Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Spine Race ! Could You?


        This is a question many runners ask themselves.  You read all the Race Reports , Forums and Blogs and keep coming back to the same answer :
                         I would love to give it a try but I really don,t know.

       In this blog I shall try to strip back some of the Myths and accumulated Bullshit about the Race .
       I have to confess at least some of that Bullshit comes from me.
       Having now got my ass to the finish line a few times  (one way or another although I should not include  2015's " Unclassified Finish") I guess you could say I am starting to get an idea of how this race works.

        Let's start by looking at how this race is titled : The Uk's Most Brutal Race.

        I know from talking to Scott and Phil (The Race Directors) that this was never intended as a marketing pitch to out macho any other race in the Uk despite  how the Press like to present it. I suspect it was more of a way to put over how seriously any entrant needs to take this race.
         This 2015 brilliant result from Beth also demonstrates that a woman may well beat all the blokes in this race . ( with what Beth learnt from the race this year she will   get even  better armed with her new Knowledge.)

        So is the Spine Brutal? The answer is yes but not in the way you might expect.
         The brutality comes into play in how The Spine Race  punishes you if you make a mistake.
        For a 7 day 268 mile winter mountain race there are a huge number of ways you can make a mistake.
         By cutting down mistakes an average runner can mix it with the Elite Runners.

       Must Ultra Runners  have a very simplistic approach to entering races . They look at how long it is , perhaps how much climb and do I need to do any navigation? Then you add does it look like fun ,will it be scenic, how far away is it , is it on every ones  ' must do list'  and how much does it cost? Then you factor in does it fit in with other races I have entered, am I injured and will I still be in a relationship if I spend every spare hour training and running.

       It's that concept of 268 miles that scares the shit out of everyone! 

        The length of the Spine is not  what will stop you finishing.

          Your Ability To Adapt To Massive Unpredictable Changes During The Race Will Be Tested.        You can,t even count on the race route not being changed mid race!


       Some time long ago someone will have told you that it's not the distance but the pace you have to worry about  in Ultra,s and this holds even more true for the Spine. As far as physical running is concerned all you need to know is that if you can stay on your feet for at least 20 hrs and make fast walking progress on rough steep terrain then you are fit enough to do this race. You don,t have to run at all except on the first day and even then not that much.
       If you read the Blogs they (including my own race reports) they will talk of running but  for almost all the field this is only a label that we use to describe what is in reality only continuous progress at mostly walking place.  Even the front "Runners " spend very little continuous  time running and their increasing  lead over the rest of the field after the first 24 hrs can be put down to their ability to survive on very little rest and sleep.(although they have been known to shift like scolded cat's given good terrain ,a close competitor and a finish line within smelling distance)

