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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Stevens

It's a Family Affair

Updated: Jan 28

2024 Winter Spine Challenger South: 13-14 January 2024

 


“You can't cry 'cause you'll look broke down

But you're cryin' anyway 'cause you're all broke down

It's a family affair (it's a family affair)”

 

It’s a Family Affair, Sly and the Family Stone

  

12 months is a long time.

 

A long time to reflect on failure. A long time to wait for redemption. A long time to pound out your frustrations on the trails.

On the pavements.

On the treadmill.

On the bike.

 

16th January 2023. 10.00am. Sat in a cold room in Malham Tarn Field Station having just pulled the plug on my Winter Spine Race ambitions. Ankles swollen and aching. Shoulders aching. Throat and tongue sore. And at the same time wondering whether I was just being weak and pathetic for pulling out the race.

 

14th January 2024. 08.00am. Sat again in a cold room in Malham Tarn Field Station …

 

Pre-race


It had been a long 12 months, and not entirely unsuccessful since my last Winter Spine experience in 2023. Although last year’s Spine had ended in a DNF, I’d taken that disappointment and channelled it into the rest of my races, bouncing back to put together a string of OK-to-really-quite-good results over five months – TransGranCanaria, Istria 110k, UTS 100 miler (surely the toughest 100 mile race in the UK) and probably my favourite race and best performance, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Dolomites. I’d also managed to complete the Dragon’s Back Race in the hottest of conditions, which although in a time that I was scarcely proud of (10 hours slower than I was hoping for), I still felt able to chalk up as a triumph of sorts – of resilience perhaps. And resilience is the very essence of the Spine Races. I’d had a bit of setback in November, with another DNF in extremely hot conditions at the 360 The Challenge in GranCanaria (an absolutely superb race that I unequivocally recommend to anyone who likes a tough challenge and a similar atmosphere to the Spine), but training had gone well since then and I was feeling in really good shape as January approached.

 


Final kit check before heading up


The only slight disappointment was that I would be doing the 108 mile Challenger South rather than the full Winter Spine, having sat at #1 on the waitlist for several weeks in November and December, waiting for a withdrawal, but eventually deciding that having already completed the Challenger North, doing the Challenger South would be a good opportunity to put into practice what I had learned over the last year in preparation for what would hopefully be another crack at the Full Spine in January 2025. At a minimum, it would be a 100-mile race, which is nothing to sniff at, a chance to actually race rather than plod (which is what my pace tends to drop to over the longer distances) and to just be a part of this unique annual jamboree of weird endurance nuts that make up the Spine family. Also, it would give me the opportunity to do the Challenger-Arc double, with the Arc of Attrition taking place less than 2 weeks after the Challenger - it's not often you get the chance to take on two tough 100 + mile challenges in 2 weeks, so that was extra motivation for me to train hard so that the recovery would be as quick as possible.

 

I’d made quite a few changes over the last year to how I approach races, in terms of training, kit and in-race fuelling / hydration, and how I approached the Spine Challenger was no exception. Training-wise, I’ve found that getting in lots of downhill vertical metres is critical in building up my leg strength to cope with the downhills in hilly races, and also to just build more lower-leg resilience in general for longer distances, and I combined this with 2-3 “reverse brick” sessions (run followed by bike) a week in order to safely increase my aerobic base volume, focusing my outdoor runs on longer runs on trails with the full Spine kit to get specificity. With respect to kit, I’ve gradually come to love the OMM packs and vests, and was going with the OMM Phantom 25 which seemed to sit quite high up on my hips while providing stability when running, and plenty of space to store things; I’d also managed to skinny down my kit as well, upgrading a few items to lighter / more compact versions, and switching my shoes from the Inov8 RocLite Ultras which I’d used last year to a pair of Hoka Speedgoats, resoled by the Key Cobbler with some super-grippy Vibram Peak District soles, and was very happy with the resulting set up after trialling it on my long runs. Having suffered from all manner of acid reflux and eating / drinking / breathing difficulties on both last year’s Spine, and in the heat of the Dragon’s Back and 360 The Challenge, I’d also modified my fuelling and hydration, with a much greater proportion of easy-to-swallow gels rather than dry, crumbly flapjacks, and half my fluids comprising Nescafe instant iced coffee mix – plenty of carbs, caffeine and not too sweet and cloying. I was all set.

