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!


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).


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).


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.


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.


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”).

Posted in gear review, Mountain Running, Ultra Running

The Spine Race 2016 – Nutriton

Nutrition strategies for races always seems to be one of the topics that people find the most interesting to explore. My strategy is probably almost totally the opposite of what most people would be expecting to hear.

I didn’t adopt any specific nutrition strategy for the Spine. I have a more holistic approach. Race nutrition for me goes beyond the race. Instead it is not only something to be trained for, it is something that is integrated into my lifestyle.

Over years of experience of participating in multi-day adventure races I came to the realisation that conventional wisdom on race fueling was, quite simply and plainly, wrong. It’s all based around the idea of glycogen depletion. To prevent glycogen depletion conventional wisdom would say you have to carb-load before a race to ensure that glycogen stores are topped up, and then eat enough carbs (X calories per hour, or whatever), on a continual basis during the race to ensure that our stores don’t empty. Given that we have roughly 2 hours of glycogen fuel available, that’s a lot of topping up. Hence you hear lots of people describing ultras as eating competitions on the move.

But for long races I learned through experience that this was rubbish. I could end up spending so much time preparing maps before a multi-day adventure race that I wouldn’t get a chance to eat properly before the start. I would find myself going for hours and hours in the middle of a race without eating (because I didn’t feel like) and still be the strongest person on the team. I could run out of food mid-stage without it being an issue (whilst some teammates would panic if the same happened to them). Often I’d happily give food away to other people as I had more than I needed and they would run out. I didn’t know why this was, but I did know it proved that conventional nutritional wisdom was way out of line with reality.


I then met Barry Murray when he was selected to run on the Irish Ultra Trail running team. As well as being a good ultra runner Barry was also a professional Sports Scientist/nutritionist. We arranged to go on a long training run together, where I expected to hear the normal conventional nutritional advice from him. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We had one of the best running conversations I’ve ever had. Barry not only agreed that conventional nutritional wisdom was wrong, but he was able to explain the science of why it was wrong. Even better, he explained the concept of training to be an efficient fat burner. Unlike conventional carb obsessed nutrition theory, this explained perfectly what I had experienced in reality through years of multi-day race experiences.

So armed with Barry’s knowledge transfer I have been able to fine tune and optimise my general nutrition and my training. I now err towards a more Protein and Fat based diet, and try to greatly reduce my carb consumption. I also strive to eliminate sugar (very much including added sugars) as far as possible (but with a sweet tooth, this is a hard one for me!). I now cook most of my own foods from basic ingredients, and have eliminated most processed foods from my diet.

It’s in training that the (to my mind) most important work takes place. I now never eat any foods before any training session. For my long runs/cycles at weekends I don’t have any breakfast, but go straight into training. I never eat anything on any training sessions. This is all designed to trigger fat burning adaptations or increase fat burning efficiencies. Most people understand the principle that training should be stressful to some extent. The body reacts to stresses by adapting to better cope with them. That’s why we do hard training sessions. The hard sessions apply stress. The adaptations occur as a result in the rest that follows. The same principal applies to nutrition (and many more things, in my opinion). Stress to adapt.

One of the end results of all this (and it’s not an instant result… like all training it takes hard work and time for the effects to manifest themselves), is that I generally don’t need to eat at all during most races. I’ve been pushing out how far I test this over the last few years. I have set national records at 24 hour running races without eating during the race. I’ve won the New York 6 day race when I ate almost nothing (just a few ice cream treats in the heat) for the first 5 days (and only ate on the last day because I was so far in front that I could indulge the luxuries!).

Solid Food

So for the Spine I knew my food requirements were pretty simple. I had no food requirements! It’s simply something I don’t need to worry about. If I had to do the whole race on no-food, I know I could. To meet the mandatory kit requirement of 2 days worth of food the reality for me is that amounts to no food. However I brought a few things along anyway.

What I brought with me were treats. Things I knew might give me a psychological boost, or that I might get a craving for (although generally my cravings are for specific liquids these days). So I had few different types of chocolate bars… An Aldi version of a Snickers, an Aldi version of a bounty bar, and genuine original Fry’s Turkish delight. 3 very different types of flavours, deliberately chosen to be so. I had extra supplies of these in my re-supply bag. I also had two bags of Jelly beans in my re-supply bag for a special treat later in the race (or in case I wanted a quick sugar hit near the end of the race… the only place I would allow myself to do that in a significant way).

I brought no “sports” foods, like power bars or gels. As far as I’m concerned they are bad tasting, but yet expensive, heavily marketed junk food. If I’m going to eat junk, I might as well make it a cheaper tasty version that I’ll enjoy, rather than an over-priced, worse tasting, heavily marketed version of the same thing.

Over the course of the entire race I think I ate 2 of the coconut bars and 2 of the turkish delights. The only other on-course food I ate was a cake I picked up at the cake shop in Bellingham (special treat). Everything else I ate was at full CPs or safety checkpoints supplied there (counting Damon as a safety checkpoint!).

Even at the CPs I wasn’t over-eating. I ate nothing at CP1, had one or two small bits of Kendal mint cake at cp1.5 for traditions sake, had the chicken curry offered at CP2 (Because I love curries!), ate about 1/3 of the food offered to me at the Tan Hill Inn (some soup, a bit of cheese, and chocolate cake), had a small bit of the vegetable bake in CP3, but left behind what I hadn’t finished when I was ready to go, had some scrambled eggs at CP4 (Was originally offered pasta, but I would regard that as bland junk food, so I’m grateful to the volunteers there for whipping up a much better alternative), along with some porridge before leaving, and ate nothing at CP5. I think I had some porridge at Byrness. On the Cheviots I had Damon’s chicken stew, and the delicious homemade soup at Hut 2, in both cases as they sounded like a tasty treat. The Cheviots were my epicurean section!

So adding it all up, it comes to about one day’s worth of normal food spread out over the course of the race. I think I could have skipped all of it without any real downsides. I never had any near-bonks or energy crashes (The only lows I had were due to early sleep deprivation issues). I never felt hungry at any stage on the race. In fact I wasn’t even hungry at the end of the race.


For liquids I have a simple formula for managing when to drink. I drink if I’m thirsty. I don’t if I’m not. I had 3 water bottles. Two were carried around as useless items necessary to pass the mandatory gear list. One was actually useful and used. The bottle would get refilled at aid stations. I didn’t need to pick up any water out on the course, and never ran out of liquids. In fact on the last section, from Bellingham to the finish, I drank less than 100ml of liquid from my bottle (It’s easy to recall throwing the contents of a nearly full bottle down the drain after finishing).

Again, no expensive over-marketed “sports” powders or drinks were used. I carried a small “squeezie” of water flavouring with me, as I can get very bored of the taste of water. On the first day I had my bottle filled with fruit juice. I had it refilled at CP1 with the dilute blackcurrant available there. From then on I refilled it with water at each CP. In Bellingham village I bought a litre of fruit juice and filled my water bottle with that (which mostly was transported unused to the finish). I also bough a half litre bottle of strawberry flavoured milk here, for variety, and drank most of that at Hut2 (rather than carry it to the finish).

At CPs I mostly drank coffee in the earlier ones (for a warm caffeine hit). From CP4 on I mostly drank hot chocolate (for taste). I also drank some coke where it was available. A craving for the taste of lemonade later in the race was satisfied in the middle of leg 4 where I picked up a can of lemonade at Horneystead farm.


The world is full of contradictory information on Nutrition. I had a long standing mist-trust of mainstream nutritional theory which has lead me to question most orthodox advice. There is a particular paucity of material on effective nutrition for endurance sports beyond marathon length efforts.  However there are a few sources out there which I do trust.

In real life I have the best conversations on nutrition are with Barry Murray. Barry has his own website where he occasionally post some excellent thought provoking blogs. Following him on facebook has led to many interesting sites.

For general non-sports nutrition one of my favourite sites is Authority Nutrition. This has lots of interesting articles (like this one, for example), and all their articles will have references to the scientific papers they are drawing on. They also don’t appear to have any industry bias.

One of the most accessible and interesting scientists in the area of Sports Science is Professor Tim Noakes. He has tons of material out there, (including lots of easily viewed videos, such as this one), and he has authored several excellent books (But beware, he will tell everyone to rip out the nutrition chapter from his best known book, the Lore of Running. I have huge respect for anyone who admits they were 100% wrong rather than digging in and defending their position). Similarly Volek and Phinney are doing some excellent research on fat-adaptations in elite endurance athletes, and turning up results which should make anyone interest in high performance endurance athletics stand up and take notice.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to nutrition, question everything!


Posted in Mountain Running, Sports Science, Ultra Running | 9 Comments

The Spine Race 2016 – 6, Control!

The checkpoint at Forest View B&B was a very welcoming place again, as expected! Priority one for me was to get an overview of the race situation. Everything else would be governed by that. I was glad to hear that Pavel had created a gap on Eugeni arriving into CP5 at Bellingham. But I was amazed to hear that they had both elected to get some sleep there. This meant that I know had a massive lead on the ground. In reality a lot of this lead was “virtual” as I now needed to bank some sleep here for myself. But with such a huge gap I could take a relatively luxuriously long sleep to ensure I could get to the finish without needing any more stops. I felt I had control of the race now. I could decide how close to let Pavel get to me, and how much sleep to get.

