Monday, 30 December 2019


   Having written My Spine Race Guide blog for 7 years now I have a pretty good idea of the gaps in potential racers knowledge and the topics that receive the most interest.  Questions on face book are highly revealing  of the pre conceptions competitors have about the race .

     First time racers start their research by attempting to define the Spine Race and come up with a list of what they will have to deal with. Most research starts with reading race reports from the previous years race including the excellent film clips of each days racing . Having done this research you may think you are in a position to make many fixed assumptions about the race and the kit you will need to cope with the 2020 Spine Race .
    the record breaking times of many runners reflect the fast speed of the 2019 conditions which combined with Jasmin's superb planning and performance produced what may be an unbeatable course record .

    The film clips broadcast are edited for public consumption and filming is restricted by lighting conditions and access from support vehicles . Generally competitors running will make the cut (particularly podium contenders ) If a competitor is crawling along wearing dark monochrome colours it just does not look good on film. (if you want to see yourself on the daily film clips then wear bright gear , smile and run for the camera.)
     Race reports are equally biased . Blog writers find it almost impossible not to use the word 'RUN'.
     Having raced the Spine 4 times and written race reports I know how difficult it is to use the word :PLOD.
     On my third Spine I DNF't with hypothermia  before CP1 then carried on as a non competitive runner to the finish. I spent my time progressing up the course without my race head on, Part of my motivation strategy changed from using  my competitive drive to realising that by ditching my "race head " and  collecting  information for my blogs  I could analyse the race much more clearly .
 Observing the race almost a non competitive  outsider gave me a totally different  picture of the race .
  Despite everything you may read , with the acceptation of day one very little running actually takes place.

      For the last 3 Spines I have worked with the Logistics team transporting Drop bags up the course . As my van is one of the smaller ones I frequently took the first shift of drop bags accompanying the first 20 or so  runners up the course . This has given  me insights into what happens at the front of the pack  .
     I have helped set up CP's and like to get involved with incoming runners to CP's. You can learn a lot by quietly listening to knackered runners unloading their thoughts as they adjust from trail mode to CP mode . The same is true for outbound runners wanting second opinions on their race plan for the next leg.
    From my experience I update my blog posts each year building the volume of information and always questioning everything I write before publishing .
    I get things wrong and sometimes irritate runners by my interpretations of their actions . What I object to  doing is towing  the PC line and regurgitating oft repeated fallacies .

    I don't see myself as a Spine Expert and  have always tried to question everything I write . 

         More specifically I don't write to get a reaction or likes on face book or twitter. Much of the face book posts you read are posted just so the author can see their name pop up and will freely give an opinion without giving a reasoned argument to back up that opinion.

       Sorry about that short rant but I hate Spine newbies being given so called ' cast iron advise' that only applies to  specific conditions or worse still that someone once got away with by luck from cereal face book posters . Just because their name dominates the forum it does not make them an expert.

      To succeed and do well in a Winter Spine you need to understand all the aspects of this race .
      The reason I love the race is because it is so F-ing complex and difficult to define . Just when you think you are getting an ides of what it is all about the race throws up issues you had never considered .

        There is no such thing as the best Spine Kit and there never will be . Some Years you won't even need your gloves but on others expect your water bottle to freeze up within 1 hr of leaving a CP.

         MY INTENTION IN PUBLISHING THE SPINE RACE GUIDE  is to give all racers a better chance of reaching the finish line .
 The Guide will be of particular use to overseas competitors with little experience of UK Mountain winter conditions 'you may be in for a bit of a shock!'

       I am happy for any feedback or comments but should add that some of my older posts are still out there . I will not delete them until publishing the 2020 version .
        My race reports were all written just after each race and I shall leave them un edited in their raw state.( some of my conclusions  drawn at the time differ from what I believe now)

         I shall probably not attend the race in 2020 for reasons I will not go into but at the age of 63 I have an annoying feeling that I Am not finished as A Spine Competitor .

         For Anyone who has never read any of my Blogs , here is a small taster of my Dyslexic approach to writing about the Spine :

         The Mythical (or perhaps not? ) Middleton Bull

Over the years the Spine has been run tales have been told of injuries attributed to the" Middleton Bull"
 many competitors deny that it exists . Others still carry the scares and tell if narrow escapes ripped over trousers and lost race time .
  No one has actually seen the Bull but analysis of reports gives an Idea of when it is most likely to strike .
   For my part I have fallen victim 4 times to the bull . I have the scares on my legs and the holes in my over trousers . In 2019 whilst in a quiet spell with logistics I determined to find out what the hell was happening .
  1  It strikes at night
  2  It strikes especially in foggy conditions when slippery underfoot
   3 It does not discriminate between Map navigators and GPS navigators
   4 It does not discriminate between single runners and racing groups .
   5 It is almost never encountered by a runner reccing the course .

So how the hell do you know it's got you ?
By now most of you will think I have completely lost the plot but some of you will recall finding yourself just past Middleton , off track and recall climbing a high wall topped by loose barbed wire to rejoin the pennine way on the other (north side ) of that wall .
Running through your head were thoughts of annoyance about lost time ,damaged gear and 'how the hell did I go off track on such a simple section of the course . 
The answer is a combination of how you think with your race head on and that Mythical Bull.