 

Pacewise, I had been on course last year to reach Hawes in around 35-36 hours (it wasn’t slowness that caused my DNF!) and I certainly felt fitter, stronger and more efficient after all the mountain races I’d done and the solid training block I’d put in.  30-34 hours felt like a reasonable range, with 34 hours being ‘achievable’ and 30 hours more ‘aspirational’ as targets. Of course, the weather and conditions would be a major factor too, but as the rain and floods of November and December gave way to a spell of cold dry weather in early January, with more of the same forecast for the race, it looked as though it might be decidedly “un-Spiney” conditions and favourable for a fast time. It felt like racing conditions.

 

For the first time I had decided to drive up to Edale for the start. Not particularly out of choice – I really don’t like driving long distances and leaving the car in Edale meant a complicated train ride to retrieve it after the race, before the long drive back to Kent – but after entering the race so late the Edale accommodation had pretty much all booked out, so a pre-race stay in Castleton and the almost non-existent local public transport and taxi services meant that taking the car was the least bad option. On the plus side, at least it meant that I was a little bit more in control of things before the race and could also stop in Calver on the way for a quick lunch with my coach, Marcus Scotney.

 


Beautiful sunset views of the Hope Valley from Mam Tor


Registration went relatively smoothly, with the same person doing my kit check as had done it in North Wales for the Dragon’s Back Race – the ultra world is certainly a small one and you do tend to see the same faces again and again!  The only glitch was having to buy a replacement bivvy as my MSR bag was insufficiently waterproof. Luckily the ones the Spine team had to hand were light and compact, but it will teach me to me more careful about checking the specs of everything I buy online. Then after catching a glorious sunset from the top of Mam Tor on the drive to Castleton, I settled into the Castle Hotel for that well-known Spine staple dinner of lasagne and chips.

 

 

Start Edale to CP1 Hebden Hey (75km, 2,200m vertical)

 

With a 20 minute drive to the start at Edale, I’d set my alarm for 5.30am and after a sleep that was better than most pre-race sleeps but still not as much as I would have liked, I proceeded to do all my usual pre-race preparations – taping toes, applying anti-chafing remedies – while chugging on coffee and waffles for breakfast. With the temperatures expected to hover around or below zero for the next 2 days, I’d decided to start out in my full length thermal tights with the aim of ideally not having to make any kit changes. For my upper body I was wearing my usual short-sleeved compression top with separate sleeves and was hoping that this plus a hard shell outer layer would be enough to regulate my core temperature for the whole race. Where I tend to feel the cold is in my extremities, so I started out wearing my thin Raynaud’s gloves with another three layers of gloves and mitts in my OMM pouch if I needed more insulation.


Pulling into Edale, the sky was gradually starting to lighten and after depositing my 20L supply bag and having my tracker fitted, managed to bump into a bunch of friends who were either also doing the race (Andrew Richards who I’d done some training runs with in Kent, James Ritchie, Hayley Robinson and Fumiaki Imamura who were fellow survivors of the 2023 Dragon’s Back) or who were here as supporters to see us all off (Hannah Rickman, 2nd Lady on last year’s Full Spine and part of a big Camino Ultra presence, Sophie Littlefair, who’d recently set a new FKT on the 900km Scottish National Trail). It felt very much like a family reunion.



Mist-covered hills surrounding the start line


It wasn’t long before 8am approached and as the sky continued to brighten, we all made our way to the start line for the first of this year’s Spine races. The skies weren’t completely clear – low cloud shrouded the ridges on either side of the Hope Valley – but there was no rain and the ground around the start seemed firm and dry, good running conditions. I made my way near to the front of the runners, determined to make a quick start and hopefully avoid any congestion on the gentle, single track climb that leads from the “offical” start of the Pennine Way at the Nag’s Head towards Upper Booth. Kevin McCann counted us down and at 8am we were off.

