Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Spine Race Part 1 - Preparation, Planning & Lessons Identified

A week on and I’m still not quite sure what happened to me on The Spine or how I feel about the race.  Without a doubt it was the hardest thing – physically, mentally and emotionally that I’ve put myself through.  I suspect it will be several weeks or months before my brain has really processed it all and by then the version of reality that my brain accepts may well have a different slant to it to what actually happened.

I recently came up with my own kind of race preparation/event log book which encapsulates the process that I went through for planning my Spine Race so I guess the best way to write up the race would be to go through that. 

I’ll do a second blog post on my memories of the race itself which will be more of a typical narrative.  This is more to help me remember in the years to come.


What were my strengths going into the race?

Good base fitness – without a doubt 2015 was my best year running and despite a Refusal to Continue on the self-organised Memorial Run overall I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in.

Reasonable navigation – fairly confident using a mix of map, compass and GPS to nav.

Looking after myself.  When I was first thinking about entering the race someone told me a finish was 80% looking after yourself and 20% fitness.  I think my military experience stood me in good stead for this.

Areas to work on
Some upper body strength – especially carrying the weight.

Getting used to using poles/moving quickly with a pack.

Knowledge of the route – apart from some walking in the Yorkshire Dales I had no knowledge of the route at all.

What did I need to find out about the race?
Kit choices – never having done any multi-day races I wasn’t sure what would work?

How to approach this race – I needed to work out a strategy.

What other factors were going to affect my preparation?
Work/life/other races was going to mean I wasn’t going to be able to physically recce any of the route.

With recovery from Chiltern Way/Memorial Run I was going to have about a 10 week block for specific training before an extended taper going into the race.

After my failure on the Memorial Run I took a few weeks off and had very low mileage in October before building the mileage up in November.  I was working in at least one 10+ mile run with my Spine Pack and poles although in retrospect the pack was probably a kilo or two light on what I ended up running run.
I had some fairly big mileage weeks (for me) in November with the weeks going 43, 67, 80 and 86 miles.  The first weekend in December I’d organised a local SocialUltra on the North Chiltern Trail which was 43 miles and 3,700 ft ascent.  I’d always planned on this being my ‘dress rehearsal’ for the race and was quite happy with how it went.  With hindsight I probably should have done a bit of a back to back to see how I’d feel going out on a longish run the day after doing 43 miles with the Spine Pack on.
The remainder of my specific training was trying to get down to Pegsdon Hills for some hill training.  Although it’s a fairly small area I never seem to get bored of running here and it’s the best spot locally for hill training without travelling too far. 
I’d always planned on having an extended taper as I wanted to go into the even as fresh as I could be and most of December consisted of fun running without putting any pressure on myself.

Physically I felt pretty good going into the race with none of the usual pre-race niggles that seem to appear for no reason.

TRAINING – Non-Physical
This consisted of reading as much as could about other people’s experiences of the race.  The collection of blogs put together by Anne Green was my one stop reading shop and I thoroughly commend it to anyone looking at doing the race.  Ian Bowles series of articles is particularly valuable for the newbie.

I also spent a lot of time reading Wainwright’s books on the route, reading them with the maps next to me to try to relate the route to the description and photos.  I checked out any roadcrossings with Google Streetview so that I could visualise certain points.  I’m not sure how much this actually benefitted me but I did have the occasional ‘lightbulb’ moment so maybe some of it paid off.  With hindsight I should have spent more time on the later parts of the course for when I would be tired.

I was fairly confident going into the race.  I felt physically fit, had managed to get some half decent sleep in the Christmas period and generally felt quire well prepared.  I was confident using my kit even if I felt it was slightly heavy.

I like to have 3 goals going into a race – a main aim, a fall back aim if things are going badly and a ‘stretch’ aim if things are going better than expected.  This helps me keep focussed regardless of how things are going.