I let the volunteers know that I’d like to take a 2 hour sleep here. I was very kindly offered the use of a bed by the B&B owner. I had to decline it though, as the rules state that racers cannot use hotels or B&Bs for rest, which I interpreted to rule this out. I’d just use the couch in the check-point area that every other racer would have full and equal access to.

Two hours later I was woken, and my first priority again was to get an update on the race situation. There had been plenty of drama in my absence from the real world! Eugeni had yet again had a much shortened rest in Bellingham and had left with Pavel. He was now over 3 days in, running on someone else’s race strategy and presumably deeply into sleep deprivation territory. I was guessing that at this point he was probably a danger to himself as a result, and would have been even more dependant on sticking with Pavel. They were on their way, but had yet to reach the large forest before Byrness. So they were still several hours behind by my reckoning. I was still on absolute control of the race here.

Given the lead, I elected to take another half an hour of sleep to try to ensure that there would be absolutely no need to take any power naps at all once I left Byrness. Sleeping now was a much better option, as this was the most comfortable location left on the course, and I was also utilising nighttime to sleep. The only real danger here was I was loosing my discomfort levels, so it would be harder to restart and get going again.

Half an hour later I was woken again, this time with even more high drama on the race news front. Eugeni had retired from the race, apparently due to a knee injury, and the race safety team had taken him from the course and were bringing him down here to Byrness. Pavel had had to assist Eugeni, but was now free and making progress down the forest fire roads towards Byrness. He was moving quite quickly, but I would have expected this, as this was the fastest section of this stage of the race.

As anticipated, getting up and getting going was a bit of an ordeal. The generosity continued, and I indulged myself with both a hot chocolate and a lemonade (of course!), whilst slowly getting all my things together and kitting up for departure. In the middle of all this Eugeni was brought in by the race safety team. They were of course taking good care of him. Poor Eugeni was wrecked. No doubt he would have been hurting badly at having to pull out of the race as well (as any of us would). I commiserated with him, before he was brought off for a lie down on a proper bed.

After the slow uncomfortable process of getting ready was complete I finally left the checkpoint. Pavel was a few kilometers back up the road, but I knew these were slower kilometers than they looked on paper. The reality was I had total control at this point. I would be heading up the mountain and out of site, fully rested and in excellent shape,  before Pavel would have the opportunity to see me or my headtorch. All I needed to do was keep my pace controlled and steady, and to make sure to navigate well. It took one or two hundred meters to get warmed up and get running properly again, but after that I was quickly back to banging out a steady ultrarunning controlled pace.

After turning off the road out of Byrness comes one of the more sustained steep climbs of the race, with the sharp haul up to the top of Byrness hill. There was plenty of snow on the ground to make life interesting! I made good steady progress up the hill with a controlled pole-climb, taking a small bit of time to enjoy view as I topped out onto the flatter ridgeline at the top. Back to steady running for the gentle climb along the ridgeline towards Raven’s Knowe. This section had a reputation of being a man-eating bog, but with the cold and snow temperatures, along with what I presume to be relatively new paving slabbed and boardwalked sections there was very little sinking! In fact my progress was pretty steady.

However after starting the ridge under a lovely starfilled sky, I was soon moving through fog, with visibility down to only a meter or two (pretty much confined to my head torch beam). This required very careful concentration on pathfinding. This effort made the time move along a little more quickly. Descending form Ogre Hill I very briefly lost the track, before re-finding it and heading into Scotland for the first time in the race. Almost before I knew it I was at the signpost for alternate Pennine Way routes.

I opted for the familiarity of the longer “tourist” route through the roman camps near chew green, as I knew this route from last year, which was a definite plus-point in the murk, and I knew that most of it was runnable. It really is great to run through such ancient historical sights (even if my sight of them was quite limited).

Running through the night in the Cheviots is a very lonely experience. Nobody would be up here at this time if it wasn’t for the race. I love the isolation though. There is an immense feeling of freedom being out here, totally reliant on your own skills to make your way along in the very harsh unforgiving environment of the Scottish border hills at night in January.

The section from the rejoined path split towards Refuge hut 1 before Lamb Hill is was tricky navigation in the conditions that night. There are quite a few track splits, and not all are signposted or obvious. With low visibility it would be easy to get it wrong. I did loose the track once or twice, but was able to figure it out and correct it with minimal loss of time. In general I was pleasantly surprised that I was still running nearly of all the trial here, despite the conditions and the fact that it was an overall climb.

A flashing blue light in the distance indicated that I was approaching Hut 1. One of the good things about the isolation up here is that if there is any sign of life out here then it is almost certainly race related. I had no need at all to stop at the hut, as I was in great condition and didn’t need anything in the way of food or drink (In fact I was carrying huge surplus of both). But I knew that whoever was in the hut had made the effort to be up there to look out for us racers, so a courtesy call was the least they deserved!

So in I went, intending to just say hello and thanks, and then head off again. There were two race volunteers in there in great spirits. They asked if I wanted a hot drink. I couldn’t be bothered with tea or coffee, but when I asked what they had they said hot chocolate. Bingo! These lads knew what they were doing. So I accepted the offer and sat down and hat a good chat, whilst enjoying my favourite hot drink. They were both ex-Spiners and I recognised their names from various online sites.

After a few minutes I got going again. There is the usual danger of getting too comfortable, so I wanted to get back out into the cold night as soon as possible. It only took a minute or so to get back up to speed again. I was still making excellent progress with a very controlled paced effort which still included a bit of uphill running when the slope was gentle enough. It was particularly straightforward to keep the uphill running going when there were stone slabs on the trail (which there was more of than I remembered).

I was soon recognising parts of the trail that I had run with Damon last year. He had come up to meet the leading runners. The wind was so strong last year though that we barely managed to communicate much more than basic information to each other as it was so hard to hear. In contrast things were much calmer this year. I had now climbed above the earlier mist and fog (or it had dissipated), and now had great views out over the landscape. I wondered whether Damon would make it up this year, as he had participated in the mountain rescue race just a day or two back.

From Beefstand hill (or thereabouts) I could see some lights on the mountain ahead. Knowing that only race related people would be up here I hoped this would be Damon again. Just after Mozie Law I finally met with the pair who owned the lights, which were Damon and another member of the border’s mountain rescue team. It really was a lovely experience to meet a friend up here in the remote wilderness in the middle of the night.

spine - damon

Damon during the Mountain Rescue race

Damon offered me tea or some chicken stew. I jumped at the offer of chicken stew. Damon had slow cooked it the night before, and poured it from his flask into a mug for me. It was absolutely delicious (A definite winner of “food of the race” award!), so I even went for a second helping. We all had a nice chat. Of course I asked what the gap was to Pavel, as I hadn’t seen any trace of him behind, and I had had no update on gaps since Byrness. They said I had roughly a 5 hour lead. I would have been happy with 5 kilometers, but was surprised to hear 5 hours, so had to recheck with them. If this was anything near the case then the only way I could lose from this point would be to injure myself.

With work to do, we all headed off in our opposing directions. Unlike last year, when Damon was blown clean over a fence as we were saying goodbye, Windy Gyle didn’t live up to its name this year. From the top of Russell’s Cairn here to the upper slopes of the highest point of the Pennine Way in the cheviots it is nearly all a stone slab track which is mostly a gentle climb. Damon had warned that they had found the slabs they encountered to be quite slippy. And indeed they were. Nearly every step had to be taken carefully. I could feel little skids and slides with each foot strike. Despite this I was maintaining a very solid steady metronomic pace.

After running along several kilometers of this, and starting the ramp up to climb the main peak I had a great realisation. I was running along, mostly gently climbing, and was so controlled and so relaxed that I was actually breathing through my nose. As an indication of controlled relaxed pacing this was remarkable. To be managing to do this at the start of a race would be good. But to be doing it on the last significant climb of a multi-day trail ultra was mind-blowing. This really was one of those moments that you appreciate as being the culmination of years and years of putting in the hard hours and hard work of consistent training. This was creating a good positive motivation feedback loop now. Control! Such Control.

Eventually the slope became steep enough that I had to switch to power walking up with the poles. The snow cover was also becoming thicker, so that the trail was getting harder to pick, but I still managed to find the line the whole way to the peak. On the peak I had a quick look around, knowing it was broadly speaking the start of the final push down towards Kirk Yetholm, and the finish!

After crossing the wall here there was no sign of the path with all the drifted snow covering the area. I had a few seconds of sloshing about in deep snow before finally figuring out where the underlying slabs were located. Having done that I was able to accurately guess from there where the slabs were from the pattern of the overlying snow. 5 minutes of flattish running followed, and then the trail nosedives into a very steep descent, taking me right past the edge of Hen Hole, and it’s cavernous looking depths.