 


Underway! I'm in the middle with the bulging orange OMM chest pod


I immediately broke into a run and slotted into place behind a leading pack of 10-15 runners as we jogged up the hill into Edale village. My confidence rose as the pack sat comfortably light, my breathing remained easy and I definitely felt much fitter and stronger than 12 months ago. As we followed the path towards Jacob’s Ladder and the first big climb of the day it was clear that the ground was firm and dry with any muddy patches being soft rather than slippery. In no time at all I’d reached the bottom of the climb and the poles came out. The field had already begun to string out, with a couple of hundred metres gap behind me and the leaders already pulling ahead of the rest of this front group of 15 or so runners. I’d not done as much climbing in training as I would ideally have liked, but with plenty of interval work on the bike I found that my climbing power was still pretty strong and Jacob’s Ladder took less time than I expected.  There were a few other walkers already on the path taking advantage of the good weather and they cheered us on as we went past.



Jacob's Ladder - mist closing in



Climbing Jacob's Ladder


Once on top of the Kinder plateau, the wind picked up somewhat – much stronger than was forecast – but with good underfoot conditions the rock-hopping was straightforward and my main challenge was missing a couple of turnings in an effort to keep up a fast pace. I needed to keep a closer eye on the map on my watch. The dry weather of the last couple of weeks meant that Kinder Downfall was more of a muddy puddle than a waterfall and before long we were onto the flagstones that led up to Snake Pass. Bang on 2 hours as I crossed the road which meant I was 20 minutes ahead of where I’d been last year and it didn’t particularly feel as though I was pushing the pace too hard. I was in a good place.




On the slabs towards Snake Pass


The section after Snake Pass is always one of the least pleasant parts of the first stage of the Spine, through the ditch of Devil’s Dyke, over Bleaklow and down to Torside. The mud here is peaty, sticky and slippery, and your pace can quickly drop from a jog to a trudge. This year was different. The peat had largely dried out and my Peak District Vibram soles gave me much more grip, and 3hr24m had elapsed when I reached Torside Reservoir, almost 40 minutes faster than last year. I hadn’t touched any of my drinks yet, choosing instead to knock back 4 gels to keep the carb intake up, so declined to stop at the MRT station to take on some water and instead pressed across the dam towards the next climb of the race, up towards Black Hill and Wessenden.



Heading down to Torside


The wind had by now died down somewhat and the temperature felt a few degrees warmer than it had at the start; the skies had also begun to clear and it was turning into a beautiful day, more Spring Spine than Winter Spine. Briefly looking back I couldn’t see anyone behind me but there were a few runners ahead of me on the climb, spaced out a couple of hundred metres apart. I kept up as strong a pace as I could, rolling up my sleeves to prevent overheating and trying to control my breathing, allowing myself my first drink of the race as we hit the Black Hill plateau. By the time we reached the road at Wessenden I’d caught up with James Ritchie and another 3 runners and moved into around 9th place.


The path down past Wessenden and then Black Moss reservoirs is one of my favourite parts of this section of the Pennine Way – it’s a good quality track with gentle up and down slopes that allow you to get into a rhythm, the short diversion over Blake Clough saw us pass some of the old mining ruins as well and we passed a lot of families out enjoying the wonderful conditions. As we passed Standedge Cutting and approached Nicky’s Van and the A672, I found myself closing in on another couple of runners – Chris Brookman who was carrying an injury and George Lucas, with whom I informally teamed up with for the rest of the stage.

For the last couple of hours I had been debating in my own mind whether to stop or not at Nicky’s Van for a bit to eat and an opportunity to refill my bottles. As I got closer, I still had only drunk one 500ml bottle so rather than disrupt my rhythm I opted to press on and make the most of the hour or so of sunlight. It was not even 3.30pm and with less than 25km to go till CP1, I figured that my remaining 500ml would be plenty to see me through. Just after crossing the M62 bridge, the temperature dropped, the low cloud gathered descended and a fine sleety drizzle started to fall. Although my contact lenses had been playing up all day, my right eye continually going in and out of focus, I was glad not to be wearing glasses at this point as the fine mizzle can create havoc with visibility. Luckily, it wasn’t a long spell and by the time George and I reached the White House pub it had subsided and the sky was beginning to darken.



