At this time of year, the majority are winding up their fitness training after the indulgence of Christmas and possibly armed with New Year’s Resolutions. But for me and a few hundred other Spine racers (of various Spine Race distances), it’s a bit different. Most of us are now tapering down from our training in preparation for the big challenge ahead. Yup, it’s Spine time again!
Needless to say, as I write this the weather in England is looking pretty miserable, with a few flooding events this week. Spine weather is lurking. That should ensure the usual brutality of Britain’s most Brutal race (The race tagline). At the very least I think we can be fairly sure that the ground conditions will be very wet and boggy. As usual, I will be relying on my great gear to see me through, as I actually don’t like the cold and wet!
Speaking of gear, I have a few new interesting bits of gear I’ll be using for the first time in the Spine this year. This will be the first time I don’t use my OMM Classic 32 backpack. Instead, I’ll be using an OMM Phantom 25. It’s an even racier pack, and so far seems like the best I’ve ever used. It has great front pockets, and front shoulder strap bottle holders. Those are really important for access to critical gear on a race like the Spine. The loss of a few litres in volume is the only downside, but I’ll be dealing with that by using a new waterproof dry bag from Silva that has a built-in air valve which should allow me to get minimum packed gear volume whilst still keeping everything safely inside the backpack and waterproofed.
I’ve also a few new pieces of gear from Columbia, my main sponsor. I have my first new pair of shoes for the Spine in a few years,, with a pair of Escape Thrive Endure waterproof shoes. I reckon these will make for great mid-race shoes. And in the Spine waterproofing is essential as far as I’m concerned. I’ve also got a very warm Columbia Pebble Peak Down Jacket, which has Omni-heat Infiniti heat reflective lining. This feels extremely warm in testing so far,.
As usual, the course generally follows the length of the Pennine away, from Edale in the Peak District of England up to Kirk Yetholm over the Scottish border, covering over 400km of non-stop racing. There are a few minor diversions in place this year, with the biggest one being a few s-bends around the Pennine way due to forestry activities north of Hadrian’s wall. Overall the diversion will lengthen the course a bit, unlike last year. So the race times should be longer than last year by quite a few hours.
The race just seems to go from strength to strength. This year’s field looks to be the most competitive yet, with tons of excellent runners taking part.
In the Female race, it’s great to see that Claire Bannworth from France is going to be there. I’ve seen her in several races and she is a very solid multi-day trail runner. Quite often she gets close to the front of the male race in longer events. I’ve seen her storm to victory in the last 2 360 Challenge races in the Canaries Elaine Bisson was second last year and is back again. She also had a podium finish in the Northern Traverse this year. Eloise Eccles was second in the summer Spine in 2021, so she could be another to watch. I don’t see any returning past winners on the race roster, so we should have a new champion this year. Of course, I have probably missed a few talented female athletes on this list.
Unfortunately Anna Troupe has had to pull out due to an injury. She’s one of my favourite racers and is an amazing athlete. She would have been right up there as a potential winner. But sadly it’s not to be this year
As far as I can see there are 2 past champions returning for the Male race. Eugeni and myself. I reckon it’s highly likely we’ll have a new champion this year though, such is the depth of the field. Still, Eugeni is always one to watch. He seems to be getting faster every year, and he has shown he can do his own navigation and finish the race. But it’s always going to be entertaining with Eugeni. For that alone reason alone he is literally one to watch. I expect him to go out and compete in a big way.
The two runners who started last year’s race at such a phenomenally fast pace are both back. No doubt both Kim Collison and Damian Hall will have learned from last year and are far less likely to drop out this year. They are both super fast experienced runners with fantastic results. I reckon we can expect a super battle between them again this year that will be fun to watch. Kim smashed my old Northern Traverse record this year. Damian knows the Pennine way inside out and is a past FKT record holder. If forced to pick the likely winner I’d go with Damian. Hopefully, I haven’t jinxed him!
