He has run across at least 3 continents already, with at least another 2 to come, including Antarctic! I can say with confidence that no-one has done more for Irish ultra running than Richard.

The other Richard who deserves a big mention is Richard Nunan, my Adventure Racing team mate on team Columbia Ireland.  He played a huge role as one of my support crew on my Mizen to Malin record breaking run last year. He’ll be coming along to Barkley to help out with support, and hopefully provide his usual standard of colourful updates on race developments.


The Barkley Startline… the gate to Hell

More to follow…


Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 11 Comments

2017 – A Review

I made some radical alterations to my approach to racing in 2017. In the past I have usually mixed in a few big “A” races as my main priority with a lot of smaller local races. I had 2 reasons for doing the smaller races. The most obvious reason is that they’re enjoyable, and usually very social as well. I also reckon that you can make yourself a better racer by simply racing more. My ability to recover well has generally meant that I could mix in a lot of shorter races throughout the year without any obvious downside effects on my key A races.

In 2017 I changed things so as to focus much more on the A races, and really focus and optimise my training towards those. This had the effect of pushing the shorter races out-of-the-way, so that in the end I only races one or two non-target races. My definition of “short” is quite extreme. For me anything under 24 hours is a short speedy race. Longer are true endurance races from my point of view. Ever since I have been racing 24 hours and longer I’ve been aware of the significant difference in ability/skills required between these categories. It has become even more obvious to me now.

Another factor at play, being brutally honest, is that I am getting older. Against received wisdom I haven’t found that my recovery time is getting any worse as a result. If anything it’s actually improving, and I’m having to hold myself back from launching into full-on training in the days immediately after big races. Physically and mentally I usually feel ready to go almost straight away.

The downside of ageing that is getting more and more notable is that I’m slowing down over shorter distances. When I do enter shorter races I’m no longer able to compete at the level I could even into my early 40s. Race wins are no longer a realistic target. When you’re used to being able to mix it up at the pointy end of the field this is potentially quite demoralising. I’ve had to make mental adjustments and adjust my targets to reflect new realities.

2017 was my last year as an M40 category racer in my local races (both running and cycling). I’ve now learned through experience that there is a big difference between early and late years competitiveness in age categories. So even my “insurance policy” of racing for age category positions became much more challenging. Such is life.

The good thing though, is that over longer distances I haven’t noticed any decline with aging. If anything I’m just piling on more wisdom, experience, and years of training over time which is improving my racing ability. My speed decline is motivating me to take advantage of this for as long as I can whilst I still can. Use it before losing it!

So in 2017 I had about 5 “A” races/events. All the eggs were being loaded into these baskets! Of these I prioritized two in particular (A+). The 5 were, in calendar order : The Spine race, HeadtoHead (Mizen to Malin record attempt), Belfast 24 hour (World championships), The Beast (Adventure Race), The UTMB. In any given year I’ll be very satisfied to get one good result. Everything after that is a bonus. So how did it go…


The Spine

As ever, I very much enjoyed the experience here, and got a lot out of it. However from a performance and results point of view it was a disaster! I was a little off the pace I would like to have been. Even worse, I managed to break a rib on the first night of the race which caused me far more physical impact than I would have thought. In the end this caused me to retire from the race about two-thirds of the way in for a first DNF in this event. The bigger downside is it took at least a month if not more recover from the broken rib and to get back to a point where I could train fully. Even then, I had to rebuild fitness from that point.


HeadtoHead (A+)

Attempting to break the record for running the length of Ireland (Mizen Head to Malin Head) was a big undertaking. This was one of the two big targets for the year, having spent many years contemplating this undertaking I finally ran out of reasons not to do so! Once committed to actually making an attempt I knew I had to throw everything at it. The attempt was a huge success. I set a new record of 3:03:47 (D:H:M), which broke the old record by more than 10 hours. I was very happy to set a time much closer to 3 days than 4. It was unambiguously the best run of my life. I finished in a ridiculously pain-free stress free state. This was unambiguously a huge success. If  I did nothing more for the year this was enough for me to count it as one of my best ever.

End (smaller)

Record broken, having reached Malin Head


Belfast 24 hour (A+)

This was my 2nd A+ race of the year. There were a lot of eggs loaded into this basket as well. On any given year these days I’d normally try to do 2 24 hour races : The Irish Championships also hope to get selected for the big international championship, which in 2017 was the world championships. In 2017 these were one and the same : the Belfast 24 hour. This was tripled down when it was also announced that the event would also be the inaugural world masters 24 hour championships. So all my classic distance ultrarunning ambitions for the year were being loaded into this one race. I had timed the HeadtoHead to give the optimal break before full recovery before this race.

I have had a good run of 24 hour and similar races, so I had ambitious targets. Firstly I would try to attack my own PB of 244.66km. I’d also target defending my Irish championship title. Looking at the previous year’s 24 hour world table I reckoned if I could perform to that standard I would give myself a chance at a world masters medal as that kind of distance would put me in the top 5 or 6 for my age group based on 2016 results.

There was a bit of a meltdown in the race timing system during the race which meant the athletes didn’t get much feedback on timing during the race. This didn’t really affect me too much as I tend to run my own race on feel to a large extent. At the end of the race I felt I had put in a very good effort, and was 50/50 about whether I had managed to break my PB (The timing system was still down so everyone was still unsure of their results). But I knew my relative result in the Irish championships, and that I had done enough to get in front of massive efforts from Alex O’Shea and Tim Brownlie who had both clearly smashed their PBs (As it turned out they both exceeded 240km to achieve the international A standard). The Irish teams had both had unprecedentedly good performances and results.

It took a few hours for the provisional results to be announced. They had me at 246+km, which was a new PB, but frustratingly around a kilometer or so short of the Irish record. I had managed to get a bronze medal in me World Masters M45 category though, which I was ecstatic about.

Belfast Medals

24 hour running Irish Championship Gold & World Masters M45 Bronze Medals

A few days later I discovered that I had been left a lap short in the provisional results and that my actual finishing distance was 248.42km, beating the Irish record, just about, by about 40 meters. This was confirmed with the release of the official results. That’s a record I’ve been targeting for the guts of 10 years. Now I was even more ecstatic!

This race had been another massive success which would have been enough on its own to make for a good year. A PB, a new Irish record, An Irish championship gold, and a world masters bronze. Wow… those days don’t come around very often.