MRT on standby at the top of Standedge


The track here by the reservoirs is flat and easy and we kept up a good running pace, stopping only to don headtorches. The temperature had suddenly dropped a few more degrees and within minutes my fingers were starting to ache with the cold, so I also took the opportunity to put on my full set of gloves and mitts in order to warm them up again. Although wearing lots of gloves significantly increases the amount faff associated with eating, toilet breaks, etc, there are few things worse than having fingers so numb that they become rigid and painful. When I had a nasty bout of Raynaud’s on the Cheviot Goat a year or so ago, I found myself sucking on fingers to defrost them simply so that I would be able to get the fingers to go in the gloves, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

We could just about make out the dark finger of Stoodley Pike on the horizon, and while it looked extremely close, it still took us half an hour to reach it – it’s not particularly technical terrain but just about rocky enough (and the mud was frozen solid so pretty much as hard and uneven as the rocks) to slow you down when you’re running in the dark, as the last thing you want to do is roll an ankle less than half way into a 100 mile race. Even so, there was still a faint glow on the horizon when we reached the Pike and started the long descent towards the Calder Valley.


The long climb up is definitely one of my least favourite of the whole Spine. Steep, narrow, cobbled for much of the way, and in the Summer claustrophobically humid. At least in the Winter the air was cold and dry, and with the fields leading towards Slack and CP1 being frozen rather than their usual muddy mess, it was nowhere near as bad as I remember it. We soon hit the road section into Slack and even the steep narrow path down to the Scout Hut and CP1 was in remarkably good condition. 10h50m for the first stage, just a handful of runners in the checkpoint and I felt in great spirits.

 


CP1 Hebden Hey to Malham Tarn (60km, 1,800m vertical)


I’d originally thought of changing my socks at Hebden Hey and had packed my drop bag accordingly, but the relatively dry conditions meant that although they were muddy on the outside, they didn’t feel particularly waterlogged so I calculated that I was may as well leave them on rather than go through the rigmarole of taking shoes and 3 pairs of socks off. Equally, the light winds and cool temperatures had kept the rest of my clothes dry and free of too much sweat, so no need to change these either – I think probably a first for me on a 100-mile race.

 

I had budgeted 30 mins at the checkpoint, so tried to multitask as much as I could – munching waffles and madeleines while downing a protein shake, refilling bottles and recharging my watch. I always find the main constraint here is my throat and stomach’s capacity to absorb food without getting hiccups or indigestion – you know you need the calories, but you try to force them down too quickly and you end up causing more problems that take even longer to resolve. With the forecast clear for the night, after trying in vain to put in a fresh set of contact lenses I decided to ditch them (and my dodgy right lens in particular) and switch to glasses for the rest of the race. By 7.20pm I was ready to set off again, 10 minutes ahead of target and having stuck to my 30 minute budget for the pit stop. Another minor triumph of improved organisational skills compared to my previous efforts.

 

The only good thing about the long climb up to CP1 is that it reduces the length of the climb needed to get back on the moors again. As I retraced my steps along the road I passed several runners approaching the CP and soon turned off for the climb over Heptonstall Moor and the Walshaw reservoirs. The ground on the moors was frozen solid, which meant that it you could make quite quick progress if you were sure of your footing, but with the surface being uneven and unforgiving it was quite hard on the ankles and joints, and required quite a bit of concentration in the dark, even with both a chest torch and headtorch on the go. Every time there were some slabs I sighed with relief as I was able to break into a trot, and as I reached the reservoirs I caught up with Carl Morris before closing in on Michael Hyde as we passed over Ickornshaw Moor. The moors gave way to pasture and fields that were pock-marked with thousands of cow hoofprints that Had now frozen in place – really tricky to run on and again quite a heavy load on the ankles. After a couple of minor nav issues and missed turnings, we hit the road into Lothersdale and reached the Craven Energy triathlon tent, welcoming the opportunity for a brief break and hot drink. Nathan Drinkwater joined us a couple of minutes later and we sat there in the space blankets sipping coffee while I helped myself to chocolate to break the monotony of the continuous stream of gels that I had been chugging for the past 16 hours. It was half past midnight and I was now an hour ahead of my original plan, but with the most tedious section still to come, the monotonous and seemly never-ending rolling hills that lead from the Peak District to Malham and the Yorkshire Dales.