Once I was on the descent I could see lights on the ridgeline ahead, indicating the presence of more race volunteers at Hut 2. Even with the aid of gravity it took another good 5 minutes or so of descending, followed by a short climb, before reaching the 2 people at the hut. Similarly to the first hut I didn’t need to head in, but with 2 people having gone to all the trouble of coming up here to look for me, and make sure I was safe, then the least I could do was call in for a quick chat.

This time the two lads were members of the local mountain rescue team. I was offered homemade soup, so asked what the flavour was. “Butternut squash, with a hint of pepper” was the answer. Now I like butternut squash soup at any time, but the way he phrased “with a hint of pepper” made me sure I was dealing with a real foodie here, so this soup was definitely going to be worth trying for epicurean reasons alone! To say the least, it didn’t disappoint. More great food on the Cheviots! I was also offered a little bit of christmas cake, which also went down a treat. One of them pointed out to me that if I got to the finish line before 10a.m. I’d complete the race in under 4 days. That appealed to me, so I had a new target to get me home.

Having gone into the hut in the dark of the night I emerged only 5 minutes or so later to see the nice dull blue glow of impending arrival of the dawn behind the mountains I had just descended. This was almost exactly the inverse of last year where I was loosing the last of daylight at this point on the Cheviots. Given that I had no sleep issues at this point in time it also meant that I should have no problem making it to the finish without needing a rest of any kind.

Again, restarting was awkward and it took me a minute or two to properly get my rhythm back and get running again. I could now see the ridgeline ahead of me more clearly in the early morning light. One small undulation ahead, followed by the last mountain of the race, the Schill. The Schill looks big, but really its a short enough climb. In my current state I knew I’d have no issues working my way over it at good speed. However the ground under foot for this section was mostly bad waterlogged boggy ground, with only occasional good trail. I was still able to keep up some kind of running pace over most of the route though, barring the steeper section of the Schill climb.

Once on the Schill, now under bright blue morning skies, I had the wonderful feeling of knowing it was downhill most of the way from here. Whilst there was still quite a few kilometers left I knew I would be able to take a lot of it at relatively high speed, trading off height for distance on the relatively good trails from here on. It really was a glorious morning as well. As good weather as you could possibly expect on the Spine. I must be getting some good karma here with such perfect conditions to finish.

The descent down off the mountain went as well as I hoped. Indeed I completed the descent towards the farm at Burnhead faster than I had estimated I would when I was on the peak of the Schill. Along the way one of the race photographers met me on the trail. I apologised for the lack of witty conversation, but I was putting all my focus into keeping up the steady controlled running pace. Just at Burnhead the Video crew were waiting, and we all made our way down to the road. Getting close!

spine decending towards finish

The last descent off the Cheviots (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The photographers and videographers all hopped into their car and drove ahead of me as I plodded on down the road. The road itself was quite icy, so I had to be careful. It would be tragic to fall and fracture something at this point (I’d probably have tried to crawl to the finish if I did). The one notorious sting in the tail on the road is one last hump to get over before descending into Kirk Yeltholm. I wasn’t going to run this one! I had more than enough time to get to KY before 10a.m. So I got my nordic walking style going and powered up the hill as best as I could manage.

One last 5 minute effort of careful descent on icy roads took me to the green at Kirk Yeltholm. I had to make a conscious effort to rouse myself to enjoy the moment and knock myself out of my metronomic forward movement. So with a cheer I raised my poles in the air and ran to the wall of the hotel to touch it and officially complete the Spine race. Woooohooooo!

spine - touching wall

Touching the wall… the official finish

I knew from the early days of this race that the pace was high, and that the winner would probably break the record. But my aim was simply to win, and everything else that derived from that was a bonus. I was absolutely delighted to beat the 4 day mark though, and equally delighted to learn that I’d knocked about 15 hours off Pavel’s old course record.

I was soon presented with my finisher’s medal, and more importantly to me my hard-won winners trophy. This trophy would stand proud in the (virtual) trophy cabinet. It was won the hard way in a good race against quality opposition. After some questions from the camera crew I was offered a seat, which I was very glad to accept!

spine - holding winning trophy

With the winner’s trophy… not letting go!

About 10 minutes later Damon arrived and whisked me away back to his house. This was perhaps the greatest reward for finishing the race! Most of the rest of the race crew followed on to the house. Despite being finished, suitably wrecked and sleep deprived, I didn’t want to crash to sleep. We had a most wonderful breakfast in Damon’s house, with lots of lively banter around the breakfast table. It’s these little things that make for special memories.

spine - breakfast at Damons

Breakfast at Damon’s, with some of the race Crew (Photo by Andrea Anogova)

Iwa surprised myself at how good a state I was in. The controlled way I had paced the entire race has meant that I hadn’t really hammered my muscles at any point. As a result the main issues I had at the end of the race were simply cuts and abrasions on my hands and feet from grit. I didn’t really have any blisters of note either. The cuts on the back of my heals did make walking awkward for a few days though.

Later in the day Pavel finished (with a gap of about 5 hours), and he was also brought back to Damon’s house where he was able to shower and freshen up. Damon and his family treated is all to a lovely dinner, with much good conversation and post-race discussion. Pavel had to leave that evening to get an early flight the following morning, but I had the pleasure of another day’s R&R in Damon’s house before making the journey back to Ireland.

And so it was that only a few days later I found I was able to go for a 2 hour+ training run on the roads through the hill of south Dublin, under the unexpectedly clear night sky. It really was remarkable how fast I recovered, even by my own standards. It just showed how well I had stuck to my overwhelming race mantra… Control!

(I’m hoping to write up one or two more articles on the Spine, one being a gear review, another being thoughts on nutrition, safety and other aspects of racing the Spine)

Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 10 Comments

The Spine Race 2016, 5 – Defining Moments

As usual, the wakeup call felt like I was being dragged away from the briefest of brief moments in nirvana and slapped back into harsh reality to a world of darkness and pain (that bit is close to the truth!). I had to get into action quickly now. After spending a day building a one hour lead it would the easiest thing in the world to throw it all away with a lethargic approach to exiting this aid station. The first job was to get on new shoes and socks, and make sure I was happy that the rest of my gear was good to go. I also had to make sure the usual task of map and battery changes were completed.

When I wandered down the stairs to the main hallway I was surprised to see Pavel and Eugeni there in their race gear. Apparently they had only recently arrived in. It must have taken them more time than me to cover the ground of the last few kilometers since I checked their progress before sleeping.  Possibly they might have pushed too hard chasing earlier in the day and paid the price later on. Who knows! I said hello, but concentrated on getting my own jobs done. I asked for more hot chocolate, but was also offered porridge which I was happy to accept! knowing that my lead into the CP was bigger than I expected I was happy that I could now afford to burn a little more time on extra comfort items.

Spine - with gearpile in alston

Getting the gear ready to go at Alston

I heard on the grapevine that the lads had decided to go for a one hour fifty minute sleep. So they were slightly undercutting me. Given that I had slept a bit more at Tan Hill Inn, I was happy enough to head out with a reduced lead, or indeed any lead at all, knowing that I had more sleep banked overall. It all adds to the control!

Phlip was being extremely helpful as I sorted out my maps and batteries, and finally geared up to leave the hall. Restarts are one of the more difficult parts of the race, particular leaving such a comfortable environment. The outdoors which I was so confident moving about coming into the CP would be a harsh reality check on leaving. But leave I must!

spine - about to depart alston

About to depart Alston, with lovely clean new shoes!

I managed to confuse myself on the road down from the CP back to the Pennine Way itself, but figured it all out eventually. The Pennine way from here is wanders and weaves through fields and walls for a while, before eventually turning into a nice flat trail into the village of Alston itself. After passing through Alston the Pennine Way heads downhill in a big way. Unfortunately that’s in a figurative rather than literal sense! I really disliked this section last year, and that was in daylight. It was probably going to be in even more of a challenge in the dark. At least I knew to expect it.

For some reason, even though I had recently left a well supplied CP, I was beginning to fantasise about various drinks I might like (which of course I had no chance of getting), eventually settling on lemonade as being my ultimate fantasy drink at that point in time. So I was now also self-torturing myself mentally on top of dealing with probably the worst section of the Pennine way.

The route wanders either side of the A689 road, mostly passing through farmland or scrubland, avery high proportion of which had been churned up by farm animals to become a muddy mess. It really was awful, no doubt made all the worse by all the heavy rains over christmas leaving a lot of waterlogged areas behind. It was pretty slow going working through all this.

Quite a few dreary kilometers later I eventually got my wish and the Pennine way ran along the A689 for a little while into the village of Slaggyford. After that it was back onto better trail for a while before passing under an arch of railway viaduct to uphill for a short climb. I had being starting to get some feelings of sleep deprivation in the previous 20 minutes or so, and it was still a long way to go before the natural waking effect of dawn would arrive. So passing under the arch I made a snap decision to have a 10 minute power nap to try to neutralise the sleepiness.

So I just lay down on the ground, grabbed my GPS, found the alarm setting on it and set it for 10 minutes after the decision to nap. There was a probably another few minutes of just lying there with my mind racing, but eventually I did nod off. Thankfully the alarm did wake me, so it was up and off again, beginning with a few seconds of staggering about before properly getting go. I made a conscience effort to dig in here and do a good strong climb up the hill to try to push myself into a fully woken state.