The Beast

Ireland’s biggest (in terms of time and distance rather than number of competitors) adventure race by far. This year it was being hosted in a new venue, based up in county Donegal, Ireland’s northern most county, and possibly its wildest. There was an excellent range of teams entered. It included most of the experienced Irish racers, along with some interesting new prospects. There were a few international teams visiting as well. My own team, Columbia Ireland, had one change this year, as Finbarr, our A1 category cyclist, was on family holidays. Our old friend Thure Kjaer, from Denmark, slotted seamlessly into the team.

Beast 2017 team

Beast team 2017 (Richard, Taryn, Eoin, Thure)

It was a high paced competitive race right from the off. Some early entanglements with Reed jungles on the first Kayak stage had us back at about 7th place towards the end of the first day (The photographers told us that we were right on the edge of front field teams they were chasing). We hung on in and kept our steady pace. We made several big calls on navigation decisions in the first big trekking stage. These worked out perfectly for us, and to our surprise resulted in our team taking the lead. Good navigation, teamwork, and continued steady pacing allowed us to slightly grow the lead by the end of the race.

Beast 2017

Enjoying the 2017 Beast

This was another successful race. Donegal was a spectacular venue, and we very much enjoyed the course. It’s always good to come from behind for the win, and also to share the fun with a team. It was definitely another successful competitive outing, and a nice way to stay in touch with adventure racing. It turned out to be great navigation practice as well.



The last big race of the year. Unlike last year I had a few weeks of recovery after the big adventure race outing. However disaster struck race preparations when Aer Lingus lost my luggage on my flight out to Geneva. For 2 days there was no trace of it whatsoever. Luckily I had arrived in Chamonix with a few days to spare as Helen was racing the OCC (which she finished successfully for a second time).

This is where having a sponsor as good as Columbia really kicks in. Since they are the main sponsors of the UTMB there were lots of Columbia staff in Chamonix for race week. They went out of their way to ensure that I had all the race gear that I needed to race the UTMB. Not just Columbia gear either… whatever was needed. They were brilliant.

Less brilliant was my race day. Things started well. My luggage finally turned up 3 days late the night before the race. So I now had double sets of gear! I didn’t have access to the elite start area,  but managed to get close enough to the front of the field that I only lost a minute or two at the start… no big deal in a race of this length. The first climbs and descents went well enough. However heading down into Italy I could feel abrasion on one of the soles of my feet. I spent 20 minutes at an intermediate aid station getting foot repairs before carrying on to Courmayeuer.

Despite my foot problems I was speeding through the downhills, overtaking plenty of people on the way. I was having to run more on my toes though to manage this. There is a much bigger medical team at the big aid station in Courmayeur, who did a comprehensive job patching up my foot. I also changed socks here.

The big climb out of Courmayeur is my least favourite in the race at the best of times, but turned out to be particularly horrific this year. Cramping was becoming a bigger and bigger issue. It became so bad that I realised I wouldn’t make it over the next series of mountain passes, so I rang Helen, who was my support crew, to let her know what was going on and talk through options. I decided to retire. That was definitely the right decision. It took an age to make my way back down the climb (to get back to Courmayeur. My cramping was so severe that I was unable to even walk forwards down the mountain even with walking poles. I imagine I was a comical sight to all the runners seeing me slowly walk backwards off the mountain.

So another DNF was a definite failure. I did take a few good learnings from the race though, and identified a few weaknesses that I have been targeting since then. I worked out that the cramping was probably caused not by the foot problems directly, but by the compensating running gait I adapted to continue to hold my running speed (too successfully as it turned out).


2017 in Summary

Sometimes you need the downs to remind you how good the ups are! Overall I’d count 2017 as one of my best ever years. My HeadtoHead, and my Belfast 24 hour results were outstanding results for me. In terms of endurance ultrarunning I reached a new height in terms of level of performance, and succeeded in achieving some very long-term ambitions. It means a lot to me to be the Irish 24 hour record holder, and also to hold the record for running the length of Ireland.

It was very nice to have these achievements recognised by athletics Ireland when they awarded me the Ultrarunner of the year trophy at their national athletics awards.

Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards 2017

Athletics Ireland Ultrarunner of the year 2017 (With broken Arm)

Now this left me with one problem… what could I do in 2018 to follow that up!


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The Spine Race – 2018

This year’s race was much more eventful than I had expected. Approaching the race I was assuming that the addition of 2 speedster runners to the field made it unlikely I would be able to compete for the win. I could foresee how either of them could be beaten, but reckoned it was unlikely that circumstances would align so that I could get in front of both of them… and that’s before accounting for the regular competition provided by all the other previous race winners. None of this really affected my race strategy, which basically amounted to “run your own race”.

The trip over to Edale went to plan. I have the routine down pretty well at this stage. Ryanair and the race itself both have a 20kg baggage limit, which helps in imposing a certain amount of packing discipline. For the Spine, all the high-end gear goes in, along with sufficient spares. It’s tricky to keep to the weight limit. In the end I was about 0.2kg under the limit.

It was good to meet old friends, and make some new ones, at the race check-in and briefing, before heading up to the YHA hostel in Edale to relax, have dinner, make a last call to my wife Helen, and then head to bed to get as long a sleep as my racing pre-race mind would allow!

The weather in the morning was benign by Spine standards. No precipitation, adequate visibility, and not too cold. It couldn’t last, but it’s a good way to start. Usually something causes the race start to be delayed, but this year for once nothing got in the way, and we managed to set off on time. That makes a bit of a difference for maximizing precious winter daylight.

Much to my surprise the run up through Edale took a very familiar form, with Pavel, Eugene and myself leading things out. Jim Mann was also tucked in with us. Getting onto the trail-proper, where we would single out due to the nature of the track I found myself setting the pace in the front.

The group of 4 stuck together for quite a while from there, with some minor alterations to the order along the way. As we hit the first steep climb of Jacobs ladder, there was some reconfiguring, with Jim tending to come to the fore a bit more, but we always came back together as a group quickly enough. No-one was attempting to surge away.

On the plateau of Kinder Scout I took a slightly different line at the start, and then changed my mind which left me 20 or 30 meters behind the other 3. Jim and Pavel were more prominently to the front now. However this configuration remained fairly static, and little had changed an hour or so later when we arrived to the first Mountain Rescue check at Snake Pass road.

From here though Jim seemed to push the pace out a bit and started opening a gap slowly but surely. Pavel had Eugene for company as ever, and they slight increased the gap to me at the same time, but never growing to more than about 100 meters. I was happy to keep running within myself and set my own pace, whatever the others were up to.