 

Having taken the opportunity for a toilet break, Nathan and Michael had left Lothersdale 5 minutes before me, and it took me a little while to readjust to the cold night air – the temperature had certainly dropped a few more degrees and it was comfortably below freezing, I reckoned -3 or -4 degrees. I covered up my arms with the detachable sleeves and pressed on to the next climb, over towards Thornton-in-Craven and the canal that leads into Gargrave. I was on my own by now, occasionally able to see the flicker of a headtorch in the distance in front of me, and although I felt an ever-present sense of paranoia about being chased down by the runners behind me, I couldn’t see headtorches when I turned around. The temperature felt like it had dropped further, but it was hard to know whether it was just me. Weirdly, my body, hands, legs and feet all felt quite warm, it was just around my forehead and eyes that the cold felt especially bitter. My eyes in particular felt like they were freezing up and I found myself closing them over few minutes for about ten seconds to take some of the stinging away. I half considered putting on my goggles, but if it didn’t get any colder I thought it could probably wait until morning. At any rate, it wasn’t yet bad enough to warrant stopping and sorting through my pack.

 

At Gargrave I stopped for just a couple of minutes to refill my water bottles in the public toilets there – kudos to the Gargrave residents for funding their own public toilets in the village and keeping them open 24 hours a day during Spine week. It was still dark as I finally reached Malham and the long climb up towards Malham Cove. As I tried to use my poles on the steep road, I found they kept on slipping, and on closer examination saw that each of the tips were covered in a ball of shiny frozen mud rendering the poles next to useless. I banged them on the road and against a wall to dislodge the mudballs, to no avail. Eventually I grabbed a large stone and, using a drystone wall as an anvil, banged away until the frozen mud eventually splintered and fell off. I could now see Michael Hyde’s headtorch again only a short distance ahead of me, which gave me added motivation as I climbed the steps to the top of Malham Cove. On reaching the top however, I found that the smooth tops of Malham’s limestone ‘molar teeth’ were covered in a thin film of ice, making them quite treacherous to negotiate. After a few slips and near-tumbles, I managed to find my way through the rocky maze (I don’t think I’ve ever taken the same route through), accidentally missing yet another turning before eventually finding the correct route up Ing Scar. I was probably 3 hours ahead of where I was last year, but that meant it was still night, and the climb up to Malham Tarn is a good deal trickier in the dark where you can’t see the whole route ahead of you, particularly as my view of Michael’s headtorch was by now obscured. It only reappeared when I emerged by the lakeside and I could see that he was a few hundred metres ahead of me. I broke into a jog around the flat path that circled the lake and glanced at my watch as I pulled into the small room that constituted the Malham Tarn Aid Station. 6.50am.  I’d lost close to an hour of time over the last 6 hours, but I was still roughly on target for a 30 hour or so finish if I could keep up a strong pace for the next 7 hours.


 

Malham Tarn to Finish Hawes (40km, 1,200m vertical)

 

14th January 2024. 08.00am. Sat again in a cold room in Malham Tarn Field Station …

 

What a difference a year makes indeed.

 

2023 – head bowed and mentally defeated, even if physically capable of carrying on, at least until the next CP at Hawes

 

2024 – full of energy, feeling sharp, like a coiled spring ready for the final push to the finish

 

I stayed at Malham Tarn for just over 20 minutes, just long enough for a hot cup of coffee, for eating the rest of the chocolate in my pack – welcome solid calories after 6 hours of gels – and to refill my bottles with a final helping of MountainFuel and Nescafe iced caramel latte. With around a marathon distance remaining, and just the three medium-sized climbs of Fountains Fell, Pen-y-Ghent and the Cam High Road to come, it was beginning to feel like it was a sprint to the finish. I took an extra couple of minutes to stretch my quads and calves and set off.  Or rather, I nearly didn’t, as my Garmin GPS watch started malfunctioning, showing me that far from being by the side of Malham Tarn I was actually in the middle of nowhere miles off the Pennine Way.  No idea how that happened, and I faffed around for about 5 minutes, going down the road and back to the Field Station until eventually it picked up the GPS signal correctly and the map jerked back into position again.

 

As I slowly made my way up the slopes of Fountains Fell, the darkness gave way to beautiful blue and orange skies as the sun edged nearer the horizon. I put my head and chest torches away, and as I rounded the hill above rocky drops that fell away to the right hand side, I saw the glorious sight of Pen-y-Ghent appear, set against a backdrop of blue skies but with a flat cap of cloud that was lit up in the orange glow of the sunrise. It was a spectacular view, but I didn’t fancy having to remove my 4 layers of gloves and mitts and rummage around in my chestpod for my phone in order to take a photo. Luckily on the train ride back to Edale the following day, we passed Pen-y-Ghent again and I was able to take some photos again in almost as stunning conditions. Normally I enjoy the descent down towards Pen-y-Ghent, but with the rocks slightly icy and the mud frozen solid into weird shapes, it was a lot more technical than usual and care was needed. As I hit the road that skirts around towards the climb up Pen-y-Ghent, I instinctively turned around and thought I saw the fluorescent dot of a runner in the distance. Seriously? My paranoia kicked in and I redoubled my pace, running as much of the road as possible while periodically turning around to see who it was that was catching me.