After what feels like a short trip through a few people’s front gardens the Pennine way descends through a few fields again back to near the road. At the bottom of this hill last year I had slipped on a flagstone and landed so hard on my nose and knee that I was surprised not to break one of them. So I beside the flagstones this year, and then crossed over a style. On crossing the style I glanced back up to hill to see two headtorches heading down the hill towards me. That was a big surprise. I was not expecting that at all.

(I have since heard that Pavel did not take the 1:50 sleep he had said he would, but instead got up after an hour to get going again and put a gap between himself and Eugeni. Eugeni then heard him and got up himself to do whatever was necessary to stick with Pavel)

I headed off with a bit of a start and soon came to the climb up the next hill . Near the top of the hill I looked back to see the two lads just starting the climb themselves, maybe 300 meters behind me. Murphy’s law kicked in and I made a minor navigation error to lose another 20 or 30 seconds before kicking on and heading cross country, and then on to another short climb beside a wall. Looking back near the top of that climb the gap had closed again I reckoned it was closer to 200 meters now.

I had quick think. Should I just relax completely, let them put in the work to close the gap, and then work with them through the navigationally tricky flatish section that was coming up next. Or should I switch from running at a relaxed pace to pushing on to a faster, but still cruisy pace (I still had no intention of pushing hard here. I still needed to exercise control and ensure that I would still be able to run all the way through). I opted for option 2! At worst they’d have to work harder for longer to catch me, and given I had more sleep banked that would theoretically leave me level pegging, but better rested heading into the business end of the race.

So I concentrated on pushing up to a  controlled fast cruise pace over the next flatish section of trail, and then working with gravity to keep the pace up on the descent down to final crossing of the A689. When I looked back up from the road I couldn’t see any headtorches, so I must have started opening up the gap a little again.

The next section is probably the most navigationally challenging of the race. The first section is straightforward enough, running a little downhill parallel to a wall. On this section last year Tim Laney got distracted in the dark as he ran past a large dark cow, only to run slap bang into the middle of another cow (which apparently was unperturbed by this). Any large bovine obstacles were a little further away from the trail this year. The track then meanders around a boggy flat section, where I lost the trail briefly before finding slabs and boardwalk again. Looking back I could see the other 2 leaving the road. The gap had increased to maybe 400 meters now.

I pushed on, down an unnatural feeling trail which dives down to a river crossing, before turning sharply and heading back up the opposing banks. At this point all traces of a trail disappear, and don’t re-appear for several kilometers. I kept the concentration on solid forward motion with occasional GPS checks to keep me on line. Eventually we cross a large boggy area with a long shallow climb and descent. There was a bit of a trail here, but it was incredibly waterlogged. Another look back seemed to indicate that I was consistently growing the gap.

Last year Pavel and myself had worked together on this section and we diverted into the village of Greenhead to get some refreshments at the hotel there (including a pint of that fantasy lemonade in my case!). The timing is wrong for a repeat of that this year for multiple reasons. So I stuck to the Pennine way and made my way towards Hadrian’s Wall. I had been looking forward to the Hadrian’s wall section last year, but sleep deprivation made the whole experience more of a survival challenge. I’d cleared out my earlier sleep deprivation with my power nap, so I was determined to enjoy it a bit more this year.

Approaching the carpark at the main entrance to the wall there was a car parked on the road with its lights on. Given the time of night it could only be race staff. Sure enough it turned out to be Phlip, who had been tasked to remind us here that we were to follow the original Pennine way route along the wall and not the (much easier and faster) diversion route. He asked if I’d like a coffee, but I asked if he had any lemonade! He did have coke, and I gratefully drank a good amount of it. Knowing the other two were still chasing I moved off quickly.

The first Hadrian’s wall section went a lot better than last year, and with my concentration on keeping up a controlled running pace I felt I was making very good progress. At a farmhouse near the end of the first section of the wall (I let the 3 road crossings divide up the journey along the wall into 4 parts) two people were waiting on the track. These turned out to be part of the race safety crew. They were there to meet us and do an assessment of our mental state (presumably physical too, but since all 3 of us out here were running there clearly was no issues there).

I slowed to a walk and they walked with me, explaining what they were doing, which was to ask me a series of questions. Unfortunately their first question was “what year was September 11th”. I was 100% mentally alert at this time. Too alert maybe, as I couldn’t contain my inner smart-alek with the answer that “every year has September 11th. That’s the way it works”, even though I knew exactly what they were trying to ask. I did manage to hold myself back when they asked what day of the week it was (real answer : “I couldn’t care less, I’m in a race bubble and that has no relevance at this point”), and gave them my best guess. But then I had no idea what time of night it was… all I was paying attention to was sunrise and sunset, so I hadn’t allowed for the fact it was after midnight.

After the brief interrogation they let me off again, and I made my way down to the road. When I looked back I could see 2 head torches again, but of course that was just the safety team watching me head away. In fact that was the last time I was to see any trace of anyone behind me. I had done a good job on building the gap again. I was confident now that I could continue to slowly build this, or at worst hold it, all the way to CP5 at Bellingham.

The rest of the trip along hadrian’s wall went smoothly. A bit beyond halfway the light of the dawn started lighting the landscape up nicely, and I was treated to views that I didn’t get to witness last year. I maintained my concentration on keeping a good steady pace, whether marching up the steep steps of the multiple “bumps” the wall traverses, or running across the tops of the hills.

Finally the trail junction and left turn that signifies the end of the the Pennine Way’s traversal of Hadrian wall. It was nice to see this section of the route in daylight this year… a completely different and much improved experience. At the road crossing near Ladyhill two different carloads of supporters were waiting. I gratefully accepted the offer of a little soup from the first group, as the forest around Haughton Common had yet again proved itself to be a few degrees lower in temperature than Hadrian’s Wall. I asked the second group if they had any lemonade or coke, but no luck there!

heading towards bellingham

Leaving the supporters, heading towards Bellingham

A few Kilometers later I approached the farm buildings at Horneystead. Last year the couple who farm there had greeted Pavel and myself at about 3am, and led us into one of their farm buildings where they had set up couches and chairs, and plied us with all sorts of refreshments. We stayed chatting with them for a lovely 20 or 30 minutes. This year they were not out to meet me, even with the more sociable hour, but there were several signs directing Spine racers into the same building to help themselves to refreshments.

On arriving in I found a similar set-up to last year, along with a not to help ourselves, and a note apologising to Pavel and myself that they couldn’t be there to meet us in person this year, but wishing us well. What absolutely lovely people! I had a quick peek in the fridge and lo-and-behold what did I find but some cans of lemonade. Oh these people are the greatest. After hours and hours,and whilst still out on the course between CPs I got to indulge in my fantasy drink!

On the road just after that the second group of supporters from the earlier road crossing met me again, this time offering me a bottle of coke and some chocolate. Wow, people are so good!

The rest of the journey to  CP5 went nice and smoothly. I was thinking to myself that the long road sections were likely to fry the legs of anyone who had run too hard earlier, and as usual I was exercising my standard mantra of control, and just running a steady metronomic ultra pace. I was trying to calculate the time of day I would arrive at the Bellingham CP, eventually thinking that 3pm was the worst case scenario. Even that time left plenty of daylight to be exploited, so my plan was to go through CP5 in the minimum amount of time, and utilise the daylight to get to Byrness at a good speed.

There was plenty of race signposting near the CP in Bellingham to bring us in on the proper Pennine Way and avoid the road, as the official signposting is pretty poor here. I was a bit ahead of my worst case predictions arriving into the CP.

approaching bellingham

Approaching the Bellingham CP (Photo by Andrea Nogova)

Phlip had clearly been tasked with moving the bags of the front 3, as he was here again being his usual extremely helpful self, along with a few others manning the CP. As I simply wanted to make a few changes (the usual maps and batteries, along with socks and possibly a base layer) I was declining any offers of anything that would slow down my exit, including a shepherd’s pie.

There was a bit of discussion about the need to carry 800 calories of food with me leaving the CP, and I wondered who was making up this rubbish on the fly. I pointed out that I had eaten a grand total of about 3 chocolate snacks outside CPs in total over the course of the race so far, and I had the same amount again with me now. I did get a bag of jelly babies and added it to my food store to be transported to the finish line to placate them a bit. I did drink two more mugs of hot chocolate (Phlip knew exactly where to find it now!), and after asking was there any real fruit juice, I was also given some orange juice, which was great.

Of course I was also asking about my lead, and what was happening behind me. Apparently I had at least an hours lead built up by now. Also, interestingly, Pavel had managed to create a gap to Eugeni. I was glad to hear that. I wouldn’t like to see Pavel do all the navigation only to be beaten to the finish line. An hour was a useful lead, and all the better considering I was feeling in great shape, and fully motivated to head out and make good time to Byrness. An enquiry with the CP staff about passing shops revealed that I would pass right by a co-op and a cake shop heading through Bellingham. I’d definitely allow myself a stop in the co-op to get something different to drink.

It took me a little bit of time to get going properly again, but after about a 20 minute stop I was off and running down the road towards Bellingham village itself. I was most definitely on the home straight now, with no more full CPs left, and race-wise I was in an excellent position, in the lead and apparently faster than the chasers.