Main aim – finish within the cutoffs feeling like I’d been in control throughout the race.
Fallback aim – drag my sorry arse across the finish line still breathing.
Stretch aim – Top Ten finish within 36-48 hours of the winner.

Never having done a multi-day event like this I didn’t want to set anything too specific and wanted to be focussed more on how I was feeling.  Listening to some people at the Youth Hostel the night before the race they had very specific plans about when they wanted to be at certain points and how quickly they planned to move.  I didn’t think this would survive contact with the race so I just wanted to make sure that I kept my feeding up, kept moving quickly even if I was walking and concentrated on my nav.
The following are the rules I set myself for the race:

Go out too fast.
Get sucked into someone elses race.
Let myself make the decision to drop on an uphill section

Deal with problems as quickly as I could after identifying them as problems.
Concentrate on my feeding.
Walk quickly if I couldn’t run.

I was  2 days worth of boil in the bag rations as well as energy bars, nuts and pepperami.  I planned to stop and cook myself a hot meal once during the day.  I planned on 4-5 SiS energy bars between each CP.  I didn’t plan to rely on buying anything at shops but would take advantage when I could.

I never stopped to cook myself a meal. In future I would take the lightweight dehydrated meals as the boil in the bag rations were really quite heavy.

I’m doing a separate blog entry on the race narrative so I won’t go into the ins and outs of the race here.

Largely hit my main race aim – in control for most of the race and even though I only finished with 4 hours to spare I could have compressed this with less rest at Bellingham and not sauntering casually down from Hut2.

Kit choices – see below.

Layering – very rarely cold or wet and when I was it was largely down to feeding rather than layering.

Navigation – a few stupid errors but nothing major.

After my knee swoll up on day 1 I never really got going at the pace I’d hoped to again.  While this was partly physical (at least till about Wednesday) I think I also got into a routine pace that became difficult to get out of.

Developed hip flexor weakness later in the week that really impacted on climbing speed – this is something that has happened before in 100 mile races and I need to get to the bottom of it as it is becoming a limiting factor – could still move quickly when I didn’t have to lift my leg too high.

Faffed around a lot at CPs – largely due to not being able to concentrate when lack of sleep hit. In future I would take a laminated checklist to follow.

Took a long time to get over not sleeping for first 36 hours – would have been quicker if I had had a 45 minute kip at CP1. Stop trying to be ‘sleep macho’.

At times did get sucked into to other people’s race – this paid off sometimes (thanks Luke – not sure I’d have finished without you) whilst at other times I maybe slowed too much.  There were advantages to this e.g sharing the navigation and just having some company.


Rab Zenith – excellent, via lightweight but never gave into the elements.  The underarm pitzips made venting really easy.  Picked this up for £60 from GoOutdoors and was phenomenal in my opinion.
North Face Mountain Guide – very old school mountaineering jacket that was probably older than Ryan Wood.  I decided to use this from CP5 after hearing the weather forecast.  I think this was one of the best decisions I made all race and whilst I wasn’t in tip top condition when I reached Hut 2 I was still reasonably warm.

Montane Atomic – not massively impressed.  Comfortable and very waterproof but I ended up with 4 rips in them which the ripstop did little to restrict. 

I’m a big MoreMile Cheviot 2 fan.  I’ve worn them on the Lakeland100, South Downs Way 100 and even use them for some road running (don’t judge me).  Thought they were great on this.  Great grip (except on icy flagstones but I don’t think any shoes would be much better), drained fairly well and didn’t give me any blisters.  Went up a shoe size at the half way point.  If I’d had some spare cash I would have bought some lightweight walking boots and I think if I was doing it again I would definitely invest in some.
Mountain Warehouse ankle gaiters – kept the dirt and snow out of my shoes even if they didn’t keep the water out.  I don’t really like knee length gaiters.  I was surprised by how many competitors wore their gaiters over the top of their waterproofs missing the point that water then runs down your waterproof trousers inside your gaiters.

