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 | 10 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!


Posted in Adventure Racing, Mountain Running, Ultra Running | Leave a comment

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

The only way is Up

Saturday 29th April at 8a.m. is the scheduled start time for my HeadToHead adventure, attempting to break the record for running the length of Ireland (bottom to top) from Mizen Head to Malin Head. It’s going to require a lot to go right and very little to go wrong. Luck will definitely help. Thanks to everyone who has been wishing some of that precious commodity!

I think a lot of people would be surprised by how little detailed analysis I’ve putting into this. My main analysis was picking the most optimal route, which I remain happy with. The route is displayed on the live tracking page at Primal Tracking ( There are options there for choosing different base maps. OpenTopo maps look particularly interesting to my navigation-nerd eyes, with lots of contour detail.

Primal tracking have very helpfully put markers on the route at 100 kilometer intervals. My timings for hitting these should show up on the “leaderboard”, allowing a bit of spectator analysis of timings. The trackers have been setup to update every 90 seconds. Also notable on the tracking page is that my support crew also have a separate tracker. So there no excuses there for moving trackers around… my tracker will stay with me all the time.

I welcome everyone and anyone to come out and have a look, or even run along for a while. The tracking website should make it easy to find me. The main reason for encouraging this is for verification. The more people that see me running the route the better. The second reason is the simple one that it’s nice to meet people who are interested in this. Of course I can’t guarantee that I’ll be very talkative, but even if I’m going through a low it is always good to meet people. Inside I’ll be smiling!

As well as the tracker, my other main verification tool will be my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak watch. I’ve been “playing” with it for a few weeks since getting it from the Great Outdoors, getting confident with its features. It has a massive capacity to store tracking data, and can be set up with a potential 200 hours battery duration. I will set up to record GPS position at 1 minute intervals to ensure that battery life exceeds my likely interval between sleep stops. In fact it should manage the whole trip in one go. I will set its storage interval for other data at a 1 second interval.

Whenever the opportunity arises (More than likely sleep stops) I hope to get my support crew to upload the tracking data from the watch. This will be uploaded directly to Suunto’s Movescount site to a public profile which can be views here : This should also push the same data to a public profile on Strava which can be viewed here :

I have done very little planning on timings and locations along the route. I’m going to be trusting my experience and pacing to get things right. I only have a very broad outline of daily distance target. These are: 200km, 150km, 150km, remainder… not very complicated.  There are lots of factors that are likely to vary those figures in reality, such as how I deal with hills, and what the weather decides to do! Hills will be likely to be a factor at either end of the run, but particularly the first day.

Mizen to Malin Route Profile

Malin to Mizen Route Profile

Sleep strategy is similarly dynamic. The broad aim will be to get through all the way to the second night before sleeping. And from there take it as needed, with a provisional target of 2-3 hours per night, and power naps where necessary. The plan is to take these in the camper van which the support crew will be driving, minimising time off route to as close to zero as possible.

Food strategy will be similarly dynamic. Those that know me know that I usually don’t eat too much in events like this. I’ve managed to run 24 hour races eating virtually nothing, so I’ll be hoping to keep things simple and minimal. There’ll be no feeding schedule. No “power” bars or similar. Any big meals will probably be fast food! Richard assures me he knows where all the McDs are on the route 🙂 Real food will be a priority in theory. I imagine there will be more chocolate bars and jaffa cakes in practice

Liquids strategy will be similarly dynamic. No schedules… just drinking to thirst. Again, no “energy” drinks.  I usually go for fruit juices and smoothies, and flavoured milk. A bit less gunky and more “real”, but more importantly those are things I actually like drinking. There’ll probably be a few soft drinks as well.

The weather forecast at the moment is looking, ehhh, iffy! Very Irish in fact. I reckon I’ll get a mix of everything. This a definite risk factor. I should have the gear to deal with everything and anything though. This is where the likes of my much loved Columbia Outdry shell  jackets become very useful indeed! The one thing that is looking good weather wise is my choice of direction which works better with the predicted winds.

I’m looking forward to the journey. I will be revisiting some of my favourite parts of Ireland (West Cork) and hopefully seeing lots of places I haven’t visited before now, especially the “top” of the country up at Malin Head and the Inishowen Peninsula.


