2021 Montane Summer Spine Race: 19-25 June 2021
Updated: Jan 29
With the race starting in Edale at 4pm on a Saturday, the first thing a ‘Spiner’ has to do is to think about logistics before the race itself – Edale itself is a tiny village with virtually no accommodation, the point-to-point nature of the race makes public transport a far better option than driving, and the 4pm start time means that you want to wake up as late as possible on the Saturday to avoid sleep deprivation problems early in the race. So I found myself travelling by train to the Premier Inn in Sheffield on the Friday evening, watching updates of the England-Scotland Euros game on my mobile phone on the way. Having managed to sleep in until 10am, when I returned to Sheffield Station to catch the train to Edale, I noticed a number of other participants – recognisable by the suspicious amounts of lycra, trail shoes, poles, large drop bags, and small running backpacks that they were sporting. Most seemed to have chosen rather larger backpacks than my 12 litre Salomon, and many of them also seemed to have had some experience of previous Spine Races / Spine Challengers, whether winter or summer editions, as well as other races in the Pennines / Yorkshire Dales. I certainly felt like a bit of an ‘amateur’.
Arriving in Edale, the registration and kit-check process was remarkably smooth, although there appeared to be some confusion over my race number, which led to a photo of Tracey Dowding accompanying my profile on the OpenTracking website for the majority of the race. That left plenty of time to have a couple of coffees, fill my drinks bottles and sort out my backpack for the first stage, leaving everything else in the drop bag.
Start Edale to CP 1 Hebden Bridge (74km)
The race started at 4pm on the Saturday in fairly warm weather – warm enough that I already had to remove a layer after only 40 minutes. Following some gentle paths out of the valley took us to Jacob’s Ladder, the first big climb of the day that led up to the top of Kinder Scout. Before the race there was a lot of talk about the “brutal” climbs – maybe it’s the training that I had done, maybe it’s the fact that I came to ultras more from a trekking / mountaineering background than from a running background, but I didn’t really get out of breath and found it pretty easy; the downhills later on were a different matter entirely! Topping out led to long stretches of undulating hilltops with wide-ranging views – flat in most places with occasional dips and rises, allowing me to keep a good jogging pace for most of the way. This continued for about 4 hours until the path narrowed and steepened as we descended directly into dazzling low sunlight down the side of a ravine towards Torside Reservoir, where there was a marshal with water to refill our drinks bottles. The terrain was generally pretty easy, but the ground was rock hard and I was already beginning to regret my shoe choice of Inov8 TrailTalons as opposed to going with the crash mat-thick soles of the Hokas. 30km in and already the field had begun to spread out a lot, and we had started to overtake some of the backmarkers from the 2pm start wave of the Spine Challenger Race.
Climbing back up from Torside to the top of the hills led to a lot more of the same – long stretches of flat highland with occasional dips, but quite runnable and the question was how hard to push now given that I was less than 10% into the race, and I didn’t want to trash my legs for the remaining 90%. Darkness fell at around 10.30pm and with headtorch on, the first runner from the 6pm start wave caught up with me just after 11pm – he was going pretty fast and had covered in 5 hours what I had taken 7 hours to complete, but at the same time I was pretty encouraged when it was another two hours before the next runner from that wave caught up with me.
By now the temperature had dropped, the wind had picked up, and it had started to rain quite heavily, so the waterproof top came on and I pushed on to the A62, where an enterprising woman had set up a burger van and was selling hot drinks and food. It was getting very cold and windy by now, and about 5 or 6 of us had stopped here – I put my waterproof trousers on had a coffee and Twix, but 20 minutes of stationary time was probably costing me more in terms of body heat than it would have done to have kept moving. Heading back onto the track I suddenly found myself sinking waist deep into liquid mud – I tried to pull myself out, to no avail. Shit. I managed to get my right leg free and onto something solid, but my left leg was stuck completely fast. The last thing I wanted to do was risk losing my shoe as the mud was over a metre deep and it really would have been impossible to recover if it had come off. Just as I was beginning to panic, a headtorch came up behind me and I was able to warn him before he also landed in the mudpit – with his assistance I was able to get some leverage to pull myself clear and back on solid ground, albeit with my shoes, socks, legs, gloves and poles all absolutely covered in mud. I found out later on that I was not the only runner to have fallen into this particular trap, but the astonishing thing was that the mudpit itself was only a few metres wide, and either side of it the ground was completely solid.
Not surprisingly, I slowed down quite a bit after this, and while the rest of the night passed without incident, I was very grateful indeed when the sky began to lighten up, and the path descended into the narrow valley housing Hebden Bridge and the first Checkpoint. It was here that I first started to get sharp, stabbing pains on the side of my right knee. I knew that this was my IT Band tightening up and pulling across the kneecap, so tried stretching my quads and self-massaging the outside of my hip and thigh to loosen it up. It helped a bit, and I finally reached the CP at 6am, but I realised by now that I had undercooked my knee / leg strength work during training and this could well prevent me from finishing the race if I wasn’t extremely careful.