I did wonder what had happened to Oliviera, who was the fastest runner on the race. I heard later that he was injured, but did come over to run the race anyway. His injury had prevented him from being competitive at the front of the field however. Even at this early stage it was looking likely that this would be a 4 way race. We had built quite a gap, but everyone still seemed to be running comfortably.

Approaching Bleaklow Hill Pavel stopped briefly (so Eugene did likewise), so I caught up to them. We were back running together. Pavel was flying faster on the descents, so opened up a gap coming off bleakly. Eugene stuck behind me for a while. On the descent down to Torside Reservoir Eugene surged away to catch up with Pavel, and I descended at ease, taking a pit stop along the way, allowing them to open up a gap again.

Crossing the road here I declined all offers of tea, coffee or water and headed out over the dam at the end of the reservoir. I was still quite close to the pair in front. Indeed I know seemed to be closing in on them without actually putting in a surge to try to do so. By the next road crossing a few minutes later we were all back together (although Jim was well out of sight at this point).

Much to my surprise I found that I was running away from Pavel and Eugen on the short climb up from the busy road crossing and starting to create a small gap. I had identified that my climbing was a relative weakness after last year’s UTMB, and had put some effort into correcting this over winter. It would appear that I had succeeded in building up my climbing speed, as I wouldn’t expect to be able to create a gap on Pavel and Eugene this early in the race. Training works.. who’d have guessed!

On the steeper climb past Laddow Rocks I could see Jim ahead. He wasn’t as far ahead as I expected, probably within about 5 minutes or less. I reckoned I was matching or slightly gaining on him on the climbs. I was definitely pulling out a lead on the pair behind me though, as they were well out of audible range at this point. This section was a lot drier than last year, where at points I had been wading up to my waist in river crossings. I was actually able to able to keep my dry this year.

The broad pattern of the race continued like this from here… Jim slowly building a gap ahead, and a gap growing slowly behind me. The road crossing over A635 just before Wesseden head was the last I would see of another Spine racer for some time. I was pretty happy to be running solo, setting my own pace without distraction. I was very happy to be running in 2nd place, which was definitely ahead of schedule at this point.

The early (actually on time) start to the race, along with the benign weather and the good speed I was making, particularly climbing, had me wondering how much of the first leg (The start to CP1 at Hebden Bridge) I would manage to get done in daylight. The furthest I had made it in previous races was a little past the White House Inn. It was definitely a lot easier running past there in full daylight. The first of this year’s diversions of the normal Peninne Way route followed soon afterwards, with a long way round journey over marshy ground past Warland Reservoir. Again, this proved to be drier than expected.

It made a particularly nice change to run towards the massive obelisk of Stoodley Pike with adequate daylight. The bumps on the way seemed a lot less severe. There were also plenty of non-racers still out on the Peninne way, along with the occasional race spectator. By now I had it in my head to try to make it all the way to CP1 without using my headtorch. The daylight was a double benefit, as it was allowing me to run a little faster.

This worked out pretty well, as I just about made it to the diversion off the Peninne way for the out and back loop down to CP1 without needing my headtorch. although I was relying on streetlights on the road section from here. I was wondering how far inf front Jim had managed to get, and whether he would manage to complete the out anf back loop without our paths crossing.

The last 2 or 3 hundred meters down to CP1 are an off-road section, and I finally had to fire up my headtorch for this last approach in. I met Jim coming out of CP1 here, and we exchanged cheery greetings as we passed. My main goal in CP1, as ever, was to get in and out as fast as possible, with a minimum of distractions. As I didn’t want to take my shoes off I was diverted out of the main building (where all the aid station goodies live) and into a small building where the drop bags were being stored.

Here I did my few tasks, which really amounted to no more than changing GPS batteries and swapping maps. At this point I had yet to look at a map on the race, as I was running 99% on memory, with just quick GPS checks if I was unsure of myself at any point. Doing the whole section in daylight made this more straightforward than normal. I drank two coffees whilst completing this task, took a token handful of food, and then set off on my way again. Not a bad stop.

On the way out heading back up the steep steps up to the of road muddy track I met Pavel, and shortly afterwards Eugene heading into the transition. So it looked like the pattern was holding… small slowly growing gaps being built, probably around 10-15 minutes either side of me. But my pre-race prediction of being at least 5th into CP1 proved to be nicely wrong.

About half an hour out from CP1 I looked back to see a single headtorch in the distance on the route behind me. It looked like Pavel had managed to lose Eugene at a much earlier stage than I would have expected. I wondered if Eugene would manage to do similar to last year and fly up at speed to catch Pavel and then settle in again running alongside, but I couldn’t see a trace of him. I couldn’t see any trace of Jim in front either.

Two more small route diversions followed in the next few hours which went without incident. The new entirely unsupported nature of the race seemed to lead to notably less on course support than there had been last year.

The next planned off-PW diversion was on the approach to Gargrave. The excellent markings on the previous diversions had lulled me into relaxing and following the arrows placed at junctions. Unfortunately one of the arrows at the junction in Bank Newton was pointing the wrong way, which left me to run for a good 10 minutes or so in the wrong direction before reaching a point where I would have expected a marker, but where there was no trace of one. A quick check on the GPS indicated I was now way off track, so I had to retrace my steps back to the junction.

Having spent pretty much all of the race up until now building up a small lead I was pretty grumpy heading back. Not long after hitting the original junction again and then heading down the correct route I met a car coming in the opposite direction (this was a road section!). He stopped to ask what had happened and I explained about the sign. He let me know that Jim had made the same mistake, but that Pavel had not and was just ahead up the road. After our quick conversation he drove off in the direction of the errant sign, no doubt to correct it before the next runner arrived.

Sure enough within minutes I could see Pavel ahead on the road. At this point I was channeling my annoyance at taking the wrong route into forward motion. It took me less time than I expected to catch up and overtake Pavel to regain my “correct” position… playing mental games with myself to move me along.

The weather was, as predicted, getting worse as the night progressed. There was snow on the ground around Mahlam Cove, and the rocks above the Cove were very very slippy, so were taken at a very careful pace indeed. The wind was also noticeably cold and icy at this stage.

