Sound Mountain Judgement
When The Shit Hits The Fan!
Nearing the end of this set of blogs and I have realised that I have been concentrating mostly on the Physical aspects of the race. Hopefully the first 4 Blogs have given you an idea of the tools you may need to finish The Spine but you still need to consider how to use them.
Most experienced Ultra Runners have come to discover that the importance of what goes on in your head becomes far more significant the longer the distance.
It follows naturally that the Spine at just under 270 miles is a race completed or DNF't in your own head.
This is pure subjective speculation on my part but if I was compare some of the races I have run and rated the fraction of Physical to Mental Importance to finish the race ,I come up with this:
Fell Marathon Physical 90% Mental 10%
Classic Quarter ( 44 miler) Physical 80% Mental 20%
Fellsman (62 miler) Physical70% Mental 30%
Lakeland 100 Physical 50% Mental 50%
Spine Race Physical 20% Mental 80%
At first glance considering how physically taxing the Spine Race is you may think that's all bollocks!
Try and look at the Spine another way yes it is physically brutal running 2.7x 100 milers. But to pull yourself through to the Spine finish line you have to use ten times more mental effort than that used to run 100miles!
The figures are larger but The 20/80 split stays the same.
Forgive me my figures are totally plucked out of the air but I hope you get my point.
Over the past year I wondered how the hell I finished the Spine? Writing the Spine Guide is perhaps a sort of therapy ( Totnes where I live is overrun by Therapists). I have found it much easier to discuss the tangible physical processes . I know that with a few exceptions most runners are looking for an answer to the things that they can perhaps measure.
If I had started the Blogs with my woolly musings on how to think your way to the Finish Line you would all have got bored a long time ago.
It may come as a big disappointment but I have no answers for you as an individual.
Andy Mouncey (who has studied this sort of thing) would say : "You need to want the race".
For many of you this will be key to you finishing this race or not.
After talking to Andy I have tried to look deeper into what I was thinking during the 2013 Spine. My conclusions are as follows :
On starting I felt I was so far out of my depth that I really did not care if I got to the finish line.
Day one I reverted to my default state of getting competitive.
Day two after the shock of a near DNF at CP1 I got back into control and started enjoying myself getting into the groove. I must confess I also get onto a bit of an Ego trip if I am lead navigating in a group.
Day three I hooked up with Jenn Gaskell and relaxed even more.
Day four the thrill of pushing our limits which I love to do followed by the shock and grief of Jenn's pulling out.
Day five I deliberately shifted my mind set back into race mode. Still no real thought of finishing the race but I just Had to run down the Germans! I used this thought and cultivated it to push me on.
Day six more of the same but just with a sniff of the finish line as being possible.
Day seven , grouped up ,head down and reverting to the group running mind set . Probably my most uncomfortable mental state as I felt like the outsider of the group.
Late day seven when the shit started to hit the fan I felt I had become part of the group. The effect on my mental state was dramatic. I felt valued again and I must confess the worse the storm became the more elated I felt.
The bottom line is that I really enjoyed myself despite all the spine threw at me and this was the key to my POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE.
I feel that for me staying positive enabled me to relax and make better decisions.
This is easy to say but you may be so short of sleep that your emotions are on a rollercoaster.
I came across several runners (in 2014) who had issues with dropping out of running with other (Usually Pairs of runners). In any group one pair will tend to feel stronger about about staying with each other than say a third member. As the Race progresses one team member may hold the others back and at some point the pair will move ahead without them. The effect on the sleep deprived runner left behind can be devastating. The lack of sleep can also lead to unreasonable child like behaviour. You should be aware of this possibility in any group situation. Getting to the finish line is difficult enough in itself and requires a degree of selfishness.
The simple fact is that Group Running is not running your own race.
The Spine Is 268miles of Decision Making.
Stating The Spine with a rigid race plan will not work. You have to remain flexible .
It is even a mental decision to quit when your body has broken.
Making decisions well takes practise and if you consider the consequences of getting it wrong in such a hostile environment as the Pennines in January that's why it is so vital.