In Bellingham the cake shop came before the co-op, and after a brief look in the window I couldn’t resist going in and getting two nice cakes. I then picked up a litre of fruit juice and a bottle of strawberry flavoured milk in the co-op. A nice new variety for the palette. I threw the water from my “active” bottle and replaced it with fruit juice, keeping the weight gain to my pack from this stop to a minimum.

After walking up the steeper hills out of Bellingham I concentrated on running as much as possible for the next sections. It would be easy to relax too much into a lazy style at the point. I was very happy that I was still setting a nice running pace, even on the waterlogged gentle climbs. To be running at all on any climbs at this point in the race was a good sign that I was pacing well. I had also learned from a few minor navigation slips on this section last year, and didn’t make any deviations from the route this year.

Progress to and from the B6320 road crossing and onwards across the hills of Troughend Common was an excellent controlled ultra pace. Even the sharp climb up by the forest edge after Padon hill felt like it was at least as fast as last year. Light was rapidly running out at this point, and I was back to running by headtorch light. I was glad to have made it to within a few kilometers of the long forest fireroad section in the daylight.

The next two or 3 kilometers are an extremely slow very waterlogged marshy section that seems to take forever, before finally emerging onto the fire roads of Redesdale forest. I upped the pace to a nice controlled fast cruise for the long long descent on the fire roads, which relatively rapidly closes the distance to Byrness. On the uphill intervals here I managed to get a powerful nordic walk going with the poles, so that I was maintaining a good pace all the way.

Getting to the bottom of the fireroad descent feels like the end of the journey to get to the checkpoint at Byrness, but there are another 3 kilometers or more of flat running remaining that have to be bludgeoned through. This section had a few fallen trees to be negotiated, which disrupted my running rhythm briefly, but after what seemed like an age I eventually got to the race signs directing us on to the out-and-back trip to the checkpoint at the forest view B&B in Byrness.

As it had been dark for a while now I was starting to feel the early symptoms of sleep deprivation again. At minimum I would take a half-hour nap here in preparation for the big-push over the Cheviot hills to the finish. But I would see what the race situation was before making a final decision on what to do. Hopefully the race volunteers would have a full picture of what was going on from the tracking. My decision on what I would do here would most likely be my last big call of the race. I knew I had controlled my own pace so well to this point that I more than likely had full control over the race at this point, but I still had to be careful not to get this wrong and give Pavel a sniff of an opportunity. How to balance the timing of this last sleep could be pivotal.


Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 2 Comments

The Spine Race 2016 , 4 – Attempted Getaway

I was trying not to look back too much. Just stay focussed on running forwards at a steady pace. The standard mantra… Control. Control. If the trail angle allowed it I would let myself take a sideways peek for head torches out of the corner of my eye. They were following of course, but I seemed to have opened a useful gap of at least a few minutes. It’s hard to judge at nighttime though. Just concentrate on steady progress. Control!

The run along Sleightholme moor went well. I held the path all the way without a problem or a hesitation. The trail then drops to a bridge across a small river, and a small roadway takes us out of the little valley and beyond. I remember this being a good long runnable road section from last year. At this time of night there are a lot of ice patches on the road though. I had to be careful with each foot placement as the chances of slipping and fracturing a bone were quite high, given that I was running along at a nice pace. A few small hollows along the way required stepping along the grass verge to be absolutely sure of not going flying. Control!

I knew that there was a left turn off the road onto track to take me towards a lone house on the other side of the small valley on my left. But I had been concentrating so hard on keeping my pace steady without slipping that I looked across and realised that I was coming too close to the lights of the house on a parallel course. Aaaaaaah feck! A new navigation mistake for my Spine collection. I double checked on the GPS, and sure enough that’s exactly what had happened. I had missed the turn-off and carried on down the road.

An instant decision was taken to just barrel straight across and rejoin the Pennine Way as quickly as possible. This turned into a little mini adventure. For the first hundred meters it was good running across grassy meadows. Then a dive down a steep bank and a quick wade across a river, before climbing the bank on the other side. Another hundred meters or so of nice meadow running led me to the top of a cliff edge… yes I had remembered this would be there from looking across at it last year. No time for niceties now though. A quick glance down towards where the Pennine way should be and I still couldn’t see headtorches. All is not lost yet. A peak over the edge of the cliff reveals a severely steep 10 or 20 meter drop to the grass-banked riverside.

I put my poles in one hand and try to make a controlled descent. Whooosh… there goes the control! I tumbled down 5 or 10 meters, but then regained control and stopped. Crap… I’ll have to climb back up to get the poles , which I had instinctively let go of (so that they wouldn’t cause any injuries to me in a fall. I had learned this from my Alpine Climbing instructor who had instructed a group of us for 2 weeks a broken thumb, thanks to having his pole strap around his arm when he took a tumble). But the poles had followed me. Good old gravity. So I just reached out and picked them up, and was off again. Another quick river wade was followed by a brief run along the riverbank on the other side. There were cliffs next to me now which needed to be climbed to get up to the Pennine Way, so I looked for a relatively safe spot to climb. I quickly came to a wall which provided that opportunity.

Sure enough, it was climbable here without too much of an issue and I quickly topped out with only a wall crossing left before finally getting back on the Pennine Way proper. Despite all this, and to my own surprise, there was still no sign of any following headtorches. Things are going well!

The Pennine way branches here. Everyone in the race was going to take the much shorter direct route bypassing the town of Bowes, of course. It was easy enough following this in daylight last year, but I was making a few minor deviations here and there, slowing me down as I worked through the rougher ground to get back on track. Still no sign of following headtorches though.

Approaching the tunnel crossing under the A66 road I could see across the valley behind me and finally caught sight of the chasing torches. I reckoned the gap was somewhere around 10 minutes, but it’s harder to judge at night. That was pretty good, considering I’d had a wander or two over the last few kilometers. But enough of that… control, just keep moving forward at a steady pace and let the dice roll.

The next section of undulating hills over the open moorland of Cotherstone Moor seemed to take an age last year. This year in comparison it seemed like I was just rolling along, even on the longest climb of this section. I was very happy to be able to take a large proportion of it at a relaxed running pace. I followed the GPS basemap track towards the end of this section, which in reality probably had me off the on-the-ground Pennine Way track, but from memory would have been drier terrain.

Hitting the roads taking my around Blackton Reservoir I was nicely tapping along, still running, still at a very steady controlled pace. I got a big surprise crossing the first cattle-grid I encountered on these roads. It turned out that it was much more icy than it looked. I had no traction on it whatsoever and ended up with both my feet and poles sunken into the cattle grid. No harm done, but a little bad luck could easily have caused a serious leg injury there. Every cattle grid from then on was crossed at the edge, holding onto the sides!

Climbing up the road here I again could see headtorches on the other side of the valley. I reckoned the gap was opening up though. I’ve been dangling out in front for quite a while now. If I could keep mistakes to a minimum then I should be able to make this gap stick all the way the CP at Middleton without a problem. That would give me an opportunity to turn this into a significant breakaway.

The pattern continued on. I was finding the going much easier than last year, even though I had covered this section in daylight then. Perhaps the familiarity with what lay ahead was having a good psychological impact. And again, anytime I caught site of the head torches behind the gap had, if anything, grown a little.

One of my personal favorite views on the race is rounding around Harter Fell and seeing Middleton in the valley below. At night time the view was even nicer, especially now that the weather was clear and there was a nice dusting of snow covering the ground. The descent down to Middleton is a truly joyous affair. It’s one of those descents that you just love as a trail-runner. A lovely moderate slope that is covered in fairway-esque grass. This could potentially be run at full-on 110% sprinting descent speed. I was happy to led gravity do the work of pulling me down the slope to effectively “float” down the hill at good but controlled speed.

Bruce from CP3 was waiting just after the bridge in Middleton and ran along side me for while and chatted. He asked what I wanted from the CP, then ran ahead to get it all ready. I trotted on through the deserted town and made my way into the CP building. After the sleep at Tan Hill Inn I wanted to make this a quick stop. I didn’t actually need to do much other than make my standard swaps of maps and batteries. I took up the offer of hot food and drinks, as I might as well get some in whilst doing my swap overs. My main aim here was to get out of the CP before the other 2 arrived in, thus ensuring I would maintain a gap. At that hour of the morning I wasn’t at my conversational best, but it was still good to chat with the volunteers in the CP, who as ever helped me in every way they could.

It wasn’t too long before I was heading out again. I’d achieved my main aim to get out before the chasers arrived in. Now lets see if we would meet in the next kilometer or so in Middleton as I make my way back to the Pennine Way proper (It’s another out and back trip to the CP in Middleton). I made my way steadily back through the town, anticipating the moment I’d crossover with the chasers, but to my delight I made it all the way back to the Pennine way. As I started heading out along the flat riverside track out from Middleton I could see the headtorches making their way down the hill above me to my left. It would seem that I had grown the gap again. I’ve a good chance of making this stick for quite a while. At the least, I’ve got control of the race from this point. Even with an instant check-in and turn around at CP3 they would still not be able to see me ahead through the next section along the river Tees.