The intermediate checkpoint, CP1.5, at Mahlam Tarn was a welcome break. I had two quick coffees and a good chat here. By know I was running through the back-end of the Spine Challenger field. I was surprise to see that I had managed to rebuild my lead on Pavel since my little of-course diversion. Jim was also not as far in front as I expected, at a lot less than an hour. I was also informed that due to the harsh conditions we wouldn’t be going over Pen-Y-Ghent, but take the same diversion around it as the year of the “big wind”. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that. Good safety call.

Normally daylight start to break leaving CP 1.5, but there was no sign of it this year. Between the on-time start, and the good speed I was making I was probably quite a bit of previous timings. I reckoned I was currently on record-breaking pace, with Jim firmly so! As a result it was the first time I climbed and descended Fountains Fell in darkness. There was some advantage in not seeing how far I had left to climb on the way, as the top came a little quicker than I had prepared myself for.

In contrast to last year I made comfortable steady pace from here, past PYG, through Horton (Back in daylight), and on up Cam High Road. By then I was starting to look forward to getting some proper food at CP2. My feet were starting to ache occasionally on some pressure points. It was definitely time for a change of shoes and socks as well.

On paper the diversion down to CP2 looked easier the Pennine Way route. In reality it turned out to be pretty awful, with large “baby’s head” rocks on very eroded tracks for long sections. Still it was back in full daylight, and the views were impressive.

I was in much better shape arriving into CP2 this year. I couldn’t have been any worse than last year unless I was brought in using an ambulance. I was feeling alright, quite tired, but not really sleep deprived. It was the middle of the day, so not good timing for a sleep if I didn’t need it. I learned that Jim was taking a sleep break here, and had arrived in 40 or 50 minutes ahead. I changed my kit, going for a slightly warmer set of gear, as the weather was forecast to be colder and wetter from here on. I also ate some real food, and some drinks provided by the aid station. No medical issues to report thankfully.

I left CP2 in a very unexpected position… I was leading. I knew it wouldn’t last, as Jim would no doubt come flying out after his sleep and be well able to overtake before CP3. Pavel had not arrived before I left. It looked like I had gained a bit more time on him. I expected he would go straight through CP2 as well, given his ability to suffer!

The weather had definitely taken a turn for the worse… the road between Hawes and Hardraw was completely flooded by the overflowing river. I decided that since I was in new shoes and socks I’d make an attempt to keep my feet dry, so walked along the top of the boundary wall rather than the flooded road. It cost a little time, but it worked.

Hardraw Hostel was the new finish for the Spine Challenger, and passing here loads of challengers came out and cheered, with one person offering me some coffer and/or lemonade, which was gratefully accepted! After that little bit of excitement it was back to the hard work of the long long climb up over Great Shunner Fell. I ran as many parts as I could through the climb.

About half way up I had to stop and adjust my water  bottle set-up. The inner straw from one bottle, which now in my front “active” pouch had gone AWOL, so I switched around to my back-up bottle. As I was doing this Jim came running past at a superb speed. Very impressive, and no less than I was expecting from him. Although I was hoping to get further along the course. Orthodox race order was now restored, with Jim having the benefit of additional speed.

Around the river crossing near Keld I briefly took a wrong track, which had me backtracking for a few minutes uphill. That was annoying, and I wondered if Pavel was somewhere behind ready to pounce on my mistake. But crossing the open moorland towards the Tan Hill Inn I couldn’t see any racers in front or behind.

Arriving into the Tan Hill Inn I found myself in two minds about how to spin my sleep strategy. I was definitely pushing things out now, and had never previously gone beyond this point without sleeping. I learned that Pavel had stopped in CP2 for a sleep, which I was surprised to hear. It was still daylight, and it would be good to cross the tricky boggy section of Sleightholm moor which was immediately in front utilising the light to find the sometimes hard to find track (or what there was of one).

I opted to take a 15 minute power-nap to try to both stave off sleep deprivation, and try to maximise the daylight. I lay down on a coach in the lounge of the pub to try to take the nap. I don’t think I managed much more than to lie there with my eyes closed though. The checkpoint staff roused me again, I grabbed a quick drink (thanks to the Tan Hill Inn), and steeled myself to head out the door.

The disadvantage to my brief stop was having to restart. It felt much colder now, having been in a warm building, so it took me a few minutes to get going again. Everything went to plan, and I was able to head across the nasty boggy sections with enough daylight left.

The boggy section is followed by a road section. I had to get out and use my headtorch towards the end of that section to properly read the signposts, so that I could find the Pennine Way heading off-road. From here to CP3 was danger time now as far as sleep deprivation was concerned. I was now heading into my second nighttime without having slept yet on the race. This was pushing the boat out more than usual. Things turned out to be pretty straightforward in the end, and I was able to make it to CP3 at a reasonable speed without any sleep wobbles or significant navigation errors (just an occasional GPS check after Grassholm Reservoir).

One thing I knew with 100% certainty as I arrived into CP3 at Middleton was that I would be sleeping there. I could see that Jim was here, as his bag was sitting in the entrance hallway. He was obviously sleeping here too. I went into the main room of the building to join the CP staff there and eat some proper food. I then headed off to get a 2 hour sleep.

As is often the case, I was a bit slower than I should have been rousing myself to get back out running again. Much to my surprise I was up ahead of Jim, who was taking a good long sleep here. His strategy seemed to be to run the race in the style of a staged race, with long breaks between speedily run stages. I reckoned that was pretty much the perfect strategy for him, given his excellent stage racing background. He definitely seemed like he was in total control of the race, with very little that Pavel or myself could do to counter his raw speed.

The forecast was for the weather to remain very cold, so there was a very high chance that conditions would be pretty brutal going up over Cross Fell. So I made sure that I overpacked my bag with plenty of spare cold weather gear. Better to have it and not need than to need it and not have it. The weight penalty was definitely worth it in my opinion.

Jim roused himself before I had left the building, and we had a little chat about the race and how it was all going. He seemed to be having a great race. I left the CP as he was still eating his “breakfast”, knowing I’d be seeing him soon enough again! It would be interesting to see if I would come across Pavel heading back out, as this CP was another one with a little “out and Back”. Given that he had slept in CP2 I didn’t expect him to sleep here.

As I was heading out on the flatish section of the Pennine way alongside the river Tees, about 10 minutes out from the CP I could see Pavel’s headtorch making its way down the descent towards Middleton. I still had a bit of a lead here. I knew of course that it was unlikely to be long before Jim would regain the lead and fly past. In reality he must have had a nice relaxed breakfast, as it was a lot longer than I was expecting before he came running past, near the large Quarry at Bleabeck Force. Jim made a small nav error not long afterwards which left him behind me again, but I made sure he could see where I was going so he could follow if he wanted. From there he was back in front and disappearing into the distance again.

