Sunday, 5 February 2017

Facing The Spine Race 2018

So the Spine Race is back and whats more back to it,s original ethos. All runners are to be "Unsupported.
      I doubt if any of the Spine Vets would disagree with this re-focus on runners taking responsibility for themselves , in fact we are probably all delighted.  As far as race organisation is concerned what many runners don,t appreciate is how close the size of the race is to saturation in respect of runner safety and logistic support systems. The road communication network along the course is at  near full stretch with 125 Challengers and 125 Spine Racers. Any additional traffic homing in on the bottleneck point's at CP's would put runners safety in jeopardy.

     Chopping out support vehicles will also force  previously runners to modify their race  strategy.

      Spine Specific Thinking.

  Every year Runners enter and start the Spine demonstrating an alarming degree of ignorance into what the race is all about.   Several totally underestimate the complexity of the race and drop out before CP1 thinking they now know all about the race .

       There are many factors that make the race hard but their individual significance and how they combine to cause DNF's is seldom clear if you  read race reports.
        Having finished 3 Spines plus one no competitive finish and a stint helping out during the race and observing racers in various states I am starting to getting a better idea of what Novice racers and Vets may face .

      The whole 268 miles of winter mountainous terrain description will give you little idea of how to tackle the race . 

       More than one runner has looked at that simple 3 mph  figure and concluded that no descent runners enter the event! This demonstrates naivety in the extreme. 
        3mph should tell you that you are missing something significant about the race.

        Lets face it we can all do 3mph so why not during this  race ?

        Perhaps it,s the weather? Winter Pennine Weather is totally unpredictable . Each year is different  .
        You have heard the phrase that :' there is no such thing as bad weather   it's just the wrong clothes"  .  The issue with this is that the majority of runners are used to bad winter weather and come well equipped  but many still end up DNF ing.

       Ok how about navigation? Good navigators have a higher chance of finishing the race but for some reason good navigators with multi spine Medals still make massive mistakes.  Having a top of the range GPS has very little effect on your chances of finishing.

         Extreme Fitness at the start of the race is another factor that has little effect on increasing your chance of finishing ( although it does tend to boost your race position if you do)

        Equipment in the form of super light top of the range gear will also boost your finishing position but again has little effect your chances of  actually finishing . ( many early DNF,s were running super light).


        In my view if you don,t really understand the race and overestimate your preparedness for the race you are heading for a  DNF .  

            Every year many Spine finishers Blogs are written . Very few Spine DNF Blogs get published but if you come across one you usually find the details of how and why things went wrong are examined in detail.  Finishers Blogs are all about the highs and lows but seldom looked at in much depth. This is partly as we tend to write them in the form of a travel guide with more place names than details of the state of the runner at any point. ( I know having written several myself)

           You will also find the emphasis on specific problems but those  encountered change year on year. This in itself can be misleading as  the weight given to  issues tends to change in order of significance . An example of this was the Bog issues in 2017. I an led to believe they were no worse than in 2014 but in that rear it rained hard for most of the race so we focused our misery on the Rain rather than the Bogs.
           Challenger Blogs may now  contradict  Spine blogs in 2017 as the  two races started 24 hrs apart.  The Challengers spoke of Snow and the Spine runners swollen rivers  sweeping runners away.  24  hrs on the same part of the course can give totally different conditions.   Once both races were up and  running on the Sunday the challengers had reached a different part of the course where soil , drainage and track conditions were totally different. 

            Every part of the course is different.

        Despite early DNF runners bemoaning the terrible bogs causing their DNF,s the worst bogs actually occurs further up the course . Challenger runners encounter only very short sections of bogs
         The next thing you need to appreciate is that the severity of any given part of the course is in proportion to the physical and mental state of the runner moving through it.   If you have been wearing thin soled grippy shoes and have bruised the soles of your feet then a smooth road will feel like hell compared to a nice soft bog. The runner beside you wearing cushioned shoes  may be delighted with the tarmac and dreading the next bog. 
          This is one reason why it,s so difficult to choose the perfect Spine Shoe. In truth you need a different style of shoe for every change in trail surface.

             Before we go on I should define the word trail as in winter Pennine Way Trail.
          The trail varies between long lines of limestone slabs laid end to end across miles of bog through hard packed stony wide tracks and down to an invisible sheep track through miles of churned up mud and bog. To describe it as a national trail is  at times stretching the word trail way out of any sane runners definition of a trail or even hint of a trail.( and that's before you get lost in the low level farmers fields).
          For any non UK runners this can come as a bit of a shock!

             Navigation Issues

           Again these are not all that you may be expecting. Some runners are natural navigators with an affinity with map and compass. Some like the GPS and others rely on following others and only panic and look and try to use a GPS when they loose contact with the runner in front.  
            A runner at the Spine Start line will not have the same ability to navigate as a runner 200 miles up the course who has not slept for  the last 50hrs

           The Challenger  could be described as a Hard Core Ultra  with far fewer CP,s than you would normally expect to have on a 110 mile event.  The causes of DNF's are usually a matter of physical issues combined with poor winter hill skills.  The cut off times are generous so it,s usually a matter of screwing things up rather than lack of running ability that leads to a DNF.

             The Full Spine is a totally different beast. 268 miles sounds impossible to run.

              And it is . No one runs 268 miles . most run about 50 at max.
              This will be denied by most racers after their first Spine . It's only after you have done the event a few times and taken the trouble to look about you that you realise how little running actually happens. Almost all the running happens on the first day and when someone points a camera at you . The impression you get from the Spine Race films is far from Spine reality as far as running is concerned.