CP 1 Hebden Bridge to CP 2 Hardraw (175km)
In all the ultras I have done to date, the longest stage between check points has been about 25 km / 16 miles. This stage was more than 100km / 60 miles, longer than most ultramarathon races and over some of the most difficult terrain on the course, much of it at night and with the first bout of sleep deprivation to deal with.
The first half of the stage was relatively straightforward. I left Hebden Bridge at 9am and by mid-morning hit the southern part of the Yorkshire Dales, with the day made up of hills alternating with rolling farmland – long but not difficult. After 30 miles and 11 hours or so, I arrived along with a group of about 5 runners at Gargrave, where the Co-Op was still open and provided an opportunity for some refreshment beyond the standard diet of energy gels and jelly babies. The others had decided that they would try to get some sleep in Gargrave, bivvying in bus shelters, on the grass by the roadside, or under benches. I was still keen to build up enough of a time buffer such that I didn’t have to worry about cut-offs later in the race, so decided to press on and go throughout the night, at least until I got to CP 1.5 at Malham Tarn 13 miles away.
Night fell and the temperature dropped, but as the path slowly went uphill towards Malham things still felt OK. I came to the steep steps that led up to the limestone formations of Malham Cove and again didn’t have any problems. But when I emerged at the top of them before midnight, things started to get more challenging – I was faced with what seemed to be a field full of giant, 2 metre-high limestone mushrooms, and my GPS device was suggesting that the path involved standing on top of them and following them around in a giant loop. My headtorch couldn’t really get a good sense of the broader environment, and not having been to Malham Cove before, I was really disoriented by the whole situation. Still, I dutifully followed the GPS tracks, hopping from limestone pillar to limestone pillar and hoping that (a) I didn’t fall and injure myself, (b) my GPS device, or my mind, was not playing tricks on me. I almost got the fright of my life when two huge shining eyes loomed out of the darkness staring back at me – from a dead sheep.
Eventually the limestone shapes disappeared and I could see the shimmer of Malham Tarn in front of me, with the light of what I thought was CP 1.5 shining from across the water. It took me almost an hour to reach that light, as the path meandered around the perimeter of the lake, and my hopes of finding something substantial there to help me rebuild my energy levels were disappointed when I discovered that the light was from the (closed) Malham Tarn research building and that CP 1.5 was just a small tent with some hot water and a couple of camping chairs, with stays limited to a maximum of 30 minutes. I was feeling quite cold by now, so took the opportunity to have a coffee and eat some chocolate inside the tent, while trying to warm myself up. I don’t think it really worked, but it did take a chunk out of the hours of darkness and dawn was 30 minutes closer when I left the tent and started back on the trail.
The trail was surprisingly easy as it climbed back up onto the top of the hills, and as the sun came up, I was treated to some spectacular views off the side of Fountains Fell. The looming mass of Pen-y-Ghent soon appeared and at the same time, the chafing that had started to bug me the day before had become increasingly painful and did not seem to respond to either of the lubricants that I carried with me – Vaseline or Lanacane. By the time I reached the foot of Pen-y-Ghent, it had become really serious – my butt cheeks and thighs were both burning, notwithstanding my choice of anti-chafing underwear (‘Runderwear’) – and I was at risk of having the most embarrassing reason imaginable for a race retirement. After much fiddling around, I eventually took the drastic step of deploying my Compeed blister plasters, reasoning that I would figure out how to remove them later but that my immediate need was to get some physical barrier in place to separate the offending areas, which were all in delicate locations. It did seem to do the trick, and I was lucky that no-one passed by on the trail while I was hunched at the side, my shorts and pants down by my ankles.
Pen-y-Ghent was a steep rocky scramble, but as with all the hills on the course, the descent proved far tougher than the climb, and my worst fears about my knees appeared to be confirmed when despite steps being cut into the path, I really struggled to make it down and could only limp slowly towards the village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, where the path turned North and eventually joined the Dales Way at the start of the Cam High Road and West Cam Road. On paper this section seemed easy – relatively gentle ascents on a hard but straight path for 10 miles. The reality proved different as we (I had joined up with a couple of men who had caught up with me) had to climb into the teeth of a fierce headwind, and the relentless nature of the wind, cold temperatures and rock-hard surface completely numbed our feet. These were hard miles, made even more challenging by an impromptu detour that we had to make across moorland due to a helicopter using the trail as a landing site for delivering some kind of supplies.
Eventually the path turned down to descend towards the small town of Hawes and beyond it, the village of Hardraw and the second checkpoint, which I finally arrived at just before 2pm.