Malin Head… the end of the road.

Now I need to head off and do a bit of running!


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HeadToHead : Chasing Dreams and Ambitions

For a long long time I have been promising myself to try to run the length of Ireland (Mizen Head to Malin Head), and try to set a new record. I’ve always managed to find a reason why I should do it “next year”. Finally the time for procrastinating is over. I’m going to give it a shot this year. Specifically, the plan is to set off from Mizen Head on Saturday 29th April.


Mizen Head, Co Cork… The end of the world!

History and Inspiration

The current record is held by the marvelous Mimi Anderson, an ultra runner with huge experience and pedigree. Her record of 3 days, 15 hours, 36 minutes was set in 2012. That is superb record and will be a tough target to beat, leaving very little margin for long sleeps or navigation errors. The record for the traverse of Ireland is an unusual one, in that the last 3 holders of the record are all female (They all happen to British as well). I would guess there are very few running world records with such a tremendous record of female dominance.

The current male record is held by my good friend Richard Donovan. He has actually run the route twice, once in each direction. I’ve borrowed his tag for one of his runs, HeadToHead, as the name for my own record attempt. It’s a great name! Under normal circumstances I’d expect Richard to pop up and join me on route at some point. But these days Richard doesn’t bother with the trivialities of running across countries. Instead he will more than likely be setting off to run his third continental traverse, across South America, when I’m setting off in his old footsteps.

There have been a few other attempts on the record that I have followed over the years. Most recently a fellow Corkonian, Alex O’Shea attempted to break the record in 2015, but had to pull out when he started getting some significant injuries. Alex has since set some impressive times in 50km and 100km races, as well as going over 220km in his first 24 hour race.

Two of the people who inspired more than most to get into ultra were Graham and Jane Porter. I spent many hours after IMRA mountain running races being enthralled as they regaled their audience with tales of their ultra running exploits. One of those was running Malin to Mizen. Indeed Jane held the female record for many years. The seeds for this run were planted a long time ago!

How it works

It’s a runner’s choice whether to run from Mizen to Malin or vice versa. The record has been set in both directions over the years, so there is no apparent better choice. There seems to be a slight preference for Malin to Mizen (North to South). Maybe because it is “down” the map! I’ve chosen to run from Mizen to Malin (South to North). There are 2 reasons for this. The first is that the southern end of the route is hillier than the northern end, and my preference would be to hit the hills in a fresher state. The second is that in general the prevailing wind direction in Ireland is from the south west. Relying on predicable weather in Ireland is a fool’s game, but I might as well load the dice as well as I can to assist the attempt.


It would be nice to get weather like this!

The route is also completely open choice. A runner is free to take any road, or indeed go off road if desired. The route must be run contiguously with no gaps (although a runner can be transported back to previous point on the route). However the entire line must be run with no gaps. Sleep and food breaks are perfectly fine, but if they are taken off route then the runner must be returned to a point where they stopped (or before). There is no skipping or running equivalent off-line distances allowed.

The time starts from one headland (Mizen in my case) and does not stop until reaching the far end of Ireland at the opposing headland (Malin in my case). Nothing stops the watch… sleeping, eating, nature breaks, navigation errors, hospital visits, whatever…. it’s all on the clock. If any unexpected obstacles are encountered (road works, diversions, floods, earthquakes, whatever) that’s just tough luck. The clock doesn’t stop.

To say the least there is plenty of route choice. In the last few years many online route finding websites have been developed, which makes life a lot easier for the internet generation! The original record setters for Mizen/Malin would have had to work it all out the old fashioned way with maps and whatever local knowledge could be amassed or consulted. Being a competitive navigator I had my own ideas of where the optimal route go, but boy was I wrong. My guesses were more westerly than my final choice.

Google maps won the prize for best route finding. Having examined its first choice it seems almost optimal. There are about 2 kilometers where I might deviate slightly to avoid shorter sidetrack roads and just stay on the more prominent road. It has plotted an interesting route through the hills of west Cork. It is more undulating than routes previous runners have taken (that I can find), but is the shortest by about 5 or 10 kilometers. Given my ability to run hills, that would seem like an excellent trade off.

