Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Spine Race 2016, a few thoughts

It,s been a long time since I last added to this Blog.  I do find that my initial post Spine thoughts are often rather biased by the thrill of taking part in the race. My writing technique appears to be slam in a race report fast  while it is still fresh in my mind , then do a second take on the things I learnt after letting the lessons jell in my mind.  If you read my reports you may well find I contradict myself at times. This is not intentional but it will give you a feel of how much "Post Spine Fallout" can effect a competitor. Most who finish will tell you that it takes perhaps two months plus to come down off the "Spine High". It may be worth warning any partners that the athlete they wished good luck to at the start of the race will not come back the same!

       The high finish rate in 2015 was not due to a better prepared set of starters but due to the fact that halting the race several times turned the race into a semi stage race.

     Race reports  only tell the story of the Spine Race of that particular year. What you may have read about the 2015 race will not teach you enough to compete with a full quota of knowledge in 2016.
      It is unlikely that the wind,s will be as strong in 2016 which will probably make the whole race much harder! A stage race allows competitors to get proper sleep and so removing one of the hardest factors that will give you grief in the second half of the race----Sleep Deprivation . Many of you think you know about sleep deprivation. You may have run through two nights without sleep in a previous ultra . The Spine however will take you to a whole new level . At least in previous ultra,s you would have had the choice of being able to sleep if you wanted to . January on the pennine way may give you very few SAFE places to sleep. This is assuming that your brain is in a fit state to even organise how you can get some rest. Yes you have a Bivvi Bag or tent but if you are tired /cold and can,t stay awake then to be honest the best place to sleep is where you were several hours earlier with a functional brain and body.
      The importance of sleep deprivation on a normal Spine Year is graphically shown up in past race result,s. In 2015 virtually everyone who made it through day one/two then made it to the finish line. If you look at previous years you will see that we were falling like flies throughout the whole race. This was not directly due to the weather but due to enforced race stops in 2015 where everyone got plenty of sleep.
       So if you finished in 2015 you will probably be in for a bit of a shock in 2016.

        Talking of weather you may think that The Spine Racers  have encountered all the Pennines in January can throw at them. I feel this is far from true . We have done :Wind ,rain and cold to some extent. We also had a short blast of heavy snow in the latter stages of the 2013 race but as one who raced in 2013 I recall that a week after The Spine we were all looking at the late jan weather reports of serious snow thinking " Thank God I am not trying to race in that!
         So Far We Have Not Had Serious Long Term Snow On The Spine Race.


        This leads me on to another important aspect of the Spine Race : Weighing up the costs and benefits  of actions (Decisions) and equipment. When choosing your kit you need to consider if it works in practise and in when combined with other kit you may take with you.
         Most of us with ultra experience have encountered the lethargy that a long race can exert on your actions. The most common example of this often involves hydration. Some prefer using bladders and some bottles . If you are in any way unhappy about your chosen system you probably won,t drink enough (and we all know where that leads). 
          Several days continuous racing can make you very lethargic.

         Let,s look at bottles : Things should be simple ,you unseal the lid and drink wright? Well not quite. ------------- Firstly just how easy is it to get the fluid to your mouth? Where you carry the bottles can be crucial. Having to make the slightest effort reaching for your drink will reduce your fluid consumption. This is why most experienced Spine Racers carry bottles on their front pack straps.  The bottle is right there ready so no thinking required. If you use this method you must eliminate any  'bottle bounce '. Bounce what may slightly annoy you on a 100miler will throw you into serious temper tantrum,s  after two Spine Days. (this goes for your whole pack not just the bottles.
        Now the bottle itself. A bight valve will  freeze up once the temp falls below zero. I like the Raidlight bottles with the long protruding tube. No bight valve so less to freeze. Ok they will spill fluid if you lay them on their side but in normal use they are fine and they have a wide lid for easy re-filling which still functions if the bottle contents are partly frozen. Talking of which if you carry your bottles externally it may be worth stitching some foam insulation around the bottle carrying sleeve . (if you are using a bladder then insulate the demand tube or better still work out a way of threading the tube inside your clothing so you can keep the tube hot with body heat. ) This also will give you  a slightly warmer drink which is a bonus.