As you approach Middleton CP3 you drop down off the fells and follow the road past a Cattle Market as you approach the town . The PW rout onward towards DUFTON actually is a left hand turn off the road next to the market (you can usually smell the market even if you can't see it ) CP3 is some way off the PW about 1km past the market .
 On leaving the CP you will be warm ,fed and possibly well rested . CP staff will tell you that the next 10km of path is fast and level so you will feel like making up time and getting some speed on .
 OK out the CP --back over the bridge and hang a right just past the smelly cattle market .
 The trail is level with some hard gravel ,several annoying gates and a wall on your right hand side .
 After about 500 m the track turns to grass possibly muddy .
 It's DARK and MISTY,  you are now looking ahead as the wall kinks to your left where there is something white reflecting your head torch beam .
 You are looking for a way through that wall and that white sign has led you to the gate .
 The sign says Bull In Field in faded letters .
 You are a rough tough fearless Spine racer and ignore the sign following others tracks steadily west until the wall with no opening pushes you gradually  south away from the river .!
 You know something is wrong and grab your map/gps which you have ignored since the turn off from the road . The map lacks detail but heading south is defiantly wrong . GPS puts you by the wall but +or- 2m accuracy does not help matters . later rather than sooner you realise you are the wrong side of the wall! CLIMB- SNAG -TEAR -SWEAR!
Spine racers almost never back track ,somehow their 'race head' won't let them .

How did you miss the trail?
EASY --as you approached the wall kink you were looking for a way through
ANY WAY THROUGH would do and that white sigh was what led you to 'any old gate "
The actual PW crosses the wall by almost invisible dry stone steps right in the corner .
To get to the steps you need to descend a muddy trench down to the wall .

In daylight the whole thing is obvious but at night your race head will tell you :
 1 Avoid the slippery trench
 2 any gate is a good gate
 3 why waste time looking for the non obvious .

 for racers not familiar to the PW you need to know that not all gates /wall crossings have trail markers and most markers are indistinct and don't show up well in torchlight .

that gate ahead must be the right way!

Bull sign on gate lhs with muddy trench on right 

obvious stone ladder in daylight and this was a really dry year
that gap in the top of the wall is invisible at night 
Ok so I could have just said "the gate with the bull sign is the wrong way"  The real lesson I am trying to get across is that your thought process can let you down leading to mistakes and not just with navigation.

     Another aspect of the Race that gets far less attention than it deserves is the sleep issue.  This is one area where former Challenger Finishers moving up to the full Spine can come severely unstuck .  Getting the correct amount of sleep for your personal brain to function efficiently is incredibly hard in this race .
     In more conventional multy day long continuous Ultras the consensus of experienced runners is move for 20 hrs and rest/sleep/feed for 4. This works well for navigation brain function , decision making and brain motor control function .  If you are falling asleep on your feet I guarantee that you are moving at a snails pace .
    A 20/4 hr split plan also has the advantage that you are not trying to adjust your heads day /night rhythm . Falling asleep at night is usually easier than in the day so try to resist the temptation to push on and grab some sleep in daylight .
    The issue on the Spine is that the CP's are not placed at 24 hr intervals.  The pennine way in jan is no place to sleep out in the open . There has only been one year that I recall where runners actually slept out in the open ( I think it might have been  2017) that year was dry ish and so warm that many runners did not even bother wearing gloves ! .    For most normal years sleeping outside in the open  without carrying a tent has been near impossible .  As an absolute minimum you need overhead shelter from rain and snow.
  There are a limited number of sleeping bolt holes on the course that I have listed on my blogs on sleep .  If you blow your sleep planning. Towards the end of the course getting an extra hours sleep can knock   3 hours off your time reaching the next CP or finish line .

At the start of the race many runners will try to get to CP2 Haws without sleeping then try to revert to a 24 hr cycle for the rest of the race . If you arrive at CP2 at night this is fine but a better strategy might be sleeping before then if it looks like you will arrive in daylight.

  Getting to sleep at a CP will always be easier at night and not just from the way your sleep cycle works . You have to take into account the WHOOP WHOOPS

  I know I am heading for trouble on this point but the CP's are staffed by enthusiastic helpers . Part of the fun in working at a CP is greeting incoming runners . Cheering and WHOOPING is common and brings a smile to the knackered but relived incoming runners . The problem is for the resident runners horizontal in the dorms trying to get to sleep . Listening out for the next F''''ing WHOOP WHOOP  while desperate to sleep brings on thoughts of murder !

 My advise is to choose a dorm away from the CP entrance . Whoop Whoops tend to peter out after midnight and in bad weather so arriving at midnight feeding and getting to sleep before the morning shift of whoopers  arrive is a good plan .

  And for CP staff if you must whoop then do so up the trail before the cP and never actually in the CP .
Better still give a quiet greeting and help get the runners muddy shoes off instead. It may not be so much fun for you but I am willing bet 99% of runners would prefer a good sleep to a loud greeting .

    Thats all for now



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