Despite the cold weather, there were no diversions around Cauldron Snout, so the tricky technical sections around there all had to be tackled in full. This was my first time doing this in darkness. It actually didn’t make too much difference, apart from missing the good views around here. The ground was well covered in snow now, which made for interesting running. The course probably running pretty fast, as the ground was hard rather than boggy for the most part.

A combination of darkness and fog meant that there was no trace of the spectacular views around High Cup Nick. For the first time in the race I was starting to get a little thirsty around here. The main reason for this was that my water bottle nozzles had frozen in the cold temperatures. I grabbed some cool water from one of the bigger streams flowing off the mountains.

The views started to return about halfway down the descent from here as I dropped back below the cloud base, and not long afterwards the sky started to brighten with the first traces of dawn. By the end of the long descent , heading into Dufton village, daylight had fully returned. At the same location last year daylight was fading away, so I was setting a significantly faster pace.

The intermediate checkpoint here wasn’t fully open. A race spectator had volunteered to help out and was able to give me a cup of coffee inside the hall. Apparently the hall wasn’t even opened when Jim had passed through about half an hour earlier. I didn’t hang around for too long. Pavel was somewhere in the tracker dead zone behind me, so I wasn’t too far ahead. Certainly not enough to relax!

This year we had to reverse back out to return to the Pennine Way proper and not miss any of the nasty sections of badly churned up track near Dufton. With the daylight returning, and being kitted out for nasty weather, I was heating up a lot on these lowland sections, but I knew that wouldn’t last. I was still making reasonable pace, running quite a lot of the more gentle early uphill sections towards the race’s highest point.

Despite the snow covering on the ground, the going was pretty good, and the conditions were comfortable. All that changed approaching the first major peak, Knock Fell. Once the shelter provided by being on the side of the mountain was gone conditions became very nasty indeed. The wind was extremely strong, and was absolutely freezing. I was very glad that it was generally a cross-wind rather than a headwind. Visibility was quite variable as well, depending on cloud cover. It was definitely not blue skies and sunshine!

I had my primary cold weather gear in action now… A heavyweight omni-heat base layer, a waterproof Outdry Extreme down jacket midlayer, and a waterproof Outdry Extreme shell.  Both the Down jacket and Shell hoods were being used for protection. I had my Outdry Extreme leggings over a fleece leggings on my lower body. I was using lightweight down Outdry Extreme waterproof mittens, designed for Himalayan climbing, on my hands. It was all working, thankfully. I was dressed more as a climber than a runner, which was exactly what was required.

I also had the comfort of knowing I had a spare lightweight fleece mid-layer, lightweight gloves, and a balaclava, in my pack if things deteriorated any more. The key thing though was to keep moving forward, and in the correct direction!

Even though it was daytime the route was still pretty tricky to follow. The snow covering was extensive. The high winds meant that in a lot of places the fresh snow was blown off leaving compacted ice on the surface. I had plenty of slips, with an occasional fall along the way across the high peaks. A particularly nasty hail shower blew across as I was crossing Little Dun Fell. Double hoods did their job here, with any exposed section of skin being quickly found and hidden. I was right on the edge of comfort at this point. Stopping was not an option. I preferred not to have to faff around getting out any of the extra layers, so ploughed on.

It seemed like slow going, but I was making consistent progress. Every now and again I would come across reasonably fresh footprints in the snow, which had to be Jim’s. After what seemed like a very long time indeed I finally reached the highpoint of the race at Cross Fell. From there, a sharp turn starts the descent, and thankfully heads to the lee-side of the mountain range. I was soon out of the screaming wind, but the temperature was still freezing.

Again, there was plenty of ice near or on the surface, so I had a few further slips and slides on what is normally an easy run off the peak. Approaching the turn on to the beginning of the track heading to Greg’s Hut I could see plenty of surface ice on the track. I picked my way carefully along the edge of the track. Sacrificing speed for safety wasn’t an issue for me here!

A few minutes later I saw someone approaching from Greg’s Hut. A race safety team bases themselves here for a few days. This year they were getting the full-on mountain isolation treatment. There was so much snow and ice around that only specialised mountain vehicles would be able to make it up here. He asked if I wanted to stop for a hot drink. My thinking was to just plough on, as I was feeling alright and didn’t need a pick-up, even though that would be a little anti-social! When I politely declined he let me know that Jim was inside having a coffee and noodles. That surprised me, as I thought he’d be much further in front. So I decided to be social and head in for a quick hot chocolate.

In Greg's Hut for a quick Cuppa

In Greg’s hut for a quick Cuppa

As ever, Greg’s hut was too warm and too hospitable from a racing point of view. The danger here was getting too cosy and comfortable. Hot chocolate would need to be boiled up, but coffee was available on tap, so I opted for that. Jim wasn’t looking as cheery as he had been earlier, but was happily tucking into some noodles. After a brief chat, and before getting too comfortable, I thanked everyone and headed back out again, emphatically being reminded on exiting that it was indeed still very cold. In fact it was so cold that I wasn’t able to drink from my water bottle, as the suction system had frozen!

Leaving Greg's Hut

Leaving Greg’s Hut

Even in my badly fatigued state last year I managed to make good speed and progress from here all the way down off the mountain to the village of Garrigill. Despite being a mountain road it always takes longer than expected. I mentally focused on being at least as fast and determined as I had been last year. Again I was hoping to hold Jim off for as long as possible, but expecting him to pass me within 5 or 10 minutes.

I made it most of the way down before coming across one of the regular Spine race spectators ont he way down, who called out that Jim was about 400 meters behind. That felt like it was after an hour or two of descending. I braced myself for Jim to fly past again. About 5 minutes later I came across a film crew. They put up a drone which buzzed around overhead for a few seconds. Again, to my surprise, it didn’t go back from me, but rather went ahead to film from above a little further down. I would have thought they would fly it back to Jim.

Arriving at Garrigil Jim still hadn’t caught me, surprisingly. A couple from on of the houses in the village had a table set up outside and were offering coffee and home-made oatcakes. I asked for a cup of milk (a new craving), which they gave me. The camera crew arrived on their quadbike, and said that Jim was about a kilometer behind. Something didn’t add up. I presumed it was somebody not being great at distance estimation. Spurred on, I pushed off and got running again for the last push of this leg to new CP 4 at Alston YHA.

