The Spine Race 2016 – Gear Review

In General running is a sport where the gear you use makes very little real difference. It’s all about the runner. However the Spine race is a running race where gear really matters. It can not only have a big impact on performance, but also on your chances of even completing the course (or in extreme cases surviving it). Winter in the high hills in the UK is a dangerous environment. It’s not as obviously harsh as freezing snow-covered landscapes further north, or in the higher mountains of the continent, but the all-pervasive dampness of the maritime climate in many ways makes it more dangerous. It would be all too easy to get into a downward spiral of getting wet and cold until the onset of hypothermia or its symptoms causes a retirement from the race (or worse, a situation requiring rescue).

So for the Spine, quality of gear should be an overwhelming consideration. To race optimally the gear should of course be as light as possible, but that should always be a secondary consideration to performance for all critical gear.

I’m lucky enough to be sponsored by Columbia, who provide me with a selection of clothing from their range. I also sometimes get to test or try out their newer gear before it goes on general sale. The quality and level of innovation of their kit continues to amaze. I consider myself very lucky to be working with them. For the Spine I was also sponsored by The Great Outdoors shop in Dublin. With their wide range of stock (and knowledgeable staff) they filled in some significant gaps in my gear requirements. They’ve always been very supportive of Ireland’s Outdoor Adventurers through the years, giving back plenty to the Irish outdoor adventure community.

Every single piece of gear that I brought to the Spine with me was brought for a reason. On long training runs you have plenty of time to think about things, and I had done plenty of thinking about what was likely to work best in the specific challenges that the Spine brings. In the case of some pieces of gear on the mandatory gear list I would also have decided that they were non-critical (or even counter-productive) and endeavored to just bring the minimum required to pass the gear test.

So to get down to it… A review of the gear used:

spine - about to depart alston

About to depart Alston, with lovely clean new shoes!

Shell Layer Jackets

Possibly the most critical piece of equipment. Most Spine runners, including the leaders, wear their shell throughout the race from start to finish. For the Spine I brought along 3 shell layers (2 for the drop bag). Gore-tex style jackets they have a tendency to wear down, and they can easily “soak out” in long periods of wet weather, reducing their effectiveness. So as a habit I bring spares and expect to swap out if the weather is consistently bad. However I didn’t have a gore-tex style shell.

I had 3 Columbia Outdry Extreme jackets. This is Columbia’s new waterproofing material/technology. It is significantly different to the vast majority of waterproof membrane jackets on the market, as the waterproof layer is on the outside (and doesn’t require a DWR coating), not a delicate membrane sandwiched between other layers. In theory this means (1) it shouldn’t soak out and (2) it should be far more resilient.

I started the race wearing the highest-end of the range of the jackets. It has a wicking layer on the inside of the jacket. In general I can alternate between size small or medium. This one was a well fitting small. Being top of the line it also had lots of nice little features, such as a slanted cut on the sleeve ends which helps protect the top of your hands, but without interfering with grip/dexterity.

I have been test running Outdry Extreme jackets for a few months now, and after initial scepticism (mainly caused by the fact that it looks and feels unusual, and feels different to goretex type shells), have come to realise that this really is a significant step-change in waterproof shell technology. Its standout feature is the most fundamental and important one for a shell layer… it is the most truly waterproof jacket I’ve ever used. Even in the worst weather encountered in the Spine I didn’t feel or detect any signs of water getting through. Breathability is harder to judge, but so far it hasn’t been an issue. I’d say that at minimum it is no worse than a gore-tex jacket (and the fact that it doesn’t soak out means breathability shouldn’t rapidly degrade in bad weather). I’ve been wearing one on pretty much all my training runs this winter without getting overheated or overly sweaty.

The only downsides that this jacket has is that it is not the lightest, and I would guess it doesn’t fold down to be as compact as some other shells. For me, these are secondary factors to performance, in particular for a race like the Spine where your shell layer can make the difference between dealing well with the weather or being evacuated off the course. Being worn all the time, foldability was irrelevant.

