Sunday, 16 December 2018

Spine Race Myths and Misconceptions.

Most Blogs on the Spine start with the usual : 268 mile running race  race along the Pennine Way

This helps the reader put the race in an easy  mental description box to frame what follows.
The snag with this approach is that it leads the reader and the blogger towards a fixed description of a very specific race where all its challenges can be listed ,described and a one stop solution to each problem arrived at .
  I have recently been reading  Boff Whally's book :Run Wild . Boff describes The tendency for some runners  to simplify and sanitise the running. This is ultimately optimised by City Street Marathons where the race organisers try their up most to organise the race so there are no surprises and everyone can make a set plan for the race .  A blue line is painted on the road surface indicating the shortest race line , water stations are frequent and mile markers set out so you can accurately monitor pace. If you are into personal achievement of marathon goals and love the massive support of crowds and other runners then you may never discover  the joy of   unpredictable  trail running.

In my personal view the  random complexity of The Spine  Race is what makes this race special
We can say that, The Spine is:   very  long
                                                    over varied terrain
                                                    potentially subjected to large changes in weather
                                                    has unpredictable hazards.i

Myth 1 The Spine is 268 miles long.

  268 miles is  the length of the pennine way . The race does not always follow the Pennine Way . There are  added detours to the CP,s and over the years CP locations have changed. Trail maintenance and farmers concerns have led to diversions Then there are last minute course changes some announced before the race and some forced by safety reasons during the race by weather conditions. The last minute changes sometimes  only apply to some of the runners as high exposed  passes may be closed just after the leaders pass through . ( race finishers arrive at the end having missed out large sections of the course ) and this may not be always stated in the results .
  The Spine Race probably never has been 268 miles and the race length changes each year.
  For a given year not all the runners will have run the same distance.  

Myth 2 The race is run non stop

 In theory every ones race clock is continually ticking, but again weather conditions can cause the race to be halted .  As far as I am aware the race gets halted due to adverse weather on average every other year.  Race pauses can radically effect your chances of completing the Spine but any pause will impact on different racers in different ways .
 If we look at the 2018 race we see that the race was paused for about possibly 9 hrs due to dangerous weather conditions on the high ground ( I don't have exact details as I was sleeping in my van at the time ). All the racers were stoped even runners on low level sections of the course .
  For some runners this pause was a massive boost . The best off were runners who had recently arrived at a CP who had already had a meal and were ready for a sleep. That sleep would now be off the clock and probably longer then they had previously planned . These runners could plan their  CP exit so they knew the exact time the course would re-open and they could get back on the trail.
  For other runners there was less of an advantage the course was closed as they prepared to exit the CP's . These runners had the option of trying to go back to bed and get more sleep  or staying up eating ,chatting and planning . Once you go through a CP feed /sleep/feed and trail prep cycle it can be  incredibly hard for some racers  to get back to sleep.
   For runners already asleep at the CP's the waking runners only had to re-set their alarms and stay in bed .
I should add at this point that the CP's do not have an unlimited number of beds so with runners entering the CP's and no one leaving things got very crowded and CP staff beds had to be re-allocated to  sleepy runners.
  Runners out on the course were unaware of course closure and moved forward to Marshaled monitoring points where if there was sufficient shelter they were stoped . The 30 min max stopping time at Dufton village hall was lifted and incoming racers got to crash on the floor until the course was re-opened .  Several runners were halted at Gregs Hut where they had to grab  an uncomfortable sleep in the outer freezing room of the Bothy with wet drips and snow coming through a leaky roof . If you are  thinking of skimping on your emergency sleeping kit then this is a an example of why you should not

Several runners who had left CP3 covered several Km before being   intercepted by Marshalls and shipped back to CP3. They gained extra sleep but once the course re-opened were told they had to re-start from the CP and not from the point were the Marshall's picked them up .

Probably the worst off runners were ones who were still out on the course during the stoppage time . They entered the CP,s and had very little free rest time before the course re-opened .

Free Rest Time Is Important.