HeadtoHead Route

Mizen to Malin Route, as suggested by Google Maps

FKT Issues and Controversies

An endevour like this is classiffied as a Fastest Known Time, rather than a race. Over the years there have been many prominent issues with people claiming Fastest Known Times (FKTs), particularly where prominent records are involved. Ultra running FKT records have historically required a great degree of trust and honour. FKTs are not races. They don’t have referees, or other competitors keeping an eye on things.

Recently there have been very prominent claims for FKTs that have been discovered to have been cheating. These have included claims for running the length of Britain (Land’s End to John O’ Groats – LEJOG), running across America, and running the Appalachian trail. These have generated a huge amount of controversy and rancour (The cheaters rarely admit to their crimes, and often have a lot of unquestioning supporters)

Quite a lot of the cheating is often justified by pointing out that the endeavour is being used to raise money for charity, as if this somehow justifies the cheating behaviors (Both by the runners themselves and by their supporters). It’s the classic “Lance Armstrong” charity defense (Never mind the cheating… look at the money for raised for charity). Quite often some of the monies raised for these FKTs has gone to fund the athlete’s expenses in undertaking the attempt, rather than going directly to the charity.

My motivation for running this FKT attempt is purely as an athletic endeavour. To be frank, it’s all about achieving my own ambitions. I will not be raising any money for any charity. I will not be using the crutch of fundraising to justify any unethical behaviour. I won’t be soliciting any donations. I will fund the expenses for the attempt out of my own pocket (With help from my  long-time loyal sponsors, including Columbia and the Great Outdoors, providing me with some very useful clothing and equipment). It’s all about the record! If I fail, then so be it. No big deal. It’s not life and death.

Tracking and Verification

Given the amount of controversies around some FKT attempts it is important to have high standards of verification around the attempt. The obvious startpoint is this announcement of my attempt in advance, along with my start time and intended route. Anyone and everyone is more than welcome to come out and watch, or join me for a while. Of course support and encouragement will also be most welcome.

I hope to use two electronic means of verification. I will be carrying a live tracker provided by Primal tracking. This compact GPS tracking device uses mobile phone networks to relay position information from the tracker to Primal Tracking’s Website, giving a near real-time update of my position over the course of the event (Allowing for mobile network coverage). This should make it easy to find me and verify the attempt in real time. It will also generate an electronic trace of the tracker’s journey. The live tracking will be available at

I will also be wearing a Suunto Ambit 3 Peak GPS tracking watch, provided by the Great Outdoors. I worked with John Guy in the shop to work out which watch would offer the best combination of features for such a huge undertaking. We both came to the same conclusion that the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak’s massive battery life compared to all other tracking watches made it the obvious choice (With a one minute GPS tracking interval it has a potential 200 hours of battery life). My intention will be to publish the available tracking data (All data, including cadence) recorded from this device for the entire event, as quickly as possible. I’ve never worn a GPS tracking watch to this point, so I am currently wearing it in training for familiarisation.

Support Crew and Help

The single most important requirement to make this attempt is to have a good support crew. I’m very lucky that my good friend and Adventure Racing team-mate Richard Nunan volunteered his help early and enthusiastically. Richard has a strong background in elite level sports in both a competitive and administrative capacity. Being an adventure racer and a multi-day ultra runner himself, he knows what is involved in and undertaking like this. Being my team-mate, he is also familiar with my own foibles and behaviors which manifest themselves during exhausted sleep deprived racing conditions. Richard is in charge of all support and logistics.

Richard is going to be joined by another of my Adventure Racing Team-mates, Taryn McCoy. Taryn brings a similar level of experience to the support crew. It’s also a big advantage that Taryn and Richard are well used to working together. It’s as important that the support crew will be able to look after and take care of themselves, as well as occasionally throwing food and drinks in my direction. Hopefully Richard will also get the chance to post updates to my facebook page during the attempt.

If anyone would like to get in contact with Richard and myself about helping out with the attempt, or any other queries, we can be emailed at In the meantime, prepartaions continue!

(I know I have yet to finish my Spine race report…it’s in progress…nearly there. But I’ve been a little distracted!).