The new CP was 2 or 3 further down the trail than the previous one, but lacked the horrible out and back hill climb. I prefered to location of the new one! Since there was still a lot of daylight left I was glad to get to cover a bit more ground. Mentally I remembered the distance to the old one, and plodded on towards that. Being back off the mountain there is a trap of relaxing and thinking things are easier, but often I have found that the reverse is true. There are more mental distraction and more obvious targets when climbing and descending.

Playing these mental games I moved reasonably steadily onwards. Again, I was expecting Jim to catch me before reaching CP4. However that didn’t happen, much to my renewed surprise. EVen though I had slept at the last CP, and it was still daylight, I intended to get more sleep here. On paper the next leg looks the easiest, due to the lack of major climbs. In reality it is probably the nastiest for several reasons, including the lack of major climbs! So I wanted to be reasonably fresh facing into it, and not be losing speed due to sleep deprivation.

I took full advantage of the hot food that was available here, especially as it turned out to be a rather delicious lasagna. As I was eating word was filtering through that Jim was off-course and heading towards Alston on road. He’d have to figure that out and back-track, or so I thought. Pavel was somewhere coming down from Greg’s Hut. Probably about an hour and a half behind I reckoned.

As I prepared to get my 2 hours sleep in, word came in the Jim had retired due to injury (That’s why he was on the road) and was being driven to CP4. Poor Jim. He really was in control of the race to this point.

When I got back up after my sleep, and headed down to prepare to leave both Jim and Pavel were there. Pavel had just arrived and was getting in some lasagna. I had a quick chat with both of them, before getting final preparations done and heading out into the last of the daylight to tackle my least favourite leg of the race.

As a lot of this leg is low-lying farmland and boggy terrain the conditions under foot can be absolutely miserable, especially when going through areas which have farm animals wandering around. One major upside of the cold conditions was the ground was relatively hard, and often topped by a layer of snow. This was much better conditions than normal, as far as I was concerned. I still hate this section though! The Peninne Way does its best to find interesting features to wander through or past here, but in the end the ground conditions are just too awful for it to be enjoyable for me.

As so often happens along here, at one point it took me about 10 or 15 minutes to accurately find my way on the path at one point, all the while wishing I just head down to the road and bypass this mess. Mostly I was able to get along on memory, with some GPS back-up. After crossing the A689 road and heading into the nasty boggy terrain of Hartleyburn common memory wasn’t going to get me very far, and I just followed the GPS for quite a long time, all the way through to Bleckinsopp Common.

I was glad to get all of that finished, popping out onto the busy A69. James Thurlow (from Opentracking) was waiting here in his car, and fixed a second tracking device on my backpack. Of course I checked on where Pavel was, and he wasn’t too far behind. He had had about 2 hours sleep in CP4 as well, but had probably made much better time than me over the nasty ground. He could be as little as half an hour behind at this point, and closing. Time to pick up the speed again!

I marched up the steep climb on the approach to Hadrian’s wall with determination, before getting some water in the car park facilities. Hadrian’s wall is potentially a fun section. Perhaps far too interesting for a race! This year it was covered in snow which was drifting to be quite deep in places. The short sharp up and downs make it very demanding and energy heavy to maintain a good competitive speed. I tried to enjoy it as much as possible, whilst also pressuring myself to keep my speed up to maintain or increase the gap back to Pavel. With Jim out of contention I was now the one controlling the front of the race (And I was happy that I was indeed controlling it, since I hadn’t pushed too hard to here, and my sleep strategy was going well… I was in as good a shape as I could hope to be this far in to the race).

There wasn’t a trace of another person all through this section along Hadrian’s wall, apart from the lights from farmhouses. The isolation was enjoyable, although the conversations with myself can get interesting at times! Every now and again I checked back to see if there was any sign of Pavel closing in, but there wasn’t (there was no certainty in that though, as the peaks and troughs along Hadrian’s Wall meant that a someone behind could be out of sight for a large proportion of time).

After a long few hours I finally turned left and headed away from the wall. The lowland section towards the next forest was trickier to follow than usual due to the snow obscuring the pathways, and much less obvious terrain following by the Peninne Way itself.

A kilometer or two into the forest the track leaves fire roads and heads through very boggy ground through the forest itself. It was probably a bit easier than usual this year as the snow on the ground made for easy-going, and was actually less “sinky” than the bog would normally be. This continues all the way onwards to the open ground connecting to the next forest.  Although there were times here where there was pretty much no trace whatsoever of the Peninne Way itself. Occasionally this resulting in my ending up in quite deep drifting snow.

When I finally hit fireroad again in the next forest section the competitive instinct of building a good gap kicked in again and I concentrated on making good solid speed. Unfortunately this ended up with my not paying enough attention to where I was heading. As a result I overran a junction and had to run back for 5 minutes to regain the correct route.

One of the race highlights was next to come, as I was now getting within striking range of Horneystead Farm. The lovely people who live there are fans of the race, and even when they have not been able to be physically present they have left out signs directing racers to their garage, where they leave a fantastic collection of treats for racers to enjoy, along with a dangerously seductively comfortable couch. I could see from about two kilometers away that there was someone out and about with a headtorch. Bearing in mind that this was very late at night, and freezing cold to boot, this was mightily impressive.

It was great to be greeted warmly again, and offered a nice cup of tea to drink for the last few hundred meters to the farm. Even though I was in race mode I was more than happy to take a quick break here to have a chat with such lovely people. I was quite tempted to have a 15 minute nap, but resisted and hauled myself back out of the couch to head off on my way again.

My headtorch was beginning its battery low power down routine, but at the same time the first traces of dawn were beginning to emerge. 10 or 15 minutes later I was on a few kilometers of road running, so was able to power along without worrying about light output. By the time I was back off-road for the last few hills before CP5 at Bellingham there was more than enough daylight so that the headtorch was no longer needed.

The return of daylight meant that I was now intending to go through CP5 without stopping for any sleep. It was turning into a nice cold but crisp clear day. Definitely time to take advantage of the conditions.

At CP5 I did my usual routines of changing batteries and maps, having some hot food and drinks, and checking on what the extent of my lead was. It looked like I had rebuilt my gap on Pavel to around 2 hours or so. That was good. I did a few small gear changes, but hummed and hawwed a lot about my biggest decision. I had packed a pair of racing snowshoes in my gear bag as a “just in case” back-up for extreme conditions. They were quite bulky, so would definitely be noticeable to carry around if they weren’t necessary. But they could potentially make a huge speed difference if conditions were bad enough to warrant their use. Decisions decisions.