 


Pen-y-Ghent in glorious weather on the train back to Edale


As I came to the scrambly ascent, there were again quite a few groups making their way up to the top. I turned around now and again but couldn’t see anyone behind me. Was it a hallucination? I couldn’t be sure, so tried to keep the pace up. By the time I reached the top it had started to snow, at first light and then increasingly heavily. Where had the blue skies gone? The snowflakes were settling and by the time I reached the steps that descended on the northern flank they were already coated with a layer of snow and were getting slightly slippery. I looked north – to where the snow was coming from – to see if I could spot the slopes of the Cam High Road and whether they were already covered in snow or not. It was difficult to make out among the low clouds. In any case, I was in a hurry to get off the mountain and down to lower ground where hopefully the snowfall would be less heavy. After getting to the end of the steps, I tried to up my pace into a jog for the rest of the descent, but the hard ground – now covered in a thin layer of sleet – made it hard to run the whole way, so it was with a half-walk, half-jog that I covered the 5km or so to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, turning every now and again to see whether I was actually being chased down by someone.

 

By the time I reached Horton and rejoined the path that led up to Cam End, passing by the toilets there that had been one of my potential emergency water stops, I spotted the figure of Michael Hyde just a short distance ahead of me – I certainly wasn’t expecting that.  I had pretty much given up on catching anyone before the finish and was focusing now on how close I could squeeze to 30 hours. Right now I was on target for just under 31 hours, but with Michael in front of me, I had someone to chase which always helps to keep your pace up. He seemed to spot me at exactly the same time, as he put on a burst of speed and gradually disappeared up the slope as I struggled to match him. Still, I felt some renewed energy, particularly as it had now stopped snowing, and tried to run as much of the flat terrain as possible as I followed the meandering path. It seemed to go on for ever as I found myself watching the remaining kms counting down on my watch. After turning a corner I saw the final climb up to Cam End right in front of me, and only 50 metres above me was Michael sitting down at the side of the track.

 

I wondered whether he might have injured himself, but as I approached he slowly started to get up and told me that he had just been taking a short power nap to counter the effects of almost 30 hours now without sleep. Turning up the Cam High Road, my spirits were buoyed – at a minimum I would have some companionship for the final climb, and with only 10km left, there was now a real possibility that I might finish in under 30hr 30 mins for the race as a whole. I pushed hard up the Cam High Road – it’s possibly everyone’s least favourite part of the entire Pennine Way, but in truth it’s only a gentle slope and when the wind has dropped and the cold Winter air is still it can even be a mildly pleasant change from the gnarly rocks and frozen mud of the preceding 160km. I alternated between a run and a walk, and by the time I reached the top of the climb at Kidhow Gate, I’d built up a gap of a few hundred metres and started the long descent to Hawes.

 


Sprint finish!


After leaving the track, it’s usually a muddy traverse across moors and farmland, but with the mud semi-frozen, it was an easy descent and I soon reached the outskirts of Hawes, breaking into a run as I passed through the final few zig-zags towards the Market Hall.  30hr 27min was the time as I arrived at the finish, 6th place and for the first time in my Spine career, I didn’t even feel as if it had been a particularly long, tough or traumatic experience.  Redemption was complete.




A happy finisher

 

It's a Family Affair

 

It’s difficult to overstate how much it meant to me to finally put to bed last year’s DNF with a strong performance this time round.  It had been bugging me for about 12 months, and while this year it was the Challenger rather than the Full Spine, I still feel as if I’ve made a big step forward in understanding how to prepare and execute a plan that meets the specific demands that the Spine Race makes on you. The underfoot conditions, weather, long darkness hours, size and weight of the pack, long periods without support all require a different approach from that of normal ultramarathons. Efficiency of movement / organisation and the management of uncertainty and risk are even more important than fitness. Strength is more important than speed. Resilience and how you manage your body is more important than traditional notions of stamina.