        If we think about how we plan for most  Ultras , we don't  have to worry over much about factors that are unpredictable. For example:
                                                        Setting records on treadmill running. All you have to do is keep going by adjusting your pace to what is sustainable. You can have your coach by your side , food /toilet breaks when you want and a warm controlled flat environment to run in . Your limits are set by your training and mental capacity to keep going. Ok you may have physical problems like blisters but even then help is right there with you. From a personal point of view this for me would be pure torture as I would get bored rigid in under one hour and quit.   As  far as training for finishing the Spine is concerned treadmill running is almost but not quite useless.
       I sneaked that little word " finishing" in the last sentence because for the first 44 ish miles to CP1 it might help a bit.
                                                           Track or Park multiple circuits.  Similar in many ways to treadmill running but with no control over the elements.
                                                           Flat linear Ultras (Such as the many towpath Ultras). Now at least you may have to carry some gear and hold it together until the next Checkpoint. (but we are still focused on running) 
                                                            Mountain Ultras . I shall use the UTMB as an example . Now you have to contend with carrying gear and adapting your pace to the climbs and descents. You may also have to cope with some bad weather and you may have to run in the dark.  This sort of race will ask much more of you both physically and mentally.
                                                           Mountain Navigation Ultras. Such as the UTLD 100 and the Fellsman. This is more like the physical and mental training you require but the presence of many other competitors on the course (Who you may choose to follow) can devalue what you learn from the event. Having said that as far as physical ability is concerned I do think if you can do the Fellsman in under 20 hrs then physically you have what it takes. (But only physically)
                                                           Mountain Marathons Score Class.  Rab MM and the OMM.  Now we are into carrying gear , camping out .running totally off track , mountain craft, and stretching our brains not only with the navigation but also with calculating where you hope to be in two hours time with only your map and knowing your likely pace to work with. Winter hill walking and Mountaineering will also help. (you may notice I have not said Elite Class OMM as that involves a more prescribed course and less rout choice although you will probably have to travel further).
              So how does this all help in answering the question : Could I do the Spine Race ?
        Are you seriously mentally strong.  I shall take as my example Garry Morrison. He faced the toughest Spine Race of them all and in my opinion ever . This is because  in 2012 he was heading into the unknown with no blogs to read and only a few people to ask their opinions many who said the race was impossible. If you add to that minimal course marshals ,no tracking no CP1.5 and at times atrocious weather then Garry , Steve and Mark demonstrated  again and again how tough they were.
If you can get any where  near this  mental strength you are well on the way.
      Mental strength is not enough. If you have blown a decision such as not attending to your nutrition , then gritting your teeth and pushing on just won,t work.
 You need the mental strength to be self aware and control your own race.

       Ask Yourself :" What excites you about the Race "? If the answer is --- I really want to know if I can run 268 miles then you may be better off entering the Thames Ring.
                                          If the answer is : I love wilderness the Mountains and I want to stretch my limits to see if I can survive in potentially really harsh conditions ,then this is your race. Its your range of abilities that will get tested not your Ultra track record.
             I love solving problems on a race where the goal posts for the next 10 miles keep shifting. 
             Make good decisions and you will finish.

           You can see how this works out by looking at who actually finishes The Spine .  The finishing medals are handed out to Mountain Marathon runners , Adventure Racers and Mountain Runners. ( all thinking events) Very few flat course Ultra Runners finish, and of them you will find they are now hooked on Mountain Navigation events.  

            For some of you with no Mountain track record this may not be an issue as you may not yet have discovered how much you have been missing all these years. The Spine will convert you (The down side is that it is one hell of a tough act to follow. Many events that you used to think were great may now feel a bit dull).

           Just how up for the challenge are you? Has running in the dark alone ever spooked you? Are you scared of heights and getting lost? 16 hrs of darkness much of the time alone. If you are concerned with any of these issues you must also take into account that you can't  rely on others to hold your hand over 268 miles.  Self confidence comes with experience ,  not with spending money on kit and increasing the weekly mileage run.

           Talking of Kit , can you financially  afford the  Race?

           There are two main approaches to the race : 1 spend a fortune on lightweight kit in the hope it will make your race easier.
                                                                                 2 spend your cash on what matters to get you to the finish still solvent.

               Yes you can go the ultra light weight approach and this is what you will find the runners at the sharp end will do. 
                I should add a word of warning though : Light weight kit is now being marketed as "Conforms To Race Rules"  Another sport but it did conform:
In some cases this can be translated as --- "we have made this kit super  light for suckers .
                                                                    Suckers will pay a fortune for light kit.
                                                                     Much of the kit will never be used .
                                                                     In ideal conditions it really is waterproof."
                                                                     The problem with this is that super light kit may rip in two with the slightest contact with a thorn bush and 12 hours continuous driving rain will reduce it to a soggy useless mush.
                                                                      Other kit is so stripped down it becomes useless in practice.
                                                                       Save weight -remove pockets-use minute zips. It's not as if anyone will ever need to take out a map and nav in the dark with frozen hands.
    Some runners will spend a fortune on kit totally unsuitable for the Spine.