The jacket I started with performed so well that there was no need to swap out, even after long sections of rain and snow. It didn’t soak-out or degrade in performance in any way at any time. It was noticeable that on entering aid stations other runners would generally take of their shells and try to dry them, I was able to keep mine on and didn’t need to try to dry it out (no soaking out).

So in summary, This jacket was a huge success. The best I’ve ever used without question. Performance that is genuinely revolutionary.

Shell Pants

Again, I had multiple pairs of these. 4 this time, varying along the range of the balance between weight and performance. In the end I put on a new pair of lightweight Sprayway leggings, and these stayed in use throughout the race. They performed fine. Not 100% waterproof, but adequate enough that I was never uncomfortable. They did a good job of keeping the wind off my legs. The weather never became so severe as to necessitate switching to heavier more rugged set. Yet again they did develop a few small tears over the course of the race, despite being brand new. It’s a standard problem with waterproof leggings. They are particularly prone to shredding in running races. Cycling tends to be even harsher for them.

I have a test pair of Columbia Outdry Extreme leggings that has taken every piece of abuse I have thrown at them, and continue to be 100% waterproof, which is unprecedented. That has included multiple uses commuting on my bike, which normally kills off a pair of waterproof pants in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately they tend to slip down when running, so I wasn’t able to use them for the Spine. Hopefully that minor issue will be sorted out for their next (production) iteration. Similarly to the Outdry Extreme jackets, whilst they are certainly not the lightest available, their performance is in a class of its own. I also had a heavy Salopette style version of these on my resupply bag in case the weather became extremely cold or wet. As I finished before the big snow hit the race I didn’t need to use these.

Base Layers (tops)

I started the race in one of my Columbia Omni-heat half-zip base layers. The zip allows a bit of regulation if feeling too hot/cold. As usual, it worked well. The omni-heat lining gives that extra bit of warmth very effectively. I can’t recall having to adjust the zip at any point either. I swapped out for a fresh top at CP3, and that was the only change over the course of the race. All in all an excellent “fire and forget” performance from this piece of clothing. They worked, and they worked well!

Mid-Layers

I started the race just wearing a base layer with my shell over it. At CP1 I added a mid-layer, as it was both raining and getting colder. This was a Columbia Outdry Extreme 400 loft down jacket (This is so new, I can’t find a link for it yet!). I had seen this in Columbia’s showroom and thought that it was a very interesting idea… a light down jacket which had had a fully waterproof outer layer. Essentially a combined shell/down layer. A few training runs of contemplation later I had come to realise that it would be an outstanding piece of kit for the Spine race. Normally a down jacket needs to be protected from getting wet, as their performance degrades to almost uselessness. But this would not only protect itself, but in combination with an outer shell would be absolutely bombproof in the worst weathers I was likely to encounter.

And so it proved! The first night of the race was probably the most difficult weather we had to deal with, with a combination of heavy rain, wind (of course) and dropping temperatures… dropping enough that the rain turned to snow. With the Outdry Extreme Down jacket my core was perfectly comfortable through all this. The combination of the shell hood and the hood of the down layer had me feeling like I was in a comfort “bubble” through all this. Overall this was not just excellent, but a revolutionary piece of kit. I would say it was a more effective safety item than anything on the mandatory kit list (It can be brought into use rapidly and easily, and it is preventative (prevents problems from occurring rather than trying to deal with the consequences afterwards).

The weather forecast at CP2 was for the temperature to drop further. As I result I swapped out the spare base layer I was carrying with me. Instead I carried the Outdry Extreme down jacket as my spare layer (My main personal safety item is a spare upper body layer), and wore a standard lightweight powerstretch fleece leaving the CP as my mid-layer. This was an old reliable one I’ve had for years. The thinking was that if the temperature did drop to the point where I started feeling cold I knew I had a first-rate item of clothing that I could put on rapidly in any conditions to warm up and stay warm (the Down jacket).