     Re filling water bottles can also be a problem. The marshals should not be relied upon to supply you with water. Early in the race this is not so much of a problem but later on when the field is more spread out then so are the marshals. If a marshaling road head point runs out of water they can,t leave their post to fill up large water cans. Their priority is to monitor the competitors are not re-supply. 
       You may spend much of your time splashing through water but most of this is sheep contaminated bog water or run off  from a muddy field. The quality of scoop able water can be worse in a wet year. Severe long lasting freezing conditions can also limit water supply. The bottom line is that if you don,t know if there is a reliable water supply in the next 20km then you should carry about 1.5 litres of water. (saving 200g by  buying a super light weight expensive  jacket  will be insignificant in the long term.)

              ANATOMY of a DNF

      After my DNF in 2015 I feel I am a little better qualified to give out advice.

      This may be a bit of a step to far for some of you after all who want,s to take advise from a  :-----------------------  Looser! 

 During the race briefing in 2015  Darren Hunt gave a talk and advice on Hypothermia . He started by saying that in 2014 he had DNF,t from Hypothermia. Several competitors were heard muttering : "He DNF,t ! Why should we take advice from him?
      My response to this attitude is that if you want to learn  how not to DNF a race like the Spine then you want to listen to a guy that has  had that  DNF experience , not some  one who only knows the theory! Cast around all the Spine race reports and you could learn things from the DNF majority.

I DNF,t in 2015 due to Hypothermia. 
At first sight you may think : He got wet ,cold then quit.
 However if I look back with the benefit of hindsight I can see that the path to the DNF was long and quite complex. I learnt a lot from that DNF and will pass that on to you.

The Lead Up.
 My long term prep for the race was ok . I never really do enough miles to get me through the first few days easily but I do tend to reel people in later in the race.
 I had planned to sleep in my van to get an undisturbed sleep the night before the race. However I was offered a bed in a warm Band B. The result of this was I got to bed far to late and got a short very disturbed sleep due to an overheated room and storm noises outside. My room mate was doing the Challenger so we both got up in the small hours

Ist mistake stick to the plan to get maximum sleep the night before.

Race Day.
 2nd mistake : I put the wrong combination of socks on.
 My sock choice was Seal skins for waterproofing. Injini toe socks to ward off blisters and Compression socks to make the second layer reducing the chance of blisters still further.
 I used the same seal skin socks as I used in 2014. ( in hindsight they were over worn and had lost some of their waterproofing ability.)  This would have been OK if I had used Marino Wool socks instead of the compression socks. ( the wool would have kept my damp feet warm). as it was I lost heat through my feet continuously after about the 4th hour when the sealskins started leaking.

 3rd mistake : moving too fast early in day one.
 I did this because the race start was delayed and I had planned on eating at the White House pub .The delayed start meant I would have to push harder than planned to reach the pub before they st oped serving food. ( I know I get severe nausea after about 8 hrs if I go to fast in any ultra) By pushing too hard I stressed my gut causing nausea ,  my pace to reduce to a crawl at 8 hrs . In other races I just push through this but without moving at a reasonable pace I would not be generating sufficient body heat to maintain my core temperature.

4th mistake trying to up my pace and not taking care of my extremities.
   Once I had decided to push harder I pushed looking after my body down my priorities list. In practise this meant tolerating small niggles like leaks between my gloves and jacket sleeve and my on cold wet feet problems.
                   I should have paused and sorted myself out more often.
   This is easy to say but it is probably the largest factor leading up to most Spine DNF's

  5:  falling due to lack of concentration with foot placement.
 I was on an easy non technical part of the trail and stepped on the grass rather than that slippery looking wood.  That wood was a bridge over a water filled ditch into which I plunged!

   6th Mistake That slip got me soaked on one side of my body. I should have stopped  and found enough shelter  to get changed into my spare dry gear. There was no good shelter available so I pushed on.