            There are other ways . Take Sleeping Systems.  
            I took a look at my local Mountain Warehouse Store and found in one of the numerous half price sales that you can get a double foil sided foam mat , -4 c sleeping bag and  liner  for around £50.  Add an Alpkit bivi bag and a foil emergency bag and that,s you sleeping system for under £100.  Ok so it will weigh more and be more bulky than most but you could have already have saved yourself £300!
          Another place for kit is Army Surplus Stores. (Waterproof non branded socks and Bivvi bags.)
          A second hand Garmin Oregon 450 with OS 1:50,000 mapping cost me £100 on Ebay.   
           Most of us have a good selection of base layers and Fleeces already. For warmth when stopped you may need to spend about £150 on a Primaloft or Down jacket (Don't go overboard as you don,t want a garment you will never use again)  
             You will need a bomb proof set of waterproofs ,top and bottom and I would advise against going to light weight. ( This often means lightweight zip tags which are impossible to grasp with frozen fingers.
               Your pack needs to be comfortable and you need to know what shoes work for you. and what range of sizes you need to take .
               If you can get your pack weight under 10 Kg without water you can still make that finish line but you probably won,t be up with the leaders.  
              The Race leaders plan to use speed to avoid trouble but for a spine novice this is a very risky strategy that will only work if nothing goes wrong.

              You can probably get a complete Spin Kit from scratch for under £500 and have kit you will use again and again. Most of us already have much of the kit.

                Could I Cope With The Weather?  --- This race will keep running even in atrocious conditions ( You should plan to face conditions worse than any other conditions you have ever been outside in.)   Can you cope -- its a combination of being dressed properly and managing your internal energy generating capacity (Rest and Food).
                Can I learn to navigate well enough? ---- Easy to answer to this one.------- Join an Orienteering Club. (Don,t be put off by being initially  soundly thrashed by some 75 year old bloke with a walking stick! He is probably the one who can teach you  the most).  

           I would also highly recommend  the Spine Training Course to tie together all the loose ends of your training. You will also be surprised at how much you can still learn from the questions asked by other Spine Students at the training event. The training course will bring all your skills together so you will still be able to function when the shit really hits the fan.

        Take two candidates for 2016 . One a Fell runner with loads of hill walking experience but who had never run an ultra.
                                                           The other candidate an ultra runner who had done several 100's all on summer flat'ish well marked courses with loads of checkpoints . 
     Give them 6 months to prep for the race. My money would be on the Fell Runner. This is partly because  the Ultra runner will probably just try to run further in training and underestimate what is needed to stay motivated with zero sleep at night in a wilderness for the last 200 miles.. The fell runner/hill walker will probably already have all the skills needed for the last 200miles all he has to do is survive the ultra running stage (the first about  68miles).
       It's more difficult for the ultra runner to change his training mind set that it is for the fell runner to just train to  build in endurance for the first two days.

 To put it another way : Mo Farah V Ray Mears . With no additional training then Ray has a far better chance of reaching the finish line!

 When it comes to training spend time in the hills wild camping overnight and getting in tune with mountains.


   This is probably the biggest issue for any Spine Racer.   You can't train for it but how much you do or don,t get and when will have a far greater effect on your pace in the second half of the race then any long milage training. For virtually every runner approaching the finish line they would say that : Yes I could run further but only if I can have some more Sleep.
    Missing sleep during a normal 48 hr Ultra is a breeze compared to the Chronic Sleep Deprivation you will have to cope with to finish The Spine.

 Sleeping and lack of sleep( not just rest) will ruin your decision making abilities. If you are able to fall asleep anywhere at anytime ,really quickly you have a real advantage This ability never gets really tested in most other ultra,s.  

 No sleep = Bad decisions= DNF

           Bottom Line The Spine Is 90% Mental and 10% Physical.

  Making decisions with a sleep deprived non functional brain is the toughest thing about The Spine!

You Should Never Underestimate The Spine Or The Challenger!

        Still Interested ? Entries will be accepted  March 2017.    .

1 comment:

  1. Some very good points there, Ian. Very good; particularly like your comments about spending money on 'Conforms to Race Rules Kit' ...

    Joe Faulkner
    MST / Spiner Race Finisher
    NAV4 Adventure Founder / Director
    Tea Drinker