CP 2 Hardraw to CP 3 Middleton-on-Tees (226km)
This was the shortest, and probably the easiest and most pleasant of all the stages of the race – it’s all relative, so still a tough day out, but we were blessed with good weather during the night and the whole of the day, the terrain was relatively straightforward, and with the Tan Inn being en route, we passed the midway point of the whole race, which psychologically felt like a great achievement.
I almost didn’t get to leave CP2. Having slept longer than I expected – 4 hours – I was close to being timed out as I was nearing the 6-hour limit that you are allowed to stay in each checkpoint. Luckily, one of the marshals came to my tent to give me a friendly warning that I only had 30 mins left to get my drop bag fully packed and re-deposited (the point at which they deem you have left the check point).
It was a clear evening, and they warned me that the first ascent back up into the hills was long with a lot of false summits before you reach the actual peak. As it happens, I was too preoccupied enjoying the spectacular sunset to notice. There was the headlight of another competitor, Paul, somewhat ahead of me, and during the early part of the night we tended to leapfrog each other as he stopped for more breaks than me, and I slowed down markedly on any downhill stretches to protect my knees. After a couple of hours or so we came through Thwaite and caught up with another runner Louise, who told us that she’d just had an impromptu nap. The three of us stuck together for the next few hours of darkness as we navigated our way on winding tracks through wooded slopes and then back up onto the moors. Paul decided to stop for a nap while Louise and I pressed on towards the Tan Inn, which we eventually reached shortly after sunrise. Although the Inn itself was closed, a Spine marshal had got a heater on inside a dome-shaped shelter outside the Inn, so we both took the opportunity to get some sleep, me curled up in a bin bag under the chairs.
Everyone had gone by the time I had woken up and left at 9am, but I felt a lot better for the rest (although I’d only gotten about an hour of sleep) and the flat and dry-but-soft moorland meant that I could make fast progress. By late morning, I had caught up again with Paul and Louise, and the moorland gradually gave way to the lush farmland of the Tees Valley. After an encounter with the Spine Race cameraman (and cameo appearance on the Day 4 video update), we reached the outskirts of Middleton-on-Tees at lunchtime, and I took the opportunity to visit the local supermarket and pharmacy to stock-up on a couple of items (including some more painkillers) before heading to the checkpoint a couple of miles out of town along the Pennine Way.
CP 3 Middleton-on-Tees to CP 4 Alston (289km)
The Middleton checkpoint was the first one after the end of the Spine Challenger and Spine Sprint races, so was a lot quieter than the previous two. Still, with the field somewhat bunched up, it was quite busy and with sleeping being in tents outdoors I managed to set my GPS devices, phone and power banks charging while I grabbed some sleep. After 90 minutes or so I woke up, felt somewhat refreshed and did 15 minutes or so of stretches in the tent to get myself ready to start up again. Although the weather was very clear, the next stage would have quite a rocky, technical section with several scrambles to negotiate in darkness, followed by the highest climb of the entire Pennine Way to the summit of Cross Fell which typically has its own microclimate of strong winds, cold, rain and poor visibility and then a long descent to Alston.
I left the checkpoint at around 8.45pm and the first few miles along the banks of the Tees were flat and very pleasant – the Tees Valley really is a beautiful spot. I was on my own, but just enjoyed taking in the scenery and sounds as dusk gradually approached. As night fell and the headtorch went on, the path descended to the very shoreline of the Tees and disappeared into a mess of boulders, puddles and riverbank. There was not really any discernible path, but there didn’t appear to be any other route than straight ahead over the boulders and the GPS gave me some comfort that I was on the right way. A couple of times I could hear the rush of waterfalls, which I assume had to be Low Force and High Force, although I couldn’t make them out in the darkness, before eventually coming to a steep and quite exhilarating rocky scramble besides another waterfall that afterwards I learned was Cauldron Snout. The path returned and it followed a long gentle uphill slope across what seemed to be much flatter moorland – the half moon provided enough light to make out the silhouette of the horizon. I couldn’t see any headtorches ahead of me or behind me, so I figured that I would probably be on my own for the rest of the night. After a couple of hours, the V-shaped cleft of High Cup Nick opened up in front of me. Even in the dark, it was possible to make out its steep, symmetrical sides, and part of me wished I had a arrived a few hours later so that I could have seen it in daylight. The path went to the right, following the top of the slope and quickly became quite rocky and winding. I was starting to feel mentally very tired by now, and when I came to a point where my GPS told me to go left down a steep rocky slope while the pathway appeared to rise to the right, I became extremely confused and nervous. I was high up on the side of the High Cup Nick valley, and while the sky was clear, it was very cold and I couldn’t figure out what route to take. It was 2.30am by this point, an hour until it would start to get light again, so I decided to sit down, wrap myself in my emergency survival bag and rest – resting my mind as much as anything else – hoping that daylight would lift my spirits and reveal the way forward more clearly.