 By now I was cold ,wet and hypoglycemic (needed food) My ability to make sensible decisions had gone down the pan .  It took the experience of an outsider (in the form of the MST) to tell me I had to warm up.      Could I have warmed up then continued? As it was by the time I was seen by one of the medics I had shifted into a post hypothermic state of sleepy lethargy combined with nausea. I knew I was warm enough to push on but without the ability to hold down food  my ability to generate heat would not be sufficient to prevent my body crashing again.

My DNF was self certified I still believe it was the correct decision . Getting back on the trail that night would have put myself and others in danger. I don,t beat myself up about that DNF. 
         Some would call this lack of backbone but I can honestly say I enjoy The Spine Race experience and this is what keeps me coming back and not some macho  self satisfaction of beating down pain. I re-started the race later from CP1 ( 20km short ,running non competitively and still having fun). 

   I do regret my  mistakes in the lead up to the 'TIPPING POINT".  Most DNF,s apart from serious trauma usually have a string of bad decisions leading up to them. Without the frequent CP,s common to most ultras many of these bad decisions will get magnified in significance by your long hour es on the  Spine trail trail.

One of the most common misconceptions about The Spine is that DNF,s are caused by runners just not being able to keep moving because their legs are just to tired .

   It will be loosing control of the rest of your body that will cause the DNF.

 Why 2016 will be different from other Spine Race Years

Firstly  The  later start time of will make it difficult for the slower runners to make  it to  the SpineThe White House Inn while they are still serving food.  The 10.20 am start will only give them about10   hrs to make it before  kitchen closure.  This can be quite serious for slow Spine Runners as it effectively removes a whole  indoor hot food stop.
           I shall probably cook up a hot meal on the trail somewhere before the M62 foot bridge rather than push hard to reach the pub in time.

             The early  Challenger start means that the  Challenger race leaders may reach The White House Inn before they start serving food. (6ish)   There is a lot to be said for adjusting your pace so you reach the Inn bang on time ( This will give you a much faster turn around time at CP1 and you will be in over all better shape for the rest of the CP1 to CP2 leg).  Challenger :James Turner arrived to early to eat at the White House Inn in 2015 . He considers  this lack of hot food  early on was one of the reasons he ended up DNF,ing before CP2!

The Challenger Finish is now separate from the Spine CP2.   Hopefully this will give the Spine Racers a better quality of sleep as the CP will be less Hectic (We shall have to wait and see).

   Navigation and the rise and rise of smart phone apps.

     There has been much discussion about GPS units on the forums but I strongly suspect that many competitors will be secretly planning on using  their Smart Phones to navigate. 
     This is an issue where at first glance the Spine Race Rules appear to be out of date and petty.
      We all know that Navigation apps have vastly improved over the last couple of years.
                   They are now :Easier to use than a GPS.
                                           Less complex than a GPS
                                           On the one piece of tec that you are really familiar with.

        For all these reasons you will be tempted to use them . OK so you will still have a real GPS in your pack (perhaps just to get through Kit Check) 
         Be Honest With Yourself  are you training with your phone app or your GPS!
    To put it another way : When the Shit Hits The Fan can you grab your GPS and instantly use it without even having to think about any of it,s features? Is it set up to display the grid ref on the map page? How long do the batteries last. Is it stowed on your pack front so you can grab it and stow it again on the move. 

         When Your Phone Just Won,t Do The Job.

          Firstly  position fixing . If you use an app which works on triangulation of mast signals then you will find the worst signal in the highest most godforsaken parts of the course where conditions are at there worst and the weather is most severe.
                                                 If you use an app which works on true GPS then the battery life of your phone / emergency calling device will be dramatically shortened .