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The Spine Race 2017, Part 2 – Wall to Wall adventures

I was feeling relaxed and quite energetic heading out and away from CP1 at Hebden. After the initial technical climb and muck traverse I was able to get running at a nice trotting pace heading once I hit the road heading uphill back towards the Pennine way proper. I had a look out to my right as I went to see if there was any sign of the chasing pack, but couldn’t pick out any likely moving headtorches in the landscape (Visibility was excellent here… it was varying a lot through the night).

In the last 2 years I had managed to make at least one if not more navigation mistakes here re-establishing my route back on the Pennine way, so I took extra care this year and made sure to nail it! Getting onto the trail through the open ground traverse along Heptondstall Moor I got sight of a headtorch in the distance ahead… that must be Eugene. That’s the first time I’ve had a following sightline to one of the pair ahead since they made their push. Not long afterwards the weather reverted back to fog and mist again, and I found myself yet again only able to see one or two footsteps ahead.

From all the buzzing activity of CP1 I was now back out very much alone and isolated on the moors, fully responsible for looking after myself. Quite a contrast in a short space of time. I was very sure of my memory of this section, but even though was occasionally using the GPS to verify that I was correct. Better safe than sorry.

The next few maneuvers, off the moors, down into a river valley (dropping out of the mist again), then up onto a minor road, then a nice road running interval over to more reservoirs, seemed to flow much quicker than previous years. Looking down from the road across the valley at the route ahead beside the water of the reservoirs I could see a headtorch light. Eugene was checking the gap! It was probably about 6 minutes or so.

After crossing the initial damn and then turning to run along beside the reservoirs I could see the valley ahead, and knew the track climbed out to the right. I could see a headtorch looking back whilst climbing out… Pavel was also checking gaps! A few minutes later I could see Eugene’s headtorch heading up out of the valley. He had probably closed in a bit on Pavel.

By the time I was climbing out myself they were well over the brow of the hill, so I had lost the long sightlines and wasn’t able to see any trace of them ahead. Back to the running in isolation again, but at least I could see more than a few meters since the I was still below the mist.

A steep descent took me down to Ponden Reservoir. In previous years there would generally be a safety check here, but no sign of anyone this night. I wasn’t at all worried about that, just slightly missed having someone to say hello to at this point!

after some more steady running I hit the short road section before the steep climb out from the Ponden area. I caught sight of a headtorch above and ahead looking back… possibly slightly closer. There’s still virtually nothing in this, and I’m happy knocking out my own steady pace and holding the gap reasonably steady, even though I’m behind.

The next section is a long shallow climb up bare hill. It’s another classic moorland landscape, and it was no reals surprise to have the mist return as I climbed up, yet again ensuring that I had to keep concentration up to ensure accurate navigation. Yet again, the long shallow descent off this hill was had lots of slippy slabs mixed in with tufty bog, with visibility mostly down to a meter or two.

Once off the moors and dropping back out of the mist it was back to running through farmland before reaching the outskirts of the village of Cowling. This time the memory of a safety team from prior years didn’t disappoint, as I was greeted onto the road by offers of a hot drink and some mars bars. Both were accepted gratefully!  I noted to myself that I was much less thirsty than I had been at this point last year, which was good. Of course I checked on the gaps. It turned out to be a singular gap, as the the 2 ahead were back to running as a pair again. They were 5 or 10 minutes ahead.

After leaving the safety check and running through the farmlands ahead I caught sight of the headtorches ahead heading up the next climb. They were probably kilometer or two ahead. Still close. Still steady. Still racing! The next 2 or 3 kilometers covers lots of undulating farmland, with one or two short sections of less than obvious routing, which I mostly was able to navigate from memory.

A sharp descent lead into the village of Lothersdale. I recognise the name from discussions on the various Spine internet groups. I think there might be some Spine-friendly pub here serving food. But the only sign of any life I have ever seen in this village on any year is Pavel and Eugene. Same again this year. It must be well past closing time. Not that I was paying any attention to the real world time. Once I’m in race mode time becomes daylight, nighttime, and gaps ahead and behind.

The 3 of us had made a small mess of exiting this village last year, so I paid attention to making sure to hit the correct track out and up into the fields up and ahead. Once I was on more shallow ground I was able to mix in steady marching with slow running.