It was a long hour, and I’m not sure that I was particularly well-rested when the darkness abated and it became clear that my GPS was right and the path continued after a short rocky section down to the left. A couple of hours later I was descending into the village of Dufton, which at this early time was completely deserted. My spirits were not improved by the weather taking a turn for the worse, with the sky becoming overcast and rain starting to fall, but luckily a race marshal had parked by the village green and was manning a water station – sitting on a camping chair having a hot coffee and rehydrated chilli-con-carne felt like the height of luxury. I had also caught back up with Louise, who was sleeping as she said she would do on the floor of the Dufton public toilets, and with a couple of younger runners, Chris and Brandon, who as I arrived were just setting off on the long climb up to Cross Fell.
As with all the other climbs during the race, the uphill part I found straightforward. At 893m, Cross Fell is the highest point on the Pennine Way, and the climb up to its summit, while not steep, is certainly long as it traverses a number of subsidiary hills along the way. The weather became progressively worse, with low cloud, strong headwinds and rain throughout. Louise caught up with me and we pressed on together to the summit, which was pretty hard to make out on what was otherwise a flat featureless plateau. The path disappeared again as we descended and soon we were following our GPS signal through rain-sodden marsh, instantly making me regret not having worn waterproof socks for this stage. As our feet got stuck in the boggy ground, my knee twisted and started to erupt in excruciating pain with every step I took. I slowed to a crawl. Was my race coming to an end here? It certainly felt so, and my heart really started to sink. There was a small bothy a few hundred metres down the slope – if I could reach that then perhaps I could rest and recharge. There also appeared to be a path again after the bothy. I finally reached it after what felt like twenty minutes of effort to cover less than half a kilometre, sat in a heap and started the process of wringing out my socks, putting some more strapping on my knees, and taking some co-codamol and ibuprofen.
At this point, I was pretty much assuming that my race was done, and the best I could do was get to the checkpoint Alston where I would have to retire. I started back on the path, and although it was very hard underfoot, it was flat enough and as the co-codamol kicked in I could feel the pain gradually subsiding and was soon able to maintain a decent enough pace, even managing to catch up again with Louise, who had taken (another) nap by the side of the trail. After about three hours of walking we eventually pulled into Checkpoint 4 at Alston youth hostel and I was beginning to feel a lot more confident again of being able to complete the race. It had been over three days since leaving Hebden Bridge, and after the tents of the last 2 checkpoints, it was a very welcome change to get a couple of hours sleep on a real bed at Alston and be able to sit down indoors for a meal and blister treatment. With only full Spine Race runners left, and the field really spread out, there were only 5 or 6 runners at the checkpoint at any one time, so it had a much more relaxed air to it, and the support staff and medics there were incredibly helpful and friendly – nothing was too much effort for them.
CP 4 Alston to CP 5 Bellingham (353km)
On the face of it, this was meant to be one of the ‘easier’ stages, as it was quite short (64km) and had less than 2,000m of altitude gain, although it also had a reputation among runners as being their least favourite. Having completing it, I can absolute see why.
After having a wash in the bathrooms, changing underwear and putting lots of talc on, I definitely felt a lot fresher when I left the Alston Youth Hostel at about 9pm for the next stage. The first three hours or so involved a lot of farmland, woods, fields and gates, with plenty of cows and the odd stream to negotiate – nothing too challenging in terms of terrain, but a stronger headtorch would definitely have come in handy in helping me stay on the main track, particularly as I was on my own for the whole night. As midnight gave way to the early hours, the farmland changed to the marshy featureless bogs of Blenkinsopp Common. Midges swarmed out of nowhere and the path often disappeared into trackless reeds and puddles. It was really unpleasant, particularly as I had again forgotten to put on waterproof socks for this stage so had to deal with cold squelchy feet for a good couple of hours. As the marshes gave way to more fields again, I caught up with another runner, Colin, who while physically in good shape, appeared to be suffering quite bad sleep-deprivation judging by his looks of incomprehension when I tried to engage him in conversation. Or maybe it was me that was not making any sense at all – it was difficult to tell at the time.
By now it had become light again, and I soon arrived at Greenhead, the start of the section that ran from West to East along Hadrian’s Wall. I learned later that Colin retired from the race when he reached Greenhead. Although the Hadrian’s Wall visitor centre was closed, the toilets there were open so I disappeared inside the gents to see if there was an air dryer there that could dry out my sodden socks and shoes – there was, but Mr Dyson’s device did not prove particularly effective when it came to footwear. It turned out that I had also caught up again with Louise, whose sleep in the ladies’ toilets I was apparently disturbing with my incessant use of the Dyson drier.
