A half moon lit up clear cold starry skies this evening, and I ran on up the incline to the high point of Glencullen valley road. Feeling good on this unusually benign night, but common sense says turn around and reverse direction back home now. Yeah, I probably should really. But just how did I even get this far out so comfortably. This time last week I was still in the midst of the Spine Race, making my way through the Cheviot hills towards the finish line. And here I am, comfortably knocking out a 2 hour plus training run, apparently feeling in better shape than almost any time in the last year. And this the after an hour and a half of big-ring power cycling through the hills last night. How did I manage to do this?!
The Spine Race has to be one of the hardest most gnarly running races in the world. The scale and distance of the race, running for over 400km non-stop along the full length of the Pennine way (The eponymous spine of England), are stark enough. But when you add in the fact that it takes place in January it truly becomes Britain’s most brutal race. Extreme conditions are pretty much guaranteed. The cold wet environment of deepest winter in the Atlantic maritime climate is about a tough a set of conditions to endure as you are likely to meet, even with the best available gear.
The 2015 edition of the race was my introduction to the Spine. Pavel Paloncy, the defending champion had a reputation of being the invincible giant of the race. But I had every intention of trying to win the thing, and had a plan to beat Pavel. The race was hugely disrupted by the hurricane force winds which swept across the course on several days, causing the race to be halted and restarted on several occasions for safety reasons. This had a hugely disruptive effect on the race, and the racing aspect of the race. Nobody was sure of what the the net time difference between runners was, and it only became clear after the top runners had crossed the finish line.
The weather enforced stops had also undermined my plan of how to beat Pavel. Even so, I gave it a good shot, with the official finishing times showing me within an hour of Pavel’s winning time (My personal calculations have me just 15 minutes shy of his finishing time). Close, very close, but not quite good enough. Pavel is an excellent all-round adventurer and athlete, with great mountain craft and navigations skills. I discovered here that he also has a top athlete’s ability to absolutely bury himself to try to win a race, to give true 100% commitment to the cause.
As usual with any race, and in particular with a highly technical multi-day ultra like this race, I had learned a ton simply by participating in the race. I reckoned I had left hours behind me through various mistakes that would be corrected the following year. Scott and Phil, the race directors, had generously offered me a consolation prize of a free entry for the following year, given the effect of the weather on the race and how close it had turned out. So that made it a no-brainer… I’d be back.
Once I had finished the Tor De Geants in September my focus switched to preparing for the Spine. This started with a good rest and recovery, followed by steadily ramping up my training to full intensity. I had also decided that I wasn’t mixing in enough cycling, so made sure to try to incorporate at least one, and preferably two days of training per week to be cycling. I also enjoyed myself taking part in cyclocross racing season, doing pretty well in the lowly environs of the B class vets. It was excellent racing practice though.
Training peaked with a weeklong holiday in Tenerife over the christmas period, where I got in my longest training run of the year with a 7 hour trip up and down to the Caldera of Teide at 2,400 metres (starting from sea level). Some of the trails in Tenerife were massively technical as well, so my mind was tuning up nicely for technical terrain. 2 big cycling days mixed-in also added to the preparation.
Arriving back from that it was an immediate taper down, getting used to being back in our winter maritime climate again and getting all the last bits of preparation done. TJ in Columbia was sourcing some new gear for the race for me. This included two pairs of outsized Conspiracy waterproof trails shoes. It also included two crucial new pieces of gear which I really wanted so as to give me a big step up in capability. These were a top-end Outdry Extreme waterproof shell jacket (which wasn’t available for sale yet), and a lightweight down jacket that incorporated an Outdry Extreme outer layer, effectively making it a waterproof down jacket. That’s quite a revolutionary concept in outdoor gear, and one which I had come to realise would be ideal for the Spine Race, while I trained in the cold wet Dublin hills through winter. I really do feel very lucky to have Columbia as a gear sponsor. Their innovations in outdoor gear technology have been amazing.
I had also been working with the lads in the Great Outdoors with some last minute additions to fill out the gear list. As usual, the wealth of knowledge in the shop is super, and I was able to bounce ideas around and get good advice on the finer details of which pieces of kit would be likely to work best in the environment of the Spine Race. The key pieces of equipment I picked up from the Great Outdoors team were a Garmin GPSMap64s and a pair of Leki trekking poles.
I had my race pack configured in race configuration a few days ahead of the race and ran my last few training runs with it as specific training to be sure to be used to running with exactly the configuration I would race with. I also played around with the Garmin GPS to ensure I knew it inside out and wouldn’t have to think too hard to use it during the race. I also configured all the relevant settings to be optimised specifically for the Spine. I made sure to use it on one of my training runs simply to satisfy myself that it was working as well as I would expect (which it was, of course!).