About 10 minutes later I found myself being “walled out” as I reached the top of a field only to be surrounded by wall boundaries blocking the route ahead without obvious crossing points. A GPS check revealed I was only slightly off course, but nevertheless on the wrong side of the wall to my right. After a few quick checks for easy alternatives I reckoned the quickest thing to do was to just scramble over the thing.

I headed into the corner and climbed up. Just as I was about to cross over the top I had small slip (everything was still very wet) and went crashing back to ground, landing on front side down. Nothing particularly unusual there. However I had my GPS hanging around my neck on a lanyard, and I landed on this. That bloody hurt! I checked the GPS, and it was unscathed, thankfully. It’s a useful tool for quick navigation confirmation checks (as well as being mandatory race gear). The second attempt was less dramatic and more successful, bringing me back on route.

More climbing through farmland took me up to another section of moorland at Elslack moor, where I was yet again enveloped in mist for the traverse across the small boggy peak and back down to a road section. I knew from memory that there was 5 or 10 minutes of easy road running here, before a slight left turn leads off the road for a long off road descending section on mixed ground, including lethally slippy wooden sections.

My route memory proved to be be extremely accurate. The descent pops out into farmland and then backroads into the village of Thornton, where there was of course no sign of life. After a road section out of here the route goes over undulating farmland which is very boggy and draggy. I always hate this section. It always turns out less runnable than it looks. A short steep climb then pops out onto a dead flat section running alongside a canal.

After leaving the canal there is another long undulating section through low farmland which leads towards Gargrave village. This is another section which always seems to go slower than it looks like it should on paper. Last year there had been a safety check on the outskirts of Gargrave, but there was no sign of anyone this year. I would happily have pounced on an offer of a hot drink here, but not to be.

Heading out of the village there was a lone race supporter in his car. I checked the gap with him, and he reckoned it was about 30 minutes…what!! how did that happen. I didn’t think I was ran all that slow over the last while. Even allowing for variability in people’s estimations that was a big change. However I was starting to feel pretty tired at this point. I asked if he had any coke or fanta (you don’t ask, you don’t get!). He hadn’t, but he offered some water, which I was grateful for. Better than grabbing it from a stream in farmland.

I ate some of my homemade energy balls and eventually converted my trudge along the road back into a run, though not a particularly fast run. I was definitely feeling more tired than I expected to at this point. I was breathing much more heavily than I thought I should be considering the relatively slow speed I was making. It was a bit unexpedly early in the race to be feeling like this.

Soon the track headed off road again. Back into the slidey stuff! Soon I caught site of someone’s headtorch making their way a few hundred meters ahead on the trail. Surely this couldn’t be one of the pair ahead? About 10 minutes later I caught up and discovered it was someone from race safety out making their way along the trail. I tried not get distracted , so pushed on, trying to make a good pace on the downhill open ground ahead.

The end of this descent reaches a river, which the Pennine way follows upstream 6or 7 kilometers up to Mahlam. This entire section, being reasonably flat, was definitely one where I had to try to keep my pace up, and not let my fatigue be an excuse to slow down too much. Definitely hard work, requiring concentration. At least navigation was mostly straightforward, though I did manage to loose the path for a few minutes at one point and had to double track to hit a bridge crossing a small stream.

The relatively straightforward running finished approaching the little hamlet of Hanlith, where the ground was so mucky and cut up by vehicle tracks that it was too energy sapping to attempt to run. There was relief of sorts after a few minutes of this, hitting the road through the hamlet, but that was tempered by having to follow the road right and steeply uphill for a few minutes. I ran very little of this. On the plus side, most of this climbing section was efficiently done on road. Back onto off road tracks leaving the hamlet the ground levelled off, with views of the river valley below.

A few minutes later, and starting the descent back towards the river again, I caught site of a pair of people about a kilometer or so ahead heading up the Pennine Way. Again, surely this couldn’t be Pavel and Eugene ahead. They looked to be hardly making any forward progress. I carried on at my own pace. About 5 minutes later I was back down on the tracks beside the river, heading onto more solid ground leading into Mahlam village.