As it happens, the standard powerstretch fleece worked fine for the rest of the race. I only needed to use the down jacket when grabbing a sleep (swapping it for my standard outer shell).

Leggings

I started the race using a pair of wind-block Asics running leggings. These had worked well for me training in the hills in most weathers, often without an outer shell layer. However in the race these were not a success. They had a tendency to slip down a bit, and as a result I managed to develop some abrasions on my back from my rucksack (as well as quite simply getting annoying at times).

As a result at CP2 I swapped to my more conventional race attire of a pair of powerstretch fleece leggings (North Face brand in this case). I had no further issues once I had made this swap. This pair was a somewhat heavier pair than the alternatives I had. I went with the heavier pair as the forecast was for dropping temperatures. These worked very well (as they also did last year).

Footwear

The most important task of footwear in a race like the Spine is to protect your feet. When racing to compete, using the outright protection of mid/heavy weight walking boots is not an option. Trail/mountain running shoes are a necessity to make sufficient speed to be competitive. I used 2 pairs of Columbia Conspiracy waterproof trail shoes. These shoes are good all-round trail running shoes. Real jack-of-all-trades, without excelling on any particular terrain. Even at that, I had no significant traction problems except on icy cattle grids! There is enough cushioning in these shoes so that the soles of my feet don’t take a hammering from rocks or road.

Waterproof shoes might seem a bit pointless for the Spine, since the ground is so waterlogged that we’re likely to be wading way beyond shoe depth, but my thinking there was that the waterproof membrane would help in keeping grit away from my feet (or at least significantly reduce the amount of grit that would get through to my socks). I also used a pair of Sprayway running gaiters to try to keep grit from getting in over the tops of the shoes too easily.

I started with a pair of shoes that were one size too big (to allow room for some foot swelling), and at CP4 I swapped to a fresh pair that were 2 sizes too big. I didn’t have any issues with cramming feet into shoes as a result.

For socks I used pairs of heavyweight Merino Wool mountaineering socks, from both Teko and Bridgedale. The thickest warmest socks I could find. As well as warmth the idea was these would provide maximum cushioning, and also provide some protection from any grit that got through the outer protective layers. At the same time they wouldn’t cause the problems that I have found through experience that waterproof socks can cause in multi-day racing.

Overall the system worked well. I didn’t suffer from any foot problems during the race, or have to carry out any repairs to my feet. The only maintenance required was to adjust the strap on one of the gaiters at one point (It had come loose early in the race), and changing shoes and socks when necessary (3 sock changes, one shoe change). At the end of the race only a small amount of grit had got through, causing some abrasion around my heels and ankles. This was painful post-race, but wasn’t noticeable during the race. I had no bruising on my feet, and no blisters.

Gloves and Hats

Such was the quality of my outer shell layer that I didn’t need to use a hat at any stage. I had a very lightweight omni-heat beanie in my rucksack as my mandatory hat.

I carried 2 pairs of gloves with me. My main pair was a pair of Columbia Outdry waterproof gloves. These were very effective. I’ve found these to be about the most effective waterproof gloves I’ve used. They have quite a good inner warm lining, so worked well during the colder sections of the race. I had a lightweight pair of omni-heat lined gloves that I could potentially have used as a “baselayer” under my main gloves, but never reached the point where I needed to try that. In fact my main temperature regulation required was to remove the gloves once the temperature warmed up during daylight hours.

My main gear failure during the race was a usage failure. I delayed too long putting on my gloves as the temperature dropped in the heavy rain on the first night. However once I got my Outdry gloves on, my hands returned to life within about ten minutes.

Without doubt mitts would be more effective at keeping hands and fingers warm. However the Spine race requires constant attention to navigation. Mitts would be awkward to manipulate maps, compass and GPS. You’d probably end up removing mitts more often to work effectively with the navigation tools. So in my opinion gloves are a better alternative overall for the Spine.