The Hadrian’s Wall section itself, with plenty of small but steep hills to climb and descend, was quite tough on the knees, but taking top-ups of co-codamol every 4 hours was keeping the pain in check, and I was able to make reasonable progress until by lunchtime I had reached the point where the path turned North again, towards Scotland and the last checkpoint at Bellingham. Rather naively, I thought that the hardest part of the stage was over, but another 22km remained, much of it on hard, stony trails that were brutal on the feet, and the sun had now decided to come out, sending the temperature soaring to the high 20s, even pushing 30 degrees. It was a very long 22km, and my feet really start to feel the effects of cumulative blistering over multiple days. About 5km before the end of the stage, I caught up with another racer, Heidi, who had stopped because of her blister problems and was contemplating whether or not she would have to retire. I have her my remaining blister plasters, enabling her to get to the next checkpoint, while the hot weather had meanwhile started to cause me to break out in hay fever induced sneezing and itching, prompting me to stop to take some anti-histamines for the first time in the race. Less than 30 minutes later, I was pulling into the final Bellingham checkpoint, the sun had disappeared behind banks of cloud, heavy showers had begun, and pollen allergies were the last thing on my mind.
The weather was forecast to deteriorate even more, with rain and wind right through the night, and even heavier winds on the Cheviots the following day, the temperature dropping to about -5o after wind chill. This was definitely one of my lowest moments. I felt pretty spent and the prospect of one more night in the open elements was definitely unappetising – when I woke up after 90 minutes of sleep, the prospect of turning off my phone and going back to sleep again was never more appealing! But after reading the encouraging messages some of my friends had posted on Facebook, it bolstered my self-confidence enough to start out again. If I was going to fail to finish, it would not be for want of trying.
CP 5 Bellingham to Finish Kirk Yetholm (421km)
The final stage was exceptionally challenging. Although not long in distance terms (68km / 45 miles), the first 15 miles were over featureless, boggy moorland followed by rock-hard stony paths in the Byrness Forest – brutally hard on the feet and psychologically tough as well as by this time the hallucinations were in full swing and every bush or tree seemed to be turning into a topiary animal, while the moss-covered stones were busy re-arranging themselves into Egyptian or Aztec wall paintings. I had joined up with Heidi – the blister survivor from the day before – and we soon caught up with Louise (again) who had left Bellingham before us, and so got through the night part of the stage as a group of three, which definitely made things more bearable. By the time we reached the Byrness Forest a couple more people caught up with us, so we were a small group by the time we eventually reached the mini-checkpoint in Byrness itself (a couple of plastic chairs outside a toilet block) at around 6am. This was a third of the way through the stage, with 27 miles and the Cheviots to go. Bearing the weather reports for the Cheviots in mind (sub-zero temperatures including wind-chill) I used the break as an opportunity to put on all my clothing layers and a fresh pair of waterproof socks, and generally collect my thoughts for the last big push. I knew now that I would no longer have to spend another night outdoors and that as long as I could keep my body moving forwards, I should be able to finish.
The climb up to the crest of the Cheviots was actually not too bad. I imagine in winter it would be extremely muddy and difficult, but as with the rest of the course, I found the uphill sections straightforward. That said, I met a couple of runners coming in the opposite direction who had decided to retire from the race once they had gotten to the top of the Cheviots, due to the high winds and overall exposure. The Cheviots themselves are basically grassy hills – not particularly steep, and not exposed in a technical sense, but at the same time very open to all the elements. The wind was certainly strong, but not overbearingly so, and so I managed to make what I thought was reasonably good progress. There are a couple of mountain rescue huts after 10 and 20 miles respectively and these provided good short-term goals for me to focus on. In each of the huts there was a safety marshal and there were already anywhere from 5 to 7 other runners taking a break from the elements. Each time I checked my watch though it was clear that my progress was actually painfully slow – I was proceeding at no quicker than 2 miles / hour, partly a function of the relentless climbs and descents, partly a function of my knees, feet and brain being completely shot. I reached the second of the huts at 5.30pm, 9.5 hours to cover 20 miles, and took a 30-minute breather before setting off on the final 7 miles to the finish line.
The last 7 miles was tough. There was still one more hill to climb – the Schil – followed by a steep grassy descent that took the final remnants of strength in my knees to complete, made worse by renewed heavy rain and wind. I spent much of the next 2 hours hurling curses at the skies as I made my way down before eventually coming onto the flatter ground on the approach to Kirk Yetholm, and finally the paved road that meant the finishing line was in site. I stopped to get my phone out to video the final section, and started jogging again, almost stumbling as I finished the last few yards before the line.
What went well … and what didn’t
The combination of fluctuating motivation levels during lockdown and a heavy workload over the last couple of months in the run up to the race meant that I was definitely under-trained coming into the Spine Race. Compared to the Devon Coast-to-Coast, I was probably 5kg heavier and while my running and climbing was in good shape, I had not done anywhere near as much strength, plyometric and downhill work as I should have done.