I said hello to the two walkers as I passed. They looked like racers alright, but weren’t Pavel and Eugene  (unfortunately…but that would have been too easy), so I reckoned that they must be Challenger competitors. In Mahlam village I came across a support car waiting, which turned out to be an Irish crew. Wayhey! They asked if I had seen their runners, so I let them know they were nearly here (I hadn’t realised they were fellow paddies when I passed them a few minutes ago… I would have been a bit more raucous had I known). I took up their offer of some goodies, grabbing a bit of Coke and some jellies.

Of course I asked how far in front the other 2 were. They reckoned that they were about 15 minutes ahead.  I was surprised at that, it would mean I had made up some ground on a section where I didn’t think I had been moving particularly quickly at all. I thanked the lads, wished them luck, and headed on.

The road out of Malam start to climb after a few hundred meters, then goes off road with a steeper short climb. The spectacular Mahlam Cove was ahead. I could make out the headtorches of Pavel and Eugene on the top heading away. I definitely had made up some ground. But it was far from an easy straight line run between them and me.

It’s a nice run down into the base of Mahlam Cove. This is followed by a brutal long steep stone stepped climb out left and over the top of the cliffs. I put my head down and tried my best to march up this section at as good a speed as I could muster. I was definitely getting at least a mental boost from my recent Coke fuelling.

I love the section beyond Mahlam Cove through Ing Scarr, a wonderful naturally cut valley which cerves between surrounding rock walls. I couldn’t see any sign of the the pair ahead after coming over the top of Mahlam Cove, so I wasn’t that close to them. I tried to enjoy this section as much as possible, before it climbed up towards Mahlam Tarn (lake).

The Irish support crew were parked at the road crossing before the lake. Their latest update wasn’t such good news though… they reckoned the 2 lads were about 35 minutes ahead. I didn’t think I had been that slow since last seeing them. Hopefully their estimate was long, but they seemed pretty certain.

I was approaching CP 1.5 at Mahlam Tarn. It’s fairly flat from here in. One last push required before a brief interlude to come. Thankfully this section seemed to go reasonably quickly in my mind. I was keeping an eye for headtorches ahead. I could see moving lights near where I expected the CP to be located, but the pattern didn’t look quite right. Sure enough, it turned out to be camera lights.

I arrived into the bright lights of the room in Mahlam Tarn House which is where the safety check[point of CP 1.5 is located, and was greeted by 5 or 6 race staff. This isn’t a full CP, but hot drinks were offered, and I happily accepted a coffee. One of the marshalls was keeping track of arrival times, so he let me know I was about 20 minutes behind the other pair, who were still together. They had spent about 8 minutes here. That was now set as my maximum time to top here. Since I had no major maintenance requirements (Just consuming a hot drink for energy and taking a short sit-down), I was able to get out in about 7 minutes.

I ran out with both still and video camera operators for company for a hundred or two meters up the road, and then I was back into the darkness. My headtorch now flashed and cut-out, indicating that batteries were low. However there was a trace of the coming daybreak in the sky, so I turned it back on again and hoped I might make it all the way on the current battery until there was enough usable light in the dawn.

About 10 or 15 minutes out from CP 1.5 the track dips down into a river valley before heading back up to a road on the other side, and then heading uphill towards Fountains Fell. The light was increasing, but headtorches were still required. There was a long sightline before this dip, and I could see the headtorches of the other pair climbing about a kilometer ahead or so ahead. The gap was still negligible. For this stage of the race. Seeing them ahead was good positive motivation though, especially since I had been very much running my own pace.

The climb up to the Fountains Fell plateau is deceptively long, with lots of false tops along the way. But I knew this, so was mentally prepared for the long climb. There was now enough light to dispense with my headtorch. A lot of the upper sections of the climb had hardcore gravel sections laid down. Unlike last year, there was no snow covering the tracks, so I was able to make quicker progress as a result. It was still a long climb!

Crossing the the plateau of Fountains Fell gives a chance to look across the valley and see Pen-y-ghent looming in the distance. The weather is still pretty poor though, so I can’t see the full peak. Not good for any photographers hanging around over there… pity.