Walking Poles

I was once a real pole-hater! But after consecutive UTMBs where I was being overtaken on climbs by walkers with poles I came to realise that I was missing out on some clear benifits. Now I’m in the opposite position where I would feel lost without poles in longer trail ultras.

I have managed to destroy 2 pairs of poles in the last year. Neither of my poles made it home after last year’s Spine. One snapped on the Cheviots, the other was bent so badly that it couldn’t be refolded. In the Tor De Geants I brought along a new pair of lovely lightweight Black Diamond walking poles. Neither of the poles made it beyond half-way! So resiliance is a definite requirement for walking poles in multi-day races.

I picked up a new pair of Gipron Airtrekk walking poles for the Spine. They weren’t the lightest ones I could find, but they did look like they would be a bit more resiliant. Twist lock poles have caused me issues in the past. Sometimes I find that they can untwist themselves over time so that they will slowly start compressing of their own accord. I find snap-lock mechanisms to be much more reliable.

The new poles survived this year’s Spine without a problem, which is a first! I needed to slightly tighten up the snap-lock mechanisms early in the race, but after that they worked well. On the last stage I was managing to get some great extra speed from using them in a very effective nordic walking style on road and forest road climbs. I even found myself using them a lot more on descents naturally. In the past I would generally have just held the pair in one hand descending and not used them at all.

decending towards dufton

Descending towards Dufton. (Photo by Andrea Nogova)

GPS Device

As an old-school navigator I generally never use a GPS, and would be very wary about anyone who went into the hills relying on one. However it is on the mandatory gear list as a safety item (I wouldn’t disagree with this), so if I have to carry one, then I’m definitely going to exploit it for any advantages to be gained by using one.

Last year I used a touchscreen Garmin GPS. I was amazed at its speed and accuracy. It turned out to be very useful for rapid validation of route choices, or for re-finding the trail when I had strayed off. However the touchscreen method of interaction wasn’t so good for a race like the Spine, where gloves are worn quite often.

This year I sourced a Garmin GPSMAP64s from the Great Outdoors. This was a big improvement. It had all the speed and accuracy of the touchscreen device (possibly better, if anything), but with large rubber buttons to interact with it. I had no problem using these whilst wearing my winter gloves. The device came with a basemap for the UK and Ireland that had a good level of detail, the most important of which was a plot of the Pennine Way! The screen on the device, despite having a lower resolution than most modern smartphones, was more than adequate for navigation purposes on the Spine.

As with any piece of equipment, but in particular with a device with so many features and options, taking time to familiarize myself with all of its features in good time before the race was important. I had it configured to show useful additional details on screen (UK grid reference and Height ASL).

I replaced the batteries for the GPS at each CP. At no stage in the race did I reach a point of needing to replace the batteries out on the course (Battery life is nominally around 16 hours, depending on usage). It proved to be rugged. It spent most of the race hanging on a lanyard around my neck, so it was constantly exposed to the weather. There was no evidence of any damage to the device, nor did it stop functioning at any point.

Backpack

Given the amount of kit that needs to be carried for the Spine I used a larger backpack than I normally would for a running event. I chose to use an old adventure racing pack I own, a 32 litre OMM bag. I altered it slightly by adding a bottle carrier onto one of the front straps for ease of access to my water bottle. I kept anything I was likely to need between CPs (Primarily my headtorch) in the large side pockets. I used 20 Litre clear waterproof dry bag to store most of my kit inside the backpack so that it was fully protected from the elements. As a system this all worked very well.

Headtorches

I used two LED-lenser SEO7r headtorches. These are relatively simple headtorches (No wires connected to battery packs) so there is very little to go wrong. I mostly used these in low power mode, which was enough light for me. Full power mode could be used to occasionally hunt trails in tricky conditions. These torches can be powered by 3 AAA batteries, so it is easy to get spares. A great feature of this model of SEO is that they are supplied with a rechargeable battery pack that can be used instead of the AAA batteries. This seems to last a bit longer, and is definitely lighter. I had 3 of the packs for the race, and only needed to use AAAs on the last night.