Cheap Karrimor Dry ankle socks with knee length thick SealSkinz over the top.  Feet generally stayed dry unless they’d been submerged for long periods (e.g after Tan Hill) and even when wet the SealSkinz kept my feet warm.  The only time my feet got really cold was when we loitered a bit too long at Hut 2 – by then I was very run down.

Peter Storm Merino base layer – I had a few baselayers but didn’t change out of this as it was so comfortable. Never felt clammy and quite warm.
Microfleece – I had a couple of these of different brands.
Buffalo Special 6 Shirt – another piece of kit that was probably older than some of the competitors. Probably nothing better in cold, wet conditions.  If I’d ever got soaked to the skin (which I fortunately didn’t) the plan was to strip the other layers off and wear this next to the skin.
Rab Generator Vest – another old favourite that ounce for ounce is very warm.
Kalenji and MoreMile winter leggings – quite heavy duty but wicked well and when I ended up waist deep in a bog dried very quickly preventing me from cooling too much.
At times I ended up with all of this on and my heavy duty North Face mountaineering jacket as well.

Head and Hands
Extremities Ice Cap Goretex hat – won’t win any prizes for fashion but was very warm.
SealSkinz mitts – these were a SportsPursuit purchase and one of the best things I bought for the event.  Even when I managed to get both hands soaked my hand stayed warm – I normally suffer from poor circulation so this was quite a feat.  Actually quite devastated when I managed to slice one open on the fence between Hut 1 and Hut 2. Now searching for a new pair.
Berghaus Powerstretch neck gaiter.  Another very versatile, very warm piece of kit that I’d got specifically for the event but will now be going anywhere cold, wet or windy with me.

Berghaus Hyper 37 - this was one of the larger packs being carried but having failed to get my sleeping bag down in size I didn’t really have a lot of choice.  Overall a great daysack with easy to reach hip pockets.  I’d added a Raidlight Waterbottle pouch to the front strap so I had a bottle on hand.
OMM 3l bumbag – I started off with this on day one for keep ‘ready to use items’ e.g. gloves in.  Ditched it at CP1 and just stuffed things in my pockets.

Alpkit Kraku stove – tiny, light and worked a dream.
Alpit MyTi Mug – mug, stove pan in one. Could fit gas, stove, lighter and spork inside with room to spare. Very light and more than happy with this.
Windproof jetflame lighter – bought off eBay for a couple of quid and lit even in very windy conditions.
Alpkit Spork – I guess a Spork is a spork but this was light and virtually indestructible.

Softie 9 – the only sleeping bag I had that met the entry requirements.  Not small and not particularly light.  I didn’t end up using this but I’m pretty sure it would have done the job if I’d needed to.
Mountain Equipment hooped bivy.  Not used.

Started with my trusty Led Lenser H4 until I managed to pull a wire out.
Petzl Tikka – no real issues.
At one point I had two sets of batteries die really quickly and still had an hour till daylight.  My trusty old school Nokia with ‘flashlight’ setting saved the day otherwise I think I’d have had to bivvy down until it got light.

Fenix 3 – no mapping but great for a quick check on whether you were on route. Worth noting that the GPX file provided drew straight lines between points rather than following the path – at times you could therefore be ‘on the track’ but not ‘on the path’ or vice versa.
Garmin HCX 60 – borrowed from a friend. Easy to use and very long battery life.  Didn’t have OS mapping on it but a good bit of kit.
Harvey Maps – still not a real fan – guess I’m just too used to OS. If I was doing it again I’d print off A4 OS sheets for the route.

Part 2 to follow.


  1. Very interesting and useful thanks. One question, which size Alpit MyTi Mug did you use please?

  2. Hi Chris - it was the 650 - not sure if the smaller one fits a gas canister inside.

  3. Hi Chris - it was the 650 - not sure if the smaller one fits a gas canister inside.