In the end I decided to leave them behind, as I had managed to get this far without them. I knew there was a chance I met regret this on the Cheviots, which are quite a high set of hills, and very exposed, particularly given the Peninne Way heads along a high ridge over the range.

I was a lot more energetic leaving CP5 than I was arriving, and made a good pace through Bellingham village and climbing up towards the open land leading out from there. The first kilometer or two of open land is farm fields, where there was plenty of snow on the ground, but the going was still good. However after going through a gate and heading into more open moorland the going became noticeably harder, with much deeper snow.

By now my decision to leave the snowshoes behind was nagging at me quite loudly, but I ploughed on. I was becoming aware that I was also breaking trail for Pavel, who would find the going a little easier thanks to my fresh footprints. About 15-30 minutes later the snow became a bit deeper again, with my speed becoming slower again as a result. I made a phone call to race HQ, letting them know about the snow conditions and my thinking on retrieving my snowshoes. I chanced my arm on asking was there any chance they could be moved to the next road crossing, Unsurprisingly that wasn’t a runner. I let them know I would return to CP5 to collect them.

Given how bad the conditions were in the relative lowlands here, I knew things were likely to be significantly worse through section of the Cheviots. I had worked through all the combinations of possibilities between ploughing ahead without snowshoes, or taking the time to go back and get them, matched with whether Pavel would or would not bring snowshoes with him on this final leg of the race. If he had them, then he would catch and pass me, and I would be unable to react if I didn’t. If he hadn’t, then I reckoned I would pass me in the time it would take me to go back for them, but the shoes would allow me to catch and over take him if the conditions were going to be what I was expecting.

So that was it. I had to go back and take the risk of being passed. And that is exactly what happened. I passed Pavel heading out before getting back to Bellingham. He didn’t have snowshoes, so the gamble was on! This would be a very interesting race judgement call. It was still very frustrating to be heading backwards, burning time and increasing my required effort to finish with every step, as well as wasting good weather and daylight. It was a much shorter stop in CP5 to pick up the snowshoes, before turning around and heading back out on my 3rd trip over this section of the Peninne way this morning!

Heading back up the roads the sun was well up and it was getting a bit warmer. There was a bit less snow around than the first time I went through here a few hours previously. Going off the roads onto the farm fields this became even more clear, as there was now some grass showing through. Even reaching the gate again, and heading into the open moorlands conditions had clearly improved. Now there were 3 sets of footprints bashing a path (two of mine, along with Pavel’s), and it would seem a quadbike had bashed a track along here in the interim as well!

I put on the snowshoes at this point anyway, which was a small bit of faff, as I reckoned I had to give them a try anyway! They weren’t doing any harm, and I found t was certainly not any harder to run with them than without (The racing versions would seem to be a lot better than more classic walking versions in this regard). At about the point where I turned around the quad tracks veered away from the Peninne Way, leaving just Pavel’s tracks in the snow. It was still a case that I reckoned it would be just as effective to move without snowshoes than with though, as there had definitely been some melting during the morning.

A few minutes later the snow did begin to get much deeper though, and the path became substantially harder to follow. Now the snowshoes were making a difference. In fact the snow was so soft that I was still sinking quite a bit even though I was wearing them. Again, this was relative low altitude, so I reckoned things could be very interesting indeed on the Cheviots ahead. A few minutes later the snow was back to its less deep state, and I had to cross a farm road and a few fences to progress along the Peninne Way. At this point I decided to take the snowshoes back off again, as I could damage them over these obstacles.

The next 5 or 10 minutes were along a wide good fast gently descending track with only intermittent snow. This popped me onto a road crossing. This would be the last road crossing of note for quite a while. My mind had been running race scenarios for the last half an hour or so and I stopped here to gather my thoughts.

I knew that under the race rules we were only allowed to stop at the safety checkpoint in Byrneness (CP 5.5) for a maximum of half an hour. The next safe place (given the extremely cold conditions with the probability of snow cover pretty much everywhere) to get a proper sleep if it was needed was Hut 1, well into the traverse of the Cheviots. This was rasing a big saftey concern in my mind. The very last thing I wanted was to become a saftey issue for the race organisation. Projecting forward it would be well into the evening darkness leaving CP 1.5, and I’d probably be getting a bit sleep deprived on the climb up into the Cheviots. If the snow was deep that climb could potentially take a lot longer than normal, even with snowshoes.

I pulled out my mobile phone to attempt to ring race HQ again, simply to talk through my safety concerns. However there was no mobile signal available. So I continued to humm and haww at this spot, running through options in my mind, slowly cooling down as I did so. In the end my saftey concerns about potentially finding myself climbing deep snowdrifts whilst sleep deprived to reach saftey outweighed my competitive drive at this point in time, and I decided to take the road back to CP5.

The road walk wasn’t very pleasant, particularly as it was a bit of a walk of shame. As luck would have the race media crew happened to be travelling along this road 5 minutes later, and recognised the somewhat sullen walker. So they stopped to find out what was happening, and of course offered to give me a lift back to CP5. I was very glad of that lift. Once the mind has exited competitive mode the body follows extremely rapidly. It would have been a long walk indeed!

Some time after I had returned to CP5 word came in that racers were to be held at checkpoints due to the race organisation’s safety concerns with the weather, including Pavel being held whenever he reached CP5.5. This was both good and bad from my point of view (and with the benefit of hindsight). The good was that it wasn’t just me seeing the safety issues, and I could justify to myself that I wasn’t being wimpish, more wise. The bad was that if I had kept going for a few more hours then everything would have worked out to my satisfaction, and the enforced stop at CP5.5 would have ensured a safe rest before tackling the Cheviots.

Frustrating piled up even more when word came back that Pavel had taken a very long time indeed to reach CP 5.5, and had been struggling with very deep snow drifts (Given Pavel’s mountaineering craft, his size, and his strength, that really illustrates how severe conditions must have been). This was before the high ground of the Cheviots. I reckoned that with the aid of the snowshoes I would have probably caught up with Pavel at CP5.5, which would have made for an interesting race from there (And I would have expected to gain the full advantage of having snowshoes). But instead I spent a very frustrating night knowing all this, but having taken myself out of contention. It took quite a while for the frustration to dissipate and for my mind to drop fully out of race mode.

