Time to return to more regular blogging!
2014 was a bit of a mixed bag of a year. I had 3 or 4 absolutely great races, and managed to get some great results from a few of them, but I also picked up one or two injuries along the way which hampered my ability to compete in a few races. In fact I probably races less races last year than I have in more than a decade as a result. Hopefully I’ll get some time to do a review of 2014 soon.
2015 has begun, and as seems to be normal at this stage in my life, I’m in the process of preparing for an imminent race as we tick over into the new year.
For the last 4 or 5 years I’ve started the year with the Art O’Neill race. It’s a brilliant event, steeped in history, one that I’ve loved every time I’ve taken part. In a lot of ways it’s an ideal race for me, requiring a combination of ultrarunning speed, potentially tricky navigation, mountain competence, and the ability to take any weather which a January night in Ireland can throw at you. It suits me so well that I’ve won every staging of the race. But this year I’m going to have to miss it. That’s a killer, but hopefully the challenge I’m taking on will be worth it.
On Saturday at 9:30am I’m going to be joining about 100 racers lining up to start The Spine Race. It’s billed as “Britain’s most brutal race” (Not using the Irish interpretation of the word “Brutal”!), and for once that might not be any kind of exaggeration at all. Covering the full length of the Pennine way in a non-stop trail running race, its big. At 420km it’ll surpass the Tor De Geants as the longest trail running race I’ve taken part in.
Running a trail race that long would be a tough challenge in optimal conditions, but this one ramps the difficulty levels through the roof by having it in January. We’re pretty much guaranteed adverse conditions. It’s likely to be either cold and wet, or very cold and icy. There’ll be a lot more darkness than light at this time of the year as well.
There are only 5 official aid stations over the course of the route, which is very sparse indeed compared to most trail ultras. To top it all there is basically no additional route marking provided by the organisers, so the course has to be self navigated (but a GPS device is mandatory). From what I’ve read the Peninne Way is as clearly marked as alpine trails (or even my local long distance trails in Dublin (below) and Wicklow).
So this race effectively combines pretty every tricky factor I’ve faced from a range of races into one giant challenge. How could I resist!
The preparations for this race are probably the most challenging I’ve had for a running race, and are more akin to an expedition adventure race. The mandatory gear list is huge. On top of the mandatory gear, of course, a huge amount of other items are required. Given the extreme conditions historically encountered on this race there is no room for skimping. Any and every piece of equipment could be vital to finishing the race. Luckily I’ve been getting great support from my sponsors in getting all this gear together. So a huge Thanks to both Columbia and The Great Outdoors for all the help, and going the extra mile in helping me source the best gear I could. I’ll be doing a big gear review after the race, as this will be one of the ultimate tests.
At this point the weather forecast is looking a bit ominous. Very strong winds are being forecast for the next few days. From what I can tell using maps and race reports the route is very exposed indeed. So high winds are probably one of the worst conditions to get. No doubt we’ll get some rain to go along with it as well! All of which is just re-enforcing in my mind that first and foremost this race is a battle to finish.
Even accounting for this, my aim in for this race will be to be competing at the front of the field. From scanning the start list roster my guess is that there are about 5 or 6 people who are strong candidates to win. Last year’s winner, Pavel Paloncy, is the first obvious candidate. The winner from 2013, Eugeni Rosello Sole, is also returning, so he is another obvious contender. They have the definite advantage of knowing the route and all the problems it will throw up, along with proven speed over the distance. Another contender with huge experience of the course is Joe Faulkner. He has been on the support crew of the race for the last few years. He is also an experienced adventure racer (similar to Pavel and myself), and teaches navigation. So he’ll know how to survive and navigate the course. One other interesting contender is Joao Colaco from Portugal. He came 13th in the 2014 Tor Des Geant in a time that was 2 hours faster than mine (two places ahead), so he’s definitely got lots of speed and relevant experience over multi-day ultra trail races.
Adventure racing experience is a definite advantage going into a race like this, and was no doubt a factor in Pavel’s win last year. It’s great experience at learning how to cope with adverse weather conditions over extended periods of time, along with being exhausted and sleep deprived. Being a good navigator will also help in a big help, especially since the majority of race time will be dark.
In training terms my preparation for this race has been up and down. I’ve been hit by one or two injuries over the last year, which is unusual for me. It’s had a big impact on my ability to train, race and recover in 2014. I’ve managed to get in a lot of back to back long runs over the weekends of the last few months though. Right now I’m feeling good, so hopefully I’ll be going into this race in reasonable shape. We’ll see soon enough!
One great thing about this race is that all the competitors will be issued with trackers, so that the entire race can be views live here on the internet (or as near to live as makes no difference over a course of this length). Unfortunately that means that any navigational mistakes will be obvious!
There’s a huge amount of strategy and race tactics to play out here. When to sleep, and how much to sleep is one particularly tricky choice here. The obvious thing to do will be to take advantage of the 5 main aid stations, but given how the relatively small amount of daylight in the race this will be a big call if I arrive at them during daylight hours (running whilst having to navigate is normally a lot quicker and easier in daylight than at night). Pacing, as ever will be key to getting through the race. Judging the right amount of food and water to carry will be another big call, with the large distances between resupply points making to consequences of misjudgments potentially more impactful than would normally be the case.
One final added difficulty of this race for me will be that this will be by far the longest amount of time that I will be spending without my wife Helen since we got married just over a year ago. No doubt I’ll be spending large amounts of the race time wondering what the hell I’m doing and wishing I was back with Helen in our warm cosy dry home!
Let the games begin!