The dawn light for a lovely run up alongside the Tees. I’d had a few mini-mistakes along this section last year, but went along flawlessly this time. On the farm track down to the bridge crossing over the river I did find a nice ice patch and landed on the track with a thud in a short blast of expletives. Last year we were diverted around Cauldron Snout due to the cold weather and high winds. At CP3 one of the Volunteers had asked how long it would take me to get to the diversion point, as he was going to go out to check if it was safe. There was no sign of a diversion when I arrived at the decision point, so onwards on a section I hadn’t seen before.

Even though it is shorter on paper than the diversion, the original route proved to significantly slower. For whatever reason I felt a wave of tired as I ran along the river-side track towards Falcon Clints. Every so often the cliffs almost merged into the river so that the track disappeared into huge boulder fields which were very hazardous to traverse, since the rocks were quite slippy. The views were undeniably stunning though. Cauldron Snout itself was roaring in spectacular fashion. Getting past it proved to be slightly easier than traversing the earlier boulder fields.

falcon clints

The Pennine way, Looking back near Falcon Clints (on a much better snow and ice free day)

From there it was back to ice covered roads for a while. I carefully worked my way along those, before crossing Maize beck. A fast march uphill followed, going past red flags on adjacent flagpoles (presumably indicating an active firing range), and then working across the isolated landscape up towards High Cup Nick. This for me is where the best views of the race are to be had. The steep cliffs nearby make for exhilarating running around here. The earlier tiredness had gone away and I was back to steady paced running again. I hadn’t seen any sign of the chasers since back at Middleton.

High Nick Cup

A summer view of High Nick Cup from near the Peninne Way…. Stunning!

The long descent down to Dufton from Dufton Fell eats through the kilometers, especially with the views down into High Nick Gill and beyond. The trail widens into rough road lower down, allowing an even faster comfort decent speed. Near Dufton one of the race safety teams were waiting to check that all was OK. I just slowed to walk to say hello, but quickly headed on into Dufton village, having a quick conversation with some cycling locals along the way. I was wishing for a shop in the village, but there was none… time to stop fantasizing about the various drinks I now couldn’t have, since it’s going to be water all the way from here.

decending towards dufton

Descending towards Dufton. (Photo by Andrea Nogova)

Getting back onto the Pennine Way after Dufton I had memories of it being-unrunnably awful here, but more of it turned out to be runnable than I thought. There was still plenty of deep muddy section to squelch through though. Now begins the climb to the highest point of the race. Time to put the head down and churn out some power pole climbing. I had lost some time on this climb last year wandering across the mountain from track to track, so I made sure to nail the navigation this time. I felt like I was making good speed powering up. The weather was quite variable, with blue skies changing to grey murk at different altitudes. In the blue sky sunshine it was particularly beautiful, with light bouncing all over the place on the snowy ground.

As I climbed higher and higher the snow cover became more pronounced, with the trail correspondingly less so. I found the trail all the way to the first of the peaks, Knock Fell, without a problem. From here the snowdrifts made things a lot harder though. It took a little crunching about and sinking into the drifts before I was able to locate the trace of the underlying slabbed tracks again. Even at the the snow was thick enough that it was still slowing me down considerably moving down off Knock Fell towards the road leading to Great Dun Fell. I looked back once or twice here to see some stunning views. Temperature inversion had the snow-covered peaks emerging from the cloud banks in an alpine style vista.

I didn’t immediately find the Pennine Way track that heads directly off road to Great Dun Fell, so had to do a little cross country through the snow drifts to re-acquire it. Thankfully the trail itself wasn’t too deeply drifted and I made it up to the boundary fence of the huge Radomes at a good enough speed. Coming off Great Dun Fell was a different matter. The snow had built up quite deeply on this side, obliterating any trace of a track for the early line of sight. It was back to being closed misty weather now as well, so visibility was getting quite restricted. Boy was I glad to have moved fast enough to get this section in daylight. I didn’t have too much of that left either, so time to kick on and try to get across these peaks with that significant advantage.

The trip from Great Dun Fell to little Dun Fell should be a short little undulation, but it took a huge amount of concentration and track-hunting to the ground covered efficiently. Any time I lost the track I was quickly reminded of the advantage of having the slabs somewhere under my feet when I would sink beyond my knees into drifts. From Little Dun Fell to the flanks of the highest peak of the race, Cross Fell, upped that a notch again. There wasn’t much of a track to be found on most of the climb here, so it was a matter of learning to read the patterns of snow over grass and rock to find the lines of least resistance.

I was very happy to reach the huge stone construction that marks the peak of Cross Fell still having reasonable daylight, even though it was definitely very murky at this point. Descending from here is not as easy a task as it could. It’s vitally important to stick as closely to the official track as possible as there a huge number of hazardous features from abandoned mines to the left, and heading too far to the right is just going so far off course that it would all need to be reversed. To me the correct line off the top is an “unnatural” line which isn’t the direction you would instinctively run. So I paid good attention to navigation here. On the steeper upper slopes before the sharp right turn towards Greg’s Hut I was going so quickly that I ended up flying off and arse-skiing for a moment!

After the right turn the mountain road that headed past Greg’s hut (A small stone built mountain bothy) had a good snow covering, but I had enough light to hunt out the most efficient lines and was able to keep a good controlled running pace for most of the road. I ran straight past Greg’s hut. everything was good and I had nothing to gain, but plenty to lose, if I stopped. A couple of kilometers of steady running, with the occasional uphill walk took me to the end of the eastwards flatish section of the road to where it start to turn northwards. In my head this is the point where I’m leaving the high Fells and starting the long descent towards Alston and CP4. It was also the end of the usable daylight, so I turned my head torch on.

I hadn’t been doing much looking for chasers in the the last while, but the turn in the trail and the fact that head torch lights are easy to spot over long distances meant that I was taking the odd sideways glance. At first I thought I could see them in the distance coming down off Cross Fell. But I soon corrected myself to realise I had my angles wrong and that I was seeing the light of buildings or streetlights in the far distance.

On the next gentle uphill section I tried turning off my headtorch. I found that there was enough ambient light bouncing around the snow that I could trot along quite happily on the mountain road. So the headtorch stayed off. Approaching the Apex of another short climb in road I could see the beams of bright lights approach from the other side, which I guessed was a vehicle, and further guessed would be race staff heading up the hill, probably to Greg’s hut. All guesses proved correct, as they stopped in front of me, check all was OK and if I needed anything. After a brief chat we all set off again in our opposing directions.

spine - decending from cross fell

Chatting with the Race Crew during the descent off Cross Fell

It was noticeable that their four wheel drive had had quite an effect on the snow and ice covering the path, cracking the ice along its tracks and leaving a solid trail. It would definitely alter the characteristics of the descent for a while.

This is a very long descent, and all of it is on road from this point. Anyone who runs this too fast will fry their leg muscles. Anyone who has moved too fast to get here will have problems sustaining a downhill run on the continuous hard surface. My standard mantra was as important as ever here. Control. Keep the pace to a good steady run. Don’t run too fast, don’t give in and walk.

The descent down to the village of Garrigill was very long, but uneventful. The onset of the night was triggering my sleep instinct. I didn’t want to do too much to stop this, as I had every intention of taking a good length sleep in the comfort of CP4 at Alston, which was now getting very close. Just like last year, running through the village after the long descent is a bit of a drag, but the ultra-runner in me just keeps up the discipline and digs out the steady unspectacular run. Good metronomic instinctive ultra pacing.

Beyond the village is another turn onto a riverside (downriver thankfully) run towards CP4. Only a few kilometers to go. I had heard other runners before the race discussing this as being about an hour away. So I mentally put that time in my head, knowing I would probably beat that, but to prepare for the worst. The race crew had warned me that this section had been affected by the floods over christmas and to be careful of flood debris left on the riverside sections of trial. Such was the mental readiness I had that the reality moved along swiftly and easily. Within about half an hour I found the first of the race signs directing me up towards CP4.

On the steep road up towards the CP two of the CP staff had come out down the road to meet me. They checked if I wanted any food and drinks. I gladly accepted the offer of a hot meal, but then had to let them I actually don’t like pasta (which they had offered). The suggested alternative of scrambled eggs was perfect though!

Knowing that I was going to rest here, I could really start to feel myself slowing down approaching the CP. As ever, all the staff at this CP were super-helpful. I asked one of them (Phlip, I think) to dig out a jar of hot chocolate powder from my re-supply bag. That was a delicious treat. I was of course very interested indeed to see where Pavel and Eugeni were at this point. They were making their way down the track way beyond Greg’s hut, getting closer to Garrigill. I guessed there was maybe an hour’s gap there. I was still increasing the gap, but not by much, and given that I was going to sleep here it was likely to disappear shortly.

I let them know I was going to take a 2 hour sleep, so I was led up to a bedroom where I hit the sack, finished off my second mug of hot chocolate and went out like a light! My expectation was that when I awoke the other 2 would either well into a sleep themselves, or would have skipped sleep and be out on the trail ahead of me. That would be their call. I was happy that I was making the right long term decision in grabbing a relatively big sleep here, even if it meant surrendering a lead built over a complete day. Once again the stops CPs were the source of big tactical calls!