If you think back to my discussion on group running I mentioned that runners with weak nav skills can train as they race . The same thing applies to decision making. It is a mistake to let the more forceful member of the group take all the decisions. A blind follower will be up the proverbial Shit Creek if they get separated .
As the sleep deprivation kicks in decision making will get harder . Everyone in a group should at least inwardly question all the decisions being made even if you don,t always outwardly agree or disagree.
It is because of the hostile environment that many of the decisions you make have to be made early.
That is another reason why map and compass navigators do well . If you are using a map you have to be more observant of your surroundings and what lies ahead .
You need to be thinking ahead ( perhaps stopping to layer up before tackling the next exposed ridge ) . It is this sort of decision that is called Sound Mountain Judgement.(SMJ for short).
Stu Westfield is way more experienced than me and he will cover SMJ better than me in his Pre Spine Masterclass. It will be well worth attending this class
The best way to learn this is mountain and hill walking experience. If you have not spent much time in the wild then you really should at least take part in one of the Spine Training Courses .
SMJ is more a way of thinking rather than a set of rules . You could describe it as a continuous set of RISK ASSESSMENTS but not the tick box sort.
You are responsible for yourself and the other competitors in the Spine . Not only that but also anyone who may have to come out and pull you out of the shit such as Mountain Rescue Teams.
You will probably make better decisions when you are not under stress so forward planning is required . Try to anticipate problems with the trail ahead. At times you may well have to take difficult decisions and override a partners decision if you feel it is unwise or dangerous.
When The Shit Hits The Fan.
Sounds dramatic but this is a real possibility on the Spine Race .
On a standard 100 miler if you can't go any further for any reason you usually have the option of pulling out at a CP. Failing that at least help (in uk Ultras) is seldom more than one hour away. Further more once you stop in most circumstances you are safe and unlikely to come to much harm. (yes there are races held in bad conditions but not as bad as you should expect on the Spine.)
Much of the pennine way is remote and a long way from road heads. You are often at high altitudes and exposed to the elements. This is why avoiding that fan is so important.
The Spine Race Fan often has a name: HYPOTHERMIA.
I won't go into great detail as you will learn plenty about this in the Race Briefings.
The problem with hypothermia is that once you are in it it is difficult to recover without help. The real secret is to avoid it in the first place.
Most people think hypothermia is caused by just not having enough warm cloths on to maintain your body temp. However when in an event such as the Spine the heat you are generating through movement along the trail is just as important as the layers you have on . We all generate different amounts of surplus heat depending how our body works . I have previously mentioned how inefficient my running style is so I generate plenty of heat. Others will run at the same pace and generate far less.
Its a bit of a sweeping statement but many women generate less heat than men and so have to wear more cloths to maintain a level body temperature in cold conditions.
Our ability to generate heat depends also on our pace .
Pace depends on energy levels.
Energy levels depend on Nutrition as well as how physically tired and mentally tired we are.
The Cold will make us more mentally and physically tired
If we are tired we will slow our pace and generate less heat.
The whole thing turns into a vicious circle: The colder you get ,the slower you go , the colder you get!
This can develop quite fast especially as the mere fact that you have got that far will have run down your reserves. You may not realise that you are falling into the Hypothermia downward spiral.
I mentioned in an earlier Blog about not adopting the " Man up and push on " mantra. If you are a long way from a checkpoint and heading up to an exposed part of the trail then pushing on could lead you into danger. Unfortunately just stopping won't help either. You need shelter ,possibly food and a way to warm up . In some cases this could mean phoning for help and perhaps moving back the way you came . Phoning race control for help is not a DNF offence but a sensible option . Better still before you get to that state , phone in and let race control know of your worries . The Spine Team are out there to get as many of us to the finish line as possible. They will do there best to help you recover and put you back on the trail again.