   Your Baseline Speed  , (as in speed on the trail ignoring trail conditions and nav  ) 
    DEPENDS ON : Running Style
                                Fitness before race
                                Muscle tiredness
                                Mental tiredness
                                Mental state
 You need to consider how these factors change in relative importance as the race progresses and how free rest can effect this .
     At the start of the race Style ,Fitness and Mental state dictate speed.
     The onset of darkness will slow you up and your chances of injury are greatest on day one as you tend to take more risks

By CP 1 Muscle tiredness increases in importance
By CP 2 you will probably have made sleep planning decisions and your  Mental Tiredness state will depend on shows decisions . Given descent quality sleep then the Muscle and Mental tiredness will have roughly equal significance .
By CP 3 you would have probably adopted a pace where you naturally regulate your energy expenditure   to reach stasis where given sufficient food intake and a positive mental attitude you feel you can go for hours with out you muscles getting any more tired . It is at this point where Mental Tiredness will start to insidiously slow you down . The first victims are Running Style and Mental ability . (nav mistakes are more common and you may often trip 

Having Spent the last two Spines helping the Logistics team and more specifically greeting runners in the Boot Rooms I can categorically say that food ,warmth and sleep are at the top of runners thoughts  and not how much their legs hurt .
 Its A Fact That Spine Runners Underestimate how much Mental Tiredness slows them up in the latter stages of the race . This is especially true of Spine Novices .
FREE REST TIME has a big impact on your ability to catch up on sleep without stressing about getting left behind.

Myth 3 To win you need to run with the minimum of sleep

Evolving Race Tactics

Over the years the race has changed especially in the levels of official Race Support for the runners and the unofficial support from local Businesses.
The CP,s are more slick and efficient , information is available about places you can sleep outside CP's . Shops on or near the course are listed and all this helps with personal race planning .
I have written in the past on race tactics for the mid to tail enders but the last two years have given me an insight into the tactics of the front runners .

What worked for front runners in 2014 may well be superseded by different tactics by podium finishers in 2019.

During the early years race podium race tactics were very much a shot in the dark based on what worked for 100 mile mountain races . Runners kept pushing until forced to rest . The major concern was  to keep monitoring the close competition and stay near or even with them .
The Pavel/Eugeni close rivalry and friendship heavily influenced other runners .
If everyone adopted the same tactics the strongest runner won out .
 Over the last few years  things started to change . Before then Pavel with sheer strength and mountain /nav skills set the  pace with Eugeni sticking with him even waiting  hoping to blast through in the final few Km .
If other runners threatened the lead then sleep was cut short . Eoin Kieth changed things by adopting more independent strategy  but still keeping a close eye on the other runners .
Tom Hollins win changed things by having the opportunity to sleep in a support van .  The other runners could not closely monitor how much rest he was getting . I don't know but strongly suspect that Tom,s more independent sleep breaks enabled him to move faster actually out on the course .

This brings me to the 2018 race which saw a big change in sleep tactics . In previous years the front runners usually pushed on past CP2 without a long stop . That year most runners stoped and spent a relatively long time sleeping . The effect of this sleep was a significant increase in trail speed . The change in the sleep to run ratio meant that the longer sleepers kept overtaking runners who skimpy on sleep . Overtaking rapidly out on the trail can have a devastating effect on the runner being overtaken . This is more pronounced because the runner being overtaken is already in a more fragile sleep deprived state .

 Looking at the final race results you may conclude that the short sleep slower speed strategy still works best (after all Pavel still won ) . From what I understand the runners using long sleep fast run strategy were set back by injury and not overall race speed .
I look forward to 2019 . Raising the hours sleeping and playing to an elite fast runners strengths by maximising trail speed between CP's may become the norm .

This is all part guess work on my part and based on outside observation . I could be wrong .
I have been prover wrong in the past but in my defence there are many images of runners stumbling along as if drunk . They are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and not tired legs.

In 2017 a Japanese Film Crew produced a film of the race . Several long sequences show Pavel and Eugeni in a state of near coma . Pavel is gripping a set of steps swaying with dead eyes . If  you can find the link to the film its well worth watching to get an insight to  the mental depths that sleep deprivation can inflict on a a racer  
 What I can tell all novice runners is that the top finishers all have one thing in common . They use CP's to maximise sleeping time , feeding and preparation for the next phase is done as fast as possible there is no faffing in the CP's .
Even at CP1 race leaders do not slump in the boot room ,eat slowly and mess with their drop bags then prevaricate before getting back on the trail . Pavel will transit CP1 in less than 15 mins achieving exactly the same as a mid field runner who will spend on average 60 mins . Thats a 45 min gain just on being focused and organised . 


  1. Excellent read Ian, a lot of people could learn a lot from reading your thoughts and insights. Steve h

  2. Thought-provoking as ever. Thank you for your insights Ian