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The Spine Race 2016, 3 – Little Details, Big Effects

Control. That was becoming my main mantra. Control. Keep the pace under control. Keep the effort under control. It’s a long race. Who will be running fastest at the end will more than likely have a much bigger impact than who is running fastest at the beginning.

So I ran down through Hawes village at a nice steady pace, despite knowing that somewhere in front of me Pavel was making a break for the lead and Eugeni was desperately trying to catch him so he could continue to follow Pavel’s navigation. No stressing the quads on the tarmac road descent… no stressing anything at all!

The Pennine way heads off the road and through floodplain parkland just after we exit the town. Much to my surprise I catch sight of Pavel and Eugeni a few hundred meters ahead. I would have expected them to be well out of site at this point. I stopped briefly for one or two more adjustments and then ran on. Again, surprisingly, I was closing the gap easily enough. By the start of the track which climbs up Great Shunner Fell I had overtaken Eugeni and was cruising up behind Pavel. So yet again we were back as a group.

We were losing daylight rapidly at this stage. I was very happy that I was lasting so far into the race without any sleep deprivation issues. The climb up Great Shunner Fell was a long slog, without much of significance from a racing point of view to note. The higher we climbed, the more the snow obscured the path, so that even the stone slabbed sections of the PW were getting harder and harder to find. I’m a pretty good instinctive pathfinder and I was happy to lead out the group and hunt out the track, now under head-torch light. Occasionally I’d lose it and work with the others to refind it.

It was a similar story for the long descent, except that at the higher speed of descent, track-hunting has to be done even more quickly. The potential to have a nasty fall by wandering off the underlying slabs into a hole, or taking a slide on an ice-covered slab section, was always lurking, ready to potentially take one of us out of the race. On a few occasions Eugeni called me back as Pavel had dropped off the back of the group out of sight. We were happy to wait for him to rejoin, given the potential dangers in the darkness.

Hitting the little village of Thwaite at the end of the descent we found ourselves in another lovely winter-wonderland vista. I waited a minute or two for the others to rejoin and be fully ready for the next section, and then off we went. My route memory was proving to be the most accurate means of navigation on the steep climb out of Thwaite. For some reason I find the next high section traversing the valley side to Keld to be a very entertaining run. It’s full of little technical sections and lots of undulations, but is still mostly runnable. Group running remained the order of the day.

After Keld we climbed back out and onto the open moorland of Stonesdale Moor. This was a lovely run in the daytime last year, complete with a low roaring flypast by a pair of F-15s. But at night it was a lot less interesting, especially without the USAF! Still, there was a lot of runnable sections, so we were maintaining our high speed.

We were now approaching The Tan Hill Inn, shining invitingly in the distance, an oasis of comfort and civilisation in a sea of snow smothered moorland. At this point I was starting to feel the very early effects of sleep deprivation. I knew that if I carried on from here to CP3 at middleton without stopping then it would most likely turn into a horrific battling sufferfest of sleep deprivation by the end. So I decided that at minimum I would try to take a 15 minute power-nap here. Depending on conditions inside I might expand that to a more substantial first major sleep of the race. Obviously I’d also see what the other 2 were going to do. Being a virtual CP, this was yet another likely spot for another outbreak fun and games… tactical race chess moves!

spine colin searl approachng Tan hill inn

Colin Searle approaches the Tan Hill Inn later in daylight (Photo by Racing Snakes)

We arrived into a pub that was empty, apart from the Landlord and his wife, along with a small group from the race safety team. Pavel and Eugeni sat on stools right next to the open fire and started ordering food and drink. Language barriers seemed to be causing a few issues with the process. I tried to figure out what the lads were planning to do, but I wasn’t getting any clear answers. I wasn’t at all worried about getting in any food or drink and just went into the adjacent lounge, lay down on the couch and tried to grab a nap. I had asked one of the safety lads to get me up if anything happened, or in about half an hour.

About half an hour later I was awoken to find the 2 lad settling in for a sleep on the other couches in the room themselves. They were going to take about 2 hours. Grand. That’s the first big sleep so. I told the safety lads that I’d take the same sleep myself and went back to my number 1 task, returning to the land of nod.

I heard from someone after the race that the 2 lads were carefully watching each other as they were taking their outer layers off in preparation for getting some sleep, just in case one of them (it could only be Pavel) would make a break for it and leave the other behind. I’ve no idea how true this is, but I was happily oblivious to it all.

In what seemed like an instant we were woken again by the safety lads. I had very little to do to get out, as I hadn’t done much except take my rucksack and jacket off and lie on the couch. I took up the landlord’s offer of some soup, which was lovely and thick, full of big chunks of vegetables. He also gave me a great cheese plate and a piece of chocolate cake. I picked off as much as I felt I could, but I wasn’t massively hungry so left a lot behind. An orange juice went down nicely with this. I had an interesting discussion with the safety guys here too about the various personalities in the race, and the psychology of how being in the race bubble can affect people.

Of course, at this stage there was a live demonstration of race psychology taking place! The other 2 were slowly getting ready to leave. They had taken off a lot more of their layers, including their shoes. This was now slowing them down getting ready to head out again. The landlord came over to me and encouraged me to come back to the pub some time after the race, and I agreed that I’d love to, as it was a great pub in a great location. He gave me some good words of encouragement for the race as well.

By now I was impatient to get going. Pavel was having great difficulty getting his shoes back on, and was loudly uttering quite a few Czech words which I could probably guess the meaning of! There was a good reason why I didn’t take my shoes off… I didn’t want to get too comfortable only to have to face back into large levels of discomfort on restarting. I also knew that my feet would be more likely to swell if I removed my shoes. I was already wearing a pair one size too big, and knew that when I switched to my next pair they would be 2 sizes too big. Pavel appeared to be proving the disadvantages of the alternative approach. Little details!

So with that I walked out the door, telling the others that they would no doubt catch me down the trail, as had been the pattern so far in the race. But I reckoned there was an opportunity to break the pattern here. The trail out from the Tan Hill Inn is one of the more bleak sections of the Pennine way. It’s an unpaved track defined by the erosion of walkers over the years through waterlogged moorland. It is a gentle descent at first. It’s hard enough to follow in the daytime. At nighttime, with a snow dusting on top, it would really have to be hunted out. There were marker poles every few hundred metres for reassurance that you were on track. Given that I had lead out the track hunting up and down Great Shunner Fell, I reckoned I might have an edge in track hunting skills here.

I walked at first, giving the other 2 a chance to easily catch up, but then started back running. Enough of that, we’re in a race after all. Time to test my track hunting theories. So I picked up the pace to a steady cruisy run down the track. The trail was expectedly tricky to find, but I was enjoying the rush of finding it under these conditions. Here we go again! Another breakaway attempt. This time I reckon I have a good chance of making it stick for a while. At worst I can dangle out in front of them and maybe they’ll work a little harder to pull me back. Game on. There’s no chance of sleep deprivation kicking in now! Race mode fully engaged.


Posted in Mountain Running, Ultra Running | 3 Comments

The Spine Race 2016, 2 – The racing begins

The entry route to CP1 at Hebden Bridge is a short but very technical slippy trail followed by a steeper section of slippy rocky steps. People have fallen and broken limbs here in the past. To get back out onto the Pennine Way proper this must be reversed uphill. I had now created a gap. I had to be careful and controlled not to let it get to my head and rush out too fast, particularly on such high-energy technical ground. It was still very early in the race. The race couldn’t be won here, but it could easily have been lost. I was way ahead of my exit time from CP1 last year, when I stupidly tried to get some sleep here (big mistake, effectively throwing time away).

I overtook a few Challenger racers in the muddy section here who had left a few minutes before me, and powered away towards the track end. A kilometre or so of road climb takes us back to the Pennine Way again. I found myself able to run steadily up this road, effectively floating up. All was going really well. I had made a few navigation mistakes here last year, so I didn’t want a repeat of that. Jinxed! I managed to miss the right turn onto the Pennine Way and overran the junction. Luckily I figured this out within about 100 meters and reversed back quickly. Unfortunately I could see a pair of head torches heading rapidly for me, which of course was Pavel being followed by Eugeni. Still, I reckoned they must have worked hard to get back so quickly.

A short steep climb takes us up the ridgeline above, which I steadily “pole” up at cruise speed, not worrying about the gap. My 2 chasers close right up behind me. Now at this point I wandered around for a bit last year before heading off on a big obvious, but incorrect, track. This year I skipped the wandering around but still managed to head off on exactly the same incorrect track. If the other two called me back I didn’t hear it (and if they didn’t that was fine too… we were racing after all).

I looked behind after a few hundred meters and could see that nobody was following me…uh oh. So I fired up the GPS which I had on a lanyard around hanging on my neck and used it to make a quick location check. I’m normally used to racing in events where GPS devices are banned, and I’m a big fan of navigating using the traditional tools of a map and compass (which were also hanging around my neck instantly accessible). However a full proper GPS is mandatory gear for the Spine. If I’m going to be carrying a tool as useful as this with me then I’m definitely going to use it when its quickest tool at my disposal.