Kim highly rates Jack Scott, who shares a major sponsor with Damian. He is definitely a very fast runner with the speed to enable him to win. He’s another runner who didn’t finish last year and will be bringing lessons learned with him. It could be a 3-way race up front (That’s what Kim thinks anyway!).
Merjin Geerts is also returning. He was surprisingly far down the field last year, given his absolutely amazing performances in backyard racing (He is the best in the world with 101 hours, I think). Maybe he was just quietly learning and building experience. But with his raw ability, he’s one to be watched.
Also returning this year are two fabulous people who were joint second last year, Duggie Zinis and James Leavesley. I really enjoyed spending time in their company last year and was absolutely delighted to see them both make the podium, They obviously have the ability to be right up there again this year.
There are a few newbie Spine competitors who have the potential to be very competitive. Juhana Kirk had a great race in the Northern Traverse, and has a few race wins on his CV. There are two UK international 24-hour runners entered (I have met both at the 24-hour world champs). Marco Consani and James Elson have tons of speed, and also plenty of good trail running results. Marco’s wife Debbie (also a UK international 24-hour runner) won the Spine last year, so he won’t lack for good tips on how to race the Spine!
There are loads of people who I don’t anything about, so no doubt there’ll be a few contenders who I have missed out. There are also loads of people who I do know who are entered who are likely to put in solid performances, and in the right circumstances could find themselves towards the front of the field (simply by keeping a solid pace going consistently). I’ll make mention of Nuno Santos here, as we had a big battle in this year’s UTMB racing for position in our shared M50 age group category (I only got in front after the last aid station).
I’m not the only Irish person racing this year, It’s great to see so many other Irish racing across all the Spine races. Joe O’Leary is stepping up to the full Spine after finishing third in the Spine Challenger this year. He’s got the ability to do very well. Deuglan White, Fergus Melligan, Timothy Haughton, David Cummins and Irene Finegan are all entered in the full Spine. Best of luck to all!
There are plenty of other Irish entered in the other Spine races too, I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how the Challenger North brigade (Fiona Lynch, Brian Hutchinson, and John Murray in particular) get on. Another old friend who is entered in the Challenger North is one of Serbia’s top ultra runners Jovica Spajic. He’s a great person and a solid fast runner. I’d love to see him do well.
As regards my own prospects…. well… I really don’t think I have a chance of winning the race this year. I had said similar last year, but that the chances of repeating that are very slim indeed. Given the list of contenders, I’ll need a lot of luck to make the top 5. Top 10 would seem like a target I could realistically aim for. One thing I can guarantee is that I will be a long way back at the start of the race. As I get older I am definitely getting slower. It still takes the same effort to get around, but I just can’t generate the same speed for the effort. It also takes me a lot longer to get up to a reasonable cruise speed. So I’ll be in full tortoise mode without a doubt!
My competitive brain is definitely still there so, so I’ll be trying to do the best I can. It is the Spine, so anything can happen. Last year was ridiculous for the race drama. It’d be great if we get a similar level of drama again.
As usual, one of the best things about the Spine is the great live tracking which can be followed at https://live.opentracking.co.uk/spinerace23/. Hopefully, Richard will get some time to provide a bit of commentary on my Facebook page. The race usually posts some daily race videos on youtube which give a good flavour of reality on the ground. The Spine Race itself starts this Sunday morning (15th January) at 8 a.m.
So now the first big journey of 2023 begins….
Good luck Eoin. I’m sure you’ll put in a solid performance and, as always, I will be watching your dot and urging you on.
Good luck Eoin for another Spine. Alison and I will be backpacking the Pennine Way this summer, though at a bit slower pace ….and when a bit warmer 😉
It’s a lot nicer in the summer! You’ll enjoy yourself
Best of luck.
It was really good to meet and run with you. I got to the finish so thank you so much for all your sage advice and support. Good luck with your future races and if you ever visit RIAT at Fairford then let me know.
All the best,