Thoughts on Safety and the Mandatory Gear list

I have a strong opinion that race organisers (this applies to all outdoor endurance sports) can do more harm than good with ill-thought through items added willy-nilly to mandatory gear lists. In my opinion the two biggest safety measures that you can bring to a race like the Spine are (1) Knowledge and experience to ensure that you are able to deal with conditions without getting into trouble and (2) the ability to get out of any trouble as quickly and accurately as possible. Quite simply, prevention is better than cure.

The problem with adding items to mandatory gear lists is that they add weight and bulk to participants backpacks, and as a result will slow them down. This is counter-productive to being able to get out of trouble (By descending as rapidly as possible off an exposed mountainside for example) as fast as possible. Every single item on a mandatory gear list should be examined to see if it really needs to be there, or if it is simply a box-ticking exercise that in reality isn’t of sufficient benefit to merit carrying its weight/bulk. It is far better to be able to avoid trouble (prevention) by moving unhindered and quickly than to be carrying around piles of gear to deal with difficulties after they have arisen (cure).

The most obviously counter-safety items on the mandatory gear list are the cooker and fuel. These items are quite bulky and heavy. They are also utterly useless for prevention, and only play a role (and a minor one at that IMHO) in helping someone after they get into trouble. Their weight and bulk make them the epitome of counter-safety masquerading as safety. Their weight and bulk also mean they could be displacing items that might otherwise be useful for prevention (such as a down jacket) that could otherwise be carried in their place. If the Spine was a team event without a mandatory gear list and one of my teammates insisted on bringing a cooker and fuel on the race for safety reasons I would throw them off my team for being a potential liability (in purely safety terms).

Another area which I think could be better is the requirement to carry a sleeping bag. It does have obvious safety benefits, but to my mind a (high loft) down jacket would be a lot better and a lot more useful in real world situations. It would provide the same effective safety benefits, but could be used on the move, rather than needing the competitor to stop. And keeping on the move in the correct direction is in my mind the most useful action a spine competitor can undertake in an emergency situation. It is also much easier to bring into action, so is more likely to actually be used (And I have put my money where my mouth is with this one, as noted above). I really can’t see any safety downside to that potential change.

I would love to see the justification for the requirement to carry 2 liters of liquids. The most up to date sports science that I have read points to the fact that over-hydration is a much bigger safety issue in endurance events than dehydration. Actively encouraging competitors to carry around excessive amounts of liquids seems like an extremely bad idea to me (And one which could open a window to potential legal issues should anyone die of exercise-associated hyponatremia). I was able to complete the race (again!) using a single 750ml water bottle. The other 2 water bottles were simply excess weight and bulk that needed to be transported to the finish as a counter-safety box-ticking exercise.

On a related note, it is good that the nutrition requirements are simply stated as 2 days supply, as this is a very individual thing. Specifying a defined number of calories, or similar, would be just plain stupid. It would also have no more effect than to ensure that the weight of excess food was rapidly moved from backpack to bin at the first opportunity after leaving a CP, and that the re-supply bag would be needlessly bulked up with food to be rapidly disposed of on course.

I find it hard to think of a situation where any attempt to put on the mandatory spare socks in an emergency on the course is not going to cause more problems than it could possibly solve. This again seems like a box-ticking exercise without any real world practical benefit in preventing problems.

Conversely there are two areas which are under-specced in my opinion. I think a mandatory spare headtorch would be a good idea. A headtorch malfunction could turn into a serious safety issue quite easily. Since spare batteries are already specified it doesn’t add much to add a spare headtorch as a container for those batteries! (And again, I put my money where my mouth is here and do this of my own volition). The other one would be to explicitly specify waterproof/winter gloves. I’m sure most competitors are sensible enough about this, but I see no reason for this not to be explicitly stated (rather than just implied by “gloves”).

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