               In 2017 I did not race but ended up on the Staff ferrying runners and Drop Bags around the course . When not actually driving I helped out in many areas particularly in a' meet and mother' roll to incoming athletes at CP's.  I was stuck by the shocking inability of sleepy runners to process information and look after themselves.  As a runner you are not aware of how shot away your brain gets . A state  of slow information processing is the world in which you are surviving out on the course.
                Post race one observation really struck home to illustrate the hardness of the race and how it can be regarded .     Tim one of the US runners commentated that :

The Spine Is The Closest Thing I To Ranger School That I Have Ever Done."

             For those who do not know 'Ranger School" is US Special Forces Training!

            His only caveat was that the food  was better (only 1500 Kcal per day for aspiring Rangers)

            You may be thinking this is just a brag about how hard core the Spine is but Tim is just not that sort of stereotypical bragging Yank.
             Ranger School is all about putting the troops under extreme physical and mental stress. They get run ragged , deprived of sleep and yet still have to function and think well enough to fight. Ranger School is not just about how fit and tough you are . If you can,t think and preform under stress you DNF the course.          Sounds Familiar?

            Perhaps this analogy demonstrates what you will face on the Spine.

             Sleep Deprivation.

This I believe is the most underrated issue for all Spine Racers.  The trick is to sleep just enough to function at your maximum capacity to move well and take good decisions in order to do so.
No one has ever taught you to do this and their is very little guidance for Ultra Runners out there. Ok in theory you Bivvi out when you can,t stay awake but in reality for some time before you get into that state your pace will drop off dramatically and your ability to navigate will be near zero unless you are falling back on automatic navigating embedded in your brain by intense practise. 
         A Ranger or Spine runner needs to be able to navigate without even having to think about it . He or She also needs to be able to recognise a Bivvi  spot and grab sleep automatically. 

           Most Spine Candidates invest almost all their time putting in the miles . However if you ask any Spine runner near the finish ,they won,t complain about is having no energy left in their legs . They will complain about a lack of sleep . It,s their lack of sleep that is making them stagger  and stumble like a drunk .  All too often a 5 hr zombie slog towards the line would only take 4 hrs if the runner took a 30 min power Knapp. ( that's 3.5 hrs running and 30 Min's sleeping).
            The catch 22 of this situation is that the zombie runner is not in a fit state to recognise the logic of this approach. Once you are sleep deprived every aspect of your race performance goes down the pan.
             Before taking on the Spine you need to practise hard any function that can be automated by your brain. If you look at the leading finishers most of them have an Orienteering/adventure racing background or military training. They have spent long hours not just learning how to navigate but also practising navigation. 
        Take the 2017 race finish . Eugeni , ( often described as a poor navigator )   demonstrated earlier in the race that he can navigate solo and fast . Pavel lost him at a CP and he fought hard and caught Pavel up .  Pavel is a well practised navigator who relies mainly on Map and memory.  On the final leg of the race Eugeni who relies mainly on his GPS made a wrong turn which cost him considerable time lost . Eugeni can navigate well with his GPS but was not mentally together enough to use it or even realise he needed to look at it . (as it was when he discovered his error ,he accurately navigated his way back to the course.  Pavel in contrast made no errors during that leg as despite having almost the same lack of sleep he could' rout find ' almost automatically by memory.

         If you read Pavels Blog he talks about at times  making a decision to sleep as he knew his overall pace would be faster  over the next part of the course. This decision also had to take into account the threat from Tom  .  Tom had the advantage of being able to sleep outside the CP's without having to take the time to set ups Bivvi .
         I may be incorrect (and am happy to amend this blog ) but from what I understand Tom,s strategy was to sleep more and often then move faster when out on the trail. This tactic had the added advantage that the other leaders Eugeni and Pavel never knew how much and when he was sleeping . In contrast Pavel and Eugeni were watching each other like hawks.

    In conclusion 

      Put good quality sleep high up in your priorities . A long sleep early in the race will not make up for very little sleep later on (as I discovered in 2016)  I suspect that 2hr blocks of deep sleep at regular intervals is probably the most efficient but this won't be the same for all runners .
      Getting good quality sleep is bloody hard if your brain is racing. Trying to sleep in daylight hrs at a CP is working against your body clock. The other problem with sleeping at CP,s in daylight is that the Staff and hangers on and some other racers  are mostly wide awake ,noisy and don,t really appreciate how much noise they are making. 
      In order to get the sleep you need to be fast and efficient with your tent or Bivvi bag . The CP,s are not sufficient to maintain an adequate amount of sleep. ( if you get the chance to recce the course then check out every barn or possible sleep bolt hole.  If you can,t do this then check out my earlier blog on sleeping issues then study their locations on Google Earth so you can recognise them on the ground . (If any one knows of more then let me know so I can add them to the sleep post.

       If you miss calculate on the sleeping issue and get overtired will probably be putting yourself in danger of hypothermia  ( 2017 was an abnormally hot year where runners got away with things).
      Lack of sleep will slow you up and is the leading trigger of the slippery slope towards a DNF especially towards the end of the race. 

         If you got your sleep about right then you will not appreciate how bad it can get . For me 2016 was my hell year despite finishing within time.My whole race was shadowed by a bad sleep mistake.

          Thats it for now . As always I welcome any comments even if you think all this is bullshit!



  1. Very interesting read - considering my own position for UTMB this year having previously DNF'd after 75 miles absolutely shattered. I don't think 2 hour sleeps are what is needed for a 48 hour cut off race but some power naps would be beneficial I think. Phillip

  2. Cheers Ian, brilliant insight. Having volunteered this and last year on the Spine, it's fascinating to hear about it from different perspectives. We met at CP1, I listened with interest to you talking about people actually only navigating for 5% of the time. Have bookmarked some of your blogs just in case I one day want to do this!! Got my first 100 this year, tiredness training is an important part of my prep. Kim (