During the training cycle, I maxed out at around 10 hours / 50-55 miles a week of running about a month before the race itself (treadmill @ 8-10 km/h 2-4% during the week with longer trails at the weekend), and then spent the last 4 weeks keeping my “time on feet” the same but shifting the mix heavily towards slower climbing work (treadmill @ 4-5 km/h 15%). I had done leg strength work earlier in the cycle, but the frequency and intensity was definitely well below what I had done previously and what it needed to be.
As a result, during the race I found that I was generally motoring fast on the uphill sections and had plenty of glute strength and cardio capacity to climb hills fast without much effort. The challenge I had was on the downhills, which after the first day really started to kill my knees. The lesson learned here is that while for a 50k or 100k race, or one without a lot of hills, you can probably get by with under-cooked strength training on your knees, as soon as you go above 100k on a hilly course the relentless downhill sections take their toll and your knees become the limiting factor, no matter how much running or climbing training you may have done.
The challenge of course is that (for people who have a full-time job) you only have a certain number of hours available to you for training, so every element you add to your training schedule is a trade-off with other forms of training. More leg-strength work = less running. Even so, for future races, I am certainly going to spend 30-40% of my training time now on improving my downhill resilience – which means lots of work, both static and dynamic, on quads, knees, tibialis anterior and the various stabilising muscles such as glute med and TFL.
Pack: Salomon Adv Skin 12 + Flipbelt
Shoes: Inov8 TrailTalon 290
Waterproofs: Inov8 Stormshell (Top), Inov8 ultrashell (Bottom)
Socks: Non-waterproof: 2XU Vectr Alpine compression and 1000 Mile compression Waterproof: Dexshell, Bridgedale
Shorts: 2XU 3/4 tights, 2XU full-length tights (spare)
Top: UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck + 2 technical T-shirts
Underwear: Runderwear long boxer shorts
Gloves: Leather cycling gloves, Rab Power Stretch gloves
Hat / Buff: North Face Alpine Cap, 2 buffs
GPS: Suunto Ambit3 Peak (+spare)
Headtorch: LEDLenser Neo 4 (+spare)
Overall the kit strategy worked very well. Using a 12 litre pack (what I use for 50k to 100 mile ultra races) definitely put me at the “minimalist” end of the range of packs that people were carrying – I think most people opted for 20 litre packs, although there were a couple of people that had 30 or 40 litre packs as well, no doubt because they were carrying full-scale bivvy equipment.
Clothing-wise, I had quite an aggressive approach to layering – lots of thin base layers rather than any thick fleeces; on the whole this worked well. The UnderArmor top and sleeves were great on their own for the hot, sunny days, and on the very cold final day on the Cheviots, using all my layers plus the waterproofs kept me perfectly warm.
The one area that didn’t work for me was shoe selection – the trail was extremely hard-packed and stony in places, and the sheer length of the course meant that more cushioning would have made a big positive difference to my feet. Probably 50% or more of runners were using Hoka shoes and in retrospect I would go for the Hoka Speedgoat 4, especially now that they offer it in a wide fitting. On the other hand, I did learn my lesson from the Devon Coast-to-Coast race and went a size up for my shoes, knowing that foot swelling would kick in before too long and use up any extra room at the start. Sock choices were generally OK – given the amount of K-tape on my feet, 2XU compression socks were tricky to put on without catching the tape, so I used the 1000 mile socks for the bulk of the dry sections; the waterproof socks definitely made a difference on the final day, and I should probably have used them earlier in the race for the really boggy sections like Blenkinsopp Common – they don’t keep the water completely out but they act a bit like a wet suit and ensure that even if your feet get damp, they stay warm.
The other area I would make changes is headtorches – the LEDLenser Neo 4 that I used is simply not powerful enough for long nights on the hills. Luckily the relatively easy navigation and short summer nights meant that I didn’t get into any serious problems, but I will definitely be using the more powerful 400 lumens LEDLenser in the future.
How do you pace yourself for a race of 268 miles? When I asked this question of a previous competitor on the train to Edale, he replied “start slow, and then slow down even more”. Those are wise words for any ultra, but of course ‘slow’ is a relative term. On the longest ultra I had completed so far, the Devon Coast-to-Coast, I had completed 117 miles in 31 hours, roughly 3.75 miles / hour or 6 km / hour. With Dartmoor and Exmoor having broadly similar terrain to the Yorkshire Dales, I figured that this would be a pretty good proxy, so my initial plan was to effectively treat Start-CP2 as a single 107-mile ultra which I hoped to complete in around 35 hours, which would mean arriving at CP2 at 3am Monday. 6 hours of rest and then another 36 hours would get me to approx. 200 miles / 320km by 9pm Wednesday, which would then leave Thursday to complete the race. Although I think it’s certainly possible that I could hit this as a time second time round, my calculations were almost 24 hours off!