If you are with a group then let them know whats happening . Someone may be carrying extra spare warm gear or have food that helps you. The rest of the group must also be aware that if one member slows down the groups pace slows and there is a danger of others in the group not generating enough heat themselves through having to move at a slower pace . The healthier warmer group members should not put them self in harms way otherwise the whole group could become potential casualties.
If you have been running with a group for some time and are starting to have problems then talk to the Spine Team while you are at a checkpoint. You may need help in making the decision to perhaps leave the group ,rest and eat longer then join another group coming up behind you. Your former group members may well be reluctant to let you drop back so having the `spine teams opinion of your options helps.
You will probably be more susceptible to Hypothermia in the latter stages of the race. It's worth taking a little extra time before leaving a checkpoint to look at the map of the trail ahead. Think about wind direction and any forecast rain . You may spot a section of the course that will be very exposed for several Km. Use this information to plan ahead so you can re assess your clothing needs before getting to an area where there is no shelter to get layered up .
The other factor you need to consider is that the distance between each CP is an ultra in itself. You will start to tire in the latter stages . If you have gone out to fast in any stage ,you may not have enough energy to move fast enough to generate enough heat in the latter part of the Ultra stage . It is remarkably difficult when fresh out of a CP to rein back your pace . This is even more difficult if another competitor is within striking distance . One way to force yourself to do this is to overeat before you leave the CP. Its really difficult to run on a full stomach . Moving off slowly will let you digest the food and give you more energy in reserve later on in the leg you are running. (note this won't work for everyone but it works for me.)
I you start to get hungry with 10km to go to the next CP thats when the danger of Hypothermia will strike fastest. This is especially true after the first 100miles because at this point you natural body reserves will be low. Your energy supply (and the ability to fight the cold)will be mostly dependent on what your digestive system can directly convert into usable energy.
As the race progresses the food in energy out process will become more efficient and you may well discover that your natural sustainable pace gets faster. This all leads back to why the Spine Race is different. I strongly believe the first few days of the race re program how your body works. Keep this thought in your head as it will help you to hold back your pace on day one and two.
None of the above guide lines holds true in all cases. You Have To Make Decisions Taking Account Of All The Factors
The decisions made by the TEFT in 2013 on leaving Bellingham illustrate this point: We departed the CP in a compulsory group. We knew the forecast ( 65 mph winds , -8c and a full on Blizzard) not only that but we would be traversing a very exposed high altitude remote part of the course. The Blizzard was forecast to strike at dusk and we had a 5am start. ------ Starting slow was not an option , we had to get as far as possible before dusk. What happened is we marched hard and fast. We were told about the two Mountain Refuge Huts on the Cheviot Ridge . ( Our emergency bolt holes). Two hrs into the march one of the team chose to drop out. ( he had found he had lost control of his thermo regulation) He was still running well but made the call that he would probably be in trouble if he carried on . One phone call to race control and a lift by flagging a car down to take him back to Bellingham. This action very likely stopped him putting himself and perhaps the whole team in danger.
The TEFT carried on and made it to the second Mountain refuge hut where we were forced to halt for the night. Looking back the only mistake we made on that leg was that we did not change the Batteries in Thomas's GPS when we stopped to put on extra layers at the first Mountain Refuge Hut. (as it was the 10 km between the huts took us 7hrs ). We were forced to change the batteries at an exposed spot 1km short of the Second Hut. The two minutes it took to change the batteries in a screaming wind left every one of us very chilled.
Thinking About A Really Wet Race .
Its sunday night and a bit to far away from the start for a really accurate forecast.
Not much more we can do in the way of prep but perhaps I can leave you with a few thoughts on coping with rain .
I assume you will all have adequate waterproof tops and trousers.
Potential leaks will come from the joins between garments . Can you answer the following questions:
- Does your top ride up above your waterproof trousers if tugged by the action of your pack belt?
- Do your hands stay drier with glove cuffs inside or outside of your waterproof top's cuffs?(this could depend on how you hold your arms)
- What is the best way to keep your feet dry ' Gaiters inside trousers or outside ?
- How easy is it to adjust your hood opening in a strong wet headwind?