          Phone Battery Life     This will be in your phone instructions and was calculated by some engineers who used to work for VW  It was probably calculated at 20 c in ideal conditions. Experience has shown that -5c is not unusual on the Spine and that,s without wind chill . Low temps can easily half your battery  life or worse.  Ok so you will keep your phone in your jacket  Good thinking in theory. But read this:
                                                     In 2013 Myself and Jenn Gaskell staggered up  Shunner Fell  at night in high winds and temps below -5c. The snow was powder dry and whipping aver the ground obscuring the trail completely. (We could not make out any sign of the PW) . Visibility was about 10m and conditions were such that we could not even be certain if we were moving up hill or down. The snow on the ground was on average about 50cm deep.  Map navigation could only be done by staggering on a rough bearing but the area is so rocky that it was impossible to hold a course!   We were totally dependent on Jenn,s GPS. dabbing at the touch screen every 4 paces so the screen lighting was almost continually on . That GPS had to be held out in the maximum wind for several hours ( I doubt if we were moving 1 mph). Another problem is that we kept falling over hidden boulders and holes. Each time I fell I threw my arms out effectively punching/throwing  the GPS into the snow  sometimes  banging it against rocks.Without a long lanyard we would have lost it in the deep snow. To reactivate the screen I had to dab at the screen with my double mitt ed hand or the top of my running pole.

         If we were using a phone app the touch screen would not have survived . The screens are much more sensitive than GPS screens and we would have hit the wrong part  of the screen probably changing the app settings . The phone battery would have run out  due to over use and the cold. I doubt the phone would have survived the physical abuse even with a strong case.
GPS units are cased in  easy to grip rubber  and unlike smart phones they are designed to take abuse.

               Bottom Line  using a phone app we would not have made it over Shunner Fell.

               Stop using your phone app in training  ( it,s a bad habit! )
           Could using that APP be your first mistake leading to your DNF?

           Consider using your GPS without thinking  as one of your main training goals. 
           Training can carry on during your tapering period. Try entering the waypoints of the Hadrians Wall rout changes manually into your GPS. If you can do this in the comfort of your own home you will have trained yourself how to do the same thing if required  during the actual Race.
           Incidentally later in the race that year we had even more severe conditions on the Cheviots but with  added heavy falling snow. The GPS screen had to be continually wiped free of  falling snow and you  know  the effect that has on a smart phone. 
         One last thing ----Thread a long loop of Chord through the device and tie it to you or your pack. Every year during the Spine about 5% of GPS devises get put down and fergoten!!! If you are lucky someone will pick it up and hand it in . If you don,t have your name on the GPS you may not get it back untill after the race. Write your name on your GPS!

              Final Race Position And Luck

              In previous blogs I talked about how CP stopping time has more effect than average speed on the trail.
              The past years have thrown up anomalies in final race position due to Forced Race Stoppage 
              The Spine Race may be paused/diverted, at any point due to severe  weather conditions and flooding.
               I mentioned the importance of sleep. If the race is stopped then try to get some sleep asap. Your race clock is only stopped if you are in a Marshal controlled point. Only the Marshal con stop your personal race clock.

                For example in 2014 the race was halted for some  competitors at Dufton as the conditions on Cross Fell were deemed to dangerous. The earlier runners passing  Cross fell were given no time credits. I was lucky as when I arrived at Dufton the marshal stopped my race clock and told me it would be stopped for 3 hrs. This was 3 hours valuble  free sleep time for me and the others at Dufton. We were given a re-start time , and hit the trail again bang on time and well refreshed. The result for me personally was that towards the finish I knew that I would still be ranked above any other runner less than 3 hours in front of me .
                In 2015 the race was stopped for runners at CP1.5 but as I had already checked out before the decision was made My personal  race clock was still running even though I was fast asleep less than 1 km from CP1.5 others who arrived at CP1.5 after me had their race clocks stopped  while they slept out side the CP.

               It can be the luck of the draw but if you are aware of race stoppages this may effect your final race position and motivation for a Sprint Finish. The CP Marshall's may be aware of potential weather related stopping decisions . Ask before you check out of a CP.
               We all assume that course changes are due to  hazards for the competitors but in practice if the MST can,t access to parts of the course(road flooding/snow) then the course will be altered so anyone in trouble can be evacuated quickly.




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