On the first two days, I generally ran the flat sections during daylight, and walked when it was uphill, downhill and steep / technical or dark, which is generally my approach on the longer ultras. I still think this is right strategy, and is probably sustainable for the bulk of the Spine Race, but a few things caused my pace calculations to be quite a way off.
First, the timing of the start, and the timing of my arrival in checkpoints, meant that I spent a higher proportion of my time racing in darkness than I expected – I was hoping to spend at least a couple of the nights sleeping in checkpoints, but as it turned out my arrival at every checkpoint was morning / afternoon, which meant that every night was spent fully in the open, slowing down my pace quite a bit. Second, my knees were hurting relatively early in the race, reducing my ability to run on the flats, and not having packed enough painkillers meant that I lost a lot of time managing my knees on the downhill sections. Third, I really underestimated the impact that lack of sleep has on your ability to move quickly – the more mentally tired you are, the more you find yourself having to take little rests here and there to collect your thoughts, the slower your pace becomes even when you are moving and the longer it takes you to start up again once you have stopped for a break. Last, the weather is a lot more variable, and the terrain more exposed, than on other races I have done – 3 miles / hour pace can easily drop to less than 2 miles / hour when it is into a strong headwind. Also, after a couple of days my target had shifted from “finish by end of Thursday” to “finish any way you can” and so after I had built up a bit of a buffer ahead of the cut-offs, I started to deliberately pace myself more slowly in order to maximise my chances of finishing the overall race. Now that I know the course, the terrain, and the practicalities involved, I can think of a number of changes and improvements to my training and to my race management that might enable me to knock 10-20 hours off my overall finish time.
Navigation was generally pretty straightforward. The GPX tracks were quite granular and accurate, and in only a couple of cases did I struggle with minor navigation problems – usually at night when the GPS tracker couldn’t tell that I was off the track and an insufficiently powerful headtorch meant that I spent time unnecessarily struggling over tougher terrain (trackless marsh or rock-strewn slopes) when the correct trail was only 30-40m away. Having a spare GPS watch in my pack was definitely the right choice, as on full GPS mode the watch batter typically lasted about 16 hours – starting each stage with two fully-charged watches enabled me to easily switch mid-stage without having to fall back on phone-based GPS apps.
Maps of the course were compulsory, but I only found myself using them at the checkpoints when I wanted to get a sense of the terrain and milestones of the next stage.
This is an area that I could improve on a lot. I did notice that in the second half of the race in particular, the more experienced runners were very quick to sort out their drop bag, eat, wash, sleep and sort out their feet and kit for the next stage. I think the key to this is to pre-pack everything within the drop bag into separate bags for each checkpoint, so that one simply has to reach inside the drop bag to pull out one bag for everything, rather than messing around with multiple bags. When you’re tired and short of sleep, anything that reduces the amount of time needed to think is worth it! Also, I tended to rely on the medics to do my blister taping from CP2 onwards, which meant a fair bit of waiting around – I should make sure that all my blister taping strips are pre-cut and ready to apply for each checkpoint so that I can easily do it myself. I did take a massage device with me, which I thought would come in handy later in the race – as it happens, it didn’t really help a huge amount as muscle stiffness as such was far less of an issue than muscle pain and swelling, which the massage gun didn’t really help with. I found stretching to be more beneficial than massage during the race for dealing with muscle issues (conversely, massage was more helpful in the weeks after the race).
During the race, I was using something like 8,000 calories a day, and I calculated that I was only taking on board something like 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day in nutrition, so I was in a chronic calorie deficit.
I relied very heavily on energy food, so that meant every stage started out with jelly babies, SiS gels, and several bars of chocolate in my pack, with Tailwind electrolytes in my drinks bottles (and spare sachets for refills). The only proper food I had was at the checkpoints, which was typically a combination of the hot food which they served, together with cup noodles, peperami and nuts. I did pack a lot of protein bars and amino acid supplements as well but was not sufficiently organised at the check points to actually take these systematically, something that I should focus more on in future races (along with Iron and Magnesium supplements). Some of the runners who had done the Spine before tended to carry one or more dehydrated packaged meals with them, which they could rehydrate at some of the intermittent places between checkpoints where hot water was available – something I hadn’t banked on but will bear in mind for future races.
On the plus side, that meant that I had very few digestion problems during the race – I didn’t throw up once, had no issues with acid reflux / stitch and only had to take a couple of “au naturel” dumps in the bushes. On the negative side, this probably meant that my body was not recovering very well during the race and I ended up feeling far more depleted at the end than I should have done. I think the key is to make sure that one uses the checkpoints to fully ‘max out’ on protein, complex carbs and vitamins / supplements.