The descent is quite rocky and technical to begin with. In fact in the wet conditions it was technical all the way down to the road. The upper sections are primarily rocky and steep, requiring careful concentration to ensure good foot placement. Avoiding the stumpy rocks requires risking slippy grassy/muddy ground. Potentially faster, but with a higher chance of going for an unscheduled slide! I was still running well, and made good speed here.

I could see someone in the distance on the track near the road. After a a few glances I figured out they were heading in the same direction, so more likely to be a racer than enthusiastic early morning media crew.

A little right turn at the bottom of the steep section leaves a shallower very grassy trail towards the road. Having made it down the most technical section without a hitch I managed to go for slide on the wet grass about halfway along this section, but it was a fairly harmless splashdown onto wet grassy ground, and I was quickly up and running again, slightly more cautiously.

As I hit the road I had nearly caught up with the runner I had seen ahead, who I could now see was a challenger runner. I set off along the road, aiming to hit a steady cruise pace, and soon overtook him to mutual cheery morning greetings. The kilometer or two along the road here went smoothly, and I distracted myself by looking up at the ridgeline approach to Pen-y-ghent which I would soon find myself on, seeing if I could see any trace of the pair ahead.

A right turn took me back off road again onto the big double-track gravel road which was the easy start to the long climb up towards Pen-y-ghent. I reckoned I might be able to see the Pavel and Eugene a kilometer or two ahead up the trail, but I wasn’t entirely sure.

I decided I’d grab a quick snack here, as I was on easy ground just before the beginning of the more strenuous climbing ahead. I slowed from running to walking to get the eating out of the way as fast as possible, slightly wasting the easy ground. However, after putting the wrapping way I found that rather than being energised I was now hit by a huge feeling of general fatigue. I couldn’t really get going properly running again, and could only manage to march up the little bit of shallow climb before it started to get steep.

This was very weird, and very worrying. No way should I be feeling this feeble at this point in the race, only about 24 hours in. It just didn’t make sense. I started wondering what the hell was going wrong. I thought about the days and weeks leading up to the race, thinking of anything I could have really messed up to cause this, but there wasn’t. My approach this year was almost exactly the same as last year.

Now motivation was rapidly disappearing. I did manage to get a run going when the ground flattened out again, with some boardwalk sections to take away any excuse for going slowly. But the steeper section leading onto the ridgeline soon brought the general malaise back. I couldn’t see the 2 ahead, so I wasn’t able to latch onto them to give me something to chase. The thoughts of chasing anyone were starting to disappear now anyway. I was starting to think that making it over Pen-y-ghent in any sort of reasonable time was going to be a big enough challenge in itself.

Approaching the foot of the steep technical climb of Pen-y-ghent itself some of the media team were waiting, including Ellie from Summit Media, and Damian Hall. They naturally enough asked how I was doing, so I let them know I was feeling absolutely drained, and reckoned I’d be fairly awfully slow heading the climb. Damian followed for a while, taking some shots, which was nice company to have and was a welcome distraction.


Climbing the steep section of Pen-Y-Ghent

The climb did indeed seem to take an age. Even after the very steep section there was another 5 or 10 minutes of slow running across the top of the ridge to get to the final peak…. and that bit was nearly worse! But at least I had managed to get through the climb.

Heading off the peak I knew there was a few kilometers of extremely runnable downhill running next. But now I was having to work hard to run any kind of reasonable pace, even with the slope heading in the right direction. About 10 or 15 minutes into the descent I could see two runners ahead, but soon figured out it wasn’t Pavel and Eugene. The bigger rucksacks, if nothing else, were a definite give-away that it was challenger competitors. Greetings were exchanged as I eventually passed them in sequence.

I knew the descent finished at the village of Horton, so I mentally focused on just making it to there. There was a safety check there last year, and also a cafe which welcomes spine racers. As it was now daytime, the cafe was likely to be open. I thought things through approaching the village, and decided that I would take what for me was quite a radical decision. I was going to stop at the cafe and see if I could re-energise myself. Normally I would expect to run straight through here in race mode. But now I was closer to survival mode.

I bought a small bottle of coke and some fruit cake in the cafe. I still had enough race-presence to go outside to consume them, so as not to get too warm on comfortable inside (which would make it even harder to restart). However I did sit down at a picnic bench, which definitely made getting out just a little bit of a bigger effort.


