New year, old bones. But as usual early in January it is Spine time! This Sunday, 12th January, the Spine race is due to start at 8am in Edale. I took part yet again last year. I surprised myself a bit by having a pretty good race. I ended up running my second best ever Spine time, and winning the Male category. Of course that was only good enough for second place, 15 hours behind Jasmin Paris’ incredible record breaking time. Eugeni was quite a distance ahead of me towards the end, but as I approached the finish I discovered he had been rescued 6km short of the finish line. So winning the male category was an unexpected surprise.
For most of the year I had been thinking that I would give the race a miss this year. But in the end it drew me back in. It would probably be more painful to watch the dots moving across the map wondering how I would be doing than to be a dot being blasted by whatever the weather throws at us. So in the end I signed on for yet another go at this epic race.
What is the Spine Race?
The Spine Race is a solo unsupported non-stop self-navigated running race along the length of the Pennine Way through the spine of England and into Scotland. Running this 400km+ route would be interesting enough at the best of times, but the fact that it takes place in the depths of winter ensures its a true epic expedition style race.
This is how it is described on the race website:
“Widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance races. A truly epic challenge that will test your physical resilience and mental fortitude. Racing non-stop along the most iconic trail in the UK, you will experience the full intensity and ferocity of the British Winter. Prepare yourself for the biggest challenge of your life.
The Pennine Way is one of the most demanding National Trails in Britain, and certainly the most iconic. The trail crosses some of the most beautiful and at times difficult terrain found in England, including; the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland National Park, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots; finishing at the Scottish Borders.
Expect to face extreme weather, deep snow, ice, mud, bogs, ground water, storm force winds and driving rain in a grueling, non-stop, 7-day race from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.
It’s not just the conditions that are against you, your own body and mind could become your worst enemy. Tiredness, fatigue, sleep deprivation and exposure to the extremes of winter weather are all to be expected. To finish you must be prepared and willing to push yourself harder than ever before.
There is very little hand holding on this race. We expect you to travel with a degree of self-sufficiency and skill which sets this race apart from others. Why? You should never embark on an adventure of this magnitude without the appropriate knowledge and skill to make yourself safe in a time of need. There is nothing more personally reassuring than being secure in your own abilities. That said, we still attach a GPS tracker to you with an emergency button just in case!”
There are quite a number of interesting runners entered into this year’s race. There are at least 3 past winners (counting myself), but I wouldn’t make any of them favourites. For me there is one stand-out person to watch this year, who is John Kelly.
I have only briefly met and talked to John. But where and when I met him is why he is a legend of the ultra running world (Frozen head state park, during the Barkley Marathons). John is the last person (one of only 15 people) to win and complete the Barkley Marathons (and if you’re familiar with the way the race works, that means John completion was the most difficult course completed to date. He has also been a very competitive Ironman triathlete. He moved to the UK last year, so should be becoming familiar with the local conditions that the Spine will challenge him with. So he has speed, and he can deal with adversity. It’s going to be interesting to see how he does, and how he compares the race to the Barkley. To my mind, he’s the one to beat.
Eugeni Rose Sole is returning again this year. I was wondering would his rescue last year put him off, but it looks like he is bouncing right back in. There were some notable things about his race last year. He was considerably faster than he has ever been before. If he brings that kind of speed back with him this year he will also be a contender to win. It was also notable that he spent a considerable amount of time on his own successfully navigating his own way. So he has the skill sets needed to get to the end of the race, and win!
There are a few other notably fast runners entered. Wouter Huitzing is a very fast finisher (and past winner) of the “baby” version of the Spine, the challenger. So he knows the first third of the course very well, can deal with the conditions, and has proven speed. If he can bring that speed to bear over the longer distance of the full spine then he should be very competitive.
Jason Cavill is returning to the Spine to give it another go. He was nudging away at the front of the field last year when he had to pull out due to injury. He’s got enough speed to be another contender, and will have learned plenty from last year, even without covering the full course.
There are plenty of other solid runners who have potential to compete at the front end of the field. Tom Hollins is a past winner of the race, is an obvious one. I’m personally a huge admirer of Tom for the way he won the Spine, and also as a fantastic person. If I spent the entire race in Tom’s company I know I’d have a memorable enjoyable race. Simon Gfeller is another Spine veteren with solid high place finishes. He recently won a “last one standing” race in Spain, so looks to be in excellent endurance form. Gwynn Stokes put in a solid race last year. If he is getting faster then he could be a dark horse to watch.
In the Women’s field there are two names that stand out to me. Sabrina Verjee is a very experienced adventure racer well used to dealing with all kinds of adversity. She also won (outright) the summer version of the Spine, amongst many other great wins in the last few years She looks like the favourite. Also running is another person I’ve shared many races with over the years, Debbie Martin Consani. Debbie has represented the UK at ultra running many times, and so is obviously a solid fast runner. She also has lots of trail running experience, including a good finish are the TDG. Living in Scotland, the Spine could be a sun holiday for Debbie! It could be a cracking race between those two.
There is a bigger field than ever this year, so no doubt I’ll have missed someone in my quick run through the field. Plus, the spine is a race that is most definitely never about who is good on paper!
Given the strength of the field I’m not expecting to win this year. Of course that doesn’t rule it out, but it’s just unlikely. Even a podium finish might require me to break my PB for the race (or an equivalent level of performance if the weather turns really bad). As I get older I’m definitely losing speed. On a race like the Spine experience and bloody minded perseverance can make up for some of that. But all other things being equal, someone younger and faster should still be able to win. I’ll simply set out to run my own race and enjoy it as much as I can.
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.
As usual, the live tracking should be excellent, and is available at http://live.thespinerace.com/. The main race website is here. I expect the usual high standard of reporting will be available on their facebook feed, hopefully along with video updates.