 

Pretty much all the decisions I took before and during the race paid off – from fuelling / hydration strategy to pack choice to shoes / socks to training mix to in-race pacing. Hopefully they’ve given me a good platform now to finish “the big one” if I manage to get a place on it next year. I made a few minor nav mistakes during the race that cost me no more than perhaps 10-15 minutes but nothing major. My discipline around checkpoints and kit faff was a lot better than previous years. Perhaps the only thing I could have done better is pushed harder during the night when I let the cold and dark slightly get to me, and almost imperceptibly I drifted from "racing" to "plodding" mode, easy to do when you're on your own in the dark. Perhaps as positive from my perspective was that, aged 53, my recovery was pretty quick after the race. Although my ankles hurt a lot on Monday morning, by Wednesday I was back on the bike, Thursday saw me run my first 10k again and by Saturday I'd done a HM at close my usual easy training pace. At the time of writing, I've got 4 days until the start of the Arc of Attrition and I'm feeling in pretty good shape for it, with just a slightly stiff right Achilles to show for my efforts on the Challenger.

 

I owe a huge thanks to the exceptional work of the Spine Race organisers, the volunteers who man the checkpoints and the Spine Safety Teams (SSTs) as well as the Mountain Rescue Teams and organisers of unofficial checkpoints and support points, in particular the Craven Energy Triathlon team whose Lothersdale station is a welcome port call on a long and freezing night section.

 

Another key realisation this year is just how important membership of the Spine Family has become to me. The ultrarunning community is of course its own family, but within that the community of people involved in and surrounding the Spine Races really is quite a special group. It was of course wonderful to see so many familiar faces before the start at Edale, both participants and supporters, but even after my own race finished, it was great to spend the rest of the week dot-watching friends taking part in the other races – from Richard, Alex, Hannah, Sophie, Gary, Kevin, Jonnie, Eoin, Jonathan, Mark, Kate, Andrew and others in the full race to Andrew, Jenny, Fumiaki, Hayley, Carmine, James, Oliver, Ed and others in the Challenger races – as well as reading the remarkable stories of other runners that I didn’t know beforehand. Not to mention of course the friends that were volunteering among the various Checkpoint and Safety teams. Seeing Jack break Jasmin's almost-impossible-to-beat record was of course incredible. But seeing John Kelly helping out at Alston after being forced to retire in his own race was also incredibly inspiring – in what other races do you see that from one of the elite runners? It’s definitely on my agenda now to volunteer whenever I can in those years when I’m not racing. The whole week is like a huge combination between jamboree and reunion - everyone urging each other on to stretch their own personal boundaries, sharing in both the successes and the disappointments - and deservedly occupies a unique place in the British and global ultra community. By Sunday 21st I felt as emotionally drained after dot watching for a week as I'd felt on Sunday 14th after finishing my own race.

 

It's a family affair.



Related links


 



Kit

Pack:

OMM Phantom 25

OMM Chest Pod

Shoes:

Hoka Speedgoat 5 (Size 12), resoled with Vibram Peak District

 

Waterproofs:

Montane Spine (Top), Mountain Equipment (Bottom)

Socks:

 

Liner: DryMax Hyperthin Crew x 2

Waterproof: Geckowear Kneelength compression socks

 

Shorts:

Montane VIA Thermal Tights

 

Top:

UnderArmor sleeveless compression top, Shinymod UV sleeves, Montane Dart ZipNeck, Montane Protium Fleece

Underwear:

JustWears long boxer shorts

 

Gloves:

Fingerless gloves: Raynaud’s Deluxe Silver gloves

Thermal gloves: Montane VIA gloves

Mitts: Montane Prism Dryline Mitts, Montane Minimus waterproof overmitts

Hat / Buff:

SealSkinz waterproof cap

Multiple buffs

GPS:

Garmin Forerunner 945 (+ spare)

Garmin eTrex 32 (handheld)

Bivvy Bag:

Mountain Warehouse Waterproof Bivvy Bag

 

Sleeping Bag:

Thermarest Hyperion

 

Sleeping Mat:

Thermarest NeoAir Uberlite

 

Headtorch / Chest torch:

LEDLenser Neo 10 x 2 + spare batteries



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