The speed and accuracy of the Garmin continued to impress me (I have found on this race that they can be used to fine tune pathfinding to within a meter or two in real world conditions). I was high of the path running roughly parallel to it. So I turned downhill and fought my way through the scrubby stumpy ground as best I could, aided by the fact I was descending. A minute or two later I was back on the proper track. I could see Pavel and Eugeni’s torches heading away in the distance. In the space of about 10 minutes I had managed to completely invert a small gap from a lead to a deficit. Cool, no panic! I’ll just carry on from here at my own pace and see how it works out.

I ran on at a comfortable pace. The gap varied by distance over time, but that was probably more down to the ups and downs of the terrain we were crossing. For a few periods I couldn’t see the 2 lads ahead at all. No worries. This is still very early in the race.

As I crossed the road after traversing around Ponden Reservoir I could suddenly see 2 headtorches not too far ahead up the hill. I followed the PW signposts along the road for a few meters before climbing a style taking me over a wall and ….arrgh!!…  a pretty well flooded piece of land. Oh well… onwards and splashdown into the temporary pond beyond knee level. Definitely no dry shoes and socks now.

I was really feeling like I was moving noticeably faster than last year as I climbed the hill up from the pond, and if anything it was taking less effort to do so. As I hit the open mountain again for the long shallow climb up Oakworth Moor I could clearly see the two lads up a few hundred meters ahead. Before the climb was finished, and within about 5 or ten minutes, I had closed the gap completely to rejoin them, again doing so at my own natural pace.

We naturally began working together again, with Pavel or myself making most of the nav calls, and Eugeni being occasionally asked to check his GPS to see were we on track. There were one or two small deviations, but we collectively corrected them very quickly. This settled in as the pattern again and took us all the way through Gargrave (which we passed through at too ungodly an hour of the morning to have a hope of taking advantage of the local shops), and onwards towards Malham.

On the long flatish riverside run approaching Malham we worked really well to ensure we were all safe, as by now the rain was appallingly heavy and the temperatures had dropped through the night, eventually turning the rain to snow. I was extremely comfortable wearing my waterproof down jacket under my Outdry Extreme Shell, with not a trace of dampness developing on my base layers. However I had delayed putting my gloves on for a little bit too long, and was glad to have Pavel’s help jamming them on over my now frozen hands.  Pavel’s super navigation took us right on course over the now snow-obliterated tracks. A quick confirmation on my GPS led us over onto the track taking us to the bridges leading through Malham.

Conditions were really wintry now, with the village being a lovely winter wonderland. We were making fresh tracks in the snow, as of course there was no-one else around. Visibility had become pretty poor too, making accurate navigation even more necessary. The journey up past the cliffs at Malham was steep and hard, but rewarding. As we worked our way towards “cp 1.5” at Malham Tarn Field Centre we could detect the early stages of dawn approaching.

spine cp1.5

Thanks to John Bamber for this Gem from Malham Tarn CP1.5 … No sleep deprivation here!

A warm welcome greeted us from the staff at CP 1.5, and we all took advantage of the facilities to have a warm drink. Eugeni also got out a sandwich for himself from his pack. I satisfied myself with a piece or two of Kendal mint cake which was provided here by tradition it would seem. The CP crew let us know that there were only 4 challenger racers ahead of us on the course. I didn’t want to get too comfortable here and we didn’t stay too long. We stuck together as a group heading off again into the emerging daylight.

spine exiting cp1.5

Heading out from Malham Tarn, fully enclosed in my Outdry Extreme bubble (Photo by John Bamber)

Just like last year there was plenty of wind around as we traversed around Fountains fell and onwards towards one of the big climbs of the race, Pen-Y-Ghent (PYG). The winds had caused us to be diverted around PYG last year. Given that they were still quite high as we approached, and there was fresh snow covering the ground I wondered would the same happen again. But no, there was no safety crew at the base to divert us. We could see a collection of people at the top waiting for our approach though.

spine approaching pyg from distance

The leading 3some approach Pen-Y-Ghent (Photo by Racing Snakes)

The very steep technical ground had us all taking this at our own natural pace. Eugeni surged forward and powered up the hill. I had to put both walking poles in one hand so that I could climb more effectively using my free hand for additional balance, as we were still being buffeted by quite strong winds on this exposed section. A collection of photographers greeted us at the top of the steep climb, and a short easy running climb took us to actual peak. Eugeni’s effort of powering up the hill didn’t gain him anything of course, as he waited here for one of us to come up and navigate off the mountain.

spine - me climbing pyg

Climbing Pen-Y-Ghent (Photo by Racing Snakes)

As had become the pattern we eventually all closed up again and ran most of the descent into Horton as a group, with the weather getting better as we descended off the exposed mountain top. In Horton one of the race safety crews had set-up a mini aid station at their van. We took advantage of their hospitality to grab some quick hot drinks and a few little snacks, along with a nice chat of course!

And the wide double track leading out from here Pavel made a little surge on one of the first climbs, but we all rolled back together again soon enough. I had encountered very heavy rain (driven by exceptionally high winds) on this section last year, so it seemed quite pleasant in comparison this year, as I only occasionally needed to flick my hood over my head as the odd shower rolled by. I made sure to look around every now and again to take in the views, including a classic English scene of a large stone arched railway viaduct crossing the landscape in the distance.

As we ascended the long road gentle road climb up the Cam Fell road I felt like the other two might be playing games, as they spoke in spanish to each other and then one would then put on a bit of speed to lead up the hill. I just tracked each move and let them at it, putting in the odd running spurt myself. I reckoned that it was equally possible that everyone was thinking the other two were ready to work against them! Lovely little mind games.

We turned off onto the muddy double track past Dodd Fell, with Eugeni making more frequent surges to lead us along. A group of about 5 motorbike scramblers passed us going the other way, leaving plenty of churned mud in their wake. Two or three land rovers followed not long afterwards, leaving even deeper ruts behind. Towards the end of this path we caught and passed one more challenger runner, leaving only the podium placers from that race in front of us.

Pavel was surprisingly slow on the descent into CP2 at Hawes, with Eugeni and myself occasionally waiting for him to rejoin us. Thankfully when we hit Hawes village itself there were separate signs directing the challenger finishers and the Spine racers to their respective aid stations for this CP (or finish in the case of the Challengers), so we didn’t have to do a big loop around the town.

Last year I had grabbed a couple of hours sleep here before being timed out as I went to leave. However we had been much much faster getting here this year, and it was still the afternoon. Plenty of usable daylight left. I wasn’t feeling sleepy either, so I wasn’t going to stop here for sleep. I still had a few jobs to do here. I wanted to switch around some of the clothes I was racing on, so that I had a more cold-weather oriented set-up, and switch from having a spare base layer in my rucksack to having my waterproof down jacket as my cold emergency spare layer (A little heavier and bulkier, but far easier to get on and actually use should the need arise). I also needed to do some standard replacements, such as switching maps, and swapping out batteries for my GPS and active head-torch.

Of course, this being a CP, the fun and games were likely to kick off here again. No doubt Pavel would try a move here. But I was going to do what I needed to do at my own pace and let the dice roll from there. We arrived in and all began taking off our mud-soaked shoes and leggings. Pavel nabbed the only chair in this outer room, but one of the race marshals quickly grabbed another few for us when I had a little whine! As ever, the marshalls were their usual helpful and friendly selves.

To my delight I established that the hot food available here was chicken curry. No way was I going to pass that up, even if I wasn’t particularly hungry. There were large bottles of coke nearby (A new innovation this year), so I grabbed one of those and brought to the table where I was eating. Eugeni and Pavel  joined me at the table, and we ate away quickly enough without too much banter. This was definitely a racing stop!

As we finished up our food and began to prepare to leave things were hotting up and getting spicier than the freshly digesting chicken curry. Pavel had a photographer meeting him around the course, and she was here helping him with his exit preparations. He was definitely in the mood to get out first. Eugeni was moving fast, as no doubt he wanted to stick with Pavel at any cost. I was getting things done as fast as possible, but at the same time ensuring that I didn’t forget to complete any of my little tasks.

Pavel burst out the door and could be seen running off heading down the village. Race on! within a minute Eugeni was hurrying out the door after him. He was looking panicked as he flew off after Pavel. It felt like an age was passing as I was putting my shoes, gators and rain – leggings back on after completing all of my other changes (Change of base layer leggings, adding a fleece mid-layer, and changing socks). But I kept to my own pace, and eventually I was off again, heading down through Hawes village.

This time the split was 3-way, so the race was definitely back on again after a prolonged period over working together and watching out for each other. How we would each pace out from here would be very interesting indeed, as after a day and half of racing, heading for the 2nd night of the race, we had effectively been going non-stop and were all bound to be dealing with the building fatigue in different ways. Sleep deprivation was bound to start to become a factor with the approaching loss of daylight. We now had gaps to build and close as well. And to top all that immediately in front of us was one of the big sustained climbs of the race… about 6km of steady, potentially runnable, ascent to the peak of Great Shunner Fell.



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