Having no designated sleeping times and a maximum of 6 hours in any one checkpoint meant that sleeping strategy became as important a factor in the race as fuelling and nutrition – very different from stage race ultras, where you sleep at night in a campsite, or ultras up to 100 miles or so where you are only spending 1 night outdoors. Runners tended to follow distinct sleep strategies. The very fastest ones (sub-100 hours) tried to minimise sleep as much as possible, relying on their speed to reduce the accumulation of sleep deprivation. I think the winner managed with only 2-3 hours sleep in his 77-hour winning time. Some tried to sleep wherever they could – in the open, at the checkpoints – but in short naps, grabbing an hour here and there on a regular basis. One runner found public toilets a convenient place to sleep, others just curled up in bivvy bags by the side of the track. Others, including myself, tried to concentrate their sleeping to the checkpoints – where they had access to their sleeping bag, sleeping mat and a tent – managing roughly 2-3 hours, which added up to 10-12 hours over the whole course. There didn’t seem to be much difference in terms of the effectiveness of the different strategies from what I could see – everyone suffered from serious sleep deprivation and the associated challenges that came with that such as hallucinations and disorientation. I carried some ProPlus caffeine tablets with me and although I only used them a couple of times during the race, they were helpful in dealing with some of the moments of extreme tiredness.
A factor that differentiates pretty much all ultras from road running up to marathon distance is the importance of body management – dealing with blisters, chafing, muscle pain and injuries. It’s simply not possible to do a race of more than 50 miles without running into problems in one of these areas and how you deal with them becomes a key factor in determining whether or not you finish the race. I had issues with all of the above!
Blisters were not really a problem until about 100 miles into the race – I taped up my toes and my feet at the start with K-tape, and got through the first 50 miles without any real issues. The end of the second stage was where I started to have some more problems – my feet were a little damp when I got to CP1, and I should have changed all the taping on my feet, but opted to carry on. With CP1 to CP2 being a 60+ mile stage and with much of it being on extremely hard and unforgiving ground, together with my shoes having insufficient cushioning, my feet were blistering quite badly by the time I got to CP2. I did then spend every checkpoint getting me feet re-taped, but with blisters prevention is always better than cure and this certainly cost me quite a bit of time later in the race.
Chafing was also a serious problem after about 80 miles – mainly at the top of my inner thighs and between my butt cheeks – embarrassing but absolutely no joke at all when you feel that your ass is on fire! I had brought plenty of lubricants in my first aid kit, such as Lanacane, but these didn’t really seem to be that effective, and I was seriously in danger of having to retire simply due to the unremitting pain of a sore butt! As it turned out, using a number of Compeed blister plasters over the top of the affected parts of skin solved the issue – generating problems at the end of the race when I had to remove them, but at least I didn’t have to worry about it for the rest of the race. In the future, for any races over 50 miles I will probably pre-apply Compeeds to areas where I expect to get chafing – as with blisters, prevention is definitely better than cure.
The last area I had challenges with was my knees. While doing a lot more quad etc strength work in training is certainly the best way to prevent knee problems in the future, I did manage to get through what could easily have been a retirement through a combination of taping (around the kneecap and then above / below the knee) and pain relief (regular co-codamol). This somehow managed to work, although I had to make a detour at Middleton-on-Tees to buy some more co-codamol from a local pharmacy as I was in danger of running out during the race. For future multi-day races, I’ll probably pack more co-codamol (seems to be the best painkiller for knee pain) and also pack a couple of neoprene velcro knee supports that I can carry with me and strap on for the downhill sections if I’m getting knee issues.
The area I underestimated most of all was the mental toll that a multi-day race takes on you, particularly when much of the running is at night. There were many occasions during the race when I thought that the current stage would be my last and that I would have to retire at the next checkpoint. There were many occasions where I was desperate to lie down for a sleep but knew that if I did so 5-6 hours of precious time could easily slip by before I woke up and I would then be under pressure due to the cut-offs. The mental strain of leaving a checkpoint at 8pm with a night of running in the dark ahead of you, knowing that you still have another few nights of the same to come, is quite significant. I found myself having to set really short-term goals in order to keep my brain focused and in a positive frame of mind – for the night-time slots it was “get through to 4am when it will get lighter”; for the morning slots it was “get through to noon”; after noon it was “get to the next checkpoint”; on arrival at a checkpoint it was “eat first, sleep second and then see how you feel before making any decisions”. There were quite a few moments when I was in a very dark place – the second night when I was on my own at the top of Malham Cove was certainly one, feeling very cold, tired and disoriented; the descent from Cross Fell, when my knee suddenly erupted in almost unbearable pain and I literally crawled and limped to a bothy where I was able to sit down, collect my thoughts and take some co-codamol and ibuprofen; and the last night, when the worsening weather and the accumulated fatigue had drained me of optimism. I’m still not quite sure how I managed to get through these episodes, but one thing I have learned from the experience is that we can endure far more than we think we are capable of. ‘Giving up’ requires an active decision while ‘not giving up’ is often a question of simply continuing to put one foot in front of the other and trying to forget about everything else.