Everything about the journey from home to Edale for the start of the Spine seemed to go better than last year. For a start I got to spend more time with Helen, my wife, as I was able to get a lift from her to the aircoash busstop. On the aircoach there was a classic Irish scene of 3 (the driver, myself an another passenger) strangers who only just met having a great conversation about the joys of being active in the hills. The flight went smoothly, arriving 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which in turn allowed me to get an earlier train to central Manchester. That in turn allowed me to catch the last train to Edale before the 2 hour “hole” in the timetable, and thus arrive there 2 hours ahead of last year’s arrival time, despite starting the whole journey at the same time.
Similarly to last year, people were turning up for the Edale train dressed head to toe in various types of outdoor gear and thus picking out their fellow Spiners and starting up conversations. It leads to a nice atmosphere and enjoyable journey.
The registration process was much slicker this year, with only a random selection of runners needing to undergo a full gear check. Most of us had to produce 3 randomly selected items from the mandatory gear list. The race briefing was also shorter. The main item of note from this was that the diversion away from Hadrian’s Wall was no longer effective, and we were now to use the orignal official route along the Peninne Way. That negated the last bit of preparation I had done the previous night in cutting up and laminating the diversion route.
Again, I was earlier than last year getting up to the YHA hostel, getting in that evening’s pre-race dinner (another social occasion with my fellow Spiners staying at the hostel), and most importantly of all getting in a good night’s sleep.
Race morning was a big improvement on last year. No hurricanes, no driving rain! I had a small breakfast at a leisurely pace, and then jumped into the first shuttle mini-bus to the village hall for the race start. The hall wasn’t long filling to the brim with noisy Spiners avidly chatting away. I found a seat to wait until race start. I was delighted to meet with and chat to some of the locals who I had met at the same place and time last year, and we again had a good chat about the. It’s great to hear the interest that the schoolchildren in Edale take in the race.
Finally without about 10 minutes to go we all made our way out and walked down to the actual start line. One or two small showers had passed in the previous hour, so my last pre-race gear decision was to put on my waterproof leggings before the start. I went and stood right at the startline, with most people choosing to start well back. Only Richard Lendon wanted to be sure to get to the front so that he could lead off the race himself, as tradition dictated.
We got our countdown from 10, and then off we went. After Richard’s lead-out the expected gang of 3 came to the 4, along with one or two others. I had check the list of entrants to see if there was any potential winners there and couldn’t see any obvious contenders. Neither Pavel, the winner for the last 2 years, or Eugene Rose Sole who had won 3 years ago, were on the list, but I had guessed a long time back that they would turn up. Given this, I was expecting this race to become a 3-way battle for the win.
The first learning from last year and improvement for this year came a minute in when we didn’t dive into the race briefing venue, but continued on up the road to the Peninne Way start itself. The early pace was good. Nice and steady without being too fast or taxing. Pavel went flying by on the first small descent, and proceeded to slip and continue on down the descent for a few seconds on his back. All was well, it was a classic wet weather slip with no harm done in the splashdown onto the waterlogged grass.
I was happy to lead out to the start of the first major climb up the Jacobs Ladder route. As it steepened to rocky steps I used my poles to fast-march up the hills. Eugene was full of beans and overtook to move uphill fractionally faster without the aid of poles. Similarly to last year I noted how Eugene seemed to have by far the smallest pack in the race. What gear does he have in there? He must have some seriously lightweight kit. As well as the expected 3-some, we also had Richard Lendon with us and racer number 27.
As ever, I was gaining huge advantages from having done the route before. I have a great memory for both locations and maps. As a result I knew exactly where I was going this year without having to cross-check the maps or GPS. Beware hubris! after the steady climb, a lot of taken at running pace, we reached the plateau of Kinder Scout. And of course I ran slightly off-line, not holding the left edge as I should. I spotted Richard Lendon running along to my left on the correct line and quicly barrelled accross the open ground to arive on the correct track just in front of him. As well as being a very capable ultra runner Richard also happens to be a vetern of every edition of the Spine race so has an excellent knowledge of the route.
I had a good conversation with Richard as we made our way across the plateau. We were still pretty much a solid group of 5 runners. The pace was still strong and steady. I knew it was probably faster than last year’s pace, but it seem less “hot” to me, which was a good sign of where my own fitness was at.
On the steepest most technical section of the short descent from Kinder Scout Pavel came flying past. He is an excellent descender. I had no intention of taking any risks at all at this stage of the race, so was happy to plod down and let him fly away. Once we were back on flatter gorund the group quickly tightened up naturally again, and we ran as a tight pack on towards Snake Pass. This was mostly slabbed-tracks over open moorland, under the landing flightpath for Manchester airport (As ever, my inner aviation nerd can be a happy distraction in the middle of ultra near flightpaths!).