Eating fruitcake outside the Cafe in Horton, wondering what has gone so wrong.

The was a safety marshal here as well, and he offered me a hot drink. I gratefully accepted a coffee. Everything was worth a try. I spent a good ten minutes here, which was real “dead time” in racing terms… an easy gain for the pair ahead. But I was focused on the long term now, and the focus now was simply making it to CP2, and work out how to recover there.

The restart was a huge effort, and it took a big effort to get any kind of run going along the road through the village. Soon it was back onto undulating double-track trail again. The weather was definitely a lot better now. In fact this was by far the best conditions I had encountered on this section. I wasn’t able to run any of the uphill sections, but did manage to keep some kind of trot going on the flatter sections.

Mentally I was breaking down the journey to CP2 into small sections to be tackled and focused on one at a time. My memory of the route was excellent and I had no need to consult the map or GPS. I knew pretty much every step of what lay ahead to CP2. Even though I was still exhausted, and hyperventilating when I tried to push any kind of effort, I was still managing to do some form of running along the majority of the trail. I was also starting to encounter one or two more Challenger competitors. No sign of the pair ahead though. No doubt they had opened a good gap now after my stop.


Pavel and Eugene (2 & 3)  stretching out their lead on me (1), with lots of challengers around

The long run up cam high road is gentle enough that under good conditions it can be mostly runnable. Conditions were good, but I wasn’t, so it felt more like a death march! Towards the top I came across Chris and Mark. I looked behind me to see that they had some super scenery in the background. Pity about the wreck in the foreground!

Not long afterwards I met Matt Neale, a competitor I knew from the last two Spine races who was sitting out this year’s race, along with his extremely lively dog having a ball running about the place. I chatted with Matt for a while until we reached his van. He offered me a coffee here. Normally I would have declined and ran on this close to CP2, but given my energy depleted state CP2 still seemed a long way away, so I was glad to fire in some more caffeine.

After a minute or two I pushed on, and forced myself to run again, off along West Cam Road. This trail can have spectacular views as it traverse high above a steep sided glacial valley. I was expecting this to be a long death march again, but surprisingly conditions were again the best I had encountered here. Most of it was runnable as a result and I made surprisingly good progress along here, overtaking a few more challenger competitors as I went. It seemed like it took an age to run this section, but I knew that I would soon be descending towards CP2.

Eventually I made to the descent. Again, the conditions were the best I had encountered here, and my memory of the route ensured the navigation was relatively straightforward. The views really opened up on the way down, and I distracted myself looking at the town of Hawes (where CP2 was located) ahead, and working out the route out and on up the climb of Great shunner Fell (Hidden in cloud) ahead. I was ensuring that mentally I was thinking of the route out, and not just collapsing into CP2.

The route to the CP at the Hostel in the Hawes seemed to take a huge loop around through the village. It took me up the main street, and past the hall where the Challenger runners finish. There was a good crowd gathered hear cheering and giving great encouragement. That was badly needed, as I knew I was nearly at CP2 and was ready to crash. Quite a few people came out from the CP to check what I needed as I approached the final short but steep climb up to the entrance.


Death march into CP2


Finally I got there. My original pre-race plan was to try to spend a minimal amount of time here, and head out without sleeping. But I knew I needed to have a big stop here. I needed to grab some sleep to see if that could re-energise me. I simply was in a totally non-competitive state at this time and needed to fix that, whatever it took.


Food, yeah!

I collapsed into the chair in the entrance porch. Everyone here was great, and helped me enormously. I was brought food and drink. The staff here even volunteered me their own supply of Fanta which I had a craving for. I was totally wrecked though. I let them know how I felt and that I would be stopping to sleep here.


Wrecked, but finally able to try to recover in CP2 (With lovely orange to drink)

With some help from the kind marshalls I got rid of my outer layers, and headed up to a nice quiet room in the hostel, having decided to take  two and half hours of sleep (I couldn’t decide whether two would be enough or if I needed three!). This was a real make or break point in the race, and a big roll of the dice. It’s a lot of time to sacrifice to try to get competitive again. I guessed that I was probably being hunted down by the 4th place runner too.



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