I had an enjoyable day or two afterwards, hanging around with the CP crews at CP5, taking a trip with the logistics van to finish, and hanging around with the race crew at the Finish. I did a short walk back up the Peninne way to enjoy the views and burn off some frustration. It was also great to be given the opportunity to present Pavel with his medal for his unprecedented 3rd time winning the Spine, with a huge margin to spare.

Even at this stage I was already well and truly distracted by me next significant race which was coming up in 2 or 3 months. It’s not often that you “finish” an event as long and as tough as the Spine Race but think “Well, that was a good training week for what’s coming”, but this is one of the few races that justified that thought!

I’d like to thank everyone who helped me undertake the Spine and give the race a good shot. As ever, the support at home from my wife Helen is immense. It’s great having a sponsor as good as Columbia, who supply me with outstanding gear that gets fully utilised in a race like this. Thanks also to The Great Outdoors shop in Dublin who help me with other pieces of gear.

Finally, I’d like to dedicate this race to my father in law Pat Dixon who passed away not very long after I had run the Spine. He was a man who had lived a long and adventurous life, a lifelong soldier who rose to a very high rank in the Irish Army. He always had a keen interest in whatever madness I was undertaking. He’ll be very much missed by all who knew him. Slan abhaile Pat.




Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 6 Comments

The Spine Race 2018 – Preview

Pain. Suffering. Again! But once more the toughest running race in the UK has enticed me back. Oddly enough, it is the difficulty of this race that is the big draw. This race is always going to be a challenge, no matter who you are and what your experience is. January in the hills and dales of the Spine of Britain is pretty much guaranteed to be a test of will, toughness, and sense of humour.

This will be my fourth time attempting the Spine, so I’ll try not repeat myself too much here. So yeah… 400+km, 4 days or so, horrible weather, not much sleep. My previous race reports and previews fill in the gaps. This year’s race is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. this Sunday, January 14th. Live tracking, as usual will be available here.


The Spine Race Route

Every race is a learning experience, so in theory I should be better prepared than ever for this edition simply from the experience of previous races. Having said that, I’m not sure that it was a ground-breaking learning experience from last year to discover that breaking a rib when falling off a wall is not a good idea from a competitive point of view. I’ll try not to do that again.


So what’s different this year?

Well, I’m a year older, and moving into a new age group category in a few races. Not this one though. Preparation has been mixed. Training has gone well, and I’ve been trying to address some weak points I identified last year. Breaking my arm in a cycling incident in November didn’t really help, but hasn’t been too much of a hinderance (more time spent on a turbo trainer than I had planned as a result, but it is still useful).

From an overall race perspective there are few notable differences this year. The first is that the race is now entirely unsupported, with no-body allowed their own support crew. I’m all in favour of that, as there was a danger of a support crew arms race breaking out, which would have made the race a very expensive proposition indeed.

The big change from my point of view though is that there has been yet another increase in the standard of competitiveness at the top end of the field. There are quite a few athletes entered with the potential to compete to win.

We have the usual collection of previous winners… Eugene, Pavel, Myself and Tom Hollins (defending champion from last year). I’ve written about Pavel and Eugene in my previous previews. That all still stands, with the addition of another year’s experience. Tom won last year with a very interesting pacing tactic, coming through strongly late in the race to win. It will be interesting to see how he paces himself and times his sleeping strategy for the new unsupported format (He used his support van very effectively last year).


Meeting Pavel before the start

I can see two other very interesting runners of note entered. The first is Oliviero Bosatelli. He is an Italian runner with an incredible racing record. He is a previous winner of the Tor De Geants, and has the second fastest ever time for the event. That pretty much puts him in the superstar category for multi-day trail ultrarunners. The TDG is over 330km long, and has a cumulative climb of over 24,000 meters. On paper, that is tougher than the Spine. The only weakness I can see here is that I can’t see any results of his for races in Spine type climate conditions. If he can master the Spine’s unique challenges then he has the speed and endurance to win the race and annihilate my current (relatively ploddy) record.

The other notable newbie is Jim Mann. He also comes with a deserved stellar reputation. Probably his most widely known result is his win in the Dragons Back, a multi-day staged race down the length of Wales. He also completed the big 3 “rounds” in britain in a month last year in winter. So he is another runner with tremendous ultra-speed. His 3 winter rounds would seem to indicate that he should have no problems with the Spine’s challenges. The only crack in the armour I can see with Jim is that I can’t find any results for non-stop multi-day ultras.

There are a few other runners bubbling just below as well, but that’s 6 mentioned so far which is tons! So, all of this makes this year’s race very hard to call. And that’s before allowing for other potential disruptions such as injuries and weather disruptions. With all that talent lined up this year I honestly don’t expect to win the race. I definitely don’t expect to be in the lead arriving into the first few CPs (Aid stations / checkpoints). But I’ll be out there to compete and get the best result I can.

I also expect to see my course record fall this year. There are a few course alterations to avoid eroded section of the course which will have an overall affect of making the race a little faster. Even without this, I would expect that the comptition amongst the depth of the talent in the field would ensure it’s fall in any case. Whoever wins this year will have to race very well indeed.

Carol Morgan is back to defend her title in the Female category. Given how comprehensively she won last year and smashed the race record she looks like the red-hot favourite to win again.

The Other Race

I’ll be keeping an eye on the “fun run” this year… the challenger race (Possibly the hardest 100 mile race in the UK, but gets called the short race as it co-exists with the Spine). My big interest is seeing my friends Zoran Skrba and Richard Nunan competing. They’re both solid experienced runners, well used to running about in murky local conditions in the Wicklow mountains. I’ve no doubt I’ll get a few words of encouragement from them when they’re looking on from their finish line as I shuffle past.

Richard is my adventure racing team-mate. We’ve accumulates a good number of great results together, most recently as part of Team Columbia Ireland. Richard was also one of my core support crew for my Mizen to Malin run breaking the record for running the length of Ireland. Anyone who’s seen the video footage from that will know that Richard has a sense of humour that should get him through anything the challenger throws at him!


Gear Gear Gear

This year I’ll mostly be using gear and equipment that has been tried and tested in previous events. Thanks go out to my fantastic sponsors Columbia and the Great Outdoors, who make this endevour so much easier by equiping me with amazing gear. This race is so often first and so most a survival event, taking on horrific conditions. Having the right gear is particular critical in races like this.

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 2 Comments