In a near repeat of last year’s unhappy incidents with Eugene, he managed to misplace his footing at one pointing running accross the slaps and put one of his feet into a hole, causing him to crash noisly to ground. The others checked that he was OK (I was in front), which he was this time, and on we went. We arrived at the saftey check at snake-pass only slight out of order (we had race numbers 1,2,3,4 and odd-man-out number 27), crossed the road and ran on keeping up the steady pace.
I was still happy to lead out and path find, which I was doing mostly from memory. Occasionally I’d slow and check with the others on the direction (mainly trusting Pavel and Richard to give an accurate answer). I got chatting with number 27 at this stage, who turned out to be Mark Denby. He clearly had good speed anyway to be keeping up with the lead pack. Pavel again showed his speed on the steep downhills, with Eugene following close behind… a pattern that was becoming well established. We had all fromed up into a group again going accross the Dam at Torside Reservoir. Small gaps opened up along the next few sections occasionally, but nothing of significance.
The combination of a non-delayed start and moving a a faster pace resulted in us having more daylight to play with further into the course this year. We crossed the A635 at Wessenden head with anoth quick sfety check. I ran straight through, but the others must have stopped for something, as I opened up a full sightline gap heading out form there down to the Wessenden Reservoir. I was happy to keep my own steady pace and let the gap open or close entirely dependant on how much work the chasers were willing to put in. As it happens I made their life much easier by having to stop an do a Nav check at a track junction so that they closed right up again.
One of the Mountain rescue teams had set up a mini-aid station at the next road crossing at Standedge. I took the opportunity to stop for a minute a refill myself with two full cups of dilute blackcurrent. Nice and tasty after a day’s running. We still had daylight running out of there. The pattern stayed similar as we ran on as a group across the high open Moors, crossing the occasional road. After the M62 crossing, and the small steady climb up Blackstone Edge I faced reality and got out and used my head torch. The next section is a little more technical in parts, and I was happy to settle in behind a fast moving group of Challenger racers for a few minutes.
It turned out one of those was Damon Rodwell, taking part in the Mountain Rescue team race, who had shown me enormous hospitality last year puttin me up in his house after the end of the race. We greeted each other, and Damon reminded me that the hospitality again awaited, but only for the race winner! I responded that that was probably the number 1 motivation to win the race, and that I had every intention of being the one taking him up on his offer!
The lead group arrived together at the White House pub, where there was another safety team, and another opportunity to restock on water. The weather was a little worse at this stage, with persistant rain. That combined with nightime meant we had to be careful to stay comfortable. My Outdry Jacket was working a treat, and I was feeling like I was in my own little bubble.
We didn’t depart together… Pavel was away first, with Eugene rapidly off after him. I made a few adjustments to my gear (I needed to fix a strap on my gaitors) before setting off myself. The next section is a very flat run winding through a system of reservoirs. It took me a lot less time than I expected to catch up with the other two. We were now down to the expected three-some. We worked together to navigate our way along this section. I was operating mainly from memory, Pavel from the maps, and Eugene from his GPS. We still manged to make enough minor off-track deviation that Richard Lendon was able to rejoin the group by the time we got to unmissable stone spire of Stoodly Pike.
I spent most of the rest of the journey to CP1 in the company of Richard, with the other 2 either with us or just behind. Running down the out-and-back track appoaching the CP Richard said “I know it my inner child, but..”. I knew what was coming and let him in front to lead us into the CP. He was planning to take a relatively long stop there so would loose contact with the group here.
CPs are a nice disruptive influence on any cosy group running! I fully expected some moves to be made here. I was going to do things very differently here compared to last year myself. I was happy to let Pavel away last year to go out and build a lead. I was expecting it to happen, and it did. I picked up from the other runners there that they also expected Pavel to be fastest through the CP as a matter of course. So I presumed Pavel would try to do the same again this year.
Howevever all I had to do here was swap maps so that I was going to be carrying stage 2 maps only, and ditch the stage one maps. So I just dragged my bag into the outer porch where the other 3 were taking off their shoes so that they could go into the dining area and get some food and liquids. I didn’t need food, so I didn’t take off my shoes. I asked one of the marshalls if they could fill my “active” water bottle for me, which they did. Another marshall offered to get me a hot drink, and with the racket of the heavy rain hitting the glass roof of the porch I happily accepted a mug of coffee (The caffine would likely be a good help too). So as the other returned to the porch to get their gear on I was walking out the door and away! This time I would see if I could make this one stick for a bit. The front pack was split. Time for the real racing to start! Wooohooo